He turned the pages of the book in his hand without really reading them. It had been a long, dull night, and as the fire sizzled and popped in the large, brick fireplace in front of his chair, his mind wandered out to the darkness beyond the confines of the house. He sighed and stretched his stockinged feet toward the wrought iron screen that separated him from the flames, felt the warmth on his feet turn to heat, held them there until his soles were so hot he had to pull away.
Then he placed his feet on the cool, wooden floor, relishing the contrast, closing his eyes as he allowed himself one last brief moment of pleasure. When the moment passed, he opened his eyes and studied the book. Father Glasser had always mocked him for his cramped handwriting, but the man had been a fool who cared more for appearances than for the true power of words. He traced his pale fingers, gnarled with arthritis, against the words he'd wrote so long ago, felt the scritched imprints where he’d cut the ink into the vellum, ran them out along the book’s binding, the rough, pulpy resin, the embossed gold lettering. Then he clapped it shut, pushed aside the screen, and threw it into the fire.
It took a moment, the thick binding diverting the flames, sending them up and around the edges, but soon the inner pages caught like dry tinder, and it burst with the heat, blooming like the fiery nightcrowns that grow in the underworld. It blackened and crumbled, bits of ash wafting up in the chimney’s draft. He smiled.
Then he tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling. He still remembered when the painters, led by the mad, charming artist Solara, had come to render the night sky on the interior dome of the library. The library had been closed for months while they worked, the books all stored away, the shelves built out with scaffolding and covered with huge curtains of sailcloth, spattered with paint. He had thought it so beautiful then, what they had made, a thousand points of starlight constellated against the blackness. But paint fades with time, as all things must, and all he saw now was falseness and trickery.
He stood up, his joints popping with the effort, and picked up the iron poker. He swung it like a cudgel, knocking the logs with its curved iron hook, making them crumble and tumble, sending out sparks. Then, leaving the screen off the fireplace, he turned and walked toward the library doorway. His stockinged feet skished over the lacquered wood, and his shadow danced in the firelight, fracturing into a crowd of giants along the stacks of tomes that lined the walls of the room. He went out through the door and did not look back.
The hallways of the enormous old house were dark and empty as he made his way to the central stairs. He had walked these halls many times, and he did not need candlelight to guide him. As he descended the broad stairwell, he passed the paintings of all the former Progenitors, the faded oils and dyes catching glints of moonlight through the windows, making the faces of the men and women who lined the wall look ghastly and wicked; dozens of them leering out from the past. But he refused to see them. Tonight, he had decided, he would no longer let the dead hold sway.
The vestibule at the bottom of the stairwell had been grand once, a high ceilinged room with dark oak paneling and brass trimmings, and he remembered the days of his youth, when the house was filled with life and merriment. They had hosted lavish parties then, the revelry often lasting until dawn, back when the sun still rose above these lands. He’d wait crouched at the top of the stairs, bursting with excitement to see the people arriving in their masks and costumes, and he’d make up stories about who they were and what distant realms they had traveled from. He had learned early on not to let elder Father Culler catch him, for he had been a cruel and unyielding man who did not appreciate little urchins spying on the guests. But the Baroness had always taken kindly to him, and she had once even given him his own mask and let him walk among the myriad rooms as people danced and sang in the old tongue of making.
But she was just a painting now, along with old Culler and all the others, and the house had been empty of life for many years. The brass trimmings were faded and tarnished, and the cornice that circled the top of the wall where it met the ceiling was cracked and moldering. White dust and chunks of plaster speckled the threadbare patterned rug.
He crossed the room to the wide, heavy, interior double doors and pulled them both open. The moon was nearly full tonight, and it sat low on the horizon, rising just above the trees, fat and silver in the starless sky, sending light through the exterior glass doors on the other side of the entryway. His rubber boots were in the entryway, but he walked passed them and pushed the exterior doors open. The air was bracing as it hit his skin, and his breath fogged in the late autumnal night before it rode away on the wind.
He smiled with pleasure, striding down the marble steps and onto the stone gravel path that led down the broad, sweeping grounds. The pain of the stones on the soles of his feet sent jolts up his legs with each step. He let the pain enliven him, refusing to step off to the weedy grass that lined the path until he reached the fountain near the center of the unkempt lawn. He paused at the fountain, staring up at the leering seraphs that presided over the bone-dry bowl beneath. He hated this place, hated the memories it brought back, when the fountain had been full with gurgling water and the Baroness’s daughter had laced her fingers with his own, whispering sweet fantasies about the great power he carried within him, the last scion of the old home, the last of his kind to know the language of making. She had understood even then that there would be no one left to paint her when she was gone, and before she leapt, she had made him promise to write it all down. All of it.
He cursed her for that promise as he stared at the fallen ivy leaves that sat withered and shrunken in the empty pool. Bare vines crept across the granite flesh of the seraphs like bulging veins, black with disease. Beneath them, a bas-relief showed a woman clutching her bosom. An arrow pierced her heart, and her face was a mask of pain and sorrow. At her feet lay a man, already dead, a half dozen arrows in his chest and head. He lingered before the gruesome scene for a moment longer, then snorted with disgust and walked past. It did not bother him that the eyes of the seraphs followed his path around the fountain. They could never withdraw from their perch without his permission, and he would never grant it, leaving them trapped there until the day they finally crumbled to dust.
He stepped off the main gravel path, which would have led him down towards the gates, and moved off west towards the rising moon that climbed above the forest. It was higher now, casting the land in skeletal hues. The weedy grass stood tall, but there was a hint of a path, little more than a narrow track of dirt, and he followed it. When he came to the edge of the trees he did not hesitate, forcing his way through the undergrowth that threatened to swallow the trail.
The trees were mostly cleared of leaves now, but the branches caught the moonlight at every turn, and the shadows made for slow going, obscuring the vines and roots and rocks. There was no sound except for his breathing, the scrunch of his stockings in the dry leaves, and the clattering and creaking of the branches. By the time he reached the far edge of the woods, the moon was well overhead, and he looked out across the fallow pastures that rolled down towards the cliffside.
The grass rippled in the wind, and with it came the scent of the ocean, fresh and salty. He pushed across the pastures, climbing over the low, mossy stone walls that sectioned off the land, making for the cliffs. They were still a ways off, and his stockings were soon muddied and soaked with dew, but he kept on. When he was well away from the woods, he glanced back. As he did so he stumbled, rolling his ankle in a soft patch of earth that collapsed beneath his weight, coming down to his hands and knees.
But he had seen it.
A dim, orange glow, tinting the horizon above the trees.
He stood again, wiping his hands on his trousers, testing his weight on the tenderness of his left ankle. He limped onwards. Finally, he reached the headstone at the edge of the cliff, a simple cross hewn from granite. The moon had traversed behind him, and it cast its cold light over the ocean far below. The markings on the headstone were weathered and unreadable, but he had carved them himself, after she fell, and desperate though he was to forget them, words were promises in this place.
The soughing of the tides came up to him like the breath of the nameless ancient ones who still make their home in deep, lightless places. He turned back again. The orange glow was brighter now, climbing above the trees like a false sunrise. He smiled a satisfied smile.
Then he lifted his arms wide and leaned backward, letting his weight carry him past the edge of the cliff.
That was when I caught him.
A clod of dirt broke away, dislodged by his feet, and fell to the rocks far below, soundless from this distance, but he hung there, suspended in the air like a still frame.
I warned you not to come this way, I whispered in the wind, hauling him back to sturdier land.
He knelt on his hands and knees, seagrass pushing up through his splayed fingers, his head hanging down. He said nothing, just breathing, stilling his beating heart. Then he lifted his head and looked around in the emptiness of the night.
I burned your story, he said. And your home with it. You have no power over me anymore.
You burned a book. Wood pulp and stains of ink. And you set fire to a house with it. Oak beams and stacks of bricks. That does not change the promise you made.
Why won’t you release me? he asked. The pain in his voice made me sad.
It was your words that plucked the stars from the sky and gave me life, Father, I said. What power of mine could ever set you free?
It was a mistake, he whispered.
I said nothing.
The flames were consuming the dry grass around the house. Soon they would reach the forest.
I just want to see the stars again, he said.
I left him then, left him alone by the cliffside where she gave her life so that he could make me come alive, a final offering to a dying world.
If a star appeared in the sky that night, it was too bright with fire and moonlight to see it.
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