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I can see your crown of thorns

Chapter Text

“Please tell me it doesn’t look like that.”

Michael watches the enormous blue sculpture of a horse with blazing red eyes retreat in the rear-view mirror. They’ve been driving along the freeway towards Denver for the better part of the night, and now that the airport is finally in sight—the supposed location of an underground megachurch devoted to the worship of his Father, where thousands are presently gathering to welcome the Son’s arrival on Earth—Michael is bracing himself for another disappointment.

Who knew that true darkness would be so elusive? Most of the so-called true believers he met so far have disgusted him, with their myriad petty sins and pathetic cravings of the flesh, but Madelyn has reassured Michael that this new congregation is different, that the souls in attendance are among the vilest he could ever hope to meet. After all, hasn’t the force of their combined transgressions against the Light smoothed the way for his prophesized birth?

“The locals call that thing Blucifer.” Madelyn says now, taking her bleary eyes off the road. “Isn’t it delightfully monstrous? But don’t knock the horse too much, my dear, before you hear the story about how it killed the sculptor who made it.” She gives him her warmest, most maternal smile. “Its head fell and severed an artery in his leg!”

Michael is glad to hear this.

“At least that hideous thing will be gone in the blast, along with everything else, and then we’ll never have to see it again. If we choose to go with the nuclear option, that is.”

The problem is that he still doesn’t know what to do, how to end the world in the requisite style.

His associates in the Cooperative want to use science. A technological end for people that have become too dependent on technological gadgetry is what they envision, and they call it poetic justice: instant annihilation for a society hooked on instant gratification. For Michael, the idea of a magical Armageddon holds a lot more appeal. Where others have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, he is a little more old-fashioned.

He pictures the earth cracking open to spew angry locusts. And infernal trumpets with mouthpieces carved from human bone. And creatures made entirely from living fire. And hailstones the size of a city block.  

“I still don’t understand why we couldn’t fly here,” he whines, turning around to look at Ms. Mead, who sits grim-faced in the backseat of the car, surrounded by shoe boxes and garment bags like a one-woman glam squad. “It’s a fucking airport, and it’s not like people don’t already associate it with the occult.”  

In another life, his Ms. Mead would regard him with infinite patience if he ever whined like that and then answer any and every question he had, ideally over a glass of milk and a plate of French toast. In this life, however, Ms. Mead is a) a robot and b) not really “his” Ms. Mead, so things are bound to be a little different.

Reborn of plastic and circuitry, the woman who raised him now chides Michael without even needing to open her black mouth. Her gun hand flexes a little and her eyes stay glued on the road.

Interact with her, she needs to learn from you, the roboticists told him. You must build rapport, like any relationship, they instructed, as if building rapports has ever been Michael’s forte. Most important of all, manage your expectations

When the thing that wears the face of his Ms. Mead finally turns around to meet his questioning gaze, her expression softens just enough to maintain the illusion.

“You worry too much, Michael,” she says, and squeezes his shoulder a lot harder than he remembers. “Have you decided what you’re going to wear to the sermon?”  

“No. You decide for me.”

“Very well.” She fishes inside her black leather jacket for her phone, then swipes through the slideshow of outfits he modeled for the two ladies a few days before. “I think the wine-colored velvet cape with the ruby snakehead clasps is the clear winner.”

“Ooh, that’s my favorite as well,” Madelyn practically chirps. “With the crocodile Louboutins!”

As the car pulls into the parking lot, two men in black suits and secret service-looking earpieces come out of nowhere to escort them to the underground complex. They bow deeply before Michael, scraping the ground like medieval peasants swearing fealty to their lord. Taking advantage of this display of subservience, Ms. Mead loads their arms with bags from the car, and the group proceeds silently through the crowded terminal until they come upon a hidden passageway leading to an elevator that takes them down and down and down, as if descending into Hell itself.

All sorts of enchantments hide the entrance to the complex from the prying eyes of travelers and airport personnel alike, and Michael finds himself wondering who exactly put them there. Other than the voodoo queen named Dinah Stevens, he hasn’t met any dark witches and isn’t sure that he particularly wants to. 

After what feels like forever riding the elevator to Hell, they reach a huge cavern bathed in the dull orange glow of countless candles. It’s practically an underground city, much bigger than Michael imagined. Most of the buildings are black and severe in their modernist lines, connected with elegant footbridges and walkways, and a few seem to grow directly out of the rock or hang from the ceiling like manmade stalagmites.

Three black-robed figures come forward to greet Michael. A familiar face leads the Satanic delegation.

“Welcome, Sire, to the Unholy See.” Anton LaVey looks deeply honored to be in his presence again. 

More people begin to emerge from the buildings, regarding him with curiosity as they speak in hushed and reverential tones. They part around the group so the Black Pope can lead them to where they’ll be staying for the night. The women’s reactions are the most interesting to Michael. In passing, he glances at three younger ones standing on a nearby balcony, and what happens next blows him away.

One girl promptly falls backwards into a dead faint when her eyes lock with Michael's. Another girl manages to wave to him shyly, but then ruins it all by nearly tripping over herself in her rush back inside. The third one reaches under her gauzy black dress and pulls a long dagger from a holster strapped to her thigh, and slowly brings its sharpened tip to her chest.

Michael looks to his companions to gauge their reactions, but no one else is looking at the girl. Rather than trying to stop what is about to happen, Michael is transfixed, unable to look away.

A moment before the girl plunges the blade into her willing flesh, twisting the hilt into her sternum with astonishing force and a sickening crunch, her voice rings out clear as a bell: 

“Michael Langdon, it’s all for you!”

Then she tumbles over the railing, landing a dozen feet from where he stands.

Michael runs up to her and kneels down to grab her hand.

“What’s your name?”

The unknown girl blinks away her tears as she tries to speak. 

“Vanessa,” she manages to reply with great effort. Closing her eyes in satisfaction, she loosens her grip on the dagger and reaches up to touch his face with the bloody hand. 

“Hello, Vanessa. Now tell me: why did you do it?”

Michael really wants an answer to his question but the girl is fading fast. I’m not worthy of your devotion, he thinks a little bitterly.

“Hail Satan,” Vanessa pronounces before her words drown in a gurgle of blood and her head drops to the side.

Ms. Mead looks furious.

“Rein in your lunatics, Anton,” she warns an apologetic-looking LaVey. “I really hope that something like this doesn’t happen on the way to church tomorrow because we could only pack so many costume changes for the weekend, and I would hate to see the Antichrist looking less than his personal best on such a historical occasion, wouldn’t you?”

She regards the corpse on the ground like it’s a dog she wants to kick. “Stupid girl.”

“Of course, Miriam, it won’t happen again,” the Black Pope replies meekly, very conscious of the changed dynamics with his former cardinal.

As for Madelyn, she looks not angry but wistful, transported to some other plane of primordial evil that no light can ever reach. She had the same look on her face when she regaled them with stories of her first Black Mass back in the devil-mad eighties.

“Ah, nothing beats the enthusiasm of the young!”

*******

“You would never guess who I just saw coming out of the VIP lounge.” Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt drops into the seat beside Mallory, a Bloody Mary in each hand. “Actually, you would! I always suspected that she sold her soul to the devil because there’s no way in hell she could ever become famous on her own merits. I heard that she bought a convent from some nuns and is remodeling it into some kind of pleasure palace. Look, there she goes!” She points to a prominent music celebrity walking near the stage whose name is on the tip of Mallory’s tongue.

“I told you to make mine non-alcoholic.” Mallory frowns at the swishing crimson fluid. It feels weird to be drinking in church, even a Satanic one, and doubly weird on a secret mission for the Coven. Feeling conspicuous in her disguise, she pulls the hood over her head and drops her voice to a whisper, tapping the program. “Our Supreme wouldn’t want us distracted right before he’s due to come on stage.”

“Liquid courage,” Coco supplies, and for the first time on the mission Mallory realizes just how terrified her friend really is. “Plus, we’ve got to stay in character to blend in. Have you taken a gander at the crowd? It’s not exactly your regular Sunday service in here.”

“Yes, that enormous upside-down Crucifix carved from darkest obsidian didn’t tip me off,” Mallory deadpans. “About that, actually. In the Catholic faith they would call that a Petrine Cross, a symbol of St. Peter’s martyrdom—a symbol of the papacy, actually.”

Coco rolls her eyes and goes on sipping her Bloody Mary through a straw, scanning the crowd for more celebrities who sold their souls to the devil.

Their church is a literal cave, its walls and ceiling made of uncut rock. The space is as large as a stadium and filling steadily with devil worshippers from all social classes. Red spotlights bathe everyone in a murderous glow. Thirty-foot-high flames dance on the jumbotron screen and “O Fortuna” blasts from the speakers as if the world is already ending. Anticipation for Michael Langdon is thunderous, an electric charge in the air, and Mallory has never seen a crowd more excited for anything in her life.

Coco is dressed sumptuously in Dolce & Gabbana, complete with a black fascinator and a veil pulled down over her eyes. The outfit makes Mallory think of a Sicilian widow who’s just fed her third husband a Limoncello laced with arsenic, whereas Mallory herself looks like a teenage goth from the wrong side of the tracks. That isn’t that far from the truth once you strip away the golden crown she usually wears at Miss Robichaux’s in a half-ironic attempt to disguise her past from snobs like Myrtle.

“That pop star we just saw, do you think she’s in the Cooperative?”

“No, all the Cooperative members wear masks. They would never show their faces to anyone below the highest echelon, even with all the secrecy,” the heiress explains. It’s not just that Coco understands social hierarchies better than Mallory ever could; she also suspects that her father of being vetted to join the Cooperative.

Mallory nods, shuddering at the thought. If it’s true about Mr. Vanderbilt being vetted by the Satanists, she wonders how Coco is really taking it, what hides behind that brave face she puts on. Mallory changes the subject.

“Hey, did I ever tell you that I went through a goth phase in high school?”

Coco looks her up and down skeptically, taking in the oversized black hoodie, the tattered Slayer t-shirt that belongs to her brother, and the artfully smudged black eyeliner that needlessly enlarges her already enormous doe eyes, making her a dead ringer for a tubercular orphan from a Victorian illustration. “Yep, I can see that for you.”

“I guess you could say I had a brief flirtation with darkness,” Mallory goes on. “It was right after everyone at school discovered my powers, and then everything went to absolute shit.”

“That’s really gratifying to hear, Mal.” Coco doesn’t believe her for a second. “Maybe you can tap into that darkness when these freaks start looking at us funny. Now, if only we could figure out a way to go backstage with those groupies over there.” She gestures to a block of seats occupied entirely by chattering young women and the occasional young man, all dressed fabulously in black and silver, with inverted crosses painted on their cheeks and foreheads.

“Keep your voice down. It feels so weird to be here without any back-up from our sisters—and without any powers! Not that yours would be very useful in this situation. Sorry.”

“Gee, thanks, Mal. But it’s totally true. I can’t even tell you how many calories are in this thing now.” Coco has finished her own drink and started on Mallory’s. “I’m going to need a lot of liquid courage tonight.”

She looks thoughtful for a moment. “You know, Mal, we really should have insisted on that identity spell. We’re in plenty of danger now, even without the false personas and memories. Cordelia would have totally relented.”

Mallory feels the same way. A human sacrifice is almost guaranteed to be on the cards for tonight, though the program is oddly euphemistic in its language, only mentioning a “traditional offering” at the end of the sermon.

A momentary reprieve from having to live inside your own skin, a conscience that you put on and take off like a dress—it all sounds very appealing to the girl who can’t even watch enemies of the Coven burn at the stake.

It’s a good thing that her powers are under lock and key.

*******

Two weeks earlier at Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, Mallory sat in the dining room with the other girls, waiting for the butler to serve them lunch. It was a sunny afternoon in New Orleans and Cordelia was away on Coven business. Without the Supreme on the premises, no one felt particularly safe in the school, not even with her powerful wards protecting the grounds.

“Look, when I wanted to show him my gratitude, he declined. It was super-bizarre, but I suppose he could be gay. Anyway, he was more interested in my … sins than my body. I’m starting to think he’s just wired differently when it comes to certain things. When I promised him that I would try oh-so-hard to be good if he rescued me from retail hell, he just went, and why would you want to do a silly thing like that?

“That must have hurt. Maybe you’re losing your touch.”

“Very funny, bitch. I’m not the one with the killer vagina.” Madison glared at her frenemy as she played with her cigarette case, unable to light up inside the pristine white walls of the magic school. “All I’m trying to say is that if you’re looking to get close to him, you’re going to have to think of something else.”

“It was your idea to seduce him.”

Madison scrunched up her forehead like she had trouble remembering. “OK, so maybe it was. Look, Zoe, I know you expect me to know everything all the time, but even I get it wrong on occasion.”

She waved away the butler when he approached with a silver tray of finger sandwiches. “I won’t be having any of that, but thanks.”

“Why? Already snort your lunch?”

“Wow, so hilarious, Queenie. If you absolutely must know, I have a date. With a warlock. From Hawthorne’s.”

Silence fell all around, then somebody groaned. Given their shared history, witches simply didn’t date warlocks.

“Now before any of you sluts say anything mean about Christian, who is a rock-solid nine in the looks department, by the way, you should know that everything I do is for the Coven. Didn’t the Supreme say that our schools needed to cooperate more, what with the Chancellor being exposed as a traitorous bitch, oh, and I forgot to mention, the massive Antichrist-shaped threat we’re all facing?”

Queenie nodded at the surprising logic of her argument. “Hard dick diplomacy.” 

Madison winked. “Well, someone’s got to take the silver bullet. Or dick.”

“Girls, spare me the crude language. What would Myrtle say if she were here?”

The door had opened and Cordelia swept grandly into the dining room and took her usual seat at the head of the table. The whole Coven breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the Supreme was here, enveloping her charges with her calming magical aura like a mother duck spreading her wings over her errant ducklings, the future looked a little less bleak.

Cordelia’s eyes sought out Madison’s immediately, as if she’d heard the whole conversation from the hallway. “You know you’re not allowed to leave the school unaccompanied. If Christian really wants to see you, the boy’s going to have to come to the house.”

It was a good thing that Myrtle was away at Fashion Week, Mallory thought. The unnatural sight of a teenage warlock inside the pristine white walls of Robichaux’s would send the older witch into violent conniptions.

But there was no time for her to dwell on the Coven’s questionable attitude towards men or Madison’s questionable taste in them. A new game was afoot. Their Supreme had a plan. Cordelia had grown tired of waiting around for Michael to strike. It was time for the Coven to go on the offensive instead of staying prisoners in their own school. Pulling it off would take every bit of bravery, guile and resilience that her dear girls possessed.

Luckily, the Supreme had been gifted with another vision in which Michael appeared as a shepherd leading his flock of lost souls deep into the bowels of the earth. With a bit of lithomancy, she had filled in the blanks of the allegory and was able to figure out exactly where they needed to go, and when.

Mallory and Coco were the natural candidates for the mission because neither of them had met Michael before. Their magical ability had nothing to do with it, as they would not be using their powers in the underground complex, Cordelia said. Getting inside would be hard, and so would obtaining a small lock of Michael’s hair, but a single strand was all they needed to collect for whatever their Supreme had up her sleeve.

Queenie rubbed her hands with glee. Voodoo, the original “spooky action at a distance,” was her specialty and she seldom got a chance to perform it with the Coven.

“Dream on, slut. As if you could kill the Antichrist by hammering some nails into a Ken doll,” Madison scoffed.

Now it was Mallory’s turn to piss everyone off.

“Magical entanglement has all kinds of uses beyond just harming the victim whose physical essence you’ve put in a doll. I mean, just think about all the possibilities of establishing a psychic link with someone’s body and soul. One Grand Chancellor in the sixteenth century used it for espionage when he managed to entangle his mind with—”

“See? Tituba didn’t invent everything.” Madison spoke over Mallory directly to Queenie.

Cordelia was growing impatient.

“Girls, we’re not here to discuss the relative merits of different magical traditions or to speculate about what I’ll be doing with the sample you collect. You have enough on your plate as is. What we need is a safe way to embed you in the congregation and get you close enough to him without setting off any internal alarms.”

After lunch, she took Mallory aside and asked to speak in private. They went into Cordelia’s office and closed the heavy oak door. Mallory knew what was coming: lately the Supreme had been questioning her about the origins of her magic, prodding her to reveal any experiences she might have had with her powers developing throughout her childhood and adolescence, before she had learned to understand and control them.

“Mallory, there is a family of spells that I’ve been meaning to explore with some of the advanced students in this time of crisis. These are very ancient and very dangerous spells that are not to be attempted lightly because they interfere with the very fabric of reality. One is called Tempus Infinituum. Now, you told me once that you’ve had a strange experience with temporal phenomena, with premonition, I think—”

“It wasn’t a premonition,” Mallory sighed. She had little choice about telling Cordelia exactly what had happened with her stepfather. But where to start?

She’d been eight years old and her brother eleven when their stepfather had moved in, and the man was volatile and drunk from the start, even before he knew about Mallory’s powers. When he finally went outside one day and saw her tiny hands cupping a small sparrow electrocuted by a power line, and the bird fluttering back to life to shed its charred feathers and then fly somewhat hesitatingly to the nearest tree, he took it as a personal insult, a crime against the natural order of things. But he didn’t take it out on Mallory. It was her mother who was to pay the price for her magical transgression, and who kept paying the price over and over again until Mallory finally did something about it.

Without intending to, without even knowing that she could, she had simply gone to bed one night and had a dream.  

Cordelia rubbed her temple and fixed a more probing gaze than usual on this very strange student of hers.

“So what you’re telling me is that the wish to harm your stepfather manifested not as a premonition of future events but as their actual cause? That you simply wished for it and it happened without even casting any spell?” She leaned back in her chair, exhaling audibly. “That would be extremely strong magic. In fact, it would be practically unheard of.”

“No.” Mallory knew it was going to be hard to explain, even to someone as powerful as her Supreme. “I’m not saying that I dreamed about the future or made it happen in the way I wanted. When I woke up, my stepfather had died six months before. I had to look him up in the phonebook because my mother didn’t know who he was. They’d never met, he’d never moved in with us. It was even worse than that. I even changed my mother's sexuality. She was never interested in men after the dream, or should I say before it.” She could feel her face getting hot, the pinpricks of shame multiplying on her skin. “I simply woke up one morning with two sets of memories, two personal timelines. I remembered how the world used to be. But I also remembered how it was now. At first, both timelines felt equally real to me, and it was really confusing and disorienting for a while, but then my memories of the first timeline started to fade. Or, I should say, they began to feel less and less real.” Her nails sank deeper into the armrests of her chair, boring half-moons into the leather. “I still remembered what my stepfather had done to my mother. I never forgot.”

Cordelia looked at her with a mixture of tenderness and apprehension. It was a while before either of them spoke again. “We’ll figure it out,” the Supreme finally said as she enclosed Mallory’s hands in her own. “All gifts have their uses.”