Maia Raith - December 1928
Maia Raith’s dream began in the usual way. She was a little girl, only twelve years old, in the woods at night, hand-in-hand with her identical sisters. This was no surreptitious foray thought up by three pre-adolescent girls though, this was an adventure instigated by their parents. It was supposed to be the start of something magical for them all. Her Daddy had promised that it would make his girls even more special than they already were.
Maia had experienced a level of trepidation when she heard those words, but her two sisters seemed eager, so she went along. In daylight, the woods had been interesting, light and airy, full of neat places to explore. Now, in the dark, with only a sliver of a moon to guide them, there were too many shadows and unknown noises. Startled by a querulous hoot and an almost silent whisper of feathers as something slid past them through the air, Maia clutched tighter at her siblings’ hands. She was relieved to feel them squeeze back.
In the distance, a flickering light made itself known and her parents urged them to hurry, eager to reach whatever it was. Like a deep heartbeat, Maia could make out what she assumed was a drum being beaten in a constant rhythmic pattern repeated over and over.
Dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum.
Her foot snagged in the curl of a root, throwing her off-balance. She would have fallen, but her sisters kept her up even as they were being pulled along faster by their parents. With an effort, her breath catching in her throat as her breathing became more laboured, she pumped her aching legs as rapidly as she possibly could, focusing on the dimly lit path before her.
She would have kept running if her sisters had not dragged her to a halt as they entered a clearing filled with people and the biggest bonfire she had ever seen. Her mind, still focused on moving, vaguely wondered if the surprise could possibly be fireworks. She opened her mouth to ask, then shut it rapidly when she realised that there were people dancing without clothes about the crackling bonfire while a lone drummer beat out his endless rhythm on a big drum.
Dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum.
“Hurry,” her father urged, his bearded face suddenly strange in the firelight. He shed his own clothes, then helped the three sisters out of theirs. “It’s almost time.” Her mother hesitated for a moment before she too slipped out of her attire and left it bundled on the ground at the edge of the clearing.
Maia had thought that it would be cold being naked in the night, but the blaze in the centre of the clearing kept the chill at bay. She stood there, self-conscious, holding her sisters’ hands tight. Rose giggled at the sight of so much jiggling flesh, while Raven stared about with unabashed interest, trying to take in everything that was going on. Maia didn’t think that her Sunday school teacher would like this. Madame Fremont was always whittering on about modesty and chaste behaviour – whatever that was.
“Hail,” a loud voice boomed above the beat of the drum. “Hail to the chosen ones.”
Dum-dum. Dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum. Dum-dum. DUM.
The hollow percussion ended abruptly, and every dancer stopped before turning to look directly at Maia and her sisters in an almost hungry fashion. “Hail,” they all whispered, the sound barely louder than the crackle of the flames. “Hail to the chosen. Hail to the sisters three. Hail to those who will usher in the Unnamable Dawn.”
“Come forward,” the loud voice ordered. “Let the anointing begin.”
“Anoint them,” the assembly whispered repeatedly. “Anoint them.”
Three women broke ranks, hair wild, bodies glistening, and approached the girls with wide smiles. They firmly separated the three from each other. Raven went willingly, eagerly. Rose gave Maia a reassuring smile and a nod as she released the hand that held on tight before going with her guide. Maia wanted to make run for the trees, for the darkness that could hide her from this stranger’s eagerly extended hands, but she didn’t know the way home and her feet were tired.
In the end, somewhat unwillingly, Maia took the proffered hand and allowed herself to be led round to the far side of the enormous fire. This gave her a clear view of a long flat stone, supported by posts that stood about waist-high on her guide, which rested beneath some kind of wooden framework. A young blonde girl, maybe four or five years older than Maia, hung upside-down from the frame, suspended by ropes around her ankles and wrists that pulled her into a spread-eagled position.
Maia didn’t think that the girl could be very comfortable like that, but before she could voice her opinion, the three siblings were lifted off their feet and laid onto the cold stone. She wanted to curl up, to try and stay warm, but firm hands on her shoulders kept her in position. Now she looked up into the blank face hanging above her and shivered uncontrollably.
“Brothers and Sisters,” the loud man spoke. From her prone vantage, by tilting her head back uncomfortably and staring past a pendulous breast, she could see that the speaker was a short, hairy man with a pot belly and bowlegs. “The Unnamable Dawn is approaching. A Dawn that will herald the return of the Great Old Ones in all their terrible majesty. On that day, only true believers will be spared.” He glared about himself, eyes dark pits under shaggy brows. “But only if we remain true, if we remain steadfast in our purpose. The ancient enemies have locked our Masters out in the Endless Darkness.” A short despairing wail went up from the assembled people at this. “It is through our actions and sacrifice that these locks will be opened and the Way made clear.”
“Sacrifice,” the assembled voices whispered sibilantly, their teeth bared, their eyes wild, their faces inhuman masks shadowed by red flames and silver moonlight.
“Maga Josephine Garsetti began this Opening of the Way when she acquired the Dreaming Stone and learned many things that are now lost to us. Our enemies murdered her and stole the Stone, but they could not silence her words.” The hairy man was panting now, working himself up into a frenzy. “She passed her dream on to us and the wonder of a Sylvan Dawn became the majesty of the Unnamable Dawn. We must keep that dream alive and ensure that we never falter. The Maga gave us more than words. She gave us the tools of our salvation.”
Maia caught a glimpse of her mother and father standing at the front of the group, their eyes, their entire beings focused on the speaking man who had paused long enough to pick something up from the ground at his feet. She yearned to ask them for help but knew it would do no good.
“We have the Knife, consecrated in Mother’s blood.” The man brandished a long, black knife that seemed to burn as it reflected the firelight. “We have the Bowl, forged in the tears of the Children.” He presented a wide silver bowl with his other hand. “We have the Words of Power that her emissary brought from beyond these realms. We have the list of times in which we must gather and invoke these Powers to achieve our dreadful purpose.” He paused to draw breath before bellowing, “This is one of those times.”
“Ah,” breathed the crowd, swaying as though a wind had swept across them.
“Speak now the Words. Let the Way be Opened. Let us grow strong as we are baptised in their reflected glory, as we too grow in Power.”
“Power,” they all whispered reverently. “Torn from the flesh of the sacrifice.”
The man spun on his heel and sprang across the distance as though it were nothing, almost materialising in front of Maia’s eyes. She was extremely glad that he was short, given where she was currently looking, and she quickly moved her head so that she was looking upward. The silver bowl obscured her view, but she caught the movement of his knife-wielding arm and heard the rush of liquid pouring into the basin. Spots of hot fluid escaped capture and splashed onto her cold skin.
Maia lay there on the cold stone, transfixed by what she had just witnessed. It didn’t seem real. Her vision narrowed as black feathered the edges of her sight. She could no longer see her sisters in the periphery and could not see what was done with that silver bowl, but was able to feel the lines of hot and sticky fluid as they were drawn on her naked flesh.
At the time, Maia had blanked out the events that followed, but now she could actually see the symbols being painted on her white skin by fingers that dipped regularly into the bowl. Each of her siblings were undergoing the same ordeal and she could sense the fear they were all experiencing without needing words, though there was the tiniest hint of excitement coming from Rose, and a deeper sense of disgust emanating from Raven. From herself, she felt nothing. She was just paralysed, unable to voice any form of protest, and unable to escape the intimate touch of those fingers sliding across her skin.
All the while, the man holding the bowl intoned words that meant nothing to Maia’s ears and echoed back from the people watching. They were guttural utterances that did not seem to have been designed for a human throat and tongue. Each word followed the completion of a symbol drawn upon her skin and made her flesh crawl.
At the very last, a symbol was drawn on each of their foreheads, causing the assembly to sigh ecstatically. “Faith,” they breathed as one. “That the Way be Opened.”
Maia moaned, the first sound she had been able to make. For so long this had been the end of the dream, of the memory, and she woke in a muck sweat, hands clutching the sheets, a scream tearing at her throat. But this dream continued.
The body of the slaughtered girl, limp above her, suddenly writhed against its bonds, the mouth, a white gash against a dark surround, opened as it vented a howling shriek that ululated about the clearing and caused the assembled people to clap their hands against their ears.
A hint of a disturbance shimmered in the air above the framework, like a heat haze on a summer day. It grew, a slow circling ripple at first, then sped up, spinning itself into a sucking maw that threatened to rip the wooden frame apart and draw in the bodies beneath it.
Maia blinked as the hanging girl’s body became awash with silvery and golden sparkles, then watched as the scintillating energies were pulled across the intervening distance and drawn into the grey whirlpool in the air above the wooden frame. In return, a darkness fell from the formless vortex like rain onto the assembled and the still-screaming corpse where it simply melted away like snow in the sun as though it had never been.
By the time the last of the girl’s sparkling essence was drawn away, like shiny smoke, up into that spinning whirlpool, the gaping wound on her neck had closed and knitted together, leaving the straining body sporting a series of raised scars that matched the bloody symbols painted on Maia’s own skin.
The whirlpool slowed and dissipated, vanishing into the darkness from whence it had come. Maia stared helplessly up at the straining body above her and started when red eyes snapped open to stare coldly down into her own. “He is coming,” a honeyed voice filled with broken glass issued from its black lips. “We open the Gates. The Barriers grow thin. Hail the Chosen Ones.”
In an instant, the firelit scene thinned, wavered, then split apart, leaving her standing naked and shivering on the cold concrete floor of a dank warehouse. This time there were no naked dancers, no warm bonfire, just a raised stage on which the familiar wooden structure had been erected around a slate table that acted as an altar, and a smaller group of naked believers.
Glancing to the sides, Maia found herself looking at versions of her sixteen-year-old self. Her own hair was red and long, grown especially so that it could hang over her breasts and help her keep some modicum of modesty whenever she was forced to perform this rite. Her sisters had never cared about being naked in front of the Brethren – it was a trait that she both envied and hated.
Raven, ever the rebel, had shorn her hair so that she looked like a boy – well, Maia amended, only if no-one looked at her chest and hips – and, when clothed, wore leather jackets and trousers by preference. Presently, she was glaring murderously across the room at her father, who stood in front of the raised platform with a familiar pot-bellied older man kneeling in supplication before him.
Rose had gone the other route. Where Raven emulated her male counterparts, Rose loved to flaunt her beauty and was currently standing proudly, even defiantly, with all her charms on display. Her eyes flashed in a way that Maia knew meant trouble and her rouged lips toyed with the idea of a cold smile. This was the way Maia remembered her best – strong, defiant, and beautiful.
Maia, as usual, shrank in upon herself, trying to remain unnoticed as her father clenched a thick fist and spoke venomously to the kneeling man. “You dared to profane a Chosen One?” He obviously already knew the answer as he did not wait for a response. “You who were once our Shepherd, guiding us through the darkness of this shadowy realm, holding us true to the Way.” He spat on the cowering man in the form of a thick and phlegmy gobbet that oozed slowly across a balding pate until it passed slimily across a caterpillar eyebrow, traversed the red-veined purple nose, and became lost in the shaggy beard. “I name thee apostate.” Spittle sprayed as Maia’s father spoke faster and faster, needing to get the words out. He pointed an accusatory finger. “I name thee outcast and cursed.”
Maia remembered this day all too well. It was burned into her memory. She tried to close her eyes, to unsee what she knew was coming, but the scene was visible regardless. Rose, on her left, muttered something obscene. Raven, on her right, was unconsciously worrying her lower lip. It had been four years of lying naked under a hanging sacrifice almost every month since that singular night in the clearing. That meant over forty innocent young women had been slain so that their blood could anoint the bodies of the chosen ones. And each anointing meant that she was exposed to the stares and leers of the Unnamable Dawn brethren as they grew more and more depraved.
“What say you, Rose?” their father asked harshly, a long and sharp blade in his big hand. His naked body was whipcord thin, emaciated but still powerful, bolstered by whatever energies imbued them all after the sacrificial girl returned from her bloody death forever changed.
Maia gaped at her sister, her dream body acting on the memory without her volition. She remembered being certain that Raven would be the target of her father’s ire and had been so surprised when he named Rose instead. This had been a secret that her beautiful triplet had managed to keep from her. Where Maia would have been mortified by the attention, Rose simply tilted her head defiantly and bared her teeth in savage glee.
“Am I sullied, Father?” she asked in return with no hint of remorse. “Brother Camden saw to that.” A cruel smile flickered on her thin lips. “His barely adequate mounting during the vernal equinox freed me from your insanity, from this unholy nightmare.”
Maia didn’t understand. How could Rose be saying these things? Their Father was doing all of this for them, for the good of the family. “Why?” she whispered urgently, staring at Rose.
“Ew,” said Raven, crinkling her nose and screwing up her face. “How could you lie with that?”
Rose laughed disdainfully. To Maia, it was like looking into a funhouse mirror and seeing the distorted image of her own face reflected back. “He was a lecherous toad,” Rose told them unashamed. “But so easily manipulated. It didn’t take much to convince him. He was only ever a weak-minded fool, like the rest of these inbred morons, a key to unlock my freedom.” She gazed pityingly at her sisters. “How can you both be so blind? You must know where this path ends for us.”
“Silence,” their father bellowed, his fury filling the open space with echoes. “Ready her. She is no longer pure but will still serve a purpose.” He turned his glittering eyes on Maia. “Take your places, daughters. Remember you have been chosen. This is the greatest honour we can bestow.” He turned his attention back to the now blubbering Brother Camden.
At a silent signal, two other Brothers took hold of Camden and lifted him to his feet. A flash of black steel later and the man’s offending appendage dropped to the concrete floor with a meaty thud. The man himself issued a strangled shriek, blood spurting from the wound between his legs, and collapsed in a faint.
Maia had not originally seen that, she had been too busy heading to the stone altar beneath the wooden structure with Raven, attention taken up by the way Rose was beginning to struggle against her captors as they dragged her up onto the stage as well.
Ropes were tied about Rose’s ankles and she shouted, first in anger, then in growing desperation, as they hoisted her into the air above her sisters.
Maia stared up at her writhing sibling, tears rolling silently down the side of her face into her red hair. There was nothing she could do to save her. Rose had made herself impure and, as the sacred tenets proclaimed, a price must be paid for every transgression.
Maia herself had felt the sting of her Father’s belt when she questioned any aspect of their belief. It had not taken long for her to understand that remaining silent and obedient was the easiest way to live under her father’s rule. Her Mother had drilled that into her whenever she cried after enduring another punishment. “Quiet, child,” Mother would whisper, stroking her hair. “Dry your tears. Your Father loves you, he wouldn’t chastise you so otherwise. Believe his words. Live for the day the Way is Opened and we are all set free to serve our True Masters.”
Raven had always been the most outspoken of the trio, earning herself lashing after lashing. It almost seemed as though Raven sought to be punished, leaving Rose to calm the waters and tend to her sisters’ welts. Maia still could not believe what Rose had done and she stared up into that now terrified face waiting for the terrible moment to come.
Her Father spoke the words that stilled the assembly, that offered blood to the waiting Great Old Ones, and waited while the responses were whispered in hissing unison. “Power,” they eventually sighed. “Torn from the flesh of the sacrifice.”
The knife parted the skin of Rose’s neck, turning her desperation into a gurgling cough before it fell silent, and the blood spilled into the waiting silver bowl.
Maia sobbed as her sister’s blood was drawn onto her pale flesh, forming the arcane symbols and sigils that thinned the barriers between this world and another. All the while, her father’s voice intoned the horrible words of the invocation. Once more, the rotating portal formed, drawing the sparkling essence of the sacrificed girl away and replacing it with the melting darkness. She didn’t want to see what came next, but the dream drew her inexorably on.
Rose’s body shuddered and shook as the wound healed, while silvery ridges grew in the once unblemished flesh as the sigils formed. Dark eyes flicked open and red lips curved into a sinister grin as though she knew something that no-one else was aware of. “He is coming,” she said in a voice that was no longer Rose’s. “We open the gates. The Barriers grow thin. Hail the Chosen Ones.”
Maia opened her mouth to scream her denial when the scene ripped apart and vanished, leaving her lying on yet another cold stone slab. Looking up, she knew that it was two years later. She stared up into the glittering black eyes of the thing that had once been Raven and the tears flowed freely, washing lines through the bloody symbols on her cheeks. Now both of her sisters were gone and she was left all alone. The knowledge and grief took her breath away.
Her Father raised his bloody knife and smiled down at her, his teeth yellow against the pale red of his beard. “You, daughter, are the final sacrifice,” he told her flatly. He reached up and stroked Raven’s short hair, snatching his fingers away as she gnashed her teeth and twisted her neck impossibly in the effort to reach them. “Raven’s voluntary sacrifice makes her the last of the Dawn’s Unnamable Daughters.” He smiled almost fondly. “The others have founded groups of their own to continue the sacrifices around the world.”
“We open the Gates,” Raven’s terrifying voice repeated. She began to laugh maniacally and proceeded to fold up on herself to reach the ropes at her ankles.
“And you, Maia, are the last lock,” her father added. “When Raven sacrifices you, the barriers will come down and the Great Old Ones will be freed at last.” He glanced up at Raven’s progress in freeing herself and nodded calmly. “Die well, daughter.” He held the blade of the knife as though it were a pen and scribed a new symbol into the flesh of Maia’s forehead.
Maia felt the sharp pen but was unable to move her head away as he held it in a vice-like grip. Fresh blood joined the tears on her cheeks. “P-please..?” she whimpered, wanting him to stop. He just closed his powerful fingers against her face harder, the palm of his hand blocking her airways, until he had completed his sadistic task. Then he opened his hand and she sucked in a grateful breath.
He leant over her and kissed the new wound.
In the distance, Maia heard the scratchy sound of a phonograph recording begin. She recognised the music, but the words made no sense – especially when Raven joined in with her horrible honey-and-glass voice.
All are here to watch me sacrifice you
Oh, the joy my broken mind gives me too
Cut your heart out of your chest
Eat it raw, beating’s best
Bye, bye, Maia.
Run, Maia, run away
Final girl, hear me say
Bye, bye, Maia.
Dawn will come to watch me sacrifice you
Oh, the joy my broken mind gives me too
You’ll never know what’s behind
Look back now, lose your mind
Maia, bye, bye
Bye, bye, Maia
Run, Maia, run no more
Final girl, hear me roar
Bye, bye, Maia.
Dawn will come to watch me sacrifice you
Oh, the joy my broken mind gives me too
You’ll never know what’s behind
Look back now, lose your mind
Maia, bye, bye.
There was an abrupt flurry of gun shots followed by screaming and yelling. Then Maia’s father twisted out of her sight, his right shoulder spurting blood, the knife dropping from his hand to clatter on the concrete floor. Above her, the thing that had been her sister hissed savagely and ripped the final rope away from her foot. She dropped to a perfect three-point landing atop the makeshift altar, one black-taloned hand raised above Maia’s chest.
“Get away from her, foul beast” a deep voice commanded. The order was followed by a series of chanted words and a sudden wash of pulsating golden light.
Raven cried out, a sound that caused all of the glass in the warehouse to vibrate dangerously, and reeled away from the radiance with her hands over her eyes. She hit the floor on the far side of the altar with a thump. Maia then heard a skittering sound fading into the distance.
Needing to see what had saved her, Maia twisted her head round in time to witness a peculiar shape hanging in mid-air that gave off a fading golden glow. It flickered, then went out, leaving a tall man with a handsome face staring at her through a pair of thick spectacles. He flashed her a comforting half-smile and removed his suit jacket. “You’re safe now, my dear.”
Maia allowed her saviour to wrap her in his still-warm coat and pick her up. She buried her head into his chest and savoured the feel of strong arms holding her close. She supposed she should have been weeping, but there was nothing left inside her except ashes and a bone-deep weariness.
“You’ll be okay,” the man told her, his voice a basso rumble in his chest. “You’re safe now. We’ll protect you. I promise you that.”
She believed him.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying fully-clothed on a well-upholstered davenport in the corner of a massive library and the man, her saviour, was sitting across from her watching carefully. “Brendan,” she croaked, her throat dry. “Did it work?”
The older man, his dark hair streaked with grey, nodded. He turned off the telegraphone wire recorder set on the table near his chair. “It did, my dear.”
Maia rolled her legs off the cushion and resettled her clothing as she sat up straight. She accepted the glass of water he proffered and drank it thirstily. “I feel like I’ve been talking for hours.”
He chuckled warmly, his brown eyes crinkling at the edges. “Not quite.” He turned serious. “What do you remember of this session? And how do you feel?”
Maia thought hard. The substance of the dream was at first elusive, but with a bit of mental prodding it all came flooding back. She shivered, abruptly feeling faint.
In an instant, the big man was by her side and holding her with one strong arm.
She nestled gratefully against him. “My hero,” she murmured.
Brendan cleared his throat uncomfortably.
Maia chuckled, a sultry sound in this secluded corner, and turned her head to kiss his cheek. “It’s true. You’re my saviour and protector. My knight in dusty twill.” She patted his lapel and coughed lightly at the puff of chalk dust. “My sister is still out there waiting for her chance to kill me. For all I know, both of my sisters are still walking the earth along with the rest of those she-demons – all still working on a plan to release the so-called Great Old Ones.” She frowned. “And there may be other innocent girls being sacrificed to create more of these Daughters of the Unnamable Dawn.” She reached her arms around him and hugged tightly. “You can’t blame me for needing comfort.”
Brendan harrumphed but didn’t extricate himself from her grasp.
Maia decided that she was making progress.