Nocturnes: 01 — The Prim and Proper Raven

“For I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only God to cry to now.”

― Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

The frozen tundra extended to the horizon in all directions and further beyond. Its sweeping landscape of white dunes smothered by a snowstorm that endured relentlessly, without end, and with such ferocity that life did not dare grow and the sun refused to ever rise.

One’s assumption would be that this sterile hellscape would offer no reason for any man to venture into its frozen abyss; yet the Concilium, unable to leave any matter up for assumption, sent a group of prospectors out into the tundra in search for their most coveted of minerals, Azoth—the lifeblood of Roanoke City.

“We’re nearing a gas vein!” The foreman yelled, shouting over the deafening cascade of pistons slamming and steam-pipes whistling, “And I want to leave on my terms—not blasted off this frozen hell-hole because of a bunch of halfwits who can’t ease up on the torque converters!”

He scurried through the bowels of the drilling rig, barking orders at men covered in grime who slid greasily from valve to valve, turning winches and pulling levers within the metallic vascular system of sinewy pipes, all the while navigating the jets of steam that blasted their surroundings.

The foreman made his way to a wooden staircase that was nestled out-of-sight within an alcove amongst the heavy metal walls looming overhead; he anxiously skipped every other step before coming to a stop a few steps short of a large port-hole door directly ahead.

He turned to face the men. “I want that drill bit out of that hole before nights end! I don’t care if you have to sleep standing or piss yourselves to get it done…and if all goes well, by this time next Spring, you’ll be home to your wives quicker than their lovers when you first left!”

He was met with a chorus of cheers and a cacophony of clangs as men struck their tools against the metal pipes with glee.

“Alrigh’, alrigh’—get back to work, before I get the Drillsaw on ya!” He said, giving a parting chuckle before opening the door and stepping into the room.

“The men seem happy,” Ignatius Del’Mar said from behind his desk, holding his focus on the sheets of parchment sprawled over its surface; each one riddled with complex equations and abstruse diagrams.

“Ah—yes, sir,” the foreman stuttered, closing the door behind him but never stepping further into the room. “They can see that the end is near and are eager to leave.”

Ignatius dabbed his quill in a bottle of ink. “Do they not enjoy working here?” He said, scribbling some notes on a diagram much unlike the others. It depicted what appeared to be celestial bodies, constellations and, in the centre, a sketch of a large sprawling tower.

“Absolutely, sir, they do,” the foreman replied, “But you must understand, we have been stationed at Anchorhead for five years now—and the men grow anxious to see their families.”

Ignatius settled his quill and leaned back into his seat, locking eyes with the foreman who began fidgeting with his fingers.

Ignatius rose to his feet. “Five years…” he said with a soft voice, sauntering to a small port-hole window behind him. He put his back to the foreman, resting his arm against the wall, and watched as the fuselage of snow shot sideways outside. “It feels like no time has passed at all…”

“Busy hands turn the wheels of time, eh,” The foreman laughed awkwardly.

“Yes, of course,” Ignatius stood proper, holding his hands behind his back while turning to face the foreman once again. “Do you bring news?” He asked.

“Ah—yes. Indeed. Good news, in-fact! We have successfully reached the gas vein and I have ordered the men to begin prepping the system for a higher-pressure environment. I expect that we will be operational again within forty-eight hours.”

“Cancel that,” Ignatius stated bluntly, sitting down at his desk to begin scribbling on the unusual diagram again.

“Excuse me?” The foreman replied, visibly confused.

“Cancel the order,” Ignatius reaffirmed, “I do not wish to waste time unnecessarily. Simply lower the rotations per pressure cycle and continue drilling. This way, within forty-eight hours, we will have cleared the gas vein.”

“But sir—that will bring unnecessary risk to our men. And forgive me for saying, but protocol states—”

“—Do not quote me protocols, foreman. I was the one who wrote them. Now, I have given you a command and I expect it to be carried out to its fullest…” Ignatius tilted his quill horizontally and glanced up at the foreman who, for a moment, thought he could see a hint of madness simmering beneath the surface of Ignatius’s shrewd eyes. He continued to speak, “Or am I to interpret this disclination to follow orders as an attempt on your behalf to sabotage my work here?”

“No. Not at all, sir. Never would I dare…” Beads of sweat began to trickle down the back of the foreman’s neck.

Ignatius held the foreman’s gaze with a scrutinising stare and, after what seemed like an eternity for the foreman, he eventually lowered his head to resume working.

“When can I expect the preliminary samples of the gas vein?” Ignatius asked, speaking as if nothing had happened.

“Any moment now,” the foreman replied, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Good. Feel free to help yourself to a glass of Tokay while we wait,” he flicked his hand in the general direction of the wines.

The foreman was hesitant at first… But quickly overcame his decorum’s at the thought of wetting his tongue with something other than backroom hooch. So, he thanked Ignatius and eagerly made his way to a mahogany brushed cellarette in the corner of the room.

He opened its dusty top and found that was stuffed to the brim with very old—and very expensive—wines, which he navigated through with extra care, ensuring that he did not disturb even the labels as to not risk the ire of Ignatius. Yet, after scrutinising each and every bottle, he came to the realisation that there was only one bottle of Tokay—a perfectly sealed bottle, marked with the Del’Mar crest—and it was clearly the oldest, and most expensive of the lot.

The foreman, either in good conscious or out of fear, felt it was best to ask before opening any bottles—especially one that would bankrupt him and his many generations of children to come.

“Excuse me sir, but this bottle appears to be unopened—shall I take a different drink?”

“I know, foreman,” Ignatius replied with an irritated sigh, as if bothered by the obviousness of the question, “I have been saving it for a special occasion and, since we have found ourselves in such an occasion, we are celebrating.”

“We are?” The foreman raised the bottle to his eyes and, simultaneously, raised a bewildered eyebrow. “I guess we are,” he quickly convinced himself, “Shall I pour you a glass?”

“You shall not.”

“I see…very well then.” The foreman shrugged his shoulders, deciding not to think too hard on it, and took a seat next to an old-fashioned writing bureau.

A satisfying pop echoed through the room as the foreman unceremoniously pulled the cork with his teeth, and he watched in earnest as the amber coloured Tokay slid like silk out from the bottle and into his glass; basking in its sweet scents while filling it to the brim. Then, with a nod to no one and a smile for himself, he raised his glass and said out loud, “Cheers,” before downing his drink in one gulp.

Ignatius Del’Mar reacted to none of this. Nor did he react to the second pouring of Tokay that the foreman helped himself to. But even the gentle buzz of the sweet wine could not distract the foreman from the dull and drab room with little to do, so he occupied himself with watching Ignatius, who continued to scribble furiously on parchment, to parchment—only stopping to re-ink his quill.

It was not the Ignatius’s attitude that frightened the foreman—although that was a contributing factor—but it was the aggressive pride that Ignatius always held in his jet-black eyes. It spoke of an obvious contempt for anyone that was not a asset to his work, and even more so for those who he deemed to be a detriment. His striking appearance did not help matters either. Ignatius was not an ugly man, but he was not comely by any conventional standards held within Roanoke either—not that the miner’s of Anchorhead cared much for that. His hair was thick and slicked back, with streaks of grey—from stress, no doubt—lining his forehead. His nose was long and hooked, and his lips were thin and always held tight with a clenched jaw.

Ignatius would dress in no other than long, flowing robes of spartan black, with coattails that would stick out from behind like the tail of a bird; and he would walk through the station with long, purpose driven strides while clutching a notebook of sorts to his side—even if he had nowhere to be, or nothing to note. Eventually, this earned him the nickname amongst the miners as: the Prim and Proper Raven.

“Foreman?” Ignatius eventually uttered; with his head still hung low over his desk.

The foreman jolted out from his daydream and stuttered, “Yes, sir?”

“Please do not stare. I find it most distracting.”

“Sorry, sir.”

There was a rapid knock on the door. The noise rattled through the room with such intensity that it jolted the foreman awake from his boredom-induced—and alcohol assisted—stupor. But before he could rise to his feet, Ignatius was already at the door.

“Do you have the results?” He asked before he even had the door fully open.

A burly figure named Balla stood on the other side. Balla was a frighteningly large man—even compared to the other well-built and stocky miners of Anchorhead—with shoulders that spanned the width of the door frame, and with callus hardened hands that were of a size that they could easily wrap around a person’s face; and he stood at a height that forced him to crouch slightly while stepping into the room as to not hit his head.

His leather apron, which was big enough to fit two adults, dripped soot and grime onto the floor as he quickly addressed both men, before responding to Ignatius.

“The excavation unit has only just arrived,” Balla said with urgency, his deep and powerful voice cracking as he spoke.

“Go on,” Ignatius responded, standing impatiently near his desk.

“And the moment I saw what they uncovered; I came here to tell you in person.”

“Yes, yes, and…”

“…And at first, I couldn’t believe it. I was certain there must have been some mistake—”

“—Out with it, man! Do you have the results or not?”

Balla fell silent. He began to fidget with something in his hand, and he looked down at it with wide and wild eyes, seemingly hesitant to open his palm. But, after a deep breath, he eventually revealed what he held so tightly.

Clamped between his meaty fingers was a small glass vial; and within the vial swirled a silver, metallic-like liquid that glistened on its own accord; and it moved in such a way that it appeared to be phobic of any surface, skimming against the glass surface like ice upon the ice.

The foreman slowly rose to his feet and cautiously moved towards the vial, examining it with eyes of disbelief.

“Is that…” he began to ask.

“Azoth,” Ignatius answered. “Quick, give it here,” and he snatched the glass vial out from Balla’s grasp. He clasped it with such intensity that the foreman worried it might shatter.

Ignatius was immediately engrossed with the viscous liquid, and he glared at it with a perverse fascination; twisting and turning the vial between his fingertips, studying every facet of its movements while it slid greasily within the glass—never parting, always remaining as one cohesive blob of silver.

“Such purity,” Ignatius eventually muttered, “This is Azoth in its most veritable of forms. And it’s…it’s almost as if I can hear it, in my head. How exquisite. I can barely stand to let go of it.”

“It’s already a liquid,” the foreman said, equally enamoured with the glass vial and the contents within, “How is that possible?”

“Azoth, as you know it, is old,” Ignatius replied, “Much older than you and I, or perhaps even us as a species. It settles into the ground, degrades and solidifies over time into its crystalline form that we typically excavate. No, this—this is fresh from the source, and at its most potent.” He began pacing back and forth with feverish excitement. “With this…” he shook the vial, “With this, we will return to Roanoke city as men among men. All we need to do is locate the source.”

Balla, unlike the foreman, did not share in Ignatius’s excitement, and he immediately picked up on this.

“What is the matter with you?” Ignatius asked, “Do you not understand the significance of this discovery?”

“This is extraordinary, do not get me wrong,” Balla replied, still speaking with an anxious urgency. He reached deep into the pouch on his leather apron and pulled out a series of parchments, “But when we first surveyed these lands,” he continued, “There was no evidence of any heavy substance of any kind—other than rock—at these depths.”

“Perhaps the calculations were incorrect,” the foreman replied dismissively.

“Impossible,” Ignatius retorted, “For they are my own calculations. Let me see those papers,” and he, as before, snatched them out of Balla’s hands, and settled himself back at his desk—where he then began to intensely scrutinize each and every parchment.

“These gas veins, for the last five years, have been empty,” Balla said, “That is, up until three weeks ago when we first detected something. As you can see, it was a minuscule change—too small to notice… But it is there.” He reached into his pouch once more and took out a small shred of parchment, which he then handed to Ignatius. “Here are today’s results.”

Ignatius studied the parchment—quickly scribbled his own calculations—read the parchment again, and then leaned deep into his chair and uttered, “The Azoth is rising. Exponentially so.”

Silence befell the room, as did the realisation that danger was crawling up from beneath them. And, at that moment, no man in the room felt safe on the ground they stood upon.

He turned to the foreman and asked, “What is the status of the blowback preventer?”

“It was never installed, sir,” the foreman replied, “You said it was not needed and that you did not want to… Waste time, unnecessarily.”

“Then halt all mining and get the rig offline. Ensure that we dig no further towards the gas vein.”

“Considering the length of time it will take to safely shut down the drill without blowing the whole place, we will have already pierced the gas vein.”

“I see.”

A strange calmness overcame Ignatius, and he began to meticulously collect his parchments off from the desk. Then—without acting in a way that would bring any cause for concern—he rose to his feet and made his way to a narrow wardrobe. He then took out from within a large fur-lined parka and thick, leather under-layers, which he quickly draped over his body.

“Where are you going?” The foreman asked, “What are we going to do?”

“I’m leaving,” Ignatius replied, “And if you wish to live, then it will be in your best interest to do so as well,” and he quickly left the room.