Anise’s hackles rose at the comment, and she bristled. Why wouldn’t she be worthy? She was a hard working person, who tried her best to be kind and tolerant.
Her thoughts dragged themselves back to her grandfather’s funeral and the gap that Anise thought she could see as she watched the proceedings from the safe distance of her living room window. The gap that was meant for her to fill. Maybe she didn’t always do the right thing, she conceded. The right thing according to society, according to propriety. But it was the right thing for her. No matter how many times her mother would give her a heavy lidded look of disdain and mention off-handedly or in passing how childish it was of her, a woman of twenty one, not to be able to attend a funeral.
“But Grandpapa wouldn’t have known whether or not I was there or not, he wouldn’t have been able to see if I was standing at his graveside!” she countered with a hurt, petulant whine.
Her mother gave her an arch look, raising one perfectly manicured eyebrow. “That is not the point, Anise Verity, and you know it!”
Wasn’t it? What was the point? If the person was dead anyway, if you couldn’t face the sight of their pale, shrivelled body lying unnaturally in the narrow confines of a wooden box, it wouldn’t be any skin off their nose, would it? After all, they’re not around to see it. Anise was all set to make that argument, but the look on her mother’s face; the hard, steely look her eyes got when she was being confronted stopped her cold. Her mother wouldn’t understand. Her mother did it because it was expected. Because it was something people just did. “You have to pay your respects,” her mother would say.
“Yes, but surely you’d pay respect to them while they were alive, so that they would know it,” Anise replied. With that answer she saw pinpricks of bright red form on her mother’s cheeks before she stormed silently from the room.
The booming voice of the Consortium brought her back from her wandering thoughts that had started to lead her down a dark and ever more twisted path into the memories of her past.
“The Kryptos know much. We don’t know how they know your name, but know it they do. They know that your brother Robert, is not what your family refer to as soft in the head. It is only that he has been able to see the existence of other planes of reality in his dreams. They are the carriers of the higher mysteries, ones that are far too big, and too important for the rest of humanity to carry. Their burden would be too great for most ordinary people, and the Secrets of five carriers of the so called lower mysteries take enough of a toll on the bearer of the knowledge. We have realized this recently with some of the carriers but…” Anise thought the pause in the Consortium’s speech was like a shrug. “It is how it has always functioned and how it must continue to function if man is to continue to survive how it has been for millennia.”
Anise had been about to ask about the three unfamiliar faces in the photographs, but something else had to be asked first.
“It means the hidden,” the Watcher next to her, hands clasped piously in front of him, explained.
“Silence!” the multi-layers of the Consortium’s voice boomed over speakers that were hidden in the shadows that cloaked the corners of the high ceiling. At that the Watcher visibly cringed and shrunk within its robes.
Anise felt sorry for the man. This was a good time to change the subject. “So who are these other three people in the photographs?” She shuffled through them pulling free the too-thin girl with the shoulder length blond hair, the dark-haired young man with too much sorrow in his brown eyes, and the young girl with a long drawn face, and long limp hair.
Instead of answering, the Watcher slunk away from her back towards the one and only door in the room. Silently he opened the door and gestured out. Anise took the cue and strode out with much more confidence than she actually felt. Her individual island of light returned around her like a cocoon, and the spotlight moved with each step expanding in front and contracting behind in such a way that she stood always within the centre. She saw Colin where she had left him, except he was now sitting cross legged, and looking down at the floor. He seemed to be drawing in the thick layer of dust that coated the ground. He leapt up in awkward jumble, tripping on his feet, when he saw her approaching and her solitary island melted once more with his larger one.
“You’re back!” he exclaimed. He sounded surprised. “How did it go? Did you pass? Are you okay?”
“Did you not hear everything that was being said?” she asked, incredulously.
He shook his head, his green eyes wide with concern.
“Yes, I passed. And I’m okay. But I found out that there are other Secret Carriers. I’m just trying to find out more about them.” She still held the envelope of photos and passed them over to him. He opened it and took them out, looking over each of them silently, but making a small noise when he came across Ophelia’s and Trevan’s. Anise noticed when he saw Defoe’s menacing smile he had the same reaction as herself – a sort of instinctive revulsion.
After the last photo he turned it over, as if expecting more, and then asked the question Anise was still waiting on the answer to. “Who are these other three people?” It was the most Colin had spoken since she had met him – could it just have been two days ago that she’d woken up in that room of his flat after he’d rescued her from that monster? It felt like a week, if not longer.
She was too busy trying to calculate the time that had passed that she missed part of what the Consortium was saying.
“-is a nurse, recruited into the Emperor of the United American Empires army. The other is an orphaned girl. She lost her family in…a tragic manner that it is unnecessary to get into the details of at this juncture. The man is a one of simple means, grown up on a farm, raised to appreciate the simplicity and wonders of life. Some have been chosen, some are, like you were until arriving here, simply nominated, as the original carrier has relinquished their title like in your situation, abruptly, with no opportunity for the person to go through the election process until after the fact.”
“Well, we need to find out who these people are. We need to warn them. Since you obviously aren’t willing or aren’t going to, someone has to.”
Colin spoke up then, coming to her aid like a knight that is always just that slow to arrive at the tournament and shows when the battle has almost been won. “We will. It is our duty. I helped save Anise’s life. I think we ca find these people and warn them that Gideon is looking for their secrets, and taking them without waiting to be nominated, or elected, or whatever it is this process is that you all do.”
“We need their names. We can’t help them if you don’t tell us their names, and where they live so we can find them. Gideon has Trevan under his spell so he has the luxury of the power of time travel-“ Anise went on.
“But-“ a single voice separated itself from the shadows and Anise recognized it as the man she termed ‘her’ Watcher.
There was a warning note in the Consortium’s reply. “Be careful what you say here, Watcher. Your fate stands on a knife edge. You have said too much, and done too much, and been negligent in your duties, not bringing the potential candidate here before she had got the information on her. If you had, she would have had the opportunity to decline the offer.”
“What?” Anise screamed, but her cries went unheeded or unnoticed.
“But since she already had the information added to her skin, it became a situation of life or death, instead of yes or no. None of this is your concern. It should never have been your concern, never have involved you. You should not have interfered.”
There was silence followed by another ‘but’, this one more timid than the last. Silence regained power and the Watcher spoke no more.
The Consortium’s voice seemed to soften slightly. “The man’s name is Silas St. Claire, the girl is Abigail Hendry, and the woman is Eleanor Murphy. The overseers are surprised that you don’t know the blonde one. She is a neighbour of yours, after all.”
Anise snatched the photographs back from Colin and shuffled them until the tired face of the blonde woman with bags under her eyes and hair curling up at her ears. She scrutinized the picture, and then it dawned on her. The nurse from the hospital beside her flat! She was a carrier too?
“You need to warn her!” she cried. “You need to warn her, and the others. Otherwise they’ll end up just like Ophelia and Defoe.”
She was greeted with a stony silence. Her jaw fell at the callousness behind their silence.
“We have told you, we cannot interfere in the lives of the carriers.”
Anise wasn’t a brave person, by any means. She was still afraid of the dark, at thirty three. But she didn’t want any more blood on her hands. Any more… “I’ll do it. I’ll warn them. It’s partly my fault that Gideon found about Ophelia’s secret in the first place. That way you won’t be interfering, it will be on my shoulders.” She peered into the restless darkness that she knew was filled with innumerable people, hidden in dark robes just like her Watcher.
The silence fell like an axe, shattering her hope.
Then she realized the problem. She was somewhere in a seedy part of London, England. The nurse, Eleanor Murphy, was thousands of miles away, back home in the United American Empire.
“Help us get to the… Help me to get home. I need to talk to this nurse. I need to get home quickly. How can I get to Vancouver from here? An airship can’t go all that fast-“
Colin interrupted. “They only reach forty-five miles per hour at their top speeds. Of course, they use the winds and jet streams to increase their speeds but even then, taking an airship would take about two weeks just to traverse the Atlantic.”
Anise raised a hand towards him. He could speak when it was necessary! “See?” Gideon would get to her quicker than me with Trevan on his side. They could manipulate time, somehow. “We need your help. That Watcher helped us get the alchemy spell before Gideon. We were trapped, in a different London. We got there not a moment too soon, either. If he could help us again…” she trailed off, hope building.
There was a stony silence, then, “The Consortium does not interfere. It chooses the Secret Carriers and then lets them live their lives. The Watchers are only…an alarm system of sorts. They report when a Carrier has died, and who the next potential candidate should be. That is all.”
“So they’re like a guardian angel, but one that doesn’t do anything at all to help you?” Anise could hear her voice rising with anger and frustration.
Silence greeted her once more.
“But if the Watcher, I’m not sure if it was Ophelia’s or Defoe’s, helped us once, why can’t he help us again?”
She peered into the dark with wild, frantic eyes and wondered if anyone could actually see her. “If you don’t help us, it could mean the end to all the Secret Carriers. Surely you don’t want that to happen!” She spun round, looking at another area of darkness outside the circle, pleading.
“He’s my Watcher now, is he not?”
The silence broke with a short answer “Yes.”
“Well, he’s already helped me before, I don’t see why he can’t again.”
“It is against the rules-“ The Consortium said. Their voice got under Anise’s skin with its many layers.
“Can’t you forget about the rules? Just this time? The whole Consortium is in danger here! The rules have to be broken sometimes when things threaten you – threaten your organization. Can’t you agree that if one person had all the Secrets, he would be a very powerful, very dangerous man? To all of us, to everyone on the planet?”
Anise thought she could sense the darkness nod silently.
And then a blob of darkness separated itself and entered the light. Anise almost screamed. This room and the Consortium put her on edge. Then she realized it was her Watcher, and let out a sigh of relief.
The Watcher turned to its parent outside the circle. “I will help them. I know I have already broken many rules, and I know I will be punished for it, so I don’t see any reason not to continue. They speak the truth.”
Silence descended again and then the sound of rustling, like the soft beating of birds wings.
“Granted. You may help them until all the other Carriers have been warned, and then you will return to face your punishment.”
The Watcher bowed, the sleeves of his robe touching the floor, causing miniature tornadoes of dust.
“Thank you!” Anise cried. “Thank you so much. I promise I will be a great Secret Carrier. I’ll protect Alchemy with my life.”
“And you won’t use it in any way the benefits yourself,” the layered voice finished.
“Yes, never for myself.”
The Watcher, her Watcher began to shuffle his way out of the circle and the light moved with him. Anise and Colin followed until they were standing outside once more.
Anise blinked in the brightness.
“Okay, where do we go?” She adjusted her bag more securely across her chest and smiled at Colin. Finally! The next adventure begins!
The Watcher waved his arm, “Follow me.” But Anise put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
“Can I see what you look like now?”
The man froze but didn’t turn around. “No. It is against the rules. The Carriers are not supposed to know that we are there, following every step of their lives, like a living shadow. That’s what we are. We are not supposed to show our faces. Doing that we become…more personal.”
Anise shrugged. She would get him to reveal himself to her at some point. She dropped her hand from his shoulder. The action freed him and he continued onwards.
They moved past dilapidated buildings with darkened windows, some broken and some boarded up. A hunched figure exited one building across the street, his hat was pulled down over his head and the collar of his jacket pulled up to his ears. He hid his face from them and the few other people who shambled slowly around this neighbourhood.
They’re like the undead Anise thought, watching them with morbid fascination. Most of them seemed to be heading to the same place – an unassuming building that seemed to be trying to hide itself just like the man in the long coat with his hat pulled down and his collar up. Anise noticed a small image sketched out roughly in green paint. It was a fairy. Understanding dawned on her. It was an absinthe bar, and most likely a front for an opium den from the narrow twisted pipes that rose from the roof – there were five and all were churning out grey smoke as if it was a factory. She had never been in an opium den before, and hoped she never would. Being in an absinthe bar was enough excitement for her. It was more civilized, at least somewhat.
And then she noticed they were out of the unsavory part of town and back to where men and women walked with a purpose.
As they meandered across a street, dodging stagecoaches, Anise asked the Watcher, “What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one. None of us do. We are a collective,” he said as he began to climb a short set of steps up to the door of a squat, whitewashed house. Anise noted there were flowers in the beds on either side of the door – a riot of colour – red tulips and purple pansies. The Watcher lifted the ornate door knocker shaped, Anise noticed, like a clock face.
The door was opened by an elderly woman, grey hair swept up elegantly into a bun. She was short, the same height as Anise. “Oh!” The woman’s hand flew to her chest in surprise. “My dear, I haven’t seen you in a while. Come in, come in.” She gestured to the hooded figure on the stoop. And then she noticed Anise and Colin, standing a little ways down the steps and her eyes narrowed. “Who are they? Are they-?” She let the question hang, her silver eyebrows raised high on her brow.
“Yes, they are with me.”
The old woman’s eyes widened. “But you never have-“
“No, I never have. But this is a special circumstance.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed and her lips thinned. “I see. Well, come in, then. Get out of the chill, it’s cold this morning.”
Anise and Colin followed the robed man into the house. The woman stood at the door, holding it open as they passed.
The woman smiled tight lipped at them. “You know where to go,” she said to the Watcher.
“I do, thank you.”
“Well, go on then. Do what you need to do.”
He gave a bow. “Thank you Madam. I thank you on behalf of the Consortium.”
The woman nodded but remained silent. Anise saw something strange in her eyes, an emotion she couldn’t read. The Watcher led them through an immaculate living area, as if no one ever sat in the dove grey arm chairs, or put their glasses on the small wooden side tables next to each chair and at either end of the matching couch. They passed through a small kitchen and up a narrow staircase, past two bedrooms arranged on either side of a hall, and continued up another flight of stairs which ended at a door at the top. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. “I hope that neither of you are afraid of heights?”
Anise gulped, fear gripping her like an icy hand. She was afraid of heights actually. “Actually…” her voice came out in a croaked whisper.
“Ah. That’s too bad. Well, you’ll have to ignore it I’m afraid.” He turned the knob and disappeared through the door.
With watery knees, Anise inched her way up the remaining stairs, gripping onto the flocked wallpaper with white knuckles.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he said. They reached the door and stepped out onto a tiny square rooftop. Anise immediately grabbed onto the very short iron fence that went all the way around. She ignored the sharp spear point on the end of each that dug into her palms.
She glanced around. She could see roofs of varying heights, most with smoke stacks merrily puffing grey-black clouds into the grey-black clouds overhead.
“What are we doing up here? I thought we’d be going through another door, like last time, when you showed us how to get back to Eden.” Her voice was small, quiet, and she wasn’t sure that either of them could actually hear her.
“I have. Except this door is in an awkward place. Come see.” The Watcher stood on the other side of the small square. Anise moved her way around the outside of the square, moving her hands along the iron spiked fence until she eventually reached him. He pointed over the edge. She glanced down and saw small courtyard below, where a man had set up a cart and was selling some sort of food – small pies, it looked like, to the people passing by. The middle of the square was taken up by a large fountain in the shape of a Roman soldier, a large and painful looking spear held at his side. “I don’t see any door,” she said.
“You’re looking past it. Look again. Look at the air. Do you see anything different?”
She looked again and noticed the air was shimmering, undulating as if it was heated, like the air did in the steam of a kettle, or above the flames of a fire.
“Yes, I see the air is moving.”
The Watcher nodded and Anise sensed a smile within the hood. “Yes, exactly. That’s the doorway. You have to go through that.”
She could feel the life drain from her face and she felt like passing out. She gripped the small fence posts more tightly. A pigeon fluttered towards them and landed on the stone blocks of the rooftop.
“We have to go through that?” her voice came out in a squeak.”
“But,” she glanced down at the air that wavered in a large square, “what happens if we miss?”
The Watcher was silent for a moment. “Don’t miss. You must not miss, otherwise…” His silence made the icy hand that still held her insides grip tighter.
“Just close your eyes and jump,” Colin said. He climbed up on the ledge, holding his hand out to her. “We’ll hold hands.”
“I’ll be coming too,” the Watcher added. “It seems like I’m your transportation. Now, when you jump, think about where you want to end up. Think of your home, Anise. Just keep that in your mind. Picture it as if you’re actually there. Imagine it.”
Anise unglued her hands from the spikes and took Colin’s. She stepped onto the ledge and her legs locked. “I’m not sure if I can do this!”
“Sure you can. I believe in you.” Colin smiled, his eyes crinkling softly at the corners. “Come on. On the count of three.” Anise stood, feeling the wind ruffle her blouse. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly.
“One.” She gripped Colin’s hand tighter
“Two.” She bit her lip to keep from screaming.
“Three.” She felt Colin shift forward and jumped, a scream erupting from her, not locked in by her teeth. She fell. As she was falling she barely remembered to think of her home.