The rough rope scraped her hands, but she was grateful for it. It reminded her she was alive. After a few seconds, her feet hit a rung – one of the many struts that criss-crossed each other in a lattice work of metal that held up the platform. She looked down, trying not to look at the ground below, and failing miserably. The world spun. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them, only looking down to see how far the next piece of metal was. Tentatively she stuck her leg down and her foot hit it. It wasn’t that far.
She called up to Colin. “Climb down the rope until you get to the first rung, and then move to the corner of the platform, you can use it like a ladder. Easier than me, because you’re taller.” She started to climb down, using the struts as hand and foot holds. “Tell me when you’ve let go of the rope!” she called up.
After a few moments with no answer, Colin replied. “I’m away from it.”
Anise steadied herself at the corner of the structure, and removed her lightning gun from her waist. She aimed it at the rope just as the dark figure of a man began to grab hold of it and lower himself down. Without hesitating she fired at the rope, and it split as if it were only a single strand. The rope fell free of its mooring hook, and the man fell with it, falling past them with a speed and ferocity Anise didn’t expect. She almost dropped the gun, and pressed herself against the cold, solid metal, reassuring in its weight.
“You okay?” she called up to Colin. A weak ‘yes’ filtered down. She continued her slow descent.
Without warning her feet hit the ground, her legs almost collapsed underneath her with relief. But she knew she couldn’t stop. She looked up and Colin was still a good ten feet up. “Find me where we met!” Then she ran, grateful for the familiar cobblestones beneath her feet. She heard shouts from high above on the airship platform, and thought she saw the elevator making its descent with some of Trevan’s crew. She was reminded of angry primates trapped in a cage, rattling the bars.
She ran down the narrow, cluttered alleyways and dodged the large carriages and swift horses with practiced dexterity. She had never been as glad to see two large palfreys charging towards her, the carriage being pulled by them swaying unsteadily as the large wheels went in and out of the ruts between the stones.
As she turned sharply up another lane the smell of freshly baked rolls hit her and she realized she was ravenous. She sped past a tray of fresh baked sweet buns the baker had just set out in the doorway to cool, and swiped one on her way past, earning her an irritated shout from the baker himself. She tried to apologize but her mouth was too full of sticky sweet cinnamon sugar and soft warm bread. Above her the comforting shape of an airship filled the alleyway with a sudden darkness she was grateful for, as if a large black cloud had covered the sun.
She licked her fingers after shoving the remainder of the roll in her mouth, as her feet and memory lead the way to the pub that was a few blocks away from the shipping area. She took a few wrong turns on purpose, flying up one street and back down the next in order to throw off her scent. Though she was sure if anyone overheard her telling Colin where to find her, that no one would know where that location was.
The sign outside the pub hung crookedly, by a single hook. It was new, though. It had a different name. It was now the Gear and Wolf. Apt, Anise thought, after the incident that had happened in it, with the mechanical werewolf that had led to her leaping from its roof in a bid to escape the relentless monster, and its razor sharp metal teeth.
Instead of entering the pub, she crossed the street to the building on the opposite side, and settled herself deep in the alcove of the door, the place where Colin had found her.
She leaned back, resting her head against the door. Whatever business this used to be was long closed. She could see through the glass panel in the door that dust thickly covered the floor like a blanket.
The steady clip-clop of horse hooves was soothing, and for the first time in what felt like a long time, she closed her eyes.
She woke to someone gently shaking her shoulder. She yelped and pushed the hands away.
“It’s okay, it’s just me.”
Anise couldn’t see anything but a vague black shape in front of her. Darkness had fallen and the street lamps had come on, throwing anything that was outside their light into inky shades.
“What? Who?” she said muzzily, pushing herself up with the help of the wall and door she was wedged in between.
“It’s me, Colin.” He smiled and she could just make out the gleam of teeth.
“What happened? Why is it dark?”
“You were asleep. I didn’t want to come straight to you, in case I was followed. I don’t think I was though.”
“How did you get away from them?” Anise asked.
Again Colin’s teeth flashed white in the dark. “Some of my inventions might have helped,” he admitted. “You have your lightning gun. I have this,” he raised his hand, holding something, but it was too dark to see.
Sparks jumped out of the thing in his hand, and Anise fell back against the wall with a shriek. “What is that?”
Even in the darkness Anise could see Colin’s shoulders raise in a shrug. “I don’t have a name for it yet. It’s an electricity conductor though, between these two nodes.” He pointed to things that were hidden by darkness. Anise wasn’t sure if she wanted to see what they were anyway. “Okay. So we got away from Trevan and Gideon. Now what do we do?”
A cold shiver of panic ran through Anise and she threw open her bag, rifling through it. Her hands fell on the secret and she leaned back with a loud sigh.
Colin laughed. “We’re not all bad people here in London.”
Anise narrowed her eyes at him, but she realized he probably couldn’t see well either.
“First thing we need to do is…” she shivered again, this time with fear. She had never experienced a needle, but she was pretty sure she wouldn’t like it and the thought of multiple needles in her skin…
“First thing is we need to get this tattooed on me, and then destroy these papers so no one else can get them.”
Colin offered his hand and she accepted. He pulled her out of the dark safety of the doorway. She felt naked, exposed, even though it was night and the streets were mostly quiet – punctuated by the odd shout, yowl of a cat, or whistle of a working woman trying to attract a client. “Well I’m not sure if there’s any place that will do that at night…” Colin said, unsure and nervous.
“I can think of places that would be open and willing to take any sort of client, no questions asked, but I’d be worried Gideon would be looking in those establishments – the ones down by the docks, the ones frequented by fishermen, and drunks, and other unsavouries.” She grimaced at the thought. “Not to mention the state of hygiene in those places.” She shivered again.
“No, you’re right. I think we’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
A wide smile split Colin’s face. “Glad to hear it!” he said with more enthusiasm than Anise felt at that moment. She was tired, sore, and uneasy. She threw another glance over her shoulder as they began to move down the street. She was met only with a few people wandering the streets silently, deep in thought, or heading briskly with purpose, to some gentleman’s club, or back home to spend a few hours in the comfort of bed before the sun rose again.
“Where are we going?” she asked, as Colin linked arms with her. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“We need to look natural, like we’re out for an evening stroll. And we’re going back to my flat. We can get a few hours rest hopefully. And as soon as the tattoo parlours open, in nicer areas of town, we’ll get those symbols on you.” He fell silent and they walked arm in arm for a few moments. Anise listened to the click of their shoes on the stone.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Colin asked, almost timidly, catching her eyes and then dropping his own back to his feet.
Anise opened her mouth and then closed it again. Was she sure? No, she wasn’t. But she made a promise. And she wasn’t able to carry out the…how did Ophelia put it again? The self-destruction clause? She couldn’t face it, the simple act of dropping a lit match onto some fabric. Granted that fabric was clothes, and the clothes were on a dead body but… She shook her head. No, she owed her friend this much. Otherwise what would happen to it? To the knowledge of alchemy? It was Ophelia’s life. She had carried that burden, and died for it. Anise couldn’t just ignore it. How hard was getting some needles in you for a little while? Maybe it didn’t hurt very much. She opened the flap of her bag and took out the papers. Four sheets were covered with strange shapes and symbols. It was a lot of information. A lot of ink.
No. She had to do this. She couldn’t break a promise. Her grandfather had believed in her, even when no one else did. When everyone else thought she was ridiculous and even soft in the head, for wanting to write for a newspaper, to be a journalist, a reporter. Her aunt had laughed out loud at her, and then everyone else in the room had followed suit.
Anise felt her cheeks grow warm at the memory, and she clenched her fists.
“I have to,” she said through gritted teeth. “I have to. If I don’t…” she trailed off, not sure what she was going to say, not wanting to face these memories, even in the comforting darkness of night.
They walked arm in arm in companionable silence the rest of the way.
“Here we are,” Colin said, pushing open the door of The Asian Orchid. Anise was assaulted with the strong smell of incense that brought tears to her eyes. She sneezed.
With a deep breath she stepped over the threshold into the shop. The beginning of a new life. A new leaf. She waved a hand in front of her to clear a path through the swirling smoke of incense which brought a small, smiling Asian man into view.
“Hello,” Anise said, more shyly than she meant. “I’m here to get a tattoo,” she thrust the wad of papers that were gripped tightly in her fist at the man as way of explanation.
The man took them from her and looked at each page carefully. “You?” he asked, pointing at Anise, and then looking at Colin beside her for confirmation. Both nodded.
The man stared at her with intense dark eyes for a long moment, and then shrugged. He shuffled off his stool and into a back room, through a curtain, gesturing for them to follow. There was a chair that looked like a table. “Where?” the man asked
“My back.” And then she turned to Colin. “Would you mind?”
She said pointing at the ties down the back of her corset.
His cheeks flushed but he nodded. “Of course.”
Quickly the pressure released and Anise was glad of it. He pulled the last of the ribbons and then turned to leave. She rested a hand on his arm, and he paused. “Would you mind, sitting with me? I would like a friend.”
Colin nodded dumbly and moved to a stool which sat a short distance away. The proprietor handed Anise a sheet and told her to remove her blouse and then lie on her stomach. She went behind an oriental patterned room divider and did as instructed.
She lay down on the worn turquoise leather table, and held a hand out to Colin. He took it. She shut her eyes, and felt a reassuring squeeze of her hand. She bit her lip and cried out as the needles began their quick dance in and out of the pale skin of her back. She began to hum a song her mother used to sing to her when she was a young girl, before she was sent off to live with her aunt, after the accident.
She woke to her back being on fire, and a familiar dark robed figure standing beside the tattoo couch she was lying on.
“I’m sorry, I was late.” The strange voice that sounded like many voices speaking at once said. Anise still couldn’t see the man’s face, but knew him from his hands which were clasped together in front of him.
Her eyes widened at the sight of him who was barely taller than the table she had been laid out on. She jumped up, then realized she was topless. With a shriek, she wrapped the sheet around her front. Her back was too tender right now. Had she passed out during it, she wondered? The burning of her skin was more an irritation. She was more focused on the living monks robe standing in front of her.
“What?” she screeched. “What do you mean you’re late?”
The faceless man fumbled for a moment in the folds of his robe, and then passed over a small square.
A business card. Anise took it almost gingerly, afraid to look at it. She willed her eyes to focus on it.
She looked up, confusion written plainly across her face.
She looked down at the card again. A circle with a dot in it in purple ink. She shook the piece of card angrily. “What does this mean? A dot in a circle?”
The robed man made a gesture, flipping one hand over as if he were turning a page.
Anise turned the card over. On the other side was an address. It was unfamiliar. She motioned Colin over with the card, her other hand was busy holding the sheet over her breast. “Do you know this address?”
Colin studied the neatly typed letters and numbers for a moment with puzzlement, and then his eyes grew slightly wider. “Yes. Well, not this exact address, but I know the area. And it’s not a nice one.”
Anise looked from Colin to the shadowy faced man. “So what am I supposed to do? Go to this address?”
The hood shook. “I’m afraid I’ve said too much already. I’ve helped you too much, and I shouldn’t have.”
Anger bubbled up in Anise, taking her by surprise. “You shouldn’t have helped us?”
The robes stood silently. Anise stared at the darkness that shrouded his face and huffed in annoyance, jumping down from the table and disappearing behind the divider that was painted with bright white lotus and soft pink cherry blossoms. She put on her blouse and nearly screamed as the fabric brushed lightly against her back that felt scraped raw.
A tangle of auburn hair fell loose from one of the many pins holding it up – not nicely, or prettily, but up – and hit the base of her neck, where her shoulders began and this time she did scream.
I can’t wear my corset for a while, she thought with dismay as she looked down at the flowing purple blouse with the pearl buttons down the front between her breasts.
She came out from behind the parchment wall holding the card in the air. “When do I go here? There’s no time on it. Just this address.”
Small dots of red formed on Colin’s cheeks. “Don’t you mean when do we go here? We’re in this together now.”
Anise rolled her eyes. “Yes, fine. When are we supposed to show up at this address?”
The man’s shoulders rose and fell. Anise got the impression that he was embarrassed.
“Well you should have gone there before…” the man paused, searching for the right word. “Before,” he waved his hand vaguely in the air, taking in the whole studio. “But as I said earlier, I was a bit…late.”
This time Anise could make out the embarrassment in his voice, and the hood dipped bashfully.
“What do you mean late?” Anise strode up to the man until she was staring him right in the face. And yet she could still not make out any distinct features – a corner of a lip, a tip of a noise, a section of a chin covered with a light dusting of stubble, the glint of light hitting an eye that she couldn’t make out the colour of – nothing concrete.
“Are you saying I didn’t need to get this,” she pointed an accusatory finger at the small Asian man who had taken his seat again on his stool and was watching the entire dialogue with bemusement, “done to me?”
The hood shook again as if it was being blown in a violent wind. “No, no, not at all. I mean, maybe…possibly. I’m not sure.” The man didn’t know what else to say so took it as his cue to leave. He scuttled out of the parlour like a small black beetle.
There was nothing else to do but head to the address written on the card Anise held in a death grip, the sides of the thick paper biting into her palm.
Colin stepped up. “Come on, let’s get going. We want to be in this part of town in the daytime.” They stepped outside into the grey gloom of what everyone implicitly understood to the be the daytime in London.
The ghostly shadows of cargo airships glided by on a regular basis above them, heading in the direction of the harbour that they had left the night before.
Anise was distracted. The pain of her wounded back niggled at her, and each step caused her shirt to rub at it in a different place, even though the tattoo artist had covered the freshly inked marks with large swathes of fresh, clean bandages.
She was vaguely aware that she was following Colin through the winding streets. She had been looking straight ahead, but not really seeing, and almost bumped head first into a man that was standing on the sidewalk speaking to a woman who peeked through the latched door at the top of a short flight of stairs. Anise noticed the house, like most others, was plainly painted in bright whitewash that was beginning to turn grey and dingy with soot. “I have just returned from a visit to my landlord,” the man who was all but blocking the entire side walk was beginning to explain to the suspicious grey eye that peered out of the gap in the door.
Anise, flustered, apologized to the man who stopped talking to glare at her from under his bowler hat.
“Come on,” Colin grabbed her hand and pulled her off the sidewalk and around the blockage of the man.
The hairs on her neck suddenly stood up. Her reporter instinct in full swing. She had the sudden unmistakable feeling that they were being watched.
She turned around. Two blocks back she could make out the bearer of most likely bad tidings – the man in the robe. He was shuffling along. She couldn’t make out his feet under his robe, and it looked like he was gliding.
When the man saw that she had seen him, he froze and disappeared into a doorway.
Anise sighed and shook her head, stifling a small yell as that simple movement tugged at the bandages that were taped on her back.
A watery sun tried to make an appearance in the gunmetal grey of the clouds, but the London weather would have none of it, and pushed the sun further away, throwing the already dark streets, despite the dirty glow of the whitewashed houses, into further gloom.
Her back burned and her ankle was starting to throb. She didn’t want to come across as a whiny girl, but this was getting to be too much. She clenched her teeth, trying to hold in her question, but after another three blocks, and a turn up yet another lane filled with the stench of alcohol from broken bottles, and rotting vegetables, the question burst from her. “How much further?”
Colin turned and gave her a large smile, and his eyes sparkled. He seemed to stand up a bit straighter. “Not much further – just a few more blocks.”
Anise had distractedly noticed, through the haze of pain that emanated from her protesting back, that the dwellings and businesses were quickly becoming dirtier, more run down, and dilapidated. It was even worse that the establishments near the airship and fishing port, though before seeing it with her own eyes, Anise wouldn’t have thought it was possible.
She sidestepped a man who was lying almost flat against a rundown building made mostly of corrugated metal. He brought a bottle of whisky to his lips, and his glassy eyes looked up at her as she stepped over his legs that spilled out into the lane. “But the train was an hour late!” he said in a cloud of whisky tinged breath.
She looked at him with pity. She was about to keep moving, but stopped, open her bag and rooted around in it a few moments. Her hands hit the pages of which were now permanently etched into her skin. She needed to burn them, destroy the evidence of their existence. Her fingers continued to probe the depths of her bag until they found what they were looking for. Two of them. She withdrew the small toffees wrapped in bright purple and pink wrappers and handed both sweets to the ranting man. “It’s not much,” she said, “but these always make me feel better.” The man snatched them from her hand and for a moment his eyes cleared a bit. His fingers lingered in hers a minute and she fought the urge to pull away from him and his dirt caked fingernails. “Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely. He struggled to unwrap one of the candies with thick, stubby fingers but eventually managed and stuffed one into his mouth, chewing loudly. “But the darned train was a whole hour late, Millie! A whole hour! What use of a train is that?”
Anise smiled sadly and continued on with little prompting from Colin, hurrying down and out the last section of the alley.
Colin turned abruptly to their left as soon as they exited the narrow scrape between buildings. He looked at the card Anise held in her hand again and then up at the numbers painted haphazardly on the metal nailed above the door way. If you could call a hole cut into a wall a door.
“Here it is.”
Anise had to double check the card herself. Did the man in the robe really want them to go here? She looked behind her, down the lane they had just picked their way through and couldn’t see the man. She turned back and nearly jumped out of her skin. The man stood on the other side of Colin, as if he belonged there all along, a doorman. He gestured with an arm through the dark hole in front of them, the sleeve of his robe blending almost seamlessly with the darkness inside.
“Is there any light?” Anise asked. The man shook his head apologetically.
“Oh!” Colin’s voice was no louder than normal but echoed like a shout off the metal buildings. He dug into a pouch that hung off the belt around his waist. Anise noticed possibly for the first time that various different sizes of pouch and bag and loop hung at his waist. He removed a small tube and twisted the end. Light burst from it. “Before you ask, I haven’t given it a name yet,” he said. “But it’s like one of those matches the lamplighters use to light the streetlights, so I call it a lamplighter.”
The light shone a streak into the darkness. Colin bent slightly and ducked under the door.
Anise followed behind, and the man in the robes entered silently after her.
Their steps rang hollowly, on hard stone floor. It seemed to be an empty warehouse. Dust swirled in the beam of light, and Anise thought she could see her breath come in small puffs. She shivered and wished she was wearing something more substantial than her thin blouse. Slowly they eased their way further into the room.
Anise tried to adjust her eyes to the bright light, and the surrounding darkness, but whenever she looked away from the light cast by the lamplighter, squiggles and starbursts of colour filled her vision.
And then her vision was cut off entirely. Brilliant white light filled the room and she threw her arm across her eyes. Hesitantly she removed her arm, but her eyes were still tightly shut. Even though she could see her eyelids glowing red with the strength of the light shining on them.
“Welcome Anise Buttersby. We have been expecting you.”
Her eyes flew open at the mention of her name, but she squinted them against the glare of light. They stood in the middle of a giant circle of light. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty lanterns hung around them, shining down with an unnerving ever-changing light, making their shadows that stretched out away from them on the smooth floor jump and sway as if they were living things.
She couldn’t see anything outside of the light cast by the lanterns, but she sensed a movement, an uneasy shuffling, an impatience.
They hadn’t mentioned Colin by name. Just her. And the man in the robe had given her the card with this address on it, not to Colin.
“Who are you?” She felt silly asking such a stupid question, but really what else was there to ask?
After a long pause the voice answered, almost hesitantly. “We are the Consortium.” It sounded as if a single voice had spoken, but at the same time, that many more had said the same thing at the exact same time. It sounded like the man in the robes, the man who had invited her here. And she realized what her next question must be.
“Why am I here?”
This time the reply came much quicker. ”You have been chosen.” And after a brief delay, the voice added. “You have been chosen but you have yet been proven worthy. There has been a bit of a mistake in proceedings. It has never happened like this.” The voice stopped and Anise got the impression that it was upset, disappointed, almost angry.
So many questions swirled inside her Anise felt like she would burst if she didn’t ask them all. “What do you mean I’ve been chosen?”
There was another long pause. “You have not yet been chosen. There has been a mistake. But you have been…nominated.”
Anise was even more confused. Nominated? Chosen?
“I have been nominated for what?” Dread filled her gut as she awaited the answer.
“To be a Secret Carrier.”
Anger bubbled up in her chest like the fire she felt from her back. “Yes, I know. I’ve already been chosen. Ophelia chose me. That’s why I got the tattoo!” Tears of frustration began to prick the corner of her eyes. What was with these ridiculous questions?!
There was another long pause and Anise was about to ask something else, thinking they were waiting for her to speak.
“A carrier cannot officially choose a new carrier. They can only nominate.” The voice with its strange many voices combined seemed as hollow and emotionless as the automated servant they had run into on Trevan’s ship. The tone made more tears push their way out of Anise’s eyes. They didn’t even care that she was here! After everything she’d gone through! A ball of lead formed in her stomach at the realization of what their words meant.
“You mean, I didn’t have to get this tattoo?” She stuffed her hand in her bag and held up the wrinkled pages with dismay.
A wave of sound circled the room and Anise realized it was hushed voices and whispers, gasps. The room was filled with people, people that were hidden in the shadows just on the outskirts of the circle of light.
The voice spoke, and there was a tremulous quality to it. “Place the pages at the edge of the circle if you please, Miss Buttersby.”
Anise cringed. She hated her last name. “Abe. I go by Abe,” she said but she did as requested and gingerly placed the paper on the ground at the knife edge between light and dark. The pages disappeared.
“We will dispose of this.” The voice was full of authority, and again Anise sensed an undercurrent of anger.
Anise tried to keep her anger at bay by gritting her teeth, forcing it to stay inside. It didn’t work. “You haven’t answered me. Are you saying I didn’t have to get this tattoo?”
The silence was even longer than before. Anise took a step forward, towards the edge of the circle, and the voice spoke. “As we said, there was a mistake. You need to prove yourself.”
“Prove myself? Isn’t me getting this tattoo proof enough?”
Anise sensed a collective shake of the head at this. “You need to prove to the Consortium that you are worthy of bearing such an important secret. It is one of the most sought after secrets, if not the most important of them all. At least of the ones that man is capable to handle.”
Anise’s jaw fell. All? There was more than just the three she knew of? More than time travel, which Ellory Trevan bore, and more than the music of the spheres, which the former magician, Andrew Defoe was the carrier of. He had exposed his secret to Ophelia, a fellow carrier, just before his death at Gideon’s hands.
“How many of these secrets are there?”
There was another long silence. “We do not need to answer that.”
A scream erupted from Anise and she stamped her foot like a little girl throwing a tantrum. “You made a mistake with me; I got this information tattooed when I didn’t need to! Do you think I wanted to choose this? Do you think I wanted this information part of me, permanently? Forever? No! I didn’t ask for this. I did this for a friend. I did it out of obligation. I did this because…” She didn’t know why she did this. Guilt? Guilt that she had got Ophelia killed. “I did this because I had to. If I didn’t…” she shook her head again, the words she tried to search for kept disappearing into the depths of her mind, covered by memories of her brother, who everyone thought was soft in the head when he talked about other worlds, ones with tall buildings made of glass and metal. A world like the one she had just come back from. She did this for people like him. People who aren’t taken seriously, who are laughed at.
She flinched as Colin’s hand found hers, and they stood in the centre of the pool of light, bound together.
“I believe she is worthy,” he said in nothing more than a whisper.
“Be that as it may,” the irritatingly layered voice – one made of many, “It is our rules that each Secret Carrier be proven worthy enough to carry that particular secret.”
“But what about imposters? What if someone stole the secret? Someone who shouldn’t have the knowledge?” Anise asked the darkness. “I rescued the secret – I took it before a man could take it for himself. Ophelia chose me, when she realized she would probably die, and I agreed. What do I need to do to prove myself worthy?”
The voice relaxed and Anise sensed a smile in its words. “A test. A simple test, that is all.”
“And if I’m found worthy?”
“Then you can continue as the new Carrier of alchemy, and your tattoo will not have been in vain.”
“And if I’m found unworthy?”
The silence that followed rang loudly in her ears, heavy with the answer hidden within it.
Well this is certainly turning out to be an interesting story, she thought glumly, wondering if she’d ever be able to write it. If she did, she wasn’t sure anyone would believe it anyway.
“Okay, I’ll agree to your test if you agree to answer that question.”
There was silence filled with uneasy shuffling and movement on the outskirts of the circle. She thought there must have been at least thirty, maybe more, people surrounding them. Nowhere to run.
“Agreed. Once you take the test.”
“What about the…one of you that helped-“
“The Consortium are not allowed to help. The Watchers are not allowed to interfere. They are made to just watch.”
Watchers? Is that what the man in the robe was? Then why did he help? Anise realized she had spoken the last part aloud when the Consortium answered back. “The Watchers are not supposed to help the Carriers, only observe, not interfere. They observe and when one is extinguished it is reported to The Consortium, and a new potential Carrier is summoned, like today.”
Silence fell, and rang as loudly as any gun.
“Okay, let’s get this over with.” Anise tried to keep the tremor out of her voice.
The circle of light stretched out, like a puddle of water spreading across the floor, it turned into an oval. The light highlighted more smooth stone floor, and Anise wasn’t sure whether she heard the whisper of robes or feet moving out of the way of the light.
She moved in the direction the light spread out.
“Wait!” It was Colin, his voice echoing strangely in the large room.
Anise didn’t turn to look at him, but instead stood at the tip of the tear drop shape of light, staring into the darkness. She knew what he was going to say.
“They said it was life or death.” That word froze her to the spot, hanging there with its grave finality. It was the one thing she had always shied away from. When her grandfather passed, the man who she was closest to in the entire world, when the rest of her family stood huddle in a dark mass at the cemetery on a cold, lifeless, blustery winter morning, she couldn’t bring herself to go. She made it as far as the edge of the cemetery itself, but when the tips of her boots touched the cropped, manicured grass, mostly covered with dead, fallen leaves from the skeleton arms from the branches above, she froze – much as she did right now – and fled back to the safety of her single room apartment on the top floor of a narrow four story building, squished between two other narrow buildings. The building on the left had a different businesses on each floor, including, she was grateful, her tailor, even though he gave her the stink eye every time she walked through his door and his bell chimed balefully overhead, as if the bell too, was disappointed that she, a woman, couldn’t mend or alter her own clothing and had to take it to a tailor to be done for her. He clucked his tongue every time he saw her, even, she noticed out of the corner of her eye, when she passed by the window of his shop, which was on the ground floor. The building on the other side used to be an apartment building like her own, but had been turned into a makeshift hospital ever since the Homeland War began. She saw nurses with white cloth hats on their head marked with, in place of a red cross, a purple lion – the crest of the Emperor of the United American Empire moving in and out of the building at all times of day like bees from a hive, carrying victims on grey-green stretchers. She heard snatches of them talk as they ran past her building, if she stood at her window, or as she left her house in the morning. “Another one trapped in a golem,” was what she heard the most.
Standing at the tip of the puddle of light she willed herself not to flee, trying to block the memory. The light melted away and became the sidewalk, the darkness transformed into the gentle sloping grass that lead up between gravestones. She looked down, her toes just touching the edge of darkness, just like they had the short cropped grass of the cemetery, the day she had fled, tears streaming down her face, back to the safety of the four walls of her house.
From the large bay windows, she could see the cemetery. Through a blurry curtain of tears she watched as her mother and father, aunt, grandmother and brother trudged up the gentle slope. It was a grey morning and mist hung low, clinging to the stone statues and grave markers. The sun broke through as she watched her family, an amorphous black blob, gathered together in a cluster around the hole in the ground that was to receive her grandfather. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, squeezing the words from her throat that was tight with grief.
“Why are you sorry?” The unnerving whispering voice of the Consortium slithered at her, and she realized she’d spoken out loud again.
“Nothing, never mind. I was just thinking.” She moved a foot into the darkness in front of her and light sprouted around it as if it were alive. She turned back and saw Colin standing in the middle of the circle, looking forlorn.
“Is there no way he can come with me?” She sounded like a scared little girl that was afraid of the dark and needed someone to take her by the hand and tell her there was no such thing as monsters. She knew that was wrong. There was monsters, and she had seen them. But she still hated herself for the way her voice quavered.
“I’m sorry,” the Consortium said as one. Anise didn’t detect any apology in the toneless words. “The Election ceremony is only for the person that has been nominated.”
“I thought as much.” Anise noticed then that she was now standing on her own little island of light that had separated from the main one that Colin still stood in the exact centre of.
“Please continue forward.” The Consortium instructed in its bland, emotionless voice.
Hesitantly she stuck a foot outwards, and the light expanded. She moved forward a step and looked behind her, the gap between the circle of light that surrounded her, and Colin’s island had grown bigger. ‘How do I know where I’m going?”
In reply a lamp went on a few hundred yards away, lighting the top of what looked like a door frame.
“That is your destination.”
Anise swallowed and stepped forward again, the light moving with her, and carrying her further away from Colin with each step. To keep the hairs that were rising at the back of her neck and on her arms at bay, she concentrated on counting each step, which rang with a frightening loudness.
She reached one hundred and two before her foot smacked against a metal door, above which the blue-ish light was shining.
She put her hand up to knock on it, then lowered it again, feeling foolish. She stood, unsure of what to do next, waiting for a command, but none came. She fumbled for the doorknob, and turned it. It opened into a smaller room. It was brightly lit, and a pain stabbed her in the temple as she adjusted from the darkness of the outside room. The room was empty save a padded rust coloured chair facing a large flat screen. She didn’t need any instructions to know what she was supposed to do next. She flopped down in the chair with a squeak of leather.
A disembodied voice floated in the room. It still had that different quality that made goose bumps prickle her flesh. A man appeared at her side, and Anise jumped until she recognized the thick hands protruding from the dark robe. It was the man who had rescued her. Them. And got them to the Garden of Eden in time.
“I’ve been told to strap you in. Some people are…a flight risk,” he said with a small laugh that raised his shoulders. “I’m sorry about this. I mean, being late. I should have…”
Anise turned to look at the darkness where his face showed in disjointed parts, mostly engulfed by shadows. “Are you in trouble?”
The man didn’t answer and instead went to work tying leather straps around her wrists, pinning her arms to the arm rests of the chair.
“Is it something I did?”
Silence greeted her.
Instinctively she tried to wriggle out of the bonds. “You don’t have to worry, you know. I can…” she was going to say that she could follow orders, but stopped herself. Could she? She wasn’t sure. Yes, she had followed the instructions written on the telegrams that her boss sent her when she was to investigate a story or a lead, but even then she ended up taking some…liberties.
The man finished tightening the straps, which bit into her wrists in an irritating but not wholly uncomfortable way. He took a small cage like thing from behind the chair and held it between his hands. It was made of metal, and had small white circles at various places. He lowered it onto her head like a cap. It felt cold on her hair that seeped into her scalp. She felt the small circles where they rested on her head. It felt like someone was lightly resting their hands over her head. The man moved away.
Even though Anise couldn’t see his mouth, she sensed that he wanted to say something, but before she could say anything he turned away and headed toward the door – the only way in or out.
“Good luck,” he whispered. The door clicked shut behind him and Anise was plunged into darkness as the lights went out. She couldn’t see anything in front of her. She had the sudden claustrophobic feeling of being buried deep underground and she bit her tongue to keep from screaming at the suffocating feeling of the darkness pressing against her.
And then an image appeared in front of her, projected onto the screen. It was of a little boy playing with a toy soldier. The image moved like it was really happening, except that it was in black and white. Then it changed and flashed up a woman walking down the street. Anise wondered what the point of this scene was when two men appeared like lightning and grabbed the coin purse that was hanging from the woman’s wrist as she walked. Even though there was no sound, Anise could see the woman scream. The men were hunched, and their faces were covered with scarves obscuring everything but their eyes. Before the woman could do anything else but scream, the men were gone. The dispassionate eye of whoever it thought which Anise was viewing these images kept on just as if nothing happened, it didn’t even blink, or stop. And then it shifted again. This time it was real soldiers, and they were in front of one of the army’s Golems. Their guns were raised up, aimed at the giant metal man. Anise watched with horror as the Golem, with a puff of steam jetting from its arm it raised its one arm that was a gun. She saw the flash of lightning, a giant energy gun, and squeezed her eyes shut before she saw the rest. When she opened them again it was another scene: A hearse was trundling morosely down a mainly empty street, drifts of snow piled up on either side. She felt her breath hitch in her chest, and a tear tickled her cheek before the picture changed again. It was a spaniel, racing through a thicket of spindly birch trees, their white bark seeming even whiter in black and white. She laughed at the sight. It reminded her of her own dog, Charles, a King Charles Cavalier. The dog burst out of the trees like a mottled bullet and streaked across a field, barking silently. Above floated, even more eerily than normal without the familiar whir of the propellers, a giant airship. A darker streak zoomed up and down the grassy hillocks. A fox. Anise cringed. She knew what was coming next. The shadow of the monstrous airship swallowed the fox, before it disappeared down another slope. There was a flash of gunfire from the front of the ships carriage and Anise jumped in her chair again, the leather straps digging into her wrists. She cried out again and not due to the images flashing on and off the screen – a nice scene that brought a smile to her lips and hope to her heart, which was dashed a moment later by something terrifying, or horrific, or sad and then followed again by something light, joyous and happy.
She eventually squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face from the screen. The images still flashed, changing every minute or so. She could sense the movement on her eyelids as the light changed. “Please! Enough! I’ve seen enough!”
“We are not yet done,” The Consortium said. “We have just one final thing to show you. We have never done this before, but…”
There was a whirr and a clunk and a ticking noise as the machine that showed the images came to a stop and shut off. She peeked one eye open and risked a glance. The room was once again black. The light came on without warning and she cried out at the sudden brightness. “I don’t know what the meaning of that was,” she called out to the empty room, “but I hope you got the answer you needed!”
The Consortium member she had dealt with before came back into the room. He held an envelope in his hands.
“It looks like the Consortium still trust me, at least enough to give you this.” His voice was barely above a whisper. He handed over the envelope, and Anise wasn’t surprised to see that her hands were shaking as she opened it and withdrew five photographs, all black and white. The first photograph brought tears to Anise’s eyes. The blond hair was a whitish grey, cropped short that curled under her ears, and the blue eyes were a dark slate, but Anise recognized Ophelia immediately, and a lump formed in her throat. She tucked the photo at the back and the next face caused a shiver to race down her spine. He looked even more dangerous and menacing drained of colour. “Trevan,” she breathed. She could see the long scar that traversed his face from brow to jaw, even without the help of colour to show it off. She tucked his photograph at the back even more quickly than Ophelia’s but for an entirely different reason. It looked like his eyes were staring right at her, right into her soul.
The next photo was of a young man with dark eyes and strong jaw. He had square shoulders to match, and Anise thought she saw a sort of sadness or loneliness in his face, and weariness in the way his shoulders drooped. He had a small scar above his right eyebrow, on the patch of skin that was visible underneath a shock of dark, possibly brown curly hair. It looked as if he had just woken up. There were dark circles under his eyes. She stared at the man in the photograph. He looked to be around her age, maybe a few years younger, in his mid-twenties, if she had to guess. She flipped to the next photograph. It was a face which brought her mixed feelings, but another that she recognized. Defoe. Andrew Defoe, magician and member of the Brotherhood of Illusionists. The man they had run into in the Volupte Lounge in London. The other London. But the man that she had also met in this London. He was smiling in the photograph exposing large white teeth. A huckster’s grin. A false grin, and a strange glint to his eye to go along with it, one that said ‘am I telling the truth? If you can’t tell I won’t be telling you’. Anise wasn’t sure she could trust him. He had been in the industry of lying to people, taking advantage of their gullibility – showing them one thing when they were really doing another. Well, she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. Gideon had taken care of that, just before he did the same to Ophelia.
Turning over his photograph erased the shivers that ran down her spine like magic. She came face to face with yet another familiar face. But she didn’t know her name, but it was someone she saw almost every day. She recognized the woman, even though she wasn’t wearing the white cloth cap emblazoned with the purple lion. The woman’s hair was short, blonde, and her face was thin, lined with weariness and sorrow. Crow’s feet stretched from the corners of her eyes, but Anise realized they were not from laughter, but from anxiety. Her eyes were bright blue, an almost pale white in the photograph. She was one of the nurses who brought in victims from the war fields to the east of her home city, one of the many nurses who brought victims into the hospital on stretchers, and out of the hospital into hearses.
She turned the photo over, bringing up the last one in the pile. It surprised her. It was of a young girl, no older than a teenager. She was slim, thin almost, with a long face, and long dark hair that hung limply past her shoulders. She wore a shapeless shift dress. It looked grey and dingy, but that might have just been the lack of colour in the photo, but Anise noticed her hair seemed messy and unwashed. She looked lost, and reminded Anise of a young girl that she sometimes saw in the playground of the orphanage back home – a girl who always stood on the outskirts, in the shadows because no one paid her any attention. Anise would pause to watch the orphaned girl back home sometimes for a moment as she passed, glancing through the wrought iron railings of the fence that surrounded the building. The girl with the dark hair would either be sitting on the steps with a drawing pad in her lap, or swinging the tether ball around and around on its post, with no one else around to swing it back to her.
The girl in the playground got under her skin. She felt sorry for her. Anise wasn’t a people-person. People got on her nerves, and sometimes she even irritated herself by her idiosyncrasies, which is why she enjoyed being someone else, pretending to be someone else, when she went undercover to dig up information for stories. Even though that usually seemed to get her into trouble. Well, now she wasn’t even doing any investigating and she was getting into trouble anyway. She just couldn’t win. She looked at the girl in the photograph again. There was something about it that bothered her but she couldn’t put a finger on it.
She turned to the faceless messenger. “Who are they? Well I know some of them.” She dug out Trevan’s photo and without looking at it said, “He’s the carrier of Time Travel.”
The robed man visibly started. She flipped to Ophelia. “And this is Ophelia, the carrier of alchemy, the girl who told me she wanted me to carry it on.” The hood nodded. She dug up Defoe, and turned her eyes from the smiled that turned her stomach. “This is Andrew Defoe, he’s the one that carried the Secret of the Music of the Spheres. I still don’t really know what that really means.”
“How do you-” the robes began, but was interrupted by his superiors. The Consortium boomed over speakers that Anise couldn’t see. “How do you know of the existence of Time Travel and the Music of the Spheres? No one should know of them but the carriers themselves.”
“It was Defoe. Defoe told me and Colin that he was a Carrier, and that Trevan held the secret of Time Travel – that that was how he had got to that other London, the weird London with its noise and so many colours. But I don’t know the other two people in the photograph. If there are more, I need to warn them. That man I told you about, Gideon, he was looking for the secret to alchemy. He thought that a man named Bertrand had it, and assumed it was written in a book. But then he found out that Ophelia was Bertrand. That Bertrand was her last name, and that she didn’t have the secret in the book but that she was the secret itself. A living, breathing embodiment of it.”
The Watcher in the robe stood beside her chair. Even though Anise couldn’t see his face she got the impression he was eagerly awaiting her next words, like a little boy listening intently to a story. She was waiting for him to utter the words “and then what happened?” but instead it was the Consortium.
“So, like you, like man, this Gideon, knows of the existence of other Secrets? Of other Secret Carriers?”
Silence fell again as the Consortium considered this.
“These other three people, the woman, the girl and the dark haired man, they are Secret Carriers as well?”
The robed man she thought of as her warden that stood silently beside her as she remained tethered to the armrests of the chair, answered with a nod.
The Consortium answered aloud. “They are. Each Carrier should not know of the existence of the others. They have not, until now. That is part of the role of the Watchers. To keep them separate. But it seems that some of our Watchers have…failed in their duties.” At this reprimand, her jailer’s hood fell forward, staring at the floor.
“Well that’s all very well and good,” Anise said. “It seems your system has become flawed. And now one very bad man knows of their existence. At least the existence of some. And I’m sure if he doesn’t know of the others already, he will be very close to finding out. I don’t know him all that well, but I do know that he isn’t a stupid man. He’s a very dedicated one and if you want to keep your secrets a secret, you’ll need to warn your carriers.”
The robed man lifted his head. “We cannot. We aren’t allowed. That is one of the rules.”
Anise laughed. “Didn’t I just say that your rules are flawed?”
The man shrugged. “That has been the way of the Elders since they have held the Higher Mysteries. It has been-”
“Quiet!” bellowed the Consortium. “You have given away enough already, Watcher.” There was a pause and the voice addressed Anise. “Miss Anise Verity Buttersby. It has been decided that you have passed your test. Watcher, you can release her.”
Confusion flew across her face. “What? That was the test? Those moving images? But how?”
And then the second, and more important, question occurred to her. “And how do you know my name?” Then added, “my full name.” She hadn’t told anyone her name. Her last name, possibly, but that was highly doubtful since she hated it with a passion. Buttersby. She almost cringed at the thought. It was why she went by her nickname – Abe. It was her intials, A and B, together. And most people thought her articles were written by a man, not by a short, slightly chunky woman with dimples and legs that somehow looked slightly better wearing man’s trousers than being covered up by layers of lace and petticoats in puffy colourful clouds of skirt and dress.
“And,” she added almost as an afterthought, “since I’ve passed the test, would I be able to get out of this chair now?”
The watcher rushed forward, almost apologetically, even before the Consortium had confirmed that she could be released. A few tugs and a slip from a buckle and her hands arms were free once more. A moment later the strange wire cap was slipped from her head, and she felt as if a vise had been loosened.
“You have passed the test because we were monitoring how you reacted, emotionally, spiritually and physically to the images on the screen through the sensors we placed on your skull. It may be something your friend, Colin Montgomerie may be able to explain to you at a later date. But we are happy to inform you that the tattoo you received this morning has not been for naught.”
Anise breathed a sigh of relief expelling in a whoosh of air. She didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath.
“The Overseers have decreed that you are worthy of carrying the Alchemy Secret.”