Act 1: Prelude

Posted on February 19, 2017

Year One: The Five-19s vs the Whispering Shadow

Act I: The First Day

Prelude: In Which We Meet a Monster

Over the hiss of the gaslights and the rustle of the leaves, there came a whistling.

Specifically, a person whistling. This wasn’t some sort of alarm whistle, or train whistle, or some sort of animal or Beast.

A shape slowly emerged from the shadows of the night, out of unreclaimed land between two sets of storefronts. Stepping into the flickering yellow-orange light of one of a row of gas lamps came a young man, his pace unhurried. Sandy brown hair, pale eyes. Ordinary. Unremarkable. Boring. It became apparent that the young man was the one whistling.

The gas lamps cast their flickering light over a row of storefronts, clothes and antiques in the windows nearly impossible to see through the reflections of the lamps. Faint electric lights in the depths of some could be glimpsed, but for the most part, the gaslights overpowered any interior illumination. The young man walked past them, his form barely reflected in the windows, a dim shadow. He continued whistling, the echoes fading quickly. If you were familiar with the tune, you might have recognized it1. Maybe. You would not have thought it a good rendition.

He appeared to be carrying something sizable wrapped in dark cloth, nestled in the crook of his right arm. Other than that and the whistling, he was hardly worth noticing.

Truly, he was so unremarkable, boring even, that you would barely have noticed him, even alone out on the lanes at night. Even the bad whistling was boring. Just someone out too late, whistling (one might say foolishly) as he walked. Trying to shore up his courage. It was very late after all.

It was a little weird that he was cradling something like that, but that’d be worth a second glance, a third at most. You’d wonder, briefly, what his story was, then you’d hurry on your way. You, too, would be out much too late. Even the Light Bearers would mostly be inside now.

Say, though, you did notice him. Say that you followed him, and that he didn’t notice you doing so. Or pretended not to. Maybe you’re invisible; I don’t know your life.

Still whistling, he approached a narrow alleyway between two of the brick buildings housing the shops. The alleyway was flanked by The Last Hope bookstore and Dante’s Pizzeria. In the alleyway, several dozen feet down it, there was a door in the wall of The Last Hope’s building.

The alley echoed better than the main lane, the whistling growing more discordant, as he dug into a pocket with his free hand. He pulled out a pair of skeleton keys, which he used to open the door, one for the deadbolt, one for the knob’s lock, still cradling his package with the other arm. Behind the door, wooden stairs led down into darkness.

He lit no lights as he descended. If you followed him at this point, the echoing would grow even more potent as you went down into the dark after him.

After locking the door behind him (something the theoretical, invisible you would certainly have had trouble with, had you actually been following), he almost seemed to dance a little in accompaniment to his off-key tune as he crossed a dirt floored basement to a granite wall. He reached out toward the wall with his free hand and pushed his finger into the stone, as if it were wet concrete. He carved sharp, angular runes into the wall with his finger, a thin, sickly green light emerging from the runes as he completed each one. Then the entire wall split apart in front of him, each side sliding away from the other, flowing like a viscous liquid, leaving a gap that revealed a interior space on the other side, light pouring out into the darkness of the basement.

The gap let through music that had been playing, a rock band of some sort; a man singing something about whiskey and pain, the backing instruments the usual: electric guitars, drums, bass, keyboard; and then something unusual: a cello, perhaps. The young man burst into song, singing along with the music, and all but leapt through space between the parted halves of the wall. His voice wasn’t particularly notable, nor was it strong; it seemed to be swallowed up by the music playing within the space. There was some enthusiasm, but not a lot of skill.

Inside the wall was a narrow corridor lined with bookshelves, lit by bare incandescent bulbs in fixtures along the ceiling. Up ahead, the corridor ended in a T-intersection. Bookshelves, loaded with ancient looking texts, all bound in varying shades of leather, lined the walls of the branching corridors as well, but the five-foot-wide patch of wall opposite the entrance corridor was a wall of bare granite. The source of the music was unclear, suffusing the space.

Anyone who was not a Light Bearer, a magician, or a fool would have stopped following at this point, as the wall began to close up behind him, and a Light Bearer would probably have given themself away by this point anyway. But for the sake of the telling, let us assume that (the theoretical) you stepped through that wall behind him, before it closed up and trapped you in the dark of the basement.

The young man had already given up singing, and was performing a sort of strut in time to the music, moving over to a small gap between bookshelves on the left wall, which housed a narrow pedestal of some sort of black-streaked clear crystal, about three feet tall, with a tumbler of amber liquid on top, quite full. He picked up the tumbler of amber liquid from the pedestal and took a slug from it that was probably three ounces, before placing the glass back down.

Then he continued his odd march down the hall, moving with the beat of the music. He swallowed the liquid with all apparent relish when he was about halfway to the patch of bare wall. If the theoretical you followed him, you’d see that each of the halls from the T-intersection curved respectively to the left at the same rate until you couldn’t see further along the curve, sloping downward as they went.

However, rather than following either one, he once again slashed green runes into the rock face with one finger, and the stone parted for him once again as well. Inside was a narrow, downward sloping, unlit stone corridor, into which he almost danced. The wall closed behind him, leaving him in darkness.

Inside, there was only the music for a time, until the green runes appeared some distance further down, revealing him as he slashed out his finger again. He carved more runes, their green glimmer lighting up the rock they were jabbed into, the green glimmer making him look sick. Dead.

The rock parted, and he stepped out into another bookshelf and book lined corridor, intersecting at a 40 degree angle with the secret path he moved upon. On the other side of the corridor, another gap between bookshelves, another patch of bare rock wall. Out and into stone his finger stabbed. He was humming along to the music, which had moved on to another song, which sounded like it was by the same band.

Another song followed, as he strolled down a baker’s dozen of the dark paths between the lit curving corridors. He moved in time to the music when he was lit, though that wasn’t often.

He reached the end of the thirteenth dark passage, and the parting stone revealed a vast circular room, one which seemed to combine elements of a ritual chamber, a surgery, and an amphitheater. In the entire room, every surface was dark granite, stark electric lights gleaming off of dozens of polished granite surfaces. In the center of the room, drawing the eye, there were three objects:

The first was a solid granite table, shaped very much like an operating table, criss-crossed with dark stains, ancient things. It emerged from a three-foot-wide granite column, which in turn emerged from the ashen granite floor. (Indeed, the entire room--the ceiling, walls, balcony, chairs, floor, and table--all seemed to have been carved out of a single solid block of granite, hollowed out by some mad, austere mason. The music in the room echoed repeatedly off the hard surfaces, blending with itself until it was discordant, maddening.)

The second, to the left of the table, was a four-foot high mahogany cabinet, its top a work bench of some sort. The left door of the cabinet had been replaced or removed; instead some sort of electronic console, maybe the controls for the music, took up the top half of that side, below which were shelves which held rows of CD cases.

To the right was a cradle, made of English oak, the well burnished golden brown wood gleaming in the lights. It was solidly built, in an archaic style, and looked old.

Across from the young man’s entrance was another entrance, a book-lined hallway stretching out and splitting into two curving passages. Flanking that entrance were two short, steep stairways, leading up to a five-foot wide, railless balcony that encircled the room, with angular granite chairs arrayed along its circumference.

To the left of the young man’s entrance was another crystal pedestal. On it sat another glass of amber liquid. He paused, lifted it to his lips, took a sip, and then replaced it and strode toward the table, humming along to the music again.

When he reached it, the young man gently placed the parcel he’d been carrying in the cradle, shifting the cloth, which was now identifiable as a blanket, revealing the face of the baby he had been carrying the whole time. It was asleep, somehow, despite the young man’s whistling, his loud music, his singing and his strutting.

Then he turned to the mahogany cabinet. He opened the remaining door, and pulled out a wooden case, the sort of case that one might keep high end paints and paint brushes, or a calligraphy kit, or something similar. He opened the case, revealing its contents: a number of small jars, a black feather quill, and a small brush, not dissimilar to a paint or calligraphy brush. He spent a couple of moments removing objects from the case, arranging them on the bench, flipping open metal clasps on several small glass jars, and lifting their lids up to provide access to their contents.

Then the young man turned his attention back to the baby. He gently lifted it out of the cradle, leaving the blanket behind, left the child wearing nothing but a diaper. Its skin tone was nearly the same as his. Or, wait. His skin matched the baby’s, almost exactly. The theoretical you wouldn’t be able to recall noting the tone of his skin before this moment.

He laid the baby on the granite table, so gently. It stirred, flopped its head over, sighed, but did not awaken. Then he turned back to the bench. He first plucked up a black feather quill, dipped the point of the quill into one of the jars. Around him, empty chairs peered down upon the scene, the music rebounding around the strange granite space.

The young man reached down and laid three fingers on a touchpad-like surface on the electronics console. “Give me ‘Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” he said. The music changed, beginning a new song. After a moment, if you’d recognized the song he’d been whistling before, outside, you’d recognize this as the same song. Then he picked up a quill, turning to the baby and bending over to trace the quill in a perfect circle over the baby’s chest. As he did, a trail of flickering blackness, like the shadow of a flame, was left in the wake of its point on the baby’s skin.

When the circle was complete, a… well, a hole appeared, filled with nothing but darkness, seeming to extend down into the baby’s torso. The young man moved his lips along to the music and reached three fingers into that dark hole. Slowly, he squeezed a tiny beating heart out of it. He started dancing to the music as he turned to the briefcase and popped the still-beating baby heart into another glass jar, which was just large enough for it to fit. He flipped its cap back onto it and sealed it with a flick of the metal clasp. Inside the heart beat to the time of the music, too.

He picked up a pair of large tweezers and used them remove a marble-sized black crystal, all jags and blades, from another jar. It looked like onyx, but if that’s what it was, it was some fucked up onyx. As he lifted the crystal through the air, its many points seemed to drag black scratches through the air, which faded into nothing after a beat. The young man, oh so gently, placed the crystal down into the flickering shadow cavity in the baby’s chest, singing along again to the music, about how it’d be better for him if ‘you don’t understand.’

Then he returned the tweezers to the case, and closed and sealed the crystal’s jar. Next, the young man took up a small glass vial. He removed the lid, then picked up the small brush, essentially a detail paintbrush, out of the case. He dipped the brush into the vial, removing it with a thick black substance coating the brushes. He leaned back over the baby, down again, and swept the brush through the flickering flame shadows. They vanished in its wake.

Soon, the flame shadows were gone, and as a result the hole simply disappeared, leaving the infant’s flesh smooth and unmarred, no sign of the black substance that smothered the flame shadows, no sign at all remaining that anything had been done to it. “Alright, kiddo,” the young man said, smiling at the child as he gently picked it up. “Let’s get you home. Let’s see how this goes. Let’s see if you can still the Hell that’s in that heart.”