“One month, to check the Registry. One month, same as I have charged for the last five hundred years,” said Lueur, with a frown. “But since I refuse to take any more life from my sadly depleted godson, you’re shit out of luck, cowboy.”
To this day, Jean, it is still weird, sharing control of your body with someone else. It takes practice. After a childhood filled with skinned knees and broken glasses, I have learned to hang back after the second turn of the coin. But after about four of Laurent’s death brews, some of the normal filters were off. I spoke without thinking, right as Jesse was about to say something as well. Or tried to.
“IiaIgrabadorwnch Lainfutimnn,” we managed. An, who had apparently just woken back up, began to giggle.
“If you say his name three times in front of a mirror, Oct, the Lame Footman, Ilya Grabdoorovich, is forced to fill your glass for eternity,” she said, raising her bottle in salute.
Lueur emitted a sort of sharp bark that is his equivalent of a laugh, especially when he finds something stupid. It was a sound that had haunted my summers growing up, until I started staying at school year round. A jackal’s laugh. Even thinking about it now, I cringe.
If Jesse was fazed by the laugh, I couldn’t sense it. I wondered if he had ever heard it before. He had always avoided Lueur, stayed pretty much out of my head every time we used to visit him at the Stella Rubea, Lueur’s ranch in Huntsville, near the state prison. Who knows how many years Laurent banked there, administering the last rites to the Death Row inmates?
Yeah, Jean, you might be right. He could have been afraid. Afraid that Lueur would suss him out as a practitioner, as someone who could possibly wrest control of the Obol from me. Or maybe he just hates the guy, like An.
“You first, Oct,” said Jesse internally.
“This is Octavian, Laurent. I don’t mind the month. It’s not like I don’t owe him the time, anyways,” I said.
I probably should have known that this would trigger Laurent to give me ‘The Speech’. But as I said, we were all a little drunk at that point.
“Just tell me one thing, Octavian. One thing. Why? I know you relish the richness of life. I taught you to appreciate fine food, fine art, fine company,” he said, with a nod at An, “So why, exactly? Why do you choose to die, when you could easily live forever?”
By fine food, he meant beer and cheese, basically. But there was no point in correcting him. He was going to run through the whole spiel regardless of what I said or didn’t say at this point.
“That coin, it feeds on your essence, like they all do. Like Ms. Jones’ little stick does too for that matter,” he said, gesturing at An.
Yes I know, my friend, it wasn’t exactly news. The stronger the artifact, the shorter the life. Dad didn’t even make fifty, and Lueur had him so inked by the end of it he looked he could have crewed with Blackbeard. Unless you have a death wish, no one keeps more than one of these puppies for any length of time. Or unless you can tap some other source of vitality. Lueur has at least three that I knew about, probably more. He does love life, he must to have made it this long. But he loves power also, I think. And the only path to that power is having more life to burn.
“Forget about Enigma. Stay here, with me, in the desert. I will lend you the time until we figure out the rituals to tame that thing once and for all. Don’t make the same mistake as Julian. Or Octavia, your namesake,” he said.
First I ever heard of Octavia. But it was not the time to ask for details.
I wondered, as I had many times, if any of my ancestors had ever taken him up on it? Had started eating ghosts, instead of channeling them? I asked Lueur once and he just shook his head and looked away. It was tempting in some ways, I suppose. Who doesn’t want to live forever? But the price, eating people, well. I hope none of them ever fell that far.
The most cynical part of me, perhaps unfairly, wondered if Lueur simply wanted access to a new source of life span. The supply of spirits was likely unlimited. Comparing it to Lueur’s stealing dribs and drabs was like comparing a wood fireplace to a fusion reactor.
But it was unfair, really. If he just wanted it, he could have taken it from me, or any of my ancestors, pretty much at any time. But he never did. He is not one to break the rules, especially of his own moral code.
“I will think it over again, Laurent. I promise. But first I must help Enigma figure out this current mess. It is the least that I owe them,” I said.
“Exactly what your great grandfather, Ambrosius, said to me. Right before Berlin,” said Laurent.
Yeah, in the War, where he died. Him and those two Navajo skin-walkers, fighting Ernst Schertel’s crew, the Leuchte.
“Berlin is exactly why Oct needs to help. If it hadn’t been for Ambrosius and Nawat and the others, we would all probably be living in Fimbulwinter right now. We know they have a plan, that people are disappearing. What if the Labyrinth is after something similar?” said An.
I nodded. It was easy to forget the point, sometimes, the purpose of our little club, my friend.
Lueur opened his mouth to respond, then quickly shut it. Then he smiled at An, and shook his head.
“Almost, girl. Almost! But as I said, I have not broken my word,”
“For close to a thousand years!” we all said in chorus.
“Fine, Octavian. It is, as you always say, your life to waste. How about I make you this deal? Help your friends. Find out what is happening. At the end of it, spend a month here, with me, working out the ritual to tame the Obol in earnest. What you do with it after that, I leave entirely to you, my boy,” he said.
A full month. I wasn’t sure I could take a full month of Laurent. Well I guess I could just stay bombed on free beer the whole time.
“Work for you, Jesse? I’ll still have to charge you the time,” I said internally.
“I could trade him, Oct. Show him a part of the Uktena’s vision. But you would have to give me full control. I don’t want you to have to see what I draw for him,” he said, “I would unsee it if I could.”
“He will get sick of me in a week, max, Jesse. Whatever he says, he really can’t stand being around other people for very long,” I replied.
I sensed rather than heard Jesse’s assent.
“Okay, Laurent, it’s a deal,” I said.
Laurent always wears one of those old indigo French work jackets – what’s the name, the moleskin ones? – ah, right, bleu de travail. Without further ado, he reached into the bottom pocket and produced a small hand bound black leather notebook, with a single fading gold star on the cover. Yeah, the thing is tiny, actually, barely a centimeter thick.
“I need your mother’s name, and your father’s name, Mr. Evans,” said Lueur.
“Amadhy, and Wilson,” said Jesse.
Lueur touched various points around the star. Around his fingers there was a faint trail of white light, which rippled every time his fingertip made contact. He was clearly muttering to himself as well, but I could not make out what he was saying.
“Date of birth?”
“June 20, 1853,” he said.
Both hands were tapping on the cover now, trailing ribbons of thick white light. The effect was faintly nauseating, actually.
“Something only you knew?” he asked finally.
Jesse thought for a while.
Finally, he said, “Billy the Kid. I could have killed him, in Lincoln, when he was running with those Regulators. Had him dead in my sights, at a range I don’t miss. He never even saw me. But I just let him go. Never told anyone, not even him.”
Lueur stopped tapping on the notebook, and instead held it in front of him, at eye level. The light travelled from his fingers and lit up the pages, forming a brightly glowing band between the two leather covers. After a minute or so of this, he suddenly reached into the book and tore out a page, crumpled it up, then threw it on the ground.
A second later, he bent down and retrieved it.
Then there was a bark. Then another bark. Then a long stream of barks, like a kennel gone mad, until he was practically doubled over in “laughter”.
“Oh, Oct, you idiot. Tell me you know, at least. Please tell me you at least know what he is,” he said after he finally got control of himself.
I said nothing, neither did Jesse. Finally, he turned the sheet over, showing us.
I had seen Laurent use the Registry many times growing up, mostly to reveal how or where someone had died. I have read that there are other rituals you can use with it. Darker ones. But he never used those, I think, at least not around me.
Once the ritual is completed, a vision appears on that piece of paper, showing the final moments of the dearly departed. Maybe the last two, three minutes. It is sort of on a loop, repeating itself over and over, getting fainter each time until it finally fades out. Yeah, maybe not as dramatic as it once was in this era of cell phones and tablets. The resolution is kinda grainy, and there is no audio. Must have wowed them back in the day, though.
So he turned the sheet over, Jean. And get this, it was blank.
“I don’t understand,” we said. Perhaps in unison, I am not certain.
“You know the ‘spirits’ you are so reluctant to consume aren’t really spirits, right Oct? They are simply echoes of those people’s lives, etched in the World Soul. Copies, so to speak. Not people at all. Sort of like recordings, which the Obol can play,” he said.
I knew the theory, at least. Not that it mattered much to me. I grew up with these voices, Jean. Hatched plans with them. Shared, indulged, consulted, and consoled them. Would a recording be excited about Game of Thrones? Get addicted to Ho-Hos? Hold night classes so that the other recordings could learn to use a computer?
Anyone who had actually used the Obol had to have felt their humanity directly -- Laurent just could not understand I think. To him they were backups autosaved to the Aether. Nothing, really. To me, they were lifelong friends. If they weren’t people, then none of us are. Which is possible, I guess.
“Well, dying is the main way those impressions get made, boy. But it isn’t the only way. A great shock could do it. So could leaving this world, travelling out of your body. Your Mr. Evans is no doubt the result,” Lueur continued.
I wonder, sometimes, if I have left an impression of myself when I dream-walked. So far I have not had the guts to ask Andrews to try and retrieve one.
“The real Jesse Evans, apparently has a lot more sense that you do, Oct. Somehow, he must have found a way. A way to extend his life. A way to become immortal, like me,” said Lueur.