Dace & Ermane – III: The Alnight (pt 2)

The uniform men are here and they are not very friendly-like. They are conferring with one another, looking at Dace and Ermane with censure and disgust. Behind them, Mother is gone forever, the red line cut.

“Ermie, what’s happening?” Dace’s voice is little and plaintive and painful to hear.

Ermane grips her hand tightly. “Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” Through it, Dace can feel the tremors Ermane’s smile does not show.

They are separated once they reach headquarters. They try to be brave but they cling to each other and have to be pulled apart. By the time Ermane is brought to the cold, empty room, she is trembling so hard she cannot sit properly.

For hours, or perhaps days, they question her: where did they learn such dark arts, who’s idea was it. Ermane does not speak, dares not. She can only think of Dace, what she will or has told them. They tell Ermane what happens to nasty necromancers like her. Vaguely she thinks: what a tactless way to extract a confession.

They leave her with a cup of sandy water. All around her, she smells old sweat and piss. She can taste her own desperation. Please let me out. I’ve done no wrong. And she knows this to be true. Her passion is metal and magic, not bodies and souls.

One day, a man walks in with hot chocolate and a roast beef roll. He wears not a uniform but a kindly smile and, for the first time since arriving, Ermane sees her own sorry state reflected in the pity on his face.

“Your sister is fine, if a bit tired,” he says straight-off, pushing the roll towards her. Ermane devours it in her head, with her eyes, but does not accept.

“Where is Dace?” she asks instead.

“In another room just like this. We’ve done the best we can to mend her finger. A most resilient child is Dace.”

Ermane slumps in relief, though she remains wary of him. “Who are you?”

The man crosses to her side and drapes his large coat over her shoulders. “Don’t be afraid, Ermane,” he says when she shrinks away. “My name is Oromon. I’m not with those oafs outside. I’m here as a friend, possibly your only friend right now. You know, I had a daughter about your age. She died in the war, with her mother. I was very much afraid too when I lost someone I loved.”

“But you’re a grown-up.”

He smiles. “And grown-ups aren’t allowed to be scared? I would’ve done anything to get them back. Insane things. Because do you know who finds death most scary, Ermane?” She shook her head. “It’s us. The ones who get left behind.”

“Are you a friend of Father’s? Are you going to get us out?”

Oromon adjusts himself carefully and Ermane understands this move. It’s what adults do when they’re about to let you down.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Ermane. You’re too clever for that. What you and your sister have done is a very serious offence,” he says. “If you weren’t only children, they would’ve beheaded you already.”

That word, together with his warm eyes, stabs Ermane in the chest. It was so much harder hearing it from a nice person. Suddenly, all that trying to be brave and mature overwhelms her. She wants to go home and build a pixie net with Dace. She wants Mother to make tea and toast and goat stew. She wants to play word association games with Father. Oromon pats her on the back while she bawls and snivels.

“I know you’re afraid, Ermane,” he says, “but it’s very important you tell me exactly what happened.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Ermane says in a small voice.

Oromon leans forward. “Who, then? Did someone help you, tell you what to do?”

“Dace. Dace knows these things. I had no idea.”

And she tells Oromon everything, unleashing all the days she kept silent. Oromon writes it down and says nothing. Afterwards, they finally let her sleep on a proper bed. In between waves of slumber, she can hear Oromon whisper furiously with a uniform.

“Are you mad! Dace is just a child.”

“There can be no leniency. She’s dangerous.”

“But exile, on Ortheus–”

“And there she will remain for the rest of her natural life. But I tell you, Oromon, should she step foot on Arandia again, she will be executed. And neither you or the Academy will have any say.”

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Oromon stands over Ermane as she sleeps and she knows he’s thinking of his daughter.

“Dace…?” she murmurs.

“She’ll be fine, little one.”

***

to be continued…

Confessions of a wannabe novelist

What happens on a good writing day:

5am – Alarm rings. Wake up. Coffee.

5:30am – Turn on Freedom. Write.

7:30am – Household wakes. Spend time with the hubby and daughter.

1pm – Daughter’s naptime. Write.

3pm – Daughter wakes up. Spend time with family and continue with the rest of the day.

7:30-8pm – Daughter’s bedtime. Write. Finish a scene, makes notes for the next.

***

What typically happens on a writing day:

5am – Alarm rings. Snooze till 6am.

6am – Wake up. Coffee. Write. (check mail and facebook in between, just a bit)

7:30am – Household wakes. Family time.

1pm – Daughter’s naptime. Write. Hang on, need to research 19th century handcuffs. Ooh, need a slow cooker. Or let’s look at Apple Watch reviews.

3pm – Daughter wakes up. Continue with rest of the day.

7:30pm – Daughter’s bedtime. Attempt to write. Delete ‘the’, change ‘then’ for ‘however’. Fall asleep in front of computer. Ah fergeddit, Penny Dreadful is on. Join Hubby on the couch.

Dace & Ermane – III: The Alnight (pt 1)

It was almost here, beckoning at the windows, more than a mere eclipse or shadows stealing light. Dace’s cellmate said some folk had a natural affinity for the Alnight. They could know the exact moment the sun was weakest, when the dark was most potent and Vagabond souls were not hampered by ethereal boundaries. Dace liked the dark. All sorts of things grew in the dark — mildew, the cold, loneliness, phantoms. Plans. And hatred too.

She had to move quick. After chasing the bothersome puppetmaster away, she had draped an old tunic over the doorknob and drawn the curtains. A more careful and self-preserving practitioner would not even attempt this in their own abode, but Dace did not expect to get away with this. She only needed to get through the Alnight uninterrupted.

On the north and south walls of the room, she drew enticement glyphs. On the east and west, restraining glyphs. With one hand on the hip, she re-examined her arrangement, which included:

A) Equipment for an Attending, consisting of a large, waist-height candle that would illuminate five times brighter in order to draw a soul this far and this long gone; and several lengths of thick red rope, which were knotted around the limbs of

B) Ermane’s headless corpse, redressed in a linen shift and laid out within a circle of containment.

C) The marionette’s head, strings trailing like detached arteries.

D) One large jar of formaldehyde, like the ones used to hold her rat-doll soul transplantation experiments, but containing a tongue hacked off its anatomical moorings and threaded with a fishing hook and line.

All was good. Dace tackled the tongue first, working it into the marionette’s mouth, pulling the line down through the throat. A puppet could not Speak without a tongue, and Dace had traded her own for a mechanised voicebox fashioned out of oratowood. Something precious, blood of your own blood.

Next she used a wide-eyed whalebone needle to sew the strings of the head onto the corpse’s neck, making it somewhat whole once more. A soul could not be Tethered to an Incomplete vessel. She shook the Ermane-doll a few times to ensure the head would not come off. It was unsteady but secure.

Dace stared at the thing she had put together; it was a wonder she could still feel something, anything. That long-ago Alnight seemed a hallucination, dulled and stolen by years of imprisonment. Sometimes though, in that vague drift through the dreamworld, Dace recalled the distinct reek of the interrogation room and Ermane’s last countenance before they were separated. Sometimes Dace would remember how she’d walk into a room craving oatmeal cookies and Ermane would just say: ‘None left, ate’em all this afternoon.

Dace slapped herself — stop it, weakling — and kept moving. She took up the lengths of rope that were tied around the corpse’s limbs and lashed each end to a permanent fixture in the room, save the left ankle. That rope she strapped around the lighted candle.

She yanked Ferlis’s gold amulet off the chain around her neck, holding it gingerly as if the faith could drip from it. Words no longer worked for her, she had discovered. It was not enough to say them; one had to believe in them to Speak, and she had relinquished the luxury of belief somewhere between exile and Ermane’s betrayal. But she had discovered too that the Danar’s Heart of a goodhand more than sufficed. Ferlis, ever observant, had not even noticed his amulet was missing or, when it returned, that it was a perfect replica.

So now Dace waited, not knowing if she would succeed. She had not practiced for a decade, yet as soon as she set hand to red string, she knew which natural laws she could bend. She had put the question to Ferlis once: where does the soul of an Incomplete go? And her next private question: how do I bring her back?

And so she waited, feeling the temperature plummet and the hum of invisible borders as the darkness burgeoned. She sensed the Alnight’s approach the way animals sensed rain and fear, and at the zenith of its power, she pressed Danar’s Heart against the marionette’s forehead.

The red ropes roused sluggishly (come to me, sister), the Ermane-doll jolted once in a silent hiccup (get up now), and again, more convincingly.

“Breathe,” Dace commanded aloud.

Its chest and limbs began to vibrate, gaining momentum and ferocity until Dace was forced to release Danar’s Heart. The doll’s torso arched high and balanced precariously, the loose head dangling back over its neck.

“Come on, damn you, breathe!”

Its voice came upon a rising croak, low and agonised, ending on a keening sigh. “D-d-daaayyy…seeeee.”

The Ermane-doll raised its head in palsied jerks, Danar’s Heart still fixed to its forehead. One of its black eyes shifted sideways, searching for Dace. It tried to sit up, heaving against its bondages.

“Dacey?” it whispered through a slack jaw.

“Over here,” Dace said. Both eyes swivelled towards her, spirit eyes that needed no physical connection. “Hello Ermie. Yes. Focus. Well, how do I look, dearest?”

“L-l-like ssshit,” replied the doll that was her sister. The preserved tongue flapped about in its mouth, tasting and testing the words.

“So do you,” said Dace.

The wooden mouth clacked up and down in soundless laughter. Dace smiled too and, for a moment, one cannot tell which sister is the corpse.

“I knew,” the Ermane-doll rasped, “if anyone could do it, you would.”

“I promised you I’d always be there. I told you I’d come for you.”

“I have missed you,” it said almost wistfully.

“How dare you,” Dace hissed, “how dare you when I’m the one who’s been rotting in prison for ten years. Exiled to a foreign realm, flogged and starved and ridiculed. Oh but I thought about you all the time. You were the only thing that kept me going.

“So you can imagine my disgruntlement when I came back and discovered you’d been living in comfort and freedom all this time, trading your old identity for new.  What’s more, you denied any involvement with me. You denied my very existence. You sold me out.

The Ermane-doll cocked its head and studied her with its flat quartz eyes. “Oh, Dacey. I’m so sorry.”

Dace quashed the rage and despair, the way she had taught herself. “Start talking,” she said.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 3)

When Ermane barges into the kitchen, Dace is crouched over Mother with her ear pressed to the chest, listening intently. At first, it’s that look on Dace’s face that steadies her nerves, so placid but focused, and Ermane thinks: oh, Mother’s just sleeping.

Except Mother would never sleep in the kitchen, or on the floor. There is an abandoned knife too, thankfully clean, and Ermane can almost imagine the sound of its clatter as Mother collapsed and relinquished her hold, from whatever mishap befell her.

“I found her like this,” Dace replies before Ermane asks.

“Is she…?” Ermane’s voice trembles and she clears it to hide the panic.

Dace nods solemnly, calmly. Always she can walk through a crisis like Death through a battlefield. Ermane dares not step closer; she does not wish to see truth for herself. Instead she asks, “How?”

“I don’t know, but she’s still warm.”

Ermane stares at her sister. She knows enough about Father’s deeds to realise the significance of a warm body, to understand Dace’s meaningful look.

So, this is what the future looks like: the exact shade of pale of your sister’s face, the fear shifting in the set of her chin, belying the composure, while her eyes seeks approval, and that easy, precious wavelength flexing between them. Ermane answers; she kneels opposite Dace.

Dace immediately rushes off to fetch the things they will need, leaving Ermane alone with Mother. Gaping at her reposed face and the mouth that is for once immobile, Ermane feels a split creep inside her chest. One part realises the horror they are about the attempt; the other part acknowledges how young and very alone they are now.

Dace returns with Father’s satchel but none of his books. She means to do this without guidance? Before Ermane can question it, Dace upends the entire contents of the satchel between them. All the simple paraphernalia of a goodhand, and the essence of their father trapped within them.

“Light the candle,” Dace tells Ermane while she draws a wobbly chalk circle around Mother. She unwinds a coil of thin red rope, then paces the kitchen in search of something and finds it in a vat of oil.

“An impedimenta,” she said to Ermane, prising the lid open and plunging the length of rope inside. She pulls the rope back out, now slick and coated.

Ermane is completely befuddled, so Dace explains, “When the new dead is still warm, the soul sleeps inside until the vessel grows cold and gives up the ghost. The light from the candle guides them out, but the impedimenta prevents them from moving too soon. This is the window we need.”

“Window for what?”

“For a Speaking.”

Dace secures the oiled line from the candle to Mother’s big toe, moving nimbly and competently. The sisters have seen Father tie many life lines in his work, but the rest of the procedures are foreign to Ermane and, evidently, disturbingly, familiar to Dace. Around the chalk circle Dace writes in an alien language, a mixture of cursive and cuneiform shapes. She draws them with careful contemplation, as if for the first time, though the strokes are unerring.

“Dacey, how do you know this?” Ermane asks slowly. “Did Father teach you?”

“No!” Dace says. “You know he would never. He wouldn’t even let us assist in an Attending. But I’ve read his books, his notes…”

Ermane recognises her sudden hesitation. Because those notes, and the next steps beyond here, will lead them over their father’s same cliff.

Dace shakes her head and finishes off a queue of that strange script. She caresses Mother’s face, the hand of a child upon the cheek, but it is the voice a woman that says, “Let this cord be your path, this light your guide.”

The red line instantly comes to life, strumming like a song. They gaze at it, awed by the simplicity of it and their Mother’s presence.

“She’s still here,” Ermane breathes.

“Not yet,” Dace says. She picks up the knife.

“What are you doing!”

“We need to induce her to Speak. We need something that will wake her. Father had it wrong in his writings. It’s not as simple as a random blood sacrifice.” Dace might as well be talking to herself for all the sense she makes. “It has to be something familiar to the deceased, something precious. It’s perfectly logical.” Dace looks down at Mother, her knuckles white around the knife. “Like a finger’s touch to the tongue. Like blood of your own blood.”

And before Ermane can stop her, Dace raises the blade and brings it down decisively, callously, upon her own hand. Ermane screams. There is blood everywhere. Dace has her hand wrapped tight in the folds of her skirt, which has rapidly become soaked and dripping. A pinkie finger lies by her knee.

“You fool!”

Dace simply picks up the finger with her good hand and uses the bloodied tip to complete the final glyph: a circle on the forehead. How composed she looks, even with the alabaster complexion and the coursing sweat. How heartlessly she lopped off a piece of herself. Ermane becomes aware of the enormity of it all: that Dace will always be incomplete here on this earth. There is no turning back.

Dace opens Mother’s mouth and places the severed finger inside. She leans over her, grasping her collar. “Wake,” she whispers fervently. Tears drip along her jaw. “Come back to us, Mama.”

Don’t leave us alone. Don’t let this be for nothing. And Ermane finds herself wishing too, praying hard.

The line that holds their mother snaps straight; the candle gutters, shaking shadows out from hiding. Her chest lifts and hovers, as if strung up. Lashes flutter uncertainly, eyelids creak open, and the revulsion in them is a sight Ermane will never forget. From their mother’s eyes, they know that no life, or death, is ever meant to be like this.

The girls are riveted and appalled by Mother’s strangled features, those lolling eyes and the flashing whites, desperately seeking a way out. She moans, her throat choking around the blood and the finger.

“What have you done,” she is saying. “What have you done!”

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 2)

As a general rule, Mariole himself did not deliver in person, and especially not to dank basement hovels like these. It took time away from his beloved children, and who knew which of his apprentices would purloin his designs. Alas, one can only trust himself with his best works of art, and this creation here was surely the acme of his career.

Mariole knocked again, his other arm hugging the coffin-shaped box propped up beside him. While he waited, he polished the signage nailed on the side — Mariole, Marionette Extraordinaire — and blew off invisible sawdust. When his third knock went unanswered, he tapped the rusted knob, just innocently-like, a little slip of the hand that’s all, and was surprised to find it give way. Well, he couldn’t just abandon his darling here.

The hovel was even sadder inside, the size of an animal enclosure, really, and smelling worse than one. Books and papers festered in one corner, a grimy pallet in another. A window there yonder looked out to a most inspiring view of feet and ankles shuffling on street level.

But it was the doll display, the only spot of life and colour in the room, that Mariole naturally gravitated towards. Two dozen or so dolls, as tall as the hand, nothing at all like his own life-sized collection, but all in exquisite detail nonetheless. They were kept in large apothecary jars, the kind a goodhand kept his biological specimens in. That wasn’t so strange, Mariole supposed. He used birdcages himself. Who would’ve guessed he’d find a kindred spirit in so vapid a girl?

One of the dolls was particularly lovely, a splendid little thing with real blonde hair and red stained-glass eyes. Mariole lifted her out gently, marvelling at the sweet tunic made of plaited silk and her tiny leather shoes.

“Hello, my pretty,” he cooed. “Aren’t you cleverly made? A collector’s prize, for sure. Why, you must be hideously expensive; a goodhand’s assistant could never afford you — any of you! — on her piddling salary. From where and whom did she steal you, I wonder.”

A rattling at the windowpane interrupted his inspection, whereupon a giant white cocoon-thing slithered through the window and sagged to the floorboards. A wrapped corpse, it seemed. Mariole dropped the doll on a yelp and backed away; something screeched in protest beneath his shoe. When he looked down, the little red-eyed doll hissed up at him and scuttled away on all fours, pausing midway to clean dimpled cheeks before disappearing into a hole in the wall.

Mariole decided to withdraw posthaste — the girl was too strange even for his liking — but the dolls…they were waking. In their glass prisons they chattered incoherently, scratching to escape. One of them, dressed as a shepherdess, crawled up to the mouth of its jar and dislodged the lid as it scrambled gleefully up the wall, black curls bouncing. It made for a gap in the open door but a hand shot through and flattened it against the frame with a resounding smack.

The hand, slim and veined and missing one finger, retracted with the squirming doll. Next came the familiar face of Mariole’s client. Impassively, the goodhand’s assistant retrieved an empty jar and shook the shepherdess doll back inside.

“What did you do to them? Reanimation spells?” Mariole said disdainfully. Dolls were not people; they were meant to be inert, helpless.

“Get out,” the girl said. Her throat whirred mechanically.

Mariole gestured towards the box. “Do you not want to check her before I go? The jointed mandibles, the strings that move the limbs, all the beautiful details! You should want to see the results of the hours you put in yourself, sitting for it.”

She shoved him out and slammed the door after him. But Mariole had to know, he had to see her expression when she gazed upon his creation, as one collector to another, even if she was peculiar. He knelt down and peered through the keyhole.

The girl was lifting his doll out from the tissue wrap and setting it carefully on a chair. They faced each other, the girl and the doll, and such was Mariole’s genius it was as if they looked into a mirror.

In a kind of wonder, she sifted her four fingers through the strand of the doll’s hair, so straight and lustrous. Marvel at that perfect porcelain face, the charming nose, the prettily-lashed blue quartz eyes. The girl took a stick of graphite from her pocket and leaned over the doll’s face. When she moved away, Mariole saw she had drawn a mole on the left cheek. Blasphemy! He had to bite his knuckles to keep from gasping. Then, before a looking-glass, the girl began to brush the hair, five strokes to each side.

Mariole saw only the doll’s face reflection, staring back at him through the keyhole, her head twitching with each pull of the brush. He wondered if she would remember the way he had brushed her hair.

Finally the girl stopped and set the brush aside, arranging the doll’s hair behind the shoulders with the familiarity of repetition and ritual. From above, she lovingly cupped the sides of those rosy cheeks.

“Hello Ermane,” she said and wrenched the doll’s head off.

***

to be continued…