Chapter I: Airships, The House of Time & Mr Nine


Ver Sacrum Books - Riker Rouge - Serial Fiction

BOOK I – A PRELUDE TO A RACE
PROLOGUE12345


In the world of Riker Rouge there is reality, the dusk-lands, the secret places, and how each slowly blends into one another. The Vitandi, a secretive group of arcane researchers, want to bring back their beloved and cursed event the Magnus Certatio: A race of such massive proportions that not only is victory and wealth promised to the participants, but the enlightenment and freedom of the soul. One arcane collector, Octavius Obediah the Second, is asked to help plan the perfect race route to help the Vitandi to their ultimate goal… something many souls failed and died for two centuries ago. What comes from that invitation is a spiraling story of eccentric characters, dark events and adventure.


I

Gil hated this room. His employer called it the time room and it was in fact devoted to the visual act of watching of time. That is to say the room’s wall space was completely covered in clocks. They were rather impressive clocks. There were coo coo clocks and proud grandfather clocks. There were strange Switz constructions that housed small mechanical dramas that popped out and began their tick-tock productions on the hour. From a collector’s standpoint it was an enviable room. However, the richness of it could not overcome its eeriness.

As Gil stood in the doorway he felt like his heart’s own rhythm was becoming overwhelmed by the steady ticking sound of the room. Every clock, telling the time of some place different, still ticked in steady beat with its brothers of another time zone. Only two clocks moved at a different speed and he preferred to not be around on those rare occasions a tick or chime was heard from either of them.

Gil took a deep breath and stepped past the room’s threshold.

“You wanted to see me sir?” he asked the gentleman in the room.

At the center of the room in an expensively crafted chair made to accommodate the rather massive man’s girth, Mr. Nine sat silently smoking his cigar and sipping his brandy.

Truth be told, Gil couldn’t think of any room in the house where he liked dealing with this man, his current employer, but here the damn ticking all around him made it near torture. There was something about the ridiculously large man that was as quietly insidious as his time machines.

Mr. Nine set his brandy down on a narrow table at his side and held up one finger. This was his very simple and silent way of telling Gil he was not ready for him just yet. It also meant that of all the times to come into this horrible ticking room, Gil had once again found the anti-perfect moment to arrive and experience what for him was a moment of pure dread.

Seconds ticked by audibly heard. Then there was a slight moment (perhaps imagined or a trick of the mind) where the ticking of the other clocks was dragged out before everything fell into a moment of silence.

Gil knew it wasn’t his imagination, this moment of silence. His heartbeat was just as regular as the clocks in this room and when those clocks were silent his heart continued to beat uninterrupted. One beat, two beats, three beats and then there! His own internal ticking had to pause for a second as though a great wind swept through the room and ripped the breath from his chest. Then a clock tick of such gravity and depth sounded that it caused the walls and floor around him to shake. The clocks on the walls all rattled and remained silent for just another moment; either in respect or out of fear for the clock that had just ticked off its own time-line of a second.

For a moment Gil felt slightly panicked as he tried to reclaim the breath he felt stolen from his lungs. He silently urged his heart to start back up and find its rhythm again. It was so brief a sensation but no less shocking for its quick nature. He wondered if this happened, in some mechanical form, to the clocks around him as well.

Mr. Nine picked up his glass of brandy and took a sip as the room around him went back to its overwhelming sound of clockwork ticking.

“That clock is speeding up.” Mr. Nine offered off hand. His voice was unnaturally deep and gravely and when he spoke, no matter if he was talking directly to you or at the room, it still felt as though he was speaking to himself. There was something about the man that kept him from directly connecting to anything–living or mechanical–around him.

“Speeding up sir?” Gil asked.

Mr. Nine looked over to the slender man standing just inside the room’s doorway. For a moment his face looked confused as if he couldn’t remember why the other man was there.

Gil would have loved to have used that moment of confusion to slip from the room and go back to his writing. It might take another hour for the large man to remember why he’d originally sent for Gil if he was allowed to go back to his clocks. It would just delay the inevitable though and some things were best to get out of the way as soon as possible. So Gil stood there waiting for his employer’s thoughts to catch up.

Eventually Mr. Nine collected his thoughts and came back to the present. “Yes Mr. Gil… speeding up. I imagine I could have missed it before this. I haven’t been able to keep my vigil as often as I’d like to. It’s something I’ll have to contemplate more aggressively. For the moment, however, I have other pressing things to concern myself with.”

“Of course sir. You sent for me because?”

Mr. Nine took a deep drag on his cigar and slowly blew the smoky air back into the room. His head nodded up and down as he continued to collect his thoughts. Gil was left to stand for a few more minutes with the air around him growing steadily more cloudy. He could think of no more mild and sublime torture than this.

It was a curious thing that the room didn’t smell more like the perfumed and musky creature at its center or the many smelly cigars that he smoked in there. Gil often thought it most smelled like dead time, if there were a scent of such a thing. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but neither was it something he liked leaving the room smelling like and it did embed itself in every stitch of his clothing as a lingering reminder he’d been there. It was a more subtle form of Gil’s perceived torture.

“Sir?” he prodded, hoping to move things along.

“Yes…” Mr. Nine’s face finally showed thoughtful intent. “My new boy Marcus… his clock is showing a storm.” Mr. Nine motioned towards one of the more elaborate clocks on the wall. It ticked along with the others like a normal clock, but below its clock face it also gave time in a weird sort of quarterly pattern that was based upon the weather. There were three of these types of clocks housed in the room.

Gil was always quite fascinated by these style of clocks. He couldn’t manage to work out how they could be so accurate for weather in places so far away. There had to be a trick to it. Physics had rules after all.

Then again, physics was not highly courted in this place. Tricks and reality were much the same thing in places set just outside of the everyday. Gil had to remind himself he was in the dusk lands. Reality towed a very different line here.

Presently, the clock Mr. Nine pointed at had an angry display of thunderstorms over a violently churning sea. It was like a perfect little theatrical scene. It was a strange sight for Gil had never actually witnessed a storm in the clock’s theatrical window. It almost looked like real water was splashing around it.

Stranger for Gil was the display of tentacles coming not out of the angry water below, but down from the storm clouds above. It was like the world was tipped upside down and the things meant to be found below were coming to the surface above. He knew there was something very important about this hint in the skies, but such importance did not readily come to mind. He was, for lack of a better explanation, a whale watcher. A large floating gray body in the scene would have meant much more to him even if that body was coming from the clouds. Gill had only ever read about such a scene though.

Mr. Nine had a great many different secrets he was privilege to and therefore nearly everything was of some importance to him. This storm seemed to have him particularly excited, or at least as excited as he ever appeared. It had taken awhile for Gil to notice the very minute changes in his bland personality that signaled this excitement. It was there tonight though, now that Mr. Nine wasn’t thinking of the dreaded unseen clock.

Mr. Nine finally turned his head to give the other man his full attention. Gil could feel himself shrinking down into himself a little. It was amazing how one pair of penetrating eyes could feel like a small collective staring at him.

“Marcus… this new man of mine…” the large man looked upset and choosing his words carefully. “There is a storm where he is and yet he’s sent no messages for you to deliver. Unacceptable. I want you to message the ship and make it quite clear to the young man that he is to send his findings in real time as they come in. I don’t want them coming to me all at once when things are over. It’s important for my agent to be properly instructed. I need to be able to monitor that storm!”

Gil nodded his head in understanding. “Of course sir. I will do that straight away. Is there anything else you need Mr. Nine?”

There were no more words from the large man. That short interaction was about as animated as he was going to get.

Mr Nine settled himself back into his chair and took up his smoking and drinking again. When the other man didn’t immediately leave he nudged his brandy glass in the direction of the door. This was the final signal that Gil was done there.

Exiting the clock room had become a very quick and reflexive action for Gil. It had taken time to find the best way to get himself out in so few steps. First he would take a large step backwards. Then he would swivel and step forward and find his foot coming to rest just past the door frame. One more step and he was out. He’d learned this form of exit by heart so that he could close his eyes as he did it and move in the darkness. These were small methods of survival for Gil in that place.

The mansion that Mr. Nine found himself the governor of was called the Time Keep. It wasn’t the most inventive name given the room Gil found himself leaving, but it surely wasn’t a misleading name. Nearly every room in the massive and old structure had something to do with the process of time, though few of those rooms were as obvious about it as the clock room.

For example: In the bamboo room the process of time was recorded through the growth of bamboo. It might sound quite simple but when Gil first saw the room he found himself speechless. He could never truly describe the unnaturally tall room that was built at the side of the mansion that faced the rising sun. It was stories high and walled in glass. Within the room it was like stepping into a tropical keep on a continent far away from the one the manor existed in.

The bamboo trees that lived and grew within this room went unchecked for years. It was a breathtaking sight. There was also a great interest as to where the growth would finally go. There were a few bamboo trees that had finally managed to come precariously close to the ceiling. It was a rule the bamboo must go untouched except for light care. When they reached the glass top they would be allowed to push through it.

The mansion was an oddity of such things throughout its many different custom built rooms. Who had come up with the idea to chart the course of time in such ways was unknown to Gil. Much of the mystery behind the founders of the mansion and its many companion houses around the world was just that: A mystery. Mr. Nine was just a facilitator. He was someone who understood the nature of this place and how to navigate its many systems of time collection. There was someone beyond him that he reported to though. Some very secret and shadowy characters who needed this information for whatever reason.

At first the nature of the mansion and its unknown owner and provider of resources was very exotic and interesting to Gil. He often found himself after-hours in the employee parlor trading theories with some of the other staff. As time marched on though, he found himself engaging in these discussions less and less, just as many of the other long time employees did as well. Such talk was most often exclusively for the new persons in their midst. The nature of the place slowly wore on the soul and the idea of understanding it became lost. It didn’t take long to understand one’s self as little more than a cog in the machinery of the mansion. This made the work somehow easier to deal with when the mystery of it wore off.

Gil followed the maze of halls and stairways until he came to the message room. Unlike the somewhat soft romantic glow the rest of the mansion had with its gaslights and beautifully shaped glowing amber crystals, the message room was brightly lit. The walls were covered with a variety of alien-like machinery that took in messages in a variety of different ways. The world outside might be reduced to letter writing and telegrams, or even the occasional telephone that was growing more popular; in here there were communication inventions only a small collection of the world would ever see or use. Many of the machines most likely only worked in the dusk lands.

It was, as a rule, a reflex of Gil’s to stand in the doorway and allow himself a moment of childish wonder. He still found this room fascinating. It truly illustrated how the mansion was quite literally set outside of the actual time-line of those who lived beyond the mansion walls. It was the one place you could step up to a strange looking device and use it to contact the place of legends. No amount of drudgery in his everyday life could take that away from him.

During the daylight hours the room was nearly wall to wall with staff manning the machines. When the sun went down many of the machines went dormant on their end and staff fell to two or three overnight operators. Tonight there were two: One very young looking man monitoring the on and off light patterns of a massive machine in the room’s corner. With him a milquetoast-looking gentleman who was nervously watching the machine for sky communications.

Gil addressed the milquetoast. “Anything yet?”

Gil startled the poor man who jumped nearly a foot. He had to take a moment to fidget with his handkerchief and glasses before he seemed composed enough to answer.

“Nothing yet sir.”

“Henry -I keep telling you to call me Gil. I’m not your employer.”

“I’m sorry sir, I mean Gil.” the milquetoast tried to reply light-heartedly. “We’ve had no communications as of yet. The skydomitor for that region is telling me the barometric pressure is very low, which suggests that a very large storm is either brewing or taking place over there. It could be interrupting communications.”

Gil nodded. “Perhaps. Mr. Nine’s weather clock was indeed showing a storm over there.”

This perked up the other man’s attentions. “Really? Did you get a good look at it? Was the octopus coming up out of the waters or down from the sky?”

Gil’s skin crawled just a little bit. “Down from the sky.”

“Oh!” Henry exclaimed. This news seemed to excite him greatly. “It must be a very large storm indeed! That could definitely slow communications down a bit. Oh that would be something to see!” He went back to cleaning his glasses, but there was a big grin across his otherwise dull features.

Gil had no time for the other man’s excitement. It also irritated him that the milquetoast understood the symbolism of the tentacles better than he did.

“Perhaps.” he said finally. “Or it could be the young man. He’s still pretty new and I didn’t provide his instruction; Dominic did. Sometimes my dear coworker is not as efficient as I am when it comes to stressing certain rules of the job. So be a good man and give the ship a ring. We’ll know it’s interference if you can’t get through.”

Henry nodded his head enthusiastically and went to his machines.

Gil would never be able to explain to someone how any of this equipment worked. He could describe the physical beauty and obvious craftsmanship of any of the machines in the room, but how their internal mechanisms clicked along was a complete mystery. He knew the large, bouncing light machine being watched by the young man in the corner communicated with a similar type mansion in India. He knew the tall brass and wooden beast Henry was now turning nobs and gears on would put them in direct contact with an airship that was many miles above the ocean; one that was set just a degree left of popular reality. Everything else was beyond him.

Henry put a cone shaped brass instrument up to his mouth. There was a round leather cord that ran from this instrument into a brass circle on the machine itself. He spoke a strange code into the cone and turned a dial on the machine’s face. The dial looked like a radio dial but with symbols in place of numbers. Somewhere unseen an operator attached to all of these machines would take in the code and the dial settings and direct their machine to the proper airship terminal.

There were several minutes of Henry repeating his code and adjusting the dial till finally a violet light lit up. Henry’s entire being perked up. His hand quickly moved to a different dial on the side of the machine; this one for cranking. He quickly cranked the dial as he spoke into the cone instrument. This was no longer code. He was just casually asking if there was an operator available on the airship.

A second violet colored light lit up and this caused Henry to move the cone instrument from his month to his ear. He nodded his head stupidly as if the person on the other side could actually see him.

Violet lights went on and off and Henry moved the cone back and forth from his mouth to his ear. Finally he paused long enough to look back at Gil. “What are we asking for again sir? I mean Gil?”

“Report.” Gil sighed, growing more annoyed. “Look, just have the operator put the young man on the other end. When he’s there and listening give me the speaky thingy and let me talk to him.”

“Of course Gil sir! Though there is no operator. The young gent is working everything himself. It may take a few minutes for him to get fluid communications set up on his end.”

Another fifteen minutes passed before Henry finally motioned for Gil to come over. He handed the brass cone over to him.

“Just speak casually into this and let me know when you’re done.”

Gil took the instrument and put it up to his mouth. He felt like he was speaking into the end of a megaphone. It gave him the overpowering urge to shout into it.

“Um… alright, Marcus this is Gil. I don’t think Dominic was clear with your instructions. We need you to send your information as you’re inputting it. A good rule of thumb is to input for fifteen minutes and then stop and forward it to us. Mr. Nine is very explicit about this instruction. Do you understand?”

Gil motioned to Henry who quickly took the cone, turned some more dials and put the instrument back to his ear. More head nodding. “He understands. He’ll start sending his data straight away. Says there’s a really big event tonight with the storm. Would you like to hear from him yourself?”

Gil shook his head. “No. I just want information to give to Mr. Nine. Everything else is Mr. Nine’s business.”

“But sir…”

Gil held up his hand to silence the other man. He was tired and growing more in need of a break. There was something about that insipid grand tick that always left him feeling like this; weary and overwrought.

“Just collect the information Henry. I’ll be in the parlor across the hall taking a rest. Bring it over when it gets done printing.”

He didn’t wait for a response. Gil was quickly out of the room and moving towards the parlor in hopes there was a warm kettle of water for tea in there waiting.

There was no warm water at the ready, but there was a comfortable parlor chair available that he liked. There was also a non-employee of the house (a friend of Mr. Nine’s if such a thing were possible) who was casually sitting at one of the parlor tables and drinking from a bottle of clear liquid. As exhausted as Gil was, he was always happy to have the chance to run into this woman.

“Ms Zylphia.” He said politely as he stepped into the parlor. He tried to act nonchalant but in truth the woman always caused his blood to pump.

“Now don’t make me scold you Gil.” the woman said as she delicately waved a very long and tailored finger nail at him. Her nail color was a very shocking shade of emerald green most proper ladies he knew would never dream of wearing. It complimented the matching green of her fitted dress.

He smiled and blushed a little at his sudden lusty thoughts. He couldn’t help himself. This woman always wore her dramatic greens and he knew she did so because it brought out the perfect alabaster nature of her complexion. It made her brilliant Irish eyes of green sparkle and that shocking crop of copper colored hair that she kept in neat little finger waves even more striking.

Gil was a boring man at heart, but every little detail about this woman in her green and copper made him desire not to be. Women like this did not tend to attach themselves to boring men.

The woman let her scolding finger drop as an alluring smile moved across her rouged lips. “I have told you again and again that you are to call me Ev. Ms. Zylphia is my mother and that makes me feel old.” She pouted a little, putting a delicate finger to her cheek as if she were wiping away a tear. “Feeling old makes me sad… it makes me want to…” she grinned, “cry. You don’t want to make me cry now do you Gil?”

Evil. This woman was evil and knew how to so effortlessly work a man over with silly talk and gestures that would have been pathetic and comical on any other woman. It didn’t matter with her though. It was part of her charm. Gil was happy to play the sucker to that charm.

“Of course not. My many, many pardons Ev. I hope you will accept them.”

For a moment Ev looked as though she were thinking it over and then her face became alive with cheer and warmth. “Of course I do! How could I ever be offended by you?! See! I even knew you were coming. I made sure the most comfortable chair in the room was here for you to have a sit.”

Gil looked towards the oldest and most unattractive chair in the room. It was the most comfortable to him because it had been so utterly forsaken by all other house employees that he’d had the chance to force it to conform to his body. He moved towards it like the walking dead seeing the possibility of life teasing on the horizon. He let his tired body fall into it and the poor beat up old thing sighed against his form. He was the hand and it was the glove. They were meant for one another.

“I thank you then Ev.” He whispered as he temporarily forgot his lust as his exhaustion got the better of him.

The parlor was quiet for a short while as Gil allowed himself a moment to relax. His companion in the room busied herself with a deck of cards in front of her and her bottle of unlabeled liquid. Finally, after a moment of rest, he felt he could continue torturing his lusts a little further with a conversation with the woman in the room.

“Did you really see me coming in the cards?” he asked casually.

Ev didn’t look up from her spread of cards, but her head was nodding slowly. He’d given her enough time to let her cheeky persona slip back behind her true personality a bit. And who was Ev really? She was a strange creature who was gifted from birth with a power over cards. Some called it cartomancy, but Gil tended to associate that with things like the tarot. You could cut up a stack of papers and crudely put numbers or symbols on them and give them to Ev and she could create a system of divination out of them. There was just some power between her and the process of shuffle, spread and read.

Finally she looked up. Her serious look was far more attractive to Gil than her teasing one. However, her serious look was a little bit haunted as well. Honestly she was like most things in the mansion: Beautiful and haunting.

“In a manner of speaking I did.” she said softly, thoughtfully. “Something’s not right around here. This mansion, like most of its counterparts, serves a function. But someone is trying to disturb this function and take from it. It’s…” she fell silent. She stared so intently at the strange little deck of cards she was hovering over that it caused Gil to take better notice.

Gil sat up in his comfortable chair, though it begged him to lean back and continue to relax. “Disturbing how?” he asked.

For one brief and beautiful moment Ev looked at the slender man and he thought she was about to trust him with a grand secret. She was actually going to tell him what she saw in her cards. His heart beat rapidly for that moment. Places far deeper down began to stir themselves even though the conversation at hand had nothing to do with those things that gave rise to the libido. It was just the very idea that he was alone with her and she might confide in him. To a thoughtful man who lived among secrets it was as good a turn-on as a glimpse of nudity or a flirting kiss.

However, the moment was there and gone. Her face went from honest and thoughtful to disguised and teasing. She picked up a random card and laid it down on the table. It was an aged sepia toned thing with a large serpent cradling many spoons on it. She took her bottle of unlabeled liquid and took a swig from it. A pleasant sort of nothingness spread over her features soon afterward.

“Oh my dear Gil…” she said with a lilt to her voice, “the same bullshit as ever.” and then she laughed. “The people in these mansions… the stupid games they play over things they’re not meant to understand or contain. The promise of strange events… races no one needs to race…”

What happened next was as quick as it was dramatic and Gil, remembering back upon it, would never be able to decide if he should have thought more with his bigger head than his little one when it all took place.

Ev swept up her cards and tucked them into her clutch. She stood so quickly her bottle of unmarked liquid tipped over and fell to the floor. The contents splashed across the rich rug. This caused the copper headed emerald to laugh.

“Oh dear! Tell all your smoking brutes to keep their cigars and cigarettes out of here for a bit! That was top quality moonshine made from the Namman pear tree that just never stops dropping silver pears! It’s somewhere out there lurking in the states. They make pear sauce, pear butter… pear moonshine… oh it’s good for so many things, but lethal. Don’t light up in the room for a bit or else time might literally go up in smoke!”

Ev started to move towards the door and Gil had to, though out of his character, reach out and take her by the arm as she passed. When he spoke his words were so soft, so wounded, and for days afterward he would find it so ridiculous to remember himself in such a state.

“Am I such a person who can’t be trusted? Really?” he whispered.

Ev leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. Just as gently she slid his hand from her arm. “No. But some deeds need to take place before better things come of them. Thankfully you’ll be too sleepy to remember this properly and you’ll always assume I was just drunk. At least you’ll tell yourself that to better sooth your ruffled feelings.”

The woman leaned in even further and moved from his cheek to his lips. She kissed him gently and left just enough of her flavored rouge on his mouth that he would remember the taste of her forever after. He didn’t even realize she was putting a charm on him.

“However, tonight you need to sleep Gil. Take a break. Take a nap. And then get back to the business at hand… because there is some very big business at hand. Just as you were, that is in the cards as well. But don’t worry. I’ll see you again.”

Whatever the minx had done, Gil found himself settling into it with heavy eyes. His body grew relaxed and he couldn’t keep himself from falling back into his comfy chair. He could have sworn he’d only blinked, ready to reply back to her, when Henry was rousing him. Two hours had passed by.

“Your reports sir!” Henry set a leather folder in his lap that was full of parchment. “You might want to give them a look over right away. Something big sir!”

By then the copper emerald was long gone.

II

Marcus had always wanted to fly as a little boy. What child didn’t? But where other children dreamed of opening their arms like a little bird to the skies, he thought of commanding a massive and majestic bird to carry him through them. He was never a solo flyer, he was a rider. No matter where his daydreams led him there was always this tiny thought that brought him back to the story of Icarus and he thought: What if my flapping arms suddenly become weak or the wings I crafted for myself begin to melt as I sore towards the sun? No, caution had always been apart of his personality. That caution made him feel safer as the passenger in flight.

There was no majestic bird whose back he road on now, but he was flying in the skies all the same. Beneath him was a sturdy structure made of wood and light steel in the shape of a very long and narrow boat. Above the deck a massive balloon of heated air kept them drifting among the clouds. All manner of strange contraptions and spinning propellers were attached to this balloon to help keep the air warm and the ship pointing in the right direction. It was a marvel of old and new world technology.

The airship was moving just above the clouds and the young man stood at the railing of this ship watching them pass by. When he first viewed the ship anchored in its high dock he thought travel in it would feel just like moving through the seas. This had not been the case though. When it finally took to the skies he had to overcome the sensation that it would fall to the ground at any moment. Then he also came to understand clouds were nothing like the dense waters below. It was one of his many fascinating lessons.

“Mr Marcus, would you like some simery?”

A small but powerfully verocious voice addressed him as respectfully as he’d come to expect from her. Although to suggest there was truly any respect to her voice was simply his way of ignoring the fact that the woman had no respect for him, but he hoped there would grow some small bit of it between them despite the circumstances that brought them to know one another.

The young woman stood at the edge of the ship where the deck met the start of the observation rooms. For some reason she didn’t like coming onto the deck itself and she always looked around cautiously when she came this far. Marcus assumed this had to do with his strange companion on the ship and her relationship with the help.

“No thank you Jahr. I don’t suppose we still have tea? A cup of tea with a bit of orange in it perhaps?”

Jahr made no attempt to hide her disgust at his suggestion. Her face was so petite and innocently pretty in nature, but her eyes were pure fire. A violet colored fire as brilliant as any lethal clear eyes that had ever looked at him. They wonderfully accented the bronze-like quality to the young woman’s skin and the deep plum color of her very long hair. She always wore it tightly pulled away from her face in a series of braids that wove a pattern around her head.

The young woman was quite exotic to a young man who’d been raised on the tales of fairies and strange creatures. That allure was kept strongly in check, however, by the certain knowledge that the forced servant of the airship would gladly take out his eyes or throat given half the chance. He had come to find out that fairies were brutal in much the same way.

Marcus turned to approach the young woman and she took small steps backwards as he came towards her. He stopped and held up his hands as a show of no ill intention.

“Please?” he asked softly, respectfully. “The simery tastes wonderful, but it’s quite a disaster on my stomach. I was raised in a place where food and drink were plain and as a result I have no palate for the adventurous.”

The admission that her preferred drink of choice was tasty but too harsh for him softened her a little. His show of respect when few others could muster it here also made her bend just a little. Her eyelids lowered and she didn’t look quite so aggressive.

“Alright then. I’ll see if any are left. The thing likes to suck on those round fruits of yours.”

“Oranges.” Marcus offered out of a reflexive nature to correct.

“Oranges.” The young woman repeated almost properly. She slightly changed the sound of the word because of her thick sky-people accent. She quickly turned and moved away.

“Thing?! Oh that little purple painted fiend. I’ll have a go at her one of these nights. I’d have done it sooner if I wasn’t so put off by the idea of tasting something that looks like a flower.”

Marcus jumped at the sound of this voice. He always jumped, even when he could see the creature before it spoke to him. There was something powerful and ancient about its voice. Or her voice, Marcus silently corrected himself. It was in fact a female, though a female of a type of being he’d also always thought a thing of myth.

The young man turned to see the creature MemNous standing at the edge of the deck. She was leaning dramatically over the side of the railing, letting her nose sniff at some scent Marcus’ own nose could not detect. She straightened herself back up and turned towards the young man. There was a wicked smile playing at her lips that always suggested she had something nefarious in mind. He couldn’t help worrying for the safety of the young woman now trying to brew him a cup of tea.

“Now MemNous, the captain has specifically instructed you not to harm anyone on the ship. She’s just a kid and doesn’t want to be here. I don’t think it right that you should wish to harm her.”

This brought a low and crawling laugh from the creature. “Oh really? The captain said that? So protective is he?” she sneered. “The captain just wants to touch a flower’s bud when the night gets dark and quiet. My employers could give a fuck and a shit about what happens to anyone on this boat except for you and the crew who keep it sailing. The slaves are not a concern.”

“Forced servant.” Marcus corrected her.

The creature’s low laugh soared to one that was loud and mocking.

“Oh Marcus my precious young man! Do you even hear yourself?! Making the nature of a word sound softer and less offensive does not change the nature of the word’s meaning. Forced servant? Really? That’s two fancy and neutral sounding words that mean the same thing: Slave.”

MemNous crossed the deck, slowly letting her laughter subside. She knew her crass way of talking often upset the young man and she had been given strict instructions not to do that. He needed to be focused on his tasks just as she was there for her own tasks. So when she spoke next it was with her soft and only slightly seductive voice meant to sooth ruffled feathers.

“Alright then, forced servant.” she offered. “Or just servant if it makes you feel any better. But all the same, she does look like the gods painted her like a flower. And if we’re being honest here, simery is one of the most awful tasting cups of anything that can be drank. It’s made from wood chips off of air trees and cured with ogger piss.”

Even though Marcus wasn’t drinking anything in that moment he choked a little as though he were. He suffered through many cups of this dark brew the sky folk called simery and having seen an ogger for the first time not so long ago he didn’t like the thought of its urine.

“Oh that is a rank thought.” he said as he got his involuntary reaction in check.

The pair became quiet as a small rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Those few moments of distraction had helped Marcus forget the darkness looming off on the horizon. He wasn’t even being fanciful when he referred to this sight as the darkness. It was in fact a thick wall of near bruised black in the guise of storm clouds.

“We’re actually going to sail into that?” he finally asked in a very soft and apprehensive voice.

MemNous looked towards the distant skies as she nodded her head. “Yes, I’m afraid so. You can’t find what we’re looking for among these happy little clouds.”

The creature’s face grew dreamy as she stared off into the sky. She reached up and pointed in different directions.

“If you go high enough you find the sky-lands hidden in the aether. If you keep low enough you will stumble upon the floating cities that are hidden behind the veil. We have to go beyond both of them and into the darkness to find the right environment for our prey.”

The creature studied the young man as he digested her words. There was such a pure innocence about him that it took everything in her power not to fall upon him and feast on it. She was, as her employers would say, domesticated to a degree. There was no getting around her true nature though and sometimes she couldn’t help but desire to disobey.

MemNous moved over to the young man and gently slid her arms through his and embraced him. She put her lips near his ear and whispered comforting things into it before lowering her mouth to lightly kiss his neck. Goosebumps rose over his entire body and a wonderfully pleasurable sleepiness came over him. It was a strange sensation he knew he’d have a hard time describing where he asked. It was like falling into the most perfect of waking dreams that filled the body with all manner of feelings that were only felt so perfectly in a dream. It brought his usually dormant lusts to the surface and a rapid beating to his heart. The young man would have loved to have given in and let the creature take him to her room and steal the youth from him just so he could languish in that sensation.

A small voice cleared her throat to get the pairs attention. “Your tea Mr. Marcus. With orange.”

Before Marcus pulled away from the creature he whispered into her ear. “How much did those moments cost me? A few hours, days? Or is that enough for a month of my life?”

The creature pulled away from the young man and let her contact with him drop slowly. She didn’t answer him though. Instead she gave him a smile and playfully tweaked the end of his nose with her thumb and forefinger. Then she moved down the deck towards Jahr. She was almost past the much smaller girl when at the last moment she turned on her with great speed and growled. The gesture made Marcus jump even though it was not aimed at him. The servant girl didn’t so much as flinch. With that the succubus was gone.

Jahr brought Marcus his cup of tea. The severe look she normally reserved for him was replaced with a very distressing look of pity. He took the small cup from her that held a sliced orange floating on the top of the clear amber water. He couldn’t help but feel somewhat ashamed by this look of hers. Or weak? Weak was probably a better description.

“Thank you.” he said in a very soft voice.

“These men who have you up here…” Jahr began, trying to find the right words to be honest without showing disrespect. She knew this man was nothing like the crew of the ship or those who’d stolen her from her family, but he walked among them and had worse men who governed his actions. These things made her very cautious as to how she spoke to him. She also wasn’t raised to be a cruel and thoughtless person though. She was taught to fight back against the evil that would keep a person down or harm them. As a result she couldn’t quite keep in check a desire to be protective of the young man who seemed so woefully innocent to what he was apart of.

Jahr sighed, deciding to simply go with honest and let what may come, come.

“These men who have you up here are not good men. They put you in the care of airship pirates and then give you a hell-creature as a guardian and companion. Why would you work for such bad men Mr Marcus? I sense nothing dark about you.”

Marcus felt the last of the succubi’s blissful sensation leaving him as Jahr put the reality of his situation back into clear view. He had no desire to answer her. To truthfully tell her what put him on that ship would be to go back to the discussion of using the term forced servant and all the many things it meant or suggested. He wasn’t ready for that and he didn’t know if this plum haired girl was someone he could trust with such things.

The sky angerly sounded off distracting both individuals from their conversation. The wall of darkness was no longer so far away. With speed Marcus would never have assumed possible, the storm in the distance had quickly covered the sky between it and the ship. It was so close the young man could feel the electricity of it starting to hum over the airship.

“You need to go down to your quarters and secure yourself. This is going to be a very brutal thing for this ship to weather.” As he gave instructions the wind kicked up and acted as though it wanted to drown his cautioning words. “Dear lord…” he said as he tried to catch his breath. The wind was sucking the air from his chest. “If… if something happens to the ship and the warning bells go off come up to my observation room and get a parachute! I have a spare one!”

Jahr could barely hear him and wasn’t sure she heard him right.

“Parachute? What’s a parachute?” she shouted over the roar of the wind.

“Something that keeps you from fast falling to the ground if this ship starts to go down. Don’t tell anyone! Now go!” he replied.

The young woman quickly turned and disappeared from view. The airship began to rock as the first of the dark clouds started to engulf the space around them. A streak of lightning cracked to the right of the ship and a moment later the thunder sounded with such force it shook everything. Marcus was knocked from his feet back against the windows of his observation room. The tea cup in his hand went flying and smashed against the wood planks of the deck below.

With fear rising in his chest and a dread he was trying to keep at bay, Marcus slowly pulled his way around the edge of the observation room until he came to the door. He quickly moved inside and had to use great force to get the door to close behind him. Once inside the room much of the noise of the maelstrom was abruptly cut off. He could still see the growing violence of the weather through the observation windows, though he felt slightly safer not being thrown around by it.

Outside on the deck crew members began to appear wearing heavy leather suits that were meant to protect them from flying debris. Marcus could not say what any of them were doing, but they were quick about their work with the ship’s ropes and levers. After a few moments of fussing on the front deck many of them returned to the back of the boat or below deck, leaving a handful of them struggling up poles to the upper reaches of the airship. Marcus did not envy the position of those who worked in the ship’s rafters.

Nearly ten minutes of watching in awe passed before it occurred to Marcus he had a job to do. His official title as researcher on the ship was observationalist and stormurator operator. This broke down into: He watched things and fed his observations into a series of large and very complicated machines. There were places for every sort of observation to be recorded and noted. It was a rather large task and he was now officially a third of the storm behind on making these observations. He hurried to his wall of machines and began cranking his tuning devices to wake them all up and get the process started.

As the minutes ticked by the storm became more angry. The captain’s orders were to always keep the airship as close to the middle of the storm clouds as possible but the violent nature of the storm was making this difficult.

The captain stopped into the observation room to let Marcus know he was going to have to bring the ship down a few clips or else risk having much of the navigational tools above ripped from the balloon that kept them afloat. He was aggressive about this as if he wanted to make sure the young man knew he had no choice.

“There ain’t nothing for it. No ship, no damned research! If anything stirs up there you’ll still be able to see it and my lightning rods will take less of a beating.”

Marcus just nodded dumbly. He was all for not riding through the very heart of the storm. He knew the captain was worried about him telling his employers differently. He told the captain his plans sounded proper and he’d note it in his observations. This appeased the rough looking man enough to allow him to leave and get back to steering the ship at the other end of the deck.

A half of an hour passed with the storm showing no signs of wearing out. The airship, though now flying slightly lower, was handling its own against the winds that beat against its sides. The lightning was not kind either. There had been two panicked moments where lightning hit the ship itself instead of one of its many lightning rods. This caused small fires to be sparked. The crew men ran to put the fires out but the storm’s rains were actually kind and heavy enough to do that for them. And so the whole airship continued to bump and roll in the chaos of nature.

The violence of the world outside his room was suddenly let in. Papers went flying and Marcus cried out fearing the storm had broken through the door. He looked around in a panic for anything to keep the rainwater from touching his precious (and most temperamental) machinery. Then the touch of the storm was gone and all was calm again except for the soaked presence of the creature MemNous now in the room.

“Isn’t this thrilling!” she gasped.

There was no part of the creature that wasn’t drenched in water. There were places on her pale gold skin that looked singed, as if she’d been struck by lightning herself. Her chest was heaving up and down and caused the young man’s face to grow flushed. Her silk coverings were clinging and opaque against her wet skin. There was a perfect crimson colored outline of the creature’s entire body from her wet dress. She swelled in all the right places and Marcus had to look away. At least for that brief moment his attention was not on the storm.

“It’s terrifying is what it is.” he replied. He went back to imputing his information into the various dials. He did his best to ignore his sudden libido and to make-up for his earlier neglect of keeping track of things.

“So serious!” MemNous teased. She quickly crossed the room and reached for the young man’s shoulders and he pulled away from her as if she were ready to touch him with poison. Given her excited state it wasn’t far from the truth.

The creature quickly took a few steps back and gave the young man room. She wasn’t remotely apologetic for the little taste she’d had of him earlier, but she was smart enough to know she had to keep that in check; especially now that he was working.

Quietly she moved to the front of the room so she could peer out the windows. She would have preferred to be back outside enjoying the storm as a creature like her could enjoy it. However, she was contracted (in a manner of speaking) to stay close to Marcus and make sure no harm came to him. Either by drawing lightning away from him or making sure the crew didn’t get too panicked by the danger they were in and decide to mutiny and throw him over the side so they could run away to safer skies.

Perhaps MemNous greatest asset to help the young man was her particularly sensitive nose for the scent of certain upper atmosphere creatures. Her nose was tingling that night and she wanted to keep in eye on the distant sky.

Both creatures were startled when a strange buzzing noise came off of the far end of the room’s machines. Marcus looked up from his inputting and blinked in confusion. At first he thought one of his machines was sounding an alarm, then he realized it was the communication hub. Quickly he moved to it and picked up the cone and cranked its dial. A whiny sounding man on the other end was telling him a Mr Gil needed to speak to him. The young man felt his stomach drop. For all of this work he was doing he’d forgotten the most important thing his instructor Mr Dominic had told him: Always input and send. Do it as close to real-time as possible. All this time Marcus had been so intent on making up for his earlier distractions he hadn’t been sharing any of his information. He was at least an hour behind now.

The conversation that followed was thankfully brief. Mr Gil was quite mild compared to some of the other people he’d had to deal with. He promised he’d be more thoughtful and only moments after he put up the communication cone and began transmitting his notes. It was a slow process as the storm was causing a great deal of interference. The room became filled with the sound of beeps and ticks as the info was tapped out in code to be received somewhere very far away.

Outside there was a strange noise that was booming and heavy though it couldn’t be chalked up to thunder. The sound was organic and massive in nature. It was an abstract noise that caused Marcus to step away from his machines and look apprehensively towards the dark skies beyond his observation windows.

The noise caused MemNous to stand up and put her hands to the window. She held her breath and waited for the sound to come again. Several minutes passed and finally the sound did come again, only louder and more anguished. Whatever was creating this strange noise it didn’t sound happy.

“By the gods.” she whispered. She put her forehead to the glass and closed her eyes. The sounds came again and bypassed all of her other senses and went straight from ear to that place in her body that held a great thirst for energy. The energy of other living things. “I thought they were all dead.” the creature hissed.

“What? What is it? What’s all dead?” Marcus was frightful over the storm but whatever was calling out made the storm seem small.

On the horizon of the storm a small patch of glowing light could just barely be seen. It was like a softly moving whirlpool in the middle of all the darkness.

Marcus could almost make it out. From what he could see it was quite out of place in this chaos.

MemNous could feel it though. She grabbed Marcus by the hand ignoring any protest. She pulled him behind her out of the observation room. “You can’t witness this through a glass window!” she yelled. “You have to feel this in the almighty flesh!”

Marcus at first protested by way of words but as they grew closer to the edge of the deck he began to pull away from the creature. His panic finally moved him to begin slapping at her pulling hand. MemNous was deceivingly strong and moved him along with little effort. She took no notice of the smacks to her hand. When she had him at the railing she put a steadying arm around him. Her grip was strong. So strong Marcus was more concerned the aging wood of the railing would give under their combined weight before the creature’s strength allowed him to be blown overboard by the wind.

“Try to be calm and just watch Marcus. Just watch.”

He took several deep breaths and tried to do as instructed. The wind beat against his face and caused horribly strong updrafts that sucked the air from his lungs. Lightning struck nearby and he could smell the ozone produced by it. The thunder groaned and then whatever was coming for them within that whirlpool of light groaned even louder.

The whirlpool was maybe a third of a mile away but it was large enough to allow for a good view. Something massive in size partially burst from within the pool of light and could be seen. Marcus didn’t know what he was looking at.

“What is it?!” he shouted over the noise.

More of the creature’s body dipped from the light above. It was massive and a pale silver color that seemed to exude its own light. It dipped and then was violently pulled back upwards into the light. Marcus had to wonder what could be strong enough to move something that size so easily?

MemNous pointed towards the front of the whirlpool of light as it came closer. Being closer to it Marcus could see it wasn’t so much a whirlpool but a wave pool, like the light was its own little ocean in the middle of the storm. He focused on the place where the creature was pointing and finally saw what she wanted him to see.

The thing in the light broke through the bottom again and this time Marcus was looking towards its face instead of its massive body. He’d seen drawings of such a creature when he was younger during his ocean life studies. Only in those illustrations the creature had been mostly black with white markings around its facial areas and no where near as big as this creature. This thing’s body was silver where it would have been black and the markings around the face that should have been white were more like pale gold. Like he noticed before it was glowing. Marcus was speechless.

The succubi smiled and caterwauled to the winds. Then she began laughing in an exited and near manic way.

“This is an aethergrumpus! Hunted by air whalers for centuries! They steal every inch of the creature for novelties among the decadent sky elite and the dusk-lands below. They were thought to be extinct! But here it is! Isn’t it glorious Marcus?!”

It was glorious. As frightened as Marcus was by the deep and mournful noises it was making and it moving through the air, the young man was overcome by the thrill of witnessing it.

The flying creature was in distress. It was being pulled upwards again and as it got closer Marcus noticed long barbed rope-like things attached to its side. There were long rivets cut into its sides where it looked like these rope things had pulled free. Something was trying to capture it.

“Are there whalers at it now?!” he yelled into the wind as he pointed at the barbed ropes.

MemNous looked to where the young man pointed and whatever she took these things to be it caused her body to suddenly grow cold. She stepped away from the railing, letting poor Marcus go in the process. Without her steadying arms around him the young man’s body was quickly thrashed against the railing and he was in fear of falling over.

“MemNous!”

The succubi continued to stare on in shock. Eventually it was the young man’s cries of fear that brought her out of her stupor. She quickly moved back to the railing and took Marcus into her arms again. She didn’t keep them at the railing though, instead moving them back to stand in front of the observation room windows. There she reached for a thick rope that went around the entire cabin. She wrapped it around Marcus’ arm so he could steady himself within the small bit of shelter the overhang the cabin roof provided.

“You’ll have to get yourself back into your room. Just go slow and make sure you wrap one hand each time you unwrap the other to go forward. You’ll be fine. I need to go help that beautiful creature.”

“Why?! Is it whalers then? Is there a ship up there we can’t see?”

MemNous shook her head. “No. An aethergrumpus is safe within the sea of its own light. Whalers used to lure them down with different baits. This creature is being attacked from above by something much larger, ancient, and more deadly than an aethergrumpus will ever be. Those aren’t ropes you’re seeing around its sides. Those are tentacles and they belong to a creature you most surely don’t want to meet. But cheer up my young man! Your employers will be thrilled.”

“What are you going to do?!”

MemNous stepped away and tore her wet clothes from her body and stood there in all of her unnatural nude glory. She winked at the young man as all color went from his face looking upon her.

“I’m going to let my true nature out and eat a bit of lightning. I’m going to give that nasty ole’fucker a good shock to send him fleeing. Then I’m going to take a swim with that beautiful creature and give it a taste. I’ll have quite a tale to tell your masters if I return intact. Good-bye Marcus.”

With that she went running to the end of the deck and jumped up and off the railing. It looked like she did a straight diving fall into the storm until she suddenly soared upwards. Apparently the creature had done very well in hiding the translucent and fleshy wings that attached her arms to her sides. She extended her wings out to full width and caught the air. She rose up into the sky and followed the aethergrumpus back up into the swirling sea of light. Neither one broke the bottom surface of it again.

Marcus waited several minutes for something else to happen. The light pool was moving immediately over head and the size of it could have engulfed the airship and three of its sisters in size with no problem. There were shadows moving within it but Marcus could make out no details in their shapes. He almost felt a sense of calm being beneath this break in the storm until a sound of the now unseen creature crying out rattled everything around him. The noise was so unearthly the young man had to clamp down on his water works to keep from losing his bladder in his shock.

“Enough of this.” he whispered. He pulled himself back slowly and with great struggle to the door of his observation room. Once inside all became calm again. Outside the violent storm went back to being a nearly silent flipping picture show.

“Is that thing dead?”

For the third time in just one day Marcus jumped at the sound of a female’s voice. He scrunched up his shoulders and silently cursed his body for being so skiddish. He turned around and the young plum haired girl with her many braids sat huddled in the corner of the room. She was hiding under a tarp that normally sat over the machines when they were not in use.

He walked over to her and knelt down. “I don’t think there’s a lot that can kill her. This is why they put her here to look after me. Well, one of the reasons. Hopefully whatever she experiences up there keeps her busy for a bit. I think my stomach has taken just enough of her for now.”

Jahr tentatively got to her knees and peered over the bottom ledge of the window. She was looking for crew men who might be on deck. Marcus assured her that except for those up in the sails and the captain well down at the other end of the ship with his steering wheel, they were quite alone.

“You said you had parachuty things? They can help get a person off the boat without crashing? Give me one! Please! Help me get away while no one will notice!” she pleaded.

“Parachute.” Marcus corrected out of habit. He felt an enormous wave of shame coming over him. For the first time he could see the young woman’s fear and he had some idea of what it must be like for her on that airship. But there was no way for him to help her. “I’m sorry but they’ll do you no good.”

“But you said…”

Marcus held up a hand to silence her. “They’re in the case of an emergency and there are no other alternatives. Right now with the rage of this storm a parachute would most likely get you caught up in the wind and tossed about. And when you did finally find your way out of the clouds, we are over a very large body of water. We are much lower than your sky-lands right now. There are no islands in the sky between you and the world below. We’re just too low for such strange things. I still can’t figure out why such a mythical type creature that passed us over was flying so low.” For all his aether world studies, something seemed out of place. He was at a loss of words, for him… for her.

“The electricity.” the young woman whispered.

“Pardon?”

Jahr shrugged as if her knowledge should be common, especially when her fear should not. “Many of the creatures that live in the high aether feed off of light, electricity and other creatures like themselves. A grumpus feeds off of electricity. It gets lured down here by the electrical storms and this was a very big one. That’s how the air pirates used to get them close enough to catch them. They had these old machines that made false lightning. They would float them in the skies and drag the beasts down when they took them.” She looked around, still so fearful. “Are you sure the parachute won’t work? I am very good at flying and I am very brave. I don’t want to be here any longer. The captain looks at me too long with expressions I don’t like.”

Marcus’ thoughts went back and forth looking for a way to be this helpless girl’s champion while he did a job he had no choice but to do. He was not so brave though. He’d never learned how or had a time to practice it, but he knew how to put himself in the way of someone else’s harm.

“No, the parachute is a bad idea. But I think…” he started to speak as a thought came to him. “I think that if you’re willing to trust me a little I can find a happy medium.” He pointed to his wall of machinery. “I could use help running this and if you were willing to learn how to do that then perhaps I could convince my employers into believing you’re a needed assistant. They could tell the captain to leave you alone and you could stay up here with me. Especially through storms like this one. I need a good storm assistant.” A smile came to his lips as he looked back at the young woman. It was a good idea and he was always exceptionally happy when he happened upon a good idea.

Jahr nodded and took the young man’s hand when he offered it to her. He led her over to the first series of machines. “The first thing I’m going to teach you is how to send transcripts of the information I take here. This will be very important to know. Especially now that I finally really have something to tell them.”

Outside of the protected cabin the thunder roared on as the sound of the wailing air creature grew distant.

III

After being woken by the milquetoast Henry, Gil found himself sitting up and smacking his rouge tinted lips as he looked towards the grandfather clock in the room. He was shocked to see how much time had passed as he dozed in his favorite chair.

The weight of the leather folder given to him was confirmation the new lad had waited to send over his information until he’d been contacted. Perhaps there was a reason for this or it was indeed that Dominic hadn’t explained procedure to him very well; either way it annoyed Gil as he opened the folder and began to sift through the copious amount of notes.

Most of what Gil was looking at was foreign to him. He was only educated in the language and nature of these findings to a small degree. What he was meant to look for were the things that would make his employer come away from his clocks.

There were all manner of things they were looking for in the clouds, but somethings were more sought after than others. As far as the clock watcher was concerned. Finding such a thing was a mixed desire of Gil’s. On one hand he wanted desperately to go to Mr Nine with news of a big sighting so that he might finally get moved on to something new in the mansion. Or perhaps beyond the mansion. On the other hand he was quite afraid of what a sighting of one of these things might mean on a grander scale. There wasn’t a middle ground.

As Gil looked over the papers he came upon something that caused him to feel like he’d been punched in the chest. There in his hands was exactly what he’d been waiting for as well as dreading. It had only taken nine years for it to appear.

Gil was up and running back through the maze of mansion stairways and halls. He nearly tripped over a maid or two on separate occasions and accidentally bumped into and sent flying a very old vase or two. He was moving so fast he barely heard the crash of one hitting the floor.

When he got back to the time room, Mr Nine was still in his chair, the perfect replica of the scene Gil had left hours before. This time Gil didn’t hesitate to join him in the clock room.

“Mr Nine sir, the report from Marcus…” he could barely speak as he tried to catch his breath.

Immediately the large man’s hand went up and for a moment Gil was horrified that he was going to have to wait once again for the special tick of that dreadful secret clock hidden deep below the room. Hearing it again so soon would mean a variety of equally dreadful things Gil didn’t have room in his mind to contemplate. Even worse, it could be that hidden clock’s twin. He was relieved when his employer simply told him to catch his breath.

“Take a breath and tell me from the start calmly. Don’t skip details.”

“Of course sir.” Gil took a few deep breaths and calmed himself.

“Sir… the H.M.S. Talluh is in restricted skies. North end, close to the territory of the Til-Mox Trading Company. They’ve not seen any Til-Mox ships, nor any pirates presently. The storm was an upper aether type, quite harsh and traveling far lower than expected. They found it there… beasts swimming low!”

It was the first time that the large man in the room showed any signs of true interest in anything other than his clocks. He set his brandy down and rubbed his cigar out. He struggled to pull himself to the front of his seat as he turned to face the slender man.

“Is it…” his wide eyes turned to look at the weather clock, towards the tentacles dangling down from the sky, though now they were barely noticeable among the clouds that had lightened in color. “Is it him?”

“I’m not sure sir. One creature was unseen and attacking a silverward air grumpus. Your man described the grumpus being roughly pulled up from the storm on several occasions and thinking there were barbed ropes attached to it. Your agent corrected him and said they were tentacles. Only the legends speak of one that could be that size. Your agent went after them. Marcus said she went to help the grumpus and feed from it. Can she really do that?”

The large man’s face lit up as he listened and he began to struggle to pull himself up from his chair. When he finally found his footing Gil was, as always, taken aback by just how large the man was. Not only in girth but in height. He was a small giant.

“Yes she can. She has proven herself through the years to be quite capable of many things with the right motivation. MemNous is an extraordinary creature my grandfather captured and domesticated very long ago. She used to be little more than a seductive thief of life, but we’ve put a lot of effort into making her more than a pet leech.” Mr Nine boasted proudly. He thrust his snubbed out cigar at the other man. “Tell Marcus that we need my agent’s report the moment she returns. Tell him I want it first hand. Put a runner in the message room to come for me when she has made contact.”

Gil nodded his head absently. His mind was still awash with excitement that was beginning to mingle with his exhaustion. His thoughts were not in a place to comprehend what was just said about the ship-man’s guardian or the idea that she had the ability to help a flying whale before feeding off of it. At that moment Gil was simply pleased he’d finally accomplished a major task set for him by the large man in front of him.

The large man seemed in his own little world after receiving this news. Mr Nine began walking in a small circle whispering to himself. It was an unnerving sight after having only seen him in his chair with few words to spare. He appeared to be having a conversation with himself. Finally he came to a pause and acknowledged Gil again.

“This is excellent!” he exclaimed. “If it is him this means the doors must be opening again. That would be the only thing to account for his sudden appearance at this most special of times!”

Mr Nine went silent as he turned towards his own thoughts again. His head moved up and down absently as his lips moved with unheard words. Finally he looked up; his face a mixture of elation and slight sadness.

“He had been unseen since that tragic day.” This statement seemed to be the source of that sadness. “Many of us have postulated he was lost behind the doorway when it closed. Those bastards used no fail-safe for the leash they put upon him for their event. They had no right to him… they couldn’t begin to understand what he is! With their insipid book learning and scholarly beliefs. We’ll be lucky to not find him half crazed because of them. That will have to be dealt with. For now the important fact is that there is a chance that we might find him and access his state after all these years. We’ve long planned for this possibility. This is very exciting indeed. There is much to do though. Much to do. We must contact Maureval immediately!”

Gil nodded, even though he didn’t understand anything that was just said. There were some secrets of the mansion and its keepers that he was not privilege to nor did he want to be. He was simply content to have something new to do. “Absolutely sir. I will go and…”

Mr Nine raised his hands and shushed the other man. “No! No! This is something we’ll do ourselves. There are bigger things at play here and we’ll have to address them with Maureval directly.”

For a moment the smaller man was going to inquire if “we” meant Mr Nine and the secretive owners of the mansion. He never got the chance though. What came next was a scene that Gil would forever tuck into the back of his head as a piece of a bad dream; not a hidden memory.

The massive human in front of him began to move in a slow and wavering manner. It wasn’t him moving that way as a whole, but his skin and fat moving within itself. A horrible squishing noise sounded from the man’s beefy head as a slight part in his skin took shape.

Gil wanted to look away but found he couldn’t turn his eyes from the sight. He couldn’t close his ears from the terrible sounds being made. The whole scene took less than a minute. In Gil’s mind it was an hour that passed in slow motion.

At the end of the gruesome scene Mr Nine was slightly smaller, slightly shorter and next to him was a very slender carbon copy of the large man. Even his clothes had morphed and separated to give them matching suits. The larger man motioned towards the new man.

“Mr Eight will contact Maureval directly. He is better informed on this subject.” Mr Nine snapped a finger at Gil. “And you! For the moment I want you to monitor all of Marcus’ reports and enter them properly into our house ledger. I don’t want a single important detail left out. ”

Mr Nine approached the slender man and made the first physical contact with him ever by giving his cheek a light pat before pinching his chin like he was a child. Gil could only look on mystified.

“Chin up my good man! Things are looking up and your contributions after these many years will not go overlooked! After we know better what is going on a promotion to something more exciting is in order for you Mr Gil. Be sure of that!”

As Mr Nine moved away from the slender man, Mr Eight casually moved towards the clock room door, pausing long enough to politely nod at Gil as he passed. Gil stared and reflexively nodded back. Then a small light went out in Gil’s eyes as all that he’d just seen and heard overwhelmed him completely. A moment later he fainted.

Mr Nine observed his employee as he fell to the floor but made no move to help him. He went back to his large chair and heavily fell back into it, finding there was a little more room around him. He took a fresh cigar from his coat pocket and lit it. He settled back and puffed smoke as he reached for his brandy glass. He waved the glass at the unconscious man on the floor.

“We’ll figure out where a good place is to send you next. Perhaps nothing too exciting given you seem to have the potential to be delicate. Something interesting nonetheless though. After you recover of course.”