Where Memory Rests
Thick exhales of steam crowd the night air, damp on your skin, as you make your way through the noise and shadows of the City. Grit has gathered close to the walls where you walk, giving the soft sound of your steps a rougher edge. Your fingers trail where a gas arrow once crystallized: a pipe carrying hot air hisses quietly at the leak. Magic lies thick in the air since the Final Glyph, dispersed and unformed. You can feel it in your hand. It washes across the red new scar like warm breath, like the air trickling from the pipe. The elemental crystals form faster, now, and someone harvested this one before you.
It doesn't matter. You have other things on your mind tonight.
And besides, you can always get it back.
The texture of your footfalls changes as you move towards the Old Quarter, and rough-hewn stone shoulders the newer timber buildings out of the way, rising jagged against the horizon where ruins have crumbled. The Old Quarter smells of the moss that creeps across the masonry. Damp hovers over the City — from the steam, the docks, the rivers, the sewers — and the wet pulls scents of decay from every crevice: some places the air is thick with the smell of rotting wood, bringing thoughts of Pagans and Viktoria; in other places the sharp tang of rust reminds you of Hammerites and makes your good eye water — the Mechanists did not provide the other one will the means to follow suit.
You are very, very tired of factions.
The air of the Old Quarter is far from fresh, but to you it feels clean: stone and moss; the distant scrabble of burrick claws and the vague shuffling of the undead beyond the Wall. The Hammerites once held sway here, and later and less... obtrusively, the Keepers. Both thoughts leave a sour taste in your mouth, but much of the Hammerite influence has faded to the high-pitched muttering of apparitions and the clanking chains of haunts; and the Keeper Compound is far on the west end. You head east.
The streets narrow, and the shadows thicken. Not many wander here. The easy darkness and lack of company give you time to think.
Not exactly what you were hoping for.
You pick up a fresh moss arrow to distract yourself, but you used the wrong hand — the scar burns for a moment as the green magic of the arrow breathes over it — your own breath stops in your throat as if clotted with moss, as you remember earth mages' entangling vines— you hiss, quiet and strangled, and stuff the arrowhead into the pouch by your quiver. You shake your hand, breathing tight through your teeth: it's not a real burn but that doesn't stop it hurting. Great. Stilling where you are for a moment, you look at the scar, with the echo of a glow around it, fading like a memory. Time to remember was definitely not what you were looking for.
You're not much for ceremony or sentiment. You've dropped your coins for the Watchman, poured your libations over friends' graves.
Friends' graves. Heh. Not many of your friends lucky enough to have graves. You feel your mouth pull into a tighter frown, and you shift your shoulders, hefting your pack higher. You're really not the sentimental type.
Your eyes flicker over the architecture as you start out again, though your feet know the way without the help. The skyline is layered, unevenly, with the varied stonework of the district. Room for every kind of delusion and excess here — something about the old City center must draw fools and madmen. Constantine's mansion isn't far from where you pass, and there's always the Haunted Cathedral to the south. And the Cradle. You once said you couldn't think of a way to cram more misery into one building's history.
Well. Looks like you've found one.
Fools and madmen. Right.
The noise of the City quiets to the dull whisper of wind in the alleys, and then even that fades as if to frame in silence the last remaining sound: the hoot of owls. It was remembering the owls that decided you. You stop on the edge, outside the Cradle's grounds, and listen. Inside the grounds, by the Cradle itself, you know you'll hear the drip of water; within, the place would have its own whispers: faint laughter, the dry strangled breathing of the Puppets. Maybe. You're not sure — you thought you took care of them all last time, but it's one thing you came here to find out. Whether the place resurrects its nightmares.
But here where you pause in a pool of shadow by the gates, it's only the owls. Their cries float through the air, something you can almost feel on your skin; your scarred hand tingles like it's fallen asleep. You shake it absently. Animal sounds, warm and living. It was the owls that brought you here. They wouldn't live this close to real evil. And so you're here, with your bag and your doubts.
You breathe out sharply through your nose in disgusted irritation— then breathe back in, slowly, paying attention. The damp stone and green scent of the Old Quarter, the lawn of the grounds. Nothing else. Your senses tell you you are alone, you and the owls.
The gate would creak without the Door Glyph to give you passage, so you pull on your gloves and scale the walls. It's a good feeling, gratifying: solidity, the stone under your fingers, the way your hands strain and tense against the uneven surface. You feel a small grin steal across your lips. Slithering quickly over the top, not pausing where the light can silhouette you, you land on cats' feet on the green, careful of the sack.
The owls pause in their hooting — though no man would have heard you — and you imagine their sudden silent regard like a film on your skin, tangible as the damp. Your eyes flick to the Cradle, once, its high tall windows like eyes. Then you ignore it. You circle the building and aim for the basement entrance, snatching the water arrows from the fountain and transferring them quickly to the quiver pouch before you can remember drowning. Here the wind seems to sigh and whisper low words, winding through your long fingers; you twitch your left hand again and haul open the basement door.
Water dripping, metal under your feet. The lights flicker, once.
The building groans.
You wouldn't mean that literally anywhere else.
Nothing moves, and you plaster yourself to the shadowed wall, breathing in. The damp assaults your nose: wet stone, wet metal, wet cloth of bandages and straitjackets. No flat tang of disturbed electricity. The lights are steady.
You take another breath, slow and even. The shadows are unmoving in the hard electric light. A low mutter weaves around the stone pillars, but you relax: the Puppets don't talk. Only the building does.
You make your way between the drips of water; the puddles throw back gleams of light, making the edges of the shadows waver, and the droplets fall glinting like small gems. Moonlight filters silently in behind you, through the high basement windows. Somewhere outside a cloud crawls across the sky and the moonlight dims, brightens. Like slow breathing.
The hairs rise on your nape. But you watch the light play for a moment.
Metal scuffs and reverberates quietly under your feet as you head upstairs. You emerge on the main floor, and a sigh sweeps through the building, the slow shifting of stone chased by an errant giggle. The moonlight is thicker here. A chair watches over a hallway where moonlight pours through a tall window. Dust motes dance in the soft-edged shafts, making the air seem opaque and... occupied. No shadowed staffer sits there now, but you feel a flexing like breath where the air stirs, not sound so much as sensation; the fingers of your left hand flex in turn. The giggle that whispered in your footsteps screeches upward into laughter for a second— and cuts off as if swallowed by the sudden silence.
You leave the chair alone in its pool of dense moonlight and memory.
As you make your way up to the patient wing, you slow, keeping a careful eye on the lights. You'd leave the bag behind while you investigate but... you're not entirely sure it would be there when you came back.
The whispers start up again here, mutters on the edge of hearing, distant clanks you know would fade if you went looking for the source. You ignore them, listening only for the scrabble of feet, the sharp sound of metal-caged hands moving too quickly. And watch for the flickering, the smell of ozone. No moonlight here, deep in the ward; only the electric lamps, thin in the air and harsh on the surfaces. The play of light doesn't arrest you, here... but the sounds are... interesting. You wander down the halls, listening to the wail of children dip in and out of the harsh murmurs; a laugh trickles through sometimes, low and quiet. And everywhere the soft whispering groan, rising and falling. The cell with the gramophone stands open down the hall. You enter it briefly as you do the rest, checking inside, but as you pass by the desk you hear a hiss— and scratchy notes wilt into the air, a disorganized tinkle of piano keys. You hadn't touched the thing. Your eyes flick upward, automatically, as the music rasps on, weaving through the sighing of the Cradle's memory, as the Cradle remembers. The incessant buzz of flickering electricity had permeated the place last time; now, in the steady flat lights, you can hear the patient shifting of the Cradle as it watches you.
You leave the room. The ward is empty, and you find nothing in the towers, the morgue, the treatment rooms. The music fades once you’re away from the ward, but the giggling sigh follows you, like breath on your neck. You shift the pack on your shoulder. In the nursery, the patter of feet startles you for a moment, but the distant echo of children laughing — and crying — lets you breathe again. The Cradle breathes with you.
Your winding search ends on the attic steps. Nothing pounds on the door here. Lauryl is at rest. Her portrait remains, watching you from the far end of the room. You blink, slowly, and try not to notice whether the portrait blinks with you.
And you sit, here, in the doorway, where you can see the room and the stairs. You set your pack down. Lean your head against the doorframe. And you think.
The Puppets are gone. You're not sure they were ever really here... but you're not too interested in thinking about it much. You're sure they could have killed you just fine. You've dealt with more undead than you've really wanted to. And these seemed... strange. They weren't... hungry. Angry, sure. You've wondered before if they were really undead... or if it was the Cradle, playing. Remembering. They're gone now. The Cradle hasn't forgotten them yet but their anger is fading. The owls still hoot outside — you can hear them through the thin attic walls. The lights are steady. And the Cradle watches you.
You get up, and head to the basement, where the cages are. The iron creaks and clangs as you haul the door open. Your hand flexes where you hold the pack, and you step inside.
Your breath goes hollow and thin in your throat for a moment and a slow gasp rolls through the place, echoing. The air feels different, thinner and harder to see through; your scar itches. Your pack is on your shoulder. You leave the cage.
You're even quieter than before going back upstairs. The staff are about, silent sooty shadows — you think if you touched them your fingers might come away black. But you're not curious enough to try it. One of them sits in the chair where the moonlight dances. You watch it as you sidle along the opposite wall. It has no eyes, and you can't tell which way its head is turned.
In the cell with the telescope, you dig through the bricked-up place, set your pack down.
Inside, you put Artemus' books. You'd always liked that he kept some that weren't all glyphs and meaningless prophecies. You lay them here, where the Hag once hunted. There's more you could bring. The Hag's books, with her secrets. You're sure you could get some other... interesting things from the Keeper Compound, even without the glyphs. And there are... others you could remember. You don't really keep mementos, but you could find something of Viktoria's if you ever tried. There is other knowledge you could bring here, where it would never be lost.
But for now, you uncork the flask of wine, and spill some drops on the floor.
It's not an easy thing to see a Keeper who doesn't want to be seen. You feel the Cradle's eyes on you, memorizing you. You leave behind those things, where it's all place and no time, where the Cradle will find them and never let them go. No Pagan magic summoned this place, no prayer. No glyphs bind it. And the place isn't all that friendly.
But neither are you.
You go up through the staff tower and jump out the window. The wind rushes by your ears as you fall, the gasp of foreign air flushing together into a disorienting whisper — and you land, sudden and with no sense of impact, on the lawn where the owls cry softly.
The Cradle will remember.