Short story and title photo by Wanda Sonnemann
“Attention, Tal! This is it.”
I try to ignore the pain in my toes, try to focus. My shoes are soaking wet by now. I miss the warm coat of my Uniform.
We’ve been undercover and searching for the house with the ancient brass-plated door for hours. Amir says he’s certain, this is the place. The house of a Spider, sitting in a web of sorcery he has gathered for centuries. He signals the others and the five of us gather beneath the arc.
I am the only one who has never done this before.
Amir knocks. We wait for a long while.
The man who opens is no spider. He is wearing a stained lab coat over his robes, his face is looks as if chiselled from stone but never finished. His midnight gaze touches Amir and then settles on me like a heavy blanket. I feel a shiver down my spine. He is the one we have been looking for. Cárthach, the Keeper of Secrets. Our target.
Amir states our intent, playing his role as a master craftsman looking to consult a sorcerer. Many still do, despite our effort. Càrthach seems to tear himself away from whatever memories my face has awakened in him and asks us to come in. I wonder if he is fooled by our commander’s tale, or if he saw through it with those dark eyes.
We enter. No magic crashes down on us. But even I can sense the strangeness lurking just outside my vision.
The hall is frozen. Icicles frame the handrail; frost has made the wooden steps treacherous. A thousand invisible eyes are staring at me from behind closed doors. I am burning with anxiety. Next to me Cara is climbing the stairs effortless, turn by turn, oblivious to my struggle.
There is something else in the frozen floors we pass. Something Cara’s vigilant gaze misses, something not even the pair of seasoned hunters climbing the stairs in front of us seems to notice. I wonder what kinds of secrets are hidden here. Stranger questions build up in my mind. Questions a hunter should not think. A gut feeling only, but I am afraid to even translate it into words.
The ancient stairs have become creaky and narrow by the time we reach the top floor. Its ancient beams have darkened with time, the setting sun’s rays cut through the dust. He seems to have set up his depraved workshop here; the room is filled with workbenches, strange metal contraptions, nameless things. The tables are littered with glass constructs, open books, sealed vials and dark feathers. There is no Ice here, only things best lost and memories.
Cárthach’s iceless gaze finds my face again, asking questions this time. I wonder which answers it offers to him. What he has seen to have these eyes, I ponder.
We are asked to sit near the entrance while he and Amir work out the details of our pretence commission. I can see the commander gesturing while Cártach listens. He barely moves, and when he does his motions are stiff and sparse.
“Have you seen his eyes?” I ask Cara in a hushed voice while I try to move my thawing toes inside the boots. She shrugs. “I think he looks tired. Like an old man.” I don’t reply. She doesn’t see. And I am not sure I am supposed to see.
“I am glad we can work together in this most unfortunate matter” Amir tells the Keeper of Secrets as they both stride towards us. Càrthach nods absently. “The Central is packed.” The commander remarks, “Our lodgings barely suffice for half my entourage, but no more rooms were available.” Our host chuckles: “You have seen the state of my home. The lodging I can offer is quite rustic.” “But surely it is preferable to a night on the floor?” Amir argues
“It is.” Cárthach agrees. “You may stay here, in my Lab.” He addresses Cara and me, adding gravely: “Do not wander, some secrets roam these halls, and not all of them are friendly.”
He waves towards the door and Amir nods. The commander casts a smile in our direction and turns to leave, his remaining hunter’s in tow. Càrthach follows. He does not trust Amir, I can read his darkening stare that much. How does the commander not notice?
Cara starts her work as soon as the door closes behind them. She inspects the pages scattered on the tables, mouthing words to herself. Examines the prisms build into the strange contraptions, not quite daring to touch them. She tries the only other door in the room and finds it sealed. Wasn’t that the outer wall, anyway? I search for a window from which the front door is visible and watch Amir, his hunters and then Cárthach appear outside. I watch him talking, then arguing with the commander. Finally the Keeper of secrets gives in and they leave together. I Signal Cara, Amir has lured the target away, be careful, there is something terrible out there in the halls. She dismisses my concern with a wave of her hand and slips out of the door into the frozen hall.
I wait. My fear slowly slips away and is replaced by weariness, but I force myself to stay awake, watching the raindrops on the cobblestones and in the puddles in between. The glossy reflections as the street lights flicker to life one by one.
I see Càrthach moving towards the house with angry strides and signal Cara once again. Target is coming back. She doesn’t answer, I don’t expect her to. I resign myself to wait, sleepy, sinking away.
Càrthach shakes me awake, his strange face inches from mine. “Where is your friend?” he inquires, his voice like distant rolling thunder. I try to remember where I am, and why. For a moment I feel like I have always been here, in this room. “Cara’s not my friend.” I mutter. Then I remember the mission, and all the dread returns like an icy wave. “She went to find…” I start the story we practiced, but Cárthach does not wait to listen to a lie. “Stay here. Do not try to leave.” He orders me and vanishes into the hallway.
I stay curled up in my seat by the window, not daring to even set my feet on the ground while he is away. “Not all of them are friendly” I recall, remembering the ice on the stairs and the eyes, or the memories of eyes staring at me from behind closed doors. I drift into half awake dreams of ancient hallways full of invisible creatures with sharp teeth and burning eyes.
Cárthach returns with Cara, her lifeless form wrapped around his shoulder. He lays her down on one of his lab tables, starts to arrange one of his machines around her. I yank myself awake and stumble towards him.
“What,” I mumble, “are you doing to her?” “She’s dying.” He growls, his brow furrowed, his hands moving restless. The stiffness in his motions is gone. “Some of these secrets are old. They are not meant to be found. If one of them got out now.” His Voice trails off into a whisper, his eye so focused that I wonder whether he can even see me at this moment. I watch him work. I catch myself admiring the certainty with which he moves between the machines, the expertise in which he chooses items, vials, switches. The mindfulness with that he cares for Cara, who has come to steal his secrets, to bring him down.
He activates the last machine and in a flicker of light Cara draws breath for the first time, then continues breathing normally. He relaxes, wipes sweaty strands of hair from his face. “She will live through the night. Foolish girl. She had no idea what she was dealing with. None of you do.”
He makes more adjustments to his contraption, takes off his coat and rests her head on it. Then he looks at me, standing lost in the middle of his strange workshop.
“She’ll be safe here, but won’t wake before tomorrow. I trust you won’t repeat her mistake?”
I nod, knowing that our plan has failed. Somehow the thought calms me. Maybe he being here in this house with all those forgotten things is the way it’s supposed to be.
He gestures to the back door, “Follow me. My lab is not the best place to rest.” The door opens for him and I enter behind him.
It’s the same room.
The very same ancient wooden beams, the same floor, only this time covered in carpets instead of dust and antique furniture instead of lab equipment. Not rustic at all, but comfortable and well kept. He paces across the room, motions to an armchair and I sit down, uncertain. Shivering. He stares at me.
“Amir is a fool.”
I don’t dare to breathe, refuse to look him in the eye, afraid of what I will find. He kneels down to meet my gaze. Soft Sadness is pouring from the midnight eyes instead of the rage I expected. No trace of hostility. I try to remind myself, one last time that he is my enemy.
But his face becomes familiar as he struggles to find the right words: “You are unique, and Amir tries to crush that, to fit you into his mould.” He takes my hand. His palms are those of a labourer, or a warrior. Not a scholar’s. I should break the contact, but I can’t shatter this moment. It is as if I have waited for this all my life.
“The secret you came for, he can’t have it.” He laments,
“Please understand. He would destroy me. One less remnant of that otherness you people fear so much.” I can’t help but be moved by the pain in his eyes. I can feel it. But I have not forgotten the horror that lurks behind his closed doors. I have not forgotten I came as a part of the plan to destroy him.
“Tal” he calls in a hushed timbre, and I already know what he is going ask. “Stay with me. Do not allow them to snuff out your light.” “Why? I want to know: “Why do you care? I should be your enemy.” And then I know the answer, see it in his eyes, and find it in my chest.
“Have you not seen what others have missed? Have you not wondered what makes you different from them? I care because you matter. Because there are so few of us left.” He verbalizes what a part of me already knew. The part of me that is not human.
I don’t remove my hand from his. I don’t speak, but he continues, “I don’t know what they did to you in all those years they held you. I am not sure if I want to know, but I won’t let it happen again. You are part of what I long to protect.” Slowly, as if he were the most fragile secret of all I extend my hand to touch his face. It feels warm. I don’t know what I expected. “Of course.” I finally answer. I am part of that truth he keeps secret. I never knew. But now my mask is breaking, along with my blindfold and I am starting to see the world, see myself for what I am. I feel free, but also vulnerable in this older, wilder world spread out before me. I have read about it, of course. I’ve been taught of its arbitrariness, its foul magic and how to fight it. But it’s not that, I realize. It’s just different from ours. Hard to fit into the consistence we call reality. Dangerous to those who are not willing to accede to a more complex truth.
He leaves me in the armchair, drifting into sleep. I find him in my dreams, fighting Monsters with Amir’s icy eyes. I dream of a scraping noise at the door, see the lights of his living quarters, realize I have woken, but the scraping, the clawing, the sensation of some creature’s ragged breath continues. The Monsters from my dream comes back into my mind, and I lie there, bathed in Fear as they battle just outside that door.
Then the part of me that is not human realizes what is happening on the other side.
Soundless I walk to the outer door, the one leading to the ice hallway. I know what is out there. Why it can’t get in. I open, and a flutter of Feathers flees past me. I slam the door shut before the darkness itself can get in. Turning around, I see Cárthach’s silhouette staggering through the room. I rush towards him and catch him before he falls. Bloodied bits of feather are scattered on his damp coat, his hands are wet with crimson. “If I die tonight…” He rasps, voice failing, his gaze burned out. I hold him close. “They have to get past me.” I pluck a feather from his hair, remember those scattered around his workshop. No wonder his movements are so raw. He has been fighting alone for so long.
Darkness seeps into the room and eats away the lights.
I turn around to face his Shadow. I feel the fog of power I had to repress all my life welling inside my mind and let it flow freely for the first time.
“I know what you are.” I tell the thing I thought nameless before. “You cannot have him.” It stops. It’s eyes beneath the black helmet burn into me. It shouts at me in words made of pain. I do not move even an inch, do not look away, holding its gaze. Carthach straightens himself, still leaning onto me. His voice is tired, but powerful: “I know your despair. I share your remorse. But our time is not yet here!”
I watch the shadow sink away, then turn towards him. Look into his eyes, which have lived too long and seen too much.
“Teach me” I request, “ So I may understand who I truly am.”