[font=Georgia, ‘Times New Roman’, Times, serif]It is a quiet evening in the Royal Bethlehem Hotel, silence reigning in its crimson-carpeted halls. A rarity, for that most unusual of hospices, where usually every night the hoots and calls and screams of the mad echo throughout the halls like instruments in the Manager’s personal chorus. Perhaps, then, this was a pause between movements – a breathless moment before the music returns.
Or perhaps, tonight, the madmen dream as one.
The gas-lamps remain unlit in one particular suite of rooms, the shadows kept at bay only by the candles. The greenish-white wax drips slowly down thick shafts, pooling at the base and staining the carpets where they’ve been set, the eerie green flames dancing like will-o-wisps drawn from some bog and bound by the wicks. That eldritch illumination, flickering and dancing madly, reveals only glimpses of the room, from time to time. The side of a crate whose lid has been roughly crowbarred open, long iron nails standing against the wood like teeth, the words ‘Mutton Island‘ painted across its side in faded letters. A cage’s bars, within which some squamous thing half-hound and half something unnameable huddles in the corner, tendrils a’quiver with fear that even its twisted mind cannot fully give word to. A woman’s hand, pale and bloodless save for where scarlet spatters across the fingers, nails cracked and broken from digging into the carpeting – the rest of her lies unmoving beyond the candlelight, a mere shell awaiting the return of Lily Nottingham from a certain river beyond the knowing of scholarly understanding.
The same blood that stains her hand – her own – has been used to write upon the very carpeting of the room, red upon red, and yet in the foxfire light one can make out the etchings of carnal life unerringly against the fabric. An intricate pattern, all angles and whorls that seem to defy geometry and burn against the back of one’s mind. If one were to look at it improperly, tears of blood would soon stain their cheeks. If one looked at unprepared, their eyes would burn. The Correspondence is written here, a forbidden form, a number.
A number of candles.
He remembered the taste of sour corn beer on his tongue, the bloated feel of it as it swelled in his belly and carried him to darkness.
He remembered the feel of skyglass against skin, infinitely sharp, cutting at him, slicing flesh and muscle, blood pooling about him.
He remembered the feel of it as a dear friend drove the blade into his heart, bringing death in an instant.
He remembered the jagged obsidian of the well, the pain in his beloved’s eyes as he went down. The desperate splashing.
It was part of him now. It always would be. Seven scars, never to heal. Seven was the number.
The man known only as Lamont S (for even this scribe cannot say what that shunned surname may be, or what terrors gripped his former life that he banished it from him so thoroughly) sits at the heart of the pattern, stripped of all garments, his lanky frame cast greenish in the foxfire. That spectral light seems to linger on his scars the longest, marks carved into flesh so thoroughly that not even the unnatural vitality of the Neath could ever heal them, wounds that seemed to have cloven past the flesh of his shell and into the very nature of who he was.
Those scars form a map of madness across his body. A messy line of keloid across one shoulder, fibrous lines of silvery-pale across his arms, a broad line between two ribs where it found his heart. They mingled with the other, older scars of his life, but seemed to cast them into shadow as unimportant in the candlelight. These were the ones that mattered. Seven scars, seven marks upon his flesh that would never heal, accepted not only willingly but fervently. Just as the seven wounds that had marked another, all those years ago, in a betrayal so deep that it echoed…
It was easy, really. He had more enemies than friends.
Fools who he’d called as such, envious hearts that craved what he had accomplished.
False smiles and lying trust had led them to turn on him, again and again. And they came, every time.
They betrayed him, stole his secrets, his jewels, his wine, bound him in chains, threw him in a cell, masked and forgotten.
At times he wondered if the dream were freedom, and the prison was where he truly was – perhaps he had never escaped to begin with.
They were always there, now, in his dreams. Seven chains, binding him, their weight heavy on his shoulders. Seven was the number.
Blood soaks his skin, fingers dipped in it putting the final touches on the intricate pattern that spread out around him, brushing softly over the carpet as eyes that burned in the candlelight gazed unguarded and unblinking upon the sigil. It was part of him, now. Perhaps it could no longer harm him because of that. The final betrayal had been Lily’s, and the scales had been balanced this night. She would not betray him again, he knows, because her fear will be greater than her greed. And he needed her blood for this, for this working, this divination, this communion–
He pauses, considering the words. He doesn’t know what it is. Listening for echoes, he thinks, is what he’s doing. Like a spelunker dropping a stone into a cavern to listen for how deep it is by the echoes that ring back out of that unimaginable gulf of darkness beneath his feet. A hiss captures his attention, and he freezes, that intense gaze flickering up to the crate. There sits the Starveling Cat, mangy and flea-bitten, teeth bared in a hiss that seems to him like a mocking laugh. “Do you know the number yet,” it asks in a voice like a sweetmeat beckoning one’s hand into the jaws of a trap.
“Yes,” he says, he mutters, reaching down to finish that last line perfectly in his adopted daughter’s blood, “I know the number…”
He hated it; hated it and feared it, that damnable cat, for the things it helped him do.
Not even laudanum could drown his pain in Lethe; all it did was blunt the edge enough to keep him from going truly mad.
The nightmares would never end; the burning yellow eyes of terrified spirifers, the agony of his soul violated again and again.
It was barely there, now. A tattered mess, torn into spiders’ webs and stained impossibly dark.
Seven times had his soul been torn from him. Seven stains upon the ineffable. Seven was the number.
“I am the number,” are his next words, a snarl of defiance. The cat laughs. It always laughs. Men are fools to cats.
He could see more clearly, now. Seven candles to light the way. Christened by seven false saints. The first… the first would be…
“The bone candle of Saint Arthur,” Lamont whispers in a hollow voice, and every candle in the room is snuffed instantly into darkness.
And still the cat laughs.