Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality consume.
(1809 – 1892)
There is a house on most streets where the children dare not go, on Christmas it is dark and sombre and on Halloween the trick or treating children avoid it. Often the lawns are overgrown and the back yard has the taste of jungle about it, but sometimes the opposite is true because the reason for the avoidance isn’t the way the building looks; it’s the way the place feels.
28 Pinker Street was this kind of a house. In this case the lawns were neatly trimmed and the building maintained. In the windows its curtains were always clean, sometimes smoke wafted from the chimney and when night came lights switched on inside. In fact the only peculiarity of the place was the visitors; there weren’t any.
The neighbours of number 28 never saw anyone arrive or leave at the place; neither did anyone ever witness the lawns being mown or the building undergoing maintenance.
The place may as well be inhabited by ghosts.
However; the inhabitant was actually a witch.
A glamour had hidden her for all time, blending her home with the surroundings as a chameleon would shift its colour. In times gone by her home had been a shack, or empty fields, or even a small semi-detached but always to her it had been the same.
One simple room lay inside, a large bed and an equally large block of shelves for her potions. At first glance this was everything, but a second look would present the viewer with the half hidden door next to the shelves in the farthest corner from the entrance.
This door was strange in so many ways but the first thing noticed by an observer would be its scarcely-there existence. It looked more like a faded painting of a door where the wall behind it had began to wear through in places and the more a viewer concentrated on it the more ethereal its existence seemed to be.
The best way to actually see the door would be to focus passed it, or to catch it out of the corner of you eye; but if you looked directly at it then it would shimmer, the old glamour placed upon it twisting it out of perception.
The witch had no such problem.
She fancied that everything was within her perception; and she was probably right.
Anna tied the slim laces to her shoes and stood, brushing down her red blouse and knee length black skirt. Down past the hem of her skirt the woman’s calves were on full view and she marvelled at this for a moment.
There were times when this would’ve gotten her stoned quicker than her existence as a witch would have.
The glamour-laden door shimmered as she approached and dropped to invisibility for the barest moment as Anna muttered an ancient spell.
The door opened of its own accord, revealing a long flight of stone steps into the darkness below. The stairwell was far wider than the width of the door would indicate and deeper than man could ever measure.
Anna stepped through and the door closed behind her feeling the familiar tug in her stomach as gravity shifted and she suddenly found herself in a far off place. A pale purple glow, soft at first but growing in intensity, spread across the irregularly domed ceiling above her. The stairs had been hewn out of the very rock and the glow emanated from the living creatures that grew like lichen across all the exposed surfaces near doorways to the open air of the world above.
Her hard heels clipped along the stone steps, polished to a shine from hundreds of years of traversing feet.
She was now deeper in the earth than anyone had ever tunnelled and deeper than even the most advanced equipment of the technologically obsessed world above could measure. The purple moss that gave the place light existed nowhere else, neither did the bugs and small animals that made their homes in the cracks and crevices of the small network of caves in this Hidden Place.
The stairs led to the Oval Walkway that encircled the enormous cone of empty space that was the core of the Hidden Place. A half dozen walkways, the stairs just one, leading off like spokes of a wheel from this near silent hub.
Anna’s footfalls echoed, rolling around the cavern like cannon fire.
Around the Oval Walkway steps led down to the floor of the cavern where the others stood in wait.
“You’re late Sister.” The blonde woman muttered, her words amplified by the caverns shape. Far above animals resembling bats fluttered between roosts in response.
Anna unconsciously tugged at her blouse then run her thumb around the waistband of her skirt; checking her appearance by touch alone.
“My apologies my Lady.” The witch heard herself say. “The world above has its own tugs and restraints at times.”
“Hmm, so it does at times Sister.”
Anna heard no warmth in the other woman’s voice, the use of the word “sister” just short of a mockery.
“So I was called? What is it that’s asked?”
Anna noticed movement and became aware of the others stood in a semi-circle around the caverns centre. Much like the glamour-laden door above them (so far above them it made Anna’s stomach clench to think of it) they had seemed invisible for a moment. Though the witch knew this was nothing to do with anything mystic in origin; this was because of the magnetism of she who was at the centre of it all.
The woman spoke again.
“A friend of ours has fallen, and I wish for you to help him to his feet.”
The woman motioned with her hand to the centre of the room. It was a simple gesture that reminded Anna of swimming underwater for some reason; but this notion disappeared as soon as it had come when Anna saw the body lay in the huge bowl of stone carved out of the rooms centre.
Over it was laid a purple cloth of silken material.
“I… I am no doctor…”
“He’s fallen further than that”
The words came like a whisper in Anna’s ear and she snapped her head around to see the woman five strides away. She was looking intently on the covered body with a look of intensity that bordered on hunger. Anna seems the furthest thing from her mind.
The figures around the two women converged, each anonymous robed man – at least Anna assumed they were men, she had never seen their faces – taking up a position roughly congruous with the half a dozen walkways that radiated out around them. Each muttered a single phrase of some near forgotten language, the man next taking up the call, as did the next; the six of them completing the chant so no one of them could be held singularly accountable.
Anna felt something in the caverns awake.
The horror of anticipation crept into the witch-woman.
She knew her own powers, as she knew the powers of some of the gifted people walking the world above; but the creature the blonde woman had found in these caverns so many years before made her feel so utterly alone that words could not express the feeling.
The touch of this creature’s consciousness made Anna know Hell.
“She wakes… Anna, the spell…”
Anna stepped forward and placed her hands on the silken material that covered the body before her. She called to dark entities that she swore daily to recant. She felt moths under her skin fluttering in a mad search for light. Her blood grew warm, then hot, and then began to cook her flesh.
Then the creature’s powers reached out to brush her.
Anna’s skin steamed, and then split. Blood boiled from the rips.
The witch-woman raised her face to the heavens and shrieked.
The blonde woman watched as the witch fell to the floor, her blood already cooling to congealed scabs over the fresh wounds.
A hastily raised hand silenced the chanting men.
“Take her back to her shack, and then find yourselves gone.”
The monks became stretcher bearers and all that remained of Anna was a single smear of her blood on the rough rock.
The silken sheet shifted.
It slid with a whisper.
And the body beneath rattled in a breath.
Alone now the blonde woman took a nervous step forward and the sheet slid completely aside. The man who was lay beneath it shuddered, the fingernails of one hand rapping spasmodically on the stone.
When the man raised his head and climbed painfully to his feet the blonde woman nearly cried out despite herself.
Cain brushed his long hair from out of his piercing eyes.
She looked at him for a time.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know who you are?”
Cain simply smiled derisively; and it was all the answer she would need.
“Do you know who I am?”
Cain’s smile faltered
“I… I think… We have never met before have we?”
It was the woman’s turn to smile a knowing smile.
“But… Anetta spoke… She told me stories.”
“About me? Yes, I believe she probably did.”
“So… You’re Her? The blackbird?”
The blonde woman’s smile grew and on any other woman it would have been beautiful.
“Cain, I have raised you to help me. Could you help me?”
Cain raised his hands, peering at the smooth white skin of his palms.
“What has happened to me?”
“With my help you have spat in Death’s eye.”
“You seem to know me so I suppose you know it’s not the first time.”
“Yes I do, but I believe this time would have been final.”
“Then I suppose you think I owe you?”
“Many would think so; but you will do what you will do.”
For the first time Cain looked around the cavern. The carved Oval Walkway, the six exits to god knew where and the pinnacle high above. Without being told he knew this was a special place, a Hidden Place; perhaps even a Hidden Cathedral to something dark and unspeakable.
“But do you think I owe you?”
“I did what I did; I hoped you would show your gratefulness in some manner; yes.”
Cain took a painful step, then another; soon he walked without sensation; without even feeling the rock beneath his feet as he wandered in a slow circle around the woman.
“I’ve things I’ve got to do first…”
“With Anetta and her newfound friend; yes I imagine you do.”
He smiled his beguiling smile and continued in his circular stroll.
The blonde woman was unsurprised at his lack of surprise.
“So we’re on the same page then, I do what I’ve got to do; then…”
“You misunderstand… We share the same goals here Cain.”
His smile broadened from beguiling to something altogether more wicked.
“So you want the runt dead too…”
“I want them both dead Cain, dead for good; without reprieve.”
“I can live with that.” He paused in his walk, looking her over in his unconsciously feral way. “I need to eat, and then we need to plan; so… what do I call you?”
“My name is Merula.” Replied Merula, The Blackbird, and carefully led the man up the stone steps.
Anna woke with a scream caught at the back of her throat. In the muddled moments after waking she thought that she had dreamt of dark unseen things writhing under her flesh; and of her red hair burning from the heat within her.
It felt like a dream, but she knew it had been real.
Her waking hours were the nightmare.
Her arms were raw as though she’d been boiled and across the bed on which she’d been lay were scattered flakes of congealed blood like hell confetti.
She rose slowly.
The door shimmered opposite her.
Though it was childish Anna couldn’t stop herself giving it an accusatory glare.
Beside it she rifled through the shelves of potions, hastily mixing a well practiced concoction that she applied to her burning skin; within moments the pain dulled to a faint discomfort.
By the time the ointment was doing its job Anna felt the first tears on her cheeks and feelings once alien to her stabbed her heart.
The shame was the worst.
She had been so feared once, that very same woman had cowered before her at one time practically begging her for aid; but things had changed. Mistakes were made and through them Anna had seem something beautiful, something she knew she had wanted all her long life and she had known that the Bard was right.
Conscience does make cowards of us all.
Unfortunately Merula was not the whole problem.
“Unfortunately Anetta and her friend are not the whole problem.”
Merula watched as the large man ate for a moment before continuing.
The man grunted his affirmation.
“She still has the keys…”
Cain slammed the fork into the table and spat the food from his mouth.
“My keys! She has my keys! That was our deal damn it.”
“Well I need use of them Cain, I need to get into those protected places under the city and there is no other way.”
“I know that… If there was some other way then the keys would be useless. The trade potential is amazing. I’d have a complete monopoly down there.”
“You can have that. I just need use of one key; one special one I know she has, or will have soon, then my interest in them is finished with.”
“And they’ll be mine?”
“They most definitely shall.”
Cain dragged the fork from the table, leaving a neat row of four regular holes in its wake, and continued working his way through the pile of food that Merula had ordered prepared in anticipation of his arrival.
She leaned her chin on her thumb and finger, elbow on the table.
In the man’s arrogance one might think he was an old creature, perhaps even as old as she; but he had died his first death a scant forty years ago and it marvelled Merula how much his frail mind had forgotten in that short time. A mere forty years held by the trappings of his breed and he had forgotten everything, from thee feel of sunlight on his flesh to the ability to eat solid foods.
Which explained why he ate like a child; the fork held like the smallest javelin in one oversized fist and food smeared across his chin.
Merula had to admit to herself that she found him rather charming; like a neutered bear taught to dance for the tourists.
“You know where they are?”
His words were strangely soothing, the words of someone used to getting their own way. At some point she knew she should remind him of his new place in the world; and an idea occurred to her how she should accomplish this.
“We’ve been watching him for some time, we know everything about him.”
“And they’re together?”
Murula smiled as she saw the hurt tumble over him for a moment.
“I want everything you have on him.”
“So you shall.” Merula smiled. “There’s someone I believe you should meet.”
Once again the glamour on the door shimmered and it dropped it invisibility as Anna muttered to it, but this time a dimly lit corridor stood on the other side. A maroon carpet covered the floor, thread bare in places, and the walls were painted a deep yellow that bore a darkened streak where many shoulders had brushed against it over the years. The joins between the wallpaper had flaked apart now, the paper peeled at its corners here and there. The carpet had its own carpet made of dust where the only trail of feet for many years led from the door she would soon leave to the door she would soon walk through.
Anna stepped through and, this time, there was no unpleasant tug at her innards.
On this side the door bore the legend “staff only” and when it clicked closed she knew that if she opened it without the right keyword nothing more than a spider infested janitor’s closet would present itself.
She turned and walked down the short corridor to the “T” junction at its end, right would take her down the stairs to the foyer, so she turned left. On her right she passed the door to the ladies room and moments later the one to the gentleman’s passed her on her left; but it was the wide double doors ahead of her that were her target.
The balcony was a narrow thing that could comfortably seat a dozen people and it looked over an auditorium that was as dark and quiet as a tomb.
Anna selected her favourite seat and sat, taking a moment to glance over the three-hundred or so seats below. Less than a dozen people were scattered about them, no two together and this struck sadness into Anna for more reason than she could mention.
On the twenty foot screen a little girl danced down a yellow brick road with a scarecrow in tow, sometimes barely visible through the scars and dust the print had gathered over the years.
The balcony was bad in nearly every way, in the summer it was too hot and in the winter too cold, visibility was poor because of the ninety degree angle to the screen and almost no sound could be heard from any of the left-hand speakers. So consequently it had fallen into disuse, then disrepair.
Then it became her haven.
On the screen the two characters cower in fear as a lion approaches.
If only Merula was the only problem.
There was the thing she had found.
Something that exuded a feeling that enveloped her; something to which she found herself helpless…
Anna pushed the thought from her mind and crossed her arms on the scarred balustrade between her and the drop to the seats below. She rested her head on her arms and watched the badly worn screen.
She remembered watching Blackmail, the first British talkie to be shown here on the same screen. She remembered the silent version some time before, and before that she remembered watching Harold Lloyd climb clock towers and Charlie Chaplin befuddle shop owners.
Far below her one of the paying customers glanced up in her direction, at her but did not see her. The glamour she cast on this whole section hid her from casual glances the same way her door was hidden back in her unseen home.
Without looking she sensed that he was a young man, no more than a boy really, who had seem something shimmer out of the corner of his eye.
No doubt he would tall his friends of the encounter.
Perhaps he might even comment on it to the staff of the old cinema; one more sighting of the ghost.
She smiled to herself; she was a ghost.
When she looked in a mirror she saw what most would see. She was short by today’s standards with the mass of fire red hair that would make people stop and stare if they caught sight of her. But inside she was just what she became when she came to this place.
“I saw a ghost…”
The two friends sat in the far corner of the Unicorn’s Wish, a corner that was situated in such a way that people seated there were only visible from the slightest of angles; offering them almost complete privacy.
“Is that all you have to say? “Okay”?”
Billy watched as his friend poured more of the pear cider from the bottle into the tall pint glass. Theo was a reflective sort of person and he rarely spoke about things he had no definitive experience; which wasn’t a whole lot.
“Well, what would you expect me to say Billy? Give me some details.”
Billy watched the bubbles rush to the top of the amber fluid and the ghost’s hair came to him in a rush of images. For a moment, a pinprick moment in time, he may have saw her; a lions mane of red hair and blue eyes that shone like a lighthouse beacon.
“It was like one of those Magic Eye games; you could only see her when you weren’t looking for her. An optical illusion… but it wasn’t an illusion, I’m sure. There was something to real in the way she was leant over the balcony; and…”
Billy stopped abruptly, tracing a finger down the condensation down the side of his own glass. He traced an image he half saw through the liquid in it; something shaped almost like a key.
“I shouldn’t have been able to see it, like I shouldn’t have been able to see the colour of her eyes in the darkness; but I saw something fall, lots of something’s falling onto a seat directly beneath her.
“So I waited – it seemed like forever I waited – until the movie was over and the place was empty of people and I thought… until I couldn’t sense her anymore…”
Theo’s eyes never left Billy’s face and his brow had a cast of interest but not concern.
“I went over to the seat under the balcony and looked for what fell. The seat had been wet Theo, something had dripped on it.”
“A cracked water pipe; or a faulty air conditioning unit…?”
“Air conditioning; in that place…? Jeez. No, I think they were tears Theo. I think she was crying.”
“A crying ghost…?”
“Yes, a crying ghost.”
Billy sat silent, then he raised his glass and drank half of it in one go.
Theo did what he was best at; he reflected on what he’d been told.
Merula had been reasonably sure that Cain would not feel it and the deeper they wound their ways into the depths she became more confident on her hypothesis.
Men were immune; they could not feel the creature’s presence. The monks felt nothing and now neither did Cain.
Her heels clattered on the time-worn stone, each step sounding like a strike on a drum in the confines of the rough hewn corridor, and she fought the urge to hasten her approach, to match the sound of her heels to the drum of her racing heart.
It wasn’t far now.
Cain, for his part in the trek, dawdled, making the blonde woman consider what use he might be on her quest. Lethargic muscle was not known for its great use.
Merula knew key items were missing, made all the worse by the fact that she really didn’t know what would be needed to complete this long journey she’d found herself on. She needed The Key, but she didn’t know what kind of a key or when Anetta or her flunky would obtain it; and then she needed to know what the key would unlock for it to be of any use.
Rock jutted out from the wall further down the corridor almost blocking the increasingly narrow passageway. Merula ducked past it and was immediately forced to squeeze thought an even smaller gap to her left.
When she had first found the Hidden Place this whole section had been blocked and flooded; and it had taken months for the monks to clear it of the rubble. A cave in was suspected, but as the water was drained and the rubble was carried away what they found were boulders that seem to have been deliberately embedded in the corridors walls. None of it made sense until they discovered what had been hidden behind the wall of rock and water.
Merula paused, around them most of the fluorescent moss had died and its light had gone with it but they could still see each other as grey shadows in the near darkness.
“Don’t say a word.” Merula cautioned.
“I didn’t say anything…”
“I mean it Cain… don’t say a word.”
Ahead of them Merula could see the glow, not purple like the moss, but a pale blue.
“Can I hear water?”
“Cain. Damn you… Keep quiet; I won’t tell you again.”
The man grinned at her in reply.
Something would be done about his attitude; perhaps even this very day; but he was also right. Running water could be clearly heard and they had both been hearing it for some time without realising it. In the dead silence of this deep and forgotten place a persons ears heard strange things, hums and rumbles, and sometimes muted voices but the conscious mind pushed these sounds aside as white noise that imagination had crafted into something more.
Merula knew all this the moment she set foot in the large cavern at the networks centre, but when she had discovered this suburb of the strange she began wondering if the disembodied voices she heard down here was actually more than empty noise.
She turned the corner and Cain saw her lit from the pale blue light from something he could not see. Without looking at him, her eyes transfixed on something, she motioned with her hand for him to join her.
The water was alive with light. It tumbled down the rock wall and from the ceiling as a waterfall. Water splashed and sprayed and seemed to come from everywhere. It was hard for Cain to focus on the small caverns contents. His eyes tried to adjust to something brighter than a summer’s day, brighter than the sun it seemed.
Suspended by nothing, floating in the caverns dead centre against the flow of water from the waterfall was the figure of a woman.
But it wasn’t a woman.
Cain’s mind, never the quickest part of his anatomy, struggled with the idea.
She looked like a woman, naked and half curled foetally; but she was more like a bubble of water shaped like a woman. Her hair was so long it was like a river in itself, flowing almost to the foot of the cavern where the water from the flow above drained away to who-knew-where. The hair, but not hair, danced as though gravity had no purchase on it.
She was translucent and Cain could see her eyes moving under her closed eyelids and her bones within her fingers. The semi-transparent water-flesh distorted the image almost beyond recognition but he could even see her heart as it beat within her chest.
Merula had seen the creature many times, had even spoke to her in a rudimentary way, but the effect on her was much the same as it was on Cain. The only difference was that Merula was struck much more profoundly by the creature’s presence through the energy that seemed to pulse off it like the waves of an ocean. As each wave of energy washed over her images and sounds flooded her mind like memories that were not her own.
A mass culling of unicorns by barrel chested men, the slain animals tossed into a pit that would one day become a well…
A man, who walked in dreams on a quest to find a place to live and love, and hopefully one day, die…
A newborn baby with the mind of an adult and the desire to burn down the world…
An idea that infected people like a virus and brought with it a feeling of complete belonging…
People alien to this world who walked in skins resembling our own but held one of the darkest secrets ever unknown…
Ideas and people, stories and speculation all washed over Merula filling her mind fit to burst.
A cry echoed through the caverns.
Merula’s hand flew to her lips, but it had not been her; beside her Cain had fallen to his knees. His arms were limp at his sides, his fingertips shuddering as they had with his unnatural birth earlier this same day. His eyes were wide, threatening to erupt on stalks.
Merula sympathised with the man; pure beauty was hard envisioning but even harder perceiving.
Then she smiled and placed a hand on Cain’s head, patting it gently.
His head twitched as if he wanted to look up at her.
Let your eyes drink their fill, she thought, you’ve been reborn too many times today.
It was early morning when Anna woke; almost the mid point between dusk and dawn. Still dressed, she was draped across her bed like a discarded garment. Her shoes had been unlaced, but neither of them had been removed; she looked like a woman after a night on the town.
She sat up and looked around the single room.
This was her universe.
She kicked off her shoes and they sounded too loud when they both fell to the bare wooden floor. Her head throbbed and her stomach churned.
She couldn’t remember why that should be.
She had gone to the old cinema, been the ghost for a while, then she had returned.
No, that wasn’t quite right; something had happened there… someone had seen her? Sensed her more like. The spell surrounding her was strong; the best she could write and augmented by the power of the thing held deep in the earth nothing could pierce her invisibility to the world.
Not even Anna herself, the person who wrote it.
One by one she had forged the bars of her own prison.
Scattered across the worktable by the main entrance were the workings of a potion, uncapped bottles and jars and a mortar and pestle dominating. Inside the mortar was a glittering residue that looked like crushed diamond.
Anna sniffed at it tentatively.
It smelt faintly of almonds.
It was a Memory Draft.
Anna sat on the high stool that stood in front of the worktable, suddenly very aware that she didn’t remember walking across the room.
Intermittent memory drop-outs were common amongst victims of a Memory Draft.
She examined the ingredients scattered across the table.
It was hers, definitely hers; few could even mix such a potion and no one had ever mixed the way she did. Even the way the bottles had been discarded looked like her work.
So sometime between leaving the cinema and waking she had mixed and administered a memory potion on herself, and it was almost impossible to learn why. The effects of such a potion were myriad depending on many minute variations in the mix. She may have forgotten minutes, or days, or perhaps only the memories of a certain person or thing and the loss might be permanent, short term or triggered my any combination of events.
Almost anything was possible.
Anna slowly looked around the room trying to spot something untoward or out of place but nothing struck her as unusual. If someone had been here to coerce her into it then it was a peaceful attempt; either that or it was something she did entirely of her own accord.
If that was true, if she was the author of this mystery, then what did she want to forget and once forgetting should she pursue what was forgotten?
Anna’s head hurt even more.
She should sleep.
Anna walked back to the bed, slipping off her blouse and wriggling free of her skirt as she did. She climbed into the bed in her underwear and dragged the thick blankets over her head like a child.
She felt like a child, lost and lonely and very, very afraid.