DarknessFalls

Storybook | Game

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3

Gabriel’s Park was full. It was a bright day, hot, clear blue sky. Nicolas suspected a school holiday, but it had been many, many years since he’d taken an interest in such matters and he’d taken little enough then. Hordes of children played happily, splashed in the fountains, swung on the swings, and utterly ignored the rather formally dressed gentleman and his sprawling companion. Mothers may look disapprovingly at the cigarette hanging from the companion’s mouth, but they sat apart, impinging on no-one.

“They would shit themselves if they knew what old Gabriel liked to do,” Antoine said, “especially with little girls. He liked little girls. This would have been a fucking playground for him.”

Nicolas winced. Mercifully they were out of earshot of the playing areas but even when he was trying to be quiet, Antoine's voice had a tendency to carry.

“Where did we burn him?” Antoine looked around the park. “You know with all these buildings it’s hard to get my bearings.”

“I think I can guess.” Nicolas looked over at a stand of trees. Cobbler’s Wood it was called, although no-one knew why. On a bright, busy day it stood alone, black trees clenched tight together in a patch that seemed strangely out of place amidst the laughter. There had been talk of cutting it down for years, but no-one ever did. And no-one knew why. It stood slightly higher than the main fields of the park, on a rise to keep it away from groundwater, but not so high that it wasn’t sheltered. Exactly where you’d build a house.

“That’s got to be it,” Antoine peered at it, “found what we found, broke the fucker’s legs, doused him in lamp oil and dropped a match. Went outside and watched the flames, waited for the screams to stop then went and got pissed. Jesus we got hammered that night. Wasn’t good to sleep though. You know, Nicky, I am not a gentle man, I have not always been a good man, but what we found....”

He laughed, a barking laugh to drive away the ghosts, loud enough to make heads turn. “But you didn’t ask me here to reminisce eh? What is it? What do you need?” He looked at Nicky defiantly, but the slight flicker of need in his eyes tore at Nicky’s heart. “The others send you?”

Nicolas looked him back in the eye. “No, no they didn’t. And that’s the problem.”

Antoine’s eyes narrowed, the voice that could sound so drawling and uninterested was suddenly crisp, hard. “Problem?”

Nicolas kept eye contact, but it was becoming harder; he’d forgotten how terrible Antoine could be when he was genuinely roused. “You need to see for yourself. You need to come to the Order.”

“Have they cleared this? It’s one thing visiting my own childe, but just walking in...”

“You need to come.”

#


The journey back to the Order was quiet. Antoine wasn’t stupid enough to pump Nicolas for information and Nicolas wasn’t stupid enough to volunteer any. Antoine stared out of the car window, Nicolas did the same, both men lost in thought.

The chauffeur took the car to the lowest garage, and from there they took a lift down. From there the journey was unfamiliar to Nicolas, and even Antoine, who’d still been here when most of the security measures had been installed, seemed to be struggling to remember. “Jesus,” he said, “what were we so afraid of?”

“Quite a lot back then I’d imagine,” Nicolas’ voice echoed in the corridor as he struggled to keep up with Antoine, “most of this was installed just after or during the war...”

“I remember, those banking engineers, we got them from Zurich, best in the world, ex-Nazi, designed vaults for governments, nuclear fucking bomb proof.” Antoine laughed, the sound booming and echoing against the smooth walls. “Yeah, I don’t think even bankers and Hitler had prepared them for us. Those were fun times.”

Nicky had only been beyond the final blast doors only fairly recently, when the problem had begun to grow serious and was still astonished. But of course the crew had been from a particular time, a particular fashion, they’d liked what they were comfortable with, what they were familiar with. That, Nicolas was starting to think, was the problem.

Beyond the final blast doors was what looked for all the world like a 16th century farmhouse. Heavy oak furniture, tapestries of hunting scenes, pewter plates arranged neatly on dresser boards fastened to walls. A heavy wooden balustrade surrounded a splendid staircase going down, deeper into the manor. All it needed was a few windows and a serving wench and he could have been in some renfair re-enactment.

Antoine was looking around himself. “It hasn’t changed, not one iota.” He walked deeper into the room, daring to touch the rich brocade of the furniture. “It’s modelled on Hester and Tomaz’s original home,” he said, “they tried to recreate it when we first got here but everything rotted, and it was impossible to get supplies from the Old World... “ He looked around himself. “And here I am walking into their home and they neither kill me nor kiss me. Nicolas, I love you as my son but what the fuck is going on?”

Nicolas motioned towards the stairs. “This way.”

#


Antione stood, for a long time. “Why didn’t you call me earlier?” he said finally.

“It was their specific instruction that you not be informed,” said Nicolas, “and of course we hoped...”

Antoine walked to the beds. In each a figure lay, emaciated. “Are you feeding them?”

“Of course. Most of what you see is muscle wastage and much of it was incurred when they were still conscious and resisting treatment. Since then we’ve tried physiotherapy, electric stimulation of the muscles, human growth hormone, although it’s a fine point if we’re human really. If anything they’ve gained muscle mass.”

“But they look....” there was a catch in Antoine's voice, he lingered by the bed of a woman. Her shrunken eyes gazed at him, her wrinkled mouth moved but there was no sign of recognition.

“The best diagnosis we have is dementia,” said Nicolas, ”we’ve put them through the best medical scanners in existence -”

“-you took them out to a hospital?”

“No of course not, we put a story out that we feared for the art collection - fungus or something I can’t remember - and brought the scanners here. Donated them to the public hospital afterward, cost us a fortune. There was a documentary made for the Discovery Channel, I have a copy if you’d like-”

“Nicky?”

“Sorry. The scans show nothing. No lesions in the brain, no platelets, they are physically in perfect health, apart from the muscle atrophy, a loss of body fat, which none of you had much of anyway, and a loss of collagen from the skin that is really purely cosmetic. “

Antoine wandered amongst the beds, occasionally reaching out and brushing a cheek, or sweeping hair back from a face. For such a bear of a man, Nicolas thought, he could be astoundingly gentle.

“In hindsight it’s been gathering for years,” Nicolas spoke as Antoine wandered, “they just seemed to... lose interest, go missing, first for days then for weeks or months. We assumed they were off on important business, now it looks like they were just down here. Doing.... nothing.”

“Then it got worse, they became uncommunicative, didn’t involve themselves in the Order, stopped attending promotion ceremonies - not that we were having many of those - and when finally we plucked up the courage to ask them about it they became aggressive and defensive. Even when they’re severely weakened you anger one of the crew at your peril.”

Antoine laughed. “True,” he said, “true. So then?”

“So then things just got worse and worse until finally we pretty much stopped seeing them altogether. The Adepts started running the Order, we’d hold impromptu meetings, committee meetings in all but name, and make the decisions that would normally have been made for us. And we’d try to talk to them but they just kept on getting more distant. At first they refused to admit that anything was wrong at all, but as one by one they started slipping into... this... they became agitated, fearful almost. But one thing they kept saying, even Hester who was the last to succumb, was that you were not to be informed. Perhaps they thought they were protecting you, perhaps they thought this was contagious.”

“Is it?”

“In truth we don’t know. But I don’t believe it is; in terms of your collective lifespans the separation was comparatively extremely recent. And you’ve visited the Order since, breathed the same air as them, drunk the same water. No, I don’t think it’s a contagious anything. I think they were just.... ashamed. Ashamed to let you see them like this.”

Antoine stood, silent in the room. Around him the fragile figures lay on beds. Occasionally one stirred, turned to look at him. They had been comrades, they’d travelled to the New World when it was (for them at least) a new world; when the journey was at the extreme limits of their technology and they’d been as likely to drown as arrive. But they’d done it, together, and together built new lives. Fought together, loved together, striven together. But now sunken eyes rolled in parchment faces, tongues lolled in open mouths, and if any of them recognised Antoine they gave no trace of it.

“So why have you called me now?” Antoine’s voice held a terrible quiet, and for a moment Nicolas feared that his sire could lash out, in pain and grief. He would stand no chance; even without his beast skills Antoine was a fearsome warrior. More importantly they would lose the others, the very history and foundation of the Order, long before a sufficient force could be mobilised to contain him.

“The Sisterhood know that something’s wrong, they don’t know what but they know that something is. We’ve also created a project, actually on your suggestion, that is worrying them. In hindsight it was bound to and we were fools not to anticipate it. But between the two the Accord is threatened. The Sisterhood have been our most important and reliable ally in the Accord, to lose them could be disastrous, could tip us into another war. So we have to tell them, we have to tell them the truth. But to tell them and not you... to tell them before we told you...” Nicky shrugged. “I couldn't do that to you. Not to you. Plus you’re it, until we solve this you’re the only crew member left.”

“We will solve this? Are there ideas?”

“There are suspicions. You are the one who insisted in trying new things, having new experiences. The iconoclast, the tradition breaker, the scoundrel. As they became more and more immersed in tradition and routine they became more and more... like this. So it’s a question of neural stimulation, different parts of the brain shutting down for lack of use and taking the body with them. That’s the suspicion anyway.”

Antoine nodded. “It’s a good one. I warned them, I fucking warned them. Can’t stand still Nicky, you can’t stand still. You think we’ve escaped the grave? It’s chasing us man, always chasing us, and if we stand still.....”

Nicolas became uncomfortably aware that Antoine looked close to tears. The great man shook his head and brought himself back to the present. He fixed Nicolas with a piercing look. Nicolas felt a thrill of pleasure; the was the old Antoine, the Antoine of the war, the decisive and fearless leader. “Alright, so I’m back. The crew are back in charge. We be making changes hey?”

“No.” Nicolas stared back, heart pounding but determined. “Antoine we need you but we need the structure of the Order even more, especially now. Antoine it works. The memberships, the ranks, the levelling, it works. You will not throw that away.”

Antoine snorted. “Ranks. What ranks? Fuck ranks. You know Hester got them out of a book right?”

“I don’t care where she got them from they’re a genius idea and they work. They’re an encouragement to train and develop, they allow us to restrict combat skills to the ready and reliable and they make us a fortune. They give the Order structure and focus and Antoine you will not take that from us. Not now. Anyway, I thought she got them from an Englishman?”

Antoine bellowed with laughter. “Oh yes, I had forgotten. Little English puff, wanted to have bumsex with Tomaz. Hester had to smuggle him out of town in the boot of a car. It was very funny.”

Nicolas touched his arm, pointed. Antoine turned. Behind him one of the figures had stirred, was looking toward him. “Your laughter I think,” said Nicolas.

Antoine walked to the bed, took the occupant’s hand. Her mouth worked soundlessly, fleshless lips tight over yellow teeth. Tenderly, so, so tenderly, Antoine lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “So I am here as just a figurehead? To placate the Sisterhood.”

“No, you’re here because we need you. But for pity’s sake at least look at what we have created before you go ripping it up. And don’t expect us to be willing pawns. We have minds. Use them.”

Antoine placed the woman’s hand back on the bed. Her eyes drifted and closed. “Very well,” he said, “let’s go see what you’ve made with these superior minds of yours. I’m joking! I’m joking, Nicky I have always respected your mind.” Antoine looked deadly serious. “I always have. Allow me though, this is going to take some getting used to. OK, where do we start?”

Nicolas walked to the door, pressed a button on the wall. Almost instantly medical attendants began filing back into the room. “Well,” he said, “in anticipation of your acceptance I took the liberty of arranging a small reception for you in the upper building. All adepts are invited; I’m suspecting all adepts will be in attendance. Then I’ve arranged for you to be shown your new quarters; I’ve picked out something close to the surface with easy access to the gardens in case your animal side needs exercise. Then I thought you and I could have dinner together this evening and I could fill you in on the current structures and fortunes of the Order. In the meantime I have a visit to make.”

Antoine grinned, and wrapped his arms around Nicolas’ shoulders. As they cleared the medical room he lit up a cigarette. “Sounds like a fucking marvellous plan,” he said, “and on the way up you can tell me all about this troubling project that I was apparently the inspiration for.”

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Storybook | Game