|Snap VI: The Incunabulum Key
Author: Guede Mazaka
Yet another sign that his life was completely out of his control, Balthazar thought. He flipped around the rosary a few times, watching as his flesh did not burn and peel back from his bones. It would have been mildly entertaining if he could sit up without nearly passing out from the effort, or if he didn’t feel as if he’d been locked in an ice bath.
The sun was sinking, but there was still enough light to cast shadows across the dashboard of the car. One originating from somewhere left and behind suddenly swept across to the right.
Balthazar sighed, then wrapped his hand in the seat-belt. He pulled on it till he’d risen a painful two inches, rebraced himself against the door, and repeated the process till he could see over the dash. He started to pause so he could catch his breath, but then he realized he’d never move again if he did that and instead kept on pushing and clawing till he could peer up through the windshield. A flock of dark shapes had settled on top of the house’s roof, their hunched outlines occasionally stretching out to reveal bone-thin necks and limbs, tattered bats’ wings.
“Scavengers.” They weren’t supposed to be able to cross over, but lately no one had been bothering with the rules so Balthazar wasn’t terribly surprised. He locked the doors and started to lie back down.
Something scraped over the top of the car, like a gigantic iron rake clawing at it, and he froze. His eyes flicked to the house, but the faded, shabby rags of curtains that flapped out of every window kept him from telling where John and Midnite might be. He knew they were still alive because Midnite’s death would make more than a ripple and John definitely wouldn’t go quietly, but he had no idea what they were doing in there.
A gunshot threw a patchwork of dark fluttering shapes into the sky, unaccompanied by any cawing or cackling. They circled around, then suddenly veered to the left, away from the building.
And the car, which was rocking ever-so-slightly. Balthazar slowly crouched back on the seat and groped on the floor till he found John’s duffel bag. He flicked the zipper down an inch, winced at the loud noise that made and promptly stopped.
So did the rocking, but it wasn’t a stillness born of an absence, but rather one born of curiosity, like a cat stopping to watch fish swoop up just beneath the surface of a pond. It wasn’t comforting in the least, and more careful unzipping showed that John hadn’t left anything useful in the bag. It was almost enough to make Balthazar curse aloud: that half-witted exorcist actually thought a mere rosary was going to do anything? When an entire cathedral consecrated to God hadn’t worked?
Never mind. Balthazar didn’t want to die, and he most certainly didn’t want to die because of some human’s idiotic spell collection. He didn’t really want to live like this either, but his loathing of human existence was somewhat less than his loathing of death. And it was hatred because he already knew what would happen afterwards.
He carefully put a foot down on the car floor and waited. The car rocked slightly and the top creaked as weight settled on it, but nothing else. So Balthazar started to ease his weight from the seat to his foot. After he’d transferred about half, he put his hand down and began to pull the rest of his body down.
The rosary beads clicked.
Metal screeched, ripping long talons across Balthazar’s eardrums; he dropped unceremoniously the rest of the way, clapped his hands to his ears—the damned rosary smacked up against his chin—and rolled half-over to see what was going on.
Two pairs of filthy nails had pierced the car top. They were long and yellow on top, crusted black beneath, and curved like gnarled twigs. All of them were horrendously chipped and one was dripping fresh blood.
After making sure the rosary beads were safely crumpled up in his other hand, Balthazar reached out and dabbed his finger in the pool forming around the gearshift. He cautiously touched his tongue-tip to the blood.
Then he jerked his hand away, spitting and choking, and scrambled beneath the steering wheel to yank blindly at the wires there, not caring how much noise he made. The rocking had instantly started up again, and much more violently so he could barely get himself braced into place. One slammed him back so he lost his grip on the wires and barely saved himself from getting concussed on the wheel.
The—right. Balthazar grabbed onto it and brought his elbow down hard on the wheel’s center. The sound of the car horn was deafening. So was the sound of claws trying very hard to peel back the top of the car like it was a tin can. Damn it, Midnite should have had wards or at least a minor curse on the car; it wasn’t like him to leave his possessions unprotect—
--however, it was like him to put spells on delay to cause the maximum possible damage. Balthazar barely got down in time to avoid being blinded by the white-out flash.
“Hey, what the hell—” John yelled. It sounded like he was on the porch. “Oh, Christ.”
Which should have been followed by a few bullets and some colorful language, since unlike Midnite, John probably had no idea what time-delay was. When Balthazar didn’t hear anything, he hooked his arm through the wheel and dragged himself up.
At the same moment, a blurry pale and black form slammed down on the front of the car; Balthazar saw the hood crumple inwards and felt the heavy thump of the car’s back wheels falling back onto the ground. Two broad fuzzy-textured appendages shot out from either side of it. They weren’t symmetrical or even the same length, but instead looked as if the thing had just escaped from a pack of mad dogs.
Balthazar dragged himself onto the driver’s seat in an effort to see past them and got an eyeful of John just standing there on the porch with a strange blank expression on his face. His shotgun dangled loosely from his hand while the…the crippled angel on the car hood drew itself together into a crouch.
The sun had set so Balthazar could make out little more than he’d been able to see in the dark room, but when the angel glanced over its shoulder, he could tell what color its eyes were: a malignant yellow. They reminded him of his old business partner.
Its stringy brown hair hung over its face so that was about all he could see. “Abyssus abyssum invocat,” it hissed.
Hell calls hell. More useless half-crazed babble, spoken in a gnashing, uneven voice. The angel had a good deal of blood on it, Balthazar noticed. The remains of its right wing brushed red streaks over the windshield as it shifted about, claws scraping at the glass. He pressed himself further back and threw his arm over the top of the seat; hopefully he could scramble over it quickly enough if he had to. His breathing was so ragged he might as well have held his breath—the same amount of air would’ve gotten into his lungs.
What was John doing? Was he waiting for an engraved invitation to take a shot…or was he thinking about letting Balthazar die again?
It wasn’t a surprising thought, but it was an oddly stinging one.
The angel crawled sideways, body twisting about like a snake. It sank its nails into the wipers so one bent up like a broken arm and pushed its face against the glass. “One calls the other. You cannot separate them though you try, try, try…”
“Oh, you do deign to speak English,” Balthazar muttered. Stupid faithless humans…now he didn’t want to die not only because of whether his soul would go afterward, but also because living would irritate John a lot more. “Yes, miseries go hand-in-hand. I already knew that. That was my job.”
“I split it. I read it till I reached the page of horrors, that which should never have been written, and then I tore it in two. I tore it and I sent away the one half—but it has returned. It has returned.” First the corners of the angel’s mouth drew up to show jagged fragments of teeth. Then its teeth parted so its long thin tongue could wave about in accompaniment to its…giggling. That was possibly the only truly disturbing part. The sudden snarl that followed was more normal. “Gloria Patri!” it hissed, rearing back.
There wasn’t going to be time to climb into the backseat. Balthazar dropped straight down as the glass exploded inwards. One long, stringy-muscled arm came swiping at him and he jerked backwards into the driver’s footspace; his foot caught on something and he frantically tried to free it as nails grazed the arm he threw up before himself.
And grazed, and grazed, till Balthazar warily put down his arm to push aside the limply swinging hand. The floorspace was rapidly flooding with blood, some of which was splashing his left side. He looked that way and saw the angel’s mad eyes glassily staring at him. The rest of the head was barely attached to the neck by a thin piece of gristle and skin. When he moved away to unlock the door, the slight rock of the car made the head start to spin like a windchime.
“Guess God didn’t have his back any—whoa. Watch your step,” John so-intelligently suggested. He pulled the door the rest of the way open a little more slowly.
Balthazar tightened his grip on the side of the doorway and squirmed till he was no longer in danger of falling on his face in the dirt. With an effort that nearly made him black out, he stayed on his feet long enough to get out of the car and lean against its side. “John, if you don’t want me around, I’d appreciate it if you’d just kill me outright. This nonsense about waiting till the last moment ceases…to be entertaining around the third time.”
“What--oh. Well, you’re very fucking welcome, princess, and thank you for always jumping to conclusions. I was having one of those fucking visions, you stupid piece of shit! Jesus…” John stepped back and reloaded his shotgun, using jerky, irritated movements. He tucked it under his arm and stared narrowly at Balthazar for a few seconds.
Then they both turned to look at the car. The angel had landed on one bent knee and now it suddenly sagged off it, flopping over so the sharp shards of the windshield sliced into its wrist, exposing dull white nerves and pinkish-red muscle. Most of the blood had already drained away so only a sluggish trickle came from the veins.
“So turns out Map knew where the grimoire was, but Corso got to him. I don’t think he told Corso, because his body was strung up like one of those practical jokes…you know, you step on the wrong spot and it comes swinging down at you. Looked like shit—you couldn’t even tell where I accidentally shot the corpse,” John said, tone matter-of-fact like he was looking to open a conversation. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, which took him two tries to light. “Midnite’s pretty pissed off already about that. Maybe he won’t notice the car.”
Sometimes John was just too—except curiously, his ridiculousness could be amusing. Not entertaining, because in the end he always managed to avoid being anyone’s toy, but amusing. “I hope you don’t expect me to actually thank you for that,” Balthazar said. “You let that angel out, so it was your responsibility to kill it anyway.”
John raised an eyebrow and pulled the cigarette from his mouth. He was trying to reply when Balthazar pushed off the car, teetered and then seized hold of John’s sleeve. He still had more than half a mouthful of cigarette smoke when Balthazar awkwardly pulled them together, and it dribbled out first in tendrils, then in great ribbons as the awkwardness turned into a desperate frenzy. It wasn’t any more graceful, with their teeth catching on lips and mouths wetly sliding over parts of cheeks as well as lips and tongue, but it made up for that in heat that made Balthazar briefly feel as if he had a decent excuse for not being able to stand up on his own.
“Yeah?” Swipe of John’s tongue over Balthazar’s lower lip, with a swirl at the corner as his fingers roughly kneaded the back of Balthazar’s neck. “Yeah, and like you have people killing angels for you all the time.”
“Former angels,” Balthazar muttered, fisting his hands in John’s shirt. It didn’t make up for his many faults, but John did throw off heat like a furnace and it did make Balthazar feel better. “Where’s Midnite?”
John rolled his eyes. “Trying an on-the-spot séance. Come on. He won’t leave till he’s done.”
* * *
“All I’m saying is that Corso is probably watching us right now, and if he isn’t, it’s because he knows we’re not going anywhere while he goes off and massacres more people we know. This goes on for much longer and I’m not going to be able to find anyone to have a drink with,” John was mumbling. For the fifth time in as many minutes, he changed his position in his chair.
It was the only piece of furniture in the house that was still intact. Since Midnite’s business was best done while squatting on the floor beside the corpse, John had claimed it and relegated Balthazar to a broken-down table, which was fine with Balthazar. Two of the table legs had snapped and the middle had cracked in such a way that it now resembled a lounge chair, with half on the floor and half up at an angle. Lying on top of it involved less stress than trying to sit in an old-fashioned high-backed chair.
Now if the house only had heat. The night chill was beginning to come down and it was getting to Balthazar’s bones, which hadn’t been that warm to begin with. “Johnny, you can’t get anyone to drink with you anyway.”
John shot him a glare. “Besides, Map’s probably dancing with Lou now. You don’t have the stuff to pull him up from that far down.”
Midnite turned his shoulder to John and continued working in Map’s chest. The corpse was as badly disfigured as John had said: long cuts ripped up the legs and arms to expose swathes of muscle, some with ropy white nerves half-yanked out of them; the cheekbones were smashed and one eye was gouged out. Both ears were missing and the chest looked better now with its breastbone cracked open and ribs splayed so Midnite could manipulate the heart than it had before.
“Night’s falling and we don’t have a quick way to get out of here,” Balthazar quietly said. He was reluctant about supporting John’s opinion, but he’d seen what else Corso could do and he thought Midnite was being too quick to dismiss.
“So if you two would stop talking, I could concentrate and finish faster. Or if you, John, have a better idea where Solomon’s grimoire is.” Squelching sounds as Midnite pushed up a lung, its top lobe now a dark, lifeless purple. He stopped to work one sleeve back up with the elbow of his other arm. “Corso might be powerful but I see he couldn’t kill the archive guardian—he only weakened it. He’s not able to transcend all the rules. The angel’s body should keep his forces at bay for a while. Which actually makes this place one of the safest in the city, unless you can think of one better.”
John looked dubious, but couldn’t come up with any good counter-argument. He took out his cigarette pack and angrily shook it, only to come up empty.
“I gave you the only pack I had when we were in the car,” Midnite said. “Speaking of which, I am holding you accountable for its damage.”
“Yeah, whatever,” John muttered, flinging the pack over his shoulder. After another minute of fidgeting, he got up and wandered over to the window behind Balthazar. He put his hands on the sill, stared out at the street, then turned around to crouch down. “Goddamn it. You know, if you could walk, I wouldn’t have to wait on him to call up a car.”
Balthazar snorted to himself, ducking his head so the warmth of his breath would be trapped in his hands. “Or if your visions were more useful. What did you see back on the porch?”
John drew back his lips as if he was going to hiss at Balthazar, eyes flicking back and forth between him and Midnite. But at the last minute John acted sensibly and merely lowered his voice as Balthazar had. “Same fucking room. Different view of the book, though. Usually I see its spine, but this time it’d rotated so I could see the cover and some of the pages that were falling out.”
A loud thump made them both look over at Midnite and the body—one of the corpse’s arms was twitching and not because of Midnite, because Midnite had both of his hands in the air, fingers dripping chunky gore. He was grimacing at the corpse, and as Balthazar watched, Midnite flicked a piece of viscera at Map’s face in a rare display of frustration.
“You got him back?” John asked.
“He never left this plane, John.” The way Midnite pronounced the name made it synonymous with ‘brainless.’ “He was a houngan. Now he’s a loa and he’s being a damn stubborn ass about giving his cooperation.”
John rocked back on his heels, staring at Midnite. While Midnite’s accent was still noticeable, it wasn’t often that the man dropped back into dialectal syntax patterns.
“What about the information in the archive records?” Balthazar whispered.
A shake, and then John was paying attention again. He started to speak, then closed his mouth and put his hand down on the floor so he had Balthazar sandwiched between his arm and his feet. After a little bit of scuffling, he’d gotten them arranged so he was sitting crosslegged and Balthazar was fitted to his right side. John pushed his nose against Balthazar’s neck, warmth of his breath nicely trickling down Balthazar’s collar. “Said the mission around here—San Gabriel Archangel—was asked to take charge of a book of great and terrible knowledge from the Baja churches.”
“The first site or the second one?” Balthazar turned his head towards John and pressed back into the other man.
“Can’t be either—they’re too obvious. Corso would have checked them already,” John muttered. The frustration in his voice didn’t keep him from deliberately sliding his hands across Balthazar’s belly, fingers splaying downwards so they just brushed the waistband. “But it can’t be too far away. I could get a fucking trace if I was there instead of here.”
A thump from the other side of the room made Balthazar turn his head, but John simply nuzzled round to bite lightly at Balthazar’s nape. This amused Midnite even less, to judge from the man’s expression.
“Don’t have sex in here,” he snapped. “That’s the wrong kind of energy. You do that and we’ll have an amorous zombie to deal with on top of everything.”
“Give me a break, Midnite.” John lifted his head but kept it tilted as a malicious spark came into his eyes. He suddenly pulled Balthazar over his lap and then down so John was on his hands and knees over him. “Map lived in an old brothel-house with a bunch of hoodoo women that trafficked in sex-charms. Maybe this is exactly what I should be doing to get his ass in here.”
And then John shoved one hand down the front of Balthazar’s trousers. Balthazar’s head went back and at first he thought he’d concussed himself. Then he realized that it’d actually been two thuds at the same time and that was why it’d sounded so loud. He turned his head in time to see that the corpse’s heels were banging time against the floor; John came down and latched his mouth to the top of Balthazar’s throat.
Balthazar clutched at John’s sides, then kneaded up them to dig in his nails on either side of John’s backbone. In counterpoint, John’s mouth worked its way along the line of Balthazar’s neck, pressing hotly and leaving a tingling spit-wet trail that dried icy in the air. Shivering, Balthazar dragged at the other man. John’s fingers slid farther into Balthazar’s trousers, tips lightly tracing over his prick. His thumb finally got the fly undone so the maddening stricture of the fabric was gone.
The corpse suddenly arched so hard that it bucked Midnite from his knees back onto his heels. He growled something at Map and pinned down the body’s wrists with his hands; bits of flesh squeezed out from between his fingers. “He’s not coming through right. John. John.”
“Yeah, yeah, fucking picky bastard. I don’t know what else…oh. Fucking narrow-minded bastard, too,” John grumbled, licking messily at the base of Balthazar’s throat. He did it open-mouthed so Balthazar couldn’t breathe without causing his skin to scrape over John’s teeth, sending hot shakes back along the nerves. Then he bit down hard and jerked violently with his shoulders. His hand ground down so hard on Balthazar’s prick that when the pressure lifted, Balthazar thought he could still feel the imprint in his thigh.
A John with more delicate features and a considerably more filled-out shirt rose up, tie tickling over Balthazar’s face. He moved it out of the way with his teeth, which made John laugh and lean back down. The feminine version of John’s kisses were just as bruising as the masculine version’s were.
Gurgling choking sounds began to come from the corpse’s throat. The one eye Map had left rolled wildly in its socket before finally focusing on Midnite. “You come asking, have you?” creaked out of its smashed mouth.
“I already asked, and many times. You never answered,” Midnite acidly replied. He would have said more, but he reined himself in to take a breath first. “Have you changed your mind?”
John’s breasts squeezed between them as his mouth roved away from Balthazar’s lips, their roundness rubbing at Balthazar’s nipples through the fabric of their shirts. The shirt would rasp and then the soft breasts would push over the same area in a devastating contrast of sensation. His hand played the same way lower down so Balthazar never did manage to lift his head enough to turn it the other way.
“No. And I know now that I was right. I saw rightly what the business of the grimoire was. But I will tell you.” The animated corpse labored to produce each word from wrecked lungs, torn trachea, splintered jaw. Its heaves grew more forceful and closer together in frequency. “I do it because you are not the one who will see this business to its proper end.”
“So in death you’ve become a prophet?” Midnite looked skeptical. Or jealous. Or a mix. The world was turning blurry to Balthazar.
He gripped John’s back even harder and let his head sink against the floor, breathing so fast that it seemed the air never actually moved—it went forward as quickly as it went backward. He’d managed to draw up one of his knees to John’s ribs so it could rock with John, but soon it was just sliding randomly to no rhythm, unable to keep up.
What was left of Map’s mouth twisted up in a gruesome smile. “Corso has the last of what you need. Go to him and take it, and then it will go from there. And Midnite? I look forward to showing you this side of life.”
With that, Map’s body jerked from the waist up till he was nearly sitting straight. He held the pose for a second before viciously twisting about; Midnite had to scramble back to avoid getting slapped by Map’s flailing arm. The corpse—it was nothing more than that now—fell to the ground in a graceless jumble.
At the last moment, John ducked down to swallow and Balthazar lost his hold. He watched the ceiling spin wildly, then more and more slowly till it’d settled once again into its proper position.
John came back up, cheeks slightly flushed and face just done reshaping itself. He sat back and tucked his slack shirt back into his trousers. “Told you that’d work,” he said to Midnite.
Midnite momentarily looked as if he were going to lunge at the other man. But instead he cocked his head in Balthazar’s direction. “Do you find it insulting that he’d use you to raise the dead in that manner?”
“I find this entire situation insulting.” Balthazar shrugged and reached down to fix his fly. “Curiously enough, this doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the few pleasurable moments it provides.”
“You look a little better, too,” John said, reaching down. He briefly laid the back of his hand to Balthazar’s forehead. “You’re almost normal temperature.”
Balthazar did feel better, but he could still feel the stirrings of the old cold and pain in him so he knew it’d only be temporary. He was about to say so, but the look John slanted his way said the other man already knew.
“So where’s Corso staying?” John asked Midnite.
* * *
The hotel was one Balthazar knew. It was expensive not because of its location, exotic amenities or famous clientele, but because of its discreetness.
By the time Midnite had somehow made a car complete with blank-eyed staring driver appear, Balthazar had already lost the first flush of energy. He could walk down to the car by himself, but when they arrived on the same street as the hotel was on, he knew that wasn’t going to be repeated.
He rested in one-quarter of the backseat while John and the hacked-off angel wings, wrapped up in some musty bedsheets, took up the rest of the room. Midnite sat up front with the driver, where he studied the hotel’s front.
“Corso went out for lunch, apparently brought home dinner while he was doing that, and has not been out of his room since. Physically, at least,” Midnite murmured.
“We know he’s got a shitload of power. Can we get beyond that?” John pushed impatiently at the wings, which were beginning to smell.
Balthazar let his head rest on the back of the seat. Dark shapes fluttered in the two trees that framed the hotel’s main entrance, and more perched with unnatural stillness along its roof. He doubted they were Midnite’s. “He already knows you’re coming. You’ve got no element of surprise.”
Midnite turned around with disapproving expression firmly in place. “Are you suggesting that we walk up there and knock on the door?”
John paused, eyes narrowed as he stared hard into empty space. Then he shrugged. “Hell, why not? Only first we need to stop at that drugstore there because I really, really need a smoke.”
“You actually—” Midnite started. He cut himself off and studied John for several long moments before finally nodding. “You created this situation. I trust you know how to take it apart.”
“I created…excuse me, but who was the one who was all excited about Corso’s offer? Christ, Midnite. You’re such a son of a bitch sometimes…” John pushed at the angel wings till he could look at Balthazar. “And are we dragging your heavy ass up there?”
This was better than dying. It actually was, though at moments like these, Balthazar had difficulty remembering that. He looked out the window again, staring at the lighted windows of the hotel. They were about to go up there in a stupid attempt to stave off a major catastrophe, and all practical odds said they were going to fail. But not trying would mean accepting a drastically new world when Balthazar was just getting used to this one.
He was dying anyway, he thought. Then he smiled humorlessly to himself; that sounded entirely too much like John. “Considering what happened the last time you left me in the car…”
John sighed. “Corso’s going to recognize you, too. You’re not strong enough to switch female…okay, just try not to get him too pissed off.”
“Oh, no, I always leave that to you. You’re so much better at it,” Balthazar drawled.
For a moment John looked like he was going to smack Balthazar with an angel-wing. Then he rolled his eyes. “Bastard. Let’s go.”