In The Midnight Of His Heart
By AL BRUNO III
October 26, 1958
The trail led here, to a hotel that had long ago been condemned, but had never been demolished or restored. Of course Special Agent Lionel Wight knew the reason it had been left alone; the Veil had a membership that ranged from street lunatics to politicians, from ordinary millworkers to captains of industry. The blackened structure was over thirty stories in height, with windows that had been bricked and boarded over. The walls of the building’s penthouse floor had given way to the elements, leaving only rusted girders and rotted wires. That’s where they’ve got him. He thought as he stood in the darkness of the used car lot across the street from the ruined building, That’s where they’ve got both of them.
August Zabladowski stepped up beside him. “The Tower…”
“I thought I told you to stay back.” Lionel snapped, “We don’t know what kind of surveillance they have.”
“Can’t you see?” the little man’s voice was full of panic, he wore a gray fedora and a weather-beaten leather jacket with the ragged remnants of an embroidery on the back. It irritated Lionel to have the man here, he wasn’t a real member of Project Pharos, he was nothing more than a gadfly; but Lionel had to admit that he had an unnerving habit of being in the right place at the right time.
“August, all I see is four walls and what’s left of a ceiling.”
“That’s because you’re only looking with your eyes.”
“Are we going or not?” Zara asked as she and the others approached.
“So much for the element of surprise.” Lionel grumbled.
“Surprise is overrated.” August commented.
Zara silenced them with a wave of her hand, she was slender with mysterious, deceptively gentle eyes, “I hate to interrupt this little debate you’ve got going but my husband is up there and we know all too well how the Veil treats their ‘guests’.”
“Now listen to me all of you-” Lionel began, he didn’t want this to degenerate into some half-assed commando raid. If Victor Kovach had taught him anything it was that blundering into danger wasn’t heroism- it was martyrdom. The powers that they confronted could only be overcome through wisdom and guile, not by brute force and dumb luck.
“If they kill him, I will kill a hundred of them.” the guttural voice of Victor’s bodyguard drowned Lionel out. He looked every inch the government agent with short, slicked-back hair and an immaculate three-piece suit. It sometimes amused Lionel to speculate what J. Edgar Hoover would say if he knew they had a monster on the payroll, “A thousand of them. I will gorge myself on their blood and the blood of their children.”
Professor Margaret Chesboro gave a snorting laugh, in her one withered hand she held a briefcase, in the other a simple cane, “Very nice Sig, is that today’s chuckle?”
“Do not mock me old woman.”
August was becoming more and more panicked, “Doesn’t anyone hear me? That place is a Nexus- a hole between worlds!”
“It seems to me that in all of this bickering we’ve forgotten poor Phil, he’s up there too.,” as Professor Chesboro spoke she gave Zara a disapproving glance.
“I happen to have a plan.” Lionel said, “If you’re all done giving our position away, I’ll tell it to you.”
“As if any of our plans has ever worked.” Professor Chesboro said as she looked up at the clear, star-filled sky. Lionel had begged her to stay behind; afer all she was almost 68 years old and her health was failing. Tactically Lionel knew that her skills might prove invaluable, especially in the event that the Veil had actually managed to summon one of their ‘Blood Muses’ into being, but on another level Lionel wanted to see just one of the members of Project Pharos die peacefully in their sleep.
“I appreciate the vote of confidence Margaret,” Lionel pointed to the rickety platform suspended from the side of the structure by a series of ropes, “Now do you all see that scaffolding over there? The members of the Veil use that- “
August Zabladowski spoke, his expression inscrutable, “Because all but the top floor is closed off. They’re like natives, worshipping the Volcano but never truly understanding it.”
“Yes… Now I propose that Zara and I use that thing, hopefully they’ll let us up to hear our offer and not just kill us outright.”
“Offer?” Professor Chesboro cocked an eyebrow, “We have an offer?”
Sig crossed his arms and glowered, “Let him finish.”
Lionel looked back to the building, with all this bickering they could already be too late, “We offer them the Book of Damastes in exchange for Phil and Victor’s lives.” The others stared at him with disbelief, “At least it will get us up there and buy the rest of you time.”
“Time?” August shook his head, “Time for what?”
“For you and Sig to enter the building from the ground floor and work your way up to the penthouse.”
“Didn’t you hear me? That building-”
“That building is either crawling with members of the Veil or a ‘Dimensional Nexus’ as you call it, either way between the two of you, you should be able to handle it.”
August began to protest but then fell silent; Sig began to undress. “And where,” Professor Chesboro asked, “do I come in?”
“Margaret-” Lionel began.
“I’m not staying behind, I refuse!”
“I need you here.”
“For what? To guard Sig’s pants?”
“No. I need you to prepare a ward, just in case they’ve sacrificed Victor and used him to bring something through.” he paused, trying to make the lie perfect, “In case we’re too late or we don’t make it, you’ve got to finish this.”
“All right.” she sat down on the cold asphalt and opened her briefcase, it was full of ancient books, candles and tightly sealed glass phials, “I’ll do my part but any grimmores you find…”
“Victor’s got more than enough books.” Zara smiled and gave her a pat on the back.
The moon was beginning to rise. Bloated and red it hung in the air behind the abandoned hotel and shone through the penthouse’s gaping walls. Lionel wasn’t sure but he could swear he could see figures moving up there, writhing and undulating in the baleful half-light.
“I hear something.” Sig stood beside his pile of clothes, careless of his nudity, “It sounds like… whistling?”
They all strained to hear, but Sig’s senses where far beyond the human spectrum.
Professor Chesboro looked up from the circle of chalk she was carefully drawing, “Don’t worry old boy, it’s just the wind passing though your skull.”
“Someday old woman, that mouth of yours is going to get you hurt.”
She only laughed. Sig grumbled to himself and triggered the Metastasis.
The bickering ground to a halt, they all watched in reverent silence as John’s body began to change. Patches of dark fur blossomed everywhere and spread across his body blending into a luxurious pelt. Lowering himself to his knees Sig made the transition from biped to quadruped with a single shudder. Feet and legs contracted. Ears grew to rounded points. The muscles of his neck broadened- nearly doubling their width. The lower half of his face grew outwards, forming a blunt snout. The fingers of each hand melded into a trio of thick, clumsy digits and sprouted claws. His eyes became dull silver. It only took a few seconds for the man to be completely transposed by the beast. Moving with brutal grace he raised himself up to his full height, almost four feet at the shoulder, and tested the air. A small sigh escaped from his toothy mouth.
Lionel wondered to himself if that sigh was one of pleasure or one of relief, he often theorized that this sleek, predatory shape was Sig’s true form and that his so-called ‘Human’ shape was nothing more than an ill-fitting disguise. The sight of the Vlodek always filled him with a combination of awe and dread; perhaps because he knew that for many men, this feral nightmare was the last thing they ever saw.
“We-” Zara was the first to speak, her voice a hushed whisper, “We should get started.”
August nodded, “Yes of course, the world isn’t going to save itself is it?”
“Don’t approach the building until we’ve got their attention.” Lionel drew his revolver and carefully checked it.
“I smell-” Sig’s voice was deep and gnarled, “corpses.”
“They may have already made their sacrifices.” Professor Chesboro looked up from her candles, “Get going.”
Lionel and Zara left the darkness of the used car lot and crossed the street. A cold clenching started to take hold of his stomach, it always did at times like these. Twenty-eight years of working for the Project and he still got the jitters. Sometimes he would sit up late at night and consider all the close calls they’d had over the years. Did he really need to be doing this anymore? He wasn’t a fanatic like Victor or a widower like Margaret- he had a family to think about.
The road that separated the used car lot from the Veil’s decrepit ‘church’ was clear of traffic, as they crossed Zara whispered “I still don’t understand how they captured him.”
Lionel shrugged, “There are incantations that can bind even the mightiest of sorcerers, all it takes is a little preplanning.”
“I’d believe that for any one of us, but Victor?”
“If he was sufficiently weakened by a physical attack, if he was drugged…” He could understand her fear; it was more than the fact her husband and his apprentice had been captured. There had been captures and near escapes a plenty over the last three decades but all those other times it had been Victor doing the rescuing, it had been Victor who masterminded the successful missions. They were all still in the schoolyard compared to him. “Zara, I wish you’d have agreed to stay behind. You’re condition-”
“My condition is none of your business.”
A tall wire-link fence surrounded the condemned hotel’s property, but a brief reconnaissance revealed a section that had been torn away. Lionel got down on all fours and crawled through the gap. A sliver of metal snagged his jacket, ripping the fabric from wrist to elbow. Suppressing a curse he stood and waited for Zara to join him on the other side.
They found a body near the scaffolding, it’s face twisted in a rictus of horror. Zara pulled up the sleeve of one of its robed arm. “Look at this.” she indicated the elaborate scarification, “It’s one of the Veil. Maybe Victor’s already escaped.”
“No.” Lionel shook his head, careful not to touch the body. August had a saying for moments like this- A plan is only good until you actually meet your adversary. He expected to find a living guard here, not a dead one, he couldn’t parley with a corpse. “If he was free he would have made contact with us, besides Sig would have known.”
“How would Sig know?”
“He just would have.”
“Then what happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” Lionel said as he climbed onto the scaffolding, it looked easy enough to operate, just a series of ropes and pulleys, “but we’re going to find out.”
He motioned for Zara to join him but she just stared at the corpse, “I wish - “
The scaffold lurched to life and Lionel fell backwards with a squawk. Cursing in Arabic Zara ran and leapt onto the swiftly rising platform. Wood and metal creaking in protest, they ascended the building in stomach-twisting ten-foot heaves. Zara held onto the railing and stared at the rapidly retreating earth. This was the uncertain part of the plan. After all, who was to say the Veil wouldn’t wait until they were half way up the building and then cut the ropes? It certainly wouldn’t be out of character.
But most of the things they’d done recently were out of character. This nightmare they were scaling for instance, every other temple the Veil had created was below ground. They seemed to have an affinity for mine shafts and bomb shelters. The Veil’s dogma also specified that only specially consecrated knives could be used in the act of killing, but several of this group’s victims had been slain by gunfire at close range. It made just about as much sense as the very idea that this pack of wild animals had somehow managed to capture Victor Kovach.
As they neared the top floors he looked to the car lot to see the light Margaret’s candles flickering in the darkness. He knew she was exhausted and in pain, hopefully all she’d have to do tonight was keep vigil.
The scaffolding stopped moving as suddenly as it had begun. They hung there for a time, suspended only twenty feet below their goal but far above the ground. Lionel started searching the walls for some kind of a handhold or ledge.
“I don’t suppose, ” Zara asked, “Victor ever taught you any incantations involving flight.”
“Me? You’re his wife.”
A voice called from the top floor, “Drop the gun off the side.”
A smile lighting up her face, Zara called out “Phil?”
“Lionel,” Phil said again, his voice had a strange edge to it, “drop your gun off the side or else-”
“I can imagine.” Lionel let his revolver fall to the ground. They started moving again, has asked “What have they done with Victor?” but there was no reply.
A few more lurches and they saw the stooped, robed figures hauling on the ropes. The familiar stench of rotting flesh filled their nostrils, Zara covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, Lionel inhaled deeply and steadily, waiting for his olfactory nerves to go numb. The top floor was a wreck of dangling cables and rusted girder that in spite of the bright moonlight was still partially hidden in shadow. Two robed figures stood behind a jewel encrusted altar, another six robed figures knelt motionless before them. Dark shapes hung from the exposed ceiling rafters, rocking gently. Where they were the remains of the Veil’s blasphemous ceremonies? Lionel wondered if Victor and Phil were among them. There was a final wrenching motion as the scaffolding was hauled onto the squalid floor. One of the robed figures near the altar beckoned them to come closer.
“Where are Victor Kovach and Phillip Adorskil?” Lionel tried to sound brave, tried to sound like he had all the cards, “I want them returned to us unharmed or none of you will leave this building alive.”
His only reply came in the form of muffled laughter.
“We are willing to make a deal.” Zara said quickly, “We have the Book of Damastes… not with us of course- but we can return it to you if- “
Again the robed figure gestured for them to approach. Steeling himself for the worst Lionel stepped forward, elbowing his way through the kneeling cultists. He let his training take over, any detail could save them now, any clue as to what the Hell the Veil was planning. Slowly, with each footstep, the details became clearer. The dark silhouettes dangling from the ceiling were breathing ever so slightly. It wasn’t surprising, he knew from experience that the Veil didn’t sacrifice you all at once. The stench of rotting flesh was overwhelming, and that was odd because for all their bloodthirstiness the members of the Veil were fervent in their pursuit of cleanliness. Was this some degenerate splinter faction?
Hopefully Sig and August would be here soon.
As he stood before the robed figures at the altar a final thought occurred to him- what if August were right? What if members of the Veil had built a temple on the site of a ‘Dimensional Nexus’ or in other words a Pit?
That would mean that their real enemy wasn’t a coven of lunatics, that would mean that their real adversary was the Monarchs.
If that was true then he was a dead man.
Reaching into his pocket, Lionel pulled out a lighter. Turning on his heel he popped the cover and flicked it to life, casting yellow, unsteady light over the dangling figures. They were not human shapes but they were familiar, very familiar. The lighter’s flame was reflected in their segmented, egg-shaped eyes. With each breath their proboscises quivered ever so slightly. Their bodies were hunchbacked, their flesh chitinous. They clung to the exposed rafters by their lowest set of spindly legs.
“Donnrup.” Lionel whispered. This confirmed his fears. The Monarchs never did anything without sending along a few of these monstrous servants.
The robed figures stood as one. Zara’s shout of warning was quickly drowned out. Fighting like a wildman Lionel knocked away one of his captor's hoods revealing a blood-caked face and lifeless eyes. These were corpse-soldiers and this was another tactic of the Monarchs; they wasted nothing.
There were too many of them. Rancid hands grabbed his arms and held him. They set Zara upon the altar She cursed and struggled but the corpses held her fast.
“Poor, poor Lionel, always blundering into predicaments far beyond your capabilities.” one of the robed figures drew back its hood, revealing a handsome, aristocratic face.
“Victor?” Zara gasped, “What have they done to you?”
“Oh Zara…” Victor chortled. Phil let his own hood fall away, and set to work securing his mentor’s wife to the bejeweled altar. “Would you care to enlighten the dear girl, my trusted lieutenant?”
“Working with the Donnrup…. Animating the dead….” Lionel shook his head, disbelieving the words even as he spoke them, “He’s betrayed us to the Monarchs.”
“It can’t be.” Zara shouted as the manacles snapped into place, “He wouldn’t.”
“Betrayed? I betrayed nothing- because all I ever served was myself.” Victor stepped out from behind the altar and whistled as strange yet melodic tune.
The Donnrup stirred.
“What are you doing?” Lionel struggled again to no avail.
“It has occurred to me that there is an infinitesimal chance that Professor Chesboro’s ham-fisted incantations will undermine all I have worked to achieve here.”
The creatures dropped gracefully from their perches and flung themselves out into the night. For a moment they fell like stones, then their caprices split open allowing two sets of leathery wings to unfurl. They descended upon the twinkling candlelights and extinguished them.
“Really now Lionel, you always were a tad too sentimental.”
From a distance, her screams sounded feeble, like the pining of a small animal.
“Monster!” Lionel spat, “I should have known! I should have suspected!”
“Yes, you really should have.”
The penthouse’s lone door splintered and fell open; Sig paused in the doorway, August Zabladowski stepped up behind him. “Oh no.” the little man’s eyes widened as he surveyed the room, “That bastard-son-of a- bitch…”
Victor’s smile became all the more triumphant “Kill him.”
The Vlodek moved faster than words, August fell back, his arm drawn up to protect his throat. Man and beast tumbled out of the room. Lionel tried to shut out the muffled cries, the pleading.
Victor sighed with satisfaction, “I’ve been waiting years to do that.”
“I’m sure your new masters will be very pleased.” Lionel said.
“Don’t try to bait me old boy, it really is beneath your dignity.”
Victor raised his eyebrows at this. Phil drew out a leather case, he opened it to reveal a selection of blades; they glinted in the moonlight. The sight of them set Zara caterwauling, she’d never felt so helpless, or betrayed.
“The Monarchs only require a single sacrifice Lionel. Don’t tempt me to add another helping to their plate, not when I’m so very close to achieving real power.”
“Why,” Lionel asked, “would the Monarchs require a sacrifice?”
A thick fluttering of wings signaled the return of the Donnrup. They hoisted themselves back up to their perches and became dormant once more.
“You see while the Monarchs can perceive our world, they cannot enter it. I must confess that I am not entirely certain why. They can however, integrate their vast consciousnesses into a living soul, all they require is a gateway be opened between their world and ours.”
“You can’t open-”
“I can and I will. The three components for the spell are already in place, a black uncut ruby, a pregnant woman and last-” he gestured to the doorway. The Vlodek reentered the room, gingerly carrying a foot-long sliver of crystal in his mouth. The crystal glowed slightly, it’s vermilion light glinting off the blood matting Sig’s fur. The Vlodek’s hackles raised at the sight of the Donnrupp but a single glare from his master silenced him. He padded forward and dropped the object into Victor’s hands, “but certainly not least, The Shard. Go now Sig, guard the egress.”
The Shard. Lionel couldn’t help but stare, over the years it had become something of a holy grail for them, something they all hoped to one day recover but never expected to see. Some believed that it was a font of mystical power, others claimed it granted its possessor access to the wisdom and dreams of the thousand souls imprisoned inside it and a mad few believed it had power over time and space itself. All along it had been in August’s possession. That explained a lot.
For a few moments Victor stood there, contemplating the shard of red crystal in his hands, then he carefully slipped it into his robe. “Why?” Lionel asked again, “Why would you betray everything we’ve ever worked for?”
“Look around you Lionel, the world is on the threshold of Armageddon. By the end of this decade the Earth will be reduced to a cinder floating in space. There are too many weapons of mass destruction and too many peasants playing at statecraft. Nothing can turn us from the path the damned Jew scientists have set us upon....” There was a quiet tearing as Phil used on the blades to strip away Zara’s clothing, his movements were slow and uncertain.“... nothing short of outright divine intervention.”
Her face flushed with humiliation Zara shouted, “You’re not making any sense!”
“Phillip, if she wags her tongue again- remove it.”
Lionel’s reeled “You’re going to use the power of the Monarchs to pass yourself off as a messiah?”
“I will do what is necessary.”
“You won’t get away with this.”
“People are sheep Lionel, you know that.” he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, “Democracy and Communism will never work because they ignore the single greatest truism history can offer- people need to be led. Giving them votes and free will only confuses them.”
“I don’t believe this!” Lionel struggled once more but the dead hands held him fast. How many times had they heard this same speech from power-hungry sorcerers and deluded madmen? Was the Monarchs influence to blame for this? Or, more chillingly, had he always felt this way and had they all been too much in awe of him to realize it?
“You will believe.” Victor selected a scalpel with a long thin blade and approached Lionel, “Both the normal world and the preternatural world will kneel before me, I shall be like the sorcerer kings of old.”
“But…” Sig sat in the doorway, his head cocked. Confusion made his voice almost childlike, “but the Monarchs are our enemies.”
For a moment Victor’s cool composure slipped, the thin smile split open like an overripe fruit to reveal a lunatic’s snarl. Lionel wondered what had so enraged his captor. Was it the question? Or was it the fact that it had been asked by Sig?
“The Monarchs are not our enemies, they are tools, just like you, the Donnrup and all the rest. Now be silent or I shall consign you to the same fate that is fast-consuming your people.”
“I’m sorry master.”
Lionel felt the flesh of his neck dimpling around the tip of the scalpel; Victor leaned in close, his voice hushed and intimate, “After years of suffering defeat at my hands the Monarchs approached me with an offer, an offer I would be a fool not to take. I always knew that I would find myself on this path one day and I always knew that the only thing that could possibly unravel all I had worked to achieve was the very organization that I had created.”
“The kidnapping was all just a ruse to bring us down.”
“Or to bring you into the fold. There is a place for you at my side.”
“You know I can’t do that. Now listen, there’s still a chance for you-”
“A pity,” with a flick of the wrist Victor slit his captive’s throat and turned away.
For Lionel there was a moment of pain, then growing panic. His horrified sobs were reduced to choking gurgles. With his every heartbeat he felt more warm blood pour from the wound. There were no spells that could save him, spells had to be spoken and his voice had been robbed from him. Again and again he tried to convince himself that this wasn’t happening, that it was an illusion foisted on him by Victor; or that it was all a dream and that he was actually lying in bed next to his wife. Lionel thought of his wife Mildred and his son Gawain, of all the missed opportunities both in the past and the future. And then he thought no more.
“You killed him!” Phil could scarcely believe his eyes, “You really killed him!”
“He was warned.” Victor cleaned the scalpel with a scrap of Zara’s clothing and replaced it, “I’d been warning him for years.”
One by one the corpse-soldiers withered and collapsed. They were no longer necessary and the energy used to sustain them would soon be required elsewhere. Victor reached into his robes and pulled out a large, misshapen, black ruby; he held it up and concentrated on the shifting half-light within. The others waited in silence; Phil sweating and pacing, Zara sobbing lightly and Sig statue still in the doorway, his eyes full of turmoil. “Why-”
“Silence.” Victor’s voice was curt.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I said silence!”
The cold fall wind blew the trash that cluttered the penthouse floor in wild circles and set the Donnrup rocking gently in their perches. Phil stood beside his mentor, watching the moon rise inexorably towards its zenith; he opened his mouth to speak.
“No, my dear Phillip, not yet. Just be ready.”
“Can’t?” Victor was incredulous, “Don’t tell me that you’re going to forsake a chance for true power because of some… some boyish lust?”
“If you want her,” Phil stepped between his mentor and the altar, his posture defensive, “You’ll have to go through me.”
“Do you really think that you have even the slightest hope of-”
Phil recited the incantation from memory, the alien syllables passing easily from his lips.
Victor’s face erupted with blood; it streamed from his tearducts, ears and nostrils. Phil was already freeing Zara, murmuring pleading apologies.
“You dare rise up against me? You’re a bigger fool than I ever imagined… Sig! Kill them both.”
“Because I order you to!” in the half-light of the penthouse it seemed as if Victor was turning into a beast himself, with his eyes narrowed into reddened slits and his face contorted.
“I can’t let you do this.”
“I could have saved you!” he brandished The Shard, “I could have saved both of you. Fools! Sacrifice or not the Monarchs are coming! They’ll give me your souls as playthings!”
A hungry, purple luminescence began to seep from the sliver of crystal. The Donnrup stirred uneasily on their perches. Leaning back against the altar, Phil cradled Zara in his arms; he knew there was nowhere he could run. He’d hit Victor with his best and the bastard had shrugged it off like an insect bite. Even if he didn’t bring the wrath of the Monarchs down on their heads, the power in August Zabladowski’s strange little crystal was more then enough to blast them off the face of the Earth.
Victor’s shape seemed to flicker and become translucent, the light from The Shard seemed to be flowing through him. Shapes, strange alien shadows scuttled over the walls and across the floor. He laughed, “They’re coming,” he whispered, “they’re coming.”
With a roar Sig attacked. Better he dies, he thought as his Master and Father fell before him, better he dies now than lives forever as an abomination.
The force of the attack knocked Victor off his feet and he crashed to the floor. The Shard slipped from his fingers and tumbled end over end out one of the ruined walls and was gone. The purple light dwindled in its wake, the shadows slithered after it and were gone. A single anguished cry escaped from Victor’s lips. It looked as though he might be on the verge of tears then a grimace of resolve swam across his regal features. He glared hard into the face of the beast looming over him.
Stunned by the turn of events Phil’s shout of warning came too late.
“I curse you.” he drooled blood with every word, “Everything you were- Everything you are- Everything you could have had- All of it gone!” The last word spoken Victor’s eyes rolled back and his chest began to flutter.
Phil and Zara began chanting a hasty binding ritual but Sig barely heard them. He felt as though he was being flayed, his fur and sinew being peeled away, leaving only vulnerable softness. This was not the Metastasis, this was Victor’s dying curse.
Sig fought that curse with his every breath but he knew that no spell of Victor Kovach’s had ever been broken.