In The Midnight Of His Heart
By AL BRUNO III
September 1, 1993
The agents of Project Pharos got organized and got going about an hour after sunset. They trudged a mile into the swamp before splitting into three teams. Brain took six men and went east, Thalia took six and went west. That left John with Gawain and the remaining six Pharos Agents to keep heading north. If everything went well they would rendezvous at the Great House and if they found any willing refugees they would call in for an airlift.
An airlift! John had a vague idea how expensive it must be to have a helicopter standing by, Budget cuts indeed!
The swamp had begun to change, the water was thick with mud and algae, the trees were twisted and grayish and the insect songs became less and less frequent. There was no shortage of moths however. They were everywhere, bloated and fluttering drunkenly. It made John uneasy, this wasn’t think kind of place the High-Born’s would choose for a home.
Thalia had dressed him in a set of the dark camouflage fatigues, waterproof boots and a flack jacket. She had even offered him a sidearm, but when John had seen the bullets they were using he had refused. He decided against the flair gun and the canteen as well, such things would only slow him down. So much equipment! It was a wonder the Pharos agents didn’t sink into the swamp! They had tried to slip a tiny radio into his ear, all the others were wearing them, but John had refused that as well. The only voice he wanted to hear in his head was his own. Sometimes that alone was too much.
The mud sucked at his feet and cane as he pressed on. Despite the steady breeze tousling his hair, sweat was pouring out of him. He wasn’t sure which State Brian had brought him to, but if it was this hot at night he’d stick to the Northeast thank you very much. Besides he was years out of shape and still feeling the ache from the wounds of six months ago.
Gawain raised his hand, and whispered something into his radio. The Pharos Agents stopped marching and began scanning the murky treeline. Gawain leaned against a sturdy-looking tree and covered his face with his hands. Mopping his brow John approached him, they were nowhere near the Great House. “Why have we stopped?” John asked.
Gawain didn’t answer, his breathing was heavy, he might have been asleep. John looked back to the other agents, they seemed unconcerned, they just alternated between whispering into their radios and shooing away moths. John leaned closer scrutinizing Gawain. He had an idea what the son of his old ally was up to. It was an old trick Victor used to employ. Could Gawain truly have such ability?
Perhaps there was more to this man after all. Gawain’s breathing quickened. He moved his hands from his face and eyed John warily. “Not thinking of slitting my throat are you?” he whispered.
“If I wanted to kill you-”
“I’d be dead now.” Gawain nodded and gave another hand signal. The Pharos agents started moving again. He and John followed.
“Where you-” John paused, trying to remember the way his father and master had phrased it, “performing an ‘astral reconnaissance’?”
Gawain nodded, “I expected traps, snares and pits.”
John dismissed the idea with a curt wave of his hand, “Those are the tools of cowards. My kind kill our foes face to face.”
“These are uncertain times. Fear can make even the noblest people do odd things.”
“We are Vlodek. We do not fear.”
They walked in silence for a time, the swamp slurping greedily at their feet. John wondered how Thalia and Brian were doing. He found himself hoping that Brian had fallen in the mud at least once. Face first. As for Thalia, he had a feeling that no matter what happened tonight, Thalia would be all right. The Vlodek had long ago realized that for all their nurturing ways, women were the stronger sex. He had only to meditate on the legend of Medea to remember that.
Angie had that strength in her as well, she would survive until he could get to her. She had to survive.
But what if she’s dead? What if her lover killed her for some stupid reason?
John put such ideas out of his mind, they made his thoughts feverish and red.
A faint creaking sound began to fill he air, and each creaking was followed by an ever-so soft click. John looked to the squad of agents, had any of them heard? No, they were all too busy fussing with their radio headsets and their night-vision goggles. He still wasn’t sure what he would do when he reached the Great House. He was sure they would find it abandoned. Not even Victor had been shrewd enough to find a still-occupied Great House, but to quote Gawain Wight, these were uncertain times. If they were still there, they would tear through the well- equipped members of Project Pharos with ease. If that happened John would try to save Gawain or Thalia, either by spiriting them away or begging for their lives. Of course there was no guarantee that would have any effect either. After all with the De La Worg clan all but wiped out, any surviving High-Borns might not be feeling the least bit charitable.
Thankfully, Victor had long ago taught him that there were much worse things in this world than dying at the hands of your betters. The ground was becoming less marshy with each step. The grove of sickly trees was thickening, their branches hung heavy with pallid leaves. The creek-click-creek-click sound was louder now. They must be very close to their goal and John knew they were being watched. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
Through the trees he spied the Great House. Its silhouette ended just above the treeline, its exteriors were curved and sloped, it seemed to flow up out of the ground. It looked like a beast to John, a monstrous beast hunkering down, getting ready to pounce. John could feel himself tensing as he scanned the treeline.
Thalia’s team was making its way to them, for some reason the sight didn’t fill John with relief. Gawain hurried over to meet her. The members of the two teams mingled and formed a perimeter around the Great House. “Where the Hell is Brian?” Thalia’s whisper was icy calm, “He broke radio contact 20 minutes ago.”
Gawain turned back to gaze at the darkened manor, “If he got into trouble he would have let us know. He’s no hero.”
“Don’t remind me.” Her grip tightened on the AK-47, “I’m just wondering if he sold us out.”
This all felt too familiar, right down to the bickering, another collection of misfits marching off to battle alien gods. Only the names had changed. It made John wonder if he had ever truly left the Pharos Project, or Victor’s, shadow.
“Brian wouldn’t do that.” Gawain shook his head, “He needs us as much as we need him.”
Thalia swatted at moths as she spoke, “What if the Monarchs made him a better offer?”
Lionel Wight, Professor Margaret Chesboro, Frost, Dorothy Williams, Arno Fletcher, George Gordon, Brother Thaddeus, Phil Adorskil, Killjoy of the Seventh Circle, Pexley Aldorus, Zara Sadavier, August Zabladowski and all the others. It was so easy to remember his old teammates, if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine them here, as ready to fight with each other as they were to fight the Monarchs. It was also easy to remember what became of them..
We failed. John thought, Perhaps it was inevitable.
Gawain waved him closer, “We can’t wait for Brian. We’re going in.”
“Send in a small team.” John advised, “Just the three of us. The rest wait out here.”
Thalia shook her head, “I don’t think so.”
“You wanted me as an advisor. Take my advice!”
“He’s got a point.” Gawain said, and then spoke briefly into the two-way radio at his throat. The special agents retreated a few yards, concealing themselves wherever they could. “Thalia, you take the point.”
She nodded and moved towards the house, Gawain followed a few yards behind and John brought up the rear.
If there were High-Born here they would have seen us by now. John thought, They would have killed us by now more than likely. This House is deserted. It must be deserted!
But with every step that brought that brought them closer to their goal, John came to realize that they were not alone out here. The creaking-clicking sound slowed, it almost seemed to be going in time with his footsteps.
The wood of the front patio was singed, the paint blistered. The smell of dried blood quickened John’s heart. There had been a battle here, he could read it in the slashes and burns on every board. The door lolled on its remaining hinge, squealing and clacking against the doorframe. “The bastards got here ahead of us.” Gawain breathed.
“Maybe… maybe not.” Thalia shouldered the door open and scanned the main hall. She motioned for the two men to follow her. Gawain stepped quickly into the wide vestibule, John lingered for a moment. He mumbled a brief prayer to Blessed Phalen and joined them inside.
Gawain flicked his flashlight on and swung the beam around to John, momentarily blinding him, “Are you all right?”
Dismissing the question with a wave of his hand John scrutinized his surroundings. The house was everything and nothing he expected to see. The ceiling was over twenty feet high, darkened chandeliers hung at regular intervals. The walls were decorated with murals depicting the fall of the first city and the breaking of Phalen’s great bloodline.
“Fascinating.” Special Agent Gawain Wight’s flashlight lingered on the particularly vivid images. One in particular held him rapt for almost a full minute, it depicted a horde of Vlodek, High-Born and Common, rampaging through a Byzantine-looking city. “The leader and the peasant caste are so different in appearance but there is a strange symmetry to them.”
“It’s the eyes. The Metastasis makes them dull silver.” John said.
“What even is this I’m seeing here?”
“The fall of Carthage. Our version of it anyway.”
“What did they do to deserve such an attack?”
“Why did they have to do anything? It’s the way of the world. The strong prey on the weak.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”
“The members of the weaker side never do.” John commented. There was something almost sensual about the depictions of human peasants falling before the mighty shape-shifters.
Thalia called them from the next room, “We’ve got bodies.”
They followed her flashlight beam to a small parlor-like room. The furniture had been reduced to splinters and there was more fire damage, but not enough to destabilize the walls. The moths were everywhere, they flew lazily towards their flashlight beams and covered the walls in thick writhing mass. They carpeted the bodies as well.
John drew closer, the mound of corpses was almost as tall as he was. Vlodek bodies, High-Born’s and their Common-Born servants. Not a one of them was ready for battle.
There was a rubbery snap as Gawain slipped on a pair of latex gloves. He did this with his flashlight gripped in his teeth and a small colony of insects crawling through his hair. Thalia walked over to a toppled, charred table. There was broken glass nearby, she lifted one of the larger shards and examined it. “A wine bottle. This isn’t what I expected.”
“None of this is what I expected.” Gawain knelt beside the bodies and began a cursory examination.
“I would have expect more of a fight from the Vlodek.”
“This isn’t right.” John turned on his heel, searching the room. He looked up, the ceiling was thick with insects. “My people wouldn’t sit and wait to die like cattle!”
Thalia did one last sweep of the room with her flashlight and then stepped back into the hall. “You two can try and figure this out if you want. I’m going to make sure that whatever did this isn’t still lurking around here.”
“Good idea.” Gawain took the flashlight from his mouth and leaned in closer to examine the bodies. He absent-mindedly brushed away the scuttling moths.
John walked over to the overturned table and knelt. A pair of slow-crawling moths popped beneath his knee. The strange, almost melancholy odor of a dead fire overwhelmed him. There had been a blaze here yes but it had been quickly extinguished. There was a smell of sweat, not the healthy sweat of work or battle but the stink of too many people in a cramped space. And there was something else here, a sour chemical aroma.
“John.” Gawain called to him, “How does your culture view suicide?”
“It has its place. The weak... the crippled...”
“Prisoners of war?”
“What?” John turned to look at him, laboring under a cloud of insects, “What do you mean?”
“I’m no expert but I can smell some kind of flame accelerant on their clothes and from the look of them-” a particularly adventurous moth flew into his mouth. He cursed and spat it out. “Damnit!”
John looked back to the shattered wine bottle, “Of course! They poisoned themselves.”
“Then somebody or something must have put the fear of God into them.”
“No.” using his cane to steady himself John stood, “They were not afraid. They poisoned themselves and then tried to burn their bodies and the Great House.”
Gawain nodded with understanding, “So the Monarchs wouldn’t be able to use it.”
“Or them.” John stood beside the Special Agent, “Gawain are there any sores on these bodies?”
“They’re covered with some kind of pustules. I thought it might be because of the poison.”
“Watch.” John prodded one of the swollen sores with the end of his cane. It split open and oozing out of the half-jellied mixture of blood and suppuration was a bulbous-looking moth.
“Oh God.” Gawain looked at the clouds of insects fluttering lazily about them and crawling along the walls and ceiling. The light from the flashlight beam wavered crazily as he fought to suppress a bout of shudders “They’re hatching out- What are they?”
“Donnrup.” John brushed a cluster of them from Gawain’s hair. “They serve the Monarchs. If they live long enough and eat right they can grow to be as tall as a man.”
“I’ve read about these things in Professor Chesboro’s journals. I didn’t believe her accounts.” Gawain backed away from the bodies.
“We need to burn this place. Now.”
“I don’t think-” suddenly Gawain was wincing with pain, his hand going to his ear. Thalia rounded the corner, cupping her ear as well, her eyes were distant and detached.
“It’s Brian’s team.” Gawain explained, “They found a Pit. He tried to attack it.”
“And they destroyed the Pit and now they’re retreating through the woods. With whatever forces the Monarchs have left in hot pursuit.” Gawain started barking orders into his radio. They needed to get out of there fast.
John felt his blood turn to ice, “They’re leading the Monarchs straight to us. How long before the helicopter can get here?”
“They won’t be in time, we’re going to have to fight.” Thalia ran to the porch and started calling the Pharos Agents out of cover.
“There are spells that can hold them back.” John said when Gawain was done giving their position to pilots they had standing by.
“Yeah, it’s a shame I don’t know any.” Gawain smiled grimly and joined Thalia on the porch.
Phalen’s bones! I’ve doomed myself allying with these fools! Alone in the ruined building John leaned heavily against the wall, crushing a legion of freshly hatched Donnrup. A Pit! No wonder the High-Borns had committed suicide. The foul thing could drive a child mad in the womb and transform the simplest being into a monster. Destroying one of them was like tramping on a hornet’s nest. Even Victor’s spells paled before one of these lesions on the very surface of reality.
Sliding to his knees John dropped to all fours and tried to find the Metastasis once again. It itched within him, like the phantom limb of an amputee. A memory of a dream. A wisp of something lost.
How many men had ended their lives before him like this? On their knees, half-praying, half-begging, on the verge of tears. More than a hundred? Less than a thousand? He’d long ago lost count. John could feel their eyes on him, could feel their delight at seeing Sig at long last on his knees. And to think, he’d once mocked the notion of karma. Victor’s voice taunted him, “Everything you were- Everything you are- Everything you could have had- All of it gone!”
Gunfire startled the moths, they began fluttering crazily for the open doorway, singly and in loose swarms. Not like this. The thought was like a slap in the face, Not on my knees. Steadying himself with his cane, John headed out onto to the porch.
The first thing he saw was a pair of Pharos Agents lying dead near the steps, they had very nearly collapsed in each other’s arms. Looking to the forest John found their attackers. Undeniably human they charged the house, weapons drawn and firing wildly. For servants of the Monarchs they were appallingly mundane. Where were the wings? Where was the rotting flesh? “Brian’s team is down.” Gawain’s voice sounded dry. Thalia and the other agents surrounded the house, exchanging shots with their attackers, holding them at bay. Muzzle-flashes lit the darkness.
“Is this the best you got?” Thalia seemed almost offended by the sight of them, “Is this the best you got?”
A bullet shattered the wood of the doorframe, inches from John’s left eye. He moved for cover, crouching near Gawain, “How many?”
“Estimate three dozen.” a scream cut Gawain off, “Give or take a few.”
“And all they’re using is bullets?”
“Do they need anything else?”
One of the Monarchs’ servants paused, raised its hand and fired. The bullet sent one of the Pharos agents tumbling backwards, his upper leg a ruin of red and exposed bone.
“Gawain!” Thalia shouted, not out of fear, just to be heard over the din. John couldn’t help but envy her, so young and so cold. “How long before the airlift?”
“Just a few minutes longer.” Gawain pointed skyward, “Send up a flare.”
“And make it easier for them to hit us?”
“Just do it.” Gawain shouted angrily.
Unholstering her flare she rolled onto her back and fired. Artificial day lit forest, momentarily blinding John. You think that by now I’d have learnt not to do that. The crossfire paused for a heartbeat and then erupted again.
“Shit! Gawain!” now there was real panic in Thalia’s voice, “They’ve got GL’s!”
“GL’s?” John shook his head, trying to clear his vision. Bullets zipped over his head, tearing through the walls of the Great House.
“Grenade launchers.” Gawain rose to a kneeling positon and fired three times and then threw himself back behind cover.
Grenade launchers? John stiffened. Then we’re all ready dead. All they have to do is...
The perimeter Thalia had established was failing. The Pharos Agent with the wounded leg was screeching. The drone of a helicopter joined the chaos.
But why haven’t they done that already?
John exhaled deeply with realization, “Give me your flare gun.”
“What?” Gawain looked up from snapping a fresh clip into his AK-47.
“I’ve got an idea.”
The Monarchs’ servants had stopped advancing, they laid low to the ground and behind trees. They took more care to fire now, their shots hemming in the Pharos Agents that had taken cover near the house. Stuffing the flare gun into his belt and abandoning his cane John made his way back into the Great House and hobbled up the stairs. It was dark and the steps were thick with the slow-witted moths, but John let his other senses guide him.
On the second floor all the doors had been torn off their hinges but one. The floorboards were sticky and warped as though they had been forced to support a great weight. It brought home to him the true extent of the defilement wrought upon the Great House and its inhabitants. Gawain hadn’t been kidding when he’d remarked they were all living in occupied territory. It made John wonder why he was bothering, why should he save Angie when this world was going through its death throes?
John felt a sting of pain on his forehead and swatted at it. The moth fluttered away, leaving a pinprick of a cut behind. Dabbing at the blood John thought, Suspicion confirmed. How arrogant of your masters to leave you here. Did they think you’d be safe because there was a Pit nearby?
It was nice to know that even the Monarchs could make a mistake.
The doorknob was warm to the touch, almost clammy, it set his skin crawling. At first the door wouldn’t open, but it gave way with a single well-placed shove. The room was dark, the windows were painted over and boarded. A thick, wide shape glistened in the darkness. It shifted and mewled. Moths hung around John’s head like a cloud, nipping at his flesh like mosquitoes. The heavy drone of an approaching helicopter, the gunfire and the screams seemed miles away now.
This was why the Monarchs’ servants hadn’t used their grenade launchers.
Heavy shapes hung from the ceiling, they swayed ever so gently. John pulled the flare gun from his belt and aimed it into the darkness. “Let us go. Let us leave here and I’ll let you leave here. I’ll kill us both if I have to.” he swallowed hard before speaking again, “I’m not afraid to die.”
A creeping worry started to work its way up John’s spine. There was someone standing behind him, he was sure he saw a shape at the edge of his peripheral vision. He was wide open, they could do whatever they wanted to him but he knew better than to turn away from the half-glimpsed monstrosity cowering in the darkness before him. He had to convince it he was as serious as he was single-minded.
The fusillade of gunfire began to dwindle, John could hear Thalia shouting punctuating each of her sentences with bursts of weapon fire, “Where you going? I’ve still got bullets left! I’ve still got bullets left! Where. Are. You. Going?”
John risked a glance to the side and saw nothing. Nerves. He thought, Just nerves.
The shape in the darkness made a sudden movement, turning John’s attention back to the room. “Stay back.” he growled, his finger tightening on the trigger, “Now we’re going to leave and you’re going to let us or I swear by Phalen’s bones I will survive long enough to come back here and tear you apart with my bare hands!”
The sound of the helicopter was now a roar, it set the house shaking. John closed the door and made his way down the stairs. Gawain was waiting for him, “What did you promise it?”
“Its life.” John shouldered past him and limped out onto the porch. He knelt to retrieve his cane. The Pharos Agents were moving their dead and injured onto the helicopter. As far as John was concerned their pilot was a madman, there was barely enough room in the clearing for the aircraft’s blades.
“I can’t believe one of those things would- ”
“It was cornered and afraid.” John commented, “It wanted to protect its brood.”
Gawain offered John a hand only to have it waved away, “You could have said something to me.”
“I don’t work for you.” gritting his teeth, John raised himself to his feet again and started down the steps, “And I never will.”