Upstairs and alone, I begin to explore the other rooms. Maybe I can find some answers about how Fortuna went from fair to free to fallen.
Compared to the bedroom and its conspiratorial scrawling symbols, the office suite is a temple. The electric lights cast a warm glow on the wood-paneled room. Three writing desks like the one in the bedroom flank each of the walls, with another door of fogged glass against the wall opposite me. The desks face inwards, workspaces hidden from the center. Drawers hang open, contents emptied. Someone forced open the door to the chief office, pieces of the lock left on the floor like a mechanical bloodstain. The office is similarly wounded. The paneled walls were once carved in intricate designs of mythical, chimeric creatures and heraldic symbols: horned rams, goats and bulls; lions, wolves, snakes; birds of prey and bright plumage. Etched and burned into the scenes are smaller, simpler symbols and formulae, like a scholar’s annotations to a grand novel. But most prominent are the angry gashes and scars hacked into the work, chips and splinters of masterpiece and madness strewn on the floor.
The desk was ransacked as well, drawers hanging off their runners and pens scattered over the table top. But if this was my office, and I was the conspiratorial paranoiac that I seem to be, I might have hidden something—
There it is. The left leg is hollow, and the winding key unlocks it with a bit of coaxing. Ooh, a journal. Simple, sturdy. And mostly redacted. Shit.
Am I keeping secrets from myself, or did someone else get here before we did?
The most recent entry is more or less intact. The date is blacked out, but the text itself isn’t:
It’s all coming apart. I can’t contact Valeria or Calla, Charlie’s still undercover, Abel Carter’s thugs have taken over, and after seven years I still don’t know who the bastard actually is under that mask.
On the other hand, it’s all coming together. Arius is trapped, Helen is overjoyed and safe, Ricimer sees the writing on the wall, and we’re ready for the final push. But it’s hard for me to separate sequences. The dive made things worse.
Upside: they won’t find my stash before time’s up. Downside: it can’t help me either. I have to leave it for me to find…later…before? Doesn’t matter. It’s supposed to be here. I can’t muddy the waters more than they are already; I can barely see as it is.
I’m approaching totality — that much is clear. Ricimer warned me about this, told me to be ready.
I’m not. Not last time, this time, or next time. But I can’t change course now.
Well, that wasn’t helpful. I guess Charlie was right about me being cryptic. Gotta work on that. The rest of the journal is significantly worse, full of incoherent ramblings that are meaningless without names and dates for context. Just fragments of emotion and musing — outrage hear, ennui there, wist and worry tying it all together like a grotesque experiment.
Speaking of experiments, the laboratory isn’t much help either. The alembics, beakers, compounds and documents are a burned and stained mess of garbage and detritus. The mess has a distinct purple tinge to it, same as the nameless CASH package I found earlier.
Amidst the junk I find several cage-like devices that seem like full-formed models of the geometric diagram I keep seeing. Three rings parallel to each other, speared by a central column and framed with two curved branches that meet at the top, forming a flame or teardrop shape. More arcs and struts connect ten tiny crystal spheres arranged throughout the structure. It doesn’t help me figure out what it does, but I must have thought it was important to go through prototype stages. The models vary slightly in shape and greatly in materials. Impossible to know which one I settled on.
So I guess I’ll just have to accept the mystery for now. Real damn helpful, me.
Water and darkness surround. Churning, roiling, I am tossed from current to current in silence and cold. Pressing my ears and nostrils, numbing my skin.
A spark. A light twisting in the void. Spiking tendrils of brilliance trace fractal designs, revealing endless sea. I am pierced.
I wake. How long? The clocks are stopped and the windows are boarded. Darkness surrounds.
A cry in the night, animal in content, human in tone. I press my face to the boards, to a small hole drilled to the outside world.
Four burly figures amble through the square, thick limbs and swollen faces. The scant evening light is enough to show the blackened spots on their skin. Localized necrotic tissue creates a cowhide, and they low in bovine imitation.
From the alleys come a pack of five snarling, snapping wolves in human flesh. They bound in on all fours, ruddy hair unkempt and straggled. One swipes at a bull-folk and sends him skidding along the cobblestones. He gets a heavy forearm to the head in response. The other bull-folk turn to face the charging pack and snort in defiance. More howling from human throats.
I turn away and jam fingers in my ears. I know what comes next and I don’t want to hear it. They may act like animals, but those are people. They wear clothes, their faces are painfully normal. Ritual, madness, I don’t know or care. Something is desperately wrong. Wake up, wake up, wake up!
I don’t think this is a dream. The snake-men from earlier — Copperfangs, Abel called them — those were people too.
Howling, lowing, shrieking, tearing, breaking. I screw my eyes shut and call back the dream. Boundless water and darkness, numbing cold and silence. And just as my breath runs out, as the savagery beyond the walls rises in a contorted choir, the lightning FLASHES.
Valeria leads me away from the crowd.