Meeting Your Maker

[For those who are concerned with continuity, this story takes place after the Shade Hunt and before the forthcoming Tale of Two Suns, a voyage to lightless depths and the wide open sky.]

Gideon is building something. If he can keep his hands busy, perhaps he won’t have to engage his brain. Introspection is something to be avoided when dark thoughts lie in the recesses of his mind.

Dripping candles flicker on his workbench, pushing back the gloom of the cellar. The facilities are hardly ideal, but after the destruction of the grand underground complex that he liked to refer to as his Shed, there is nowhere else for him to build his inventions. The cellar is cluttered with junk: gear-wheels, cans of oil, disassembled steam-engines with their glinting innards on display, even a reinforced box of Correspondence plaques. Much of it is covered in dust-sheets, creating alarming shadows on the walls.

Gideon squints through the array of lenses fitted to his left eye. His clockwork monocle may have a tendency to overheat, but it is invaluable for delicate work. A device resembling a brass pocket-watch is taking shape before him; innumerable tiny mechanisms litter the workbench around the half-filled casing. With painstaking care he inscribes a Correspondence sigil on a cog under the magnification of his monocle. This is the lynchpin of the entire device. The pattern for the sigil is outlined in ink on a piece of paper in front of him as a guide.

The sigil is best translated as “The process of uncovering a past that is best left buried”.

The inventor works feverishly until the candles are burned down to stubs. The device takes shape before his eyes like a living organism: a thousand parts working in tandem to a greater purpose. Sigils gleam in cosmogone on six driving gears. The interior of the mirrored watch-casing hints of viric, while the brass exterior is highlighted in apocyan. A vial of liquid gant seeps through peligin pipes winding around the gears. The glass face of the casing has bearings picked out in irrigo, to aid in forgetting them until it is necessary. A slender violant-infused needle is affixed to an axle at the centre of the device, to make necessary but troublesome connections.

It is a compass like no other. With it, perhaps he can finally track down the man who has haunted his nightmares.

The door opens with a soft creak, spilling gaslight into the cellar. Gideon looks up, startled, and drops his screwdriver. To his credit, he manages not to yelp.

“Only me,” says Vela, standing in the doorway. Her dark hair is pulled back in a neat bun, and she is wearing her work clothes – a neatly ironed skirt and blouse in sombre grey.

Gideon removes his monocle. “Ah, hello, darling. Aren’t you home a bit early?”

Vela raises an eyebrow. “It’s eleven at night, Gideon. Baseborn’s had us working our fingers to the bone on the Farrier case. I may never write again,” she says, massaging her wrist. “Have you been cooped up in here all day, dear?”

“I’m prepared to concede the possibility.”

“Are you done now? Come on upstairs; you’ll catch your death down here with all the cold and damp!”

Gideon smiles. “I suppose a mug of hot cocoa and a good book by the fire wouldn’t go amiss.”

He puts away his equipment and blows out the candles, shutting the little compass in a desk drawer, and gives Vela a peck on the cheek as he meets her at the doorway. The door clicks shut as they leave arm in arm, and nothing is left in the darkness but the ceaseless whirring of the compass as it seeks its quarry.

“This is good cocoa. Delicious, in fact. I’d call it the best cocoa I’ve ever tasted, but I’d have to have a conference with my past self just to make sure.”

“I rather thought you’d like it, dear. I picked it up from Dante’s this morning. They say it was grown in the Elder Continent under the nurturing light of the Mountain, and it’s infused with the essence of life itself.”

“And what do you think?”

“The label says ‘Made in Brazil’. Still, I know which story I prefer.”

“Mmm. I think I know too. I can practically taste the life essence.”

The living room of the townhouse is more of a library, stocked with books ranging from legal tomes to scientific journals to all manner of fiction. Where there is no space in the shelves, books are stacked on every available surface and – for the most disfavoured texts – even on the floor. It is not especially tidy, but it is cosy. The fire dances merrily in the hearth, banishing the chill of the Neath.

They while away the wee hours of the morning there, cuddled up on the sofa reading some of Vela’s favourites. She takes great pleasure in pointing out grammatical errors – once a clerk, always a clerk. He puts on silly voices for the characters – the pompous major-general, the haughty cat, the obsequious toad – and floods of laughter fill the room.

It is one of those rare moments when all seems right with the world; where the terrors of the unknown no longer hold sway and the future doesn’t look so bad after all. Gideon wishes he could hold onto the moment forever, but life rarely contrives to work that way. After this particular moment has passed, hanging between the ticks of the clock for an age, life contrives to send a caller to the happy couple’s door at this ungodly hour. They knock three times.

“Who could be calling at this ungodly hour?” says Gideon.

“Best not answer it,” says Vela. “Could be burglars, or worse, your cousin.”

The knocks at the door sound again, more insistently.

“I’d better go and get it,” says Gideon.

“Fine. It’s your funeral. I’ll stay here, to scream very loudly when the burglars have dealt with you and they come in here looking to snatch all our lovely books.”

“Noted. I’ll try not to get too much blood on the carpet.”

The knocking abates when the silhouette at the front door notices Gideon entering the hall through the frosted glass. He slides back the chain and opens the door, revealing the pale, bedraggled figure of his cousin Locke carrying a soggy cardboard box marked “THIS WAY UP” with an arrow pointing down.

“Who is it?” shouts Vela from the living room.

“It’s Locke, dear!” shouts Gideon over his shoulder.

“Tell him we don’t have any brandy!”

Locke frowns, but steps in anyway while Gideon is distracted and puts the cardboard box on the floor.

“I brought this box for you,” says Locke.

“Is there anything in it, or did you just think I could do with a spare box at three in the morning?”

“’Course there’s something in it, silly. This… is a memento. Great-Uncle Edgar found it in the skips down at the Uni. Says it’s from your old department.”

Flames, licking at the walls. Trapped students, screaming in terror. Gideon hadn’t been there when the Ministry of Public Decency put his department to the torch, but his imagination was almost as bad as the real thing.

“This old box survived the fire? It looks like it’s liable to fall apart in a stiff breeze!”

“I don’t know the particulars, but maybe you worked some of that Correspondence mumbo-jumbo on it. You don’t remember much from back then, do you? There’s a journal in there, a log of your old experiments. Maybe it can jog your memory.”

Gideon pats Locke on the shoulder. “Good man. Let’s get you a drink, shall we? We don’t have brandy, of course, but Vela’s bought this lovely cocoa…”

To be continued…
edited by JimmyTMalice on 10/1/2017

3rd of September, 1893

After a long interlude, Vela has encouraged me to keep a journal again. Perhaps it will do me good to put my thoughts on paper. She puts great stock in it. I admit I am surprised her writing hand has not been worn down to the bone after she spends the full day writing at Baseborn & Fowlingpiece then comes home to write further.

The false-summer has been a busy but fruitful period for the Delvers. Benthic College has at last permitted us to operate on their premises! Arnold was able to unearth the indiscretions of certain wealthy chairpersons through his connections in society to provide sufficient leverage for our petition. It pains me to have to resort to blackmail, but if this is the only way to convince the board of the value of our work, so be it.

Our allotted rooms are not much to look at, situated as they are in a largely forgotten cellar of the Antiquities building. One would almost believe the board wanted us swept under the rug. They will allow us the use of the cellars, but funding through official channels is impossible if we wish to avoid the baleful gaze of the Ministry of Public Decency.

All five of us have been hard at work shifting furniture and equipment into the cellars in preparation for the new academic year. Vela lends a hand when she can, although she objects to the notion that the Delver spirit requires the application of heavy lifting. Perhaps that is why she has decided not to properly join our organisation.

I have my own office! Granted, it is a repurposed store-cupboard, but it instils a certain pride in a gentleman to have a desk of his own and a nameplate on the door, even if there is precious little room. I fear I shall not be swinging any cats for the foreseeable.

Writing this journal in the confines of my new office rather makes me feel like a proper academic. All we need now for the Department of Implausibilities is students.

I shall have to continue these recollections at another time - Leonard is knocking at my door quite insistently.

“Come in!” shouts Gideon. The door of his cupboard-office opens and Leonard, a short bald man dressed in a navy-blue pinstripe suit with a cravat, squeezes in.

“Hope you’re settling in, Gideon! This place certainly seems… roomy. A young man handed me this letter for you,” says Leonard. He puts an envelope - sealed with a symbol of a needle - on Gideon’s cluttered desk.

“A young man, you say? A student? Did he give a name?”

“No name. He was very insistent that I deliver the letter directly. He was the right age to be a student, though.” Leonard pulls out a handkerchief and mops sweat from his forehead.

(I met a Leonard Havers at Arnold’s salon today. The man is a good sort, and his understanding of physics is impeccable, but he does pick the oddest times to break into a sweat. Perhaps it is a glandular issue. –Gideon’s Journal, 1889)

“Well, I suppose the suspense has been killing you. Let’s have a look.”

Gideon breaks the red wax seal and opens the envelope, quickly scanning the missive. “’Dear Mr Stormstrider, it has come to our attention that you are looking for talented students for research into the sciences. If you are willing, our organisation can be of assistance in contacting such able students. Simply leave a reply in the empty bird-box in the Old Quad with your signature and the times of your planned lectures, and we will take care of the rest. The Order abides.’”

As Gideon reads, his eyebrows threaten to rise so high that they come off his head entirely. “Goodness! Only a few days as a proper academic and already I receive clandestine messages! I do hope this is not a student jape.”

Leonard peers at the discarded envelope. “The seal does look awfully official. But an offer like this - out of the blue - seems too good to be true. There’ll be a catch.”

“My dear friend, you worry too much!” says Gideon, flashing a smile. “I shall write a reply post-haste! What could possibly go wrong?”

Locke looks at Gideon with concern as he shuts the journal. “Are you sure you want to carry on with this? Seems like digging up your past is more painful than I thought it’d be.” He moves to take back the slim volume.

“No,” says Gideon, holding the journal tightly. “No. Each morning I wake a new man, and my memories are all that is left of what I used to be. Memories can hold pain beyond measure. I fear I’ve only touched the surface in what I’ve read so far. But they are still my memories, and I feel their loss as keenly as missing a limb. Above all, I have to know. The Truth is out there, Locke Lockhart, and now I know where to look. I will unravel it no matter how much it burns.”

“It won’t be enough.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Pardon me. Just thinking aloud.” Gideon waves an arm vaguely, causing one of the twin shopkeepers to look askance at him. You’d think they’d know my measurements by now.

And then, Revenge on one man won’t be enough, you know. Once a knife has tasted blood, it thirsts for more. It cuts and cuts until there’s nothing left but the knife and the red. You’ve killed before, Gideon. How can you stand it? There’s so much red left to spill. This time, when you start, you won’t be able to stop. I’ll make sure of that.

Gideon pushes the voice to the back of his mind. Gruesome murder is hardly an appropriate area of discussion for the tailor’s fitting room.

“All done, sir,” says one of the androgynous shopkeepers. “I believe we have a suit that can be fitted to your size, if you care to wait for just a moment.”

Gideon stands up, shedding tape measures every which way, and heads to the shop floor. Racks of lamentably vital clothing murmur dire prophecies. The Imaginary Hunt has a particular sort of clientele: the sort that looks terribly menacing when glowering from a dark corner, but in proper lighting looks rather odd and unimpressive.

A few of the specimens shuffling amongst the dark hanging fabrics favour him with a scowl. This one has an unsightly wart on her nose that would surely be the only thing visible poking out from a dark cowl when selling potions of dubious provenance. That one has a limp that would look unnerving and wrong lurching out of a dark alleyway, but in the well-lit shop it looks like he’s putting it on.

Gideon browses the racks for a while. The fashion available ranges from dour to grim. Still, it would be a shame to waste all those discount coupons Normal Edgar found for him in a skip.

It is a while before he realises that somebody is watching him.

It’s a good thing I have an innate sense for danger, Gideon thinks. He is sadly mistaken, but perhaps some hunter’s instinct has rubbed off on him from that business with the Shade; he feels a prickle on the back of his neck that can only be the steady gaze of an unfriendly observer.

There, peeking between a carnivorous hat and a dress shirt that speaks the date of one’s death: a little bald man who looks exceedingly ordinary. In this shop, looking ordinary is as obvious a sign of skulduggery as a domino mask and a sack with “SWAG” written on it. Gideon wears three extra hats on his visits so as not to feel underdressed.

Gideon crouches among the musty coat-racks to take a better look. Parting the heavy bombazine – it should really be kept in a dark room to minimise the additional weight as it grows fat on the light – he peeks through the rows and sees… nothing. Well, nothing but coats, but that is hardly a cause for alarm.

He straightens up as a cheerful jingle announces the opening of the shop door, along with the exit of the little bald man. Before he is able to follow the man and get this whole business straightened out, he is pigeonholed by a shopkeeper.

“Sir, your suit is ready! And quite a dashing one too, if I do say so myself. Will you be paying with cash, or… coupon?” They spit out the last word with vitriol usually reserved for shoplifters or personages wearing unfashionable hats.

“Oh, coupon, undoubtedly,” says Gideon obliviously. He hands over the requisite coupons and pocket change.

The shopkeeper accepts it, their face studiously blank. “Oh, one more thing, sir – a gentleman left a moment ago and asked me to give you his card.”

Gideon takes the card and reads it to himself. “Cease your inquiries at once. What was done to you can be reversed, and the process is invariably fatal. Consider this your last warning - the Order does not play games.”

His blood runs cold as he turns it over to see a symbol of a needle, seemingly ripped straight from his reinvigorated memories. In small, neat text the needle is captioned with the legend “THE ORDER OF THE BARB”.