Turning the corner and approaching the Brunel on her way for a quick one, Eloise noticed a hint of cigar smoke. At first she thought Sole might have had the same idea as her—a quick drink—but thought he must be busy monitoring activity in Port after the fire there. If he were to ‘pop in for a quick one,’ he would stick to the Clockwork Kraken or Alley Cats most likely. Besides, it didn’t smell of his brand. Yet it seemed familiar, almost hauntingly…
Stepping down into the lounge area she saw a lanky figure slouched in a chair enjoying a cigar with a hat covering his face. Then she saw his hair. His long, white hair reaching halfway to his waist…
It’s him! Here? Now?
Without even looking, he filled the room with that voice—the voice she had dreaded all these months; since ‘The Test.’
“I have heard, since I left Stonebridge, many a yarn. There can be found—at least in some—insight into the complex detail of the human soul; those details which so richly constitute humanity itself. The stories of the brave struggling valiantly against malice; cautionary tales of the dangers of ruthless corruption; fairy fantasies with simple morals and blissful endings; and everything in between.
“Amongst these many tales I might slip a story of two sisters I once knew, were it of interest to anyone. It is certainly of particular interest to me, as these two sisters once made a wager. That wager decided my fate.” He paused to puff on his cigar, and when she tried to speak he cast those hollow haunted eyes at her and froze her in mid-sentence, too terrified to even tremble.
Wordlessly she gathered enough composure to scan the room and then sat opposite him at the table in the corner.
Bringing his voice low, he drilled into her consciousness with nearly no emotion at all, “Miss Winchester, before I met you I was a peaceful, compassionate man; my heart was filled with the love I see missing in so many others. Having met you, I have since lived in a different world—my day turned to night and I am no longer who I was. I have killed to live; preserved enemies that I may myself survive; taken part in the destruction of innocents; and had my soul twisted inside out and back again like a tired old cloak. I’ve lost all hope and sometimes think I awaken each day only out sheer force of meaningless habit.
“Yet in spite of all this I can only imagine how it must feel to have taken part in the inducement of such a transition.” He paused for a few seconds and looked up to see her big eyes welling. Leaning back in his chair he casually took a substantial pull on his cigar. Blowing the smoke carefully away from her, he tilted his head forward and grinned up sideways at her for a moment, then leaned in a bit until he was sure only she would hear him whisper, “Isn’t life a hell of a thing?” in a twisted echo of a phrase from the not-so-distant past.
Two things struck her as she watched him settle back into his chair and have another big puff on the cigar, still grinning:
Firstly, he would never do anything to her here, yet he had approached her without any hint of fear for his own safety. This was no chance encounter; he knew precisely what he was doing and had somehow expected her here, despite her random decision to pop in for a quick one.
Secondly, he was different. What gave her such a chill was that he seemed like a completely different person, occupying his body.
Seeing clearly the results of the tragedy she had predicted as a result of Audrey’s experiment, she was as powerless now as she had been to stop this horror when it began. She could conceive neither of what he intended, nor of what he was capable. She was both truly terrified and twisted in anguish.
After a few moments of painful quiet, he leaned forward again and looked her in the eye. “Eloise, I shall never describe to you what my life has been since last we met. One brief glimpse into your eyes reveals to me with shocking clarity what your little experiment has cost you. It is enough for you to know that I pray you never find out what it has cost me.
“If you remember who I once was, you will understand that I wouldn’t want Audrey to ever attempt to answer for her actions. She will never be capable of appreciating what has been done, nor does she have the shoulders to carry the burden should she understand her part in the crime.
“The only thing of less use than blame is contrition when there is
nothing to be done. I say these things to you only because I must, and because we both know that you are strong enough to survive it. For the present, all three of us are alive; it hasn’t cost what it could.”
As he paused to gauge her comprehension and leaned back a bit, she saw for the first time since ‘The Test’ had gone so wrong a hint of his antecedent profound depth of humanity. She finally recognized him; who he had been was still in there—somewhere.
Ensuring that he still had all of her attention, he continued. “What I will confide of my journey is its result: What postponed my mortality was neither maniacal lust for retribution nor tranquil forgiveness—only practical alignment of perspective.”
Giving her a few minutes to absorb the concept and to build her courage to speak, he concentrated on reaching over to ash his cigar and getting his gangly frame comfortable, during which both parties made a habitual subtle scan of the environs.
Her shock was subsiding, yet she could think of no way to ask the obvious question. His face took on a calm—a peaceful softness—as she studied him carefully. She sensed such patience, such serenity in him; she wasn’t even aware of his breathing. Finally she began awkwardly, “Chase, how…”
He looked at her with his piercing, cold eyes and she froze again. He smiled softly, then whispered only, “It wasn’t anything I learnt at the Academy, and it must always be my secret. If I wanted you to know, I could not speak of it.”
She could contain this no longer: “Chase, you must know there was no wager. I argued, begged her to please drop the preparation and try something else. I didn’t leave the school because of her; I left because of what she did to you,” she pleaded, shakily. After her outburst there was a moment of heartbeat silence. She watched silently, again frozen as he regarded her. He seemed to smile slightly and settle a bit in his chair.
“I knew it, Eloise. I knew she was lying. It is sadly—after all—her speciality.” Looking at the table for a moment, his face changed through a subtle grin to calm, and then as he looked up at her she could see grave concern in his eyes replace the fleeting warmth that had teased them earlier.
“The dragons are loose, Eloise. The ‘Corps’ have shrugged off their chains. Prepared or not, we must fight. And we must not lose.”
Eloise nodded solemnly, unable to do anything but silently agree.
“We must all prepare. You do understand who I mean by all?”
She nodded, relieved to be given re-assurance of what she had already decided: that contact would now be acceptable. Indeed, that it would be vital.
She nearly summoned the daring to quiz him about his lodgings and so forth; and most importantly about his intentions regarding Audrey. Just then she saw a flicker of movement of shadow in his eyes—which showed no reaction at all—and instinctively knew that another presence in the room would mean that he would now excuse himself.
As she sensed someone of a large frame approaching the door, she turned her head just enough to register sufficient detail in the shadows to appraise the arrival without eye contact and when she looked back, there was a single long white hair on the chair where Chase had been, his fibrous calling card.
Knowing that he would not be found again until he thought it necessary, she turned back again to see a local man greet her pleasantly on his way to the bar. She smiled and stood to excuse herself, her mind filled with turmoil. She knew enough now to approach the Militia, and that she must.
Stepping out into the street, Eloise made her way through the quieter alleys and backstreets toward Wheatstone with renewed resolve and finely-focused purpose. It was as well that she never got round to a glass of diversion…