Published: Nov 25, 2020 1:00:00 PM

lightning-witches

CHAPTER XVIII

Someday, years later, I might have possessed the proper vocabulary to present what occurred next. I do not mean this as a boast. I mean this for my own selfish reasons. I hope, in time, I might find the proper words in a desperate attempt to expel the memory of moments past. I care little for the audience at the crux of our story here, and I am sorry for this reader, but for my own continued life, I must shelter my immortal soul first before I consider an outsider’s capacity for comprehension. I want to define what it was I felt. I want the words of man to meet with the sights I beheld and combat the insults inflicted against my other senses.

This, I believe, is how mankind invented God. Faced with phenomena so much larger than a primitive mind, humanity’s brightest minds walk to the line of what is possible, what is knowable, and anything that cannot be given shape by words then available, becomes the realm of the divine. We could not call a thunderstorm anything but the realm of Zeus. We could not call the tempestuous and moody seas anything but the jealousy of mighty Poseidon. Death itself remains definitely beyond our reach, even with every scrap of science we today possess. What we lack in words, and in definition, we compensate for with rhythm and song, so that we might somehow hold a higher sensory posture. We wish to brush against the intriguing possibilities that there are monumental instances beyond our comprehension and beyond the reductive magical powers of an almighty, Himself impossible for a man to capture in His glory.

We avert our gaze from God. The scrap of truth there beheld would raise questions man was not meant to ask, lest we fall into an ocean swarming with all manner of creature. We might be driven to monomania—to slay that which is most emblematic of the newly-sighted distance between our tiny selves and the enormity of this universal animal, this god-thing.

The universe is an animal. It has no wants. It embodies no malice, by human reckoning. One cannot take revenge against an animal, just as one cannot take revenge against a god that does not take notice. That is not to say one must not fight for one’s life, nor to take the passion from that fight for survival. It is to say, the most evil thing in the world is a dispassionate god-animal that does not think. It does not think as you or I think. It is so distant, and so other, from the human mind, that our first encounter elicits an attempt at study.

What is it? How does it work? Does it love? Does it hate us? It might invade our dreams. It might not dwell in our reality. It might not make any place its den.

Hateful men believe this far too often of other humans. Another race, another color, another god, and this man opposite men becomes the dispassionate animal, unfit for life. A man that believes as such is a man that fears his father and hates his mother. This man’s life is a toxic jungle and to redeem him, to return from this lectern of weird religion back to more complete thought, is a labor. I say this because there is a dramatic difference between an evil man and the unfeeling, existential threats beyond the scale of our small planet. An evil man believes he alone can slay his enemy, which is why he makes his enemy man, a creature governed by the immutable laws of blood and death. Laws he can fathom.

But an enemy beyond definition! A threat beyond words we currently possess! Perhaps in time our species will grow wiser. Were I born a century later, I might know enough. My fellow humans might have developed the vocabularic capabilities, emotional, technical, or otherwise, to at least name the now-immortal things that weak men ignore, because it is simpler to bleed a neighbor dry than to combat the animal that is the universe.

A thing ignorant of death can still bring death. A virus. A meteorite. A lightning bolt. The unquantifiable size of the oceans, and storms, and gases of the giant Jupiter, itself named for a god whose face not even a Roman emperor, conqueror of the then-known world, might touch.

That day though, we knew more of the world. We knew of the worlds beyond our world, across a sea of stars. While we could not touch them, we could name them, and know of them.

That day, the ocean returned. The tide rolled back. From that day, should we live, we would know of the sea and we would know its name.

The thunderhead’s stormy mass boiled black up from the cloudbank. With the Electrochemistry building straining against its energy expulsion, I broke from Lorna’s office and descended the winding staircase I had earlier ascended on my hands and knees. Taking no care and touching the rail for balance, I experienced a stunning electroshock. I immediately tore my hand away, sucking my fingers in pain while trotting down the wire-suspended stair with no bannister for balance. Its final step catapulted me in a full run toward the door, now blasted open and hanging off its gnarled iron hinges. The cold of the snow was instant on my feet. The Electrochemistry building’s exterior throbbed, straining with energy, channeling its flow off the exposed beams. Snapping attacks of an unknown element arced in a terrifying display of unseen architecture. The bolts were reaching out, feeling for the earth, seeking a firm grip.

I bent back and yelled for Jasper, for Ianto, for anyone. A lone figure caught my eye. Amidst the arc bolts jabbing from the jittering building was Jordan. She extended a hand and let it strike her open palm. She recoiled, shaking off pain, and laughing to Francesca beside her. Jordan waited for another flash and caught the next bolt, then aimed her other arm at Francesca, letting the bolt jump to her friend’s hand, and Francesca sent the electrochemical expulsion skyward, far out of sight.

“Francesca!” I called for her attention.

The two students waved for me to come. “It’s alright. This is what it’s designed for,” Jordan assured me. She watched the building’s cracking electricity as I approached. One arced near her but found the ground first. Jordan cursed. Upon my arrival, she noticed what’d become of me and halted her activity. “Goddamn. What happened?”

“I got stuck for quite a while in the space within the foundation,” I answered.

“Are you alright?” Francesca asked.

“Still breathing. What’s all this? I spoke for a good while with Lorna and she, well, she revealed more than I have time to explain. I should—Jordan, Lorna is Professor Soames, to be brief. She’s lived two lives for decades.”

The assembled joy tumbled from Jordan’s face. She was immediately burdened with competing questions, and I felt some regret for even broaching the topic as the world fell down.

“Where—she told you this?” Jordan asked. “You’re certain.”

“She gave a very detailed account. But I believe her. I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but—I just have to. The Five Old Men are not what they seem. This place, Shackleburg, it may just be a tomb for Professor Loomis as he awaits what is to come. Ah, there is too much to relay now. Something is coming on the horizon. Lorna calibrated and worked the machine in her office and this is what’s happened.”

“Jasper went with Ianto to the Orrery when you didn’t return,” Francesca said. “To find Professor Rakosi.”

“We waited for you here, and then this began,” Jordan said, still solemn from the news.

“Right, we need to,” I began, but found myself unable to think. “We need to. Damn, I don’t know. I don’t know what we should do. Lorna! She told me the silvery chemical released in the Orrery was mercury. Which must signify—something.”

“In the history of alchemy, mercury was believed to be the first element. The first matter,” Jordan said. “There’s no scientific evidence to back it up, but they believed other elements could be transmuted from mercury—that you could make gold from mercury, if you worked the chemical reaction right. All things could come from it, at least that’s what they thought. If Professor Soames—or Lorna, I suppose, if what you say is true—included a mechanism to let loose a wave of mercury into the Orrery, then it probably is exactly what we think it is. Something very old is coming.”

“We need to tell Jasper and Ianto,” I said.

Jordan flexed an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Because this was all in the name of determining whether we could trust Professor Rakosi’s intentions.”

“After your long conversation with Lorna Rodan,” Francesca said. “Do you really think we can trust any of the Five Old Men? They’re deranged psychotics. It’s no big mystery. I doubt they could do anything about this, even if they wanted to. These are the woods. We’re all lost in here together, feeling around on our hands and knees.”

I exhaled hard. “What do you suggest we do, if not reconvene with the others at the Orrery?”

“What else did Lorna say?” Jordan asked.

“So much. Too much. She said Professor Loomis assembled the Five Old Men with a series of telegraph messages, but she didn’t say how, exactly. She didn’t have the chance to finish that part of her story. The—the telegraphs! She said they were copies in the archives!”

“Urgh!” Francesca grunted. “There is the most sarcastic ghost haunting the archives.”

I couldn’t decide which clarifying question to ask in that moment. I decided if we came across the ghost, I’d confront Francesca for details, but now was not the time. I presented the idea to Jordan, who seemed pliable.

The walk to the archive was downhill once more, thankfully. My body was still aching and bruised from being trapped beneath the Electrochemistry building’s foundation. Sitting and listening to Lorna’s story had only tightened and wounded my body further, begging for rest. I found myself limping, barefoot, while Francesca held onto Jordan’s arm for guidance, but none of us could muster a dramatic gait. And the sky commanded our attention.

The darkened thunderhead breached the valley’s cloudveil as a leviathan leaps from the ocean. Rising, its impenetrable heart thrashing with a storm at its center, it dragged the white clouds along for its ascension. The storm, thick and weighty, dangled at the top of a thin strand of cloud like a diseased spike on a scorpion’s tail. It tensed and drifted in rigid silence while its interior betrayed its intentions. Lightning forked from the black guts to touch the white layer beneath, then reaching out and raking its fingers over the mountainside itself.

It threw a shadow over the infirmary, the lowest building on the edge of campus. The storm reeled back in anticipation to strike the small stone building and the gathered bolt came down in a strobing fury, only to be captured and diverted away because the building nearest the infirmary was the statuary.

As if it were offended, the mighty thunderhead shifted its attention. We limped further, coming nearer to this faceless monster. It came to the statuary, a rather expansive sculpture garden, from what I could understand, but this was all I could, because when the storm arched itself back once more to attack, the statues struck first. Arc bolts leaped from the gathered statues, reaching inside the storm, and gripping the lightning like a fisherman takes hold of a writhing eel.

These two immovable objects wrestled with tremendous strength for control and upon the twines of the violent, arcing energy stood human shapes, women tearing at the soul of this malicious storm bearing down on our mountain.

-- Alex Crumb
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