The steps spiralled endlessly upwards into the fathomless darkness with no clear end in sight. The Bronze Apostate climbed them in silence, using the wall as his guide through the lightless tunnel. He held a glowing crystal the size of his palm which provided little illumination, enough for him to see an inch or so ahead—but beyond that was only a wall of darkness. At some point previously the stairs had ceased, and he had—for a short while—found himself walking through a straight narrow tunnel which led him to another spiral staircase, the one he was now climbing. He quickly figured that he was somewhere within the walls, climbing one of the many towers houses that made up the Del’Mar mansion. He had hoped, for his sake, that he was climbing towards the right one for he was never going to get a second chance—even if he did survive.
All senses were deprived off him. The darkness was unnaturally impenetrable and seemed to consume all light like some ravenous beast—and the walls were equally as voracious, sucking up noise as some petulant infant latched to its mother’s bosom would. The Apostate could feel his mind slipping from the lack of stimulation. He tried to focus on the pain throbbing in his shoulder to ground himself, but it wasn’t long until he began asking questions such as, “What if it gets infected?”
He pictured oily puss oozing from his gangrenous flesh. He could feel the rot spreading in his shoulder as real as anything else. A rancid stench of festering meat penetrated his nostrils, causing him to gag. The pain was now intolerable as the infection coursed through his body.
I have to remove the arm, he thought to himself. I will only die otherwise—I must remove it. There is no other way, it must—no, this isn’t right.
The Apostate dropped the crystal and jabbed his thumb into the open wound, forcing it in until he was pressing against the bone. He keeled over, letting out a gruelling yelp as pain jolted through his body like an electric shock. The sudden surge of adrenaline cleansed his mind and the smell of decaying flesh disappeared. He took long, deep breaths of the clean air as he removed his thumb. I need to move quickly, he thought, I don’t have much time.
He stood carefully. His legs felt weak and wobbly. He used his hands to steady himself against the wall; but the right hand missed it entirely, throwing him off balance and causing him to fall and tumble down the stairs.
He soon came to a painful stop after bashing his head against the corner of a stone step. He no longer had the crystal and was totally enveloped in pure darkness. Disoriented, he groaned and tried to upright himself—but only his left arm would move. He tried to feel for his right arm, perhaps it broke during the fall, he thought, but found it wasn’t there. Instead, in its place was a bloody stump for a shoulder. He could now hear the sound of blood dripping in the darkness as it drained profusely from his wound and over his hand.
“No!” He shouted, “It’s not real!” The agony of his exposed fleshy stump told him otherwise. “Stop this!” he cried, punching the wall, trying to inflict more pain unto himself, trying to snap himself out of this deranged mess—but his arm was still missing.
A soft tapping emerged from somewhere deep within the darkness, like someone knocking on a door. It came in threes:
Tap, tap, tap—a pause, and then—tap, tap, tap.
“Who’s there!” The Apostate called out. “Reveal yourself!”
The darkness responded with the same insistent tapping as before. It grew louder and closer. It quickened until there was no longer a pause, becoming a turbulent mess of entreating raps overlapping each other. It was now coming from every direction. The Apostate spun this way and that. He could feel the darkness shift around him. It twisted and swirled, occasionally allowing thin streaks of light to break through the gaps. He could now see that the impenetrable darkness had morphed into an undulating mass of ravens, and the dreadful thrum of their beating wings drowned out the Apostate’s cry.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a ghastly white glow coming from the bottom of the stairwell. It grew closer. The Apostate tried to turn and retreat, but he found it difficult to move past the swarms of ravens beating against him. He saw an arm emerge from the corner below him; it was limp and thin and so pale it was almost translucent. The rest of the being slowly emerged, and a woman stood before him.
She stood hunched and deformed as if the weight of her being was too much for her emaciated frame. The shape of her bones jutted out from beneath her porcelain skin and the ragged white fabric that draped her body hung loosely from her shoulders. Ink-like black smudges and streaks stained her mouth and her chest, but what horrified the Apostate most were the thick protrusions of bone from her face. A row of stalagmite-like structures along the entirety of her head jutted out painfully from beneath her skin. They curved upwards to hide the upper-half of her face and resembled that of a grim wrought crown.
The ravens gave her a wide birth as they flew past, ensuring that she was in full view of the Apostate.
“No!” he yelled in distress, “Not now—it’s too soon!”
She made these strange heaving movements in response. It was as if she was trying to speak but instead of words coming out of her mouth it was large globs of thick black mucous which spewed out and pooled along her lips and chin before dripping down onto her chest and floor with thick gooey splats.
She drew closer to the Apostate. Her mouth still gawping open and closed, letting out grotesque splutters of choking as globules of mucous seeped out. She moved with harsh jerking movements; it was like watching a picture-slide of someone walk, where it captures the moment when her foot completes a step but misses everything in-between.
The Apostate threw out his hand with the alchemic device and tried to transmute something—anything, whatever would help him; but his mind was amiss. Equations, combinations, all his previous learnings failed to come to him. He could not bring his thoughts to focus on anything but whatever that was which stood before him, and so the device remained inert. In a panic, he turned to flee.
He flung his arm outwards and waved his hand maniacally ahead of him in an attempt to shove aside the onslaught of ravens still flying towards him—managing to push through the surging mass of black feathers and obsidian beaks.
He could hear the woman’s steps quicken and the horrendous gurgling of her laboured breathing grow louder.
The Apostate had gained a strong foothold and was now hastily barging his way forward with frenzied passion, no longer noticing the growing number of cuts and scrapes from the swooping birds. He kept pushing—and swatting—and cursing—and pleading—until he reached out and abruptly felt something solid.
There was a sudden flash of light. The walls, the floor and everything around him was now ablaze with arrays of alchemic symbols; the hulking mass of ravens evaporated into ash and then dissipated into nothingness, along with the alchemic symbols. The woman was no longer to be seen; no trace or hint of her presence, as if she were never there at all. It was as if none of it was ever there to begin with, and all that was left was silence.
The Alchemist felt the familiar pain of his shoulder and looked to see that his arm had returned. He then looked to see that what he had felt before was a door, large and wooden, and he immediately knew what lay beyond it.