I tramped around a pair of cemeteries yesterday. I took a camera, my good Zoom H1 field microphone, and the Magbox, hoping to catch an EVP or two I could share here on the blog.
That’s two sets of recordings per cemetery. About two hours of audio to download and analyze.
Did I catch anything?
Well, maybe. A voice at Tula seemed to come out of nowhere and say “Oh yeah.” Another voice mumbled something unintelligible, mostly as I was speaking.
But as I was isolating the clips and trying to make them worthy of presentation, something suddenly occurred to me.
Even if these are the voices of the dead, somehow projected into the so-called world of the living, so what?
They apparently have nothing to say. “Oh yeah?” Some mumbling?
What’s the takeaway here? That the dead are ultimately just as banal and boring as any cell-phone zombie I might meet on the street?
So I won’t bother posting either noise. I think I’m done with the entire EVP bit for a while.
Instead, I’ll post the opening of the new Markhat book, The Devil’s Horn.
THE DEVIL’S HORN
Father Chide was a bastard.
He kept his red priest’s mask close to his face as he spoke, but his eyes showed. They were rheumy and narrow and mean. His thin bloodless lips were also visible, set in a permanent scowl, hiding crooked yellow teeth that looked loose and diseased, the perfect lair for a lying priest’s tongue.
“Have you listened to a word I’ve said?” barked Father Chide, using his best frighten-the- flock pulpit baritone.
I shrugged. Three-leg Cat sauntered in the office and, with the unerring ability cats have to draw close to people that loathe them, Three-leg leaped atop my desk and settled right in front of Father Chide’s gold-trimmed mask.
“A few,” I said, as his brow knotted in anger. “But like everybody else these days, I stopped listening when you started preaching.”
He sputtered and nearly stood up. I’d hit a sore spot. As what the papers were calling the Summer of Monsters entered its third month, the Churches had failed to slow the flow of supernatural beasties taking to Rannit’s streets. The faithful were deserting Rannit’s five Church mainholds in droves. I imagined Father Chide wasn’t any too happy about that, and a petty part of me decided to twist the dagger a little more.
“So tell me again, Father. Without the religious commentary, this time. What brings you, a mighty priest favored by the Host itself, to seek out the likes of me?”
“We have sent six letters,” he replied. “Two were formal summonses, affixed with the Holy Seal of the Exalted Primate himself.”
I nodded agreeably. “On a fine grade of paper, too. They lit up like a treat, and burned with an exceptionally pure flame. I commend your taste in stationery.”
“You burned them.” It wasn’t a question. He forgot to hide his face from the sinful world, letting his mask of office dip.
“I did,” I said. “Send more, and I’ll burn them too. Let’s get something straight, Father Chide. There are maybe three people in all of creation who can summon me. My wife, Mama Hog, and the proprietor of any middling good brewery. But not you, and not His Holy Whatshisname, and not every painted angel in every holy book. I don’t recognize any authority you claim to exert. So knock it off. Speak plain, or get out.”
“Twenty thousand crowns.” He remembered to raise his mask.
“That’s plain enough. Now what is it you want, for twenty thousand crowns, plus expenses?”
He turned his mask slightly this way and that, inspecting my tiny office for big-eared sinners, I suppose. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper.
“That will not be discussed here. Ever. You will accompany me to Wherthmore. My carriage awaits.”
I leaned forward, matched his whisper.
“Nothing doing, you sour old goat.” I’d once ridden a stolen horse up Wherthmore’s steps and right down the middle of the Grand Chamber itself. For all I knew this was some bizarre attempt at chastisement. “You want to try and hire me, fine. I can put my personal distaste for you and yours aside. But I do my business my way, and that means we discuss business right here, right now.”
Father Chide gave Three-leg Cat a savage shove when Three-leg sniffed his mask.
Three-leg whirled and let the bastard have a good hard swipe with his remaining front paw. Father Chide yelped and raised his staff to strike and if I wasn’t bound for Hell before that moment I am now because I took his holy stick away from him, broke it over my knee, and then threw him out into the street by the neck of his greasy red robe.
His attendants, a foursome of armored Church soldiers who’d been napping atop the carriage, were caught off guard. I managed to plant a kick on Father Chide’s backside and beat a hasty retreat through my heavy door before they could clamber awkwardly down.
I threw the bolt just as the first blows landed. I spent the next hour idling with Three-leg, who kept a murderous glare aimed at the door while he licked his forepaw in feline triumph.
With a final barrage of threats and curses, Father Chide and his corpulent honor guard departed. I waited a bit before stepping outside, wary of crossbow bolts or sermons.
Neither manifested. Old Mr. Bull cackled and waved from across the street. An ogre hurried past, pulling a sausage cart, pursued by crows and stray cats. The Father’s gaudy Church carriage, festooned with gingerbread-house trim and flying a dozen flags, was nowhere in sight.
“Throwed him out on his ass!” yelled Mr. Bull. He slapped his knee in delight. “You in trouble now, sonny!”
“I’m seldom out of trouble,” I said, tipping my hat. “How goes it?”
Mr. Bull spat. “Some damn imps or other tried to slip through my window last night,” he said. “Third time this week.”
That gave me pause. Cambrit had been spared the worst of the recent supernatural invasion’s traffic, but now that Mama Hog was away inspecting her orphanage out west I wondered if we’d start seeing our share of things that go bump as well.
“Give you any trouble?” I asked.
The old man guffawed, jerked his head toward the alley beside him. “I strung up their heads,” he said. “Ain’t much to ‘em. A few whacks with my stick and they quit trying to bite.”
“Need me to look at your window?”
He spat. “That’s kind of ye, but I seen to it myself. What you better do is make yourself scarce. You know them Church men is coming back. Won’t be for tea, neither.”
Mr. Bull had a point.
I developed a sudden irresistible urge for one of Eddie’s sandwiches, so I set sail for his place a couple blocks north.
Two dead wagons passed me, their pale burdens shifting bonelessly beneath the tarps that hid them from the early morning sun. Before the Summer of Monsters, the halfdead had been Rannit’s apex predators, but even during the worst of their nightly predations I hadn’t seen a dead wagon packed past the side-rails. Certainly not a pair of wagons in tandem.
“Bring out your dead,” chorused the drivers, in bored monotones. “Mister, seen anything we need to pick up in any alleys you passed?”
“Not a thing,” I said, and I hadn’t.
The wagons rattled on, making for the crematoriums that line the Brown River. I added a block to my walk, but I took a right on Sorrow Street just so I’d not have to ponder the movement of the tarps all the way to Eddie’s.
Taking that detour saved me from another Church carriage, one bigger and grander than Father Chide’s. I caught a glimpse of a toad of a priest through a window as it passed. His mask was down, and his fierce expression suggested he was en route to deliver some first-class hellfire and industrial-strength damnation to the kinds of unrepentant sinners that might have the temerity to toss lesser priests out by their robes.
I pulled my hat down and set a leisurely pace. Eddie welcomed me with a grunt and a wave of his ever-present bar rag.
I stayed all morning. Had two sandwiches, two coffees, and a glass of milk. Eddie didn’t say two words, but that suited me just fine. Father Chide had talked enough to fill any three mornings.
Darla and I had lunch in the park. I dropped her off at her shop, had the cab take me past my office without stopping. Two fancy carriages were camped outside it, manned by a trio of red masks and a bevy of grumpy Church soldiers idling on the sidewalk.
Someone high up in Wherthmore must be in deep, I decided. The Church itself must be teetering on the edge of ruin, to provoke the offer of twenty thousand crowns to unrepentant ne’er-do-wells such as I.
Spurred on by that thought, I rounded up Slim, my runt Troll deckhand, and we took Dasher a couple of miles upriver, cast our hooks in the muddy waters, and enjoyed an afternoon of fishing.
Between us, we pulled half a dozen fat catfish from the turgid waters of the Brown River.
“Hard work,” opined Slim, who is quickly mastering not just Kingdom but the fine art of sarcasm. “Deserve raise.”
“How about an increase in rank instead?” I replied. “Effective immediately, you’re now an admiral. Take the fleet home, if you please.” I pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes. “Wake me when we’re tied off at the slip.”
Slim chuckled. Dasher’s pistons thumped, and we raised a noisy wake.
“Storms tonight,” Slim said, as he steered. I didn’t look, but I’d seen the thunderheads building far off in the west.
“Good. That should keep the priests indoors.”
“Is that a humorous euphemism for rain?” Slim asked.
“Nope. I’ve been pestered by priests all day. But they won’t go out in a storm.”
“Why do holy men seek you out?” Slim gave Dasher’s wheel a nudge. A fisherman cussed as we threw up a wake.
“They seek my wise spiritual counsel,” I replied. “The purity of my soul is the stuff of legends.”
Slim boomed out Trollish laughter, and Dasher churned towards home.
I sent Slim off with a cab to accompany Darla home. Slim travels these days with a steel club in his furry right hand and a shiny black scattergun strapped across his back. The new arrivals to Rannit’s streets and alleys give an armed Troll wide berth no matter how many teeth or claws they themselves have.
I took another cab back to Cambrit.
The street outside my office was empty, save for a few people hurrying home. Even Mr. Bull was tucked safely inside, though I did see him peek out at me as I arrived. Someone had slipped half a dozen letters under my door. Each was sealed with red wax and the imprint of a fancy ring.
I threw them all out in the street.
Three Leg greeted me with a brief glance and a switch of his crooked tail. There was a note from Gertriss on my desk asking what I’d done to anger so many priests.
I put my hat in easy reach and settled into my chair, curious as to what the masks at Wherthmore might try next. Thunder grumbled, distant but filled with threat.
An hour passed, and full dark fell, before a soft polite knock sounded at my door.
“Mr. Markhat,” said a familiar voice. “Might I have a moment of your time?”
I was so surprised I forgot to put on my hat.
Standing out there in the dark was old Father Wickens, the aging priest who’d married Darla and I when we thought the world was ending.
He was alone. No carriage waited at the curb. No Church bullies loitered at his heels.
“Father Wickens,” I said. I flung open my door. “Come in.”
He did, with the careful gait of the old.
Wickens was the only priest I’d ever known who eschewed the mask of the Church. He needed a walking stick but didn’t carry one of those, either, and I wondered if it was because he didn’t want a stick confused with a church man’s staff.
He’d seen a few years since my wedding. His back was stooped a bit lower, his forehead lined with a few more wrinkles. But his blue eyes were bright and sharp.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling and crossing to my client’s chair. He didn’t sit immediately, instead turning to face me as I latched my door.
“I must first offer my apologies, as a man of peace,” he said. “My brethren were arrogant and rude. I am sorry for that.”
I bade him to sit. It was dawning on me the man had walked the whole way from Wherthmore.
“You aren’t responsible for their actions,” I said, sitting. “I was no model of decorum myself.”
He guffawed. “So I hear. I’ve never liked Father Chide, Mr. Markhat. Goodness, no. So I suppose we have that sin in common.” His eyes twinkled. “Sadly, though, I find myself bent upon completing the very same task as the unfortunate Father Chide.”
I nodded. “You’re here to hire me?”
“I am. On a matter both urgent and dire.” He sighed, slumping in my chair. “I am torn, my son. Ordered by my superiors to engage you in this task. But directed by my conscience to suggest that you refuse it. I believe even hearing my plea may place you in grave peril.”
I’d have laughed at anyone else for saying that. But not the slight old gentleman before me.
“You came a long way to talk to me, Father. You’re the only priest I’ll listen to. If I refuse, they’ll just keep sending you. Spill it.”
He sighed. “I feared as much.” Thunder rolled again, closer this time. I lit a pair of lamps as the storm waded in, bearing who knows what new terrors in its skirts.
“It all began in the catacombs,” said Father Wickens. “The excavations beneath Wherthmore,” he added.
“I didn’t know we had any,” I said.
“Nor did I, until today,” replied the Father. “They’ve been kept secret for the better part of a thousand years. The digging never ceases.” He shuddered. It wasn’t cold.
“Father, I realize I’ll probably go to ten or twelve Hells just for saying this, but can I pour you a drink?”
“Damned right you can,” replied the Father. Even Three Leg looked up, his slitted yellow eyes suddenly alert. “Not one for a nervous old priest, either. Pour me a man’s drink. A frightened man’s drink.”
I did just that. Whiskey, dark and strong. He gulped it down without blinking, and waited a moment for it to get settled in his gut.
The storm lit up my door’s glass with flashes. Thunder followed, lingering and ominous. Something with hooves ran past in the street, gibbering and hooting. I hoped Slim and Darla were safely aboard Dasher, with Cornbread curled up at their feet.
“You know the Book, do you not?” he asked, in a pause of the storm. “The story of Creation?”
I nodded, took a companionable sip of my own whiskey. “God and the Devil create Heaven, the world, and Hell, then get into a slug-match over who did the best job,” I said. “When the dust settles, God and the Devil are both dead. Only Angels and lesser devils survived.”
“I was never a literalist,” replied Father Wickens. “I maintained, privately of course, that the stories were mere allegory. Told to teach, to reveal wisdom.” He pondered his empty glass. I helped him avoid the sin of asking for more by pouring it unbidden. He didn’t argue, but he did drink it down.
“They’re just that, Father,” I said. “Stories. Maybe there’s wisdom there. I don’t know. But talking snakes? Flaming swords?” I shook my head. “Just stories.”
The old priest regarded me solemnly in the lamplight. “I have seen things today that cause me to wonder,” he said, at last. “Do you know why Wherthmore, and the other four Church mainholds, chose to build where they did?”
I shrugged. Mom had dragged all us Markhats to Wherthmore twice a week, but I’d spent more time pondering what lay beneath lady Angel’s robes than I had listening to the priests drone on. “Cheap land?” I said.
He barked out a single dry snort of laughter. “No, Mr. Markhat. Each site was chosen because each Church was sure they were building directly atop the spot where the final battle of Creation took place.”
Something bumped my door. I hadn’t heard footsteps. Didn’t see anything through the thick glass. But outside, claws began to scratch at the oak, and something began to breathe heavily from its exertions, the sound of it wet and eager.
I put my revolver down on my desk with a thump. Father Wickens offered up a quick prayer.
“That door has stopped Trolls, and worse,” I said. “Whatever is out there isn’t getting in. Go on.”
“The excavations began immediately, of course,” said the Father. “I am told the first finds were discovered by Wherthmore some seven hundred years ago.”
“The first finds,” I said, keeping my voice steady, though I felt the tickle of magic crawl up and down my spine. “Seven hundred years ago.”
He nodded. “Bones. They were not human, Mr. Markhat. Not even remotely. Some were human sized, more or less, oh yes. Some were gargantuan. I saw –”
The thing outside began pounding at my door. It screeched, more birdlike than lupine or canine.
“Beat it,” I yelled. “We’re closed.”
Damned if it didn’t emit a short piercing screech, as if struck, before scrambling quickly away.
The good Father regarded me warily.
“There are rumors you have been soiled with sorcery,” he said.
“There are rumors I’m everything from a vampire to the Regent’s illegitimate son,” I snapped. “I’ve made a lot of enemies. People love to talk. You were talking about bones, of the gargantuan variety.”
He nodded. His hand shook. More whiskey found its way to his glass.
“Today, I saw a skull,” he said, wiping his lips. “I tell you this true, Mr. Markhat. I saw a single skull, three stories high.”
“Whoah there, Father.” I corked the whiskey bottle. “Let’s maybe take a minute to clear our heads.”
That pissed him off. He slammed both his bony hands down on my desk and shot to his feet.
“As the Angel Maria, patron of lovers and fools is my witness, finder, I saw a skull three stories tall,” he shouted. “I know it sounds insane. I would not have believed it either, had I not descended. Had I not seen.” He slumped back down in his chair, his hands on his face. “Oh, would that I had not seen.”
I let him catch his breath. It took a few minutes. One thing I’ve learned, from watching people relive horrors while seated in in my chair.
You don’t push. You don’t rush.
“The excavation has cleared approximately four hundred acres of battleground,” he said, at last. “Some three thousand sets of skeletal remains have been revealed.”
“Devils?” I asked, softly. “Angels?”
He shook his head. “Both, they believe. Alongside creatures we cannot begin to name. It’s all true, Markhat. The battle. The Fall. God slain, the Adversary dead. Creation left adrift. All of it.”
He cried then.
I sipped whiskey.
The storm raged on, unperturbed by gods or devils or sad old priests.
“I’m still not clear on what all this has to do with hiring a finder,” I said, after a time. “Sounds like the Church, at least the high levels, has known about this since the rise of the Old Kingdom. Even if it is news to you and me.”
“Oh, it was news to me, Mr. Markhat. I’ve spent my life in the Church. I had no idea. None at all.” He blinked, trying to clear his head, I guessed. “They told me only because they believed you might speak to me.”
“I’m sorry for that,” I said. “So. You believe the Church has located the buried remains of the Creation Battle. The Church wants to hire me – to do what? Go down there and come trotting back up with God’s Own Sword? What?”
He shook his head. “Twenty years ago, Mr. Markhat, archeologists began work on revealing the occupant of parcel nine-ninety-four,” he said. He bit his lip for a moment. “Heaven help me, Mr. Markhat, but they unearthed the remains of the Devil himself. Not a devil. The devil. The Horned One. The Adversary.”
I bit back whatever I was about to say.
“I know it sounds incredible. Especially to man outside the faith. But Mr. Markhat, I have reason to believe it is fact. The Devil’s remains were discovered.”
“Horns and pitchfork and barbed tail too?”
“The fork was reduced to a molten puddle.”
I leaned back.
“I know full well the struggle to believe a word I’ve said, Mr. Markhat. I didn’t believe it either, when I was summoned to the Primate’s chambers.” He shook his head. “I didn’t begin to believe until I saw it all for myself, just a few hours ago. Which is why I’ve come to fetch you. To accompany you, into the deep chambers. Show you the excavations. The remains. All of it.”
“So far you’ve told me what you’ve found,” I said. “Now quit stalling, Father. Tell me what you’ve lost.”
“The Devil’s horn,” he said, without hesitation. The words came spilling out. “The left was missing, just as the Book said, crushed by God with his final blow. The right horn was intact, when the remains were discovered. It has been removed, by parties unknown.” Thunder blasted, and the old man jumped.
“So. The Church found what appears to be the actual site of some battle from the Book. Including Old Scratch’s bones. And now one of them is missing.”
“This is no mere bone, Mr. Markhat. The horn retained a shadow – perhaps more – of the power of Hell. The Church was preparing to move it to a place of safety, where its influence would never be felt in our world, where it would never be rediscovered, or fall into the wrong hands.”
I whistled, imagining the scuffle that would result if any of our nut-case sorcerers from the arcane side of town got wind of a devil’s horn for the taking.
“Someone stole it?”
Father Wickens nodded a yes. “Stole it. Slaughtered the entire company of soldiers and priests guarding it. Murdered forty-six excavators and an equal number of scholars, all in the space of a single hour. All our divine protections negated. Every physical and magical safeguard circumvented or destroyed. Whomever stole the horn commanded resources that rival, or perhaps exceed, those of the Church itself.”
That shiver made another circuit up and down my spine.
“Another Church, then.”
“No. I do not believe so. Our misguided brethren of the other Churches would not act with such wanton disregard for life.”
I snorted. Father Wickens scowled. “We are not all of us Father Chide,” he retorted.
“Sorry, Father. You’re right. But tell me this – why would anyone outside the Churches or a sorcerer want the horn? You said it retained some power. What kind of power?”
“The power to command the infernal. Finder, you know the story, do you not? That the chief minions of Hell fell beside their stricken master, with the survivors being entombed far below the surface?”
“I know it. You telling me that part is real too?”
He gestured toward my door. “What everyone is calling the Summer of Monsters began a few days after the theft of the horn,” he said. “You tell me, finder. Has not Hell been loosed upon us? Does not evil walk now, in numbers that swell each night?”
“Can’t argue with that.” I could, of course. My knowledge of the magical seasons told me the rise of wild magic was no more related to devils or horns than was the weather. But revealing that would also reveal my tainting by sorcery, and I decided the good Father had endured enough surprises for one stormy evening.
“We must locate the horn, finder. Our own efforts have failed. The Church spent months pouring every resource at its disposal into the search. We have learned nothing. Now, Hell is opening beneath us, only a crack now, but soon a chasm. We fear a flood of devils, one that will wash across the lands and leave nothing living in its wake.”
“So tell all this to the Regent. If you’re right, he might be the only creature alive capable of actually laying hands on the horn. I’m just a man, Father Wickens. I’ve got an impressive collection of hats and I can hit what I shoot at about half the time, but if the Church can’t throw enough money and people at finding this old bone, what makes you think I can?”
I’ve seen that look before. It’s the look people get when I ask them that one question they simply aren’t willing to answer with anything except a bald-faced lie.
Bless dear old Father Wickens, though. He was so unskilled at deceit he didn’t know what to do or say next.
“Father. Last I heard, lying is a sin. As is lying by omission,” I said. “So whatever it is you’re trying to avoid telling me is probably the very thing you ought to tell. Spill it. Let’s not ruin a wonderful friendship.”
“We went to the Regent,” he said, his voice pitched so low I could barely hear him over the storm. “Yes. The Church is just that desperate.”
“And the Regent turned you down?”
“I am told he had only two words to offer the Primate,” replied the Father.
“I can guess what they were,” I said.
The old priest shook his head. “No. You can’t. Because what he said was ‘Hire Markhat.’”
So that’s how the new book will open, if I ever manage to finish it. Hope you enjoyed it.