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After the unnerving experience at my apartment, we took T back to his flat and drove around for a while, trying to stay on the move. We had swapped jobs for the moment, and I drove while Balto held the Handycam. It occurred to me to look for a place where I could buy new Digital8 cassettes for it; while I came up empty-handed, Balto suggested the electronics place at the shopping center in the middle of town. This sounded like an excellent idea to me, mostly because I wanted something to eat and because I didn't expect to be attacked in such a public venue.

We pulled into the car park and left the Rover in a spot close to the door. It took a few laps to get an empty spot, but being able to make a hasty retreat was worth it. It was strange having to think tactically through something as banal as going shopping.

“I feel like I should be wearing a bandolier and a helmet,” I told Balto as we were crossing the car park on foot.

“A battery in every bullet loop,” said Balto.

After the heat outside, the air conditioning was a welcome respite. We went straight to the electronics shops, and discovered that they had no Digital8 cassettes. “You could try the Clef's Edge, they have old formats like that,” said the man tending the register.

The Clef's Edge turned out to be a slowly failing music shop at the other end of the shopping center. A few minutes of searching turned up MiniDV tapes, but they were incompatible with the Handycam. Burdened with despair after failing to turn up anything useful, we went to the dining commons to find something to eat. There was a McDonald's tucked between the delis and cafes there, and at the moment I was in desperate need of some comfort food. We bought good, heavenly, greasy food, and sat down to eat it.

As I ate, I grew anxious. “Odio seduta ancora così,” said Balto. I hate sitting still like this.

I suddenly felt guilty. I had dropped all of this in his lap; he hadn't asked for any of it. “Mi dispiace.” I'm sorry.

“Perché?” Why?

“Per ottenere voi in questo pasticcio?” For getting you into this mess?

“Non hai niente di cui preoccuparsi,” said Balto through a mouthful of hamburger. You have nothing to worry about. “Besides, you are my best friend. If I didn't want to be involved in this, I would have gone home. Or not even come over to visit you at all. Tutti per uno, uno per tutti, right?” All for one, one for all.

“Heh,” I said, and got up. “Grazie, a miei amici. I gotta go wash up, I'll be back in a minute.”

“Prego,” said Balto, as I walked away.

The lavatories in the commons were down a long hallway, tiled in white ceramic and floored with white travertine. I made my way to the loo, and relieved myself. When I came out, I stopped at the large mirror to assess my appearance and wash my hands in the sink array. I put my hands into the infrared beam and cold water coursed over them.

“He wants you to be a part of it,” said a heavy voice from the depths of the lavatory. There were at least five toilet stalls. It was in a thick Eastern European accent. Perhaps Slavic. “You've seen it, and now you're involved.”

I turned, startled out of my reverie. I was about to bolt when a slender fellow in a black business suit came out of the endmost stall and came to the sink to wash his own hands. He was speaking to someone on a Bluetooth earpiece. “I'm telling you, this acquisition is exactly what the company needs. And the boss thinks you're a good pick for the new sector.”

As I left, I caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He was glaring at me. Back out in the dining area, I found Balto and got out of there. We drove around for a while, trying to find something, anything, that could help us. Finally, we decided to go to Balto's school and go ahead and try to transcribe the tape to see if anyone reading these entries could help us figure out what we were dealing with.

The university where Balto attends classes is a fairly large campus; several isolated buildings surround a vast cobblestone courtyard with a bronze statue at the apex of a fountain. The coins at the bottom were barely visible through the rippling silver light. As always, I briefly entertained the urge to go in after them (all's fair in love and beer), but we had more important issues at hand. I followed Balthazar toward the rear of the area, admiring the campus architecture; each building was like a sprawling Grecian temple unto itself, with grand columns two and three storeys tall. Students and instructors milled about, smoking and conversing with each other or reading books and listening to the latest pop song on iPods.

We coursed between lush landscaping and down a gravel path into a shadowed orchard, where an ancient wellhouse rattled under the weight of a slowly revolving waterwheel. On the other side of the grove was the library, a large modernistic complex with low ceilings and a glass wall that yawned all along the front side. The exterior was an angular work of art that would have made Frank Lloyd Wright proud. As we approached the entrance, we passed over a small teak bridge fording a cackling brook. I could see tiny fish in the water.

Balto pulled the glass front door open and marched straight in. It was lunchtime, so there was no one in the library except for a librarian sorting through books at the front desk and a student studying by herself at a table, surrounded by stacks of various texts. The library was larger than it appeared from the outside, stretching maybe 150 meters back, with aisle upon aisle of white bookshelves, separated at regular intervals by long slate-grey tables with rolling chairs. To give it atmosphere, the lights were not fluorescent, but instead sleek pyramidal electric sconces set into the ends of each bookshelf that projected cones of light up at the white drop-tile ceiling.

We came up to the counter where the librarian was working and asked her for directions to the A/V room. She told us to go halfway down the main reading area and turn left, then go through that door and down the stairs to the reference section. From there, it was down the hall and the fourth door on the right.

The stairwell was narrow and austere, with rubber nonslip textures on each step and aluminium balusters. We clomped down them and reluctantly into a pitch-dark doorway. A motion sensor turned the lights on as we came in, illuminating a portion of a long grey corridor. As we walked down it, sensors activated the overhead fluorescents in successive order, deactivating them behind us to conserve power. Balto turned the camera on and crept alongside me, rolling his steps quietly, pointing the Handycam here and there like an soldier with a rifle.

“That's a negative, sir. I do not have a visual,” said Balto in his best deep gritty voice. I smirked and felt a pang of nostalgia for my time in the Esercito Italia.

The lights came on as we stepped into the reference section. This room was more utilitarian than the general repository upstairs; the furniture and decorations were bland and built for function over form. Blacks and greys. A couple dozen chest-height shelves divided the room into twice as many aisles, each one stocked with a number of DVD cases, audio cassettes, VHS cassettes, film canisters, and microfiche. The rear wall was lined with filing cabinets, probably full of negatives, educational texts, and technical documents. To our left was a long table on which stood several flatscreen monitors and various audiovisual equipment such as VCRs, tape rewinders, etc. Underneath the table were softly whirring computer towers. To our right was a bank of mixing tables and a closed door.

I took off my backpack and pulled my laptop out of it, putting it on the table and turning it on. While I waited for it to get going, I leaned against the table and folded my arms, watching Balto explore the Handycam's functions. The hallway light went out, turning the entrance of the room into a black hole. Desperate for a task to occupy my mind and take it off our eerie, silent surroundings, I located the machine that would play my cassette. Balto took it out of the Handycam and gave it to me; I put it in the Digital8 machine.

When I locked eyes with Balthazar, I could instantly tell that he was also feeling the gravity of what we were doing. We had just hobbled ourselves by taking the cassette out of the camera. “Vado a vedere se riesco a trovare cassette vergini. Vorrei che avevamo portato con noi T.” I'll see if I can find some blank cassettes, said Balto. He went into a small room through the door next to the mixing tables and found several filing cabinets full of unwritten media. I wish we had brought T with us.

“Faccio troppo. Ma non sono sicuro che una pistola avrebbe fatto molta differenza.” I do too. But I'm not sure that a gun would have made much difference.

My laptop finally got its startups settled, leaving me to get to work. I used a USB cord to tether it to a Digital8 device. Luckily, it was Plug and Play, so I didn't have to do anything tedious to get it to work. “Grab me an extra cassette,” I said, and Balto handed me one. The other he put into the camera. I started transcribing the used tape and experienced a stab of disappointment when it displayed a long processing time. I couldn't get a straight answer out of it because the estimate kept changing. “Looks like we're going to be here a while,” I said with a sigh. “I hope the internet's happy with this.”

As soon as the word this came out of my mouth, the hallway began to brighten, meaning the motion sensors were cycling toward us. We glanced at each other and Balto pointed the Handycam at the doorway. I went to the storage room and found a boom-mike on a pole. I screwed the microphone off of it and brought the pole back, ready to unleash all the Donatello fury I could muster.

We stood there staring at the doorway for what felt like forever as the lights outside drew closer. Next to the silence, the hum of the air conditioner was deafening. Finally the light directly in front of the door came on. I looked at Balto, who shrugged at me and said, “Nothing.”

When the janitor stepped into view, mopping the floor, we both jumped, then chuckled. He made his way past the door, swishing the mop back and forth, until the light went out. It gradually dwindled until the doorway was dark again. Balto had put down the camera and the both of us were sitting behind the computer table when the reference section lights went out, plunging us into darkness. Balto was waving his arms over his head when it came back on.

I sighed. “This is taking forever.”

Balto rubbed his eyes.

A deep voice from my left growled something in a language I did not understand.

Both of us leapt out of our chairs in unison, and at the same time, the computer monitor at the end of the table exploded in a shower of sparks. Suddenly, my pole felt woefully inadequate. I snatched up the video camera and pointed it at where I'd heard the voice. It was the tall man in the burlap mask. He had horrible blades in both hands; each one resembled a boat slick, or perhaps lawnmower blades with handles welded to them.

“Where is it?!” screamed Balto in rising terror.

“No one sees the Shepherd and lives,” said the man. The forehead of his burlap mask had been painted with the same CV symbol that Cosmina had painted on the ceiling of her cell. A long, filthy cloth was tied around his waist like some kind of disgusting sarong and his leather boots were threadbare and ragged. Vicious-looking scars criscrossed his torso and arms. His hands and wrists were wrapped in athletic tape like a boxer.

Balto lifted a nearby stool and hurled it at the man people called 'Butcherface'. He threw up an arm and simply clubbed it out of the way, then raised one of his crude swords and smashed my laptop, then started destroying the rest of the equipment in a fit of rage. Fuck.

“For the gift of obscurity, the Shepherds sacrificed an eye to our lord ALNIRAS,” said someone in the back of the room. I looked in that direction with the Handycam and saw Cosmina, dirty and pale, lurking there, next to another man I didn't recognize. He was wearing a dirty black business suit and a weatherbeaten fedora, standing in the shadows motionlessly.

“So that their flocks might go unseen and unheeded by the world, and conduct their business in private,” spat a serpentine voice at the door. It was the hooded man swathed in black from the servo, the one that had almost touched me.

“And in the end,” said the man in the dusty suit next to Cosmina, “We do his bidding in gratitude for his penance.”

“All that behold us,” said 'Butcherface', coming around the table. He slid one of his swords into a ring hanging from an ancient leather belt around his waist. “Join the flock or die. So sayeth the Hidden.”

He began to untie the leather thong binding the burlap hood to his head. I turned and shoved Balto into the storage room, wincing as his head hit the edge of a filing cabinet. He was still conscious as I shut the door and pushed the boom mike pole through the doorhandle, pinning him inside. The door began to rattle. “Heeeeey! Lemme out!”

I turned back to the Shepherd as he pulled the hood off. At this point I could see him without the camera, although everyone else was still invisible. The fluorescent light over his bald head threw his face into sharp relief. One of his eyes was a raw-looking pit of withered flesh, while the other glared balefully underneath a heavy brow. His ears, nose, and lips had been removed with precision cuts, leaving only gaping nostrils and a permanent grin of diseased-looking teeth.

He closed the one remaining eye and lifted what was left of his face to the light, letting his proud, square jaw sink open and releasing a sigh of contentment. I got the distinct impression he had mutilated his own features. He opened that rheumy yellow eye once again and looked down at me. The fluorescents began to buzz sickly, and grow dim. Skulking shadows materialized in the dun corners of the room, growing in number… soon, there was a legion of them all around me, even out in the hallway.

“Time is running out,” said the creeper in the hooded jacket. “Do you give your life for the Pit?”

The shade I knew as Cosmina finished in a smirking voice, “Or are you a lamb for the slaughter?”

“What's going on out there, Pete?!” screamed Balto.

I sighed…and turned the camera off, and put it on the floor.

Balthazar survived, if you wanted to know. He had nothing to do with what happened to me. An hour later, he finally broke the pole and escaped…and found no one. He was alone.

I hope you liked my story. The Disciples of the Hidden God and their Shepherd, the one you call “Butcherface”, have been very kind to me. They have shown me the blessing of Alniras and the ways of the unseen. Jobs, money, friends, family, sin, virtue…all have passed into irrelevance. All that matters anymore is the will of our Shepherd. Our tapes journey across the globe in search of those who wish to find us….

I decided to move to America, the land of promise. There, we have an abundance of future Disciples. The Pit grows every day. If you're recording something with a video camera, watch where you're pointing it. You might see something you don't like. I'm still not telling you where I am. Just remember, if you find a knife in your bed one night, don't worry about trying to escape.

You can run… …but we can hide.

Fiction


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