Prologue

The sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone street was enough to make her miss home even more dearly than before. Gloved hands fidgeting in her lap, she stared out the grey window which was spotted with raindrops, as she pondered whether coming to West End was insensitive or simply foolish.

As the carriage came to a sudden stop, her troubled heart jolted as if a thin cold dagger had pierced her chest. She ignored the nausea that followed as she shoved open the carriage door, her bright auburn hair flying about as she stepped clumsily off the black cab. She surveyed the daunting apartment before her, the moist air tasting impure and thick in her mouth despite the heavy rain.

She knew in her heart that this visit was going to be complex. But she did not trust her heart – it always assumed the worst of people.

She strutted to the thin black door with a confidence she hoped had fooled the men passing by.

Humans fret too much, she thought idly as she pulled her thick shawl around her shoulders more tightly, and London is too cold for its own good.

She knocked on the door three times before it flew open almost immediately, revealing a large, gaunt man with shining eyes, a thick curled moustache, and teeth that looked as if they had been outlined with a black pencil.

“Miss Proluvies, we’ve been expectin’ you,” he greeted smoothly with a thick Cockney accent, flashing a horrid smile and offering to take her shawl. She made no effort to take it off and simply stepped past him into the crooked corridor. She noted a ‘high-priestess’ tarot card pasted above the front door as it closed, as well as the evil eye talisman hanging from the ceiling.

“Miss Clemens is waiting for you upstairs, ma’am.”

He pointed up the carpeted stairs.  She nodded stiffly and started her steep ascent.

Amongst the couple of doors at the top, she knew the one she was looking for was at the end of the hall, which was opened just slightly. As she neared the room she almost second guessed herself, but she shook off the all-too-familiar feeling and forcefully pushed the door open.

The room was so bright it was almost dazzling. The whole alcove was chilly, and one could clearly hear the chat of people passing down below even through the closed windows which lined the left wall. Their sills were covered completely in doilies and small pouches smelling strongly of sage. On the right was a small writing desk with several drawers and a rabbit’s foot hanging precariously from its edge. Beyond that was a small empty fireplace with multiple incenses and herbs inside misty jars.

In the middle of it all sat a thin-framed woman with watery eyes as ethereal as an untroubled sky. Her thin lips were pursed as her frail fingers worked on an embroidery hidden under her small table.

Clemens was exceedingly pale in her tight black gown, like a ghostly widow. She looked up without surprise, strands of her ebony curls framing her face, the rest of it delicately piled on top of her head. Her smile was slow to come.

“My dear Ignis,” she greeted softly, and gestured to the seat across from her, “It has been so long. Pray take a seat, dear.”

The round woman shook out her heavy skirt before obliging.

“What a queer thing to stich,” Ignis observed, as she peered down at the round embroidery of a raven in the other’s lap. Clemens smiled without looking down at her work.

“You know me. I love what is familiar… but enough of that– my, you’ve grown wild!”

Ignis tutted.

“Or rather, you’ve outgrown it,” she muttered, “living amongst city-dwellers. I thought it absurd when I had gotten word of it.”

“How come?”

“Never would it have crossed my mind that one of us would ever live in… man’s urban paradise.”

Clemens sighed.

“I’ve found order here, Sister. Order I have craved for far too long back at home.”

“Yet it still remains home,” Ignis huffed.

Just then, the gaunt man with outlined teeth bustled in with tea, accompanied by brown sugar, cream, and some pastries on a silver tray.

“The forest remains a lot of things I had hoped to escape,” replied Clemens, as she took the tea and proceeded to add cream to her own. Ignis didn’t touch hers.

“You seem to be in a state of mourning,” she finally acknowledged as Clemens sipped her drink, “why the black robes, Sister?”

Clemens lowered the china cup slowly, her piercing eyes avoiding the other’s deep brown ones as she chose her words carefully.

“I… I’m not completely sure, if you must know,” she confided gradually, “I feel a grief I cannot remember. It is as if a shadow settles in my heart, like the fog that masks this city so very often.”

Her hand moved slowly to her collar. Long fingers found the small amulet she knew was there, and she started to stroke it with her thumb. Ignis watched all of this carefully, raising a thick eyebrow.

“Don’t you think of Rex?”

Clemens’ eyes snapped back to Ignis’ face. They were hard, glittering like sapphires.

“Rex… no news of him?”

“Not since last we met,” Ignis replied bitterly. Clemens’ eyes lowered again, as she licked her coral lips.

“The Order grows anxious, Sister,” asserted Ignis, “They say he is shielded from them, hidden. Even by the means of their most powerful Seers. But no one is as frightened as you and I-”

“How long has it been? How long exactly?” interjected Clemens, ignorant of her visitor’s words. Ignis gritted her teeth.

“Six turns of the moo–”

“Seven months,” Clemens interrupted again in a flat voice, as her large pale eyes stared long past Ignis, “it has been seven months.”

Ignis observed how skull-like Clemens had grown to look. Her cheeks no longer had any flush, and her hair was like bits of straw bent deliberately into her trademark curls.

“So it would seem,” replied Ignis, leaning slightly backwards into her plush chair. This was precisely what she had been afraid of. Everything the Order and the Council had told her was right.

“What is it you wish to tell me, Ignis?” asked the hostess pleasantly, snapping out of her dark reveries to take another sip of her tea.

The redhead’s eyes refocused on her true counterpart.

“I come merely because I couldn’t bear the silence any longer,” she responded absently, her thick unruly eyebrows drawing together even more, “Rex vanished without a trace, as he was leaving London. It’s been the only subject of conversation.”

Ignis observed Clemens’ passive expression, but continued.

“Some of the Order’s Wanderers were sent out to look for him, and they came back saying not a single blonde hair of his was left behind. They say he had probably come across some Highwaymen.”

“And what do you say to that?” humored Clemens through a tight-lipped smile. Ignis stared, all doubt vanishing from her heavy heart.

“I say the lot of it is irrational. Rex could turn anyone away with a glare, let alone some lowly robbers,” she responded quietly, then added, “even the Black Men would falter.”

Clemens flinched.

“Ignis,” she warned, the first inkling of any feeling dripping into her voice like poison. It was fear.

Ignis ignored this, however.

“And you, in the middle of nowhere, amongst the humans,” she continued vilely in the same half-whisper, noting the increasing color of Clemens’ pointed ears, “gallivanting amongst the smoggy streets and chanting voodoo spells to yourself…”

Ignis stopped herself and finally reached for her now cold tea. Clemens regarded her with a glare as icy as her turned soul.

“If you wish to tell me something, I would rather you just told me,” she growled. Ignis didn’t look up. She knew if she did, she would become subject to a power even more treacherous than her own emotions – both of which she refused to be subject to.

“I simply wonder what has overcome you, joining such an evil organization,” she ventured as casually as Clemens had done, who was clenching her bony fists.

“I don’t know what you mean to imply,” said Clemens as she began playing with the chain of her amulet again.

“Do not lie to me, Clemens. I have known you for centuries, just as we both had known our dear friend Rex.”

Clemens flinched again, but continued to glare. Ignis breathed heavily, the air suddenly thick as outside.

“Tell me about it. Tell me how you feel,” tried Ignis, finally looking up.

Clemens looked feral, but nevertheless answered, “I don’t feel as you do, Sister. I am free of such ties–”

“Because you have become newly imprisoned. You’ve always felt, though now you wouldn’t like to admit it. In fact, it has overcome you! Just as the Order had warned, as the Council had cautioned.”

“You always set so much store in those weathered old creatures,” spat Clemens. The hand around her amulet had become a claw.

“Those ‘weathered old creatures’ have prophesied the return of the Black Men for eras since they were last defeated,” reminded Ignis, “now people are vanishing, only to be seen again with eyes black as coal. I can see it burrowing inside of you.”

Ignis swallowed the snag in her voice as Clemens slowly licked her lips again and again. There was a long pause.

“And?”

A ringing silence ensued as Ignis stared. She peered into Clemens’ dark eyes. They drew her in like a whirlpool, but she resisted and looked away.

“A sickness has overcome your mind, Sister,” she finally whispered as she began to get up, “and I beg of you not to infect me with your frightful malady.”

“Ignis, I must insist –”

You will insist nothing,” she snapped, “Clemens is gone. She has been gone for a very long time, even if I refused to see it. But it is clear now.”

Sniffing, Ignis gathered her thick shawl around her and turned to leave, then circled around and added, “You are not the dear friend I once loved. She has given herself into the very epitome of evil she had once vowed to fight. The Clemens I knew… she is dead.”

Just as she was leaving, the Cockney man stepped inside from behind the door, blocking her way.

“Going, ma’am?”

“Yes.”

“But your cab ‘as already left.”

She looked into his black eyes.

“Then drive me,” she seethed, and with one more glare at her rigid hostess, she stepped out the room and into the dark hallway.

Clemens slowly tilted her head to the right, listening intently to the sound of the Ignis’ descending steps. She looked wolfishly to her assistant.

“Do drive her,” she said in a monotone voice, “and make sure to drive her out of London by the recommended route.”

The large man flashed a nasty grin, and nodded brusquely before heading out the door as well.

Clemens lifted herself out of her seat and passed over to her orderly writing desk, stroking the rabbit’s foot which teetered on the edge.  She reached under the table to pull out a small hidden drawer, out of which she retrieved a little doll. She ambled back to the window, and watched as Ignis climbed into her carriage along with the brutish man. Even through the gray haze of the dismal clouds her hair was a fiery orange. Clemens pulled out a needle from her embroidery, and very slowly pushed it deep into the heart of the model she held so delicately in her hands.

She turned back to her desk, and placed the copper haired figure back inside the drawer. She made sure it lay precisely next to the male doll with blonde hair, which was already stained a dark red.


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