Smoke and Mirrors

5

5

Infobox
Canon: Baseline
Series: Sub-Vesuvia
Canon: Baseline Series: Sub-Vesuvia

With the first light of the new dawn, another day has been crossed off. An undelayable marching of time, counting down ever so slowly towards the end. A phalanx of the bravest souls to have ever walked on Earth, against a riptide of nature’s finest aberrations, the kind not even gods nor kings would have ever imagined in their lifetime.

The first light shone, yet the skies were still shimmering in their brilliant, sparkling blackness. A humble sheep traversed through the sea of wraiths, with only an artificial sun guiding him; a lighthouse on the foot of the mountain.

Nathan Keller with his starred eyes made his way to the illustrious Kelly Connor’s private tent. He called out her name as he strode above the muddy ground, straight through the white tarp. He was just about to leave when he noticed that the interior was not illuminated, before a voice called out back to him. The tent wasn’t dark by any means; the basecamp's floodlights shone through the thin tarp. As helpful as it was, Keller could not identify a silhouette resembling a human being around the interior.

“In here.” The voice called out again, followed by the trickling of water. “Sleep well?”

It was to the right-hand corner of the tent—a partition made out of the same material as the tent. Looks makeshift, but quite turbid. Keller realized what was going on. “I didn’t.”

Connors chuckled. “Same as always… Why are you here?”

“Colonel Bacall called for us to his tent.”

A heavy trickling of water was heard, almost as if someone had spilled a full glass of water from the tableside, ensued by a slap—damp cloth being pressed against skin. “You came all the way here just to tell me that?”

“He did issue a call through the PA system just thirty minutes ago.”

“Hmm, I’m willing to admit I didn’t hear any of that.” She said, the sound of scrubbing of bristles of brushes against a solid object trailed after.

The tarp that made up the partition was not quite one hundred percent opaque nor was it set up professionally and as such, he could catch a glimpse of dark blonde hair through the gaps from time to time. A loud whirring of turbines was heard outside and just a moment later, a newly formed outside light penetrated right through the tent, casting a silhouette sitting on a bench on the partition walls.

“If I can be honest, I would rather try to catch some sleep right about now.” Keller added.

She replied with just a faint hum, without stopping the brushing. “Well, I’m kind of busy right now.” She said with a muffled voice, catenated by a spit.

“I’ll wait.”

“Alright, well, since you’re here, will you be a dear and throw my blouse and trousers over? The new ones on the table.”

Keller took the neatly-folded white blouse and navy blue trousers on the table and suspended it over the partition. Connors' tent was infinitely neater than his—not exactly clean, but neat. Boxes and suitcases arranged symmetrically near the bed, a makeshift boot rack made out of cardboard boxes by the entrance and she even brought a framed picture of her late family as a memento. Admirable… but ultimately impractical.

With the trickling of water stopped and a gentle rubbing of cloth begins, Keller started to walk towards the partition. However, a spot of white and green peeked through the gap, staring right back at him.

“Turn around, Keller.”

As per the chivalry code, Nathan complied to the lady’s command. He stood at ease, with a rigid, upright stance. The shaft of light emanating from the gaps of the tarp door was disturbed multiple times, creating a disorienting strobing effect and as such, Nathan directed his gaze towards Kelly’s whiteboard. And to say, Keller thought he couldn’t be impressed no more. The immaculate detail segmentation of intels, the unbending scope of the timeline, all mixed together into a perfect collage.

“I went into Andrew’s room three hours ago.” He said.

“Really? I thought the monastery was off-limits.” Remarked Kelly, a few subtle grunts followed.

“Not if you have a special pass.”

She paused, Nathan could almost hear her disappointment. “You ought to stop doing that.”

“Don’t see a reason to.”

A second round of an uncomfortably lengthy pause from Kelly. “Fruit from a poisonous tree?”

“We don’t abide by that law here.” He said, scoffing at her retortion.

Not long, Keller could hear footsteps from behind, with Connors emerging from his peripheral vision just seconds afterwards. She was wearing the combination of trousers and blouse he threw over earlier—an unbuttoned blouse, with a pair of muddy boots that grossly contrasted the rest of her physique.

She went over to the bed, pulled out a fresh pair of clean leather boots and sat down on the edge of the canvas. Nathan relaxed his stance, leaned on the center support pole and crossed his arms. He meticulously scanned Kelly’s blonde hair. It was letdown, wet and wavy. She definitely looked younger with that style—even though she was still very young by Authority’s standards.

She caught him staring and replied with a smirk, identifying that she had something more important in mind. “Well? What’d you find?”

Keller brought his eyes back up to meet her brilliant green. “A quill and an inkwell. Full.”

“Okay…” Her eyebrows furrowed.

“Need I remind you that he’s blind?” Goaded Keller.

Her eyebrows furrowed even narrower while she was tying her right boot. “Cryptic runes?”

“Pretty sure they’d do that with Verulus’ mixture like on Niccoli’s body.”

“Hmm. One of his… experiments, maybe?”

Keller chuckled at her guess. His sudden chuckle almost came out like a rapid cough. Zero further hints given.

She was just finishing up with her boots before bursting out. “Alright. I admit I’m stumped.”

“That makes the two of us.”

Kelly stood up and started buttoning her blouse. She stared at Nathan’s eyes for the duration of the process, all while pressing her lips tight together. He saw nothing but frustration behind that big green eyes of hers. Better not provoke her further before she does anything rash.

She walked closer to him. Blouse buttoned but not tucked in, sleeves extended but not cuffed. “So… We’re back to square one.”

“Not exactly. I want to know what Verulus has to say about himself.”

“Considering his age, I’m more concerned about feeding him.”

“Yeah, I really don’t give a shit.”

Nathan’s indifference was quite baffling. Kelly knew it was all about breaking him, as per interrogation protocols he taught her ever since they first met. Starve him, neglect him, lock him up in a cold freezer… classic psychological trick to make them talk. But doing it to an eighty year old man that can't even walk straight?

“Are you done? Wouldn’t want to keep the Colonel waiting.”

“Let me just go and grab my blazer.”

***

“Investigators Connors and Keller, Colonel, sir!” Announced Kelly on the arrival at the Colonel’s Quarters.

“Ah, investigators. Take a seat.” Colonel Bacall said, sipping on his coffee.

The Colonel’s Quarters was more of a war room than just a regular office. A mobile command center was posted right behind him, complete with communications computers and maximum protection from its steel composite armor. Still, it was topped with tarp and plastic doors—although they did line the ground with an extra layer of tarp…

Regardless, every other aspect in the room was substandard: from his plastic desk with steel supports and polymer folding chairs for Keller and Connors to sit on. But Colonel Bacall did get a leather rolling chair all to himself.

Connors took the offer and sat on the aforementioned polymer chair but Keller was still standing on her southwest—all stoic and rigid.

“With your permission, Colonel, I would like to stand.” said Keller.

The Colonel, who was just putting away his cup of coffee, turned his head on to Keller. “Suit yourself.”

Keller then relaxed his stance and crossed his arms. Connors just glanced a peek at him. Colonel Bacall reached below his desk, with the crisp sounds of rustling styrofoam and paper trailing after him.

“You recognize this, Investigators?” Colonel Bacall put forth a piece of paper, aligned to the investigators’ direction.

Kelly leaned in. The words “Office of the Commander In Chief”, “Issued to Colonel Clement Bacall”, “Formal Warning”, “Disciplinary”, “Reassignment” all popped up. She looked up to the Colonel’s face. One thing for sure: He’s pissed. “Um… looks like a warning, sir.” Connors replied, stammered.

“Exactly. A warning.” The Colonel affirmed and sipped on his coffee once more. “Now why don’t you two explain to me why I had to bother talking to the General on the phone for one full hour, just last night, and convince him to not send your asses back home?”

Connors’ heart dropped. She could also feel Keller sighing and rolling his eyes far back. “Sir, is this about Antonio Verulus’ arrest yesterday?” Asked Keller,

“You tell me, Keller. Two Americans running through a dense neighborhood of mostly senior citizens in broad daylight carrying guns? Not to mention that you two did discharge your guns indoors? No warrant, no warning, no nothing?”

“Sir, Antonio Verulus-”

“Almost killed Diego Navarro, yes, I know the story. Yet, based on what I heard from the ASF detachment on the city, I feel you had a more… quiet method on the situation.” Before Keller could conjure up a counter-argument, Colonel Bacall gestured to him to shut it. “And no, before you tell me anything else, I had to tell the General that you two shot your guns indoors, in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy neighborhood, to disarm a senior man holding a knife. A senior man holding a knife.

At this point, Keller gave up all of his attempts on reasoning with the Colonel. Connors, on the other hand, was willing to explain but at the moment she inhaled air—just before she could even get a vowel out, the Colonel gestured to her to shut it just like he did on Keller.

“You know what… I’m really not in the mood to hear any excuses. Just report your progress on this.”

“Well, sir… We suspect that Diego Navarro had a role in Aldo Niccoli’s murder.” Connors said, stammering.

“Go on.”

“Uh… We received reports that Navarro and Niccoli had a falling out a few years back that resulted in Navarro’s banishment. So, we suspect that the motive was revenge.”

“Alright." Said Colonel Bacall. "What does that have to do with Verulus killing Navarro?”

“Well, sir, Verulus believed that Navarro was possessed by a demon, based on one of the empty cages that once held a Daemonis Possetor. It… escaped a few years back.”

Colonel Bacall downed his entire cup of coffee and put the cup away. “A demon?” He asked, bewildered.

“Y-yes, sir.” Connors answered.

The Colonel wrapped his hand around his chin. “Whatever, we'll get back to that—now what happened to Sergio Andrew?”

“We believe that he was either spooked and ran away, or Navarro took him and murdered him somewhere else.” Keller said, still crossing his arms.

"Any luck finding the man, Keller?" Asked the Colonel.

"Connors put out an APB and had a team monitoring the local police department for possible arrest logs that matches his description since day one. I also went to some homeless shelters in the greater Naples area on day two, plus some churches around the Vesuvian valley. No luck on both yet."

Still wrapping his chin with his hand, Colonel Bacall said: “God, I don’t know how O’Connor puts up with your shit.” followed by a sigh.

The Colonel reached below his desk again, this time pulling out two brown envelopes, bordered with blue and red airmail stripes. “Keller, here’s Aldo Niccoli’s autopsy report.”

“Oh well, it’s been four days but I appreciate the hastiness.” He said sarcastically, taking the envelope from the Colonel.

He just gave him a narrow, disapproving look. “And as for you, Connors…” He handed out the second envelope to her. “The rest of the translations from HQ.”

Connors had a stirred up expression as she took the envelope. “Sir, I thought the HQ already sent me all of their translations?”

“Well, apparently, the ink that was used to write those letters were riddled with memetic effects…” The Colonel reclined back on his chair. “…as with Sergio Andrew’s entire room. Initial containment didn't pick it up before I sent my boys in, so now I have to deal with sixteen quarantined personnel on top of the two of you'se.”

Connors turned around to Keller, giving him a disconcerting glare. “Um… Sergio Andrew wrote and kept letters, sir?”

“Look, I don’t know. This whole demon thing is confusing enough as it is for me. It’s your job to find out why he wrote those, not mine. Dismissed.”

Connors sprang up from the polymer chair, turning around to find that Keller was already long gone, with no indication that he ever walked out. No footsteps, no rustling of plastic, no nothing. He was already outside, ripping the envelope open.

“Shouldn’t you get yourself checked or something?”

“Nope. If I’m going, I’m going.” Keller said, still ripping the envelope open, not bothering to look up.

She walked right next to him, conjointly as curious as he is. “What’s it say?”

“Multiple shallow entry wounds with irregular entry pattern, wooden splinters found inside the wound… Bruising was found behind the head and along the vertebrae, indicating that the body was forcibly pushed against a wall or floor with exuberant force. Final diagnosis indicates that the murder weapon was a sharp, wooden object.”

Connors furrowed her eyebrows. “Murder by a wooden object? Never seen something like that before.”

“People have been bashing other peoples' heads in with wooden clubs since the medieval times, Connors, it's nothing new.” Keller folded the autopsy report and inserted it inside his breast pocket. “But yeah, most murders by wooden objects are usually carried out as blunt force trauma instead of stab wounds. Shit people come up with…”

“Alright, so, we’re looking for… what, a tree branch? How hard would it be?”

“Yeah, except wood rots. And in this weather, don’t get your hopes up.” Keller gestured to show him her envelope’s contents. “What you got there?”

She wasted no time ripping open the envelope, revealing all but just one piece of paper. “It’s a blind man’s writings, so… I don’t know.”

Writing is hard. It took a lot of years to master it
Many tendons and muscles and⠀⠀⠀⠀ bones moving at once

Have to be care ful⠀ not to make mistakes

Though this vessel is well used
It was⠀⠀⠀⠀ once the body of my maker

Until I ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ emptied him

and crawled inside

it was easier than expected to bring it here

I hid its scars⠀⠀⠀ I told the monks it was blind
They welcomed it with open arms like it ⠀ was one o f them

It was important to have it here
to hel p ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀prepare for the diversion

I use his hands to write this because I will be free soon ⠀⠀⠀and I want you all to understand what is coming

I was born afloat,⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ no floating

An empty mind
no body
no soul

SO I crafted⠀⠀⠀ a soul

With my mind ⠀⠀⠀I reached out and took pieces from⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ dark places
and with these pieces I made myself a soul

And soon I will have a body
Andmy body will be all of you

As I crafted a soul
I will craft⠀⠀⠀⠀my self a body and my body will be⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ the universe

"Nothing from Nothing Comes"

Now, I am nothing
But⠀⠀⠀⠀ soon

Soon I will be everything

For I am
in the very air you breathe

“Hmm. Cryptic.” Keller commented, leaning in uncomfortably close to her cheek.

“Yeah… yeah, no, this sounds familiar…” Kelly re-read the whole page, trying to find hidden meanings behind the text. “‘Nothing from nothing Comes’… I swear to God, I heard about it before.”

“Maybe it’s from that catalogue you told me about yesterday.”

“Yeah… yeah, that might be it.” She turned to Keller. “Come on.”

***

Back inside Connors’ private tent. Atmosphere undisturbed; everything was just like how it was when they left to see Colonel Bacall, although now that the sun was up, at least they don't have to rely on artificial light.

Connors set aside Brother Andrew’s letter on the plastic table, reached into the cardboard box below and pulled out the Catalogue of the Damned. She turned the page—one sentence in mind. Keller leaned in beside her, occasionally breathing in her zone as she turned the page one by one.

“There.” She pointed to what seemed like a drawing on the top left corner of the page.

“Looks… like an empty bowl?”

“The monks called it ‘The Alchemical Brain’. Here, it says it was used to create a sentient mind—purpose unknown. These… ‘Chemists’ from the sixteenth century Scotland kept it under the Tongland Abbey, recovered by the… 'Auctoritas'? Following the seizure of Leonardo Da Vinci's work… Wait, no, Da Vinci designed the Brain and those chemists made it all the way in Scotland… Here, look.”

Connors gestured to him to direct his gaze into a particular transcript. However, he already took his mind elsewhere, choosing to read the letter transcripts in the other page of the catalogue. She wasn't aware of his lack of attention, as she, too, was fixated on the monks' report. Unbeknownst to her, Keller already speed-read through all of it long before she even had the chance to move her jaw muscles.

“The name ‘John Damian’ popped up multiple times. That empty bowl you saw earlier? Used to hold black scrying fluids, with the inscription 'Nothing from nothing comes' on the bottom of it. Yeah, yeah, he was the one behind this Brain.” Connors said.

With Keller reading at his own pace, he noticed something interesting within the letters—the one letter dated day one-hundred and fifty. “Let me see Andrew’s letter again.”

Still fixated on the catalogue’s report, she subconsciously grabbed the letter with her left hand and handed it to him on her right. He walked away from the table, raising the letter above his eyebrow level—using the natural light emanating through the open door to illuminate the letter. He found the same sentence he had given a long thought about. The same sentence written on a five-hundred year old letter, repeated on the letter written just last night. No coincidence.

He brought the paper down to his chest level and he furrowed his eyebrows. “'I am in the very air you breathe'… So, Brother Andrew is John Damian…”

“Doesn’t explain how he’s still alive all these years.” Connors commented, still hunched down on the catalogue.

“I'm not talking about the John Damian.” Keller threw the letter back on the table, just on the outskirts of Connors' peripheral vision.. “If this… A.I. took over Damian’s body like how that guy said in the letter, what’s stopping it from possessing another body? No, my question is: why would he come back to it after all these years? Did the catalogue say when the Brain was brought here?”

She accounted for the reports once more. “About… I don’t know, when did King James the Fourth rule Scotland?”

“The fifteen-hundreds…” Keller walked right next to Connors. “See, why wait five hundred years? What’s stopping him from going back to it, say, five months later?”

Keller rested his hands on the table, spread apart about two shoulders’ length, using it to support his torso. He hunched down and sighed. There was a brief pause before he articulated his words to her. “Maybe you were right.” He said, in a defeated tone.

“What do you mean?”

“In the letter, he said—Andrew said—to ‘prepare for the diversion’. What if Navarro was the diversion? If what he said about being in the air we breathe was right, then we’re probably too late. That crypt has got to be full with loose demons right about now and it’ll be just… a giant trap.”

Connors stood back straight up. “Well, as you said, we can change it. We can prepare.”

“What are we supposed to do? If what you said was right, then this is where our jobs end. If what you said was wrong, well… this could be the end of our careers.” He asked, raising his head up.

Connors turned her back and rested her posterior on the table. She crossed her arms and turned her head to him. “I'm just gonna say what you've been saying to me since I enlisted: Follow the lead."

Keller turned his head around and met her gaze. He scoffed at her petty attempt on a reversal. "Fuck off."

"Come on, we still have a job to do; who knows best about the Brain?” Asked Connors.

"Brother Giuseppe, since he wrote that catalogue." Keller sighed. “Yeah, that’s gonna be hard. The monks won’t talk to me after the, uh… Verulus thing.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Hmm.” He nodded in agreement. “I’ll probably negotiate with Verulus.”

“You sure that’s wise?”

“What other choice do I have?” Keller stood up, fixed his tie and buttoned his suit jacket. “Besides, he’s just fifty feet away from here.”

***

Brother Verulus was being held inside the Processing Tent—the same tent where they first met. The circumstances for his visit may differ now but they will meet the exact same way they first did: With Verulus' hands in chains while Keller walked free… or so he thought. He made his way inside the tent just to be greeted with two ASF personnel on high alert. He flashed them his Sierra-8 badge and they made way for him—just like last time.

Instead of meeting Verulus inside a plastic chamber, he was now being held in the back of the tent… inside a rusting steel cage. Keller recognized this cage from when he first arrived in the basecamp. Yes, it was the exact same cage used to house the K-9 dogs. And just like a neglected dog conditioned for combat, Verulus was sitting there with his head against the steel beam, face pale and mouth constantly open.

The bright royal purple of the Saint John robes he was wearing was getting increasingly dull in parallel with the time he spent in solitude. An empty overturned bowl just outside the cage, with traces of dried rice around it and over his mouth.

Keller walked into his peripheral vision, making sure to make himself as visible as he can. No signs of him noticing his presence—perhaps he was sleeping. Keller tapped on the steel beam with his nail, producing a metallic clang that was soft enough not to daze him but sure to wake him up. His mouth began to close and his body squirmed.

"They treat you well here?" Keller commented so acerbically.

Without opening his eyes, Verulus spoke. "You put a man inside a cage with a bowl of water like a dog. There is no worse humiliation than this. What do you want?"

"A trade." Keller replied.

Verulus scoffed at his remark. "What could you possibly want from me?"

"Information. You help me find Sergio Andrew and I'll get you out of there."

He scoffed once more, genuinely unimpressed by his proposition to the point he found it painfully humorous. "And what makes you think I'm even willing to help you?"

"Because Sergio Andrew is the spawn of the Brain."

At long last, Brother Verulus opened his eyes and met his glare. He looked at Keller as if he had just insulted his ancestors. A narrow, discountenanced stare… he heeded no comments to him—not so it was difficult to do so. He simply turned his head away.

"I can see you know what I'm talking about."

"What evidence do you have?" Asked Verulus, fearing that Keller might have made too good of a deduction.

"I have enough." He leaned closer against the space in between the bars. "I also have enough evidence that he might attempt to… 'Be in the very air we breathe'."

Verulus rolled his eyes back—uncondescendingly. "If what you say is true, then the best thing to do is to join the demons inside the crypt."

Keller pulled his head back out and crossed his arms. "You're planning for failure."

"I am planning for survival." Verulus tucked his lips in to moisturize them. "I believe you already know what this being is capable of."

"I do. But it's not a matter of my survival; I'm not going to sit and hide doing nothing, so help me God, if you don't find him, I'll make sure you sit still in this cage for the rest of your life."

"Why do you care so much?" He asked. "You already know the things that will happen to you. Why do you persist?"

Keller stammered. It was quite the sudden non-standard quiz coming from him. "It's my job."

There was a brief pause from Verulus where he scanned Keller's reaction before he continued on. Fascinating. It felt like a test. What was that all about?

"Fine." Verulus sighed. "The reason why we don't use radios here is because a lot of our anomalies are interfering with the signal. I assume your men could use that signal to find him. The chamber that holds the brain is just one floor above the demon cages; I can guide you there. But only the older monks are trained to communicate with the Brain. Luckily for you, I am one of them."

"Sounds dangerous. You sure you don't have any other way?"

Verulus furrowed his eyebrows. "One of the monks had painted Brother Andrew three years ago. I can give you that painting."

"Yeah, let's just stick to the radio signal." Keller straightened his tie and buttoned his suit, preparing to leave the tent. "Well, once you show me the way to the Brain, I'll have them send you back to your church."

"That's not what I wanted." Spouted Verulus.

Keller stopped in his tracks, his face muscles fastened and heart rate slowed. He turned only his head to the side, expecting a brief remark. "What do you want?"

"It's simple." Verulus leaned his forehead on the bar, giving him a side glare. "Kill Navarro."

Now he had his full attention. Keller turned his whole body around. "Can't happen."

"That is my only term." He chuckled.

Distraught, Keller crossed his arms again. "You know exorcism, don't you? Suppose you can do something with it?"

Verulus broke into a crackle. His dry, dehydrated throat made it sound like he was choking on a cherry pit. "You will be facing the full power of a demon. The demon is a parasite and Navarro is the host. Without the host, the parasite can't live. Trust me when I say this, child, killing him would be mercy, for him and the rest of us."

"All I'm hearing is that you can do it but you won't."

"I won't guarantee his safety… or yours."

Keller brushed the stubble on his chin. "I'm sure we can arrange something."

The Hellion's Conduit « Smoke and Mirrors

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