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A gray sky can alter the fundament of your senses. Green grass seems gray, shining metal looks dull. In kinder weather, the house on the hill on the island may have looked like a children’s school, or a meeting place. But now, the paint is cracked and peeled. Flecks of yellow dot the structure, but the sky mutes them. The color is a memory.
The windows are broken. A curtain hangs out of one, waving gently in the wind, calling to mind a woman waving her handkerchief out the window of a train, leaving for a false promise of safety.
Whatever happened, there was no safety here. Remains of twelve outbuildings are connected by broken paths of stone, grown over with dull grass. Their walls are blown out from their centers, implying more than just time or fire. Debris is scattered across the hilltop.
The front door of the yellow house is made of wood, and stands intact, still shut. Two rectangular recesses in the wood are covered on the inside by metal panels.
Over the door, metal characters are bolted to the building.
As the travelers walk toward the building, a shrill TANG comes from within. A harsh, brass sound of metal on metal - the bell. The clocktower reads six o’clock, but the bell only rings once, and is cut short, with no echo.
The sound is loud enough and sharp enough to make Septimus and Jaq clap hands over their ears, but Curson feels the sound more than he hears it. A striking at his core.
He cries out and drops to his knees.
Jaq and Septimus go to him. Septimus gets on his knees next to the demon, but Jaq stays standing. She hasn’t forgiven Curson, not a jot, but she recognizes his importance. She won’t help him. But she doesn’t want him gone.
Septimus, however, moves to help.
“Curson? What is it?”
“The bell,” Curson groans. He shivers, hugging himself. For the first time, he is feeling the cold of this place the same way that Jaq and Septimus do. “It. I don’t know. I am weak to it.”
Jaq and Septimus look at each other. Jaq raises an eyebrow. Septimus motions for her to speak, but she shakes her head and shrugs. He mouths the words ‘come on’, but she simply looks away. Septimus then slaps her shoulder, hard.
“Ow!” she shouts, grasping her shoulder. She mutters, rubbing her arm. “For Lafayette’s sake….” She sighs, and looks down at Curson, who keeps shaking on the ground.
“What is it, Curson?”
“It told me to stay away.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I cannot enter that building.”
With some effort he stands. Jaq’s eyes widen when she realizes that Curson is covered in rain water - only minutes ago, he had seemed as dry as Washington County, Florida.
“Curson…” she starts, but the demon holds up a hand.
“I’m weak here. I can’t go in the building, the two of you will have to check it out. I’m sorry. I’ll...I don’t know, I’ll scout.”
“Don’t you already know what’s on the island?” Septimus asks. “Again, with your knowing-everything skill.”
Curson just shakes his head. “Something is hiding it from me. I’m worried this place may be consecrated ground. Please, I’ll be alright. Just...go. Quickly. Return when you know more.”
Septimus and Jaq exchange looks, trying to communicate silently.
“Just go!” Curson shouts. “Waste no more time.”
“Alright,” Sep says. “We’ll be back.”
Jaq says nothing as they walk toward the house. They approach slowly, watching the house, and the horizon, for any change. The house is making Jaq’s stomach twist.
Jaq approaches the door while Septimus circles around the side. She studies the characters over the door, but she doesn’t know Russian. On a whim, she takes a look through the telescope, but nothing changes.
“Just the one door,” Septimus says, coming back around “Four windows aside, two storeys”
“Know any Russian, Sep?”
“Thought I’d try it out. Russian. Do you speak it?”
Jaq points at the symbols over the door. Septimus looks at them, and Jaq sees the wheels of his mind turning over.
“Little rusty, but, it should say ‘yellow house’, which is slightly worrisome.”
“Matches up with the paint chips. Why worrisome?”
“Yellow house is Russian slang for loony bin.”
“Madhouse. Asylum. C’mon, you’ve never heard the term ‘loony bin’?”
“I”m a French girl raised on an isolated island populated primarily by runaway Italian criminals. Forgive me if some American slang has escaped me.”
Septimus shrugs. Jaq takes the few steps up to the front door, while Septimus casts a glance to Curson, who is walking around the perimeter. Walking is the wrong word, though. Pacing, perhaps.
“What do you think this place was?” Jaq asks.
“Military base, maybe?”
“The shape of the buildings? Did you notice…” She trails off, hoping Septimus will pick up the slack, and he does.
“That it’s the same layout as Curson’s description of Hell? Yeah, the fact did not escape me.”
Jaq looks at the horizon, then the door.
She turns the handle, but it won’t budge. She tries again, harder, and sighs. The iron doorknob turns only a little, refusing to yield.
“Sigh. Muscles, open.”
Jaq steps aside, letting Septimus get to the door.
“Did you just say ‘sigh’?”
He sounds a small snort that isn’t quite a laugh, and takes his turn at the handle. When the plane went down, he was in only a tee, and hasn’t found more clothes, so Jaq gets to watch his muscles contort in, frankly, bizarre ways as he tries the handle.
“Stand back, I’m going to try to force it.”
“Seriously, the contrarian thing is not endearing. It’s annoying as a piranha in your jock strap.”
“That is...wow. That is an evocative image, Sep. But I’m not being my normal self. Instead, I’m being helpful.” She points across the door. “It opens out, not in. You’re not going to force a door this heavy from this side.”
“How do you know it’s heavy?”
“Look. With your eyes. Where I’m pointing.”
Sep turns and looks at the hinges. They’re large iron affairs - three of them, at intervals along the height of the door.
“Yeah, I’m looking. What?”
“Look pretty strong don’t they?”
“And they’re probably not just overkill.” He sighs. “Alright, fine, you’re observant. Got any brilliant ideas about how to get in, then?”
“Windows. I’m nimble, you’ve got arms like cartoon hams. Lift me in through the window.”
Around the side, their complicated plan is played out. Jaq uses Septimus’ hands as a foothold and climbs in through the window, landing on a pile of glass blown in by the wind or by vandals so eager to break windows that they’d come to a ghost island in the middle of nowhere.
He passes her rifle to her through the window, after she takes a brief glance around the room to make sure she’s not about to get attacked. Sep goes back to the front, to wait for the door to open.
The place looks to have once been a waiting room. One door goes toward the center of the house, probably to a main hall. Another goes toward the back, likely to an office. Wooden chairs line the walls, with two more back-to-back in the middle of the room. The chairs aren’t just for function, though, they have carved designs, and upholstered seats and backs. These are meant to give, at least, a little comfort.
The room would be lit by the lamp hanging overhead, but there are also gas sconces on all four walls. Next to each door are two light switches - one a push-button, one a dial.
Jaq goes to the switches, and tries each. The push-button does nothing, but dial ignites the gas lights. The light is warm but feels sickly. Apparently even the light itself is affected by the gray day.
The walls are decorated with floral wallpaper, faded and peeling. Hung over the wallpaper are propaganda posters, in Russian. At first she assumes they’re Cold War, but as Jaq runs her eyes over them, she realizes they cover a much wider range of history than she expected.
Two are from the second World War. Some are the Cold War, another is the Great War, still others seem to be from centuries long past—but still in the same style as the images called to mind by the word “propaganda”. One shows men in forties military gear, facing off against an army of English redcoats with muskets.
Jaq opens the door toward what she guesses is the center of the building, and steps into a hallway, next to a set of stairs. To her left, doors on either side of the hall. To her right, the front door.
The construction is dark wood with ornate decoration. She could imagine this place feeling like a comfortable home or office, but there’s something in the place that feels like it’s tightening around her. Her breathing seems rough, and she doesn’t think it’s just mustiness.
She goes to the front door, and opens one of the iron panels. Neither is at her own eye level, so she bends to reach the lower one, and looks out. Septimus is standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking off, at something Jaq can’t see.
“Soldier boy,” she shouts through the slot in the door, “focus up, I’m not paying you to stand around.”
Without looking, Septimus shows her his middle finger. She laughs and opens the door. When she does, he beckons her forward.
Back in the cold outside, she follows Sep’s gaze to see Curson, sitting cross-legged in the grass, his hands over his eyes.
“Whatever’s happening here,” Septimus says, “I don’t like it.”
“Helpful analysis, sport. Very useful.” She goes back inside.
They split up. Septimus goes upstairs, taking them slowly, pistol pointed at the floor, but ready to fire if need be. At the top, the house has the same layout as below: a long hall/landing with doors on either side. At the two extremes of the hall are semicircle windows, looking out on the rain. At the front, a hatch above leads to the clocktower.
The landing wraps around the stairs into a balcony. Two doors to either side. No sound, except Jaq’s footsteps below. He finds a dial on the wall, and turns it, but the gas lamps up here are dead, leaving him nothing but the slim sunlight coming in through the clouds. He turns the dial off, not wanting to leak extra gas into the hall.
Sep assigns them numbers clockwise, so ahead of him is room 1, on the right, with 3 across the hall.
Room 1 is long - the whole length of the house. The carpet here is starting to rot, thanks to a hole in the ceiling about midway down the room. The far end has a door back into the hallway. Six beds, with no pillows or mattresses, run along the room. Apart from that, there’s nothing in the room - no chairs, no artwork. Not even a fireplace.
Across the hall, another room that’s cleared out. It also runs the whole length of the house, and completely empty—not even beds, like in the last room—save for one prominent exception.
In the middle, against the inside wall, is a suit of armor. No helm, but a sword in a scabbard, and a knife on the other hip.
He turns to leave, but something catches his eye, glinting in the low light. The sword, despite being secured, seems to have a faint glow to it.
He approaches, but pauses when a sense of warmth comes over him. A heat, the sense of a living being nearby. No sound of breath, but Sep gets the distinct impression that the suit of armor is going to move.
It doesn’t though. After a moment, Sep approaches, and takes the sword without incident. The metal of the armor is dull, but the sword has been well cared for. He doesn’t know much about swords, but the the blade is nearly four feet, with a cross for the hilt.
Holding the sword, a pulse of warmth runs through his arm, to his heart. It beats fast, and for the briefest of thoughts he has a sense-memory of being back at his childhood home. The pulse beats a second time, and this time Septimus hears something, a hum or hiss. He thinks it’s the sword, but when he feels his feet trembling, Septimus realizes the sound is from below.
The second door in the waiting room leads to what appears to be a doctor’s examination room. A big wooden desk, riddled with termite holes, is paired with a metal spinning chair. The desk is piled high with papers and books that have rotted or been eaten away. She tries to read them, but they’re too decrepit to be anything but houses for bookworms.
Occasionally, there’s a ticking sound, coming from a small deathwatch beetle sitting on a stack of books.
In one corner, a pair of metal filing cabinets.
Over the desk is a large propaganda poster. White words in Russian arc across the top and bottom. In the middle is a silhouette-o of a man, scaramouche, scaramouche, but this silhouette is military in style. A soldier’s uniform, with helmet and gas mask with large red circles for eyes. Under those lenses eyes are a pair of vivid eyes. In the strange logic of paintings, Jaq gets the impression she is being watched. She can even tell that the eyes under there are green, despite the red hues.
She looks away from the print, and checks out the filing cabinets. The contents are well preserved files, heaps of paper, all in Russian. Occasionally anatomic diagrams. In one drawer she finds a pistol - a Luger - and a box of ammunition. The Luger is in a belt holster with no belt, so she steals it, obviously, and pockets the ammunition. There are also a few clips that should fit her Kalashnikov and pistol.
“Thank whatever fool left them here,” Jaq whispers as she pockets the clips, too. “And thank the maker of this coat for large pockets.”
The second filing cabinet is locked, but filing cabinet locks are easy to pop. She puts some gusto into her movement, and...nearly pulls the cabinet over on top of her.
The locks are weak, but she is not strong. Sep can open it when they meet up. If it’s locked, it’s worth opening.
Next, the room across the hall, but this room is completely bare. Another one running the building’s length—Jaq isn’t willing to call it a house anymore—this room has absolutely nothing in it other than water damaged wallpaper and long rug.
She starts to turn, but thinks of the telescope.
She pulls the metal cylinder from her pocket, and flips open the two ends. Her eye up to one lens, she looks over the room.
Through the glass, Jaq sees a soft wisp of light on the floor in the middle, under the long rug, but the glass won’t show any more. The light isn’t even illumination - it’s just a section that looks better lit, a circle on the floor, three feet wide.
She pulls the glass away from her eye and gives it a toss in her hand, feeling the weight. “Noted,” is all she says about the tool.
She puts the glass away and pulls at the mouldering rug, uncovering a circle of metal is set into the floor. A depressed keypad sits inside the metal circle. Jaq wonders if this is a safe or a door.
The keypad is covered by a glass panel, probably there to keep the metal level, so that walking over it on carpet wouldn’t reveal anything.
The keypad is simple - ten keys - with a square green light next to the 0 button, unlit.
Jaq enters 0-0-0. Nothing happens. She tries pressing a fourth time, still nothing.
“Worth a try,” she whispers to herself.
Maybe the glass?
She tries it, and finds fingerprints, glowing softly. Her own fingerprints, on the zero, don’t show up at all, but four numbers are lit: 1, 4, 7, and 9.
Only 256 combinations, this should be easy. One thought stands out: what if it’s a year?
The light by the keypad blinks green once. There’s no beep or sound...until there is. The floor shakes, the motion of some decades-old machinery waking below her. The metal panel lifts out of the floor. The movement is slow, as motors in the floor strain to lift the massive cylinder of metal. On the bottom is another keypad.
Below, in the hole now left in the ground, a metal shucking sound echoes as an aluminum, collapsible ladder drops down.
She doesn’t have a flashlight, so she tries looking with the glass - nothing but darkness, although the ladder glows very faintly.
Footsteps behind her, coming into the room.
“You alright?” Septimus asks. “I heard--”
“Yeah. Big hole in the floor, and some Cold War weirdness.” She turns to look at Sep, then back at the hole, then a double take.
“Are you,” she says, then stops. She has to think a second, to make sure she’s seeing it. “Are you wearing a sword?”
“Found it upstairs,” he says, failing to hide a smile, his hands resting at his hips, near the handle of each weapon. “I dunno, I felt like I was supposed to take them. Plus, I’m going to run out of bullets eventually. Did you find anything?”
“Bullets,” she says, then stands, considering him. The blades actually look pretty good, but no way in hell will she tell him that. “But also something else. C’mon, I need your rusty Russian. And your arms.”
“You are so weird.”
“Say to you of nice.” She tries to keep a straight face, but cracks a smile at the end.
“I didn’t say it was a good thing.”
“C’mon,” she says. “Got a lock for you to break open. Then we can check out the creepy basement.”
Septimus rips open the top drawer with some effort. The lock pops, and he’s able to reach in and twist the mechanism, unlocking the rest of the drawers. Jaq starts to rifle through, while Septimus looks at some of the files in the other cabinet. Medical diagrams, lab tests, commentary by doctors.
“I can’t read doctor’s hieroglyphics,” he says, “but from the printed stuff I get the impression that a lot of the medical stuff going on here was pretty normal. Colds, flus, STDs.”
“Yeah, not so normal,” Jaq says and holds out a diagram from one of the locked files.
The page has a printed outline of a human being - an amorphous shape with arms and legs and a head. But over this, in marker pen, has been drawn a now familiar shape.
The head is encompassed by a squiggle like a cloud, with a drawn beak, and two tentacles that drop from the brain-shape, and follow the path of the arms.
“Not so normal,” Septimus whispers.
“All the files in this cabinet have something like it,” she says, rolling up one and shoving the paper in her pocket. “Shall we check the basement?”
“We should tell Curson.”
“Or we could not. Come on.” Jaq goes for the basement.
Septimus follows, asking “What is your deal with him?”
“He lied to me.”
“You don’t seem like the kind of person who should be surprised by a demon lying. Granted he’s the first one I’ve met, but I have to imagine that if I made a list of demon traits, ‘deception’ would be on it.”
Jaq ignores him, and goes to the open panel in the floor. Without a pause, she turns around and descends the ladder, feet and hands clapping to the metal, echoing in the chamber below.
Septimus follows. He won’t press the issue. He still has no plans to know the woman once this is all done, so, not his problem.
The room below feels small and stale. The air exchange with the house above hasn’t cleared out the room, just mixed up the dust. Jaq waits a moment, giving her eyes time to adjust. The gray sunlight from above only brightens a circle of floor around the ladder.
She steps into the dark, feeling for wall. She finds it soon - smooth concrete, chill to the touch. She then works her way around in the dark, feeling for...well, anything really. Her feet crunch debris, so she starts shuffling through instead, moving pieces of wood or stone out of the way, some cloth, some feels like metal. SHe won’t know what all it is until she finds some lights.
Septimus reaches the floor and looks around.
“You disappear?” he asks.
“Yes. Hang on, I’m looking for a switch. Or, I dunno, anything.”
He waits for a few seconds, then asks “Anything yet?”
“Concrete and dark. Wait, hang on.”
She finds a strip of cold metal that feels rusted. It surrounds a bank of heavy switches, the kind in an eighties sci-fi movie. She start flipping them. The first two do nothing, but the third causes a heavy click of electricity, and a crackle. Then, a small clicking, and finally a flicker. The room is filled with light.
Gross, old, yellow sodium light, but light nonetheless. Two lights are on each wall. They all flicker, but only three of them eventually resolve into steady light, making most of the room only passingly lit.
“And the man said, let there be light,” Jaq smiles.
And then stops smiling, when she realizes why Septimus is staring at the floor.
All that debris that Jaq was shuffling her feet through. It wasn’t furniture. It was bones and clothes.
Based on the number of different sets of clothes, there are seven bodies. They might have once been hospital gowns, or they could have just been loose cloth - they’re too decayed to know.
“Well,” Jaq says.
“Yeah,” Septimus answers.
“Let’s find a way out of this room, huh?”
The panel she used to turn on the lights is next to a pair of titanic metal doors set into the concrete walls. They’re browned with rust, but could still probably hold their own against a nuclear blast.
“I doubt the combined forces of Harry Houdini and a dozen Misters Universe could open those doors,” Sep says, pointedly not looking at the bones.
There are a dozen identical switches. They may have been labeled when the place was built, but any writing is long gone now. There’s also a keypad, like the one on the access hatch. Above the panel is a monitor like a small, decades-old television, with a switch all its own. Jaq flips it, and the thing buzzes to life.
“Hey Sep,” Jaq says. “I see you.”
She smiles and points to the monitor - it’s showing Septimus, from the room above: a camera above the hatch, trained directly on the hole.
Septimus nods. “Makes sense. They didn’t want to surprise any visitors. Or maybe they did, who knows?” He walks to the doors.
“This one?” Jaq wonders aloud as she flips another switch. Nothing.
Sep comes over to Jaq, looks at the control panel.
“Wait,” he says. “Look at that.”
There’s a hole over the panel - well, not so much a hole as a cut. A thin line.
“Got an idea, sport?”
Septimus paws at his right side, where the smaller knife sits at his hips. He draws it, and looks at the short blade. It shines, even in the ill light. He lines up the blade with the line in the wall.
When he inserts the key, a low concussion shakes the concrete floor. The doors begin to separate, shifting away with the sound of heavy machinery. Old air begins blowing toward them, with new air rushing the other way, blowing up a cloud of dust and mold. Sep and Jaq cover their mouths and noses.
The doors take half a minute to open. On the other side is a hall that goes left and right. Once they’re open, Septimus pulls the blade out of the wall - the doors stay open.
“Ominous,” he says, looking at the room on the other side.
He points at a sign on the wall directly opposite the door. A bronze statue of a woman in a short coat is lit only by the sodium light spilling through the open doorway. On either side of her, a set of characters in Russian, but also in several other languages - German, English, Italian, and a few that neither of them recognize.
“Do they all say the same thing?”
“The Russian and English ones do. Station R8.36.”
“So why is that bad, sport?”
“Well, I don’t know how much you believe in signs and portents.”
“I’m here because of a literal demon.”
“Romans, chapter eight, verse thirty-six.”
“I know my Bible. It’s weird because it’s actually a verse that quotes from Psalms, but that’s not really the point.”
“Kindly get to the point? The freaked look on your face is deeply troublesome.”
“I mean, context is important, but--”
“Sep, you’re searching hard for it to mean anything other than what you already think it means. So what do you think?”
“The exact verse. The precise words.”
“Let’s start there.”
“‘As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’”