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Dr Archeville

[Time Warp] Dem Bones (Nick Cimitiere)

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Paris, France, 1810

Eric LaCroix sat at the café in Montmartre, watching the dead man walk around aimlessly in the nearby square, trying to figure out a way home. The splendor of 19th century Paris was starting to wane – he was running out of money, the translation charm would only work until the end of the week, and he was starting to truly miss both his family and his city. There was also that feeling of a subtle absence, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on even as it worked his last nerve.

It had started two nights ago. He’d been doing his usual rounds in the Lantern Hill Cemetery when the fog began to creep in. This wasn’t so unusual, but as it began to creep in around him, he realized that the sounds of the city – traffic, airplanes, the low hum of electricity – were slipping away. When he barged out of the fog, he found himself interrupting two grave robbers attempting to break into a man’s crypt. Their French babblings before they fled in fright, coupled with the numbers on the stones around him, told Eric he’d left Freedom City behind by several thousand miles and a few centuries.

After gaining his bearings, he worked on making himself comfortable. Fortunately, he’d brought along a bag of offerings for whatever new ghosts had come to the cemetery, and it had made the journey with him. He tracked down an artist’s ghost – it was surprised to see him and, by some lucky coincidence, happened to exclaim its surprise in English – and, with an offering of cognac and cigars, got it to agree to lend him his tongue for a week.

The next thing he needed was money. Fortunately, he’d brought along some hell bank notes in case he ran into any Chinese ghosts. After setting himself safely behind a crypt, he detached his consciousness and made the journey to Diyu, the Chinese realm of the dead. After a bit of harrowing negotiation, he was able to exchange the notes for jade. Once that was done, and the jade made its way back to his physical form, he paid a visit to a pawnbroker. He’d likely gotten a little screwed in the exchange, but he did have francs enough to last him for a few days. The first thing he did was buy somewhat more appropriate clothes; after convincing a clothier that his leather jacket and jeans were “a passing craze in Nice,” he found a dark shirt and pants that would suit an artist for the period. He stored the rest of his costume in its regular closet in Hades’s palace, and found lodgings.

But after a few days seeing the sites of old Paris, Eric was beginning to grow concerned. This was his first real experience with time travel, and he wasn’t sure any amount of book reading would prepare him. He’d left a few messages carved in the Louvre just in case Doctor Tomorrow ever visited it, but he had no way of knowing whether that would ever be the case. He tried to put it out of his mind, relaxing in coffee, the company of artists, and the sights of Montmartre and the Student Quarter, but that subtle lack of… something kept playing at the back of his mind. He only realized what it was when he picked up a discarded paper and flipped through.

But before he could act on it, the woman in the red gown sat at his table. She was ravishing, her hair the color of chestnuts and her eyes a shade of ice. She looked like she belonged somewhere else, somewhere timeless. And the first words out of her mouth were, “You’re still mortal. I can sense it. Move and I will perforate your kidneys.”

Needless to say, this left Eric speechless for a few seconds. Once he recovered, he looked her right in the eyes, not trying to betray anything. “Aren’t you going to ask me my name first?”

“I find it doesn’t do well to ask men their histories before I kill them.” She tossed a token on the table, carved with a sigil that Eric could have sworn was Enochian. “Take that in your right hand. Slowly.”

Eric did as he was asked. Once he did, the woman lifted her left hand to reveal a similar token in her palm. The right hand remained under the table the entire time. “Are you a necromancer?” she asked.

“Guilty.”

“Are you the one who broke the consecration below?”

“If I had any idea what you were talking about, the answer would probably still be ‘no.’”

“What are you doing in Paris?”

“…visiting.”

“Are you undergoing a working with any other necromancers in Paris?”

“No.”

“Are you a binder of the dead?”

“I like to think of myself as a liberator.”

The woman frowned, then looked at her charm. “You’re telling the truth,” she said. Her right hand rose above the table, empty. “My apologies. I had to make sure. Bad experience in Venice.”

“Oh.” There was a pause. “So, mind telling me what the hell is going on?”

“That depends. Do you wish to help?”

“It’s… kind of what I do.” Eric looked her right in the eyes. “When a woman threatens to shoot me, I think it’s only fair she tell me her name.”

“I suppose it is. Madeleine Devereaux, Master of the French Rite.”

“A Rosicrucian, huh.” He extended his hand. “Nick Cimitiere.”

“That cannot possibly be your name.”

“It’s something of a trade name. Somehow I doubt Madeleine is the one you were born with.” He leaned back in his chair. “So. Why aren’t people dying?”

“You can sense it, then.”

“Well, not at first. Took a while to puzzle it out.” He pointed to the ghost at the end of the café. “That ghost’s one of only a few wanderers I’ve seen lately. Usually you have a few ghosts who stick around on this firmament, but when you’ve got so few, either the psychopomps are working over time… or they’re not working at all. Then I picked up the newspaper. No obituaries, at least none for deaths within the past day. Death has… ceased to exist as an ambient force in Paris. What’s going on?”

“We believe someone has bound the Ankou.”

“…well, that would do it. Wait, who’s ‘we’?”

---

“Father Vincenzo Calivieri. I take it you are our necromancer.”

Eric extended his hand to the priest. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, dressed in all-purpose travelling clothes. The thick leather bag at his side let up a light clanging as he shook it, as if it was filled with instruments – or weapons. Margaret had brought him to a hotel in the shadow of Notre Dame de Paris. Father Calivieri’s room was modestly decorated, and his vestments were laid out on the bed – next to a breastplate and a thick longcoat.

“That depends which necromancer you’re talking about. If you’re still looking for a culprit, I’m not it. I may traffic with spirits, seek the aid of entities unknown, command truth from shadow, but -- ”

“You don’t need to defend yourself to me, child,” said Father Calivieri. “I am not the Inquisition.”

“You’re a bad liar, Calivieri,” said Madeleine.

“All right, then I am the Inquisition. But I am a Jesuit, also. I know how to judge wisdom from falsehood. I know that your talents do not cast you with the infernalists by nature.” He raised an eyebrow. “By practice, however…”

“Like I told Ms. Devereaux, I’m a liberator, not a binder. Think we could get into the real business? Like what kind of thing could’ve bound the Ankou?”

“What do you know of the Ankou?”

“Figure of French folklore,” Eric said. “It’s said the last man to die each year becomes the Ankou for the next, serving as the Grim Reaper’s second in command. In truth, the Ankou’s more of a… freelancer. He helps deal with the matters other psychopomps won’t. He’s also somewhat territorial; France is his claim, and he lets other psychopomps in on his permission. No idea how he wrangled that.” He turned to Madeleine. “So what do you know about the Ankou? Most importantly, how did you know he got kidnapped?”

“We didn’t,” Madeleine said. “Father Calivieri contacted my circle after this grisly business.” She threw a sketchbook on the desk. Eric picked it up and flipped through the pages. The drawings within were heavily shadowed, almost done in chiaroscuro. The dashes of red made them stand out, however. The sketches depicted three corpses, stripped naked, lying on the floor of a darkened chamber. White frescos jutted out from the walls – at least, he thought they were frescos at first, until he took a second look…

“Skulls,” he said. “‘The consecration down below.’ You mean the Catacombs.”

“Exactly,” said Father Calivieri. “These poor souls were offered up as a sacrifice to some dark master in the ossuary beneath the streets. Their blood and… other fluids were daubed on the walls. The Catacombs had been consecrated at their creation, but… the sheer offense that took place here… the place was defiled.”

Eric flipped to another sketch, showing one of the victims in detail. A cluster of symbols had been carved on his chest with exacting precision. “Is that… Enochian?”

“Indeed it is,” Madeleine said. “A magic square without the square. With Enochian, it is often used to initiate contact with angels – or things that were once angels – and open the Forty-Eight Gates of Understanding.”

“I’ve gotta admit, I only know enough Enochian to say ‘Where is the bathroom?’ and ‘Please don’t eat my soul.’ What does this one say?”

“‘Open the Gate of Death.’” She picked up the sketch pad. “Dee said there were 49 Gates, but only 48 were meant to be open. These mad bastards, however, have broken through the 49th in order to make war against God.”

“All right. We got any idea who they are?”

“A rather good one.” Father Calivieri approached Eric. “Tell me, Mister… Cimitiere, what do you know of the Hellfire Club?”

Eric paused, boggled for a second. “You mean Francis Dashwood’s frat house?” he said. “The Shriners with orgies? They drank, had lots of sex, and occasionally did rites to the Roman gods and parodies of Mass. They were blasphemous, yeah, but they weren’t any more infernal than a John Waters movie…” He paused when he noticed the look of confusion on the faces of Madeleine and Father Calivieri at the last comment. “…and I’m speaking nonsense now, aren’t I?”

“And yet, truth. Dashwood’s Hellfire Club was blasphemous and degrading to the virtue of its members, yes, but by no means dedicated to the works of Hell. After Dashwood’s decline, however, more… rogue elements within the club began to appear. The invocation of the Roman gods seemed to stir some magical talent within the club’s membership, and they began to take on a number of arts.”

“Invocation of entities above and below, alchemy… even necromancy, on occasion,” said Madeleine. “In their minds, the Hellfire Club became about more than throwing aside Christianity and the trappings of the modern order. It was about overthrowing God, and going back to a primal time, when the fires of creation burned hot. If Eden was barred to them, and their souls stained by contact with the realms below, they would smash through the gates of Heaven and claim the throne of paradise.”

“So, infernalists with giant egos,” Eric said. “I can’t tell you how annoying those are.”

“For all their high ideals and unworldly plans, however, this faction – taking to calling themselves ‘the Torchbearers’ – was anything but subtle. They were quickly routed from the club, and soon after, England. They’ve gone to ground ever since, only to show their face now.”

“But why?” Eric asked. “Why do all this? Bind the Ankou, break the consecration -- wait. They’ve got a god of death bound. All that necrotic energy… stuffed in the Catacombs itself…” He blanched. “They’re going to turn it into a weapon, aren’t they?”

“An immortal weapon,” Father Calivieri said. “The Catacombs shall act as the rifling on a large barrel, and the Ankou’s power as a shell. We have no idea where it is being pointed, however.” The priest went over to his bed, set the bag down, and pulled on the vestments. “What we do know, however, is that there is… an unclean sense, emerging from the Catacombs. Whatever they’re doing, they’re preparing for it soon. We must act with haste. I don’t suppose you will come with us?”

Eric shrugged. “I’m all for keeping mad cultists from using the dead as a weapon,” he said. “Besides, walking the Champs-Elysees was starting to get boring. Just… mind if I get dressed?”

---

The sun was setting when they arrived at the Catacombs. Nick Cimitiere had changed into his jacket, but gone without face paint – it would have been a bit much to explain to the Parisians who saw him, and he didn’t really need to risk his identity two centuries in the past.As long as nothing I’m fighting has that long a memory…

Approaching the Catacombs was like approaching a wildfire. Getting close, Nick could feel a sickening drumbeat going through his head. The priest had been right; the Catacombs had been knitted into one whole entity through a working, and it was palpitating with necrotic energy. “We need a ward,” Nick said. “Whatever in there’s likely got some security set up. We hit a trip wire, we could get killed before we blink.”

“Agreed.” Madeleine and Father Calivieri pulled out their instruments – a small board in the shape of a magic square for Madeliene, and an aspergilium filled with holy water for the priest. Madeleine chanted under her breath in Enochian as she arranged letters on the board, the air around her taking on a solid form. Father Calivieri anointed the trio with holy water, chanting in Latin. Nick merely focused on his jacket – soaked in the waters of the Styx – and the energy bound up within. He could feel something of it enter himself and well up right under his heart. “All right. Let’s go make some friends.”

Father Calivieri pulled out a torch and lit in. Madeleine did the same. The second they crossed the threshold, Nick got a better sense of the power running through the tunnels. It was coiled up, like a rattlesnake waiting for a meal to come along. The torchlight seemed dim, seemingly overwhelmed by the darkness of the tunnels. Skulls stared out from along the walls, casting silent gazes on the trio. Nick had a good feeling he was being watched… and that was probably the case.

“We really should’ve taken the skulls into account,” Nick whispered. “They’ve probably got someone moderating the feeds. I have a new plan - run.”

“I like this plan,” said Madeleine. “Father?”

“Same here,” he said. “Let’s blitz the bastards.”

“I thought holy men weren’t supposed to swear.”

“Would you prefer I call them something sweet?”

“I think I like you, Father.” Nick charged forward, Madeleine and Father Calivieri keeping close behind him. A second later, the traps started going off. Bolts of focused entropy surged out of from skulls mounted on the walls, and the bones themselves began tearing their way out of the earth, forming reaching hands. Nick merely halted the flow of energy powering the constructs, while Father Calivieri took a sword lined with silver to the unholy things and Madeleine hurled bolts of scarlet flame at the fierce skulls. As the onslaught continued, Nick opened his senses to the power coming down on them.

“Turn right!” he said as they approached an intersection, pursued by a giant mass of bone fashioning itself as a skeletal serpent.

“You’re sure?” asked Madeleine.

“I’ve got it traced!” Nick said. “The longer they keep it open -- ”

As soon as he said that, the bony construct collapsed into its corresponding components.

“ – the easier it can be traced.” He smiled. “Looks like they heard me. Shame; they coulda kept it open long enough for me to say I traced it all the way back.”

“You know where they are?” said Father Calivieri.

“Yup. Follow me.”

Their flight through the Catacombs went mostly undisturbed. At least, until they got down into the depths. The trio ran right into four men clad in red robes garnished in Enochian, bearing iron swords and flintlocks.

“They’re here!” shouted one of them. “They’re -- ” His words turned to screams as Madeleine fired first, shooting him right in the arm. His sword fell to the ground, and chaos ensued. Father Calivieri repelled their magics with unnatural grace, Nick tore through their defenses with spectral talons, and Madeleine kept their screams limited by dampening the very air around them. When it was all said and done, the four cultists lay on the ground. One of them reached for a vial tied around his neck, but Madeleine kicked it away before he could bring it to his lips. It shattered and sizzled against the far wall.

“Aqua regia,” she said, recognizing the scent. “They had suicide orders.”

“What do you expect for a force so infernal,” Father Calivieri said. “A torturous death would add more potency to the greater working. There’s no sin that’s too great for these people.”

Down the sloping hall lay a sizeable antechamber, with bones reaching up as arches to the ceiling. Eight cultists stood on guard as a man stood over a bound figure, chanting to the bones. Nick got a closer look at the figure, clad in a long black coat with a wide-brimmed hat to cover his features.

“The Ankou,” he said. “Whatever they’re doing, they’re going to do it soon. Time to strike.”

“Agreed,” said Madeleine. She pulled a small paper tube out of her pocket – a firework. She lit the short fuse, and the firework quickly split the night. It erupted with an unnatural bang, and sent fire cascading down to the floor. The cultists burst into action, some trying to put out their flaming robes. Spells echoed through the chamber on both sides as the chanting of the head cultist reached a fevered pitch. It had somehow shifted from Enochian to Latin, and while Nick didn’t speak it fluently, he recognized enough to pick out “Purgatory” and “Hell.”

Are they trying to smash their way into Purgatory? he thought. Well, if they want to make war on Heaven, it’d be one hell of a staging ground. He could feel the air around him getting thicker, and heard an unnatural screech in the back of his head. The working was about to begin. Okay… this is all one big gun. The Catacombs is the barrel, the Ankou is the gunpowder, and the death energy is the bullet.

That was when Nick noticed the rod in the cantor’s hand, pointed at the Ankou. The chanter twisted it in his hand, and the Ankou writhed. No, wait… the Ankou’s not the gunpowder. He’s the trigger. And the hand. Let’s see what I can do about that…

It was hard to focus on the Ankou’s bonds over the general storm of necromantic energy building to a fever pitch. But once he found them, Nick realized they were strong but clumsy. He focused on the bonds, using his necromantic control like a scalpel. The bonds slacked, and eventually gave. The storm cut off like someone had flipped a switch, and the Ankou stood up.

The silence of the grave fell over the crypt, as the cultists still standing blanched. The Ankou waved his hand… and they fell, utterly pale. He tipped his hat to Nick, then walked into the shadows, vanishing.

“Well, that was… anticlimactic,” said Madeleine.

“Hey, the Ankou’s a middleman,” said Nick. “You can rely on him for efficiency, not pomp.”

“Either way,” said the priest. “He’s free now. And… Mister Cimitiere, are you all right?”

Nick didn’t feel weird… but he slowly became aware that the shadows around him were lengthening. As he heard Madeleine shout something he could barely hear, the floor gave way beneath him… and he fell onto firm soil. Once his eyes adjusted to the shift in light, he found himself back in Lantern Hill Cemetery. He brushed off the soil, then got to his feet.

“So, what was that?” he said to the empty air. “Just coincidence? Me ending up in the right place, at the right time, dealing with the right threat? You really expect me to believe that was just chance?”

Nothing answered. Not that he expected it to. As he trudged off back home, he muttered to himself, “One day, I’m going to figure out why the hell I’ve got all this…”

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