You are not entirely certain how long you’ve been seated on the curb beneath the gas-light, but you are aware when your awareness comes back to you. It’s been longer than you care to recollect since you’ve been truly alone, and the sensation of suddenly slamming back into your own body is jarring, akin to being startled awake by a nightmare, except you’ve scarcely slept three hours in the previous week’s worth of time. You stare down at your own palms. Your hands tremble. You do not feel like you. You do not feel real.
“Please talk to me…”
The helpless mewl startles you. You do not recognize your own voice at first, hadn’t realized you were speaking. It’s quiet, almost inaudible, a prayer, a plea: Please reassure me that I exist.
The voice that answers your pathetic whimper startles you almost as much as your own had.
“My dear, it has come to my attention that you have been making inquiries into a certain, shall we say, entity. I will not threaten or implore you to stop, if only because it never works. Please, walk with me.”
An enormous figure, cloaked and hooded, towers over you, one gloved hand extended. One of the Masters of the Bazaar. You identify it as Mr Fires, repeating the words in your mind and finding that you readily recognize its slight but throaty purr, the only one of them to speak in a voice not a rasping, nearly hoarse squeak. You accept the hand to your feet, pressing desperately against its side. To your relief, it accepts your presence, even drapes an arm across your shaking shoulders. Gently, it begins guiding you down the road.
The words come pouring out of you before you can stop them, shards of glass tumbling through the morning sunlight.
“I-I’m not in my body and my head is on ...ffffffire but my…. my legs are encased in ice? They’ve become numb and I don’t know anything. I don’t…. My skin isn’t real. I don’t know anything? Nothing is real but everything is?”
An imploring glance up to its (his?) face.
“Help me. I’m so tired and it hurts. The tea has gone cold and bitter.”
A sharp inhale. Your breath is shrapnel in your lungs.
“You can’t save me.”
A very gentle heave against the side of your arm that may be a sigh from the Master. The arm across your shoulder tightens sympathetically.
“Trust that you are real, and that what you know is real. It only feels that it isn’t because you are the ones who pay for our sins. I can give you a place to rest, food to eat, fresh tea, any material comfort you wish.” A pause here, the weight of it like an anchor dragging you beyond the reach of sunlight.
“But I cannot give you peace.”
You grimace, swallow heavily, eyes downcast. Peace. You cannot recall the last time you knew peace. You cannot recall what that feels like. Have you ever known what it feels like?
“There will be no peace for any of us. I would pray for you but prayer offers no solace.” The need to scream is clawing violently inside of your ribcage. “… I don’t want to be alone.”
Gently, he leads you down one of the Bazaar’s side streets, one of the places most Londoners rarely bother to venture on their own. You’re not sure where you are headed.
“You are right to avoid praying. We would thank you to continue doing so.”
Another heave against your side; this time you are certain it is a sigh.
“I fear you are right. None of us will ever know peace. Instead, we will all continue with squabbles that are so far beneath us that the very worms look down on them, until someday… Someday it will end, one way or another, with more strife. “
His words register, but just barely. You know that he is speaking of things beyond your ken, things that you should take note of, words, secrets you should be storing away. Bullets in your arsenal, weaponry in the war you are waging against them. However, you are too far within your own head to take proper note of them. Or, perhaps too far out. You find it impossible to distinguish. Everything is hazy.
He has stopped before a door, now. You two stand on a short stairwell. He is looking into your eyes.
“And you are not alone. That’s the thing about you Seekers - you are the only ones who are never truly alone.”
His words cut deeply, far deeper than he had probably meant them to. No, you know somewhere that it had been meant as a comfort, but the reminder of where you are- of what you are- of the situation you’ve fallen into, it only hurts.
“It hurts. It hurts.”
He stiffens at your side, and the words that follow next come from a place not of malice, but from a lack of understanding. It becomes far too clear in the oncoming instance that, despite all their pretending, the Masters of the Bazaar are not human. They have no real comprehension of human emotions; they look down on all of you, think of you as lesser creatures to themselves.
“…. It might hurt for you, but think of the bigger picture. You have never felt the weight of millennia upon your shoulders, never heard the same voice tearing through your dreams night after night, never lived with the knowledge that no matter what your choice is you will lose something terribly precious to you.”
Something tightens in your chest. It is not your own tension building.
“You have known inconvenience, discomfort, possibly even pain. But, citizen, I assure you that you have never known agony.”
He (it? he?) seems to sense the coming storm a split second before it arrives, the arm whisked away from your back half a heartbeat before the comforting weight transforms into a leaden yoke.
“This pain isn’t mine.”
The vehemence in your voice seems to take Fires aback. It flinches, imperceptible to the human eye, scarcely a flicker of movement, but you catch sight of it nonetheless, viewing the world with eyes far sharper than your own, now, hearing through ears more sensitive than those you were born with. All of your senses are alive, aflare, and you know he has returned to you. He is looking as you are looking, seeing what you see. You take advantage of Mr Fires’ moment of weakness and press on, relentlessly.
“This pain shouldn’t be mine, but I feel it as deeply as though it were.” A quiver to your voice, but not of fear or sorrow.
“I have seen it, I have felt it. I have lived through it in my dreams, my memories. When I close my eyes, I see it. It will not ever leave me, even that I should perchance escape this path. Knife, teeth, bone. The sky, the water, the tears that fell. Fear, and false hope. Rage.”
The tension in your chest coils tightly, coalesces into rage, roils and froths.
“I feel his pain as acutely as my own. We draw in the same ragged breaths, my heart pounds a song of fury on his behalf. When I scream, we all scream as one. There will be no rest until the toll for this betrayal is exacted. I did not deserve this. I do not deserve this. Neither did he. However, here we are. And one day our pain will be known to you all.”
Here, your voice drops to a hiss.
“I will not stop. I cannot stop.”
Although the Masters are normally inscrutable, he knows his fellows enough to be able to read them. You can see the changes in Fires. Fear, at first, followed by indignation, anger, disgust. Contempt. Defensiveness. For an instant, it dissolves into sympathy.
“… Ah, we see. You are right; you do not deserve this. But your pain, and we will call it that now, should never have been known. You said you have his memories. Search them, now, and you will find that I never raised knife or tooth or claw against him.”
A snarl echoes within your mind.
“Even so, tell us, what is the toll for betrayal?”
You allow the snarl to escape your throat. Less impressive than if he had given it himself, surely, but a threat nonetheless. Fires shifts against the door.
“That is precisely the problem, and therein lays your sin. Inaction is as damning as action. You, indeed, did not raise knife, tooth, or claw. You did not raise a single finger to help. You did nothing!”
His anger is your own, and your anger is his. You want to scream for him, with him, a cry for blood, for justice, for vindication. An extraction of vengeance, to take what is owed to you- him.
“You helped the others blot out his legacy, his life, his existence. Your guilt rests in this. You may not have driven the knife, but your hands are far from clean.”
When you next speak, you both speak as one.
“A reckoning is not to be postponed indefinitely.”
Its temper flares, and it seems to remember, suddenly, that you are you, and not he. It straightens again, looms over you, glittering scowl bearing down. You meet its gaze, defiant, your own eyes blazing. You bare your teeth, not in a grin, but a challenge. These clenched jaws can and will open its yielding throat, if given half the chance. You think it knows this.
Fires’ voice is deeper even than its ordinary timbre.
“And even if I had helped, what would that have achieved? I would have been killed alongside him, if I failed, or I would have been trapped in that damnable city if I succeeded.” Its speech seems rushed, telling you that you still have it on the defensive, despite its posturing and bravado.
“It is not a crime to move along a natural process. Who would have remembered him, after the third city fell? The scattered survivors of the second? And in a generation, when they were gone? Who then? He would have been forgotten soon enough in any case.”
Silence settles around you, thick, dry, almost suffocating. A blanket, a quilt. Built not of softness, but sharp edges, crackling words. Just before the point where it becomes unbearable, Fires turns away from you.
“We remembered. Before that incident, I was fond of him. There was a time when, perhaps, I would have even been willing help bring about his reckoning, against those that had truly betrayed him. However, that time has long passed… We grieved for who he was and for what he could have been. But that does not blind us to the present.”
Its complacency disgusts you- him- both of you. Your fingers are his claws, balled into fists so tight crescent marks are left in your palms. He wants to speak, but your words are white hot, biting, and he allows you the control for now.
“It is a far better thing to die in defense of one’s friends than be complacent in their destruction. That you truly believed yourself blameless, you would not feel the need to defend yourself such. It was your guilt that moved you to burn the reminders. It was not for any of the humans, but for yourselves that you blackened history.”
His approval rumbles through you, and you are pleased.
“You may not be blind to the present, but your recollections of the past are clouded. Your willful ignorance is as damning to you as the blood in the water is to the other.”
None of us are immune to death, he whispers.
Though you’re positive it is simply burning inside, Fires’ voice is surprisingly collected when it responds to you.
“We defend ourselves when we are accused, regardless of where the blame falls. Perhaps we were guilty, but it was the guilt of grief, not the guilt of action.”
It takes a step toward you, pushing forward from the doorway. You take a step back, down the short set of stone stairs, not out of intimidation, but a simple lack of physical space. Neither of you have broken eye contact, and you hope that it can see him glaring back.
“I assure you that my recollections of the past are quite clear. Clearer than I would sometimes like. We, my colleagues and I, all remember him, whether we speak of him or not. Or did you think Iron’s game is thoughtlessly named? Why do you think the most readily available candle is the mourning candle? Why do you think that there is such a fierce battle over dreams? For that matter, why do you think another of us chooses to dwell almost completely within dreams?”
The feeling in your chest resolves itself into a warmth, at first, then a heat, a burning. It is delight, joy, wicked and vindictive. You grin, in earnest now, and the heat spreads to every part of your body. You tremble anew, a faint part of the back of your mind wondering when it was you had stopped, but for a different reason, this time. You both speak as one, now.
“It pleases us to know you have not forgotten. Indeed, it is ever to our savage delight that you continue to carry this weight. We see and hear, through the eyes and ears of our children. We know. We know of the things you all do here. We know what you do here.”
A laugh bubbles up, or something trying very hard to be one. Fires scowls. You step closer, but it does not step back, allowing you to press yourself tightly against it. You step back up onto the stair, balancing precariously on the tips of your boots, and lean up, into its face, the grin growing ever wider. This time, your voice is low, a faint mockery of Fires’ tone.
“Things could have been different. This did not need to come about as it did. But you know that, don’t you? Of course you do. You’ve had nigh-on a thousand years to reflect on it, after all.” One hand resting upon the railing, your free one reaches up, winds itself into the material of Fires’ cloak, clenching tightly. You are no longer shaking, every muscle in your body tense, straining. Your teeth are knives, you want to use them tear the creature before you apart, and you can feel this urge in him as well. Patience, he tells you. The time will come.
Mr Fires locks its hand around your wrist; the grip is like a vice. Far too powerful, you can feel your bones threatening to shatter as it squeezes. It reminds you that you are only a vessel. It reminds you that you are still human. It reminds you that, as much as you need to, as much as you would like to, you cannot do everything for him.
You find yourself unexpectedly yanked from your feet, prompting an involuntary noise to explode from you. Held aloft, you are now eye level with Fires. But it is not looking at you, no. It’s looking at him. You’re both sure of it.
“If you know what we do here, than you will know that we have no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. Things could have been different, true. But they weren’t. In the future, they will be, all being well.”
Is that what its game is, then? The same as his own, long ago. He has long suspected, but confirming these suspicions will only further his agenda.
And because you were the one who brought about this confession… He will grant you a boon, for this knowledge.
The irony is delicious, almost thick enough to rest upon your tongue like a heavy cream. If Fires thinks he will succeed where we failed, the voice intones noiselessly, wryly, bitterly, vitriolically, then may the universe itself convalesce to grant him success.
What speaks next is entirely him.
“We wish you the best of fortunes in your pursuit, but keep in mind, we could always do with the company down here should you fail.”
You can see it floundering, the gape of a drowning man flailing desperately for debris. Fires throws you to the ground unceremoniously, and the air is blasted out of you. Even so, you laugh, without sound. He laughs, too, through you, with sound. He does not need air to speak, after all. The sound of a door slamming echoes through the alley, but still you laugh together.
Presently, you pick yourself up off the hard cobble, rub your back and shoulders a moment, and set off back toward the warm lights of civilization. He grows quiet once more, though still present. A warmth settling near the back of your skull, comforting but repulsive.
While your grasp on reality may remain tenuous at best, your resolve has never been more solidified.
One day soon, you will go North.