“Did you hear about the Sacramento zoo?” Seth exclaimed excitedly while flipping through the morning paper – undoubtedly looking for the comics, his favorite section. Ismene sleepily shook her head, pouring herself coffee. “There are wild animals all over!”
“What’s that, dear?” Ismene patronized idly, as one might a child who had just discovered the existence of their own feet.
“Someone broke into the zoo last night and broke a lot of the cages, let out animals, all kinds of mayhem!” He flipped the page. “The police and animal control say there’s no danger, so long as everyone stays away from any strange or large animals they see out and about.”
“‘Strange’ animals,” Ismene mused, already considering her next episode of Pandora’s Box. “Could this be a distraction from this weekend’s plans at the airbase?”
“Beware the valley panther,” Seth murmured, in a voice that wasn’t altogether his. Ismene lifted an eyebrow and decided against asking about his utterance. She poured herself a second cup and tried to ready herself for the day ahead as he started reading the comics.
Harry sat in his new center of operations, windows drawn tight against the approaching morning. Unceremoniously he examined the individual pieces of his “demon computer,” trying to find any flaw in his logic or configuration. “What was it trying to accomplish?” he asked about the entity that had reached through his warded connection. “How was it able to ask questions of me?” Topping off his bowl of cereal with more flat beer, he sat in the darkness, pondering where he went wrong.
Walking into Harry’s living room, Tammy wrinkled her nose. “It smells like dead meat and burnt hair.”
“Sorry,” Harry grumbled, no longer alarmed when she unexpectedly walked through the door.
“No, it’s not you,” she suggested, moving to a window. “Something outside smells absolutely foul.”
“Sorry,” Harry grunted, disinterested.
Shortly thereafter Tammy knocked on Ismene’s apartment door. “Harry’s … busy,” she shrugged, joining Seth at the breakfast table.
After pouring a cup of coffee for Tammy and taking a personal call, Ismene was excited to announce that, while waiting for a new studio to be found or built for her public access show, UC Davis’ radio station was interested in hosting her for the mean-time. “They want a little touch of the paranormal in their rotation,” she smiled.
“Don’t we know that some people at UC Davis are in on the air force base experiment?” Tammy asked.
Ismene frowned thoughtfully. “Exactly – this way we can get in close and have an excuse to go snooping around. Well, not ‘snooping’ exactly, more like ‘covert surveillance.'”
Seth beamed at her suggestion, looking up from his paper. “That sounds exciting, like in a spy novel!”
Deciding on covering the zoo for her inaugural radio show, Ismene called Tommy and decided on some late-evening reconnaissance. After dinner they drove to the expansive park to the southwest of Sacramento’s bustling downtown. “You’ll be my assistant,” she delegated to Tammy, setting the stage for their reconnaissance. “Seth, you’re my bodyguard against the scary monsters. Tommy,” she paused, looking at his sharp suit and severe demeanor, pursing her lips in thought, “you’re legal counsel, I guess.”
Finished with his disgusting bowl of cereal, Harry moved on to looking for gainful employment, fearing that the credit cards he maxed out to fund his demon computer would soon come due. The “Circle Square” corporation had nothing but marketing buzzwords in their job posting, but the pay they offered was well above standard for programming teams. Intrigued, and his hackles raised, he began digging into the mysterious Circle Square corporation, eventually discovering that the head of HR was another “Doctor Long,” though hopefully a different one than had kidnapped him weeks prior. Maybe.
“Time to get to the bottom of this,” he frowned, squaring his jaw.
He looked for his phone to call Ismene, hoping to tap into her network of contacts. His half-hearted search was interrupted by a harsh tapping at his window. Suspicious and glancing to his door to verify the locks were set, he picked up a nearby lamp as a cudgel and made his way to the covered window. The tapping continued, forming a pattern that he remembered from his youth playing with telegram lines: Morse code.
“…rapping at my chamber door.”
“This is going to go very badly for one of us,” Harry muttered under his breath, holding the makeshift club high. Drawing back the curtain he saw a large, ebony raven at the window. “Oh for the love of Poe,” he snarled, closing the curtain again. Standing in his makeshift apartment, dressed only in a threadbare bathrobe and holey socks, holding a lamp as a poor melee weapon, and with an archetypal symbol of mysteries demanding entry at his window, Harry clenched his teeth.
Somehow he knew in his bones it was all Elijah’s fault, that “angelic” entity which kidnapped him a week prior. That all of the bad happenings were the fault of his self-assigned nemesis, and not because he tried to summon a demon through the internet to help him destroy an otherworldly being.
Harry looked for something to drink.
Arriving at the zoo in the early evening, Tommy pulled up in his too-ordinary sedan a full ten minutes after Ismene’s media van. Walking up to the group, Tommy had a crow of significant size perched on his shoulder. “He landed on my car and wouldn’t let go,” he shrugged at the group’s wordless question.
The bird cawed demandingly, jerking its beak back toward the city proper. “And it’s been doing that too,” Tommy offered. “I don’t know what it wants, but it sought me out for some reason.”
Catching Tammy’s eyes, the bird visibly recoiled, shrinking into its own feathers. She glared at the crow – it didn’t smell right to her. It pushed off of Tommy’s shoulder and flew directly to rest on Seth’s, somewhat farther away from Tammy. Eyes narrowed, she was about to speak when the bird nuzzled against Seth’s ear, making him giggle. “I think it likes me!”
The bird nodded.
“Do you understand us?” he asked, genuinely curious.
The bird nodded. It began to squawk and chirp, as if speaking directly to Seth, trying to avoid meeting Tammy’s fierce gaze.
“Seth, do you understand what it’s saying?” Ismene asked tentatively, debating whether or not to film the exchange for a future episode based around paranormal “animal whisperers.”
“Not really, but I think I could if I concentrated.” In an exaggerated show of will he squeezed his eyes closed and scrunched up his face, clenching his jaw and his fists so tightly he began to shake. With a gasp he opened his eyes again, blinking heavily, eyes flashing with a glint of magic.
The raven cawed, familiarly.
“I do! I do understand it!” Seth beamed, mouth wide open with elation. He began to caw to the bird – as well as a human could approximate a raven’s cry – and the bird responded, seeming to the rest of the group somehow relieved that it had someone who could understand it.
“It’s a lot of technical bird stuff,” Seth explained after several moments, nonchalantly. “I think he wants to help Harry.” The bird nodded. “Harry didn’t want his help, but he’s kind of stuck here since Harry called him.”
“Harry called a bird?” Tommy asked, voice filled with incredulity.
“Um,” Seth hesitated, licking his lips in thought. “So you know how he made that demon-computer thing?” The bird cawed loudly in protest. “Sorry, otherworldly-entity-computer thing? The wards kind of worked, and stuck this guy here. He’s bound to obey Harry, which is why he had to leave when Harry told him to ‘buzz off.'” The onyx bird nodded, approving of his retelling.
“This is not a thing of heaven,” Tammy stated flatly, her eyes icy.
“Well of course not,” explained Seth, almost rolling his eyes. “Harry wants to hurt Elijah – I don’t think an angel would help him with that.”
The bird began squawking excitedly, its large wings flapping.
“See? The bird even knows where Elijah is! All Harry has to do is ask and the bird – or at least the thing inside the bird — will help him out!”
“This is certainly not what Harry intended,” Tommy frowned, looking to Ismene.
Seeing Seth’s confusion, she tried to explain. “Have you ever tried to do something, but had something else entirely happen?”
“Like whenever I make coffee?” he offered, smiling.
“Yes dear, exactly when you make ‘coffee.’ You try to do one thing, and end up with something very different. Mistakes can happen.”
“Well, maybe Harry can put the bird back into the computer, once we’re done with these big cats in the zoo.”
Ismene looked to Tommy, the most technologically-savvy among them, with more than a little insight into the arcane.
“It is possible.”
After a terse phone call with Harry which included the phrases “clean up your own messes,” “working as a team,” and “big picture,” Ismene proudly announced that Harry would be joining them shortly, and that her production assistant Xavier would take the bird back to her house, where it would be safe until their return from the zoo.
Xavier arrived first, and with gentle reassurances by Seth that it was in good hands, the bird flew into the open passenger door window, standing firmly on the seat. “Do watch the leather,” Ismene called over, only half-joking. Xavier, confused but knowing better than to ask questions, departed, moments before Harry pulled into the parking lot.
Nothing was said of the bird, everyone trying to focus on one problem at a time.
Walking through the large public park in which the Sacramento zoo sat, the party saw several police cars forming a checkpoint, turning away would-be visitors for “public safety.” Announcing themselves as journalists, bolstered by Ismene’s winsome smile, they were let through, with a stern warning to stay to the lighted paths and to obey all orders given by officers within the park.
Debating where to begin their search for the missing cats, the group settled on the boundary between the zoo proper and Fairy Tale Town, a local fantasy-themed children’s park. Lights were low, police were scarce, and there were plenty of places to hide. Harry voiced his worry that the release of the animals was a prelude, a precursor to the mysterious “Crawling” ritual the group had stumbled upon. “Big cats make for powerful hosts,” he warned. Everyone agreed with grim solemnity.
The entrance to Fairy Tale Town was flanked by larger-than-life caricatures of storybook characters, a 10-foot tall Humpty Dumpty glaring at the group menacingly from the darkness. Scrunching up her face, Ismene made sure to take several photographs of the unsettling statue before climbing the fence, breaking into the shuttered grounds. One by one, her companions followed suit, leaving the protection of the lit paths far behind.
Deep, inhuman footprints illuminated by Ismene’s light led from the park’s entrance toward “the Twisted Mile,” a curving path with many obstacles, making navigation difficult and clear observation impossible. Unable to identify the footprints, sunken deep into the damp grass, the team looked to one another and nodded. Tommy racked his shotgun, the tell-tale sound echoing through the park.
Catching the reflection of their lights in hidden, predatory eyes, Seth stretched forth his arms to stop the rest of the party. “They’re here,” he whispered, scanning the surroundings in vain attempt to get an accurate count of the animals lurking before them. Tammy moved to take point, preferring the direct approach. Everyone else fanned out, trying to present themselves as a more threatening collection of targets.
“There’s more than just ‘them,'” Tammy warned, seeing for the first time the elongated neck of an unnatural beast in the mist of the big cats. Larger and more powerful than the others, it struck her as one of Sekmet’s fabled emissaries, the not-quite leopard that protected Egyptian royalty. “It’s sick,” she frowned, seeing boils and open sores on its matted fur.
“It smells like death,” whispered Ismene, eye pressed to her camera viewfinder.
The leopards, tigers, panthers, and other cats surrounding the creature turned toward the approaching Tammy, their fur bristling and mouths open in warning, themselves spreading out as if a single pack ready to strike in defense of their leader.
Taking one step too many in her effort to get the perfect shot of the mythological leopard, several of the cats leaped at Ismene, claws and teeth shining in the light of her professional video camera. Seth flew into action, throwing himself between the cats and his employer, arms moving in intricate, defensive arcane patterns. Though his leather jacket tore under the onslaught, neither did his blood spill nor did they reach Ismene.
Tammy, eyes locked on the leader, began to pray in long-forgotten tongues, pleading for solace and comfort for the wounded creature before her. Shining with a visible glow of faith radiating from her very skin, Tammy — Tamiit — begged the goddesses of the past to heal the sickness of their fallen messenger. The once-noble creature began to scream, a piercing howl that sent shocks through every creature that heard it. A dark shadow began to writhe from beneath the creature’s skin, the corruption inside oozing out through its sores and into the night air.
Cringing and cowed by the otherworldly sound, the big cats fled into the darkness, seemingly broken from whatever spell kept them enthralled to the royal leopard. As the ghastly shadow coalesced in the air above its host, the mythical beast collapsed heavily, labored breaths bellowing hot steam in the night air.
Harry’s heavy laptop issued forth a terrible, high-pitched warbling noise, its speakers cracking under the effort to process the sounds demanded of it as his fingers flew across the keyboard. The shadow creature shuddered, shrinking as the noise that felt not unlike a dentist’s drill echoed through the dark trees. Unable to stand the aural assault, the shadow seemed to explode without sound, dissipating into the night sky in a midnight supernova of absence. Harry slammed shut his computer, to overwhelming relief of the group.
“Harry,” Ismene remarked, shocked, “you just banished that demon!”
“Where did you learn that?” Tammy asked, suspiciously.
“I saw it on the internet,” he shrugged, putting the laptop back into his bag.