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What Found Me in the Undercroft

by SeishinNoUwagi (精神の上着)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/320852.html)

Varrigboy Castle was neither the furthest destination I’d pursued in the line of my employment, nor the most difficult to reach, but before its towers rose above the horizon I already felt lost at the ends of the earth. The boat tipped beneath me, spray stinging my eyes like angry tears. At my back Rathlin Island spread like a dark cloud staining the water. The lights of Beag Cary were hidden behind the broken spine of the shore, but even in passing they had seemed cold and impossibly far away.

Ahead the smaller isle of Ingne Diabhail jutted from the waves like a canine’s molar, its rounded cliffs stark against a granite sky. The castle clung to its southeastern face, overlooking a drowned causeway that passed like a trail of fog beneath our bow and joined it to Rathlin’s shore. My guide brought us closer to its looming shadow with every sweep of the oars against the tossing sea. Because he rowed backward it was difficult to mark our progress without seeming like I was staring. I had a kink in my neck from avoiding his stitched-over face and whatever it was that squirmed beneath the hemp when we hit the flat of a wave. He spoke little and this afforded me the only comfort the trip provided, though I continued to be wary of him.

The guide dropped me off on the pier of the causeway, casting away again without a word. He would let my superiors know I had arrived safely. The climb to the castle was not as treacherous as I had feared, the way being paved by ocean pebbles and the occasional odd shoe. I stepped around a pile of these (all singletons, no pairs) to find myself at the looming front door. I removed my hat to finger comb my hair free of salt-sticky tangles, checked the buttons of my coat, finally admitted to myself I was stalling and knocked with a decisive rap against the wood. Immediately I worried I had not knocked loudly enough. I considered knocking again but did not want to seem rude.

The sensation of being adrift, lost in some lonely wilderness, had not abated. Standing on the edge of that spit of land and surrounded by the uncaring sea I had the unhappy suspicion that the feeling was not a product of the time, nor the place, but a fugue-like desolation that had followed me for some time and had only now made itself known. I called many places home (and so none at all), and I had never been one to attract friends or even acquaintances, but I was happy in my work. Surely, I thought, that was enough.

The door opened, nearly striking me on the nose. A man backed out, tall, his black hair parted neatly down the middle and his arms filled with dirty straw. A bucket of something swung from his elbow. It smelled strongly of rotten turnips.

“Oh. Hello there,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Good morning, my name is Charles Alexander Grave and I am the representative of the Societas Celatum, here to appraise the Von Werner estate.” I offered my hand only to remember that his were full. I took it back again with a flush.

“The Society man, that’s right. I wasn’t expecting you until the end of the month.”

“I was told, that is, the assignment required some haste?” I stammered.

“It wasn’t meant as a chastisement, Mr. Grave. I appreciate your diligence.” The man dumped his load onto a moldering pile beside the front step and offered his hand. “Anthony Von Werner. Lady Von Werner was my mother.”

“Yes,” I said, and then belatedly, “my condolences.”

“Thank you. But where are my manners, keeping you out in the cold. I hope you haven’t been standing out here long?”

“Oh, no,” I gestured vaguely, not looking at him while he took my outer coat and hat. “I knocked earlier…”

“I recall hearing something but I thought it was that damn far darrig… but that must have been over ten minutes ago.” He waited, as if for a reply, then finally said, “I’ll show you to your room. I’m sure you’d like to wash up after your journey.”

He led me across the foyer and through an adjacent hall, guiding me around rotted boards and over piles of detritus while trying to make small talk about the weather and my trip. To these queries I could muster only the most monosyllabic of replies, as I was still mortified for having said ‘good morning,’ when we were already far advanced into the late afternoon. I could not fathom what had possessed me to say that, let alone the shambles with the knocking and the handshake.

“Here we are,” Lord Von Werner said, opening a door and stepping aside. “Will this do?”

The room was in pieces. Furniture had been smashed and strewn across the floor, the kindling stacked into unlikely towers. The bed had been stripped, the mattress left a shredded pile of feathers and the linens ripped into tatters and piled in corners. Even the chandelier had been upset, though I could see none of the broken glass that was obviously missing from the candelabras.

“Er.” I attempted to meet Von Werner’s inquiring eye and looked away. “Yes, thank you.”

“I’ll go fetch some towels. Please make yourself at home.”

The dresser was cluttered with tangled string, hair and bits of bone. I nudged some of this aside and then finally moved whole piles of it onto the floor to make room for my valise. Upon opening the drawers I found more bone and dirt interspersed with insect carapaces. The wardrobe was all-over holes. I was trying to find an alternative place to hang my clothes when Von Werner returned with the towels and a steaming pitcher of water.

“My God!” He stopped short in the doorway. “What happened in here?”

Stricken, I hastily removed my valise and began transferring the piles back onto the dresser. “My apologies, my lord, I didn’t–”

He spoke right over me, “I am so sorry, Mr. Grave, it wasn’t like this earlier. Please, come with me, I’ll take you to a proper room immediately.” Von Werner ushered me out of the bedroom. “Rats,” he explained, locking the door behind him. “With Mother gone they’ve practically taken over the place. It’s hardly worth the trouble of getting rid of them, considering.”

“Yes, of course,” I mumbled.

Feeling much unbalanced I barely glanced at the next room he showed me to, intent on keeping to the side and staying out of his way. Von Werner checked the bed, wardrobe and vanity, all to his evident satisfaction, and finally deposited the washing things on a side board.

“I hope this suits you. I’m afraid there aren’t many alternatives. It will be no great loss when they burn the place down.” This was said in the jocular tone that invited familiarity, but in that instant all I could think of was how much I wanted to be alone.

“This will be fine.”

“Yes, right, well, take your time. Dinner is at seven. It’s just me here so it won’t be anything extravagant.” I waited, but he didn’t move. Finally he said, “You’ll be all right, won’t you? There are a few things left over– well, I don’t want to bother you with unnecessary warnings. Society man and all.”

I assured him I would be fine, thanked him again, and was finally left in peace. First to go was the jacket, then the tie and vest, all being filthy and caked with salt. I rolled up my sleeves and made my own tour of the room, checking behind curtains and disposing of a tentacled horror I found pulsating beneath a seat cushion. Otherwise the room was refreshingly empty and it was with great relief I was finally able to attend to my toilette.

Afterwards I considered unpacking, but exhaustion was catching up to me and I decided to postpone the effort until after dinner. Dinner. I did not want to go to dinner. The prospect of further conversation was several magnitudes worse than had been dealing with the tentacled horror. But I was hungry, and there was hardly a polite way to not go to dinner. Resigned, I sat for a moment to rest my eyes and fortify my resolve for the trials ahead.

~*~

Von Werner knocked on my door at three minutes past the hour to guide me to the dining room: a high-ceilinged, dramatic affair as such castle rooms generally are. He hadn’t been modest about dinner; it was tomato soup with mildly burnt toast and a regional whiskey, not extravagant at all. But the soup was warm and filling in its own homey way, and I found myself well satisfied.

“I apologize again for the poor dinner showing,” Von Werner said, perhaps reading my silence as censure. “Mother never kept servants, and I had no need of them in the corps.”

“I like simple things,” I said, my tumbler of whiskey helping the words come. “Which corps are you referring to?”

“Africa,” he said, twirling his spoon. “I volunteered.”

He followed this gambit with a series of colorful stories about his life on the savanna: tales of hyena-riding witches and nights spent stalking were-leopards and being stalked in return. It was nothing I hadn’t experienced myself, in one way or another, but I was happy to let him fill the silence and take on all the conversational heavy lifting. Alas, he was not as bombastic as I had hoped, and halfway through the meal he deftly passed the buck to me while I was not paying attention.

“But you must have your own set of hair-raising tales. How long have you been working for the Society?”

“Eight years,” I replied automatically.

He nodded encouragingly. “It must be a fascinating line of work.”

Though it was not technically a question, I knew I was already trapped. “Yes, I suppose,” I said, floundering.

When it was clear no more was forthcoming, he gestured with a bit of desperation at my hair. “And that? A relic of the job, perhaps?”

I brought a hand up, not realizing for a moment what I was doing. It had gone bone-white when I was seventeen, and ever since brought me more attention than I cared for. “Ah, no. That, when I was a boy.” I struggled with the words for a moment. “It was an accident.”

“I see.” For a moment Von Werner seemed to match me in discomfort, but he rallied with impressive speed. “I suppose it was a bit insensitive to ask, but I wondered if it might be the result of some ghastly rite that Society members must undergo: secret tortures and demon summoning…” He trailed off, then halfway through another bite of soup suddenly found a second wind. “Or goat bloodletting in inverted circles in the black of night, the severing of black cockerel crowns at dawn.” He slashed at the air with his spoon, sending red tomato paste halfway across the table. “Anatomy of the hanged-man on the Devil’s table, draining off the ichor of life to raise the sleeping!” He was standing now and I found myself leaning back in my chair. “Harnessing the sky’s vitality to turn the cogwheels of science! The menstrus of a virgin…!” He stopped here, blinked around himself, and finally sat with great embarrassment. “…And what-have-you.”

“Ah. No,” I said.

“No, no. Of course not. Just a lot of gossip and nonsense, isn’t it? It’s much the same for me, being the son of a… well.”

“Mad scientist,” I said, too relieved to finally understand what was being implied to stop and realize the thing had been left implied for a reason. “I am so sorry,” I began, but Von Werner laughed and waved away my apologies.

“It’s quite all right. But she was actually more of a sociologist. Very interested in paranoia and mob mentality, that sort of thing.”

“Oh?” I said, acutely uncomfortable in the knowledge that a paranoid mob is what had torn Lady Von Werner limb from limb.

“I never had more than a cursory interest in the subject.” He continued: “I was much more interested in language, what with being moved from castle to drafty castle. How I used to yearn for a playmate my own age, someone to catch the ball and … croquet with,” this last said with some uncertainty. “It was a blessing to finally get out in the world, put down voodoo zombie uprisings with my fellow servicemen. And Mother carried on just fine without me. She could haggle an Armenian hangman down to half what the universities were offering, and she’d carry the bodies back herself.” At this he turned away to dab the corner of his eye. “It was quite a shock, her passing. I was ill-prepared to administer to her effects.”

I perked up somewhat, recognizing the cue as a chance to begin my work. “I imagine she amassed quite an interesting collection in her travels. And this castle, was it inherited as well?”

“Not exactly. Mother always kept an ear to the ground for the availability of mountain properties that had been… expeditiously vacated. The ones with the little villages down below.”

I glanced out the window, but the lights of Beag Cary were hardly visible at this distance.

“Most of the time, there are no heirs and no persons interested in the property and so, with none to object, we would often, well, move in.”

I nodded. For once I understood perfectly.

“I believe this particular property belonged to some English Count or other, and before him a Dr. Frederick. There are boxes left over from their tenures and even some from before that. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it all, what was valuable, or–”

“The Society greatly appreciates your donation,” I said, somewhat rotely.

“There is quite a bit of it though,” he said, looking me over. “Are you sure you’ll be able to manage on your own?”

“The Society has arranged for handling and shipment. After I am through, someone will be by to collect things.”

“Will they be able to make it through the storms? The seas are quite rough this time of year.”

I assured him that the Society would take all proper precautions and that everything would be finished before the spring, that being when the villagers of Beag Cary had sworn to march across the causeway and burn Varrigboy Castle to the ground. Lady Von Werner’s last experiment had been entirely too successful.

We finished the meal with only a few more attempts at conversation. I would have excused myself sooner, but Von Werner was obviously lonely and empathy prevented me from taking an earlier leave.

~*~

The next morning I began my work. Von Werner gave me a cursory tour of the castle from attics to cellars, warning me where to carry light and which stones not to step on. Despite his misgivings there was not as much to sort through as I had expected and I was confident I could get the lot of it sourced, assessed and catalogued before the end of the month. Once he was reassured that I could carry on without him Von Werner left me to my work, having decided (I feared and hoped) that I was an underwhelming companion.

The first few rooms I sorted through did not offer up much trouble. Most of them were filled with an extensive insect collection, with many fine specimens collected in the Dreamlands. I made a note to have it shipped to Dr. Montgomery, who had once done the Society a good turn and would doubtless find the collection useful for raising her Gryllidae army. The leg arrangements of the Dermaptera alone offered up many horrors of possibility.

The sub attics consisted of those broken pieces of machinery that were too large to fit past the basement landing. Most of it was outdated and useless, but Dr. Keer liked to refurbish such antiquities and so I made a note for the handlers to dissemble what they could and have it shipped to his fortress in Skopelos for pickup.

The first real find came in a room filled with clocks. They filled the shelves from floor to ceiling and so the absolute silence of the room was disquieting. A brief inspection showed that each clock was missing its gears. Instead the inside compartments were filled up with coarse desert sand which chaffed the skin and got stuck beneath one’s fingernails. In the corner, behind a Clement 1674 pendulum, I found a pocket watch scorched with the mark of Paimon. Excited, I checked the housing for a maker’s mark, wondering if this might be the very timepiece that King Paimon had given Vlash the Bloodless before being thrown back into the pits of Hell. Winter sunlight dripped through a barred upper window, but finding it insufficient I brought out my lantern, hoping a warmer light would help me uncover what I sought. In striking a match I felt a sudden pain in my chest. My heart staggered, as if missing a beat, and when I brought a hand to it the ache seemed to spread from my chest to my fingers.

Behind me I heard a tick.

I turned, probing the gloom, and heard it again from among the motionless ranks of clocks. Meaning to investigate I took a step forward and nearly fell, my heart straining against my ribs in a way that left me light-headed. The tick sounded again, but now from my left, and then again, a second one, directly behind me. I grabbed on to a shelf, trying to pull myself upright, and dislodged a mantle clock which tumbled to the ground, its pale yellow face glowing balefully up at me like the light of a dying moon. Another spasm sent me to my knees and as I tried to fight the sudden pressure in my chest, I thought I saw its second hand move.

I stopped, studying it carefully, wondering if the shiver I detected there was nothing but the shiver of my breath. But then my heart stopped again, like a rug pulled out from beneath my feet, and in place of the life-giving clench of muscle the second hand move forward another increment.

It was dreadfully clear to me then. All around me clocks were rousing themselves out of their timeless slumber, their gears groaning and clicking as the terrible machinery was driven forward by the beat of my heart. I crawled across the floor, fighting my way toward the door, but the clocks were ticking faster now and I was growing short of breath.

Gasping on my side, it was clear that I was not going to make it to the door. My options were limited and none of them commended themselves even in my dire state, but as my blood congealed to treacle in my veins I knew that I had little choice. Using what strength I had left I fumbled at the inner pocket of my coat, drawing out a black booklet that was wrapped around with four lengths of rust-stained chain.

Nyarlathotep!” I sputtered, feeling my lips crack and smoke. One of the chains snapped and fell to the floor. “Azathoth! Dagon!” Two more lengths parted with the sound of a cracking spine and my split lips oozed pus. I drew in what breath remained to me and shaped it into a name that set my throat and lungs to fire. “Yog-Sothoth!” I would have screamed with pain if I had the strength, but the heart dying within me robbed me even of that small mercy. But the deed was done. My sacrifice had been accepted. The last chain gave way and the book opened itself with the greedy eagerness of a beast parting its fangs.

There was one final thing to be done. I pawed at the book, looking for the correct page. Finding it at last I bit at my mangled lips, trying to draw blood, but my heart gave out with a final, defiant beat, and there was nothing left to force out the blood. I bit deep into my tongue with a savage desperation, knowing that the body’s strongest muscle might still offer up the life force that could save me. It was my last conscious act, and as I fell face first onto that unholy book, I heard its eager suckling, felt its tendrils slide down my throat, and finally was pushed aside as something crawled forth from its pages.

When I opened my eyes the room was still again, with not even an echo of the ominous ticking. I groaned, each breath a flaming dagger drawn down my throat, and rolled over to find the book closed and bound once more. The clocks remained on their shelves, silent: though I had the queer sense that they were all shrieking too high for mortal men to hear. And something beyond that… some terrible void in my memory that I flinched from with primordial horror. Valuing my sanity I let those memories be.

I wiped my face and got myself to rights. There would be time to recover properly later. The clocks were an even better find than I had first anticipated. I made a note in my ledger to have them sent to the Society proper.

~*~

I conducted myself more carefully after that, though I did not encounter anything approaching the peril of by the clock room for quite some time after. I spent the next several days sorting through Lady Von Werner’s professional effects, the bulk of it being scientific journals on psychology and leather-bound notebooks written in her passionate scrawl. Some of the more indecipherable specimens I worked on during my lunch hours. At first I dined with Von Werner, but his well-intentioned solicitude made me anxious. I gave him my excuses and retired with my meals to a charming undercroft I found beneath the chapel.

It was airy and open, with stained-glass windows that reached to the painted arches overhead. Of course the undercroft was underground, and so the only thing that passed through the windows was dirt from the occasional broken pane, but if anything the muted colors made the room feel more serene. Interestingly, instead of bodies the undercroft was filled with boxes upon boxes of children’s toys, like a library given over to youth. Taking one of these boxes down from its shelf revealed painted dolls, picture books, and wooden cars with wheels that spun, all worn down with loving use. I had some ideas as to what to do with it all but otherwise let the room be, content to use it as a retreat for the time being.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth such luncheon that I sensed I was being watched. Not only that, I realized it wasn’t the first time, but a niggling sense of it had been at the back of my mind since my first exploration of the toys. This bothered me, somewhat, mostly in the way it did not bother me, and had not, or else I would have noticed a good deal sooner. For several days the feeling persisted as before, neither increasing nor decreasing in intensity. I allowed this, because I did not detect any hint of malice or ill will in the gaze, and in this I trusted my instincts unreservedly.

Eventually I realized my watcher had no intention of showing itself and I became curious. I searched for it about the room, disguising my purpose as a systematic inventory of the room’s boxes. I quickly realized that as soon as I began an active search, my silent watcher vanished. Undaunted, I resorted to stealth and intrigue. Whenever I ate I tried to position myself near reflective surfaces, and when I moved about the room (as if stretching my legs), I made erratic directional changes, trying to surprise who- or whatever it was into revealing itself. A few such times I was rewarded with a hint of motion out of the corner of my eye, but I was never able to catch a clear glimpse of the watcher and this only served to pique my curiosity further. I was ahead of schedule with my work and so I decided that, for a few days at least, I would turn my idle pursuit into a campaign. Fortuitously my efforts did not take several days but were rewarded on the first, and so it was that I finally caught sight of my watcher.

I arrived in the undercroft in the early morning, armed with several sandwiches and a towering stack of Lady Von Werner’s books to sort through. It is a well known fact that even the most benign volume can conceal a slip of paper with a secret formula, or the key to some impenetrable cipher, and so it was my practice to go through every book in a mad scientist’s library from beginning to end. It is important and often rewarding work, but mostly just unbearably dull. When my watcher took its place several hours into my inspection I was aware of it immediately.

I set the volume I was working on aside and reached for another, not giving any indication I had sensed its presence. I continued like this, in a state of apparent obliviousness, for another two hours, and all the while I felt the feeling grow stronger as the watcher grew bolder. I focused on the feeling, trying to pinpoint its source, and even after I was confident that I had found it I continued to wait. The feeling had grown to a palpable pressure between my shoulder blades when I finally turned without warning and confronted my watcher at last.

It was a young male, pale, wearing an overly large knit turtleneck and staring at me from between the shelving. His hair was white, whiter even than my own dirty-bone shade, and his eyes were a bright, piercing red. The man (though he was clearly not a man) had been taken by surprise. For a moment he could only gape at me. Then he leapt back several feet and crashed straight into another shelf, which toppled and sent a stack of boxes I had already catalogued scattering across the floor. By the time I reached the spot there was nobody there.

I was slightly irked at the work I would have to redo, but all in all I was satisfied with my discovery, though I still had no idea what the creature was and the nature of its interest in me. I left to fetch the notebook that contained the toy box inventory, knowing it was better to set the shelf to rights at once rather than leave the fragile toys underfoot. I was only gone for thirty minutes, but when I returned I was astonished to find that the mess had been cleaned up and the boxes stacked in their original arrangement. I opened one of these and found that its contents matched exactly what was in my notebook. As I closed up the box, lost in my wonder, I felt for a brief moment that stare at my back, this time laced through with chagrin, before it was gone.

I returned to my research and finished the stack of books I had brought down for the day. When evening came and I began to tidy up, a fit of whimsy took me and I left behind half of my cured pork sandwich, not expecting much to come of it. The next morning I found the sandwich gone and the plate washed. And beside it, like some faeish cutlery, was a single yellow dandelion.

~*~

“Excuse me, Lord Von Werner?”

“Yes?”

I had interrupted him in the solar, the only part of the castle Von Werner had claimed for his own. He looked at me over his spectacles and laid down the sheet of correspondence he had been proofreading. He waved a hand, inviting me into the room. I pretended not to notice.

“Pardon the intrusion. It’s just, in the garderobe, I found, that is…”

“You found,” he prompted.

I flushed, my eyes dropping to the floor. “Pigs.”

“Yes?” And then at my continued silence, “They’re not in the way are they?”

I shook my head. “No, but…”

“Ah, that’s right!” His face lit up. “I forgot to tell you about the truffle pigs. Come in, I’ll explain everything.”

The pigs, it seemed, were a product of Von Werner’s more charitable sensibilities, and were part of his campaign to end thirst in Africa. “It’s a dry country, Africa, even the colonists with their European know-how struggle to find water that doesn’t dry up for half the season. Men are reduced to the most desperate acts, like drinking the blood of their beasts of burden.” His eyes began to take on the feverish glint that I had grown accustomed to, but he pulled himself back from the brink with some effort. “My company was traversing the Serengeti plain and my tent mate, Järvi, would not stop grumbling about the lack of fungus thereabouts (those Finns are just crazy about their mushrooms, you know). That’s when it hit me, truffle pigs!” He slammed his desk with a closed fist, springing up a moment later and leaving me to steady his inkwell. He paced around the room, gesticulating wildly. “Even the most ill-mannered Suidae can find a truffle like it’s nothing. As easy as that!” He snapped his fingers. “And truffles are of the order fungi, are they not? Do correct me if I’m wrong, sir, but I do not believe I am. Now, what do fungi need to flourish? Come man, it’s not some Sphinxian riddle. Water! What else? Ergo, if a truffle pig can find a truffle, then it can find water! Can you imagine? A legion of pigs, marching across the desert sands, bringing peace and prosperity wherever they tread. It’s brilliant, I tell you. Brilliant!” Von Werner finished this oration with head back and arms flung wide. I was half-expecting a bolt of lightning to pierce the air behind him, though the window showed nothing but clear, if dreary, skies.

“Why the garderobe?”

“I, what?” Von Werner blinked down at me.

“Er.” Having effectively surprised myself, I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed. “The pigs. They’re… in the garderobe.”

“The garder–” Von Werner visibly came back to himself. He reclaimed his seat in embarrassed silence. “It is a bit odd, isn’t it? I wanted to keep them in the courtyard but selkies kept luring them out to sea and drowning them.”

I took a moment to contemplate the image his words conjured up. “Do selkies eat pigs?”

“Damned if I know. The vile things are certainly malicious enough to do it out of spite. I tried keeping the pigs in the dovecot next, but I didn’t like having to pass through the Hallway to feed them.”

I immediately knew which hallway he was referring to. It linked the east wing of the castle to the west wing on the second floor, and it was almost preternaturally long. Walking down it, one felt frozen through by draughts, though the air was always still, and the damp walls carried the unmistakable musk of grave mold. These attributes were unpleasant, but they were not the reason Von Werner, or even I in my familiarity with such things, avoided it. There was something living in the second floor hallway, and mankind was undoubtedly its prey.

It was all right (somewhat) if you walked there by day, but at night you found yourself moving in small bursts from candle-lit patch to candle-lit patch, dallying in the dark places in between as little as possible. As you traveled further along its length, a sense of unease grew within you, and with it a deep malevolence that made the hair on your body prickle and your eyes dart from shadow to impenetrable shadow. If you were lucky you emerged in the far wing with heart palpitating and hands shaking with nerves. If you were unlucky you heard the footsteps.

They always started behind you, whether you were coming or going, and always back beyond the first candle’s light. Here you immediately lit your lantern, for at the sound of the first dragging step the candles began to wink out, one after the other, the darkness chasing you along with the footsteps. The heavy tread neither sped up nor fell behind, no matter how quickly you ran, yet always came on, like in the ill-fated pursuits of one’s nightmares. You never caught sight of it, no matter how many times you looked behind. I suspected that, though it bore humanity no love, it despised the light even more, and I shuddered to contemplate what would happen if the lantern ever went out.

“Did Lady Von Werner ever use the hallway?” I asked.

“I don’t think she did, although not for the… obvious reasons.” I could see his hesitation at using the word. “Her study and work tables were all in the east wing. I don’t think she used the west or northern sections at all.”

I also suspected this was true, given where I had found most of her things. “Do you think she chose the east wing for its warding properties? Certainly it has its own share of dangers.”

“No, she loved working in the morning light.” I had only a moment’s warning before the worst happened. Lord Von Werner burst into tears. He fumbled in vain for a handkerchief as I sat there awkwardly, wondering whether it was better to offer my own or to flee. He found the window curtain and used this to pat at his eyes. “I’m sorry, how terrible of me. It’s just it was all so sudden and sometimes it’s hard to remember that she’s really gone.” He blew his nose with a snort. “She was all I had growing up, and maybe she wasn’t the most maternal of mothers but I loved her in spite of that, as my father must have. He was an engineer, you know. Mother said he was about to invent perpetual motion before he was hanged and electrocuted. Her voice was as warm as I ever heard when she talked about him.”

I was trying to decide if he’d gotten the causes of death out of order, though I had a growing fear that he had not, when Von Werner took a white parchment booklet from his pocket and opened it on the desk in front of him.

“Would you like to see a photo of her?” He asked, removing a daguerreotype from between its pages.

I could hardly say no, but as I took the photo from him I could not help get a glimpse of the book, and what I saw written there made my heart leap within me.

“She had a great fondness for cats,” he said irrelevantly, until I tore my eyes from the open page and focused long enough on the photo to recognize a small lady with stray wisps of hair falling from a messy bun and several stuffed specimens surrounding her. “She would always tell me, ‘Curiosity is the least of what killed the cat.'”

“She looks… lovely,” I managed, handing the photo back. “But, er, is that, I couldn’t help but notice, the book…”

“This?” Von Werner held it up so that I could see the cover. “Yes, it was Mother’s. My token to remember her by.”

“Ah,” I said, deflating somewhat. “Lady Von Werner must have had the eye of a collector. That is quite a rare and valuable volume.”

“Oh?” He turned the book over with renewed interest. “Why so? It’s all gibberish to me.”

“It’s written in the Doimhnigh tongue: that of, ah, the Deep Ones. It’s a book of their rites and ceremonies.”

“The fish people?”

“That’s right. The Society would, ah, would pay dearly for such a volume.”

Von Werner seemed to give my proposition all due consideration, but I could already see the answer in his face.

“It’s generous of you to offer, but please understand, Mr. Grave, the book is a keepsake of my mother’s. I don’t think I could bear to part with it.”

“No, of course not. I understand.” And truly I did. When one was without family, one must look amongst that which was left behind to fill the void.

~*~

I caught more glimpses of my watcher over the next several days, and with each incident he became steadily bolder. He would never get closer than several feet, but he’d taken to leaning on nearby columns or sitting on boxes as I worked, and followed me at a distance as I continued my inventory. He never spoke.

I found myself filling the silence, though it was extremely uncharacteristic of me, and not because I found the quiet oppressive but because he gave such an aspect of listening. In the beginning I would simply talk to myself, using the strange man as a proxy. I would make casual observations and ask rhetorical questions, all for the sake of a responsive (if silent) and nonjudgmental audience. For his own part the man seemed to always listen attentively.

As the days progressed I found myself spending more and more time in the undercroft, going so far as to bring unrelated work there. I was startled to find the company oddly enjoyable, perhaps because of how completely un-intimidating that company was. Even so, I was careful never to dally there after nightfall, for the undercroft was separated from my quarters by the second floor hallway, and I wished to pass through there as little as possible in the dark.

One day, after a pleasant evening of extolling my theories on the daemon-thwarting powers of hemp weed, I realized I had stayed in the undercroft well past nightfall. What was worse, I had forgotten to bring a lantern. It did nothing for my nerves to look around and see that I was now quite alone, the strange man having disappeared some unaccountable time ago.

Not allowing myself to panic, I gathered together my books and my teacup and pried a candle from the wall. Perhaps the footsteps wouldn’t sound tonight. Perhaps the hallway’s denizen was hunting elsewhere. The grave mold smell overtook me within a few feet of the entrance to the hallway, dashing my hopes for an uneventful crossing. But the smell did not always herald the footsteps, only the sense of menace. I took a firmer hold of my candle and my books and strode with as much confidence as I could muster across the threshold.

The hallway’s malevolence rose around me almost at once, building with frightening speed until it raised not only my hair but bumps of dread along my arms as well. I wanted to run, but feared that a higher speed would cause my candle to flicker and I knew I must preserve my light at all costs. Halfway down the hallway I dared to hope I would escape without incident, and that is when the footsteps began, at my back as always, dragging themselves with a terrifying momentum after my fleeing shadow. The candles began to flicker out, the one in my hand guttering as well and sending my heart into a tumbled panic. I tried to quicken my steps but the stacks of books hindered me, and I knew to drop one and trip would spell my doom. It was then that I realized that, for the first time in memory, the footsteps were coming closer. Not faster, just closer, and closer, impossibly so, and I had just made up my mind to run when my candle went out.

I dropped the books and tripped as I had feared I would. Ahead of me the candles snuffed out in a wave, all down the hallway, leaving me in darkness and a directionless panic. The footsteps came on, and with them another sound, the labored, excited, wet sound of something breathing. I crawled forward, trying to regain my feet. How far until the end of the hallway? I couldn’t remember, I wasn’t sure. I raced forward blindly, arms outstretched, while behind me the footsteps began to lope. The palpable sense of malice was choking me along with my shortening breath.

In my blind flight I struck my foot against the skirting board and went sprawling across the floor. The footsteps were upon me. I could feel it looming, its drool dripping and burning across my skin. I tried to yell the name of an unspeakable one but my voice failed me and remained cowering in my throat. In the darkness I knew it was reaching for me. Suddenly there was another sound, more footsteps, bounding toward us down the hallway. Something leapt over me and I heard the terrible sound of impact, and then struggling, but otherwise the hallway remained terrifyingly silent. There were no screams, no breaths or shouted profanities, just a reverberating thud and then footsteps retreating, bounding down the hallway until it all sunk back into silence.

I lay there, frozen, for several minutes longer, until the candles flickered to life again, one after the other, and I saw that I was alone. The opening to the east wing was only ten paces ahead of me and I scrambled across its threshold with bone-aching relief. I avoided the west wing for a few days after that, but there was still work to do there and (I barely let myself think it) the undercroft, and I knew I must return eventually.

When I did, it was armed with several lanterns and pots of oil, half of which I stockpiled in the undercroft in the unlikely event I ever forgot my lantern again. I was not hopeful of finding my lost books, and indeed the hallway proved to be empty of them, so I began the laborious process of recreating what I had lost. Similarly I did not entirely expect to see my watcher again, so I was not surprised when several hours went by without a hint of his presence. But then, unmistakably, I felt his presence and upon turning found the man with the white hair and red eyes standing shyly to the side of my chair. There were several fading bruises on his face and hands, and a few half-healed cuts. He was holding a stack of books and a carefully glued together teacup.

I was speechless. Finally I gained my feet and approached him, moving slowly, and took back the books and the cup with a mumbled ‘thank you.’ The man beamed at me and, instead of retreating, followed me back to the table. This made me uncomfortable at first but it seemed rude to say so, especially as it was evident that the man was my savior from that night in the hallway. I ignored him as best I could, but soon found my discomfort leaving me, along with my hyper awareness to his presence. When it was time to go I stood and nodded to the man, who nodded affably back.

~*~

Things changed after that. In the undercroft the man became my constant shadow. He sat next to me at the table, helped me with my inventory, and joined me in paging through Lady Von Werner’s books. He enjoyed the books the best, and I often caught him reading through her meticulous entries rather than simply looking for stowed-away secrets. He would also read over my shoulder whenever I brought down books for pleasure, and I found myself adapting to his presence with surprising rapidity.

One night, inevitably, I found myself in the west wing after dark again. I stopped by the undercroft to pick up a lantern and found the white-haired man waiting for me. I gave him a half wave but, being much preoccupied, offered nothing more. I filled the lantern’s well to brimming and lit it, making sure it was giving off a good, healthy light before heading for the door. To my surprise the white-haired man scrambled in front of me and threw his arms out, barring my passage, a look of consternation on his face.

“Is it not safe?” I asked.

The man shook his head: no.

“Is it the thing in the hallway?”

This time the man nodded, his face grave. It was only then that I came to the belated understanding of what had just occurred.

“You can understand me,” I said in wonder. The man had never given any indication of that before. Thinking back, I remembered him fetching me journals, scanning passages over my shoulder and I exclaimed, half rhetorically, “And you can read?”

The man glared at this, every line of him saying ‘of course,’ and so I came to my second belated discovery that I could read his body language. I got out a piece of paper and a pen. “But that means you can write. Here.” I held out the utensils. “What is your name? Why have you never communicated with me before?”

The man stared at the piece of paper with eyes narrowed and mouth pursed, the internal conflict perfectly intelligible on his face. He took the paper and bent over it for several long minutes, dragging the pen across it laboriously before handing it back. There was only a single sentence, written in beautiful cursive:

Because I do not care to.

His jaw was set and defiant, his eyes unhappy. I nodded, trying to assure him that I understood, and the man seemed to relax. I returned to the novel I had been reading over lunch, there being nothing better to do, and as I read I marked that the man was able to keep pace with me over my shoulder. The tortuous care he took with his writing did not seem to carry over to his reading. It was another hour until he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward the door, and I understood the way was safe. He waved pensively as I stood to go. I nodded, and left.

Several more days passed, and I took to bringing a large lunch with me to share with my companion. I also brought along several books, having slowly come to learn his literary tastes, which really seemed to be everything under the sun. He delighted in the gifts, whether they were books or teacakes, and always responded with the utmost gratitude. As if wanting to reciprocate, he began to lure me away from my work, showing me parts of the undercroft that I had never seen before, and was not entirely sure should be there. He guided me through marvelous galleries hung with otherworldly portraits, stone corridors lit with glowing flowers in sapphire vases, and glass ballrooms that looked out onto forested landscapes, deep and dark and green. And libraries filled with books, thousands and thousands of books, some of which I had never heard of. I was tempted to take a few, but somehow I knew the libraries were not part of Varrigboy Castle in any physical sense, and so were not part of the estate bought by the Society. Perhaps, I often told myself, I could simply borrow them, but I had no hope I would be able to find my way back to re-shelve them, and the curator in me could not abide the thought of missing books.

There was one door that my companion led me past several times but never entered, and never even looked at. The door bore a strange symbol that seemed naggingly familiar, but when I asked my companion about it he somehow ignored me without giving me the sense I was being ignored. The mystery bothered me, especially the strange familiarity of it, but there seemed little to do to pursue it. My attention was also diverted by the increasingly strange behavior of my companion. No, not strange, perhaps, but certainly overly familiar. The white-haired man had taken to throwing his arm across my shoulder, guiding me by the hand when we traveled through the dark, and gently leaning against me whenever we sat to read. I marked each and every instance, but I was also somehow unable to bring the matter up, and so the behavior persisted.

One incident in particular served to highlight the change. It was lunchtime and we were reading a treatise on the seven dimensions of the Dreamlands, but my companion seemed uncharacteristically bored with the text. He fiddled with some of my writing implements, fingered the chain of my watch, and finally took hold of my hand, absentmindedly brushing his thumb over my fingers. I watched as he carefully laced our fingers together, unwound them so he could turn my hand over and trace the lines of my palm and then, holding my eye all the while, he brought it to his mouth and kissed the back of my knuckles. Hypnotized, I remained unresisting as my companion kissed the back of my hand, my inner wrist over the pulse, and it was only when he was unbuttoning my cufflink that I regained my faculties and pulled away. Far from being contrite, he merely smiled shyly back at me, with something like hope in his eyes. The look called to something I could not name deep within me, and so, when I turned back to the text, I did not object when he gently fingered the strands of my hair, white as his own.

~*~

I remembered where I had seen the symbol. It was Doimhnigh, in the tongue of the Deep Ones, but much as I wracked my memory I could not recall what the symbol meant. Driven by a curiosity that overwhelmed my anxiety, I once again found myself at Lord Von Werner’s solar door.

“Which book?” he asked in response to my query, being much distracted by a message received via telegraphy that morning.

“The one you… Lady Von Werner’s volume on Doimhnigh ritual,” I said.

“Domme who?” I began to stammer an explanation, but he was not listening to me. “Three this month, can you believe it? Three! What are those savages thinking?”

“I, er…”

Von Werner finally seemed to register my presence. “Apologies Mr. Grave, but I’ve received bad news from Africa. It seems that the tribals have eaten my truffle pigs.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“It defies all sense. You send well-trained, water-sniffing truffle pigs to poor villages without a single well, and what do they do? They kill and eat them! It’s a criminal waste.”

“Perhaps there was a misunderstanding,” I said without much conviction.

“Hardly, unless it’s the same misunderstanding that occurs every damn month. I’ll run out of pigs at this rate. But that’s my misfortune. What was it you wanted again?”

“Ah, I was wondering if I could examine your mother’s… Lady Von Werner’s book. Your keepsake.” Von Werner’s hand went to his breast pocket. “I found something in the castle and, it may prove useful.”

Slowly, with obvious reluctance, Von Werner took out the book and passed it to me. “If it will help in the effort, by all means.”

I flipped through the pages eagerly, but though I found row upon row of detailed symbols, I could not find the one I sought. This was not because it was not there, I was sure that it was, but because my memory of it was proving elusive, as if the lines could not be held unchanging in my mind. “This is a terrible imposition, but may I borrow this, Lord Von Werner? Only for a few days?”

“Borrow it? Is that really necessary?”

“I promise to return it in perfect condition,” I said, avoiding the lie, “By Friday evening, if you can spare it.”

“Well.” He stared at me a moment. I resisted the urge to beg. “All right, but you’ll have it back by Friday evening, correct?”

“Yes, of course,” I said readily, slipping the volume into my pocket and retreating before he could change his mind.

I knew that my companion did not want me asking about the door, so I took pains not to alert him to my presence. It took several false starts and backtracking, but finally I made my way along the secret paths of the undercroft and found the symbol and the door again. With the symbol directly before me it was easy to find it again in the book, but when I turned to the correct page it was to find the entire entry glowing a pulsating, eerie blue. The symbol took on the glow and intensified it, lines of fire etching themselves along its curves in paths of white and silver. I realized with horror that the door, too, was beginning to tremble and pulse. What was worse I could hear moaning, slathering, and the scrape of fingernails coming from the opposite side, sounds that only strengthened as the door shook against its hinges.

I tried to close the book, but it was too late. It resisted the strength of my grip as easily as a man resists the beating of a child’s fists. I screamed out one command of closing after another but the words turned to mist as they left my lips and dissolved in the watery glow. The blue-white light shone from the cracks in the door now, from both keyhole and crevice. The door began to open, the moaning crescendoing into a howl, and I could not even voice the scream that was trying to burrow its way out of my throat.

I was being dragged backwards, the book falling from my stiff fingers, the door receding rapidly down the corridor, still opening, as if it were the one retreating and not me. It was only after I’d been dragged back into the main part of the undercroft, the door locked behind me, that I realized it was my companion who had saved me yet again.

His face was as white as his hair and he stood with his back to the door, trembling. I tried to ask him what had happened, but he could only shake his head, point to the door, and shake it once more. It was clear that neither of us would be venturing beyond it any time soon. My heart clenched painfully in my chest when I realized that I had lost the book. The vestigial fear at my close call turned into a more mundane panic that was somehow worse as I imagined facing Von Werner with my negligence. Even if he accepted the loss, which was doubtful, I could still lose my job. I tried to explain the situation to the white-haired man, but he only pointed at the door and shook his head again. Since it was my own thoughtlessness that had led to disaster I could only accept the book was beyond reach. I must think of some other way out of the mess I’d made.

I was utterly distracted over the next few days, my thoughts racing in useless circles. I fretted and worried, and my companion grew equally morose at my obvious unhappiness. I started to avoid him to spare him concern. Friday morning I was forced to accept that there was nothing I could do. I would have to face Von Werner, make my excuses, and let my fate fall where it may.

As I readied myself in the makeshift room I’d taken as my temporary study, thoughts heavy with the trials to come, I realized with a start that I was no longer alone. It was my companion, skin once again bruised, his sweater torn and blood trickling from a split lip, but holding in his hands the missing book and a smile of unadulterated happiness beaming from his face. I leapt forward with a cry, gripped the book and my friend’s hands, and dragged him forward to kiss him with all the enthusiasm and relief I could feel radiating out of me.

He was startled at first, and held taut for the shortest of moments before melting into me, kissing me back slow and loving, pushing onto his tiptoes to press closer. All the while he cradled the book between us, never letting it fall.

~*~

That night was the first time that he visited me in my room. I have always been something of an insomniac, so I was awake, reading, when I felt his presence warm behind me. It was startling to see him standing there, in a space so unlike the place where we had come to know one another, and I found myself drawing back from him as if he were a stranger. He crossed over to me, his worry plain, and I calmed myself enough to let him take my hands and hold them carefully against his chest.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting…”

He heard the hesitancy in my voice and pushed closer, running his thumb along my cheekbone and looking carefully between my eyes.

Somehow it made me smile. “It’s good to see you,” I said. “I’m glad you came.”

The breath left him in a relieved huff and he smiled back at me. Slowly, as if worried he might startle me, he leaned forward and brushed his lips against my forehead, then slid to the side and pressed a kiss against my temple. I took hold of his shoulders, mimicking the care of his movements though with somewhat less assurance as I had never done something like this before.

As if sensing my unease he cupped my jaw and kissed me reassuringly, his tongue teasing at my lips with small caresses that reminded me of the gentleness of his fingers. He moved into my lap as I relaxed completely, cupping the back of my neck as his knees shifted to match the curve of my hips. I kissed him until I was breathless. The knit of his turtleneck was soft against my fingertips and I was delighted to finally feel the shape of his body beneath its loose folds. He was small and thin, several inches shorter than me, but I wasn’t deceived by his slight frame, knowing more strength resided within him than I could ever hope to match. When I pulled away to take a breath he let his head lie on my shoulder, his face pressed into my neck and his arms clasping loosely around my waist. I held him, unsure if I should do more, if he expected something more, but finally relaxed into his warmth. He smelled like spring grass and dandelions.

Eventually he roused himself to press another kiss into the corner of my mouth. He leaned back and I tried to follow after him, but he pressed a hand to my chest, maintaining enough space to pull the turtleneck over his head. The first thing I noticed were the small spots, like freckles, that dusted the skin of his chest. Instead of a freckle’s brown they were nearly white — or, as I later realized, pigment-less. I touched them, still hesitant, but with more confidence when he cupped the back of my hand and pushed it more firmly against his skin. He let me caress him, waited patiently as I explored the dip of his sternum and the indent of his belly button. Finally though he pushed forward in his own right, picking apart the buttons of my nightgown with clever fingers and pushing it aside to reveal my chest. He studied the tattoos there for a moment, and I marked his expression anxiously. But then he smiled again and traced the whorls of ink across my skin, and I knew I would be all right.

I found my confidence after that, though it was clear my inexperience had delegated me as ‘follower’. I followed him in the mutual exploration of our bodies, and faithfully allowed him to put my member into his mouth, though the idea at first alarmed me. And the pleasure of it, my God what pleasure, more than I knew could be experienced on this plane. I thought I might die from it, and was half amazed that I did not. “It’s worth it,” I remember moaning into his hair. “Do it, do everything. It’s yours.”

When it was over I tried, in somewhat of a daze, to reciprocate, but he pulled me to my feet and led me to the bed. When he pushed me into the mattress I could not remember its ever having been so soft. We kissed again for long, drawn-out cycles of movement, his hips undulating against me so that I thought he might spend himself that way. But as I arched against him, his mouth at my throat, I felt a finger probe at the join of me and I sat up immediately in a panic. Instantly he was there, cupping my face, eyes searching mine with alarm and concern. I felt my skin flush with shame.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t, that is, I’ve never…” His fingers were lightly tracing my jaw and brow, brushing my hair back, and the sadness in his eyes was eating an ache into my soul. “I’ve never been with a man before. With anyone.”

He didn’t understand, and now worry had joined the concern.

“No, it’s all right, it’s…” And it struck me then that it was all right. That this was fine, and that everything was going to be fine. His arousal was pressed against my hip and I reached down to stroke it with the same gentleness as his fingers against my cheek. He gasped, a small gape of sound, and thrust lightly against my hand. I stroked him harder, mesmerized by the not-quite-sounds he was making, and leaned forward to feel him pant them into my mouth. As his responses grew more frantic I pulled him back on top of me, making room to feel him thrust between my legs. I was trying to position him, my movements inexperienced and unwieldy, when he suddenly shuddered to a halt and pulled away.

I sat up, stricken, not knowing what to say as I watched him roll off the bed. It wasn’t enough. I had always known it. Everything I did was a shambles. I was trying to find the words, find some way to apologize, the sounds stuttering out of me in that way that I loathed when suddenly he was back, his body pressed against mine as if it had never left.

“What…?” But he was kissing me again, his hand pulling my hair back and arching my throat. I grabbed onto him in greedy desperation as he rolled me back onto the mattress, his fingers in between my legs again and I only spread them wider.

It was different this time, colder, and slicker. I tried to sit up to see but he wouldn’t relinquish his claim on my lips. Then his finger slid inside of me and I rocked back with a startled gasp. It was… it was good. It felt like, like ayeh sho-goloth yaarthvia, it felt like sin.

I barely registered it when the finger became two, then three, but I realized it immediately when they left altogether. “Please!” I pleaded with him, “Please, I want, I need…!” and then he was giving it to me, his arousal pressing between my legs, sinking into me like the words of Cthulhu tore out except instead of pain there was ecstasy, or maybe agony, or maybe both, but all that I wanted was for there to be more.

I screamed as he bred me. I couldn’t stop screaming, the feeling of it eclipsing all of my senses and leaving behind a conflagration that burned my insides to ashes. All the while he pinned me to the bed, held me steady in his arms and painted his lips and tongue across my throat.

When he finally found his climax I was left a quivering wreck, as boneless as any elder horror. He lay against me as I shook with the aftermath, combing his fingers through my hair until I calmed enough to find my breath. Satisfied that I had recovered, he twined his limbs around mine and searched my face for … something. I could only look back at him, wondering what he wanted but, even more, wondering what I had done to deserve him. He smiled, as if content in his search, and lay down completely against me. I could feel his heart through our intervening layers of skin, could feel it slow as he fell into a drowse, and then asleep.

He was still there when I woke up in the morning.

~*~

Von Werner surprised me in my study on the last day of my stay at Varrigboy Castle. Thank God that he knocked, though I suppose it did not do my lover any favors, as he found himself bodily heaved from my lap onto the floor.

“Just a minute!” I said, straightening my tie and jacket as I made my way to the door. I turned back, intending to signal my friend to hide, but he was already nowhere to be found.

The door suddenly opened of its own accord. “Mr. Grave? Pardon the interruption but I wanted to thank you again for… I’m sorry, were you going somewhere?”

I stared back at him blankly, finally realizing I was standing in the middle of the floor without any obvious purpose. “Er, no. No, I wasn’t,” I said.

“Right. Well, thank you again for all of your help. I know I couldn’t have managed anything without you.”

“I’m the one who should be thanking you, Lord Von Werner. The Societas Celatum has benefited greatly from your patronage.”

“I’m just glad it’s all going to be put to good use. It’s a pity, really, that the rest of it will be burned to nothing. Though I suppose Mother would find the whole thing fascinating. When did you say your boat arrived?”

“10 o’clock. I was just finishing packing,” I said, desperately willing his attention away from the single valise I had arrived with, ready and waiting by the door.

“So I see. Would you like any of that laundered before you go?”

I turned, following the gesture of his hand, and stared at the knit turtleneck and pair of trousers that lay in a heap on the floor. “Er, no, that’s all right. I’m sure there will be maid service at the inn.”

“I’ll leave you to it then. Let me know if there’s anything else.”

I nodded, eager to see him out the door. When Von Werner was gone I opened my mouth to call out but had to close it again with deep chagrin as I realized I still had no idea of my lover’s name. There was only a moment to feel embarrassed, because even as I stood there in flustered disarray, a large white rat with bright red eyes came out from behind a paperweight. It stood on its hind legs at the edge of the desk, whiskers twitching, and suddenly the rat was gone and in its place was my friend, wearing nothing but his bed clothes (ahem), legs dangling, and a wicked smile on his face.

~*~

I waved goodbye to Lord Von Werner and began my descent to the causeway lost beneath the tossing sea. I kept my hand in my pocket, cherishing the warmth, and mused aloud, “I’ve heard it’s all the fashion now amongst wizards and their kind. Keeping a pet mouse, that is.”

There was a sharp nip at my finger and I drew it back with a laugh. “Here, now, stop that, Mouse. Is that any way to behave toward the person who saved you from certain conflagration?” My pocket rustled, and I could well imagine the look on his face.

Upon reaching the pier, I turned for a last view of the castle. “Well, Mouse, this is it.” His nose emerged from the folds of woolen broadcloth, red eyes peering up at me enquiringly. “The last of Varrigboy, that is, I suppose…” I hardly knew what I meant myself. The granite cliffs were just as forbidding, as isolated and permanent under the dour sky as they had the day of my arrival. I shivered, and so did Mouse, with a fanning of his whiskers that tickled my wrist.

Mouse settled himself back into my pocket as he had earlier in my room in Varrigboy Castle, slipping between the folds before I had even begun to stammer out an inquiry, or a prelude to parting, or some other muddled inanity, and I turned again towards the water. The wind cried desolately past the cliffs and we let it sweep by, I and my heart at last cupped warm in the palm of my hand.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang Wiki

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