Year of the Spectre - Episode III:
"Harvest Dusk"
Page 4

"AM I NOT MERCIFUL?"

III.  "The Messenger"

      The Vatican.

     An ancient center of culture and religion, the independent city-state, buried within the heart of Rome, was home to a great many things.  Fine, ornate architecture; a vast archive and treasure vault; the Holy Roman Catholic Church; and, least conspicuous of them all, the Ambiguous Slayers Guild.  The Holy City, it was called.  It was a place where millions of hopes, dreams and prayers were cast off into the depths of oblivion every day.

     As Nabob nodded politely to the sentinels - with their long lances and red ceremonial uniforms - who stood vigil over the Vatican, he cast his own prayer out onto the world.

     This was where it all came together.

     Although he had never actually been to the Vatican before, Nabob had a good idea of where the Guild’s headquarters would be.  Across from the Castle of Saint Angelo, the Castel S’Angelo, there was a large, unassuming building that was possibly older than sin itself and which - inevitably - now served as an Italian Renaissance tourist shop.  A person with a vague idea of the existence of the Ambiguous Slayers Guild and their connection with the church always assumed that their headquarters would be in the Castel S’Angelo.  Anyone who actually associated with the Guild knew enough to make a beeline for the tourist hut.

     The store itself was gaudy, filled with dresses and tunics that had been made less than three weeks ago and were now being sold as garments authentically preserved from the 16th Century.  Nabob watched a couple of plump young girls clucking to themselves in shattered Italian as they ran their hands over the wares.  Aside from those two, the only other person in the shop was the man behind the counter, a large, mustachioed gentleman who probably had a Slayer Premier somewhere in the family tree.  When he saw the Chimneysweep step into his shop, he eyed him carefully and then gestured past the racks of clothing and postcards to a battered old hallway that led deeper into the building.  Nabob nodded silently and stepped through.  The glum corridor extended for about thirty feet before making a sharp left turn, and as he stepped around the bend, he almost walked straight into another man.

     Nabob blinked, surprise washing over him with the tangibility of an unexpected dip in a vat of gravy. “Van?  What are you doing here?”

     “That, moyte, is precisely the question that oy was gonna put to you,” his superior officer glared, his arms folded across his chest. “This ‘ere office’s been set up fuh moy stay.  Step inside, won’t you?”

     Whatever confidence Nabob had been feeling towards his task began to dissipate the moment he stepped into the room.  Van, the Chimneysweep whom he had always admired and respected up until a few recent months, sat behind a hardwood mahogany desk in a rather imposing leather recliner.  The small wooden chair - more of a stool, really - that sat on the other side of the desk looked particularly unimportant in comparison.  Nabob winced slightly as he sat down.  It wasn’t very comfortable either.

     Van silently shuffled a few papers, flipping open a manila folder, slowly rotating it on the desk, and pushing it towards Nabob.  The younger Chimneysweep politely peered over at it.  Not surprisingly, his name was written on the folder.  The predominant feature on the displayed sheet was a large red rubber-stamped imprint that exclaimed ‘AWOL’.

     “You were told, moyte,” Van said coldly, “that you were to investigate that ol’ tomb in Austria, then to maybe take some time off.  Some requested time off.  That was weeks ago.  Haven’t heard hide nor hair of you since you sent the Spectre remains in to the lab.  This has been the cause of…”

     “Look, Van, I can explain everything…”

     “This has been the cause,” Van snapped, cutting him off, “of severe worry for the Guild.  The highest possible branches of the Guild, I might add.  Many people who may have been…expressing concern with your career up to this point, so to speak, are particularly aware of the ramifications that this carries.”
 
     Nabob returned the glare. “I thought I told you before that I don’t care what people think of my ‘career’ as a Slayer...”

     “This goes way beyond you, moyte.  Way beyond.  It reflects badly, it does, on the whole Chimneysweep corps when one o’ our most promising young agents decides to go rogue on us.” Nabob’s blood went cold at the sound of the familiar name. “There’re a lot o’ questions bein’ asked of us right now, most of ‘em involving yourself.  I specifically warned you to stay out o’ trouble back in Irvine, if you’ll so kindly recall, an’ so far you’ve managed to betray that warning an’ the spirit it was given in.  You’ve caused some major problems, ‘Bob, an’ I’m waitin’ for some damn good answers.”

     He folded his arms and leaned back in the leather chair.

     Nabob squirmed under the uncomfortable pending judgment of history.

     “I…I need to speak to the higher-ups, Van.  What I’ve got to say is important.”

     “Then you’ll be sayin’ it to me, or you won’t be sayin’ it at all.”

     Nabob slowly breathed out, trying to rid himself of all anxiety.  And so he began.  He told the entire story, of his stumbling upon the Amulet of Karvalle, of his discovery of the Rogue Slayers, of his foray into the Shadowlands to try to help them, and of the Rogue initiative for peace between their peoples.  He told his superior officer of the ways of the Rogues, their line of descent, their supernatural powers.  A new faction of Slayers had been revealed to the Guild.  Lost brethren were on the verge of being reunited with their family in the light of a righteous God.  Guild life, the way of maintaining balance, was about to change for everyone.  It would have shocked any Pureblood to hear Nabob's tale, yet all the while Van wore an odd and unfathomable look of chilling distance, analyzing the information with the solemn airs of a juror preparing to proclaim sentence.

     “It’s all true, Van.  I’d swear it on my father’s grave.  And you know what?” he leaned forward emphatically. “They sent me here.  The Rogues sent me here to get the Guild’s attention.  They want reunification, Van.  They want the Slayers to stand as one again, full and complete, for the first time in eight centuries.  That’s what I’m here to tell you, and that’s what I’m here to try and achieve, because I believe this every bit as much as…”

     “That’s enough.”

     Nabob blinked. “What?”

     “I said, mate, that’s enough,” Van glowered at him. “Oy’ve got more’n half a mind to report you as bloomin’ mad.”

     “I’m not crazy, Van.  These people exist.”

     “Aye, Oy reckon they just might.  The issue here is that you seem to have given full loyalty an’ support to ‘these people’ rather than treatin’ ‘em with the healthy suspicion that such a renegade group deserves.” Now it was Van who leaned forward. “This is precoysely the kind of thing that the Guild leadership was afraid you would go and do.  Something rash.  Something impulsive.  Somethin’ t’ prove you’re actin’ more in self-interest than in the interests of the Guild.”

     “Look…”

     “No, you listen to me!” the older Chimneysweep shouted. “You’ve been a loose cannon ever since the Great Holy War, and right now, in the middle of the Plague-Sever croysis, that’s the lahst thing the Guild needs!” He paused to calm himself down, with a theatrically sustained effort. “Let me tell you a little story, ‘Bob.  An old writer named Neil Postman - smart bloke, for an American - once said that there are two kinds of people in the world.  One kind is like the Athenians from ancient Greece, and the second is just like the Visigoths who tore the Roman Empire apart.  The Athenians were a great, flourishing culture, lovers of knowledge, peace, and order.  They advanced science, ahrt, politics, just about anything, to the point that you can `ardly say somethin’ on a topic anymore that an Athenian didn’t say 2,500 years ago.

     “The second bunch were the Visigoths.  They were superb horsemen, but that’s about the only good thing `istory’s good to say about ‘em.  They swept down through Europe destroyin’ everything they came across an’ `eralding the Dark Ages.  Nothin’ a Visigoth loyked more than burning a book, desecratin’ a building, or disrupting the old social order.

     “Now, both peoples, Athenians and Visigoths, disappeared thousands of years ago, but this Postman fellow, `e says that they still exist today in the ways we conduct ourselves.  An’ I fully believe him.  All around us - in this country, in this city, perhaps even in this very room - there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths.  To be an Athenian is, `e said, to realize that the thread holding society togethah is a thin one, and that the utmost importance must be placed on tradition, social restraint, and continuity.  A Visigoth, on the other `and, believes `imself to be the centah of the universe.  Tradition exists only for `is own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, an’ `istory is just what’s in yesterday’s newspaper.

     “Everyone is either an Athenian or a Visigoth, mate.  And Oy want you t’ do something.’” His steely eyes bore into Nabob’s. “I want you to ask yourself which one you are.  I want you to ask yourself where you stand.  The Ambiguous Slayers Guild is an ancient establishment built on tradition and legacy, and your recent actions suggest to me that you’re more interested in working to undermine it than help build an’ support it!”

     “God damn it, Van, this isn’t about me!” Nabob shouted, rising from his chair and slamming both palms down onto the mahogany desk. “This is about the fate of all Slayers!  We can’t stand alone anymore!”

     “Sit down, ‘Bob.”

     He remained on his feet. “I didn’t come here for a lecture about my personal code of behavior.  If you want to reprimand me for going off on my own, then go ahead and do it!  But for God’s sake, listen to what I’m trying to tell you!  This is about the Rogues…!”

     “Fine, I shall.  Nabob, effective immediately you are relieved of active field duty pending possible decommission as a Slayer-Chimneysweep, on counts of reckless be`avior an’ associatin’ with potentially dangerous outlaws.”

     “Outlaws?” he breathed. “Outlaws?  You arrogant bastard, they want to help us!”  Inwardly, he shuddered.  This was what he had feared the most.  Were the Rogues really right to hide from the Guild for all of these years?  Did they know that something like this would happen?

     “Give me your gun and your communicator card,” Van said. “Now.”

     With a violent motion Nabob jerked his Beretta pistol from its holster and slammed it down onto the desk angrily.  He then did the same thing with his Slayer communication device, which he had powered down and deactivated a few weeks ago so that he wouldn’t be traced.  It felt liberating to be free of them, somehow.

     “I knew your father, ‘Bob, and I know what `e did,” he continued. “He followed `is own self-interests and ended up hurting the Guild more than most Slayers these days can imagine possible.  Don’t make the same mistake he did, moyte.  There’s a flight to New York that leaves in an hour.  I want you to be on it.  You’ll be fully debriefed once you’re back in North America.”

     “Oh, no,” Nabob shook his head vehemently. “Not this time, Van.  You aren’t getting rid of me that easily.”

     “Oy’m givin’ you an order, ‘Bob.”

     “I can see that the Rogues were right,” he scowled. “You are afraid.”

     “If these people exist there are reasons for us to be fearful of them.”

     “Oh really?  Like what?”

     Van remained silent, but his eyes showed that he knew something - something that Nabob obviously didn’t.  The younger Chimneysweep glared hard at his unrelenting superior.  In that moment, he realized that arguing this was futile.  Turning, he began to stalk out of the Vatican office.

     “You’d better be headin’ towards the airport, Nabob.”

     “Oh, I am. But I’m not going back State-side.”

     “Then the Leader was royt.  You’re a bloody loose cannon.  Just like your father.”

     Nabob stopped.

     Slowly turned.

     “This isn’t over yet, Van.  The Rogues want peace.  They want unity.  And I’m not going to let that dream die here in this bloody office.  Call me a loose cannon if you want, but at least now I’ve got a purpose.  And I’m going to pursue that whether I’m a commissioned Slayer or not.”

     Van slowly expelled his breath, breaking his solemn gaze for the first time. "'Bob, you're the best we have.  Don't walk out that door."

     "You haven't left me with a choice."

     "There's always a choice, moyte."  He beckoned towards the discarded Beretta and communicator card on the desk. "Always.  Oy'll give you one last chance, an' then I can't be `eld accountable for you any more.  Pick up your gear and get on the next plane to the States.  Do that an' all of this is in the past.  Won't ever be mentioned again, I promise.  I'll have a word with th' boys upstairs.  Just don't turn your back on us, Nabob.  The Guild needs you."

     He hesitated, but only for an instant.

     "I won't give up on them, Van."

     Then Nabob disappeared out the door with the ponderously slow steps of a dignified failure.  Van watched the young man stalk away, and waited until the large oak door closed behind him.  He sat for several minutes, fingers steepled in front of him, buried in thought.

     Then he picked up the phone on the desk, idly fingering the battered Beretta that now lay there as well.

     “Yes, get me the Leadah; secure channel” he said into the speaker, then waited a few moments. “Yes sir, this is Van.  I just spoke with Nabob.  We `ave an even bigger problem than we first thought.  It appears they’ve re-surfaced earlier than we’d guessed…”

--------

"LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT"
 

     The day passed in a fit of protest after Nabob stepped away from the Vatican and back into the teeming hub of Rome.  Lights from cars and street signs rocketed by as he slipped through the throngs of pedestrians on the sidewalk, a shadow, an incorporeal being amongst the anonymous masses whom he had once sworn to defend.  Thoughts rampaged through his mind as he wandered, aimless as a trickle of water poured out on the ground, moved but by the gravity of the situation.

     He had come to the ASG with an offer of peace.  It had been rejected in such definitive terms so as to suggest that this was not the last he would hear of the situation.

     Nabob’s world had been a shifting mass of happenstance since Rae had died - no, been murdered - and now it was taking form again.  And the form it was taking frightened the shit out of him.

     No more ASG.  No more security.  That life had ended when he had walked out of the sacred headquarters.  It was Nabob against the darkness, with no safety nets or support to catch him should he tumble.

     He had been cast out of an Eden he could not longer bring himself to believe in.

     God above, he needed a drink.

     Midday, or close enough that it made little difference.  The lunch crowd slowly filtering out of the restaurants and sun-baked taverns, filing out like automatons as Nabob moved through them, a blur of business suits, low-cut blouses and forgotten dry-cleaning tags.  Laughter and meaningless small-talk, the distant smile or wink from a pretty ceramic face, a brief flash of human contact...

     He pulled away, stalking into an emptying tavern.

     The drinks came, one after another, paid for with cheques from an empty account.  The dank atmosphere of the Italian tavern grew progressively darker, the counter blurring ever so slightly.  Laughter swelled around him.  People came, lingered, left, all of them sliding from Nabob’s attentions like dew on smooth glass.

     He wanted to forget; wanted absolutely nothing more than sweet oblivion and an end to the horrible twists his life had delved down into.  The loss, the pain, the guilt, the anger, the darkness...that vast, all-encompassing darkness, eclipsing the finer parts of his soul...

     Nabob couldn’t remember leaving, or choosing to leave.  All that clung to him was the sensation of moving through the street again.  Less graceful this time.  No longer incorporeal or distant.  No longer set apart from those around him.  Stumbling, swaying, uncoordinated along the sidewalk.  Bumping others.  Utterly corporeal.  Human.  Weak.  Nothing more.  Not a Slayer.  Not a hero.  Only human.

     It was dark outside now, too, and the headlights of passing vehicles flung past the former Chimneysweep in a river of yellow light.  Slumping along the brick wall, a tight knot burning in his stomach.  A few blurred figures, indistinct, standing over him and speaking in Italian.  Sir, are you all right?  What’s wrong?  You don’t look so great, buddy.  Do you need a doctor?  SOMEBODY GET THIS MAN A FUCKING DOCTOR!

     No...no, I’m fine.  Just a touch of the flu.  Really.  I’ll be okay.  Thanks.

     The sidewalk tilted a little.  He stumbled.

     I’m fine, really.  It’s okay, just the flu.

     Get your hands off me!

     Get the FUCK away from me, all of you...

     Don’t need help...

     Don’t help...

     Running now.  Don’t need any help.  Just need to get the fuck out of here, get the fuck out of Vienna, Rome, Irvine, wherever, too many shadows, too dark.  Tripping over a tin trash can, shouts from nearby, the hot taste of blood in the mouth, burning liquid trickling down the cheek, got to keep running...running away from the past, the future, the present, everything, nothing.  A burn in the throat rising up like searing magma.

     Stumbling again, alleyway smell.  The stench of the urban sprawl, growing more putrid with every breath heaved and dream crushed.  Vomiting.  Slumping back against the wall, feeling a little better.  Not much.  Maybe a little.

     God.

     What am I supposed to do now, huh?  You tell me that, you shit.  Tell me where the hell you want me to run off to, to protect this fucking Creation of yours in all its goddamn glory!  Or why don’t you just take me away from all this like you said you would!  Kill me right here and take me up to you just like you took her!  Just like you took Rae you BASTARD!

     “...No survivors were reported...”

     Why the fuck did you take her away from me?  Wasn’t my having her good enough for you?  Didn’t work into your ‘plans’?  Didn’t it fucking well pound your nails the way you wanted them?

     “...rebuffed possibility of renewed terrorist activity...”

     Why the FUCK did you take her?  What the HELL do you want with me?  HUH?!?  ANSWER ME, GODDAMN YOU!

     “...European Airlines representatives have claimed possible engine failure, but...”

     Wait.

     Something’s not right.

     Nabob rose, shakily, on legs as sturdy as splinters beneath the uncomfortable weight of reality.  The noise from the street was still deafening, inconsistent, a drab boom and roar of eternity sounding in his ears, but he could nonetheless make out words as though they were being whispered right into his ear.

     "...recap for those of you just joining us..."

     He stepped uneasily out of the alleyway, out of the darkness and back out onto the noisy streets of the oblivious mortal world.  A constant drone of Italian wafted through the masses that passed him by, accompanying a few contemptuous side-glances at his unruly appearance from passers-by.  Above it all, though, he could still hear the voice, speaking with desperate urgency...

     "European Airlines Flight 311 has crash-landed in the Swiss Alps...."

     A crowd was gathering nearby, hovering at the window of a streetside electronics shop.  Fingers pointing, small gasps as people flung a hand over their mouths, chilled and muffled whispers in Italian.  Nabob stepped closer.  Their attention centered upon a large television set out on display behind the glass.  Its price tag was forgotten, however, as all eyes focused on the picture it portrayed...from his stance, what appeared to be a wall of fire.  The overhead speakers blared out onto the street with what he now realized was a reporter's voice.

     "Details at this point are sketchy, but airport authorities have confirmed that contact with Flight EA-311, originally out of Los Angeles International Airport in the United States, was lost just off the coast of France over the Atlantic."

     He watched.

     Listened.

     Saw the blazing inferno that was the remain of a hundred hopes and prayers, the scattered wreckage that the cameraman swept over, the crater in the side of the panoramic mountain, caught in the last shimmering rays of the dying sun.

     Heard crackle of flames, the reporter’s panicked, inexperienced voice, the…

     Nabob’s eyes shot open, startled.

     Heard the chattering.

     Faintly, barely audible to the human ear.  Off in the background, just beyond the roar of the jet fuel blazing, past the voices and little gasps…he heard.  Oh God, he heard.  The infernal chattering of petrified bone, a simultaneous expression of hatred, evil, and insatiable hunger from beyond the grave.

     Sweet Jesus…

     Nabob pushed his way to the front of the crowd, jostling pedestrians out of his way as he fought his way through to the very front of the electronics shop, their irate protests shedding off of him unnoticed like beads of water.  He pressed his hands up against the storefront glass, his face hovering inches away from the television set, eyes sweeping the morbid picture with a wild intensity…looking for something, anything…

     THERE!

     A slight shimmer right above the flames, small enough to be passed off as a camera glitch by an editing crew.  But just for that moment, it was illuminated, caught in the flickering light just as it had been in the flash of a gunshot a few months before when last he saw it.  That night in May, clawing desperately across the hot, bloodied cement, the ethereal visage of the monstrosity hovering mere inches away from his face…

     It was here.  It had come on the plane.

     Plague-Sever.

     He pushed away from the glass, wild-eyed and frantic.  This was the monster that Rae had died trying to hunt down.  Now it was back, it was here.  He had to tell someone, before it got too far, before it killed again.  Had to let the Slayers know, had to let Van know…

     No, Van wouldn’t listen.  Nabob had walked out.  He was a renegade now, and his days with the Guild were behind him.  And the last time that he had pinpointed the Spectre for the Guild it had resulted in nothing more than a massacre.  No, that wasn’t the right way…

     Beneath his shirt, he felt the Amulet of Kharvalle press against his breast insistently, pulsating with a gentle, urging heat.

     The Rogues.

     They would help hunt it.

     If anything could stop the Spectre, it would be their magical powers.

      Here he was, at the exact right moment, with the perfect opportunity and the appropriate tools lain out before him.  Just for an instant, his mind turned upwards in a thankful prayer.  Perhaps you’ve got it worked out after all.

     Nabob charged off into the rampant darkness, fury and a lust for revenge clinging on within his heart.  He had to contact the Rogues.  It would take them time to mobilize, though, on such short notice.  He had to get to Switzerland himself, as soon as possible, to make sure that the damnable thing didn’t slip away from them.  The Spectre had stealth on its side.  If he wanted to pin it down, he would have to do it fast.

     It was time to confront an old nightmare once again.

     Pushing his way through the slender gaps in the crowd, he failed to notice the black figure trailing back some distance behind him, watching his half-staggering movements from afar.  Behind the upturned collar of a sports jacket a pair of eyes gave a fleeting red burn as they observed his departure.  Anyone who might have bothered to focus attention on the subliminal figure at that moment would have been rather struck to see his face ripple for a second, facial features briefly replaced by somebody else’s entirely…

     Of course, nobody did.

     The figure veritably lunged off through the crowd after Nabob, keeping an assured pace with him and melting back into the ceaseless flow of humanity.
 


Year of the Spectre Episode 3 - Page 5