Eric could remember the last time he’d been inside The Forge. It had been a week before Rob had disappeared. Rob thought he was in a better mood when he was there. Maybe he was, he liked the one spirit who was guaranteed to be there.
Max greeted him as soon as he walked through the door. “You look like shit.”
“And you look dead.” Eric muttered under his breath. Josh was smiling, surprised and ecstatic to see him, Eric promptly found himself in a hug he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. That might have had to do with the dead gay man checking him out, or his general dislike of hugs.
Josh pulled away, noting Eric’s expression, “He’s here isn’t he?”
“Yeah.” Eric said glancing towards the apparent twenty-something, “I feel the need to remind him I’m underaged.”
Max just smiled, “What are you going to do? Shoot me?”
Rob walked in behind him, “Don’t piss off the necromancer. He can do some terrible shit to you if he wants.”
“Rob can hear me now? Awesome!” Max said gleefully.
“Barely.” Rob replied, “It’s more of the effect of having Eric in the room with five people who know without a doubt you’re here.”
Eric glanced around the room to count, himself, Eric, Josh, Trina, and Tyler. Trina was coming for a hug. He’d really forgotten how much he hated hugs. Actually the hug part was fine, it was the lead up to the hug he hated.
There was a kid laying across the couch that sat again the wall, playing a game on an older handheld console. He’d perked up from the conversation about Max as he turned off the game.
“Other Dad is here? Really? Does he have any advice for finding out you’re a monster?” He asked as he sat up.
Trina glared at him, “Ethan, Eric doesn’t like to play translator for the dead.”
“And I don’t have any advice unless, by monster you mean ‘gay’.” Max added.
Eric turned to Ethan to repeat Max’s response and felt his stomach do a backflip. Ethan’s mother was there, clinging to him and she had not died a peaceful death.
“He can’t really help with that,” Eric said, trying to hold his breath. This one stank. It reeked of corruption and vile death. It was the worse case scenario of how to die. She was too broken emotionally to let go of her son who she desperately wanted to protect. It was entirely possible the only reason Ethan hadn’t already willingly turned to his father was because she was there guiding him.
Alas, if only Eric could stomach her.
“Are you okay?” Trina asked.
“Fine. Just need some water,” He replied, hoping he’d get used to it.
Ethan was staring at him, “Wow, nothing makes a first meeting better than causing nausea.” he muttered.
“Not you.” Eric said, quickly downing the water Tyler had slid across the counter. “It’s your…” he hesitated, knowing the road he was about to go down, “… mother.”
Her eyes suddenly locked onto his and the reaction from the room was pretty much what you’d expect from someone farting. They were immediately inundated with the stench of her decay.
“Dammit, that is not necessary!” Ethan said, choking on the smell. Of course he’d get it worst, she was right next to him.
Rob barely seemed to noticed it, save for a slight twitch. The expression was similar to when he’d met Gabriel’s meat puppets. “It’s not Eric, it’s your mother. By acknowledging her, he’s giving her a voice but it’s not a single sense power. If she wasn’t here we’d be suffering through Max’s cologne.”
There was a pause where everyone thought they hear the whisper of Max’s retort.
“What’s she look like?” Ethan asked hesitantly.
“You don’t want to know,” Eric replied confidently.
Silently, Josh opened a folder and pulled out a photo of a young woman. The angle and pose implied it was a DMV photo.
“Her name was Lena Riley.” He said, “She disappeared when she was twenty three, shortly after giving birth to her premature son. Her boyfriend, Adam Chase, claimed they were going to take a vacation to recover from the shock of the events but neither of them were ever seen or heard from again.”
“What happened to them?” Ethan asked.
“Adam sold his soul to the demon that wishes to possess you.” Helena said walking in and taking a seat next to Eric. It was like she didn’t even notice him or think there was any reason for awkwardness between them.
He momentarily had the thought she might think he was Rob, but they were in properly color-coded shirts.
“Where’s Kim?” Rob asked absently.
“We’re not speaking,” Helena replied icily, “but I did make contact with the other side. Adam made a deal for his son’s life, but the bargain was struck too late. His son was already dead, but the demon had already taken his payment and had to fulfill his end of the deal. He took possession of Adam’s body and consummated with Lena to create another son.”
“Which,” Josh interjected, “according to her medical files should have been impossible. She had a host of medical issues which were mostly discovered during the pregnancy, several of which had to do with her reproductive health. Long story short, Ethan’s brother was born premature because they had to remove her uterus.”
“So the demon just fixed her and she got pregnant, right?” Ethan ventured.
“More like the demon forced you to grow on whatever was left inside her.” Rob said, “He’d have done the minimum and the most painful. And he would have made it look like Adam was doing it for as long as possible.”
Eric stepped closer to Ethan, but didn’t pay attention to him, but examined Lena, “She was bound until her wrists broke. Her abdomen expanded to grotesque levels.” He glanced at Ethan, “She realized you weren’t human but she loved you anyway. Defiance. He didn’t like that.”
Rob grimaced and put down his tablet, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Join the club.” Eric said.
“What?” Ethan asked.
“Your mother became brain dead before you were born.” Rob said, “Probably several months before. It’s pretty common with demonic childbirth. The human body can barely take the stress and the mind cannot. Usually the way the fetus is grown causes immobility.”
“But how did I…”
“Eat? Grow?” Rob asked, “Your father hunted and the incubator absorbed the nutrients from it. The biology wasn’t particularly human.”
Josh nodded, “I have an idea of where they were. A dozen hikers disappeared around that time. No one knew what had happened to them.”
Eric frowned, “Should we really be telling him this?” he asked.
Rob shrugged, “It’s either now or he finds out some other day when he thinks he’s gotten over it. It’s like a bandaid, take it off fast.”
“I want to know,” Ethan said, though he looked positively green, “I just don’t understand how I came out so normal after that.”
“Your mother,” Eric said, “She was there the entire time. When you were born the demon tried to take you home with him, but she held on to you for dear life. Daddy left, you stayed and there was nothing he could do about it at the time.”
“Is she…” Ethan trailed off.
Eric walked over dropped down to a more even level with him, placing his hand on Ethan’s shoulder atop of Lena’s “She probably helps you maintain control. She’s still holding you back when your father tries to take you.”
Ethan turned his head towards Eric’s hand, his eyes widening in disbelief, “Your hand isn’t touching my shoulder.”
“No, it’s touching her hand,” Eric said, “You’re feeling her hand on your shoulder. That hand is always there and always has been. She’s been trying to guide you to a better life since the moment you were born.”
Ethan blinked back tears as he turned his head forward again.
Eric glanced back at Lena, she was looking better. She only looked like a violently ill pregnant woman.
“So,” Helena quietly interrupted, “What does this mean?”
Josh tore his eyes away from his son, “It means a few things. Namely, Ethan wasn’t born at a regular hospital and there was no one to drop him off for his adoption. Someone had to find him and bring him in.
“That could be anyone, though, right?” Trina asked.
“Yes, but lucky for us the hikers who brought him in were confused enough about the incident they actually stuck around to talk about it.” Josh continued, “Which is the part where it gets weird.”
Ethan laughed, “Oh. It’s not weird yet?”
“Not at all, kiddo,” Josh replied, “The hikers reported it, but they were very vague about the entire situation. They couldn’t remember where they were when they found you, how far up they were into the mountains, or even what trail they’d been looking into. Even better, all three of them apparently had mental breakdowns in the following months.”
“Effect of meeting a demon,” Rob stated, sounding bored.
Josh rolled his eyes, “Exactly, though no one realised this because no one knew demons were real yet. This was around the same time you were realizing you could light matches with your mind and Eric just thought he was having nightmares and vivid daydreams. Within the next month one of the men, Aaron Rowe, disappeared permanently. Two of his friends, Brendon Reese and Graham Foster, slowly shutdown their lives and moved far into the woods. By the next year they were only coming out every once and a while for supplies. They never gave any reason to friends or family as to why they did it and after a while everyone forgot about it. You ditch the world, the world continues on without you.”
“I thought you said their were four hikers.” Rob said, finally showing interest.
“I’m getting to that.” Josh said, “I’m building dramatic tension.
“Now some people would assume that Rowe was killed by his friends as a sacrificial offering. If that was the case though, they’d probably do it again. And they did, but those bodies were found. In fact, they were very obviously found with only certain parts missing, parts that were thought to have occult significance.”
Eric followed the logic, “No way.”
Josh nodded, “It fits. Once you widen the search and accept that not every body was accounted for…”
Rob frowned, “What are you talking about?”
“The Preservationist.” Tyler said.
Eric glanced at Max. The spirit only became morose when his murderer was mentioned, though to Eric, the smell of Max’s cologne Rob had complained about earlier was now overpowering the rot given off by Lena Riley.
“Jeffrey Anderson was the last hiker.” Josh confirmed. If he could smell Max’s cologne, he wasn’t letting on. “He killed himself in his cell after the Resurgence, but before we realized or developed any way to prevent the possibility, but I have copies of a lot of his journals. Looking at them in this context they begin to make some sense.”
Helena had perked up immensely, “Do you have them with you?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Josh handed her his tablet.
“So we might have a name now.” Rob said, “That’s good.”
“Better than that,” Josh said, “We have cultists. Reese and Foster are still around and kicking and they’re still killing.”
“The pattern of deaths continue after Anderson was caught. There is even one to replace the victim Anderson had caught. Without Anderson, they just don’t return the bodies and they don’t hunt locally. They hunt regionally now, hitting L.A., Vegas, San Fran. They don’t have a life outside of their devotion so they can just troll the countryside looking for victims. No bodies means most of them are just registered as missing persons.” Josh said, shrugging a little, “That does mean I’m pulling a little of this out of my ass, but there is a missing person at the appropriate time every three months or so fitting the victim profile for the Preservationist.”
“We need to find them.” Rob said, “they might be helping it cross over.”
Josh nodded, “I believe I have a good address. It’s a place Adam’s family rented a couple times he might have gone to if he needed privacy. You know, before the demon destroyed his mind. I vote we go there tomorrow and see what’s left and see if anyone’s home.”
“Sounds good to me.” Rob said, “What do you say. Eric?”
“Sounds like something I don’t want to experience.”
Rob rolled his eyes. “Fine, be a buzzkill.”
The meeting had seemingly fallen apart. Ethan had returned to the couch, but hadn’t pulled back out his game, instead, just stared at the ceiling.
Rob was back on his phone, continuing with some project he’d been working on the entire day, but wouldn’t speak to Eric about. Whatever it was seemed stressful.
Helena turned to Eric, “Hey, you wouldn’t mind if I crashed at your place, would you? I really don’t want to return to my hotel tonight.”
Eric tried not to reel back in surprise, “Uh, sure. I guess. If you don’t mind being in the same building as me.”
Helena smiled grimly, “Your sister’s minions were very adamant that you weren’t the mastermind. Something about you not even knowing they had that penthouse.”
Eric snorted, “Who did they think paid for that penthouse? Dad and Lisa took away Lessa’s check writing privileges years ago.”
Helena quirked her mouth, “Then how is she surviving right now?”
“I assume she’s making heavy use of her vampiric abilities. That’s assuming your critters haven’t found her yet.”
She sighed, “Problem with using barely sentient animals from another dimension, they aren’t really good at reporting back if their mission was successful.”
“So there’s probably no chance they just dragged her back home with them.”
“They can’t return to their home dimension. Part of the reason Dawn is so upset with me.” Helena said, glancing over at Rob, “What’s he so busy with?”
“Won’t tell me.” Eric said, hesitating, “So, about Gabriel…”
“I know.” Eric said, “I saw him. He wasn’t very happy.”
“He rarely was.” Helena replied, “The more I thought about it, the more I understood your and Rob’s prediction about his chances. He always blamed the rest of us. I’m sure he blamed me for his vampirism,”
“We have winner,” Eric said, “You win a smug attitude.”
Her smiled faintly, “Is he… still around?”
He shook his head, “No. I don’t let spirits just wander around unless they give good reason. Otherwise, Ms Riley would be gone already. Lord knows she deserves the rest.”
“You can make them rest?”
“I strongly encourage.” Eric said, “I’m not sure if I make for just break up their energy if they’re unwilling.”
“You’re like a type of Gatekeeper.”
Eric laughed, “I’m more like a greeter. I can’t close this gate anymore than you can. I’m just here to give directions.”
“Okay, greeter.” Helena aknowledged.
“This seems like the perfect time for a drink.”
“Its too bad I’m sure Trina wants to keep her liquor license.” She commented.
“I have liquor at home. We just have to convince Rob…” he glanced at his brother, “Don’t think it should be too hard.”
Eric’s head was pounding. He supposed he deserved that. He’d never had a drink without arcane assistance to prevent him from feeling the full effects. Hell, he’d never really been drunk before.
He rolled out of bed, stumbled to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet. He knelt by the bowl, pondering the eternal oddity of how being in this position would usually disgust him, but right now, he really didn’t want to be further way from the bowl if at all possible, before admitting he had to get up.
It wasn’t until he’d rinsed his mouth that he remembered there’d been an arm on him in bed. He stepped back into his bedroom and yes, definitely was a woman in his bed.
His gaze lowered, checking himself out. He was very much naked. He took a step closer to the bed and confirmed the woman was Helena.
“Oh shit.” He said to himself. He’d muttered it under his breath, but it was enough to wake her, unless she’d woken before and had been attempting to doze. She turned up to him and froze.
“Oh shit.” she repeated.
Eric swallowed, “We had sex last night, didn’t we?”
She pulled the sheets closer to her, “I don’t remember having sex, do you?”
“If we don’t remember if, does that mean it didn’t happen?” Eric asked.
She looked around the room, “Is there a used condom around?”
“I don’t have condoms. Lessa didn’t like them. She’d take care of that part, uh, internally.” Eric said.
Helena’s eyes widened, “I don’t know how to do that.”
“I think they still make the pill.” Eric said, “You know, just in case.” He walked around the room, found her underwear and tossed it to her.
“Oh god,” She said sneaking it under the covers, “Rob has to know, right?”
Eric frowned as he found his own underwear, tossed it into the hamper and got a fresh pair out of the dresser, “Then why didn’t he stop us?”
“I don’t—,” realization struck her, “That damn thing he was doing on his phone. He had to go to meet someone and I think he said he’d head back to his place afterward. He said he’d return in the morning.”
“Don’t suppose you remember the timetable?” Eric said checking the clock, “Cause, while we do have to tell him, I don’t want to tell him right this second.”
She made a pitiful expression, “We have to tell him?” she asked.
“Yeah. We do.” he replied, “Get dressed quick. Gotta make it look like nothing strange has happened.”
She sighed, “Strange is right.”