It’s not until my fourth trip to the temple that they let me speak to the guy in charge.
“The Grand Magus is ready to see you, Nichi.” The blue-eyed young man who goes by Azoth greets me at the door, his Spanish laced with a heavy Swedish accent.
He waves me into the old warehouse, past the large open area that might have once held lumber or machine parts. An earthy smell permeates the space, red brick walls damp with river moisture. Small groups of cultists in gray tracksuits sit amidst rows of old pews. A few look up, flashing awkward smiles when they recognize me.
At night, they all pack into converted storage rooms, where the aroma of packed humanity lingers. I’ve already taken a look at the sleeping quarters. Nothing there for me, nothing worth the trouble of taking. I know a dead end when I see one.
Since the first days of climbing in through windows, of picking locks, of lifting wallets, I’ve been able to tell an easy mark from a total bust. If there’s a score here, it’s in the big guy’s office.
“It is an honor, you know.” Azoth speaks without breaking his stride, without looking at me. “He does not let many talk to him. You persistence impresses him.”
“I hope I can only live up to it,” I respond. With luck, the Grand Magus is in a chatty mood. I only need ten, maybe fifteen, minutes in the office to plan my next step.
Two rough-looking men in grey robes, one standing on either side, nod to the Swede as we approach. Azoth says some words in an unfamiliar language to them. The guards never shift their gaze to me. They offer no response. Still, one of them opens the door.
An large antique wooden desk dominates the back half of a mostly unremarkable office. No black cloths, no skulls, not even candles. Nothing like what I expected for the self-styled Grand Magus. Oil paintings of abstract figures on the walls. Can’t really say if they’re mystical or just artistic. A few potted plants complete the impression of normalcy.
A small barred window is set high in the wall. I’ve examined it from outside. It will take me less than an hour to silently cut through those bars.
The Grand Magus stands and holds out his hand. We shake. He’s wearing a grey suit–stylish, probably European–with a tie of the same color. His graying hair is neatly trimmed, swept back like he could be on a magazine cover. He looks like an executive for some international bank or manufacturing conglomerate.
“Mr. Lavoisier,” I begin, my tone deferential. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.”
“I hope you understand our precautions.” His Spanish is good, with merely a shadow of an accent. Word on the street is he’s Belgian. “The Temple of the Dancing Star does not usually accept new members.”
Only chumps who are young or rich, neither of which I am. Still, when I heard a group of Europeans renting an old warehouse, that got me a little curious. Strange foreigners choosing to linger in a working-class Buenos Aires suburb–had to be a reason for that, possibly an opportunity.
I considered letting it go when it turned out to be a religious cult. Fanatics are the wrong kind of gullible. Still, my instincts told me there was more there, to dig deeper. After I bought him a couple drinks, Hoffman the fence told me about the Europeans in track suits selling gold coins around town. There was a score there, I knew, one I didn’t want to pass up.
“I understand, but then I got to know some of your disciples by accident.” I repress a smile at that last word. “Well, I don’t know if ‘accident’ is the right word… Do you believe in destiny?”
“Men often speak of destiny without understanding it.” Lavoisier raises a graying eyebrow. “It’s true that all existence is a curious interweaving of relationships, yet the nature of this web is understood by very few.”
I let my eyes scan the room as I half-listen to his prattle. There’s a small iron door along one of the walls, half hidden by a large fern. Just seeing it, I know. I feel it, a tingling in my fingertips, in my balls. That’s where the score is. It’s a big one, possibly life-changing.
“Of course,” I respond, bringing my attention back to the conversation. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘destiny.’ Still, the possibility that I would have been passing by that corner and was able to intervene when two of your devotees were attacked…” Attacked by a buddy of mine, in exchange for a hundred mangos. “You no doubt see the hidden working of the universe behind it.”
“The majority of mankind lives in almost complete ignorance.” His gaze shifts upwards. “Even the most educated scientists believe the universe began as a solely physical phenomena, this supposed Big Bang.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Lavoisier shakes his head. “Merely a crude metaphor which falls short of the truth. You see, before the universe came into being, all of existence existed in a union of physical and spiritual energies. Do you know what gods are?”
It’s no surprise he’s talking about gods now. Religion is the oldest con in existence. Father Hernandez never passed up a chance to hit me for taking the Lord’s name in vain, but that didn’t keep him from visiting the house run by Volyniak the pimp.
It’s not as if the the temple’s ugly side is hard to find. It took me less than hour to dig up their misdeeds: Thrown out of Germany, accused of several assaults. Several devotees locked up in France for drug trafficking. Suspected of kidnapping an Arab girl in Portugal, but the authorities didn’t have enough evidence to charge them.
I’ve dealt with rough characters before, worse than these canallas. Once their gold is in my hands, I’ll get so far out of their reach. So many places they’ll never find me. Good luck even getting help from the cops. They have their hands full with the crisis, the streets filling with protesters, men and women beating on pots and pans.
“To tell the truth, I never thought much of it,” I respond.
“The physical-spiritual union, which encompassed all of creation, underwent a sudden and catastrophic change, like an explosion, which separated the energies. After the initial violence, there was a moment in which new forms arose. These forms, which some traditions have called gods, were the Great Old Ones. They were beings of unimaginable power.”
“How fascinating! And these are the gods of your religion?”
“It doesn’t end there.” Lavoisier shoots me a look like I’m some boludo. “The energy unleashed by the initial catastrophe had not spent itself. New waves of destruction fractured the Great Old Ones, dispersing their energies to the edges of existence. When this unfolding had run its course, what was left was the universe we see around us now. The spiritual energy was also dispersed, mixing with the dust of the earth. This separation is only temporary. There will come a day when the cosmic forces realign, creating new patterns of being.”
“You know, I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Perhaps because it’s the biggest load of nonsense I’ve heard in my life. “How did you learn all of this?”
“Would you really like to know more?” The Belgian sounds surprised. Looks like the act has been convincing. Now, I just have to come back at night, cut the bars, get in through the window, open that metal door. That’s all that’s left to do.
“Of course,” trying to use my most sycophantic voice. “I think you have a spiritual instinct like I’ve never seen in any other man. How do you know all this?”
Lavoisier smiles, opens one of the desk drawers, pulling out a small walkie-talkie, probably their makeshift version of an intercom.
“Sofia, could you bring hot tea?” He puts the device back in the drawer. “How did I learn all this? The truth is that this wisdom has been present in the human cultures since the beginnings of civilization. The Temple is little more than the most recent iteration of a tradition which has always existed, one that will never perish. I can’t deny that I’ve had certain oneiric inspirations which have helped me navigate new directions of mysticism.”
This jerk is really insufferable. What a Russian Salad of idiocies he’s laying down.
The door opens and a willowy young blonde enters. She deposits a tray carrying two brown mugs on the desk.
“Okay, Nichi, I think you may be a suitable candidate to learn the revelations of the world to come.” He places one of the mugs on the edge of the desk close to me.
I raise it to my lips, noticing the sharp herbal smell rising from the cup.
“This is a special tea I obtained in Tibet. How do you like it?”
It take a couple of sips. The stuff is more bitter than unsweetened yerba mate.
“It’s quite good. You honor me by offering me something so special.”
“I am curious. How did you come by the name Nichi? Do your friends consider you particularly philosophical?”
Is wonder if he’s playing some game, messing with me? Best to keep humoring him.
“I received the nickname as a kid, because I was ni chico ni grande.” It started when I was just fourteen years old, and my younger brother started to outgrow me. I was the oldest but often mistaken for the middle child.
“So, it comes from you being a normal size?” There’s a sarcastic edge to his voice. He’s busting my balls. I’ve heard that response too many times, hasn’t been funny in years. At least it looks like the Belgian isn’t suspicious.
“Yes, something like that.” It’s time to disappear. I glance at my watch. “I should go. I have an appointment.”
As I try to stand up, the world slides to the left and then up. The last thing I see is the wood of the antique desk.
“Our guest is waking up.” It’s Lavoisier’s voice. Everything is dark.
It takes a few tries before my eyes open. I have to blink several of times before a shape emerges: the face of the Grand Magus.
“What’s going on here?” My voice sounds strange, my words slurred.
“You’ll know all of it soon enough.”
The face leaves my sight, leaving me with a series of blurs: beige and brown and dark red. The Grand Magus speaks again, his voice weaker now, as if at a distance. Not Spanish, might be French. Still too weak, I can’t make out what he’s is saying.
The beige blur resolves: figures in track suits, wooden pews, brown tile floor, all framed by red brick walls. I recognize the damp earthen smell from my arrival.
I’m still in the warehouse, in the chapel. I feel strange, exposed. I look down to see my own pink flesh. They’ve stripped me naked.
I try to stand. I have to get out of there.
My arms don’t move.
It might be the drugs. Struggling, I feel the ropes. They’ve tied my wrists to the arms of a heavy wooden chair, my ankles to its legs. A belt around my chest completes the fastenings. I’m not going anywhere.
Maybe they saw me casing the place from outside. They could have a contact with the police. If they know who I am…
I take a deep breath. Can’t let myself panic.
Lavoisier returns into view. He’s still decked out in the gray suit, still costumed as an executive.
He goes to a small cart covered with a white cloth. It’s so close, I could reach out and grab it with a free hand, but I have to turn my head to look at it.
“I told you how the spiritual energy of the Great Old Ones was dispersed throughout the physical universe, waiting for the correct catalyst to begin reforming? The energy, you see, has a strong affinity for consciousness, not only human, but that of all sentient beings.”
He takes the white cloth off, like a magician introducing the next act. The cart has two levels. Car batteries, all connected by wires fill up the lower level. The upper has a series of tools: pliers, two hammers, a variety of different-sized knives, three hypodermic needles, an awl, a length of rope, a cattle prod.
It only takes me a moment to understand the purpose of those instruments. I swallow a scream, then make myself breathe deeply. This is not a moment to lose control.
“Lavoisier, che, I don’t know what you’re planning, but none of this is necessary.” I try to sound casual.
The Grand Magus gestures. The two bodyguards stand up from the congregation and come to stand at his side.
“The other connection with this primordial energy is to the stars.” Lavoisier continues. “The astrology you know is but another primitive metaphor for the relationship between the stars and all sentient beings.”
He lifts the cattle prod and hands it to one of the big guys.
“Look, che, I can help you. With anything. I know this city better than anyone.”
Lavoisier says something in French, and the thug shocks me with the cattle prod.
Convulsions rip through my body. Everything goes black for a second. My tongue hurts. I can taste blood from where I’ve bitten it.
“Now, the truth is that the majority of humans don’t have more spiritual energy than a dog or vulture.” Lavoisier lifts up a knife and examines it. He sets it back down. “But there are certain individuals who, for unknown reasons, have an exceptional concentration of this energy. These are known as The Children. The most powerful of them is the Lokakshayakur, whom we have not yet found. Once awakened, The Children will elevate all sentient beings to a greater level of existence.”
I should have gone with my first thought, stayed away. There’s no way to reason with these fanatics.
“Hey, I totally believe you about The Children. I’ll help you find them. Maybe that was the reason I came across you guys.”
Lavoisier raises his hand and makes a fist. One of the large guys grabs me by the throat, cutting off my respiration. My body reacts automatically, panicking, my lungs struggling to draw in air. Fire sweeps through my chest.
The Belgian spits out a word: “Arrêt!”
The force on my throat goes away. I can breath again.
“The Children can be awakened during certain astronomical configurations, but one must know how to read the stars. The same stars, of course, which led us to you.”
I try to talk but it hurts too much. All I can manage is a few groans.
Lavoisier picks up one of the hypodermics.
“We’ve now come to another cosmic alignment. You will help us begin the new phase in humanity’s spiritual evolution.”
I can’t follow what he’s talking about anymore. It hurts too much. I think I might faint.
“The spark of the divine needs the physical organism in order to manifest.” The Belgian holds the hypodermic up, taps it. “The conventions of body and mind serve as a prison or shell, unfortunate limitations confronted by holy men in the East. They developed a series of techniques for mortification of the flesh, in order to transcend that which was not the divine seed. Techniques sadly wasted on mere madmen. Our process is a more advanced form of this mortification, which we’ve developed after some trial and error. You see, we will need to break you completely, body and mind, in order to awaken your true being.”
Their crimes run much deeper than I knew. I feel anger rising within me, stunned by the depths of their cruelty.
“Is this what you do to people? What you did to that Arab girl?”
Lavoisier merely smiles, for once passing up a chance to prattle on.
It’s a nightmare. I struggle against the ropes, feeling the skin of my wrists burn, rubbed raw.
One of the bodyguards grabs my left arm, ties a rubber band above the elbow. Lavoisier finds a vein and sticks the hypodermic into it.
“What are you shooting me up with?”
The Belgian smiles. “Our refinement of the old tools of shamanism, to speed the process along.”
He squeezes the plunger, a yellow liquid passing from the hypodermic into my arm. It doesn’t hurt. Not yet.
“I’m so sorry if I’ve bothered you. If you let me go, I’ll forget all about you. I won’t say anything to anyone.”
“There’s no need to apologize, nowhere to go. This is what we had hoped for from the beginning. It’s why you heard the rumor about gold coins, why we gave you an opportunity to meet us. Please, you needn’t worry. Despite what we’re going to do to you, we will not let you die. Your death would be a tragedy. It would merely displace the cosmic energy without awakening it. We’d have to start all over again, looking for another such as yourself.”
I can feel the tears flowing down my cheeks. My heart might explode. “Don’t do this.”
Lavoisier lifts a finger to my lips.
“Please, that won’t change anything. We know what you are: a thief, a coward, and a liar. None of that matters. Soon you will be divine, transcendent. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve wanted this all along.”
The other bodyguard attaches the wires from the batteries to my bare skin. He hands the leader a small box with more wires trailing off of it.
Lavoisier turns around for a moment, and offers some more words to the congregation. They begin to chant cacophonously in an unknown language.
The Grand Magus faces me again. His fingers hold the red dial in the center of the box. He gives me a quick nod.
The current pulses through my body. My muscles seize up, my teeth rattling in my head. I don’t know how long the pain lasts–perhaps only seconds–but it feels like an eternity.
When it stops, I feel a wetness at my legs. I’ve pissed himself. One of the bodyguards punches my in the stomach. The other grabs a knife and starts slicing down my forearm.
When I starts to scream, the current starts again.
After that, I’m lost in a series of blows, cuts and electrocutions. Sometimes in the pauses, I hear the sound of tools being rearranged. If I get used to the knife or the hits, there will be a pause, a moment of anticipation. Then they turn on the current. The shocks come stronger each time, flames racing through my veins.
I squeeze my eyes shut. I don’t want to see what they’re doing to me. Everything hurts. I feel mangled. I don’t know what they’ve broken. My hands throb with pain.
Then comes one last jolt of electricity, the most painful thing I’ve ever felt, like a fire shooting from the base of my spine to the crown of my head. After that is silence and darkness.
No, not complete silence. My ears pick up a low, rhythmic sound. It starts weak, as if at a distance, but grows stronger.
There is something breathing, in and out, in the darkness.
The sound communicates something I can’t identify, hunger or malevolence or pain. It’s almost more of a growling than respiration, a sinister sibilance. I am alone here in the darkness with some kind of animal, a rabid beast.
No, I realize, there’s no animal. I’m listening to my own breath.
I open my eyes. Lavoisier and his bodyguards have stopped. They stand there, looking at me with an expression of wonder on their faces. I glance at my broken body. cuts and bruises covering my arms and legs. All forgotten when I see what they’ve done to my right hand.
It’s slimy and yellow, almost unrecognizable. The fingers undulate, not under my control, a foreign organism. Like they’ve cut off the hand, attaching a disgusting yellow starfish to the stump. Yellow lines, the same color as the starfish, creep down my forearm, branching like veins. There’s no pain with it, just warmth.
I convulse, try again to break my bonds, but they hold.
Sickly shades of yellow spread through my arm, then it starts to bloat. The bonds strain against my growing flesh.
The breathing echoes in my ears. The same unsettling sound I heard in the darkness. An alien being breathes through my lungs.
I struggle again, hearing the crack of the wood, and stand, feeling the chair fall away beneath me. The perspective is wrong. My torturers are below me. I shouldn’t up be this high.
Screams catch my attention, the reaction of the congregation. Several have stood up, gazing at me, wonder in their eyes. Wonder and fear and awe and despair.
I hear their voices in my head, their thoughts, their animal instincts for survival. I understand now. My fear is gone. I stretch out what was once an arm, now a mass of yellow-green tendrils. I see my true body.
Several cultists scream louder, clutching heads or chests. The fear breaks something in them. I feel their ends, the life going out of them. A small spark escapes, almost invisible, that fragment of energy within each sentient being. The only part of them that is like me, the part of them that longed to awaken me.
This is what they want, the freedom that their animal bodies can’t understand. A few steps and I am among them, grabbing them with viscous appendages, stepping on them like cockroaches, flinging them against the walls. I slaughter them–not out of anger or hunger or to avenge the pathetic body they tortured. This is the sacrament they sought–to join the ultimate, to be destroyed by the divine.
In a moment, it is done. Bodies and parts of bodies surround me.
Gunshots sound out. Three men remain in the chapel. The bodyguards have guns, rifles, assault weapons. I feel the bullets, the hot pinches as they enter my flesh.
It takes one stride to reach them. They fall to pieces in my hands.
Only one remains. The magus stands within a circle of iron set into the floor, shouting and gesturing. His words are strange, esoteric–an ancient language–but I understand their meaning. He hopes to bind, to command me. To hold back the infinite.
One swipe takes his head off.
I look around. Nothing moves. Only death remains in the chapel.
I feel a spasm, a weakness passing through me. It takes me a moment to understand. My strength is leaving. I know, but I can’t say, what is happening. The idiots have awoken me at the wrong time. The stars are not right. The cosmic alignment only allows me a few minutes in this form. It will disappear soon.
One thing remains: the armored door in the office. I can’t remember what it concealed. Whatever it was, it brought me here. I need to see behind it.
In a moment, I’m at the office, breaking through the wooden door, squeezing into the small room. The metal door hidden behind the potted plant looks more fragile than I remember.
I rip it off its hinges, folding it in half, tossing it to the side. I remember the gold I was looking for, cram my head into the small room. There is none in the dim space.
A weak light bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting weak illumination on a cot covered with a mound of blankets. The mound moves. A small face looks out from it, that of a young young girl, maybe seven or eight, with dark hair and big brown eyes. Her mouth opens in a silent scream, the same look of rapture and terror I saw in the faces of the cultists. Something in her breaks. She convulses and begins to fall backwards but never makes it to the floor. Dark fissures open in her face. A viscous and black fluid, like smoke or oil, begins to pour out of the broken flesh, flowing upwards. The body begins to rise, darkening, growing.
Her energy is a not a spark, not like the others. She is a hurricane, greater even than me.
Another wave of weakness sweeps through me. I am falling, reverting, losing consciousness.
Her power continues to grow, her true form unfolding before my eyes. Her dark mass hits the ceiling, breaking through bricks as if it was they were tissue paper.
It’s not until after my fourth drink that I bring out the pistol. I set it on the coffee table, pausing before the next step. The low hum of the city fills my ears.
I don’t know why it’s been so hard to get to this step.
Life has only gotten worse since they pulled me out of the rubble of the warehouse. Between my rap sheet and being the only survivor of a massacre, I was the obvious culprit.
They called me terrorist, tried to connect the warehouse explosion to the AMIA bombing or the attacks in the US. They showed me photos of the mangled bodies–the earthly remains of the Temple of the Dancing Star. After a week, the interrogators started working me over.
I pick up the bottle of aguardiente, then set it back down. I’ve had too much already. I can’t be sloppy.
I reach into my pocket for the bullet I’ve carried with me the last few weeks, like a talisman, a reminder I can end it anytime.
They never found the little girl, not even a piece of her. I insisted, but they told me she was a hallucination, a product of the cocktail of drugs they found in my system after digging me up–LSD, ayahuasca, other things I can’t even pronounce.
I don’t believe them. The memory of the girl feels more real than everything that’s come after.
I lasted three days under the harsher interrogations. I knew I should have just taken the rap, confessed to planting a bomb, even if they never found one. I couldn’t lie about it, couldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.
I was almost resigned to dying in that jail cell. Instead, they set me loose. No trial, no explanation, just handed me my clothes and pushed me out the door.
Back on the streets of Avellaneda, I let myself believe I’d won. I’d walked out of the warehouse, walked out of the police station. Twenty-six corpses in evidence, and I was free to find new marks.
It didn’t last.
Every day since my release, the world has only grown drearier. There are no big scores, none that matter. No amount of loot that will change what I am, worth no more than a dog or a vulture. The futility of a poor and shabby existence eats away at me.
If what happened in the warehouse was not real, then maybe nothing is.
I open up the pistol and load the bullet in the chamber. I only bought the one. For the price of the other five I’ve bought a few more nights of drunken oblivion. One bullet is all I need.
My thoughts are interrupted by a tapping at the door. Pistol in hand, I open it, expecting a cop or a thug.
Big brown eyes set in the face of a young, dark-haired girl, look up at me. It can’t be possible. She looks like the one from the warehouse, the one they never found.
I raise the gun, pointing it at her face. She doesn’t move. Not even a twitch of fear. Maybe I’m drunker than I realized.
“I understand.” She meets my gaze. Her tone is flat, emotionless. “After a dream about being a god, I woke up next to a river. I hid away in an abandoned boat house, too scared to do anything but wait to die. Every time I slept, I returned to the same dream. It took me three nights to realize the dream was the reality and everything else mere appearance. Three days despite the few years I had dwelt within this flesh. You’ve lived over thirty years, believing this meat is your true self, wearing a name others gave you.“
It’s like a nightmare made flesh and blood. I shake my head. Little girls don’t talk this way.
“I thought you might find me since you had awoken me. You didn’t, so I went to look for you. I thought the prison was a distraction, holding you back. I made them release you. It was easy to get inside their heads, to convince them they had made a mistake. But still, this obstinate flesh rejected the reality of what you might be.”
This can’t be happening. It’s absurd, impossible. It must be another hallucination.
“You tell yourself that, but you know it’s not true.” She talks as if listening to my thoughts. “I’ll help you to discover what you have lost.”
The gun shakes in my hand. All I have to do is squeeze the trigger. One bullet will end the nightmare.
“Do you remember Lavoisier’s guards? What do you think that crude instrument can accomplish?”
She lifts her arm, reaching out for me. The gun thumps to the floor. Her hand feels warm in my grasp.
She guides me outside where the sun already shines from above the surrounding buildings. A low, rhythmic sound fills my ears, the respiration of something powerful and sinister.
The breathing is alien and it is my own.
Carlos McReynolds was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, grew up in Miami, Florida, and has lived in Chicago for the last few years, where he works in data mining for fraud detection. His youthful love for Verne and Wells gave way to an interest in the weird with the discover of writers such as Lovecraft, Cortázar and de Maupassant. He can be followed at @erdosign on Twitter.