|Snap VIII: Verso Inscription
Author: Guede Mazaka
By the time they got to San Gabriel Archangel, the sun was rising. Balthazar knew this because he could feel the increasing warmth on his eyelids, not because he had the energy to actually look out the window.
“Okay, keep driving,” John said. He moved restlessly in the seat next to Balthazar. They’d stuffed the angel-wings into the trunk, so there was enough room for John to move all over. Sometimes he sounded like he was draped over the back of Midnite’s seat, pestering the other man to death. Then there’d be a loud, sharp thump—Midnite banging his cane against the ground—and John would slide back to press against Balthazar. “Hey. Hey. You dead yet?”
“Much to your disappointment, no…” The sunrise might be casting some warmth over the car, but it was paper-thin and ethereal, easily brushed aside by any small breeze. The rest of the world was turning colder and colder. Balthazar no longer could feel the tips of his fingers and toes, and when he pulled his hands against his stomach, it felt as if he were embracing ice.
Something much warmer and more solid passed over his face. Then John’s hand moved down to stroke across the underside of Balthazar’s chin, the length of his neck. It wasn’t a caress; John was trying to judge how strong Balthazar’s pulse was.
“You could switch him to a different body,” Midnite said. He was whispering. The presence of death apparently brought out a little respect in him, no matter who was afflicted.
“And yeah, put this off for three months at a time. I think the city would notice that many bodies vanishing into thin air.” John withdrew a few inches, though his hip still was wedged firmly against Balthazar’s. He stiffened when Balthazar leaned against him, then sighed and slid an arm around Balthazar. “Turn left.”
Midnite coughed. “There’s no road.”
“Yeah, well, I think this car can take it. Keep going straight. There should be a shack or a wrecked house somewhere around here…about the grimoire. What can it do again?” John asked.
The turn off the road was marked by a sudden jolt and many lesser bumps as the car struggled over the rough, rocky ground. It rattled Balthazar, but with surprisingly little pain or nausea. Or perhaps not so surprising, if he was so far gone that nuisances like that simply couldn’t penetrate. He had a suspicion that if he opened his eyes, the world would look grey at best, and at worst, would be nothing but a dark haze.
“John, are you going on a vision?” Midnite quietly queried.
It took a moment for John to answer. His fingers danced impatiently along Balthazar’s side. “I’m working backward,” he finally said. “It looked like I was standing there, and looking back towards the mission.”
“When did this start?” Now Midnite’s curiosity was piqued, along with some other things such as pride. Though he had no one to blame but himself for not keeping closer tabs on John, who might be a reckless idiot but who undeniably attracted genuine power.
“Right about when Corso first showed up. Balthazar said it started up because now I can switch to a woman.” Hiss of a flame put to a cigarette. The smell of the smoke was hot and prickly, and for once it was welcome because of its heat. When John noticed, he let Balthazar take a drag from it that temporarily blew warmth back into the core of Balthazar’s body. “Makes sense, because whatever else runs in my family, second sight never was one of them.”
Midnite indulged in a sardonic laugh. “If it had been, your line would’ve been more lucky.”
John irritably shifted around, muttering beneath his breath. He cursed once when they hit a particularly big rock. “Very funny. But you know, I’m thinking that just enabled me to have second sight. It wasn’t the real cause. It’s like with…making a ghost. Violent deaths can lead to one, but not all violent deaths do. Just some, because there’s special circumstances.”
“So you think the gender-changing allowed you to be affected in such a way that you gained visions, but the actual cause was—”
“This goddamn book. For whatever reason.” A long, smoky stream of air passed Balthazar’s face as John slouched back, putting their heads almost level. “Now, what that reason is, I’m not really sure yet.”
The silence from Midnite’s corner was thoughtful. Once or twice he drew a breath as if to speak, but then refrained from actually doing so—still collecting his thoughts, apparently. The car slowly bounced and rocked to a stop; Midnite turned off the engine and, judging by the creaking of his seat, turned around.
“That’s the place,” John said. The sound of his voice said he was looking away from Balthazar, out the window.
“Solomon’s grimoire is not in and of itself evil or good, but the amount of power it holds makes it dangerous to either side.” Midnite drew a breath, then continued in a deliberate manner. “It is said the book can lend you the magic to do anything you want—to be, in effect, God. But it is also said that there is always a dark consequence if you rely on the book’s spells.”
John snorted. “That’s not answering my fucking question, you know. And the selection should be a little limited now, shouldn’t it? Corso accidentally crisped a big chunk of it back there.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps that section was made up of the false spells, the ones charlatans have had added in over the centuries,” Midnite suggested. That idea clearly was his favored theory.
“Fakes couldn’t have killed Corso the way they did. But we’ll see what happens here…hey…Balthazar? What are you—Balthazar?”
Despite pressing as closely as he could to John, Balthazar now was so cold all over that he only had the barest feeling of sensation left. John’s fingers poking at his side felt like large sticks thickly wrapped in something soft, like cotton. The inside of his mouth tasted stale and the inside of his skull ached dully, as if the pressure in it were slowly increasing. He tried to move around and find a more comfortable position, but his limbs didn’t want to obey him. Instead they seemed to twist and flow, his muscles knotting up tight in some places and feeling like water in others.
“…shit. He changed. He changed and I don’t think he was even trying—” John was saying.
“No, he reverted. We did put him in a woman’s body.” Midnite opened the door and walked around, his footsteps still clearly audible with all the pebbles he kicked about. He opened the door on John’s side. “Are you leaving him in the car?”
That registered. Balthazar summoned up what energy he had left and wrapped his fingers in John’s shirt, because he was not dying alone. The last time he’d been left in a condition this awful, Gabriel had come along—if he was going to die, then John had better be there. It’d be more soothing to Balthazar’s pride if he could have done it fighting, or at least knowing that something he’d set up would still take out his enemies after his death, but wishes…
“Nah. He’d bitch,” John said. He leaned over and slid his arms under Balthazar, then lifted him up and awkwardly eased them out of the car. “Goddamn it, he’s heavy. Couldn’t you have stopped closer?”
“Not if you want this done without interruptions. Wait a moment. I have a pick and a few crowbars in the trunk,” Midnite replied.
John laughed a little and leaned against the car. He laughed again, but without any humor. “It’s not quite like old times, but it’s still a nostalgia trip, isn’t it?”
“Except for him.” The trunk’s hinges screeched softly as Midnite opened it.
“Yeah, well, good. He’s a good reminder that you can’t ever go back. Not really.” After spitting something at the ground—his cigarette butt, probably—John shoved the car door shut with his hip. “So let’s do this instead, and hope like hell it’s not as bad for us as it was for that angel.”
* * *
Balthazar passed out briefly. When he came to again, they were in the decrepit remains of a one-room building. Only the skeleton and a few loose boards, which creaked with every cold breeze, were left. The sky in the direction that Balthazar was facing was still dark, but the length of the shadow he threw across the floor told him that sunrise was well-advanced.
His eyes hurt, as if someone had rubbed the back of them with sandpaper, but he could still see fairly well. It was too dim to know whether the dull colors of the world were because of the lighting or because of his failing flesh.
Suddenly the sound of breaking wood crackled in the air; Balthazar heaved himself around to see John and Midnite pushing aside some floorboards they’d just ripped up. A tendril of something shot out of the hole they’d made to sting John into jumping back, flipping his hand around. He shoved one side of it into his mouth and sucked at it.
“I think this is it,” Midnite unnecessarily informed them. Even if they’d been the most un-attuned people in the world and had missed the wave of power that had washed over the area, they would have noticed the sudden stiff breeze that howled about them. Midnite lifted his head into it, cocked to the side as if he were listening.
It did sound like whispers, but Balthazar doubted they’d speak in any language Midnite or John would understand, if indeed they actually said anything coherent. The wind was annoying in a vague way, making the hairs on his skin stand up so stiffly he could feel them rubbing against his clothing. “At least…this time I get to see what all…this nonsense was about,” Balthazar muttered.
His voice sounded so weak and thready that he was surprised he’d been able to hear it, but John’s head pricked up. Then John shook himself and got down beside the hole, moving around as if he was trying to peer around a corner. “Don’t get fucking depressed on me again. If it’s one thing that really is too ridiculous for words, it’s a melancholy demon.”
“I’m not depressed, you cut-rate exorcist. I’m dying.” A beetle was crawling across the ground about a foot from Balthazar and making a beeline for his hand. It was moving at a good enough clip to put it within six inches after he’d taken two long, painful breaths.
Midnite tapped his cane lightly on the floor, head bowed to stare into the hole. He passed his hand over it a few times and the tendrils retreated. “John?”
“Hmm?” John put down one hand for support and leaned farther over the hole.
“If what we find down there makes your idea even possible—why?” Midnite asked. From the tone of his voice, they were continuing a long argument that Midnite no longer thought he had a hope of winning, but that he wanted to at least understand.
After leaning back on his heels, John stuck a cigarette in his mouth, cupped his hand around it to protect from the breeze still blowing about, and lit it. But instead of dragging on it, he took it out right away and stared at the glowing tip. “You ever wonder why I took up smoking again?”
The beetle was stopped an inch shy of Balthazar’s fingers by a near-collision with a large pebble. It stretched out its feelers and frantically tapped all over the rock before cautiously continuing on its way. When it first encountered Balthazar’s hand, it didn’t hesitate a second time, but instead crawled on without a break in stride.
“As shitty as the whole cancer episode was…now I know how it’ll go, if I end up going that way again. The worst consequence I can think of for what we’re going to do is Balthazar and I being stuck together forever, and I already know how that’ll go, too.” John tapped off the accumulated ash before sticking the cigarette back in his mouth. His eyes narrowed as he inhaled.
Balthazar pressed down on the heel of his hand, then flicked out with his fingers as hard as he could. They moved very slowly—slowly enough for the damned beetle to cling to them, but a second flick finally sent the insect flying. It skittered over the ground and came to a rest on its back, legs wildly flailing in the air.
“We could just destroy the grimoire. If it brought you here, it’s likely for that reason,” Midnite suggested.
Shaking his head, John ground out his cigarette on the floor. He stood up, took a step and then crunched the beetle beneath his shoe. His eyes flicked to meet Balthazar’s, and then a corner of his mouth quirked. “Midnite, listen. You can do whatever you want with the book afterward, but first I’m going to use it to kick some life back into Balthazar over there. Why? Hell if I really know, but I’m doing it.”
Midnite opened his mouth.
“Unless you’ve got a better idea for keeping me occupied. And I don’t mean with work. I don’t fucking get it—” John kicked hard at the ground, then sighed “—I don’t, but it works, having him around.”
Midnite closed his mouth and looked over at Balthazar. “Then you’d better hurry up.”
John came over and picked up Balthazar, then carried him to the hole. A faint smell of rich incense and roses drifted up from it, but was quickly lost in the constant fluttering of wind around here.
“Hope you didn’t take all that shit to heart,” John muttered. “Doesn’t mean I still won’t kick your ass for being a bastard.”
“Nice to know you don’t expect to be rewarded with a saint or slave.” The effort it took to say that with sarcasm and not mere wheezing left Balthazar completely limp. He rested his head on John’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
He must have blacked out again, because when he woke up, John had been jiggling him and they were in the underground room, standing before an enormous book that hung in chains from the rafters. The scent of roses and frankincense was strongest around it, and a slight glow seemed to illuminate the edges of its pages.
Midnite had taken off his coat and wrapped it around his hand. He produced a gigantic wrought-iron key and stuck it into the makeshift mitt, then extended his arm towards the lock at the center of the chains. The lock’s gears were rusty, whining and groaning as Midnite slowly forced them into motion, but finally they slid into place. The chains moved slowly, then suddenly sped up, whipping around the book so quickly that Midnite barely had time to move out of the way before the book crashed to the ground.
Its impact was forceful enough to send John scrambling for balance, his fingers digging into Balthazar. After a moment, he was steady again and he came forward to poke his foot at the front cover, which earned him a disapproving look from Midnite.
“Okay. Table of contents.” John kicked the cover over, then let the momentum continue to turn him around so he didn’t see the contents of the page. He waited several seconds before turning around. “Huh. Guess just looking at it doesn’t do much.”
“Whoever rebound this portion and inserted its new index page doesn’t seem to have had a very good grasp of Latin.” After dusting himself off, Midnite knelt beside the book and used his cane to underline words as he read. He only got a third of the way down the page before something sparked between the page and the tip of the cane, sending him leaping back. “Damn it. It’s throwing off so much magic…this will make it hard to get at the pages, let alone turn them.”
Eyebrow raised, John held his distance. He pursed his lips a few times, eyes distant with thought. Then he shrugged, muttered something about wishing he’d had one more cigarette, and stepped forward to drop Balthazar on top of the book. The world went black before Balthazar ever felt the impact.
* * *
A great wind rose and blew out all the light, leaving everything in darkness. It stripped out warmth and life in long strips that slipped past Balthazar’s outstretched fingers. A few tangled as he clutched, but then force of the gale unknotted them, or ripped them apart so they could be pulled free.
So there was nothing. And then, starting as a white corona around the edges, there was something. It trickled over the edges at first, but soon the long gleaming streams merged and began filling up the nothing. He should have feared drowning, or at least immersion in something obviously very strange, but instead he had a strange sense of…peace. He watched it rise and rise and—
--Balthazar was abruptly ripped loose and tossed. He hit something hard as streaks of color whirled around him. They suddenly tightened and cleared into a good view of the room; he was rolling on the floor and about to hit a wall.
He kicked out and stopped himself, then pushed so he rolled over to face the book again. For a moment, he thought he was the only one in the room.
“Oh, God…I hope you feel fucking better now.” John had somehow ended up across the room, smashed up against the wall. He gingerly pushed himself up and onto his feet, then raked a hand through his hair. Several clumps of dirt fell out. He kicked them away with a disgusted look before glancing at Balthazar; his eyes widened. “Shit. That worked.”
“Do I want to know what ‘that’ was? Because it certainly wasn’t what we discussed in the car,” Midnite snapped. He was triangulated to John and Balthazar and also getting up as if he’d just been bodily thrown into the wall.
Balthazar slowly got on his hands and knees, then stopped there because he’d noticed…he ran a hand over his flat chest. He’d turned male again. The air in the room was cool, but his skin was warm and pink, and he could breathe without feeling as if he’d been wrapped in cotton.
“Oh, good. You are better.” John had walked over, but had paused a little short of Balthazar to light a cigarette. He didn’t bother offering a hand as Balthazar got onto his feet. “I just had a thought—the book was throwing off all that power, and Balthazar’s problem was he didn’t have enough to sustain himself, right? So drop him on it and he’d be like a sponge.”
“You didn’t consider the possibility that I might soak up enough to destroy the two of you?” Balthazar asked. The right side of John’s coat had slid off his arm and he started to pull it up, then thought the better of it. Instead he pulled the rest of it off, wadded it up and tossed it to John. He was warm enough to not need it anymore.
For some reason, John snickered and only gave his coat a good shake before putting it on instead of striking back. “I pulled you off when the light show got too bright—got tossed into a wall for it, so you’d better be grateful. And anyway, you’re probably more likely to explode, since you’ve still got some demonic traits. It belonged to a holy man, after all.”
“That shouldn’t have worked,” Midnite muttered. He was staring disbelievingly at the grimoire.
But it apparently had, and incredibly well. Before Balthazar had always felt a kind of unease, as if his skin was straining at the seams, even when he had been well, but now that was gone. He stepped back and concentrated…
John slanted an ironic look at him. “Didn’t take away that, though. Better turn around; Midnite’s kind of touchy about girls going around without bras.”
“That never seems to stop you,” Balthazar snapped, but he did switch back. So he still had that…that ability, but it felt slightly different than before. More comfortable, relatively speaking. More…he was stuck more firmly as a mortal, he realized. That was what the magic had done: completely merged the demon and the human being so the two were now inseparable.
He had no way back. He was committed now.
“I still wonder what was the deal with the…” John’s voice trailed off as he turned around. He suddenly threw up his arm and stumbled backwards, waving his cigarette around with his other hand.
He was blocking Balthazar’s view of the grimoire, so Balthazar couldn’t see exactly what was going on, but the light was bright enough to leak around John in plentiful quantities. Its intensity and color greatly resembled the light that had accompanied Corso’s untimely end.
“Shit,” John hissed.
“We have to leave!” Midnite shouted.
That was clear enough to see, but the book was still directly beneath the trapdoor. Fortunately, it was a small room—all of them were standing half-stooped—so once they got to the hole in the floor, they’d be able to jump up without any problem, but getting there was going to be difficult. And getting there had to be done soon, if the sudden rumbling in the earth beneath them was any clue.
Hand over his face and eyes directed at the floor as much as possible, Balthazar pushed past John. He put out his foot and swung it about till it hit something: John’s foot. John snarled something and shoved Balthazar over a few inches, whereupon Balthazar hit the side of the book; the half he kicked bounced up and then down, which meant it was the front cover. Balthazar immediately kicked it all the way over, which cut down a good deal on the light, but which seemed to increase the shaking of the ground.
One rough jolt knocked Balthazar to one knee, but he’d barely kept himself from going down further before John was wrenching him up by the arm. That was followed up by John nearly kicking him in the face as the other man leaped for the hole and swung himself up onto the next floor.
And he called Balthazar a bastard…actually, he was right. Balthazar slid in front of Midnite and scrambled up next, clawing over the floor till he was on his feet. He heard Midnite’s cane thump behind him, and then the sound of Midnite swearing low and steady beneath his breath.
The three of them barely made it out before the last remaining wooden boards collapsed. Balthazar only heard that happen because he was too busy skidding to a stop in front of the car; his palms slammed against the steel, making it boom. The pain that surged up in them was violent but spiked quickly, dulling down in a way that pain in Balthazar’s life hadn’t in a month.
He whipped around, not to see but because he had to do that in order to open the door. But in doing so, he inadvertently saw what happened next. The wind scooped up from the ground, blowing so hard that he barely got hold of the door-handle in time, and even then, the car was rocking towards him. It continued blowing upwards, forming a huge pillar that would have been invisible if there hadn’t been sheets of paper trapped in it, whirling higher and higher till they were little more than white specks.
“No…” Surprisingly enough, it was Midnite who said it.
The wind abruptly died down—at least, on the ground. High in the sky, the wind suddenly exploded outward in all directions so the papers went flying over the horizon. Midnite took an aborted step forward, raising his cane as if about to strike someone.
John had ended up beside Balthazar, even clutching at the same door-handle, but Balthazar only noticed now because John reached out to draw Midnite back by the shoulder. The moment his hand touched Midnite, the other man whirled around. There was a brief scuffle before John wrenched the cane sideways and the two of them sprang apart, stalking like wolves.
“We should have destroyed it! Now we’ll never have the chance, and God knows who will get those pages,” Midnite snapped, whites of his eyes bright with rage. He stabbed furiously at the ground with his cane. “Those pages. Damn it, John. You broke the balance, but no one had enough power to start a real war afterward. Now they will.”
“I did not--”
Balthazar smacked his hand against the car. When both of them were looking at him, he leaned back. “Midnite, Gabriel and I broke the balance. John’s interference only shifted that in favor of humanity.”
Midnite pressed his lips together as something bumped up hard against them from the inside. But he swallowed his words down and turned aside. After a few seconds, he was able to speak more calmly. “I wanted the book destroyed and the balance restored. Now that isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime.”
“So blame Map, because I bet that’s what he was talking about. Releasing the book into the world so it could be used against whatever it needed to be, and never mind the bodycount along the way.” John didn’t look very happy either. “Fucking son of a…I hate being used. That goddamn book could’ve talked someone else into letting it out. I—if I get a vision after this, I’m going to—”
“—to what? Kill someone? How incredibly useful and relevant, Johnny,” Balthazar said. He put his face into his hand and rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose. “Can we go? I don’t know about you, but I don’t see anything attractive or helpful about standing around here.”
It looked like John’s first reaction was to hit Balthazar, and he even stepped forward. But instead his hand came around and grabbed Balthazar by the back of the neck.
On second thought, John’s reaction was to hit Balthazar: the kiss had that kind of force. It banged Balthazar’s hips and elbows against the car so instead of blocking John, Balthazar’s raised hands clutched at the flapping sides of John’s coat.
And it was short, a slap of pure heat before John jerked them apart and into the car almost in the same motion. “Nice to see you’re all the way back,” John said. “We’re going to be busy.”
“‘We’?” Balthazar looked over with raised eyebrow.
A half-smile crossed John’s face. “Yeah, we. You’re not just body-visiting now—you’re stuck. But that’s not so bad as you think, is it?” The half-smile picked up its other half, though they didn’t join up perfectly so the whole smile was a little twisted. “Come on, Midnite. Good thing we have the angel-wings, at least.”
* * *
The phone rang. And kept ringing, its shrill sound rising above the sound of their pants and groans. John grumbled into Balthazar’s neck and drove in hard and deep, as if it was Balthazar’s fault. His teeth worried at the point of Balthazar’s jaw till the spot was swollen and stinging, then messily worked his way downwards. Balthazar just ignored the phone in favor of clamping his knees tight around John and dragging his nails over John’s back till he couldn’t hear the phone anymore.
When he drifted back to the world, it was to the accompaniment of the damned phone and the damp weight of John’s body slumped on top of him. John sighed and fumbled the phone off the hook, then brought it to his ear. His prick shifted around inside of Balthazar, provoking a few twinges and a long shudder from still-recovering muscles.
“What?” John said. He rolled his eyes at whatever came next, so it was Midnite. “Right, right, okay…half an hour—fine, fine. Twenty minutes. I have to stop and pick up some things…because I’m not feeling suicidal and I want to get rid of it for good, not just make sure it stops bothering your fucking client.”
He shifted again, so Balthazar turned his head and bit at John’s hand, which was lying on the pillow. John irritably flipped his fingers free, then deliberately pushed with his hips. His cock might have been soft, but it still could exert enough pressure to make Balthazar squirm.
“Okay, see you.” The phone went back on the hook, and John looked down at Balthazar with a slightly less irritated expression. “Are you getting out of bed yet?”
“I’ve only been in it for three hours, not counting the one you spent rolling me around it. Of course not.” Balthazar moved around till he could get his feet flat on the mattress. He braced himself, then forced John out and off of him. “Whatever you’re doing for Midnite, don’t get drunk in his damned bar again after you’re done. I’m not coming down for you.”
Snickering, John turned the push into a roll completely off the bed. He started hunting around for his clothes. “You didn’t come down for me the first time. You just bitched afterward because you thought I smelled too much like Ellie’s perfume.”
The only thing handy to throw at him was a pillow, but that would have been far too immature so Balthazar instead rolled over to put his back to John. He pulled at the sheets till the sticky parts were on John’s side.
“I don’t believe it. You’re still…” John trailed off, laughing quietly to himself. His lighter clicked, and soon the smell of fresh-burnt nicotine was drifting through the room. “Like I’d have enough energy, between you and the shit the world tosses at me. And you should watch your back. She’s pissed off at you, and I don’t think she likes me enough now for that to stop her.”
“The day I need advice about a gaudy whore like her is the day I go back to licking Lucifer’s boots,” Balthazar muttered. He talked half into the mattress because his voice sounded too mollified for his tastes.
The only reply he received was John snorting again as the other man walked out of the room. That was fine with Balthazar, who was already drifting off. He’d been out all night on business and the last thing he wanted to dwell on was John’s sniping, even if the man occasionally managed to include a grain of truth in them. As long as everything functioned, he wasn’t particularly interested in rocking this boat; he’d been through enough storms to want some rest, and that was in short supply nowadays. So he slept.