ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~
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BOOK 1, CHAPTER 16: THE MASTER OF DISGUISE & THE DEMON
Somewhere within the Chicago metropolitan area, in a location long forgotten by most people, where the walls were so thick and passageways so long that no outside sounds and no radio waves and no cellular signals could hope to penetrate, there was a secret hiding place. Somewhere just under the noses and not out of reach of millions of civilians, a hooded individual navigated the dank, fusty labyrinth to reach that particular hiding place.
The individual was wearing a brown cloak made from quality fabrics that were well-crafted and sewn together, and was almost unbearably hot for the wearer in the current weather, but was finely suited for the cool, stale air of the winding passageways that were most likely underground. A simple flashlight in the person’s hand was the only light, and there were many dangerous areas where someone could trip or sprain an ankle.
The passageways were very old, and they appeared to have been modified over time as some parts were made from cobblestone, others from brick, and certain parts were concrete. Who had built them and for what purpose? Those were mysteries that would likely perpetuate for ages to come.
The hooded individual stopped at a wooden door, one of many in the maze and very similar in appearance to the others, but the person knew it was the correct door from the multiple previous meetings attended behind it. Grabbing the door’s iron handle, the person was pardoned of the deadly curse placed on the handle to ward off unwanted guests, and that was proof of the hooded person being welcome to enter.
With furniture from name brand manufacturers, a carpeted floor, and insulated drywall lining the perimeter, the room did not belong with the rest of the dreary labyrinth. There was a fireplace with a beautiful mantle, and the soft crackling of burning wood mingling with the warm aroma was very inviting. Smoke rose up into the chimney, likely following a long, twisted path upward. Where the smoke came out was difficult to ascertain, but there had been unofficial reports of “campfire smells” in various scattered parts of the metropolitan area, and it remained unclear if there was any correlation.
One other individual was already seated in the room when the hooded person with the brown, quality cloaked entered.
The seated individual was a monster in human form, and he was sitting in a luxurious leather armchair with the price tag still attached (Clearance for $569.99!) at a mahogany table. In front of him was a brass plate, cheaper than gold but almost equally appealing visually, covered in raw meat from over a dozen different animals, some feral and others purchased from a butcher shop in Archer Heights offering great discounts on beef, pork, and lamb.
The monster in human form was eating the raw meat in a ravenous manner kept in check by the fear of staining the carpet with blood, biting through the bones and munching on them like peanut brittle, relishing the fresh marrow that burst out with every splintering crunch.
As a monster taking the form of a human, he did not need to eat anything at all, but his gluttonous desires would often override his thrifty disposition to gorge on food. His current administrative duties on Earth forced him to view human money in an entirely new light, and his biological inability to gain weight from calories further enforced his gluttonous desires.
His name was Baal.
“You’re early,” he muttered to the guest, wiping the animal blood from his mouth with a handful of birthday-print napkins.
The hooded individual pulled the hood off their head, and Baal could see his guest was wearing a black ski mask, a dust mask over the mouth, and sunglasses.
“Why are you in disguise this time?” the demon asked. “Nobody else is here and I already know your identity.”
“I just like to be safe about this kind of thing.” Magic was being utilized to alter the voice. Although voice-altering magic was fairly common and belonged to a wide category of spells, the spell being used by the disguised person allowed the user to bypass voice identification technology, making it highly advanced in that category. Baal knew that, and his inhuman ears could pick up on the degree of voice alteration.
“That’s a powerful spell you’re talking through,” he said with a blood-stained grin.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Humans usually need magic to perform special phenomena,” Baal said, “but I already told you that you’re a special case. You don’t need magic … for some reason. But you’re using magic anyway, so you must be serious about playing it safe, or just dumb. Have a seat.”
The guest sat down at the table, facing Baal. The chair was roughly eighty years old with wooden framework carved by hand, and it creaked lightly under the guest’s weight. Despite its age and use, the cushion still had some softness to it, and the overall design was comfortable.
Baal leaned forward and looked at his disguised guest with mild impatience.
“Well, what do you want?” Baal asked curtly. “You’ve never requested a meeting with me before.”
“I found some interesting information,” the guest said, reaching into their cloak with a gloved hand to pull out a wrinkled manila folder containing papers. “It’s about the illness. Apparently, the medical field has been looking into it. They were running some lab tests to find out what it was.”
Hearing that intrigued Baal.
“Ah, really?” He crossed his arms. “What do they have to say about it?”
“I have the reports here.” The guest slid the wrinkled manila folder across the mahogany table toward Baal. “See for yourself.”
The folder slid into a small patch of blood that had dripped from the brass plate, leaving a red smear across it. Baal grunted as he picked it up and shuffled through the papers inside. In seconds, he had read the contents of the reports in their entirety. He dropped the papers on the table while laughing. The papers soaked up more of the blood.
“That’s rich,” he snorted. “According to ‘science’, they could not conclude that the ‘pathogens’ were living organisms or viruses, lacking any ‘genetic material’. That’s so rich. Thank you for that, I needed some comedy today.”
“If that’s not the case,” the guest said, “then what kind of disease is it?”
“There you humans go, always trying to slap a label on every little technicality you come into contact with. I don’t know what the hell kind of disease it is. It doesn’t matter, the big picture is too big.”
“People across the world would go crazy if they found out about this non-biological disease,” the guest told Baal. “The entire scientific community, not just medical experts … a lot of mankind would put forth extreme effort to figure out more. They’ll wonder why the Cook County Medical Laboratory and Research Center, a leading facility in medical sciences, would be unable to prove that this disease is a microbe.”
“And they’ll uncover its secrets.”
“The disease has secrets?” Baal said, enjoying playing devil’s advocate.
Through sunglasses, the guest stared at the rude monster who was in human form and said, “Our secrets.”
Baal nodded, satisfied by his guest’s response.
“What are you gonna do about it?” Baal muttered with a sneer.
“I already took care of the advanced facility that wrote that report,” the guest replied. “They won’t be looking into it anymore, I don’t think. What you have there is the only remaining medical record of the disease.”
Tossing the blood-smeared, wrinkled manila folder with the reports into the fireplace, Baal said, “What medical record? I don’t have anything.”
The fire flared up as the papers quickly lit, then died back down shortly after.
“There’s one more thing I want to talk about,” the guest said, watching the ashen papers furl up in the fireplace.
“What is it?”
The guest was quiet for a few seconds.
“It’s about that tool you gave me.”
Baal snorted, looking amused in a condescending way.
“I lent the Chashman Artifact to you,” he said. “It’s mine. Don’t forget that.” He cleared his throat, making a disgusting guttural sound that, fortunately, wasn’t very loud. “What about it?”
“I … don’t know how to use it.”
The fireplace popped, sending a few cinders shooting into the room. Because of the magic imbued in the room’s carpet, the cinders were snuffed out before coming into contact with the delicate patterned polyester purchased for a good bargain. If only Baal knew of a spell that could prevent bloodstains, the carpet would be completely protected.
Baal straightened up in his chair.
“But you used it already, didn’t you?” he asked. “And that voice-changing magic isn’t something I gave you.”
“Don’t give me that stupid answer!”
“Hey!” Baal stood up quickly, the look in his eyes pushing the limits of how a human’s can appear. “You will not speak to me that way!”
The guest went silent, knowing upsetting the inhuman host would only bring about unwanted effects.
Sitting back down, Baal adjusted his collar.
“The Chashman Artifact was pretty easy to steal from that wretched monastery,” he said firmly, glowering at the guest, “but finding it was extremely difficult, so the hard parts are finished. And as long as you can use it in a way that gets me closer to my goal, then I don’t care how you do it or if you know what you’re doing.”
Underneath the dust mask, the guest cracked a smile.
“You don’t know how it works either, do you?”
Rage boiled inside Baal, but he suppressed it. Killing his guest would be a bad idea, and that was because, in truth, Baal knew how to use the tool in question very well, so he understood only a human was capable of unlocking its full potential. Finding another human crooked and foolish enough to accept the terms of the contract between Baal and the disguised guest would delay Baal’s plans, and most likely delay it for a very long time.
That’s where you are gravely mistaken, Baal thought, being calmed by the delight brought by his deceit. I know more about that relic than you ever will.
“That’s right,” Baal told his guest. “I depend on you to figure out the Chashman Artifact for me.”
The disguised guest was silent, feeling a small amount of pride for being useful in a unique way.
Baal leaned back in his chair and said, “Now I have a question for you.”
“I’ll do my best to answer, sir.”
“How is the boy doing?” the demon asked, picking fragments of bone and sinew from his teeth with his fingernail.
“Are you talking about Erik Hawthorne?” the guest replied.
“If that’s his name.”
“Does it matter? Your plan is going smoothly, and that’s what counts.”
Baal guffawed and remnants of his fangs caught the light from the fireplace that continued to spit out ashen medical reports.