Making a vow to a dying friend might seem like the right thing to do, but when that vow means a mad man is hunting for the secret you now carry as an indelible part of you, you might start regretting your choice. Anise Buttersby is one of the Secret Carriers, chosen to protect one of the most powerful secrets of mankind: Alchemy.
Into The Darkness
Anise woke to her back on fire, 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 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 gingerly, afraid to look at it. She willed her eyes to focus on it.
She looked up, confusion plain across her face.
She looked 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 be daytime in London.
The ghostly shadows of cargo airships glided by 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. 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 taped on her back.
A watery sun tried to make an appearance through 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 whiny, 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.”
Anise had distractedly noticed, through the haze of pain 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 loops 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. 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. 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 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 were 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.”
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 a blue 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, 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, 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.