The Hellion's Conduit

5

5

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

Three days had passed since their arrival on Mount Vesuvius. Three days had passed without any significant development. Brother Niccoli’s killer was still walking as a free man, somewhere out there in the world. Brother Andrew was still missing, with zero trails to follow. Navarro’s alibi was rock solid; he had three witnesses that could testify his presence during the night of the murder. Not only witness statements—but also documented evidence. He was pictured passed out drunk on the pavement outside his residence.

She had issued an all-points bulletin on day two to every Authority personnel in the greater city of Naples, especially the ones embedded within law enforcement agencies. They had been looking out for a man with matching descriptions of one Sergio Andrew: Senile, blind, medium weight, medium height, medium built, gray hair, light skin, wearing orange robes and a blindfold in place of blacked-out glasses carrying a walking stick. All of this information and resources and still, they had not yet manage to find him.

With no other choices in sight, they’ve turned back to square one. They’ve questioned every single member of the order—monks and initiates alike. Nothing. They’ve searched every single room of the monastery, every crack in the wall, every air vent, every sewage pipe to every cup and bottle in the kitchen. Nothing. They’ve scanned the satellite imaging of the monastery, from thermographic to hyperspectral imaging, complemented with a plethora of other fancy-sounding surveillance terms in the electromagnetic spectrum—plus seismographic imaging for good measure. To their surprise, they’ve found nothing.

Three days, Connors has spent doing absolutely nothing. She spent each day waking up on a stiff, damp camping bed that reeked of mud and grime, to the freezing atmosphere of the Vesuvian morning. She then made her way into the mess hall to grab an MRE breakfast pack, a mug of coffee and a bucket of hot water before going back to her private tent and clean herself with a hot damp towel. There was a ban on social media usage in the basecamp too, so boredom quickly took hold of her. Keller, on the other hand, had found himself some business to attend to. Being a Level 4 Investigator, he was tasked to supervise the more sensitive operations the Authority had, including partaking on an in-depth tour of the monastery… for security reasons. Obviously.

Currently, Connors was still laying down on the camping bed, facing up into the heavens, with her hands padding her head. The blistering afternoon sun was shining on the basecamp—a fraction of the photons had found their way through a tiny slit on the tent’s roof, producing a light shaft that was moving along with the rotation of the Earth, shifting ever so slowly to her eyes. She bit her upper lip and blew a stream of air up into her blonde hair. There wasn’t much to do in the basecamp other than chucking pieces of rocks down the slope or playing impromptu football with the greasy ASF personnel. Hey, this place was no Four Seasons in any vein. She figured this was not a productive method of passing the time, so she got up from the bed, sat down on her desk, lit a cigarette and… started filing her nails.

She had gone through at least a pack and a half of cigarettes by now. The tent had little air ventilation and Connors had closed all doors and windows in order to insulate the tent completely, hoping not to wake up with frostbitten legs in the morning. So, it was quite unbearable to breathe in the tent after a while. She decided to cut back on the smoke and went outside, tying the doors and windows open on her way out.

She inhaled the crisp mountain air deeply, exhaling any residual cigarette smoke that she had inside her lungs. She took a peek at her wristwatch and found out it was 14:02; a whole thirty minutes since she started smoking. Connors sighed in frustration. She had always wanted to check out the monastery since she got here but her position as a recently-promoted Senior Investigator with only a Level 2 security clearance wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Not long, an ASF soldier approached her. This one was different, though—he wore the casual olive colored t-shirt and a cap. He had a gun holstered to his jungle camo combat pants. The only thing that made him stand out among the rest was the large cardboard box he had in his hands.

“Investigator Kelly Connors?” He asked.

“Yeah?”

“Your documents from HQ, ma’am.”

Oh, finally. Connors gladly accepted the box. It was quite heavy but still, sifting through a whole box of text would be a far better way to pass the time than daydreaming on the camping bed.

She gleefully rested the box on her desk before rolling up her sleeves. She organized the documents by name, alphabetically—then, she divided the stacks of paper by date, from oldest to newest. At long last, she had herself a nice row of stacked pearly white papers standing before her. However, it was not enough to satisfy her pique for perfectionism. Connors was about to handpick entries made by the one and only before she remembered that he was blind. However, that doesn't mean someone else wasn't keeping track of his behavior. From the January of 2007 to the July of 2019, she picked every single piece of paper that had Sergio Andrew's name on it.

With the smoke dissipating, Connors lit yet another cigarette. By now, the ashtray was overfilled—but of course, it was no problem for her; she’d just stack it up higher than the mountain she was standing on. As she started reading, she was greeted by bad paragraphing, mistranslations and missing passages. Jarring, disorganized, unharmonious, discordant, grating—every single adjective she can find in her vocabulary to describe her feelings in a ballistic accuracy. Later, she found out she could make out some mistranslations and missing texts with context interpolation; making out meaning from corrupted information—and she was quite successful at it.

Brother Guillermo—one of the High Priests of the Order—had kept track of details regarding the Monastery’s happenings. He also maintained an airtight dossier on the monastery's priests. In Brother Andrew's dossier, the Authority was mentioned quite a few times, with Guillermo even detailing Andrew's concern about the receding power within The Order of Saint John. He stated that Andrew tried to negotiate with the elders about reconsidering the Authority’s offer for aid. Connors expected him to say something about distant relatives or a usual hangout place in his dossier but alas, it can be said that she was disappointed.

She turned to Brother Niccoli’s journal. From the start, she can discern that he was a seasoned member of the order; often detailing about the process—or rather, the “ritual”—on how to keep the demons complacent. He had also written some light dossiers on the other Order priests—not in the extent of Guillermo's perfectionism, of course. He wrote that he was glad to have taken in Brother Andrew, guiding him to the light ever since he was still an initiate. From how he wrote Andrew’s dossier—the length of it, the word choices and him sparing no detail—Brother Niccoli saw Brother Andrew as his own blood and flesh.

But alas, Connors hadn’t found what she was looking for. She finished the rest of her cigarette and extinguished it on the towering mountain of filters and ashes. She put aside Brother Niccoli’s journal and subconsciously reached for her cigarette box, taking another stick and lighting it.

She glanced at the large stack of paper bound in a steel ring. It was titled "The Catalogue of the Damned", written by Brother Giuseppe. It detailed some of the more precarious aberrations the monks had in store a hundred feet below them. Slithering biblical snake demons, Da Vinci's damned creations, and… a medieval artificial intelligence… It would make an interesting read for toilet time, for sure but it was not the type of info Connors was scouring for.

The next name on the line was Brother Verulus. She thought of skipping his journal as she figured that he was too complacent to do any wrongdoings, based on her encounter three days ago. She almost reached for Brother Navarro’s journal before her curiosity took control of her actions. Upon reading the first page, Brother Verulus made it quite apparent that he fancied himself as an alchemist. He detailed about the dozens and maybe even hundreds of traditional herbal recipes for various ailments and anointments for the ritual. However, there was one page that stood out from the rest. The page was dated on the night Brother Niccoli was murdered. The night 4 nights ago.

I have reasons to believe that a demon has escaped [our crypt]. The one we kept in the funnel was a Possessor Demon[?]. Brother Guillermo’s inspection states that the demon had escaped at least two years ago, based on the rust in the broken lock. The fact that I am here writing this journal [says that], the demon had found its way outside the crypt—or forgive me God—the Monastery. Looking back, I suspect that the Possessor Demon[?] had empowered Brother Navarro; his hostile behavior to Brother Niccoli at the time of his banishment strengthened my claim. I shall anoint my youngest and bravest acolyte, Brother Niccoli to hunt down this abomination. However, Brother Andrew insisted on performing the ritual beforehand but I did not let him go after Navarro. I shall stop for nothing until I rid this world of Brother Navarro and his demon. If you are reading this and the rest of this journal is blank, then either I was killed or we failed. May God take away all [of our sins].

Her jaw, her heart and her stomach all dropped down to the ground—her half-burned cigarette along with them shortly thereafter. Brother Verulus played them? For someone to dodge Keller’s lie-detection ability—and getting away with it—now that’s a force to be reckoned with. Connors can feel her adrenaline coursing through her body. She needed to stay calm—and look for Keller.

She didn’t have a clue where Keller was at the time. She tried the cell route but the tall mountain had placed her phone unreachable by signals. She thought of visiting his private tent just on the other side of the basecamp but no, she chose to check her watch instead. It was 15:23, just a length’s short after lunch. Keller had this unusual habit of chainsmoking after every meal; it was in the realm of possibility that he stood still in the mess hall.

Connors wasted no time striding towards the gigantic tent in the middle of the basecamp. The low volume of ASF personnel around the entrance indicated that it was indeed an hour after lunch service—making it all the easier in finding the person.

She engaged her gaze to detect and home on any wisps of smoke. There were at least six different smokers in the hall. She strode deeper into the mud-floored tent before hearing his distinct voice. His voice, his dialects… To the right… There he was.

“Keller. We need to talk.”

He sat on the bench, previously talking to an ASF operative next to him and now sitting all silent and serene. He took a drag on his cigarette, moved it far away from his face, looked up at Connors’ eyes. “What?” He asked, exhaling the smoke.

She threw a transcript of Brother Verulus’ journal in front of him. “It was Navarro. He was possessed by a demon and killed Niccoli.”

Keller moved his gaze to the parchment. He speed read all of Verulus’ journal while Connors was explaining the chronology.

“…Look, I know this doesn’t make sense but hear me out-”

“No. No, it does make sense.” Keller interceded her. “Navarro waited two years to cover any trails leading to him and make us believe that he’s got nothing against The Order. Him sending the letters, the money… it was a good coverup.”

“Well, I was gonna connect it to how he got startled when I shook his hand but…”

“Why didn’t Verulus tell us anything about it?”

“Maybe he realized that The Authority won’t do anything to him unless we have compelling evidence against him.”

“Hmmm… that makes sense…” Keller rubbed his forehead. “Here’s the thing: Navarro’s demon could be well aware that by murdering Niccoli, The Order would call for our help. Why not just… free the rest of them that night?”

“Keller, standard Authority protocol dictates that an establishment’s inventory must be accounted for before a recontainment operation. The fact that the demon escaped two years ago and the monks found out about it four days ago? Have you read Brother Giuseppe’s catalogue? The Daemonis Possetor that escaped was just a lesser demon; we don’t know what they’re capable of.”

“You’re saying they’re deliberately calling for Authority backup? Facing a full battalion of ASF grunts?”

“It could be an ambush—they could be planning on taking out the only thing that's aware of their existence.”

"Alright, hold on, let's just say this whole… ambush thing is true—why didn't Navarro take Andrew along with Niccoli?"

She stammered, trying to conjure a fitting scenario while attempting to string up a proper sentence. "Well… maybe it didn't see Andrew as a threat? I mean, he was blind, for God's sake."

“It’s a gamble… shit." Keller sprang up from his seat. "We need to find Verulus.”

“Wait, why?”

Keller hastily put on his suit jacket. “Niccoli and Andrew failed; he’ll be taking on Navarro himself.”

“Did you hear a word I just say? We should do something with Navarro!”

He buttoned up his suit jacket and turned around to face Connors. “The way I see it, they need to break down that three-inch steel door before they can even lay a finger on us. Yes, we're trying to open it up but we can change that. We can prepare and we can be waiting for them with bombs and tanks. Now all we have is a theory—a not-so-plausible one, to be exact. For all I know, Andrew killed Niccoli and hit the road. We’re not assassins, Connors, so leave the judge, jury, executioner shit to Foxtrot-Four.”

Connors smacked her lips in frustration. “Fine, let’s get going.”

The duo darted towards the monastery, eager to see the face of the man that may or may not have led them all to hell. Due to the Monastery’s restricted area status, they were stopped by 2 sleep-deprived ASF guards at the entrance gate.

One of the guards motioned the duo to slow down and stop. “State your business.”

Keller took his Sierra-8 badge and flashed it to the guard’s face. “Sierra-8 Investigators Nathan Keller and Kelly Connors—we need to speak to Brother Verulus.”

“I’m sorry, sir but they were evacuated two hours ago.”

“What the fuck you mean evacuated?” Keller grabbed the guard by his collar. “Where?!”

“I-in our safehouse in Quartieri Spagnoli!” He replied, startled by his reaction.

“That’s Navarro’s neighborhood. Fuck.” Keller threw him back just gently. “Who’s in charge of the evacuation?”

“Sergeant… Staff Sergeant James Halberd, of the two hundred twenty fourth battalion.”

“You call him right now and tell him to lock the place down. Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. You got that?”

The guard stammered in hesitation. “Sir, I have direct orders-”

“I. Outrank. His ass.” Keller planted his index finger on the guard’s chest, pushing him backwards with just that one finger. “Now you call him right now, or there’ll be hell to pay. You understand?”

“Y-yes sir, right away.”

Keller turned his back around without saying anything. He went from a gentle walk to a sprint on the spot—Connors was compelled to follow. They ran to the entry gate where they had found their iron steed being flanked by armored carriers on both sides, rendering it to be quite difficult to enter. Keller risked trading paint with the behemoth while Connors took all the time in the world as she knew he needed time to insert the ignition key and start the car.

They went on the same black stretch of a highway as last time. However, this time, Keller was pushing the engine to its absolute limit. To say they went supersonic would be an understatement; they were going hypersonic. The speeds in which she thought were impossible to achieve in a lousy twenty-year old sedan? He had achieved in ten seconds.

“Hey, uhhh… I think we should slow down.” Cried Connors, as Keller took the car at breakneck speeds.

However, he did not heed any of her warnings, as the roar of the engine had made it through the hermetic seal of the car. It was such a rush that Connors had forgotten to put on the seatbelt. Desperate to ensure her safety, she attempted to pull the strap while the immense linear g-force pushed her hands back to her torso. She was only glad that not too many people were driving on the highway on a Sunday.

The moment they arrived in the Quarteri Spagnoli safehouse, they were greeted by a man, seemingly out-of-place against the urban Italian background. Tall, tanned, bearded and reeks of cheap beer… it’s an ASF operative alright.

Keller approached the man, head swiveling right to left. “Where are they?”

“It’s Sunday; they asked to go to the church an hour ago.” The bearded man replied.

“Without supervision?!” Keller raised his voice.

“Of course not. Come on in.”

He invited them upstairs and immediately, scenes of soldier-statured men half seas over with empty beer bottles scattered and rolling all around the floor invaded their eyes. Might be one of the reasons the monks asked to go to the church. The bearded man, who later revealed himself to be Staff Sergeant James Halberd picked up a CB radio on the coffee table and contacted the monks’ escort.

“Moralez, come in.”

An answer was heard though instantly.”Moralez copies, over.”

“Are you with the Saint John monks now? Over.”

“Yes sir, I have them all sitting on the church pew, over”

Captain Halberd looks back at Keller. With an expression that screams “I told you so.” However, just to achieve that one sliver of conformity, Connors suggested to him to make sure they’re all accounted for.

Captain Halberd sighed and turned back to the radio. “Moralez, do a headcount, over.”

“Copy that, Staff Sergeant, just a second, over.” Tension rose as they waited for the man on the other side of the radio to do his duty. Not long, a news broke through. “Sir, it seems I have one head missing, over.”

Captain Halberd looked back at Connors with dilated eyes—eyelids open so wide; almost popping out the sockets. Keller rolled his eyes back to his brain and out back again, sighing just a little too audibly.

“I’ll be talking with your superiors if we make it out all of this alive.” Keller raged.

The duo darted back outside but Keller did not take the car and started running, as he knew Navarro’s apartment was only a mere two blocks around. They made their way through the busy Italian Sunday street, constantly avoiding cars, motorcycles and generally, other humans. Connors’ pistol on her hip rattled as she ran, followed by a bystander’s scream as she bolted past the crowd. It was at this moment she realized she had not buttoned up her blazer, allowing the public to gaze at her weapon—as opposed to Keller, who had a shoulder holster. Now, it was a race to not only stopping an assassination but also the Italian Police Department; two Americans running through a busy street with one of them packing heat? Now that’s suspicious.

It was also worth mentioning that Connors had no idea where Navarro’s apartment was at that time; she was simply following Keller’s lead. She saw him entering a weathered white painted building and she blindly followed suit. Keller stopped right next to a door, his back scrubbing the ashy walls—and drew his pistol. He told Connors to be absolutely quiet but it was proven to be quite a rather difficult task as her racing heartbeat wouldn’t allow her to adjust her hyperventilation. She drew her FN57 and cocked the slide back, chambering one bullet.

The door was slightly open, with the lock in pristine condition. Navarro must’ve recognized Brother Verulus and opened the door for him. As they entered, soft sonances of Latin chants were heard from inside one of the rooms. Judging by the source, it was coming from the bedroom to the right. Keller and Connors strode onwards with their pistols forward—slowly and steadily, making sure not to make the faintest of sounds, all while clearing every corner they’ve come across. They approached the bedroom door; it was slightly open with sunlight emanating from the slit. Connors peeked inside—Brother Verulus held a dagger up high above Navarro’s restrained body—he was seen squirming, his mouth taped over; producing only soft groans. She looked back at Keller and gave him a nod… He was ready to breach in.

He kicked open the door, aimed his pistol squarely at Brother Verulus’ head. “Drop your weapon!”

Startled, Brother Verulus turned to him, stood in a defensive position with the dagger held on tight in his right hand. “You won’t stop me, investigators. God commands it.”

“Yes but human laws you’re still bound to commands you not to kill, so drop your fucking weapon.” Keller cried.

Brother Verulus grinned. “But he is of now, no longer human… It is not murder.”

Keller was conflicted. On one hand, Brother Verulus’ own words about Navarro’s humanity status compelled him to let things go in motion. On the other, there was a deficit of evidence to condemn Navarro as an actual threat; the fact that he was overpowered by a wrinkled senior citizen further alleviated his suspicion. Brother Verulus turned back to Navarro, two hands gripping the dagger held up high, one last Latin scripture uttered. Keller’s aim was getting lower and lower by the second, with his thoughts along with it.

A deafening, thundering gunshot echoed across the hallways. One quick flash of orange fire. A smoking bullet casing ejected, descending into the Earth… Connors’ aim was true. She grazed Brother Verulus’ arm just enough to make him shriek in pain and drop his dagger. He didn’t lose his footing… but the same cannot be said for his blood. She holstered her pistol and took a pair of cold steel handcuffs from her trouser pocket. A metallic zip, tightened more so on the arm that was wounded, imitating a makeshift tourniquet.

Keller was finally back to the land of the living, regaining complete awareness of his surroundings. He took Brother Verulus by the arms and escorted him out of the room; the rest of the ASF stationed in the safehouse should be waiting just outside.

“Do you know what you have done?! You’ve brought hell upon us all!” Cried Verulus, still shrieking in pain… Still leaking blood.

Connors took Verulus’ dagger from the floor. She inspected every inch of it: Made of pure silver, symbolic engravings and fixtures with Latin scriptures, just like the cross necklace Verulus had given her a few days ago. She then conjured up a dubious idea. She stared at Navarro, still remaining helpless on the bed, mouth taped. She then… just stared… She could not bring herself to carry on. Navarro stared at Connors with puppy eyes—His pupils dilated, tears almost flowing a-river true.

She stared down at the dagger once more, before the sirens of Italian police cars derailed her train of thought. “You stay here.” Connors uttered to Navarro. “You’re evidence.”

***

Rustling plastic, light footsteps on dry dirt. Dim lighting in a horrifyingly cold atmosphere. Olive-draped tents in the black shadows against the midnight blue background with yellow stars, not so much akin to van Gogh’s most famous impressionist piece.

Connors walked up to Keller sitting down just outside the Processing Tent—his head hunched down. She could smell the stench around him and no, it wasn’t because of the sulphur emanating from the Monastery’s crypt—no, it wasn’t. His soiled suit jacket, his crusty hair, his mudded face… He had not visited the showers, alright.

He also had a cigarette with a long ashen protrusion on its end. He had his silver plated lighter on his southpaw, seemingly fiddling with it by shuffling it about his fingers. His lips are dry—sufficiently dry that cracks had appeared like an unattended farm on a summer drought.

“What’d he say?” Keller asked, without looking up or even moving a muscle.

She inhaled the rather polluted air… “He didn't.” …and exhaled.

"That's to be expected." He sat there, swiveling his head softly pendulum-like. “I want him chained there ‘till morning; no food, no water, no nothing. You got that?”

“Yeah, sure.” She replied, voice holding back frustration in the slightest.

"Same with Navarro but, ah… make sure he's got at least two guards posted to him."

"Of course… of course."

Still in the philosopher's brooding pose, he suggested. “They’re opening the crypt first thing in the morning tomorrow; you should get some sleep.”

“Right, right, until tomorrow, Keller.”

Connors turned her back on him and started retreating towards her private tent. As she walked away, she heard him taking a deep, sharp breath, before yelping her name. She did a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn and saw his big blue eyes staring at her soul.

“You did good back there. I, uh… I appreciate that.”

And she… smiled. As simple as that. That was one of the rarer times when Keller had wholeheartedly complimented her. An event not to gloss over to. She gave him an appreciating nod before continuing her retreat. Yeah… she did good today, didn't she?

At Road's End « The Hellion's Conduit

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