Content warning: Drug use
Johann paced back and forth. The girl who had come to see him earlier, Deirdre, had left him in a peculiar state. It might have been infatuation – it certainly wasn’t love, not yet – but he didn’t like it. He couldn’t tell if it was her or her behaviour towards him that drove him into such a state, but in any case it unsettled him deeply, and it interrupted his work.
He was going to bring back Dominic Sapping tonight, but before he did that he was going to do something he had been repeatedly told not to do. Something new, something bold, something that had not even been conceived of before.
At first, Johann had considered going to the realm of the dead. That was something he could do not with his body, but with his mind, and it was dangerous. He could get permanently severed from his body if he went too far, or tried something he wasn’t ready for. That was all well and good, but he already knew what he would find there. Dead people. And while shaking the hand of Isaac Newton would have been enjoyable to say the least, it wasn’t what he really wanted to accomplish. He wanted to go somewhere no mortal soul, not even a dead one, had gone before.
Deirdre had given him the idea. Some of his stranger books, the ones that could be considered actual grimoires, mentioned that there was a place beyond the afterlife, where no one went. It could supposedly be reached in a roundabout way through using a certain concoction to go to the realm of faeries, which didn’t sound real but apparently was completely real, then somehow reaching the outer place through there.
Normally, Johann would have laughed, but he had the powers of Hell at his fingertips now. He could do anything.
He stopped at the table and opened a small wooden box that had been placed on it. Inside was a single syringe. He had mixed the drug inside himself, in accordance with the things he had found in certain books, and didn’t know if it would work or if it was even safe. He was still determined to try it, however, and nothing in the world could have dissuaded him.
Johann took a deep breath as he pressed the cold metal of the needle to his skin. He had disinfected both his arm and the needle earlier, something he had learned to do from Duke Mephisto. He bit his lip and injected the thick black liquid into his vein.
At first, it seemed nothing had changed. A few minutes later, his head was a little clouded, his fingers felt slightly numb, but otherwise there was nothing amiss. Then he blinked, and suddenly was in a different place.
The new room was made completely out of wood planks, with two small windows on one wall and a table and chair in the middle. It was dim, the only light coming from the fogged windows and single candle burning down to nothing on the table. He couldn’t tell the time, only that it was still dark out, and that the moon wasn’t yet sinking on the horizon. So, the drug hadn’t been fake or deadly after all. It had actually taken him somewhere new – or induced violent hallucinations, he couldn’t tell just yet. Johann sat down at the table and patted the chair beneath him. It seemed solid enough, and there certainly wasn’t a chair or anything for him to sit on in his room that could have mimicked it.
On the table sat a series of objects. The first was an opaque wine bottle, still corked. Something in the back of Johann’s mind told him that he wouldn’t find wine when he opened it. The next object was a simple cup, as tall as Johann’s hand and made of unfired clay. The third was a piece of blunt metal, presumably for opening the bottle. Johann ran it against his hand and realized that there was nothing sharp in the room, and no cord. Nothing that would act as a weapon.
“You want me to drink this, huh?” Johann asked it in German, though the chance that anyone understood or heard him was slim. There was silence in answer, so he uncorked the bottle and held it up to his nose to smell it.
It felt solid and real. Whatever was inside was completely odorless. It filled only half the bottle, and when he poured it into the cup he discovered there was only enough to fill the cup to the brim once.
Johann’s stomach turned. The cup was now full of purple sludge that was more like a gel than a drink. He dipped his finger in it, stuck it in his mouth, and immediately gagged. It tasted like smoke and rot, and had a bitter tone. He brought the cup to his lips, and, before he could lose his nerve, poured as much as he could into his mouth. It burned like fire as it went down, and left him coughing, spraying bits of the vile stuff across the room. Johann forced the next bit into his mouth, barely able to swallow it for his coughing and gagging. He was bent over on the floor, clutching his stomach and clenching his jaw. He wasn’t going to vomit it up, it was plain that he had to get all of it down to pass this strange test.
His breathing was ragged, and he felt a strange cold seeping through his body. Johann’s vision swam, and he keeled over, nearly vomiting onto the cold wooden floor. When he looked up, a small faerie was buzzing above his head.
Confused, Johann reached up to touch it, but the floor disappeared beneath him before his fingers could make contact. He fell, screaming, into a sea of something wet and cold, which turned solid almost immediately and put him lying on his back in the middle of a flat gray plane that ran on forever. He stood up, his head aching and his hair standing on end. The spot where he had injected himself was throbbing, and the pain slowly spread, bleeding the color from his body as it did, until he was as gray as the plane around him. Johann saw the bottle of purple sludge sitting on the ground next to him, refilled, with the cup next to it.
He didn’t bother with the cup this time, instead lifting the bottle straight to his lips and choking down as much as he could.
Nothing seemed to change this time, so, with no color left on his entire body, he chugged the rest of the bottle, smashed it on the ground, and started walking.
Johann wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, but walking seemed like a good bet. He kept his eyes cast down, not wanting to look at the stars of blighting yellow that hung above.
He became aware of someone walking beside him. Johann looked up, and saw one of his brothers, Wilhelm, the one who had become a Catholic priest.
“Hey, if it isn’t Johann Godless,” he said.
Johann glared. It was a stupid childhood nickname. He’d been called that for a particular incident where he declared his atheism in front of his then seminarian brother, at the grand age of thirteen. He had called himself ‘godless,’ which was probably part of the reason he’d been packed off to seminary himself only two years later, when his father drowned. “Go away,” he said.
Wilhelm shrugged, and vanished into a puff of smoke.
“There’s no need to cry,” a voice Johann recognized said from behind him. He turned to see Albert Janson standing there. How odd that he should be here, since Johann had only ever met him once.
“I’m not crying,” he said.
“Well, you should be,” he said. “This is getting worse, and it’s your fault. You bastard. If you knew what you were doing, like you think you do, you would turn right back around and walk straight into a church.” Albert Janson winced. “Father doesn’t like me to talk this way, you know? Tells me to bottle it all up. To not let anyone know that I’m sick, or that I really do have feelings. Anger, you know? Well, let me tell you right now, you selfish excuse for a doctor, that I’m angry at you. I hate you and everything you’ve done, but I don’t have to punish you because if you don’t stop worse things are going to happen than I could ever do. I mean, you’re here now, that should be enough warning.”
Johann was incensed. “I’m not going to stop. What have I done that can’t be undone? That isn’t good?”
“Everything,” Albert said sadly. “You’ve done everything.”
As Johann glared at him, his face shifted into Deirdre’s.
“Johann!” She said. “Johann, wake up. Come on, wake up!”
“No!” He shouted back. “I’m not stopping, and nothing you people can say will make me.”
His vision distorted. There was no color anywhere now, it was being leached away by the blinding pain in his arm and the shadow figure Deirdre had dissolved into. When he blinked, Johann saw snatches of thick forest, open meadows, laughing figures dancing in a circle around a fire. A woman held out a peach to him, but when he reached out to take it he saw how unnatural and fae her face was, and he dared not. The woman crushed the peach in her hand, causing violet liquid to seep out of her fist and onto the grass, where it looked remarkably like blood.
Suddenly, his eyes snapped open and he found himself lying on the slate ground, sweating and breathing hard. He felt shaky and weak, but better than he had before. His arm hurt no longer, but the world was still in shades of gray.
In front of him was a stone well, and inside of it was an open void. Johann had a coin in his pocket, which he tossed off into the void. It fell down, down, down, until he couldn’t see it anymore. Though he listened for a long time, he never heard it hit anything.
Well. He wasn’t going to see anything from up here, that was for sure. Johann drew back, and, before he could lose his nerve, climbed onto the well’s side and threw himself into the void.
He fell for a long time, long enough that he became bored and started to plan out his grocery list for the next day. Eventually he thought he heard a dull buzzing, far away from him. It grew louder and louder as he fell, until he slammed his hands over his ears. It did nothing. The buzzing was inside his head, it was outside of his head, it was everywhere. His reality.
At last, he heard water, and saw a vast black ocean beneath him. The buzzing wouldn’t stop, it surrounded him, it drowned him. He slammed into the water, and sank down until his lungs screamed and his fingers brushed something metal in the water next to him. He curled his hand around it, and swam for the surface.
Johann gasped for air. He opened his hand to see what the metal thing he’d found was, and discovered that it was the coin he’d thrown earlier. At least that made vague sense. He looked up and saw someone dressed in red looking down at him from the mouth of the well, which was far too close given the amount of time he’d fallen.
The person in red watched him treading water for what must have been an hour or more, not once moving. Johann grew bored again, and lifted his arm up to check the spot where he’d injected himself. There was no visible puncture wound.
He was vaguely aware that in the next hour or so he had a conversation with this figure, and he saw something that was so horrible he mind blocked it out. The memories disappeared as soon as they formed, blowing away like smoke at the tips of his fingers. Whatever was said or done, he couldn’t remember, and it seemed like he was just trying to tread water at the bottom of the well, with a massive chunk of missing time in the middle.
He looked up, and saw the person in red holding something circular over their head. The top to the well. The person watched him for a moment more, and he felt pity radiating off of them, and anger. Had he said or done something to enrage them? He couldn’t remember. They slid the cover over the top of the well, plunging Johann into total darkness.
Very slowly, his room faded back into view. It was black and white at first, until he blinked, and the color returned.
Johann immediately went to a full length mirror that he’d bought from a pawn shop. Outwardly, he was still the same: light brown skin, short, messy, dark brown hair, black eyes, thin, spindly frame, angular features. He was breathing hard, and his hand clutched the coin so hard it hurt. The puncture wound from the syringe was bleeding, and something was amiss with the blood. For one thing, it was cold against his skin, despite having just been inside his body. For another, it didn’t look quite right in the mirror. In fact, it –
His blood was slate gray.
Johann smiled at first, and wiped it away. Maybe it was some kind of ink, or part of the drug? That was disproven a moment later when he pricked his other arm with a needle and found that blood to be gray, too. He had bitten his tongue at some point, and when he opened his mouth to spit out blood it was also gray.
Well, that wasn’t necessarily bad. Johann had never seen anything to suggest that gray blood was unhealthy. He would just have to sleep on it and see if his blood was the same tomorrow. He tried his best to calm his mind, and turned to his bed.
His instruments for bringing back people were underneath it, and they only took a few moments to fully assemble. He’d had plenty of practice, since he’d brought back upwards of twenty people by now. Dominic Sapping would be the fourth he’d done in London, and, if his records were correct, the twenty-fifth in all the world.
The actual task of bringing Sapping back took him less than five minutes, and when he was done he sat down to think. His hallucinations at the hands of the drug had troubled him greatly, especially the part where his brother and Deirdre had told him to wake him up. Albert Janson’s rant was disturbing, too, and the fact that three people he didn’t particularly care for would show up in his dreams to warn him was the worst of all. Why were they there? Were they connected to what he’d tried to do somehow? Johann took out a piece of paper, and drafted a letter to his mother, asking if Wilhelm was doing alright.
A buzzing sound filled his ears, and Johann’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. For a split second, he wanted to run.
Then that split second passed, and he rooted his feet in the ground. Running away from someone he’d just brought back on account of a mildly spooky noise was not something he was going to do. Ever.
Dominic Sapping twitched on the table. Johann went over to him and sat down at the table. Sapping was handsome, in a way, with a solid jawline, wide shoulders, and thick muscles. His hair was a graying brown, cut short and thinning, and there was a bit of stubble on his chin. There were suture lines all over his chest, and one arm had been sewn back on after detaching. His face was largely untouched, though, and still looked like it had in his first life.
Sapping twitched again, and his mouth opened. He began to breathe, raggedly at first, but slowly his breath became more regular. This was by far the most exciting part of bringing someone back, when they actually started to breathe, and live. The moment when they at last opened their eyes was a close second, and their first word in their new life easily the third. Johann shifted excitedly in his chair, grinning. His twenty-fifth! That had to be a significant number. It was auspicious!
Suddenly, the breathing stopped. Johann was confused, and reached out to touch him. What had gone wrong? Where had he messed up?
Sapping’s breathing did not resume for several minutes, and his pulse had stopped, so Johann stood and went to fetch something to hopefully shock his heart back into motion. He didn’t find it immediately, and had to dig around for it. Dammit, where was it? He could have sworn it was right on top.
Something thumped to the ground behind him. He turned to see Dominic Sapping standing on two feet, staring at him with a vacant, unseeing gaze. One of the suture lines had reopened, and gray blood dripped to the floor.
That had never happened before. Johann felt a dull sense of panic, but it was smothered by a spreading emptiness, something close to sadness but so far away, simply a complete absence of feeling. Sapping’s eyes were yellow, and when he opened his mouth to speak flies poured out.
“You need to stop this,” Sapping said. His voice had a whispery quality behind it, as if someone else were speaking on top of him.
“Are you a demon?” Johann asked. “These powers are mine, and hell-given. You cannot-”
Sapping closed the distance between them in a matter of seconds, and loomed far over Johann. He bared his teeth, showing the insects crawling between them.
“These powers are not hell-given. You have gone too far. Stop now, and perhaps be saved.”
“But a demon gave them to me!” Johann would have been afraid, but he was too empty to even consider it.
“But you took them away from that. You went out, and now here you stand.”
“I won’t stop this. Besides, if Heaven and Hell do not exist, then nothing beyond them exists, and neither can you. See, it’s just an aftereffect of the drugs I’ve injected. Just an aftereffect!”
Sapping laughed, and coughed up thick gray liquid that spatted on Johann’s shirt. “No. Really, I would think that even you can tell fact from fiction.”
“Exactly, I can, and this is fiction.”
“You really won’t ever learn, will you? I would have thought that going beyond death itself would have been enough for you, and seeing your unholy creation possessed by an abomination from the void would have finished the task.”
Johann shook his head. “Never.”
Sapping – or, rather, the thing inside Sapping – gave a rattling sigh. “I suppose if I can’t convince you now, you’ll have to learn from someone else.”
The world went black and white, but this time he did not allow himself to fall. Instead, he surged forward, grabbed at two sides of Sapping’s suture lines, and pulled as hard as he could. The effect was instantaneous. Sapping came apart like paper, and when Johann kicked him in the chest he went flying backwards, out the door and down the stairs. He slid backwards on gray blood, tried to stand, slipped, and fell down the next set of the stairs. Something that might have been a dog came flying out of Deirdre’s apartment after him, chased by a half-dressed man shouting in French. Chaos reigned downstairs for a few minutes, until the entire building went suddenly and ominously silent.
His rational mind knew these events were impossible, because he wasn’t that strong, but the rest of him wasn’t about to question his good luck, and his apartment was full of flies now. He was still colorblind, but his regular vision was starting to come back. He walked down the stairs, and went into Deirdre’s apartment, where he found her sitting at the table.
“Want to get a drink?” Johann asked.
He was immensely relieved when she nodded.