“Verily, I say unto the apprentice, be wary of the pestilence for even the soundest of structures may be brought to ruin by the lowly termite, thus sayeth The Builder.” Brother Lucius’s voice rose in timbre, enthralling at least some of the small crowd that had formed before him in front of the locked gates of the Mnemonics Institute.
“Hammer and nail, brother, hammer and nail,” an old woman called from amongst those gathered.
The gates and doors to the Mnemonics Institute had been barred an hour earlier in an attempt to contain the danger within the grounds. Brother Lucius had witnessed it all. He had known for months the apocalypse was nigh and this was further confirmation. The brethren from the Order of Jimothy arrived with the dying boy around 9:30. The child was unconscious and already as pale as death. When the attacks started at noon, Lucius knew another harbinger had arrived. He felt vindicated. The gates hadn’t yet been locked. If he hurried he could make it outside while everyone was distracted. He had to spread the word.
“The warning of the termite is a well known parable, my friends, but a parable whose truth has remained obscure due to false interpretations.” Brother Lucius’s fervor seemed to be drawing people in. “An oft repeated parable it may be, but one whose appalling horror I came to understand almost a year ago when I faced the consequences of tampering with the natural order! Be warned, be warned, the white ant cometh to wreck ruin upon the very foundation of all we hold dear. I tell you this in plainest truth, I cannot be more clear. Demonic, pale; perverse corruption of nature, ready to consume, consume, consume.” Brother Lucius pointed back toward the Mnemonics Institute. “As it consumed here today so shall it consume again.”
An old man in a tattered top hat and reeking of whiskey leaned toward the tall dark stranger who just arrived. “This young brother’s crazy as a coot. I don’t ever remember hearing such rot from old Father Moonwall or Pizzaro. I only came over here to find out about the child that went berserk and killed a bunch of brothers. Do you know anything about that?”
“Shush up you two!” an old woman chastised before calling out to Lucius. “What shall we do, brother, what shall we do?”
“Listen and I will tell you,” said Brother Lucius, but the mad, young cleric was interrupted before he could continue sermonizing when an intense-looking stranger rushed from the back of the crowd, caught him around the middle and hauled him off his soapbox to a chorus of half-hearted protests from the assembly.
“Where are the members from the Order of St. Jimothy?” Petharic rasped.
“Two of them were killed in the attack, another critically wounded; the rest are following Brother Lapis in pursuit—”
“Where is the boy?”
“Boy? What boy? There was no boy. There was a befouling of the natural code; a corruption that savaged those trying to offer it comfort! It rose up to consume them. It could not be contained. Even now the abomination is free, running beneath the streets. There are many exits. Who knows where it will surface or even if it will be alone or with more of its kind.”
“I need to get inside,” Petharic nodded to the institute. “Unlock the gate.”
“I can’t,” Brother Lucius replied. “Ever since the unfortunate incident at the opium den I have not been allowed keys to any of the doors, gates or windows.”
“Sir!” a woman’s call came from behind the gate to the courtyard. “Sir, it’s me, Sister Lilly,” Petharic approached the wrought iron gate, noting the blood stains on the woman’s sleeves and around the hem of her cowl. “Sir, the child is gone,” she sounded breathless though calm. “My sincerest and profoundest apologies for failing with your charge.”
“Are we talking about the boy who went wild?” asked the man with the tattered top hat and whiskey-breath who’d spoken to Petharic a moment ago.
“He must have had some nervous reaction to the injury.” Lilly continued, ignoring the old man in the top hat. “I’ve seen rabid animals behave such, but never a child. He broke an ether bottle and slashed brothers Samwell and Tarly before we could stop him. Brother Jon was the next to fall but I don’t believe he’s dead. The child continued to run amok inside, upsetting everything he passed, until escaping into a tunnel beneath the institute. Brother Lapis followed the child inside but the boy had several minutes head start.”
“Kid could be anywhere,” said the ratty top hat man, stepping a little closer so that he might more easily eavesdrop. “The crazy, young brother is right. Who knows where he’ll pop up.”
Sister Lilly, reached out through the bars of the gate and gripped Petharic’s left arm. “There’s something more than fear and adrenaline driving the child. You and I both saw the injury. That boy was not likely to have lived to the end of the week, perhaps not the day. And now he’s strong enough to kill two grown men, mortally injure a third, all while eluding a complex full of students of the martial arts.
Petharic ran his fingers through his hair, trying to process the events of the day. His chest was beginning to ache again. He turned his head and coughed. The laudanum he’d taken earlier was wearing off, leaving him with a headache and a sore throat. Further muddling his thought process was the searing pain in his right arm; he found it hard to concentrate. He reached into his pocket and awkwardly removed the bottle of laudanum.
“Your arm; here, let me help you with that,” said Lilly, taking the bottle and pulling the cork for him. Petharic, took only one measure then handed her the bottle to recork. “My name is Petharic.”
“Under different circumstances I would say I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Petharic.”
“I know where the boy went,” said Petharic, he then glanced at the sword Lilly wore in a scabbard cinched about her waist. “Are you able to unlock this gate. I am weakened. I may need help.”
“I don’t have a key,” Lilly sounded apologetic.
Without further word, Petharic turned and started to run back toward Clockhaven.