It has been said that no man is an island, and yet some people are archipelagos, only able to see those around them in the dim distance, only able to connect through the deep and difficult waters of protocol and social structure. Caroline is one such a person, having no physical connection to anyone else, having no peers, no siblings, no one with which to share her fears and hopes, her victories and defeats, totally and utterly alone. All of this would drive a mentally strong and proud woman to the breaking point, and Caroline is neither of these things.
Even now, Caroline sits on her porch with Death her only friend, confused and alone in a world soaking her in its cold uncaring rain as a frigid mockery of her hot tears. To such a person, the only border between pessimism and optimism is a river called "denial."
Dom broke the beautiful frozen silence with an apology.
"I'm sorry Caroline."
Caroline pushed the anger deep down into her chest, glad to have a veil of tears to hide her true emotions under. Even from the first day, he'd hidden who and what he was. Although he'd never openly lied about it, his very use of the human form was a sick perversion of his true identity. Todd and Mrs. Black, both gone, gone because he had taken them. How could he pretend to be her friend in the face of that? Caroline had many illusions, but that Dom would spare her when her time came was not one of them.
"Sorry? SORRY?! Will you be 'sorry' when my time comes? Does that make any of them less dead, the stillborn children, the people with cancer, the people who die in accidents?" Caroline struggled to keep her cracking voice in check.
"You don't understand. Dying begins the moment a person is born. It's all subjective. Every life is equal." Dom explained patiently. He'd had this conversation before.
"How can you say that?!" Caroline spat, her façade cracking to show the true face of her anger. "How can you say an aborted fetus has the same quality of life as an old millionaire with countless grandchildren?! YOU CAN'T! It's not fair! It's not right!"
Dom took a deep breath, emanating calm by his example. "It's all subjective, Caroline. A life is a single unit, not a year. Years are a human invention. In order to live, you must die, otherwise life would be changeless and meaningless. Success on this earth is irrelevant, because that success is meaningless to the dead. A dead millionaire is just as dead as a dead beggar. It's the only equality there is."
"So you're telling me it's fair when some parents who love their children have their kids get cancer when dope fiends are pumping out perfectly healthy babies?!" She spat.
"Cockroaches breed like cockroaches. Their children are worth less, so they get more of them. If you're not a person, it makes more sense." Dom's expression was pained. It was a difficult concept.
Caroline broke down, not having the stamina to maintain that level of emotional involvement for very long. "I just don't understand..."
"It's both more and less complicated than you think." Dom said. He'd been expecting this. "Would you like me to start from the beginning?"
Berry teetered into Mark's house as the sun peeked over the horizon like the vengeful flashlight of an angry God. She struggled to keep her balance on her steel stilettos, finally losing the battle to sleep deprivation, alcohol, marijuana, and the body numbing vibrations of Zag's motorcycle as she fell into Mark's overstuffed leather couch.
She brought her knee up to her chin as she started work on her knee high speed laces, her foot tucked delicately beneath her body. She zipped through the laces with practiced ease, freeing the five pedicured piggies of her left foot. She took a brief moment to wiggle life back into her tortured toes before going to work on the right boot, and after some struggle, she liberated her left foot as well. Finally she flopped back spread eagle, luxuriating in the feeling of fresh air on her stifled toes.
Her eyes fluttered as she neared sleep, prompting her to grope blindly behind her for her Hello Kitty purse. She reached into a side pocket for a tiny glass bottle and a nail file, taking two quick bumps in either nostril before sitting back up. There would be plenty of time for sleep after Mark woke up. She pulled a stylish black clove cigarette from the pack, glad to be away from Zag's disgusting roll-ups. She sparked it, and pulled free the purple velvet string bag she'd stolen from Pedro.
She pulled open the mouth of the bag daintily, not wanting to touch the head before getting a good look at it. At first she only saw the knotted braids of hair, but as she spread the mouth of the bag, the desiccated fist of ancient leather became clearer.
The eyes and mouth of the head were sewn shut, a few ragged stitches pulled free for some reason. She pulled the head loose of the bag by its ropelike hair, and that's when she heard the voice in her head.
"In the beginning, there was nothing. Of course there was nothing; if there were something, it wouldn't really be the beginning, would it? This nothing we call The Void, and it is in this womb of nothingness we were conceived. And in The Void there was a spirit, because a spirit requires nothing to sustain it. It is this spirit that is my Father, and The Void is my mother."
"It was Father that created time as a way that The Void might understand existence, as a means of Father's spirit relating to The Void. Time is a bit like a metronome, making reality swing with equal amounts of positive and negative. The sum total is still nothing, but now it's nothing with complexity."
"They say Father said 'Let there be light,' but that's not actually true. Father said, 'Let there be Lucifer," the light-bringer, created in the image of Himself, kind of like how you might use a picture of yourself to explain who you were to someone who doesn't speak your language. It's complicated, I know, but bear with me."
"You've met my brother Lucifer. He goes by the name Nate Task around here, if you remember. Anyways, there was The Void, Father, and Lucifer. Lucifer had an infinite amount of time to exist in, and since he was created in Father's image, he decided to create demons in his own image. Kind of like how when you look between two mirrors you get that infinite reflection thing."
"Ok, ok, I'm losing you. Hold on. So Nate creates demons, but they're not like you think. They're just forces of nature, laws of physics. The first few were simple, like gravity and absolute zero. So these demons start to interact with each other, and start building this world where time is eternal and nothing ever dies. Kind of like a Garden of Eden, but in a much purer sense. But you see, Father never intended Lucifer's existence to be anything more than a gift to The Void, and all this was against His original intention."
"So Father creates a brother for Lucifer, an opposite, a balance to keep all of existence at the same zero it was when The Void was all there was."
"He created me."
"So my purpose, who I am, is the Equalizer, the Comforter, the Peacemaker. In the greater scheme of things, this is what I am. To Lucifer's creations, to you, I am Death, but I don't see things that way. I didn't get a choice to be created. I'd rather just be Dominick Borden."
"So here I am, systematically undoing everything Lucifer does, keeping things in balance, but there's a problem. Lucifer creates a race of things that aren't demons that have spirits like what Father is. And for the first time, Father realizes what a terrible thing Death is. What I am. These things, these people, can talk to Father, and He hears them."
"So Father has mercy on these people, and gives them an option. He can't allow them to live; that would go against His original intention to please The Void. What He does instead is creates two new beings like me and Lucifer. He creates Famine and Pestilence."
"It's a choice, see? Before, in order for something to be made, something had to die. I kept the balance, and the living things had no choice. Nothing they could do could extend their lives; they were helpless in the hands of Nate and I. Nothing had a soul back then, so this wasn't an issue. With the creation of souled animals, of people, this balance changed, and so Father created Pestilence as the path to Death, to me, by being devoured, and Famine, the path to Death by failing to devour. I no longer chose what lived and died; the living things were allowed to work that out for themselves."
"Now, Famine and Pestilence weren't like Lucifer and I. They were more... human, so they chose to ally themselves with the people who chose them. Pestilence allied with hunters and warriors, fishermen and trappers. Famine allied himself with farmers and herdsmen, with cities and civilization."
"This is how the magic bloodlines were formed."
"Mama Agnes's bloodline is pure and direct from Famine himself, who goes by the name Peter Stallings. There are other branches all over the world that know him by different names, but locally, his name is Peter and the All-Saints family are his people."
"Locally, there is no representative of the bloodline of Pestilence, who goes by the name of Rodney Cunningham, for a very specific reason. You see, time isn't forever anymore, and eventually, The Void from which we came will reabsorb all of us, me, Peter, Rodney, and Nathan. When all four of us gather in the same place in this world, the final undoing can begin."
"After Rodney and Peter took up tribes, so did Nathan. Locally, Nathan is allied with the Maya family, although Pedro doesn't know this. He doesn't even know his bloodline HAS a patron. Nathan killed his predecessor, Senora Maya, because she'd fallen under Rodney's influence in the drug trade. Pedro's Catholic, or at least he was, so he naturally assumed Lucifer was his enemy. Nate finds all this hilarious, by the way."
Caroline broke from her trance, shaking her head as she recovered from the shock of what Dom was telling her.
"So who is YOUR bloodline, Dom?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"I was getting to that. As long as only three families are in an area, there's no issue, but some time ago I allied with a midwife, Mrs. Black. That meant there were three active families, no room for any more. But Rodney was trying to move in, so Nate killed off his matriarch and abandoned the family." Dom eluded.
"So that means you're my patron?" Caroline asked pointedly.
"Yes and no. Ever since you joined the Black bloodline, I've been your patron, but there's something else in you, something I've never seen before. It's not Nate, it's not Rod, and it's not Pete."
"Look, I don't care about the technicalities. The other night, weird stuff was happening. Something killed some of my bees. Something was in here, opening my doors, killing my bees, it happened right in front of me, and then it just... stopped. I can't sit around being scared, I need to know what's going on, and you just admitted it's YOUR job to help me." Caroline was proud of herself. She'd said what she'd wanted, said it logically and without trembling. He HAD to give her answers.
"Wait, you're saying all this happened, and Mama Agnes didn't warn you?" For the first time since she'd know him, Death looked angry, and it was more shocking because of his normally kind demeanor, like watching a lap dog going mouth-frothing mad at a toddler who gets too near his food bowl.
"What do you mean? Why would she?" Caroline answered, puzzled. She'd hung out with Star on and off for a while, but for the most part she and Mama Agnes had stayed out of each other's way.
Dom's body began to emaciate, his fat jolly cheeks becoming sallow as his anger loosened his control on his physical avatar. "Do you remember Mrs. Black's funeral? When Mama Agnes promised to help you after Mrs. Black died?"
"Yeah..." Caroline answered sheepishly. This was not the Dom she knew... had she pushed him too far?
"Mama Agnes is a highly skilled diviner, Caroline. Nothing supernatural happens that she doesn't know about. NOTHING. She KNEW what was going to happen, and she broke her word to ME by not telling you." As Dom spoke, his lips pulled back from his teeth, each word more clenched and hissed with anger than the last.
Caroline was getting scared, the gauntness in Dom's face wasn't just an illusion; now the flesh was peeling away from his eyes, not just his mouth, and his nose had all but disappeared, revealing a bit of pearly white skull in the void beneath.
Then, in a flash, the old Dom was back, realizing he was scaring her. "I'm sorry... but I need to ask a question. Do you know where Marcia M'buto's head is?" The flesh filled back into his cheeks as he spoke, relaxing Caroline a bit.
"It's in the wardrobe, back left corner of the top shelf," she stammered.
Just like that, Dome was gone, but she heard things banging in her bedroom. She went inside, knowing better than to hide from what she saw there. In the room was a monster of bone and fire, ruthlessly flinging the contents of her top shelf into the wall behind it.
"IT'S NOT HERE!" the creature's twisted inhuman voice wailed like a hot wind blasting through a burning house.
"Dom...." Caroline said from the doorway, her voice trailing off. Through the trance, she saw the creature's core, the same core as Dom, and the black hole that was his true form.
The creature stopped, flesh once again covering it to reveal Dom's human avatar once again. "I'm so sorry, Caroline." Dom said, flashing to apologetics with his ward so near, like an angry father being stopped from beating a man to death by the words of his child.
"Marcia M'buto is the leader of Rodney's bloodline, Caroline," Dom explained.
"What do you mean, 'is'? She's DEAD!" Caroline answered, not understanding Dom's violent reaction.
"Not exactly. You can't just kill a mixed-blood witch. With the power of the number of souls M'buto absorbed, even her corpse had some life left in it." Dom explained.
"So you mean that head was alive?" Caroline asked, incredulous.
"Not only that, but there are traces of blood all over this place. Maya blood. Rodney's using Maya blood magic to bring M'buto back to life."
Marcia gathered the last of her reserves. Here was her opportunity, a perfect, willing avatar, soulless and craving fulfillment only she could give. It reminded her of that first day when Ma had taught her the secret of absorbing souls through cannibalism. She pulled the rainbow static, warping it to her will, creating an illusion, creating a voice with which to make her offer.
"Thank you," spoke the regal tones of an African Queen as she materialized in front of Berry Madison.
Berry set down the head reverentially, taking a good look at the apparition before her. The woman was tiny, her feet in rope sandals and her body intricately wrapped in a gown made of a single sheet of purple silk, cinched at the waist by a thin gold chain.
The gown wrapped around her just above her breasts, leaving her arms and shoulders bare, her finely boned face and arms the epitome of exotic beauty.
"Are you Marcia M'buto?" Berry asked, awed. It was everything she'd hoped for...
"Yes," the full ebony lips answered, "How may I ever repay you?"
Berry wasted no time. "I want power. I want to be the master of my own empire." She gestured to Mark's living room around her, "None of this is good enough for me. I want MORE. I know what you are; I know what you were, I know what you want from me. I talked to Rodney, and I want it all, and I want it right now."
The corners of M'buto's luscious lips raised in a subtle smile, "I would give you nothing less, mistress."