The sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone street is enough to make her miss home even more dearly than before. Gloved hands fidgeting in her lap, she stares out the grey window spotted with raindrops as she pondered whether coming to West End was insensitive, or simply foolish.
As the carriage came to a sudden stop, her troubled heart jolts as if a thin cold dagger had pierced her chest. She ignores the nausea that follows as she shoves open the carriage door, her bright copper hair flying about as she steps clumsily off the black cab. She surveys the daunting apartment before her, the moist air tasting impure and thick in her mouth despite the heavy rain.
She knows in her heart that this visit was going to be complex. But she doesn’t trust her heart – it always assumes the worst of people.
She struts to the door with a confidence she hopes had fooled the men passing by.
Humans fret too much, she thinks idly as she pulled her thick shawl around her shoulders more tightly, and London is too cold for its own good.
She knocks on the door three times before it flies open almost immediately, revealing a large, gaunt man with shining eyes, a thick curled moustache, and teeth that looked as if they had been outlined with a black pencil.
“Miss Proluvies, we’ve been expectin’ you,” he greets her smoothly, flashing a horrid smile and offering to take her shawl. She makes no effort to take it off and simply steps past him into the crooked corridor. She notes a high-priestess tarot card framed above the front door as it closed, as well as the evil eye talisman hanging from the ceiling, swinging side to side like a wagging finger.
“Miss Clemens is waiting for you upstairs, ma’am.”
He points up the carpeted stairs. She nods stiffly and starts her steep ascent.
Among the couple of doors at the top, she knows the one she is looking for is at the end of the hall, which is open just slightly, almost invitingly. As she nears the room she almost second guesses herself; she shakes off the all-too-familiar feeling and forcefully pushes the door open.
The room is so bright it is almost dazzling. The whole alcove is chilly, and one could clearly hear the chat of people passing down below even through the closed windows lining the left wall. Their sills are covered thoroughly in doilies and small pouches smelling strongly of sage. On the right is a small writing desk with several drawers and a rabbit’s foot hanging precariously from its edge. Beyond that is a small empty fireplace with multiple incenses and herbs stuffed inside misty jars.
In the middle of it all sits the thin-framed woman with watery eyes as ethereal as an untroubled blue sky. Her thin lips are pursed as her frail fingers work on an embroidery hidden under her small table.
Clemens, as the visitor knows her, is exceedingly pale in her tight black gown, like a ghostly widow. She looks up without surprise, strands of her ebony curls framing her face, the rest of it delicately piled on top of her head. Her smile is slow to come.
“My dear Ignis,” she greets softly, gesturing to the seat across from her, “It has been so long. Pray take a seat, dear.”
The round woman shakes out her heavy skirt before obliging.
“What a queer thing to stich,” Ignis observes, as she peered down at the round embroidery of a perched raven in the other’s lap. Clemens smiles without looking down at her work.
“You know me. I love what is familiar… but enough of that– my, you’ve grown wild!”
“Or rather you’ve outgrown it,” she mutters, “living amongst city-dwellers. I thought it absurd when I had gotten word of it.”
“Never had it crossed my mind one of us would ever live in… man’s urban paradise.”
“I’ve found order here, my Sister. Order I have craved for far too long back at home.”
“Yet it still remains home,” Ignis huffs.
Just then the gaunt man who had opened the door bustles in with tea, accompanied by brown sugar, cream, and some pastries on a silver tray.
“The forest remains a lot of things I had hoped to escape,” replies Clemens, as she takes the tea and proceeds to add cream to her own. Ignis doesn’t touch hers.
“You seem to be in a state of mourning,” she finally acknowledges as Clemens sips her drink, “why the black robes, Sister?”
Clemens lowers the china cup slowly, her piercing eyes avoiding the other’s deep brown ones as she chooses her words carefully.
“I… I’m not completely sure, if you must know,” she confides gradually, “I feel a grief I cannot remember. It is as if a shadow settles in my heart, like the fog that masks this city so very often.”
Her hand moves slowly to her collar. Long fingers find the small amulet she knows is there, stroking it with her thumb. Ignis watches all of this carefully, raising a thick unruly eyebrow.
“Don’t you think of Rex?”
Clemens’ eyes snaps back to Ignis’ face. They are uncharacteristically hard, glittering like sapphires.
“Rex… no news of him?”
“Not since last we met,” Ignis replies bitterly. Clemens’ eyes lowers again, as she licked her coral lips.
“The Order grows anxious, Sister,” asserts Ignis, “They say he is shielded from them, hidden. Even by the means of their most powerful Seers. But no one is as frightened as you and I-”
“How long has it been? How long exactly?” interjects Clemens, ignorant of her visitor’s words. Ignis grits her teeth.
“Six turns of the moo–”
“Seven months,” Clemens interrupts again in a flat voice, as her large pale eyes stare past Ignis, “it has been seven months.”
Ignis observes how skull-like Clemens has grown to look. Her cheeks no longer have any flush, and her hair is like bits of straw bent deliberately into her trademark curls.
“So it would seem,” replies Ignis, leaning slightly backwards into her plush chair. This is precisely what she had been afraid of. Everything the Order and the Council had told her is right. The realization comes over her like the shadows of clouds flitting over the face of the sun.
“What is it you wish to tell me, Ignis?” asks the hostess pleasantly, snapping out of her dark reveries to take another sip of her tea.
The redhead’s eyes refocus on her true counterpart. Ignis too has grown thinner – no longer the loud, girl she used to be, running barefoot and weaving between, eating berries directly off bushes.
“I come merely because I couldn’t bear the silence any longer,” she responds absently, her eyebrows drawing together even more, “Rex vanished without a trace, leaving London. It’s been the only subject of conversation.”
Ignis observes Clemens’ passive expression, but continues.
“Some of the Order’s Wanderers were sent out to look for him, and they came back saying not a single white-blonde hair of his was left behind. They say he had probably come across some Highwaymen.”
“And what do you say to that?” humors Clemens through a tight-lipped smile. Ignis stares, all doubt vanishing from her heavy heart.
“I say the lot of it is irrational. Rex could turn anyone away with a glare, let alone some lowly robbers,” she responds quietly, then adds, “even the Scavengers would falter.”
“Ignis,” she warns, the first inkling of any feeling dripping into her voice like poison. It was fear.
Ignis ignores this, however.
“And you, in the middle of nowhere, amongst the humans,” she continues vilely in the same half-whisper, noting the increasing color of Clemens’ pointed ears, “gallivanting amongst the smoggy streets and chanting voodoo spells to yourself…”
Ignis stops herself and finally reaches for her now cold tea. Clemens regards her with a glare as icy as her turned soul.
“If you wish to tell me something, I would rather you just told me,” she growls. Ignis doesn’t look up. She knows that if she did, she would become subject to a power even more treacherous than her own emotions – both of which she refuses to be subject to.
“I simply wonder what has overcome you, joining such an evil organization,” she ventures as casually as Clemens had done, who is gripping the handle of her tea cup dangerously tight, her knuckles white.
“I don’t know what you mean to imply,” says Clemens as she forcefully begins playing with the chain of her amulet.
“Do not lie to me, Clemens. I have known you for centuries, just as we both had known our dearfriend, our Brother Rex.”
Clemens flinches again, but continues to glare. Ignis breathes heavily, the air suddenly as thick as outside.
“Tell me about it. Tell me how you feel,” tries Ignis, finally looking up.
Clemens looks feral, but nevertheless answers, “I don’t feel as you do, Sister. I am… free of such ties-”
“Because you have become newly imprisoned. You’ve always felt, though now you wouldn’t like to admit it. In fact it has overcome you! Just as the Order had warned, as the Council cautioned!”
“You always set so much store in those weathered old creatures,” spits Clemens. The hand around her amulet has become a claw.
“Those ‘weathered old creatures’ have prophesied the return of the Black Men for eras since they were last defeated,” Ignis reminds her, “now people are vanishing, only to be seen again with eyes black as coal. I can see it burrowing inside of you.”
Ignis swallows the snag in her voice as Clemens slowly licks her lips again and again. There was a long pause.
A ringing silence following this monumental word ensues as Ignis stared. She peers into Clemens’ dark eyes. They drew her in like a whirlpool, but she resists and looks away.
“A sickness has overcome your mind, Sister,” she finally whispers as she begins to get up, “and I beg of you not to inflict me with your frightful malady.”
“Ignis, I must insist –”
“You will insist nothing,” she snaps, “Clemens is gone. She has been gone for a very long time, even if I refused to see it. But it is clear now.”
Sniffing, Ignis gathers her thick shawl around her and turns to leave, before circling around and adding, “You are not the dear friend I once loved. She has given herself into the very epitome of evil she had once vowed to fight. The Clemens I knew is dead.”
Just as she leaves, the mustached man stepps inside from behind the door, blocking her way.
“But your cab ‘as already left.”
She looks into his black eyes.
“Then drive me,” she seethes, and with one more glare at her rigid hostess, she steps out of the room and into the dark hallway.
Clemens slowly tilts her head to the right, listening intently to the sound of the Ignis’ descending steps. She looks wolfishly to her assistant.
“Do drive her,” she says in monotone, “and make sure to drive her out of London by the recommended route.”
The large man flashes a nasty grin, then nods brusquely before heading out the door as well.
Clemens Exolescus lifts herself out of her seat and passes over to her orderly writing desk, stroking the rabbit’s foot. She reaches under the table to pull out a small hidden drawer, out of which she retrieves a little doll. She ambles back to the window, and watches as Ignis climbs into her carriage along with the brutish man. Even through the gray haze of the dismal clouds her hair was a fiery orange. Clemens pulls out a needle from her embroidery, and very slowly pushed it deep into the heart of the model she holds so delicately in her hands.
She turned back to her desk, and placed the copper haired figure back inside the drawer. She makes sure it lay precisely next to the male doll with white-blonde hair, which was already stained a dark red.