We marched single file with Alice at the front through miles of rambling stone paths that degenerated into broken slabs of volcanic stone, sometimes carved with the faint likeness of faces that seemed to leer out at us. There were tunnels and drop offs to who knows where that the hills were ridden with.
“Avoid these at all costs.” Said a drenched Alice. We simply nodded.
Next, there were rock scrambles and even some vertical climbing, thankfully short. By now I had realized two things: firstly, that the terrain was actually morphing and changing just beyond our line of sight, as if trying to impair our progress. Secondly, it wasn’t getting any easier.
We waded through waist deep mud, and crossed over a gargantuan bridge the size of an office building made out of the hollow of an enormous tree.
Louie stopped, and said “Look up there!”
Eerie, red sunlight burst through the storm clouds and provided a momentary respite from all the rain.
“See that?” said Alice. “The plane is losing it’s ability to resist us. Were getting close to the planar nexus.”
“The who be whattie?” I asked.
“Where the resident deity lives.” She said.
“Wait what resident deity?” I asked.
“Someone has to be responsible for all this mess.” She said, manifesting a black umbrella. “Speaking of which, you should whip out one of these before your brand goes out. Sorry you’ll have to do it yourself. No more freebies!”
Realizing that my torch was almost out, I tried to will an umbrella into being with my free hand, but only succeeded in discharging a ball of blazing faerie fire into the air like a canonball. I nearly tipped and fell right over.
“That’s good if you want to take something’s head off.” She instructed. “Think about the essence of an umbrella, any strong memories you have with one. Than say a basic magic word.”
“Not Abracadabra.” I asked.
“Nooooo. Too unoriginal, invent something new!” she said.
Louie simply whisked one out of the air, and shook his head as he looked at me. “You know, I could do it for you…” he said.
“No way in hell man.” I rumbled. That was that. All dignity, I straightened up, and remembered that time back when my family still had that unenviable house in Long Island. That one afternoon I ran in the house crying to Mama because Louie was whipping my butt with a convenience store umbrella and laughing.
“ABRACALOUIE SUCKS!” I yelped. A bunch of louse twigs, bone and detritus flew out of the forest in front of us and into my waiting hand, where it formed into a gnarled, bony umbrella with a canvas of animal fur and skin.
“Yeah, that’ll do it! Said Alice.
Louie paused for a moment and stepped closer and said, “Sorry bro. I must have made you a pretty shitty memory.” He held out his hand.
I paused for a while, then shook it roughly. “I knew I would get you to respect me.”
“If that’s what you call it.” Guffawed Louis.
“Hey fellas! Look over here!” Said Alice.
Above, oddly enough the sky had cleared to a red crescent moon that hung low in the sky and a starless night. There, below, on a grey and black dais, was the strangest sight I had ever seen. There was Pogs alright, with his Bowler hat and his ragged one piece suit, looking as brazen as ever, and before him danced a spectre I had thankfully heretofore not even seen in my wildest dreams. It was spindly, taller than three adults, with blue-grey, flowing robes and a mask of silver with an alarming scowl. An evil red light shone from his mask at it’s mouth and eye holes.
I started to break into a run to break up the fray, but Alice and Louie grabbed me by my hoodie.
“It’s not safe.” Said Alice.
“Of course it’s not safe! I want to help my friend out. It’s why we came here.” I groaned.
“Which is brave, and stupid of you.” Louie said. “Let’s see where we can get an angle first.”
They danced back and forth, Pogs conjuring something, the deity whisking it away with a gesture. Pogs would cry out a withering curse except for the deity to fling it carelessly back in his direction, scoring the dais and making Pogs jump for it. Finally, the mighty magician rumbled some very nasty sounding words at the deity. The deity held up his right hand and all of Pogs fingers broke. He found himself hog tied with a length of golden rope. He hopped around pitifully and tried to rattle off a counter spell, but a part of the rope wound around his mouth and he fell onto his bum, cringing from the deity, who let out a wailing shriek and billowed toward the prone warlock.
I shook my hands free of Louis’s and Alice’s grips and ran up a crumbling set of stairs towards Pogs and whatever that thing was. I tried to conjure something as I ran and actually managed to come upon a strong enough memory even with everybody shouting at me to stop.
But the memory wasn’t mine.
It was of the Old Country, seemed old, not ancient but a few hundred years in the making. It was of a priest and a few retainers standing around an altar in the heart of a vast jungle, not unlike this one. His assistant swung incense and the priest rattled off Latin in a rite that modern day exorcism is only but a shadow of. In the midst of the ceremony, the altar cracked, and several of the retainers crossed themselves and fled down a crude stairway into the forest. Out poured a vaporous wind with a silver mask not unlike that of the deity Pogs had just faced.
The priest tool up a sword, jumped onto the altar, and pointed id straight down as the boggart shrieked…
There was a cool, satisfying wind that carried soft words blew and a cloud blew over the moon for just a moment. Golden Sparks streamed out of my hands, which I somehow knew to bring together from where the hilt, handguards, and unwieldly blade of a ghostly golden sword issued forth.
I stood over an embarassed Pogs. As soon as the deity saw the sword, he hissed and galloped back a few steps, drawing a taloned, pale hand to his mouth, or where his mouth aught to be. He whined faintly as if he were an animal remembering an old pain.
Puzzled, I stopped and lowered the sword a bit. Alice tracked him with a bow and arrow and Louie wielded a spear and whicker shield. I waved them both down.
“Your friend, the sorcerer.” it wheezed, hissed, and growled at the same time. It’s voice was as unnatural as nails on a chalkboard, but must be to some degree part of the world around him.
I placed my sword towards the ground and leaned on it, all the while I tried to look the creature in the eye. “Yes, Pogs?” I asked.
“He is an usurper. He stole from us!” It screeched.
“He is a lot of things. But a thief is not one of them.” I tried.
“Check the lining of his shirt.” It growled.
I did so with Pogs vociferously shaking his head and scooching away. Finally I fished something out of his shirt pocket: a small stone, egg shaped with three concentric silver rings.
“Pogs, I’m almost surprised at you.” I mumbled. “Is this what you’re looking for, good sir?” I said, approaching the deity with as much caution as I could muster.
“You would do well not to flatter me, human. But yes. We would like our prize back.” It said, surprisingly intelligently.
I tossed it into the air (there was no way I was going to touch hands with that creature, it smelled like death) and the beast caught it.
It made a curt bow, and, to my surprise, sprouted a pair of wings and was off into the night. I managed to undo Pog’s bonds before my sword faded away. He stood up and managed to dust himself off before we all surrounded him.
“Look, I’m a busy guy, I’ve got deities to meet, places to manifest…” he said, pulling his most winning smile.
None of us were swayed for an instant.
“What you did was not right in any way, shape or form.” I said. “You could pull one over on Louie, maybe even on Alice. But I know you, and you know better than this. You owe us an explanation.”
“Et tu, Ben?” he said. “Okay, it goes like this.”
Apparently, Pogs had come upon the box from a mad traveler and collector of strange objects down in Savannah, Georgia where he and a friend had gone for a “mental health sabbatical.” Which really meant barhopping and swapping stories. Anyway, upon getting back to NY, he had opened the box intact, with some difficulty, and found a whole hierarchy of specters in a grimoire that someone had gone through the trouble to put together.
After a few, turbulent seances, he found he could go in and out of an entire, undiscovered plane all by himself. The deities were at first quite generous, having not been in the direct proximity to a mortal human. He came to visit them, and they vested him with some of their unique power. Eventually, the relationship soured though as Pogs wanted more and more. Eventually, he craved deification, hence the scene with the lightning, which actually made him their slave, though, apparently, he escaped.
“Pogs you suck.” Said Louie, sitting down on a rock and tossing his spear and shield.
“It was an experiment gone wrong. You must feel quite exhausted, having to come such a long way and expend so much mana.” He said.
“You’re welcome, old friend.” I said. “It’s not that I’m not frustrated, but I have to ask if this whole thing has been worth it for you.”
He started to speak, but simply nodded.
“Then it has been for me too.” Said Alice, butting in.
“Agreed.” I said.
“I mean… sure, why not.” said Louie.
Pogs smiled, looked up at the sky, and before any of us could say another word catapoulted off into the heavens.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“Do you really want to think about it?” Asked Alice.
“No.” I said.
“I’m fine if I never see him again, honestly.” Said Louie.
“You’ll see him this Christmas, I promise you.” I said sarcastically.
A cold and dismal wind blew, and the scenery began to crumble around us as we ran out of mana needed to sustain this shared vision.
“Lets get the Hell out of here.” said Alice.
We grabbed hands and found ourselves back in my apartment in Brooklyn. It took a little while for us to get up and move around, seeing as the seance had taken a whole hour.
“Well, glad that’s over.” Louie said. “Now, kids, what did we learn?”
“Don’t piss off your benefactors, for one.” I said.
“In a voyage to another dimension, bring an experienced retinue along.” said Alice sleepily.
“But didn’t we gain experience from this?” I asked.
“I hate to agree with Ben, but yeah. I feel like we can do this again.” I said. “For money though.”
“That’s what I’m talkin bout.” Louie and I did an elaborate handshake we hadn’t done since before the umbrella incedent all those years ago.
“Down PAYMENTS, fool! Down PAYMENTS!” He strutted.
“Part time job, mofo!” I said nerdily as possible.
“We’d make a good team. What do you think?” I asked Alice.
“I wish I could legally kill both of you. But sure.” She said, smiling weakly.
“Only one things bothers me.” She said, looking through the window as Louie began to demolish my pizza again.
“Which is?” I asked.
“Where did Pogs go?” she asked.
Outside, far away, a single beam of intense, white lightning came down. Thunder cracked, and the apartment reverberated in laughter.
“Somehow, I wouldn’t worry about that.” I said