Compassion From Silence
Old Ghost Dog had taken his apprentice Oats Tamaqua into the lost capital of D.C., down the Potomac River, in the dead of night, three months after the last spore fall. I in turn heard the story from Oats when he was older and would sit in the lawns of the House and tell stories to any who would listen. Such seems the proper retirement of any great Stalker who outlives the career, as few as there were in the age of Stalkers, long before, well, you know.
So, that night the clouds were thin and the stars fell bright on that graveyard of cement shells. Animals stirred in those places and scattered before the shadows of the night hunters. Ghost Dog had an eye out for anything of use, but mainly he just wanted to show the lad what cities had been.
“Are there ghosts?” Oats asked, unnerved by the lack of human noise. Of course no Stalker apprentice would believe in ghosts, so Ghost Dog ignored the question and continued walking. They had landed the boat south of something Ghost Dog called a “mall,” a field of weeds lined by old trees, with saplings spread between.
Oats’ eyes caught a shadow on the night’s horizon to the west. Or rather, an object of contrast, for the shadow could hardly be described as a shadow. It radiated moonlight. His gaze wandered across that space, perusing the other unnatural shapes encroaching upon the tree tops: the looming crowns of rubble masses.
Oats turned and followed Ghost Dog into the mall and east, cutting parallel to the buildings, preferring the steadier dirt of the park to the pocked and unsteady remnant of the asphalt road. The closest clusters of buildings near Bear Island seemed to Oats to dwarf in comparison to the buildings they passed. They only ever saw shacks or vinyl peeling walls near the House; these buildings were white mammoths grinning with pillars: massive skulls of gods from bygone days.
The two Stalkers walked for over a mile, heading east in the light of the moon, saying little, as was the custom of a Stalker in-hunt. Oats, however, was impatient to explore the huge buildings they passed.
At last, Ghost Dog said, “Let’s go in here,” gesturing with his head.
The building was white stone, stained by years of neglect. Still, eight great pillars guarded its entrance, and what wasn’t covered in ivy and moss seemed to glow from the starlight. Thin, chipping steps ascended to the pillars, with weeds crowding the steps’ edges as though they were amassing a siege against the greater building. The wind was quiet, and to Oats’ surprise no animals disturbed the grasses or the trees near the structure. It was as though the night itself held a mourning silence over the place.
“It’s so qui-”
“Be silent,” Ghost Dog scolded in sharp whisper.
They entered the building cautiously, prying open one of its heavy front doors just enough to slip through, an arrow ready on Ghost Dog’s bow. They walked toward a pillar of light pouring down from a central room not far passed the entrance. The moonlight drifted onto a small human-like statuette that seemed to crown a pile of paintings and sculptures. Ghost Dog ordered Oats to ignite their lantern.
The paintings were the strangest things Oats had yet seen on this hunt, perhaps on any hunt. Some were immensely bright with color, portraying a variety of images from the obvious, almost mundane, to the chaotic, even grotesque. Others were bland, with dull browns, or basic grays. Many of the sculptures were portrayals of human figures from the breast up. Some were animals or representative of reality in other facets. Some might not have been sculptures at all from what Oats could tell; he likened some of the items to junk welded upon itself: spindly wires and shattered glass like so much debris from a hurricane.
“Let's keep going,” Ghost Dog said. He proceeded deeper into the building, Oats trailing close behind with the lantern.
Beyond the rotunda, the Stalkers walked into a space labeled “West Sculpture Hall.” Oats shadowed Ghost Dog as he unpredictably entered and wove through connecting rooms that branched off from the hall. To the seasoned Stalker, Oats surmised that much of the art was either uninteresting or of little value. Many of the larger rooms were marked by metallic signs, while smaller spaces were labeled with ancient paper or not all. One such space Ghost Dog passed without a glance, but in his passing loosened the paper label. It fluttered across Oats' path, landing with the words "Clear Vision: Karl Friedrich Schinkel Set Designs" facing the ceiling.
Something moved from within the space.
“What is it?” Ghost Dog asked, limited to the now motionless light in Oats’ hand.
“I want to look in here,” Oats said.
“Do you know the meaning of ‘set design?’”
“God put it in my path.”
Beyond the light, Oats could still sense the older Stalker rolling his eyes.
“Be quick,” Ghost Dog said. “I see a window at the end of this corridor.”
Ghost Dog continued on, while Oats entered the room from which the paper had fallen. Paintings and framed sketches that had once lined the walls rested on the floor. Several larger paintings rested against a podium near the back of the room. Oats felt himself drawn to the outermost image in this vertical stack. The painting depicted a dark royal blue sky behind a dome of stars arranged in three-set columns ascending from the horizon to high above where the stars were lost from sight. Framing the sky were clouds merging between grey and red; in the center of the spectacle stood a robed woman upon the horizontal crescent of a moon. The woman’s robes were filled with tiny white dots, and upon her head rested a brilliant crown of phosphorous spindles, each one nestled with a star.
“She is the queen of the night,” said a voice from behind the podium. Oats, who had been crouching with his lantern close to the lady fell back, holding up his light to see the owner of the voice. A man rose from behind the podium as though he had been crouched holding his knees. Now, as he stood at full height, Oats saw that he was very tall, taller than any man at Bear House.
He wore little for being so far away from a House: merely a cotton tunic and dark pants. As he stepped around the podium, Oats saw that he wore only leather sandals upon his feet. Oats scanned him for weapons, but he appeared to have none. Although, a man that large would hardly need anything but his arms for close combat. Oats was thankful he had sharpened his knife only that afternoon.
“Who are you?” Oats demanded. The man gave a wry smile.
“I have many names,” said the man. “Who are you?”
“I have no names,” said Oats. “I am Stalker.”
“I am sure you are--a great shapeshifter you are, too. For I have met you many times on this land.”
Oats said, “I demand your name.”
“If you insist, Oats, son of Lucas, from the House of the Bear. I am Raven and she,” said Raven, bending to point at the painting, “Is the Queen of the Night.”
Raven grinned broadly, but Oats returned to his feet and stepped back several paces, tracking the man with his light, silently removing a blade from his belt.
“How do you know my name?” asked Oats.
“I said I am Raven. How small you are, little Stalker. Do you not know in what land you travel?”
“It is the land of Columbia,” said Oats indignantly, “southeast of Bear Island. Tell me how you know my name, now, or I will kill you as you stand.”
“Stand down,” said Ghost Dog. Oats turned to see his senior standing in the doorway to the room.
“Who is this man?” Oats asked.
“He is no man,” Ghost Dog replied. His eyes met those of Raven and he asked, “What are you doing here?”
Raven smiled and said, “I’d wondered if he was yours. I was just resting in my gallery, enjoying my spoils.”
“You were waiting for us,” said Ghost Dog.
“I might’ve suspected you’d come here. You’ve always had a soft spot for art and I’ve always had a soft spot for you.” Raven pushed a few strands of his long jet black hair away from his face. “Do you see this painting? ‘Queen of the Night?’ She is the murky authority, the devil of a magical opera, and when she descends into the story, trouble ensues. Only, she is real, beyond the opera. The painter, Schinkel, visited places beyond the veil of your reality. He went to the stairs of the temple of the beast, and in the space behind it found the domain of the Queen of the Night. Truly, I am jealous. Few have painted me so well. I should have been German.”
“What is your point?” Ghost Dog asked.
Raven cast the painting into the darkness.
“My point is that I am not the last of my kind returning in the vacuum of your species' loss. I have always loved your species and stayed close, but others now move closer. The Children of God are already in the west. I fear that worse might follow.”
“Who are the Children of God?” asked Oats.
“They are the immortals who assisted in the growing of this planet. They are ancients: some good, some evil, much like your race. It is a family trait, I’m sure.”
“Why West?” asked Ghost Dog. “Have they all gone that way?”
“They have, for now. They track a human man who refuses to die. He is Houseless, and yet the fungus cannot take him, nor human weapons. He amuses them. Now, take my warning to your kind and stalk your skeleton cities cautiously. This unsafe world has become only more dangerous.”
Raven walked to the doorway and put his hand on Ghost Dog’s shoulder.
“It was nice seeing you,” said Raven. He kissed Ghost Dog on the cheek and stepped into the darkness of the hallway, his footsteps as silent as the building itself.
Oats followed and shone the light after the man, but the hall was empty.
Oats asked, “Why did he want us to tell our House? Will those things come to the House of the Bear?”
Ghost Dog only stared after Raven.
“Who is ‘our kind?’” asked Oats.
“Stalkers,” said Ghost Dog.