Gabrielle watched the house until dark. When she’d first arrived in the neighborhood, she took her time in assessing the best vantage point from which to watch. There was very little foot traffic on those streets, as many of the residents would be at their labors. From the size of the homes, she suspected that this is where many of the city’s professional class lived; bankers, foremen, shop owners, lawmen and the like. This was the thin middle ground between the men who got work done and the men who supplied the wages. These were the homes of the people through which that money flowed, hence they were bigger than the flops in her neighborhood, but significantly smaller than the grand palaces of the high districts.
Her suspicions were confirmed as the sun began to set and the streets began to fill. Some carriages rolled along the roadway, pausing only to drop off passengers before continuing along. Gabrielle hadn’t seen many stables on these grounds, nor common boarding for horses. These were hired carriages and as such their routes would either lead them back to company stables or further along to the manors of the rich.
As dusk deepened, she watched the lamplighter make his rounds, the frame of his metallic suit showing the signs of wear. Joints badly repaired, supports roughly patched; Gabrielle let her imagination begin to play, mentally constructing a lighter, more agile exo-skeleton that would allow the lighters to move more swiftly along their routes. Better yet, she thought, she could design a gaslamp that would ignite itself and extinguish itself on a timer. The gearworks would be easy enough to design, and the housing could be constructed into the base of each lamp, opening and closing a valve below the street and activating a small striker at the collar assembly. Sure it would take time to update the lamps, but it would save an incredible amount of time and energy. Not to mention the amount of gas that would be saved.
A woman had paused in front of the house, pulling Gabrielle from her playful thoughts. The woman had no more than paused, offering little more than a glance at the darkened windows from the sidewalk before moving on, but the hesitation was there.
The woman appeared to be young, probably on her way back from a job selling baubles to the rich ladies in Leffert’s Corners, or perhaps from a workhouse in Carbondale. Based on how she was dressed, Gabrielle expected something of the former. Probably no children. More than likely married if she lived in this area of Demopolis. Or maybe she was moonlighting as a maid. When the young woman had passed two more homes, Gabrielle’s questions were mostly answered as she approached the door of a house a slipped a latchkey into the lock. In order to afford such a device, she was most certainly married to a man of some means.
But her distraction gained Gabrielle no new information about the house or its owner, Professor Ferdinand Ashley. While the name meant nothing to her, the title told Gabrielle that the man was reasonably intelligent with a job teaching at Haverhill University, the only institute in Old Midloth where a professor might find work and still maintain a local residence. Of course there were other houses of higher learning in the world, and it was possible that Professor Ashley was retired, but Gabrielle had difficulty imagining someone relocating to her city by choice.
It was well after midnight when Gabrielle finally moved from her post. With a soft step, but a stride full of confidence, she walked purposefully toward the low gate of the fence and gracefully hopped over. Once over the property line, she shifted her line of travel to the front corner of the house, peering into the front window as she passed. As she had seen during the day, thick curtains were pulled closed, and such was the case on every set of windows she passed.
Having made a full circuit of the house’s exterior, she made her way quietly to a door at the side of the house, which she thought should lead to a middle landing between the common floor and the cellar, where the gas inlet and furnace would be housed. There would also be a pantry beneath the house, but the kitchen, dining room, common room and bedrooms would all be on the upper floor. She tried the handle, but found it locked.
Gabrielle unbuttoned a section of her left sleeve and pulled back a segment of fabric, revealing a set of lock picks. She eyed the lock that was set into the door above the handle and chose two picks from her collection. She’d been building locks for years—it was one of the first skills her mentor had taught her—so it was only a matter of moments before the door yielded to her touch. She expected the hinges to groan when she pushed the door open, but to her surprise, they remained silent.
Closing the door behind her, she found herself positioned between floors just as expected. Five steps up and a half dozen leading down below. Before moving further, she opened a case on her belt and pulled out a small lantern of her own design. After igniting it with the built-in flint wheel, she opened the lens and let the light shine up to the common floor. Keeping her footing wide on the steps, she found herself in a kitchen. There was slick tile underfoot and cabinets lining the walls, save for where a cast iron stove was settled in place, its chimney reaching up through the ceiling.
The room was in vast disarray. Pots and pans were strewn about on the counter top and filling the wash basin. Broken fragments of plates and bowls and mugs covered the floor, and the herb rack that was supposed to be hanging above the prep station had been ripped down and smashed to kindling—probably literally judging by the dark grin of the stove.
Gabrielle did her best to move silently through the disheveled room and found more of the same throughout the house. Down the hall, she found a bedroom that had been used primarily as a study, but the bookshelves were now mostly empty. The tomes had been all but shredded, pages loose, bindings scattered throughout. The desk had been flipped upside down, its drawers ripped out and tossed casually aside. There was one group of pages that seemed to have been set aside, laying by themselves on a shelf on the far side of the room.
Focusing the light of her small lantern onto the paper, she flipped quickly through the sheaf, but the pages were covered in a text she couldn’t read. She didn’t recognize the form of the letters, nor did she see any alchemical symbols that she was familiar with. Aside from the text, there were some strange sketches, but nothing that told her anything about Professor Ashley. She tossed the sheaf aside and turned to the common room where she saw two bed rolls against the outer walls.
Scattered throughout the room she found an accumulation of debris that included scraps of food, worn-out clothing, and other bits of waste. At the far side of the room, she found an unemptied chamber pot. Gabrielle stopped the retch in the back of her throat, swallowing back what was threatening to come up. Someone had been staying here, but it wasn’t the Professor, and they had been gone a while. She was certain that she wouldn’t find anything of worth in the rest of the abode, but she searched anyway.
And when she was done, she left through the front door, ignoring all pretense of stealth, angry that she had wasted an entire day on a dead end lead.
Once the cell door slammed shut, the bolt was spun and Gabrielle suddenly felt trapped. The physician didn’t even bother to see her before granting her permission to visit the incarcerated professor, and while she had reveled in her successful subterfuge during the walk to his room, she was no longer certain she had made the correct decision. Perhaps she should have arranged to speak to the professor where the orderlies would be able to assist should he lurch once more into violence.
The small cell—they could call it a dormitory all they wanted—was unadorned, save for the illustrations and writings the professor had apparently scrawled all over the walls and floor and ceiling. This was, Gabrielle thought, precisely what the cell of a madman would look like.
The madman, himself, squatted silently in the center of the room, an aura of dread surrounding him and filling Gabrielle with unease. Ferdinand Ashley was dressed in plain grey pants, and his shirt was wrapped around his head like a turban. Though he had not responded to her entry or the sound of the door locking shut, she knew that the professor was aware of her presence. While she waited silently for him to acknowledge her, Gabrielle studied the walls and the still-healing wounds on the professor’s knobby back.
The symbols on brick and flesh were similar, though there was far more writing on the walls. Gabrielle didn’t know the language—probably languages, plural—but she could tell that she wasn’t looking at a reasoned treatise. The words were large, sprawling declarations in some places and tiny whispers written between shouts in others. Some phrases were repeated and some were inevitably paired with strange images and symbols. One theme seemed to be etched more than the others: three concentric circles of jagged edges pointed inward, surrounding a deep black circle.
The image was also etched into the professor’s flesh, occupying the entirety of his left shoulder blade. Gabrielle was trying to figure out how he could possibly have carved it himself when he rose to feet and turned to face her. Though the movement hadn’t been particularly swift, Gabrielle was nonetheless startled.
“You,” the professor sighed. A sharp inhale. “Are not my daughter.”
Gabrielle didn’t speak. Didn’t move. Didn’t breathe.
“I have no daughter.”
Gabrielle waited, studying the strange fear that trembled in her gut.
“Her mother was barren, so there was no chance at life for her. But since you are not her, anyhow, I don’t suppose it could hurt to pretend. What is it you want, daughter of mine?” he asked.
She had no words. Her eyes darted around the room, searching the unfamiliar words for some meaning, perhaps a way to escape her predicament. How could she have allowed herself to be led to this room with this man, and how could she have willingly let herself be locked inside with him? She didn’t know what he was capable of. Clearly he was mad; just look at what he’d done to himself.
The marks in his flesh were impressive. There was an artistry to how he’d utilized the space on his body, using the contours of his bony frame to accentuated the horrible characters. Spirals and circles, layer on layer of razor straight edge intertwined with rough and jagged tears. Some of the wounds were still weeping blood, some were covered with thick scabs, and some were completely healed to the shiny white of scar tissue. His fingertips were marred with black, so Gabrielle couldn’t tell if he’d been picking at his flesh to complete his tapestry, but she couldn’t come up with another explanation as to why his injuries were healing at different rates.
“Ah,” he nodded sagely, “I suppose it is startling. Without seeing the whole picture, I understand why you would find it disturbing. Allow me.”
Professor Ashley untied his trousers and let them fall to the ground.
Gabrielle struggled against nausea and a sudden sense of vertigo. How could he-?
“Yes, yes. A moment more. And look at the rest of it.” He turned around slowly.
When he faced her once again, he raised his pants and tied them again. He smiled at Gabrielle wistfully. “You’re not what I expected,” he admitted, his voice sounded more—well, more what? More lucid? More controlled?
“You were expecting someone?” Gabrielle asked, her voice quiet.
The professor shook his head. “No. Not someone. Certainly not you.”
“Professor?” Gabrielle asked. “I have some questions to ask you. I think you can help me, do you mind?”
“Do I mind if you think you can help me? I couldn’t mind if I wanted to, but you’re not here for that.” He stepped toward her, closing to within a single arm length.
Gabrielle successful kept herself from screaming, but shivered as a trickle of sweat rolled down her spine.
“I will tell you,” he said, “and you will listen. If you are lucky, it will make sense and you will do what must be done. If you are unlucky, the truth will pass you by and we will all remain damned. You don’t want to damn us. You want to help us. You want to save us all from torment and ruination, do you not?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Of course.”
The man walked to the corner of the room and tapped on one of the symbols found there. Gabrielle stood rapt, unable to interject had she wanted to.
“A man lives on the highest point. He has been shown all that is outside and all that is to come. He has seen what lies beyond and through and he has been marked as their herald. He is wise, and his blood sets him apart.
“He came to me one night—how he came to know of me I could not say—but that he chose me is an honor beyond compare. He told me truths. Truths that I have been unable to recall, but that have motivated my every movement, deed, word, and breath since their utterance. I know that you cannot conceive of the clarity that he revealed to me, because I still remember that flailing I called living prior to knowing him. I know the darkness that I called knowledge and long to return to that innocent and comforting place.
“But one cannot unknow what one knows and one cannot unsee what has been seen. The mind, fractured and broken, once made whole cannot be made to fracture again, though that blessing would be sweet nepenthe.”
The professor began laughing a broken cackle that set Gabrielle’s teeth on edge. She winced at the sound, and though she wanted to cry out to the orderly standing outside the cell, she could not find her voice.
“The Herald of Things To Come instructed me to find it,” the professor pointed at the concentric circles, the image that was repeated countless times throughout the room and on the canvas of his skin. “He gave me no clear direction on what it was or what it could do or why it was so important, but that was part of his genius, you understand. Had he told me, I would not have learned, would not have seen. I would not have known.
“So I began my search. I looked everywhere my books directed, and failing that, I sought out the libraries of others. There are learned men in Old Midloth who can see what I cannot, but when I approached one of them, he rejected my inquiries. That required me to use other methods. When the tomes of the ancients cannot uncover the secret pathways, you must council with the ones who made the pathways. And while I was filled with trepidation at the thought, I knew I could not fail the Herald.
“My mind was filled then with images of Things to Come. I came to know that there were things beyond that were also watching my progress. As I witness them, they witnessed me and witnessed to me. Once opened, it was easy to locate what the Herald needed. They showed me, and they instructed me on how to summon what was theirs.
“It was so simple.” The professor’s body shook with great peals of laughter. Throaty laughs that shook his entire body. In between gasping breaths he said, “I hired a courier!” and doubled over as his mirth intensified.
As quickly as the laughter began, it stopped.
“It arrived only a month later, and it had a box with it. The box was hard to see, though it was clearly a magnificent work of art. Carved into its sides were panoramic scenes of destruction and hopeless and magnificent war. The Things to Come were set upon by feeble vermin, unfit to stand in their presence let alone challenge their inordinate and profane power. The men in those images were shown as they truly were: scowling, infirm, and grotesque. Nothing but a triviality for the true powers.
“We entered my den and it set the box on the edge of my desk. Now, I thought it was a man at the time, and so I treated him as I would any other hired hand. I moved to the box while it stood behind me. I hesitated only a moment before I reached out and slid open the latches. I lifted the lid, only to ensure that I finally had what the Herald demanded, but my intrusion upon what is not to be witnessed was enough to upset the courier. While I had only caught a glimpse of the amulet inside, the courier took offense at my doubt and disrespect.
“His response was swift.”
The professor fell silent and stared at a spot on the wall behind Gabrielle. She wanted to turn to look, but dared not wrest her eyes from the man in front of her. While she waited, she began to wonder what had caused the break to the man’s genius mind. Before she could formulate a theory, the professor began screaming.
“It is not for you! Its hand on my arm. Hand. No hand. No word for it. It was not of our world and it cannot be described with the words of this tongue. Not even this tongue.” The professor lurched forward, grabbing Gabrielle by the shoulders and stretching his tongue out of his mouth. It was covered in harsh, red lines, but she couldn’t understand what the professor was trying to show her.
The professor began talking, but now he was using a language Gabrielle could not comprehend. His fingertips dug into her arms and while she wanted nothing more than to throw him off and flee, she stood in silent horror as his words splashed with spittle across her face. “Pray for death,” he screamed. “Pray for death. Seek your demise. Welcome them! Call out to the world beyond! Cry to your true masters!”
The professor smashed his head into Gabrielle’s face, blood instantly cascading from her nose.
“Call to her!”
She watched as he pulled his head back to strike her again, but was surprised to find herself suddenly hurtling through the air. She crashed against the side wall of the cell and came to rest in a heap in the corner. When she looked up, she found herself staring at that strange symbol of concentric circles spinning around a black center. She looked up to see the orderlies fighting against the rail-thin professor, and mostly losing. The call went out for more help and soon Professor Ashley was struggling against four grown men.
Gabrielle saw a gap in the fight and finally willed her body to move. Once she was out in the hallway, light streaming through barred windows, she knew that the professor was as much a victim of Manuel’s machinations as Janessa was. Or maybe Janessa had been lucky. Gabrielle considered how she’d prefer to end up. Would she rather be tortured and murdered, or end up in the grip of incurable madness?