|Snap IV: Margin Notes
Author: Guede Mazaka
Two days later, the bleeding stopped and Balthazar promptly changed back to male form. The pain died down a lot quicker that way, and it was spread over more mass so it was lessened even more. The fatigue took longer to dissipate—longer and longer, which was beginning to worry him. He didn’t know how they’d brought him back, so he had no idea how good of a job they’d done of it. Midnite was skilled enough to perform a resurrection that restored the essence as well as the semblance of life, but making such a transformation last was an entirely different matter. And added to that, he’d only been bringing Balthazar back for information, so he probably hadn’t been thinking of duration.
It looked like Balthazar would have to visit Midnite again, after all. Not the most appealing prospect in the world, but then, leaving the apartment at all wasn’t terribly fun for him nowadays. The next time John went out, Balthazar would have to make the man take him along no matter how much that soured his pride.
For the past couple days, John’s modus operandi had been to stop in, drop off carryout so greasy that Balthazar was shocked it didn’t slide right back out of his mouth, and then to go off again, ostensibly to work on tracking down the grimoire. He usually smelled of fresh blood and sulfur, but he never had any problem marching right back out, so Balthazar assumed the scuffles never were too serious. Then very early this morning, John had staggered in with a shredded coat and a badly dislocated wrist; he’d literally kicked Balthazar out of bed to make him fix it.
“I think we might have to do something about this Dean Corso,” John was saying. Three hours later, he was sitting at the kitchen table trying to load his shotgun one-handed. As he spoke, the bullet squirted out from between his fingers and hopped over his frantic grab to clatter on the table.
It rolled towards Balthazar’s end. He had been going through the book John had brought back—an obscure Kabbalah text that should’ve been in the library of an acquaintance of his—and now he lowered the book to watch the bullet. “We?”
“Well, since he likes you so much,” John replied, head tilted at an arch angle. After a moment he reached out and picked up the bullet. He tapped it against the table and resettled himself in his chair, staring humorlessly at Balthazar. “Don’t give me that shit. You want me to stick around, you’d better start contributing. Have you even done anything besides hide in the bathroom in the past few days?”
Balthazar bit back a vicious reply, thinking deliberation would serve him better. John’s greatest weapon was how easily he got under his opponents’ skin, tricking them into inflicting wounds on themselves in their efforts to get him out. “If I had the slightest idea as to what you’ve been doing…”
“I guess the omniscient knowledge got lost during the resurrection. Funny—you still act like a know-it-all son of a bitch.” Unlike with the majority of the human race, anger steadied John’s hands. The bullet snapped into place with a click that rang harshly through the room. “You whine when I leave and you aren’t any better when I do come back. Why don’t you make up your mind and then bother me?”
This time, cramming back the reflexive retort was harder, but Balthazar managed it. He twisted slightly in his seat and braced the book against the table-edge so it completely blocked John from his view. The content of its pages was more relevant than their conversation, anyway: it was an index of the spells supposedly within Solomon’s grimoire, irritatingly blotted-out in parts by recent bloodstains. The lines listing transfiguration/transformation caught Balthazar’s attention so that he almost missed what John said next.
John put the shotgun on the table and flopped back in his chair with a long sigh. He put his hand up and pressed the side of it against his mouth. “Besides, this isn’t getting us anywhere. Midnite says he’s having Corso followed, but according to him, Corso hasn’t been doing anything. And women don’t bleed during their periods.”
“You’re not exactly well-liked. Someone else might have called up those hellhounds.” Though even Balthazar didn’t consider that very likely; hellhounds were a privilege of the demonic upper echelons and wouldn’t be available to a half-breed stationed on the earthly plane unless they had a very highly-placed backer in Hell. But John had wiped out most of L. A.’s notable half-breeds while stopping Mammon’s crossing-over, and so far Balthazar hadn’t heard of any decent replacements moving into the city.
“Yeah, if they weren’t so busy trying to keep from being killed themselves,” John snorted. His long fingers snaked out a cigarette and seemed to caress a flame across its tip, which he then used to point at the book Balthazar was holding. “I kind of assumed you’d recognize that. Don’t you?”
Balthazar realized he’d slowly been lowering the book since the moment he’d put it up. He wavered, then lowered it completely and resigned himself to having the conversation. “It’s Nergal’s. I assumed you’d lost your temper and done something stupid in a bar somewhere.”
“I wouldn’t have minded, considering what a bastard Nergal was, but I didn’t do him. And whoever did really had a problem with him—they carved him up like a pig and got artistic with his fridge.” Trails of smoke wound from John’s nostrils back towards his ears, giving him dragon’s whiskers. Then he waved them away, staring hard at the opposite wall. His fingers tapped restlessly on the table. “They ripped his place apart. I think they were looking for that book.”
“Which you somehow found,” Balthazar said.
John shot him a truculent look. “He’d tossed it out the window into a dumpster below, probably just before they broke through the door wards. I—”
He didn’t only cut himself off, but also jerked about to face away from Balthazar. The cigarette in his mouth rapidly bobbed up and down, turning to ash within a minute, which told Balthazar all he needed to know. Apparently John wasn’t comfortable with having visions even if he had no problem taking advantage of the information they provided.
“It’s topically useful. It tells you what’s in the grimoire, but nothing detailed enough to let you work out a spell,” Balthazar finally said. He would have loved to probe John’s sore spot, but he wasn’t about to do it when John had a shotgun on his side. “I’m not sure why they’d want it if they do have the grimoire.”
“I don’t think Corso does. I keep—” A cough intervened, or at least seemed to. After sinking another inch down the chair, John jerked the cigarette from his lips and crushed it against the table. His nostrils flared slightly as the smell of charred wood rose up from the spot and he gave Balthazar another sideways glance. Then he drew himself up in a businesslike manner so brisk its falsity shone like a new quarter. “So far, all the visions have turned out to be a few minutes into the future. An hour, tops. I see the grimoire sometimes, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s gotten to it in a long time.”
Balthazar straightened up. “So you know where it is?”
Grimacing, John picked up the shotgun and clicked on its safety latch. He kicked up a duffel bag from beneath the table and put the gun in it. “I know what room it’s in. But funnily enough, this whole vision-thing doesn’t exactly equal GPS. It’s somewhere in the southwest, but I’m not getting driving directions or anything.”
“Baja California for the past three hundred years,” Balthazar corrected.
John immediately turned to stare narrowly at him. “I heard North Carolina, forty years ago. And then Mexico within this decade.”
“My sources come from the Spanish royal archives. The Spanish have their share of faults, but they took magic seriously and were diligent historians of it,” Balthazar said.
“Yeah, well, Map says it was in the Carolinas. Maybe your sources are outdated,” John retorted. He twisted himself out of his chair and slung the bag over his shoulder. “I’m going to—”
When Balthazar also stood up, John first looked startled and then annoyed; he plainly thought Balthazar was going to stall him. Balthazar walked right past John and nearly was at the door before John realized that wasn’t the case, shook himself out of his shock, and caught up.
“And where are you going? I thought you were scared to—”
“I’m coming with you.” Balthazar shouldered past John and pulled open the door. He put his hand on the frame for support and squeezed by the other man.
Then he stopped with one foot outside. From here he could hear the dull roar of the street traffic, the cacophony of hundreds and hundreds of people going about their business, any of whom could accidentally shove him into the road or kill him over his nonexistent pocket money. And mixed into them would be the familiar faces: the smiling viper eyes, the hands ready with daggers. The cuts on his shoulder and over his arm had just finished healing, but now they throbbed as if they were fresh.
“Looks like you’re waiting for me,” John eventually said. Before Balthazar could retort, John had pushed him further into the hall and was locking the door. Then John got a hand on Balthazar’s elbow, which he used to drag them down the stairs. “What, were you getting stir-crazy?”
“I think I’m dying,” Balthazar blurted out. He immediately winced and turned his head away. The empty bowling alley echoed weirdly with their steps, the shut-down lanes looking like iron-jawed dragon mouths in the half-dark.
The gaze moving over the side of his face was searching with a surprising lack of cynicism. John didn’t say anything till he had dropped Balthazar’s arm to push open the front door; the car parked directly before it had a raven perched on the side-view window, which elicited a dark chuckle from John. “We all are.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Intellectually it was interesting that Balthazar would have such a strong fear of death that it’d even override his wariness of giving John any personal information. After all, Balthazar thought savagely, it wasn’t as if he didn’t know what it was all about.
It wasn’t intellectual at all. That was merely him trying to rationalize himself into composure.
“Yeah, I know,” John said. His voice was oddly soft, but only at the beginning. “We’re going to see a priest-friend of mine, by the way. So you can go to confession.”
As they turned onto the sidewalk, Balthazar deliberately kicked his foot through a puddle. Getting John’s pant-cuffs wet gave him some petty satisfaction—the only kind he seemed to have time for now.
* * *
Balthazar was staring, and John was watching him do it, but Balthazar was still in too foul a mood to care. Also, he was busy taking mental notes: it was his first time within a cathedral, after all. Previously the furthest he’d ever been able to get had been the front lobby.
The architecture and glasswork were commendable, he finally decided. However, he didn’t sense the glowing golden aura that was supposed to infect places such as this. When he’d been a demon, the crackling electricity that barred the inner spaces had been tangible from a mile away, but now that he was human…the place was hollow as a dried-out eggshell.
From one of the columns detached a shadow, which quickly resolved itself into the kind of pale, girlish young novice that demons liked to refer to as a coffee-break. “Father Nilsen will see you now,” he said to John, nose wrinkling at John’s cigarette.
John smiled thinly and deliberately tapped off his ash on the carpet. “About time. Okay, Bal—what?” He stopped when the priest held up a hand in front of Balthazar. “No, he’s coming, too.”
“He’s not…known here.” As the boy delicately put it.
“Oh, I think I’m better-known than you think,” Balthazar muttered, shoving past the boy. He felt fingers grasp at his sleeve, but then the boy gasped in a way that almost sounded like a swear. The fingers fell away.
A moment later, a silently-laughing John sauntered up to Balthazar’s side. “Nilsen just took over as historian for this region. Don’t know why they gave the job to him, seeing as he’s a lot better at—”
“Throwing the fire-and-brimstone at the congregation and pretending he doesn’t have a whore beneath the robe sucking him off?” Balthazar arched an eyebrow. “I suppose he’s a step up from your last—”
They’d entered a narrow back hall that turned sharply, so Balthazar was crowded up against the corner. In retrospect it was a bad idea to antagonize John then, but part of the human condition was not thinking clearly. Damn it to hell.
John’s fingers clamped around Balthazar’s wrist, and then he’d twisted Balthazar’s arm up and behind while slamming forward; the spine of the corner ground painfully across Balthazar’s arm. He hadn’t been totally oblivious to John’s reaction and had gotten his hand around John’s throat, but his grip wasn’t very good; John simply jerked him forward, then shoved him back and the resulting pain made Balthazar think his arm was broken. He dropped his hand to John’s shoulder, pulling himself closer in an effort to relieve some of the pressure.
“Don’t think that I’ve forgotten what you did to Hennessey. Or to all the others,” he said. His voice sounded like a file rasping over his teeth.
“I suppose you’re getting yours back now. Enjoying it? Feel superior yet?” Balthazar hissed back.
The muscle in John’s jaw tightened a split second before he threw Balthazar so hard into the wall that for a moment, black spots danced in Balthazar’s vision. He staggered forward, then slumped back for the support of the wall. The blurry dark figure at the edge of his vision took an aborted step forward, all menacing angles and claustrophobic downward slants.
Balthazar blinked and the lines resolved themselves into a disgusted-looking John, who turned away. “You don’t bruise like you did,” he muttered, so far beneath his breath that he couldn’t have meant for Balthazar to hear him. He absently rubbed at his wrist so the sleeve slid up to flash the elastic wrap on it. “So how’s dying? You…Nilsen, hey.”
“Johnny!” The man that came striding down the hall had on the priestly garb, but his cheerful expression clashed horribly with it. “It’s been a while. I was beginning to think I’d run short of apocalypse material before my next big sermon.”
“Not much chance of that,” John muttered. It took him a visible effort to smile back, though he clapped the other man’s shoulder heartily enough. “Listen, I and Balthazar here need to spend an hour or so in the archives.”
Nilsen glanced at Balthazar; some intelligence rested behind the man’s shiny spectacles because his smile instantly began to wane. “John…”
“Hellhounds in the street, Nilsen. Big slobbering Great Danes with fiery eyes lunching on dead fetuses.” With a good deal more cheer, John patted Nilsen on the back and slid past the other man. He waved an ornate wrought-iron key over his shoulder, whereupon Nilsen went through an amusing little sequence of disbelievingly putting his hand to his pocket, staring after John and then shaking his head. “Thanks,” John called. “This should make us even.”
Balthazar unenthusiastically followed along, ignoring Nilsen’s stammering attempts to call questions after them. Any other day he would have been thrilled to be invading a cathedral’s inner workings, but today he wanted to see to other business first. And he doubted a Catholic library was going to have anything useful on how to keep a demon trapped in a corpse alive.
“Were you attacked by them again?” he asked John.
They’d just come to a stop before a wooden door so old the wood looked like brown bone, so dry it might crumble at the slightest touch. It’d probably been put up by the first Spanish missionaries to minister here. John leaned against it, inserted the key and rudely shouldered the door open. He tossed the duffel at Balthazar, who let it drop to the ground by the door.
“Not them. I was just leaving when Nergal’s current bed-toy came around. She saw the mess, thought it was me and threw a fit.” The room was so dark that John stepping inside it looked like he was walking into an inkwell. A spot of scarlet flared, then settled into his lighter. He held the flame to a candelabra he’d gotten from somewhere and slowly light began to filter over the shelves. “You don’t seem all that sad.”
“I didn’t care much for him. Or her. Or the other ones that you’ve been going to see, only to find out someone’s beaten them dead first,” Balthazar dryly replied. He was a little pleased to see John taken aback at that; perhaps he’d been limited to crawling about the apartment for the past few days, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t keep his ear to the ground…he was rationalizing a bad situation. He’d become so damned pathetic. “Why are we here? You don’t honestly think the Church would know better what was going on than, say, Midnite, do you?”
The candle-flames were long and deeply yellow, swooping jaundiced streamers behind them as John moved further into the room. He scanned the shelves, then set off for one. “You know, if you want to go see Midnite instead, it’d be helpful if you straight-out asked. I’m not a mind-reader.”
“Fine. Johnny, can we go ask Midnite why he’s continuing to be such a fool? And whether the damned corpse you two put me into is rotting faster than it should?” The dust they were kicking up got into Balthazar’s nose and he had to stifle a sneeze, which somewhat ruined his sarcasm. He unbuttoned his sleeve and pushed it up to rub at the sharp narrow throb that marked his newest bruise.
“No.” John turned around so the dim light slashed sickly orange across his face. One side of his mouth lifted in a tight smile. “Look, Corso’s a book detective, or whatever, right? It’s his business to know where books are and what information they have. All these half-breeds getting killed off are because of books—it’s always a book that’s missing. Books about the grimoire.”
Balthazar stared at the books behind John’s shoulder. Some of them could easily weigh ten pounds or more, enough to crush a man’s skull if used properly. “You want me to ask ‘and so?’”
“And so they’re not telling Corso what he needs to know, or else he wouldn’t keep going after other demons. I mean, technically they all work for Lou. He shouldn’t have to kill them to cooperate,” John said. He turned back to the shelves and squinted at the spine labels, occasionally mumbling them aloud to himself.
After taking one down and suffering through its egregious mix of Spanish and Latin, Balthazar concluded that they were ordinary administrative records. “Maybe he’s frustrated.”
“Oh, he’s definitely frustrated. He can find tons of information on Solomon’s grimoire—everything except what he needs to know: where it is. If it was in Baja California back when the Spanish had the area, then chances are the Church knew about it. So we can settle our little argument from earlier…ah, with this one.” John absently pushed the candelabra at Balthazar, then let go without looking to see if Balthazar had it. He pulled a book down from the third shelf from the ground.
Fortunately for them, Balthazar did manage to take the candelabra in time. He briefly thought about dropping it anyway, but there was so much old paper and parchment stuffed into this room that he’d never make it to the door in time. Speaking of which, it seemed extraordinarily stupid for them to not have installed electricity back here. Unless…
…these weren’t ordinary candles, Balthazar suddenly realized. “John. You might be a suicidal idiot, but I’m not. We need to leave. Now.”
“Oh, that. No, it’s okay. I’ve timed this before—we’ve got another two minutes. Hold up the damned light so I can find it before we have to go…” John mumbled, rapidly flipping the pages. He blew out an irritated breath and hiked up the book so he could rest its top against the shelf and put his nose nearly to the paper.
A cold wind blew up Balthazar’s back, but the candle-flames didn’t flicker. He half-turned so he could see down both ways and edged a little closer to John. “Hurry up.”
“I’m trying. It’s not like these damned things come with…oh, someone did add in an index. Thank God.” John slid his fingers under a handful of pages and slapped them over. The sound of it echoed strangely, as if they were standing in a much bigger and emptier room…or as if someone had moaned at the exact same moment.
Balthazar gritted his teeth and wondered how John had ever managed to survive with such a cavalier attitude towards the supernatural. After one realized ghosts were precisely that—shadows of the people that had been—losing the fear of them was understandable, but taking them for harmless was stupid. Shadows were perfectly capable of killing.
“…yeah, yeah…God, where did these people learn Spanish?...oh, okay. I think I’ve…got it. Now we can go.” John snapped shut the book and raised his head just as something huge dropped down on them. He yelled out a curse and threw the book at it; part of the shadow folded to bat the book away as if it were a flower. “Damn it, Balthazar! Where’s my bag?”
The candles Balthazar shoved at the thing were slightly more effective. The flames leaped up, briefly illuminating a grotesquely twisted body that rolled sideways in an effort to get around them and at Balthazar. He ducked, then was jerked backward by John so he nearly dropped the candelabra.
They stumbled to the door in a mad rush. John did the pulling and Balthazar came damned close multiple times to setting the place on fire because he had to run backward in order to fend off the thing. Once its nails caught in his hair and he lost a few strands to it.
As soon as they were out the door, John whirled and kicked it shut. He locked it just as something heavy slammed against the other side.
Balthazar’s heart was drumming in his ears, so loud he could barely hear how raspy his breath was. His arm hurt even more and he was so lightheaded he slumped against the far wall till he was sitting on the floor. “That used to be an angel.”
“Dirty little Church secret. Went nuts during the Civil War. A mob got together and crippled his wings, but couldn’t figure out what to do with him, and of course God wasn’t all that helpful. Nilsen says he makes a good watch-dog,” John said. After a moment, he leaned over and blew out the candles. The duffel bag was still by the door and John picked it up.
That explained why Corso hadn’t simply come here first, and why John hadn’t also made this his first stop, even though he seemed to have figured out a while ago that it’d have the information he needed. An angel, pinioned and locked up like a wild beast in a zoo.
Curiously enough, Balthazar couldn’t bring himself to be very disgusted at the pity he felt. He had a guess as to why—he didn’t want to probe too closely at the source of the feeling. “I always wondered why you humans insisted on making Purgatory into a distinct region. It’s here.”
John started to say something, but a last bang at the door interrupted him. He glanced at it, then looked sharply at Balthazar. “You must really feel like shit.”
“How incredibly observant of you,” Balthazar muttered. It’d been a good five minutes now and he still was far from catching his breath. He made himself breathe more slowly and deeply. When he thought it was beginning to work, he tried to stand and barely managed six inches before his body gave out.
A hand caught him under the elbow and held him suspended it from it. After resituating himself, John put his other hand under Balthazar’s arm and pulled him up the wall. He started to let go, but Balthazar’s knees weren’t ready to take on the weight; John shoved his hands under again and held him in place. “You—”
Then John jerked once. His fingers went corpse-stiff against Balthazar’s sides and his pupils smudged, grew wide so they seemed to swallow all of his eyes. Balthazar was barely able to stand, but somehow he persuaded his hand to lift and graze against the underside of John’s chin. The skin there was ice-cold.
All of a sudden, the fit was over: the lines of John’s face slackened and he ducked his head, breathing hard. Then he abruptly straightened and yanked Balthazar down the hall by the arm. “Well, definitely time to go see Midnite.”
“What? What’d you see?” Balthazar stumbled a few yards before he was walking through sheer force of will; his breath still hadn’t quite caught up. “Where did it say the grimoire was?”
“Some little mission church that probably ceased to exist decades ago, but this isn’t really…shit.” John took a step forward, then reversed himself. The smell of blood was so strong even human nostrils couldn’t miss it. “Shit. Nilsen—”
“—is dead—that’s what you saw, isn’t it? Where’s the backdoor?” Balthazar muttered, trying to turn them around. He jerked at John’s unmoving arm. “Damn it, John, if Corso can get into the cathedral, then I don’t see what you could do to him. It’s not like you haven’t left people to die before.”
That got John moving, though it was to fling Balthazar down the hall. He took a couple steps towards Balthazar, hands in fists and face white with rage, but then a thin scream came from the nave and he stopped to glance indecisively over his shoulder.
Balthazar had twisted towards the wall and was using its support to claw further down the corridor. He only made it two yards before he had to rest, which was when John decided to be prudent; John roughly pulled him off the wall and half-carried him down the hall. “I should leave you, you goddamn piece of shit,” he muttered. “What fucking good is this foresight if I still can’t change what happens?”
“Who ever said it had to be anything but a nuisance…and John, we need to move faster.” Because Balthazar was looking over his shoulder and seeing a black smoky tendril curl around the corner behind them. It drifted in place for a few seconds, as if it were a snake gauging striking distance, then darted forward. Balthazar shoved at John’s shoulder.
They went back the way they came at a staggering run till they’d reached the archive door. Though Balthazar planned to pass it, John made them stop while he fumbled with the key and the lock. He finally got it open as a billow of oily smoke filled the far end of the hallway.
“Need to delay it,” he muttered.
A good idea, but the angel wasn’t going to wake up fast enough unless…the simmering anger in the look John gave Balthazar said John was planning on exactly that. Two birds with one stone, revenge and survival both. And Balthazar couldn’t precisely argue because he wanted to live as well—he snarled, but he still put out his hand for John to slash with the sharp point of the key. Then he flipped it so blood splattered inside the room, muttering a few black curses just to make sure the point was made.
A hard pull behind the center of his chest that left him reeling and a sudden rush of wings inside, rustling broken and angry, told him it was. He took a step backward and licked the blood off his palm, then pulled his sleeve over it. Dizzy and weak, Balthazar reached out for John.
And John stood back, hands at his side.
nunc scio tenebris lux hissed from the archive room. Now I know that from darkness comes light.
A cracked saying, considering the situation. But the darkness at the end of the hall paused, and John moved, taking Balthazar by the wrist. “I should goddamned leave you,” he said bitterly.
Balthazar was too out of breath to reply. He clawed forward, hooked the edge of John’s coat and pulled himself flat against the other man just as the door exploded open. A pale blur collided with the encroaching blackness, and the resulting power violently rippled outward so they had to duck and run half-bent. Along the way Balthazar lost his footing and never really regained it. He lost the rest of his breath as well, and remembered only twisting his fingers in John’s coat before he fell into the dark.