Interlude - Entomb
Ten Years Earlier
It was storming at Whitechapel. The lightning illuminated the figures moving across the grounds for a moment, and then there was darkness again.
One of them was Dragomir.
He wasn’t yet the commander, and he didn’t wear a leather strap across his eye socket. Both these things would change tonight.
He could hear shouts. The other spirit hunters hurled instructions at each other. They were almost inaudible over the sound of footsteps, crashing branches, and the rustling noise of the thing they pursued.
“Keep your weapons ready!”
Dragomir was afraid. His weapon sensed it and began to appear. Silver green mist swirled toward his hand, where it melted together and turned to steel. Out of the mist, a crossbow emerged.
Dragomir stopped, pressed his back against a tree, and raised the crossbow. The shouts around him got louder. And then they stopped completely. This made him more afraid. In training they’d said one should repeat the creed of the Order when one was afraid. Dragomir tried to remember it.
I am the light in the darkness.
He saw the world through the crossbow sight. He saw dark trees, and a sky that looked like the gods were having a boxing match, and he saw a shape he feared (knew) was a corpse. Their enemy didn’t leave people dying or wounded. It left corpses.
How many had died tonight? Two? Four? Seven?
When I walk through hell, I’ll be armed with heaven.
He ventured deeper into the trees. He felt like a lost boy in a fairy-tale – the kind that ended with a cautionary lesson.
But where was the big bad wolf?
A crunching twig. He spun, firing a bolt. It vanished into the leaves, hitting nothing – and then came back. The crossbow bolt weaved between the trees like a bird, before landing back on the crossbow, and getting ready to be fired again.
If I encounter the devil, the devil will tremble.
A clearing. Dragomir’s boots thudded on ivy and fallen leaves. Ahead of him, against a tree, were the two ghosts.
One was the boy. He was seventeen or so. The other ghost had one hand around the boy’s throat, the other holding a pistol against his temple.
“Don’t move,” said the ghost of James Bale.
“What’s your name?” said Bale.
“Alexei Dragomir.” He tried to keep his voice from shaking.
“I don’t want to kill you. This is your chance to turn back. Go.”
“What makes you think you can kill me?” said Dragomir.
“The woods are littered with your fallen comrades. If they could, they’d tell you to leave as well.”
“I’m more dangerous than my comrades.”
“Not likely. They at least were good stalkers. You crash around. It’s almost as if you want to die.”
“They didn’t have this.” Dragomir gestured to his crossbow, aimed at Bale’s unbeating heart.
Bale stared at it.
“That’s a Lich weapon,” he said finally.
“How did you get it?”
“I killed the Lich of Prague,” Dragomir said.
“The Lich of Prague thought so too.”
“Well, that puts us in a predicament,” said Bale, “You’ll forgive my extrapolations. I used to earn a living by drawing conclusions. That said, there are a few outcomes. Either, you shoot me before I can shoot you, and I start to Fade, in which case I have just enough time to drain out Quint’s soul before I vanish. Or, you shoot me, and somehow stop me from destroying Quint, in which case you’ve won, Alexei Dragomir. What it all hinges on is which of us can exterminate the other first.”
Quint was shaking by then.
Dragomir’s hand tightened on the crossbow. If Bale exorcised Quint then their plan would fail. They needed the boy. The land could trap Bale, but it required a spirit offering. The land on which Whitechapel had been built was fickle, and the powers that lay in it were not easily appeased.
As if he could read his mind, Bale said, “I know what you plan to do. You want to send me Below. And I know how you plan to do it. I went down into the catacombs and spoke to the old ghosts. They told me about the ritual.”
“That’s right,” Dragomir said. “And I believe the phrase you were looking for to describe our situation is ‘Mexican standoff’.”
I walk a dark path, and I walk it alone.
“Did your comrades tell you how the ritual works?” said Bale.
Dragomir nodded. “Some.”
“’Spirit, willingly given’,” said Bale, “That’s what they said. That’s the toll. Quite a greedy place, this.”
Sweat rolled down Dragomir’s neck. If he could just find the right spot, where he could hit Bale and miss Quint…
“What I want to know – DON’T YOU DARE MOVE, DRAGOMIR!”
Dragomir had taken a step to the left, to get better aim. He froze.
“If you move,”
said Bale, “I’ll exorcise Quint.”
“If you want to leave here, you’ll have to answer my questions.”
“I’ve seen your lot around Whitechapel before. This operation was planned – and too well to have been planned by you and your dearly departed compatriots. You must have a superior. Who do you work for?”
“We’re called the Order. We hunt ghosts.”
“How long have you been monitoring me?”
“What made you start?”
“The ghosts here told us one of their kind was getting too ambitious.”
“Ghosts turning to
ghost hunters for help?”
“These are strange times,” Dragomir said. “The Whitechapel ghosts decided you were the real enemy, not us.”
“When did you get involved?”
“When they told us you were attacking the living.”
“What was your mission here tonight?” Bale said, oblivious to Quint trembling beside him. Empathy was one of the first things to go, when you were dead.
“To attempt to destroy you and, failing that, to bind you on the other side of the Bridge. They never really thought we could destroy you.”
“I always thought I’d been so unnoticed,” said Bale, “and now I hear I have a whole fan club.”
“Our commander saw what you did to that woman,” said Dragomir.
“So he was afraid of me?”
“She classified you as a Level Three Dangerous Undead. There only are three levels.”
Bale frowned in thought. “Thank you, Dragomir. However, we both know I can’t let you leave. You’ll tell your superiors everything.”
“You’re honest,” said Bale, “I like that. So tell me, honestly, if our roles were reversed, would you let me live?”
Bale moved Quint to the right like a shield and fired at Bale. He dodged in time, the bullet passing over his shoulder.
Dragomir rounded, almost falling over, hands tense around the crossbow, crossbow trying to get an aim on Bale.
“You forgot one outcome,” said Dragomir, “where you shoot first, but I destroy you anyway.”
He launched the bolt.
It barely missed Quint, slamming into Bale. If you were hit by a crossbow like Dragomir’s you weren’t meant to survive. He’d struck many ghosts with it before, and they had all disintegrated. Bale did not. When the bolt wriggled its way out of him and flew back toward Dragomir, he was very much intact, and very much murderous.
Bale fired three shots. Two missed, one hit the crossbow. It bounced off, ricocheted, and struck Dragomir in the eye. He screamed, and dropped the crossbow.
“I didn’t want to kill you,” Bale said, walking toward Dragomir, gun in hand and arm outstretched. Dragomir writhed on the floor, his hand on his face.
Bale brought the end of the gun against Dragomir’s forehead.
Then the world split open.
Silver green light burst out of nothing, surrounding Bale. Tendrils of it wrapped around his wrists, his legs, his neck. He struggled, shouted, but the light was stronger.
The land was claiming him. The light began pulling him away, into a darker world. Before he was gone, he saw Quint standing against the tree, the crossbow bolt in one hand, its tip glowing silver. More silver ran down his wrists.
The horrors I slay lie not dead, but waiting.