(Fiction) The casting of darkness

The train rocked as it slowed and the picture in my hand rocked with it. My finger traced the single splatter of blood that stretched across the scattered feathers, many of which seemed to have been cut obliquely by a swipe from something very sharp. The train lurched hard and I dropped the photo. I scanned the compartment as I bent to pick it up. People were rising from their seats and gathering their belongings as the conductor announced over the speakers that we would soon be arriving at Penn Station. No one seemed to be paying attention to me. I folded the photo and put it back in my pocket.

It felt strange being back in New York. It had only been a few months, but already it seemed like someone else’s city—a feeling that grew as I left the relative safety of the train car and stepped onto the bustling platform. I felt like I was visiting someplace new. I went right for the ladies’ room, where I had to wait in line. Construction in some distant part of the station had limited the number of womens’ toilets to a dangerous minimum. I spent the time casually scanning the crowd outside the short hall to the restrooms. I had left the relative safety of Saycroft House early that morning over Martin’s strenuous objections. It was too dangerous, he suggested. Word was coming in from all quarters about freak disappearances, freak reappearances, and numerous other odd and foreboding occurrences. I agreed that it was dangerous but noted I simply had no choice. Our enemies were multiplying, and I could no longer wait for Etude to make contact.

As I shuffled forward in line, the drawstring straps of my little cloth backpack bit into my shoulders and I shifted the heavy contents as I scanned the crowd nonchalantly. I had expected Annie to join her husband’s protest, but she knew better than to argue. She simply went through the attic to the other place and came back with the flat lead box that I had asked her to keep there, away from the prying eyes of the living world. Seeing there was no argument to be won, Martin joined her. He appeared in my door as I was packing and handed me a loaded WWII-era revolver. Out of habit, I immediately checked the cylinder. All six cartridges were silver-tipped.

“Would I could go with you,” he said with more than an ounce of regret in his voice.

By then, I had gotten the distinct sense that Martin Hightower’s fate was tied to that house and that he could no more step from it than any of us could step from the earth.

A bathroom stall opened and I went inside and locked the door behind me. The previous occupant had thankfully squirted some perfume in the air to mask the smell. I set my bag on the seat cover and took out the lead case. I ran a finger over the necromantic patterns etched into its surface. Annie had designed the box herself, and Martin had carved it in his shop to her exact instructions. It was made to repel both the scrying eyes of the living and the scratchings of the undead.

My first stop would be The Barrows, I had decided, partly because it was the nearest thing in our community to neutral ground, but mostly because it was the nearest of my destinations to Penn Station. Anson could at least give me the lay of the city. However, because of its importance, I was certain The Barrows, of all places, would be watched, which meant simply walking through the front door was not an option. But then, I had experience avoiding pursuers.

I unfastened the latch and lifted the lid of the box. The object inside was exactly as I remembered. It had been preserved in the basement of the inverted shadow of Saycroft House, and it was neither dusty nor tarnished. The amulet itself was typical, with a dark blue crystal in the center of a black disk carved in writhing forms that could’ve been snakes or eels or worms. It hung not from a chain but from the tip of a large, teardrop-shaped collar made of interlocking brass in a design similar to a Celtic flourish. The wide, intricate collar was hinged at the joints of the design such that it could only fold down, not up or to the right or left. It draped heavy over the shoulders where the points underneath, like dull spokes, pressed hard through clothing to the skin. No magician had ever confirmed it for me—I dared tell no one I had it—but I suspected the collar collected the pain it caused and directed it to the amulet and so powered the spell embedded in the tiny etchings in the dark crystal, which you could see if you raised it very close to your eye.

It was an amulet of Zaragoza, the very one I had stolen from The Handred Keep. As with all of its type, it cast its wearer in darkness. As such, it was key to my escape from that place. I lifted the heavy metal collar and draped it over me. The discomfort was immediate, and I tried shifting my shoulders, which helped not at all. I shut the box and stuffed it in the bag with Martin’s revolver and the rest of my belongings and left. I stored the box and a change of clothes in a locker. Then I walked to the center of the busy station and stood. The amulet was nearly 70 years old, and I wasn’t entirely sure it still worked. Nor did I dare test it on Annie and Martin, for their own sakes. The less they knew, the better. So I stood in the middle of the busy crowd and waited—waited for someone to come. No one did. No one approached me. No one even looked at me. No one bumped into me either. It was as if I occupied a dead space in the world. I stuck out my hand and a woman walked around it without raising her eyes from her phone.

There’s a medical condition I read about once called hemispheric neglect. It’s caused by a certain kind of brain damage. People who have it are simply unaware of the entire right or left half of their visual fields. Their eyes work correctly. So do their nerves. But interior damage to the brain means that it’s unable to do anything with the information it receives. If you ask these people to draw a clock or a house, they’ll draw two-thirds of one, or thereabouts, and stop, thinking they’d done the whole thing. Yet, the neglected half of the world is actually not fully absent from their mind. Their brain still receives information from it, just not consciously. For example, if you raise a picture of an elephant on their neglected side and ask them what they see, they’ll register nothing and report that. But if you then ask them to think of an animal, they’ll say elephant, and if you ask them why, they’ll completely confabulate a reason.

I remembered that article—and may even have saved it—because it seemed to me that’s exactly what being cast in darkness was like. You are not invisible. Light does not pass through you. Rather, you are obfuscated, neglected, unnoticed by the conscious mind. As with most magic, this works better on some people than others. The amulet works on everyone, but only to the degree the wearer doesn’t arouse anyone’s preconscious fight or flight response. That is, if you move suddenly, make a loud noise, or attack, others will become aware of you, although how clearly and for how long depends on their sensitivity and the circumstances. To put it another way, someone cast in darkness could be in the room with you right now, reading this over your shoulder, and as long as they moved casually and quietly, you’d be completely unaware of their presence, even if you had suspicions.

With one exception. Since Zaragoza distrusted his subordinates as much as his enemies, he designed his amulets such that two wearers in proximity would always be obliquely aware of one another and always in inverse proportion to their attention. That is, it was impossible for someone cast in darkness to sneak up on someone else cast in darkness, even though neither would ever be fully revealed. The more one concentrated on noises and signs, the harder such things were to note. You could only ever know that someone was there, not exactly where or who. It was, I suspect, Zaragoza’s means of avoiding assassination at the hands of his own invention without diminishing its efficacy in the war.

As you might expect, casting darkness became the subject of intense study at The Winter Bureau, but without an amulet of their own and without the ability to cast darkness themselves, their efforts were largely confined to the theoretical, which left ample gaps for pure speculation. Someone supposed, for example, that if you spun suddenly in front of a mirror, you could catch a glimpse of a shrouded person or object in the reflection. Innumerable such tricks were passed from agent to agent during the war, like old wives tales. I can’t remember most of them, nor do I expect any of them were true. Looking glasses and scrying orbs all succumbed equally to the effect. There was only one thing, in fact, that seemed genuinely able to discern objects cast in darkness: cats’ eyes, perhaps because they were ever half in darkness themselves. But then, without an amulet for training, it was almost impossible to teach cats that they could see what others could not, and their use was limited.

So it was, I passed through the station unnoticed, like a living ghost, and exited to the street. The spokes of the collar pressed through my clothes to my skin, which made keeping a brisk pace somewhat painful. I couldn’t imagine trying to run while wearing an amulet of Zaragoza. It was made, it seemed, for skulking, and I was giddy at the prospect of removing the painful collar once I was safely inside The Barrows. I turned the corner onto the little street of closed shops, under which were the remnants of the old goblin market, although Anson was, as far as I knew, the only goblin left. But as soon as I arrived, my heart sank. The front door of The Barrows had been ripped away. The subterranean interior was dark, but I could see clear enough that everything inside was twisted and broken. Everything. The shop itself had been wrung like a wet rag. The cracked cabinets and hardwood slats turned over each other in a spiral, as if the ends of the room had been twisted in opposite directions by giant hands. There were splinters and broken glass everywhere.

I stepped in cautiously. Walking the floor was a bit like navigating a rocky beach. Several of the splintered planks and shelf boards were turned up like spikes, and I had to step carefully to avoid a fall. After several tentative steps, my foot fell on something hard and flat and unforgiving and I stopped suddenly and nearly lost my balance in the dim light, as one does sometimes when trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. I reached instinctively into my pocket for my phone so I could use it as a flashlight, but then I remembered I didn’t have one. I cursed softly and knelt to examine the object on which I’d stepped. The movement caused the collar to shift slightly, and I grimaced. The object was hard and flat—cast iron, it seemed—and cool to the touch. I ran my hand around it and found square edges. I tried to lift it, but it was heavy and I had to shift my stance before I could try again. With a grunt, I heaved it up such that the faint light from the open door behind me caught the letters.

THE BARROWS
Est. 1676 (A.D.)
REINTERRED 1848
at this location with
Generous Donations from
THE ROEBLING FAMILY
& H. Morton Ramsay & Sons
& Eleanor Peas

I knew one of the sons of H. Morton Ramsay—a grandson, actually. He was H. Morton Ramsay III, my mysterious Mr. H, who sent me to Everthorn after I impolitely refused his offer to become a spy. The Winter Bureau hadn’t yet been founded in those days and each of The Masters maintained their own, often competing, networks of informants. Mr. H worked for Master Thrangely, who was a prodigious hunter and who was said to have tasted the flesh of every animal that walked, swam, or flew. His offices in Cairo were fully adorned with the taxidermied remnants of his numerous hunting campaigns, which he could summon to life when needed. His death at the hands of one of them remains one of the great unsolved mysteries, for when his body was discovered torn to shreds, nothing else in his sanctum was out of place.

I frowned and looked around the shop. The Barrows had been my first stop in America, where I arrived carrying HPB’s manuscript. It had been a fixture of my time there, at once a landmark and a resource and a meeting place. Hank and I had attended its formal re-dedication in 1931. And yet, there it was strangled to death around me. That’s what they’d done. They’d strangled knowledge, wrung the place dry of it. I dropped the heavy plaque, which hit the ground with a loud thud and sent several shards and splinters into the air. I realized my mistake immediately. As soon as the plaque had left my hands, it had been freed from the spell of darkness, and whatever noise it made could be heard. I cursed again, this time in pure frustration—not so much for what I’d done but for what it represented. Cautious habits that had once been second nature to me were now distant and alien. I didn’t have time to relearn them.

There was a slight clink behind me then and I turned. It was still dark, but it certainly seemed as if someone had knocked loose a piece of glass. I scanned the floor for something I could use as a weapon, which is when I noticed the blood near the corner. Someone had been impaled on one of the ruptured floorboards and their body hauled away, or so it seemed from the streaks. I heard a step to one side, as if I had just been passed by. I grabbed a shard of glass and listened. And listened. But all I heard was the rush of my own heart in my ears. I was obliquely aware someone or something was in the room with me, but I couldn’t detect a single trace, which meant that they were shrouded as well. I was certain they were aware of me, and that they stepped just as lightly as I did in an attempt not to be detected. That’s how it went for some time. The interloper and I circled each other like submarines at depth, both listening for the other while trying not to make a sound, terrified we would step into the point of a knife. Since I dared not remove my bag, where I stowed Martin’s gun, my only weapon was a shard of glass, sharp only at the tip, and I began to contemplate the many ways in which a fight could go badly, not least because it was dark and my adversary and I were standing in a field of foot-long splinters. Any sudden loss of balance would be potentially fatal. I would return, of course, but if I died at the hands of the enemy, I would almost certainly wake to captivity and torture.

I withdrew as quickly as I could out the door to the street. I ran at first but stopped after three strides due to the pain, and walked as briskly as I was able. It was light out, but it wasn’t until I reached traffic and safety that I noticed the dark smudges on my hands. They were black and powdery, like ash. They were also faint and irregular, suggesting they hadn’t come from a coating of dust on the cast iron plaque. It seemed like they had been transferred, that perhaps someone with dirty feet had stepped on the plaque on the ground and its ridges had caught the soot. I wiped them on my slacks and didn’t think anything else about it until I was crossing the river on the subway, still wearing the amulet, despite that the longer I wore it, the more it pinched my skin, which I felt flush and grow warm with the pain. I grimaced and shifted my shoulders and tried to adjust the spokes of the heavy collar, which is when I caught a whiff of my hands. The scent was faint but unmistakable. I sniffed and smelled burnt sulfur: brimstone. But it was very weak. Fresh brimstone is potent, not unlike the smell of rotten eggs charring over a spit, which is why everyone mentions it when it appears. It’s almost impossible not to. The scent on my hands, however, was very faint, which meant the brimstone was very old.

The train had exited the tunnel and was riding elevated tracks. The light was ambient and I could see the skyline of Manhattan in the distance, not unlike the view from the sanctum before it burned. I examined my hands and sniffed again, and that’s when downtown erupted suddenly as if a volcano had opened under the financial district. I looked up to see a dozen skyscrapers obliterated at once. The shockwave traveled the length of the island. You could follow it with your eyes as it blew windows from buildings in every direction. The train rocked then and kept moving, as if it had felt the psychic shade of the blast. There were few clouds and no wind that day, so the plume of smoke was as wide as the island and reached straight up to the sky. I watched ash and debris fly up and out as if in slow motion. A hole had opened underneath, and the city began to fall in, as if consumed by a massive sinkhole, thirty miles wide. Building after building tumbled and fell, one after the other, with trucks and cars and bicycles from the street. The East River and Hudson disappeared as their bedrocks crumbled, dragging the bridges down with them. The ocean itself began to drain into the hole, from which an army emerged, a black army on flapping wings—horned devils, some bearing burning hellions on their backs. They poured forth from the center of the hole in a streaming mass, like a torrent of black water. And behind them . . . something worse. The ground shook—

The vision stopped. Downtown was as it had been. I looked at my fellow passengers staring at their phones and reading books and chatting softly to each other. My hands were shaking, but everyone around me was oblivious.