Chapter 1: Before the Break
“One more, Gemma!”
“C’mon, you got it in you for one last one!”
“Sing the one about the secret mask!”
The calls of the modest crowd brought a smile to Gemma’s face. She giggled as she bowed, face red, hair tousled and slipping out of the loose ribbon over her shoulder.
“What do you say, eh?” asked the famous bard beside her. The man held his lute at the ready, as if waiting for her cue to start another tune. But behind the candles that lit his hair like a halo, she could see out the window, the way the sky tinted a dull purple. Gemma shook her head.
“I wish I could stay, but I have things to do,” she said, mostly to the bard. He bowed his head in understanding, but the crowd let out various “boos” and “awws.” She faced the various travelers, the elderly regulars, the dinner crowd at The Grey Swan. Gemma waved at the couple dozen or so faces, most of them familiar, and scooted off the stool the bard gave her a few songs ago.
“Thank you, everyone! This was fun!” But her words were drowned away by the sound of Brendan the Bard starting up his next song, and the shouts of Artin the innkeep and her workers delivering ales and meads and oxen burgers all around to the scrappy wooden tables. One moment, the crowd called for her, and in the next, Gemma was forgotten in favor of savory scents and a fresh song. She sighed to herself, then scurried around the edges of the tavern, waving goodbye to the neighbors, until finally she stepped into the cold summer wind.
Most everyone was inside at this time, it being an uncannily chilly day for early July. A couple Enforcers still meandered through the cobblestone streets, hardly paying attention to much aside from their conversations. The street lights buzzed from weak electric connections. It was such a tiresome day, even the blue dragons that filled the generators with power slacked. At least, that’s what Gemma assumed. She didn’t understand electricity, just knew that the blue dragons controlled it, and were friendly enough (for dragons) to provide them with generators and various other mechanical wonders.
The last zephyr to Wildfort was long gone. The giant zephyr balloon she could normally see from Stoneport had been deflated, and no red dragons soared in the sky, no new patrons flooded the streets. It was oddly quiet as Gemma walked her way back to her mother’s shop. Though a buzz in the air she couldn’t place made her heart beat faster than necessary. Maybe it was the chill, the fact that she’d forgotten her cloak and was only in her tunic and had stayed out too late…but no one reacted to the feeling or mentioned it as she passed by and bade the other citizens good night. Maybe it was just her.
The Silver Chain had a simple wooden sign flipped to “closed” on the door handle, but Gemma opened it anyway and stepped inside. Thankfully, the fire had been going for a while, and bathed her bare arms in warmth.
“Gemma?” called her mother from the back room. “Is that you?” The small jewelry shop sparkled in the light from the fireplace. Various necklaces and chains hung on the walls beside large standing mirrors.
“I’m home, Mama,” she called to the small hallway ahead. Ignoring the staircase, Gemma walked forth to her mother’s workshop, where the older woman sat at a table with glasses thicker than a wine bottle teetering on her nose.
“I expected you home an hour ago,” the woman said, her eyes still stuck to the tiny golden clasp in front of her. “I’ve got a couple deliveries that were meant to go out.”
“Oh,” came Gemma’s answer. She spotted two boxes on the counter beside some broken cutting tools. They were already sealed with wax, and their addresses written on a card under the bow. “I suppose I’ll deliver them now?”
Her mother’s voice grew taut and high, but all she said was, “That would be great, thank you.” Gemma picked up the cards on the boxes, scanning them for a moment.
“Magen Warmwater is visiting her sister in Yondshire for a few days,” she recognized when she saw the scrawl on the card. “She left this afternoon.” Gemma’s mother huffed.
“I suppose we’ll wait for her to return, then. Leave it there.”
The next box made Gemma’s heart melt. Hand on her throat, she sounded, “Awww, Dr. Tennison is back in time for their anniversary!” The card bade Edith Tennison a Happy 21st Anniversary from her husband, Dwight. He’d ordered one of her old necklaces to be repaired before he left for a trip, and requested upon his return that it would be delivered.
“Be quick about that one,” her mother said sharply. When Gemma turned around, her mother’s beady eyes were wide, full of worry. “I don’t know what they’re up to, but I don’t like it. Just hand it over and come straight back.”
“The Tennisons are very kind to me,” she tried to reassure.
“Gemma.” Her mother’s tone nearly made her drop the box. “They sent the blind one on a trip to get something, and won’t tell anyone what it is. He came back with…spears or something.” Although her mother returned to her work, Gemma hesitated, waiting for her to continue her rant. “And who sends a blind guy on an excursion!”
“Dr. Tennison gets around just fine,” said Gemma lightly. “Maybe I’ll just ask what he went out for. Maybe those spears are inspiration for his new anthologies?” Being optimistic to her mother wasn’t getting her anywhere. “Um, anyway, I’ll be right back.” Before her mother could fill her head with any more doubts or theories, she ducked out of the shop and returned to the streets of Wildfort.
Her mother was a paranoid, stressed woman. She made enough coin for the two of them to live comfortably right above The Silver Chain, but she had long hours of staring at tiny, minute details, and it really got to her head sometimes. Gemma stuck to the front of the store during business hours, helping patrons pick out new jewelry or aiding them in their journey to fixing an old heirloom. Maybe if she was better at seeing tiny things like her mother, she’d be able to do more of the manual work and give her a break, maybe let her relax a little. But something in the air kept winding and tightening, buzzing and bothering the nerves.
The McCoy women were sensitive, her mother would say. Kept them out of danger, ever since they started living on their own. Where Gemma’s father went, she’d never know. Her mother just insisted it was for everyone’s safety, that although he left, he still loved her, and that maybe someday they could all be reunited. But the likelihood of that was just as much as Gemma being able to solder one ring band to another without having to file away too much of her metal mistakes.
Walking kept the bite of the wind at bay. Wildfort wasn’t a very large city, but the Tennisons lived on the very northern tip, away from most of the hubbub. Their manor was quite large, even had its own walkway all the way up to the massive double doors. Dr. Dwight Tennison was a beloved author that collected and combined every story every child ever heard around here. And his wife, though a little crazy, was very mechanically handy and could fix anything she saw, even if she didn’t know what it was.
But Edith had a lot of ideas. Crazy ideas. Ideas that meant the only visitors to the Tennison Manor were these odd students that lived in The Grey Swan for the past half year. They snuck out at night, when most people went to bed, and went to the manor, and would return just before dawn. The townsfolk noticed, but the last time anyone asked what Edith was up to, they got a long, nonsensical rant about how time travel could be possible if they just “connected” everything.
Well, Gemma didn’t talk to Edith, really. She liked talking to Dr. Dwight, as odd as he was. He had a very fantastical mind, full of stories from all corners of the world, and was always writing something. He loved Edith desperately, though, and despite being an extremely well respected scholar, defended his wife until his breath ran out.
Gemma clutched the small box close to her chest as she knocked on the large, mahogany door of the Tennison Manor. The door opened just slightly, the latch undone. Whomever last used the door did not close it properly. She pushed it just slightly, just enough to see inside.
“Hello, Dr. Tennison? Your door is…uh, open.” Candles lit the foyer, dotted alongside the staircase and even to an open door right beside it.
“Down here, if you please!” came the soft call of the familiar neighbor. Dr. Tennison’s voice rang out through the foyer, originating from the door to the basement. Gemma cleared her throat, glanced to the sitting room to the right and the lit but empty kitchen to the left, then invited herself inside to approach the door.
“Dr. Tennison, it’s Gemma, from The Silver Chain. I have your delivery,” she called. Right at the door was a staircase, not impressive with an oiled bannister like the one beside her, but rickety and uncared for. Although a lantern on a massive table was turned to shine as much light as possible, Gemma still felt the nerves run through her body as she started her way down the creaky steps.
“Yes, dear, thank you.” The man, skin leathery as an old, scratched book, sat at the table with his books of braille open, his hands busily scanning the pages. Gemma stepped up to the table, struggling not to snoop.
“Um--happy anniversary to you and Edith,” she said lightly. The man paused his scanning, cracking a smile to her.
“Thank you very much, Gemma. Edith just ran out to get some fresh flowers for the dining table. You may have seen her on your way in.”
“I didn’t, I’m sorry. Um, what are you working on?” Alongside the books Dwight touched were others with printed words, a magnifying glass, and five odd blocks of stone.
“Just some reading, dear. Thank you for the delivery. I believe I included a tip when I ordered it?” It was a polite way to ask her to leave the box and go, but the stone bits stole her gaze. That uncomfortable thrumming in her chest, that anxiety she felt all day, seemed to intensify when she saw these odd slabs. They were no larger than a book each, and relatively identical--save for the detailed etchings. Five stone slabs, each engraved with five symbols that represented popular gods of the area: a set of comedy and tragedy masks, for Mask; a splayed hand for Bane; the mummified wrappings of a different hand for Ptah; a detailed etching of a scimitar for Gwynharwyf; and finally, a simple silhouette of a flame for Bazim-Gorag. Gemma furrowed her brows. Although she did see Dwight go to the temple every morning he was home, she never really gave it any thought.
She let out a small hum and reached out to the closest one, the etching for Mask. It was a little bizarre, she thought, that he chose to etch the theatrical masks. Most people associated the trickster god with a black, velvet mask that his cultist followers donned to hide their identities. This was rather classic. Respectful, rather than fearful, it seemed. When she touched the stone, she hoped that its ordinary texture would ease her thoughts. And although it felt just like any ordinary stone, the feeling remained.
“Um, nice…pictures…you have here. Will you be doing ones for Yandalla, Baccob, and the Raven Queen?” The friendly smile Dwight offered her faltered.
“Thank you,” he said quickly as he folded his hands. “Could you please let Edith know I’m looking for her as you go?” Gemma looked up to his eyes, glazed white with cataracts. He wasn’t an old man, but certainly looked like he was. She heard rumors that he suffered an animal attack shortly after he and Edith were married, but no one was allowed to talk about it. She frowned.
“Yes, of course. Good to see you, Dr. Tennison.” Gemma withdrew from the table and gave one last glance to the basement, hoping for some sort of clue as to what these stones were for, and only found an odd box of sorts made of the same material on the ground, right on top of a decorative mirror.
Feeling worse than when she arrived, Gemma spun around to the stairs. The mystery nearly fluttered from her mind when she saw Edith standing at the doorway. Just like normal, she wore trousers, a greasy apron, and kept her hair braided and out of the way.
“Good evening,” said Gemma with an unconvincing smile. “I’ve left something on the table I believe is yours. Happy anniversary.” And although Edith didn’t seem pleased when she first saw Gemma, her eyes lit up at the mention. Crazy, sure. Uncaring, no. Gemma nodded to her, and walked passed to leave the impressive and mysterious Tennison Manor.
“Oh, Dwight,” she could hear Edith say, accompanied by the squeaks of the old wooden stairs. “You’re so romantic. Tonight of all nights, really?”
“I wanted you to have it as soon as I returned, my love.” Gemma hesitated at the front door, distant smile on her lips. A genius writer and a crazy mechanic, oddly religious in their ridiculous scientific endeavors. But if it was all for love, maybe that was okay.
Gemma took her time heading home, arms crossed over her chest for warmth. A couple of Enforcers found a stray ball and tried to hide the fact that they were playing catch when she walked by. A couple of teenagers kept to the shadows of the street lights to murmur their confessions to one another, hushed themselves when Gemma walked up to the door beside them to go home.
She tried to make it look like she wasn’t paying attention. She’d snooped enough tonight.
On the wall beside the stairs was a note tacked to it.
Soup in the ice chest in my study, if you are hungry. Headache. Going to bed early.
Gemma removed the note to indicate she’d seen it, but still made her way upstairs to prepare herself for bed anyway. She’d had her fill of snacks and ale when she sang earlier in the evening with Brendan the Bard. That was usually how she got free dinners anyway, was to request food instead of tips. People could keep their money; she knew for most people, it was hard to come by. But if they had extra sourdough bread, her favorite, that was what Gemma hoped for.
Not long after she returned home, Gemma followed her mother’s lead and shut herself in her room without a lit candle, and instead relied on the light from the street below her window. She didn’t close it this morning, and now the wind came in and cooled everything to the touch. Maybe if it wasn’t summer, she would have cursed herself. But it was nice to feel cold lately.
That night, as Gemma lay awake, staring at the knots in the wood of the support beam above her bed, the buzzing in her chest continued. She had friends that had constant anxiety, and were generally quite fearful, but this excitement didn’t quite feel like something a weekend on the coast and a warm bath would solve. This humming in the air felt like when she pressed the strings on Brendan’s lute to quiet them, like something was going to happen.
Suddenly, the street light went out. Or, rather, all light went out, as if her eyes stopped working. The humming intensified to a cold dread. No matter how hard she clenched her teeth or grasped her blankets, the feeling wouldn’t go away. And then, in her ear, a loud whisper, as if someone stood right beside her.
You’re going to be punished.
Gemma screamed, but she wasn’t the only one. The humming grew to buzzing, to a loud, mechanical roar that cracked and snapped wood and crushed stone. Gemma screamed as she curled into a ball in her bed, blankets over her as if they would protect her. From the cracks of her arms, finally, she could see a bead of light. Despite the roaring, the snapping, the growling, Gemma looked through her arm to see hot, white light pouring into her room from her window. Nothing in her room looked askew, though the rumbling roar shook her bones deep in her core. Her neighbors wailed, screaming, panicking as the deep voice repeated, You’re going to be punished.
The light grew, like a thousand suns piercing through the night sky growing brighter and brighter while the world roared. And, just as the light dissolved all shadows and overtook every inch of sight, it disappeared, and everything returned to darkness.