Content warning: This chapter is EXTREMELY heavy on death, including the death of a child.
Mark woke up that morning like usual, and decided not to go to work. Oberon had told him that he was not needed on weekends, and though he had previously been going anyway, he decided that today he would be staying home with his family. Mark walked out into the other room, and sat down on the floor to play cards with Mildred’s fiance, Tom Curtis.
“Aren’t you going to work?” His mother asked when she came in.
“Oberon said I could have the weekends off if I wanted, so, no.”
Mark had discovered something in the past few weeks, and that was the power of the word no. It had saved him from the drugs at Oberon’s house, it had stopped him from attending a highly publicized duel he’d been invited to, and it was the way he had, for the most part, avoided the horrorshow of Ransom’s mother’s death. He was realizing slowly that he could say no to things sometimes, that people were alright with it, and he himself would even come out better having done so.
It was an excellent realization, and he felt much better having had it.
He went outside around noon to get some water from downstairs, and found a buzz of activity in the hallway. Ransom Egerton was going into Hobart Blakely’s apartment, holding an ambiguous brown bottle and box of matches. Deirdre was in the hallway outside of her apartment, talking with Jean about something as he brushed his dog. Lottie and Ansel Conray were playing jacks with Joanne Blakely and Mark’s sisters Margaret and Martha in the empty flat. Sylvia Sapping was standing by the stairs, very casually chugging a bottle of laudanum. Johann Faust sat at the bottom of the other stairs to his attic, cleaning his medical implements. There was an axe across his lap, which Mark found quite strange.
Mark went downstairs and drew up water, then came back up to his apartment. He sat on the floor next to his open door, and opened a book of pulp horror stories he’d bought with Oberon’s money. The story he’d been reading was about a man being hunted alive.
Still dressed in his wedding clothes, Roden ran frantically through the muddy, dilapidated corridors of the sewers. Where have the crypts gone? One moment there were graves, now there’s just dung! The bricks fell about him. Roden had seen that last, crazed look in his uncle’s eyes as the Thorne boy had fallen through the Gate, and had decided that he wasn’t going to stick around to find out what was on the other side of the veil. The void could keep to itself, for all he cared. He had to escape.
Roden let out a frustrated cry and took a left turn. The sewers seemed to be sloping upward ever so slightly, so maybe he was going in the right direction. Maybe. Hopefully.
Something gave an inhuman scream behind him, and Roden ran faster. There were monsters coming through the Gate, for sure, and he was not going to let them catch him. I have to get back to Mother, he thought. I have to tell her what happened. I have to tell her how he died.
One of the falling bricks narrowly avoided his face. This section of the sewers was clearly very unstable. Ah, I regret going this way. Roden dashed around a corner, and found a dead end. He ran back, but cut too close to the wall and tripped. His nose broke with a crunch as he hit the ground, turning the muck beneath him a shade of dark red. Roden started to stand, disorientated by the pain, but was thrown back down by a shudder of the Earth. He yelled, getting blood into his mouth. I can still escape. This isn’t the end.
Something came around the corner.
The creature was unlike any worldly animal. It walked on all fours, with hairless gray flesh that hugged its bones so that Roden could count every one. The thing was about as big as a lion, with wicked long claws that made a tap tap on the stone flags. Its face was the outline of its skull, and there were red glowing lights where its eyes should have been.
All of the sudden, Ransom ran out of the Blakely flat, slamming the door shut behind him. Mark looked up, irritated at having been interrupted. Ransom ran down the hallway, disappeared into the Egerton flat for a few minutes, then ran out and locked the door behind him.
Mark rolled his eyes and looked back down at the page.
The thing roared, showing off fangs as large as Roden’s hand as it did. It stood on its hind legs and brought those wicked long claws down on his abdomen. They burnt as they entered his skin, as hot as a thousand irons. Roden screamed and screamed.
Suddenly a long, jagged knife sprouted from the back of the thing’s neck. It snarled and turned around, leaping at Roden’s unknown rescuer. He was too blinded by pain to see who it was or the struggle that surely followed, but heard when the thing finally collapsed, dead.
From behind its corpse came a small boy with black hair. He wore nothing but a pair of bloodstained leather pants, cut off at the knee. The boy’s chest and arms were also covered in strange spiral tattoos that reminded Roden of the things Thorne had drawn to create the Gate. As the boy drew closer, Roden saw that his hair was not hair at all, it was feathers, black as coal and growing out of the boy’s head like that was a perfectly reasonable place for feathers to be.
Ransom promptly interrupted him again by running up behind him and shoving him into his apartment. He then slammed the door, and Mark heard him lock it with a click.
“What was that for?” Mark asked aloud.
He stood up and watched Ransom lock the last door, the one of the empty flat full of children, including, Mark now saw, the two youngest Egertons.
“What’s going on?” his littlest brother, Matthew, asked.
Mark shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He thought he smelled someone cooking something in another apartment, which made him hungry. “Let’s have something to eat.”
He cut them bread, which they stuck on toasting forks and roasted slowly above the fire. Mark spread butter on their toast when it was done, and they crunched through several pieces each. Matthew ate a remarkable amount for a three year old, but Mark supposed being hungry was a given when one was so poor.
Someone was definitely cooking something nearby. Mark could smell the smoke. He frowned, and went to try to unlock the door. It was jammed somehow, and he couldn’t get it open after several minutes of trying.
“Marky?” Matthew asked.
Mark shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Someone screamed outside, and Mark realized that the smell of smoke and sudden heat probably wasn’t from someone cooking something. He tried to calm himself down, telling himself that no, the building was not on fire, but yes, he should try to get this door open as fast as he could.
He remembered that the rest of his family were downstairs with a woman who had just given birth, helping with her other children. It was just him and Matthew here in this room.
There was more screaming from outside. The door was hot to the touch. Matthew didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but Mark certainly did. There was a fire. The building was on fire.
He was panicking as he fiddled more with the lock and the doorway. Damn Ransom Egerton! He had locked them inside of a burning building!
Suddenly, the door burst open, and smoke flooded the room. Mark jumped back, coughing and squeezing his eyes shut. Blindly, he felt for Matthew, who was screaming.
“There’s fire!” Matthew said. “FIREFIREFIREFIRE-”
“Yes, I know,” Mark yelled over the sound of the flames and the people screaming. He picked up Matthew and cracked his eyes open. Most of the hallway was full of flames, but if he ran fast enough he thought he would probably be able to get through to the empty flat, the one with the children in it. People still screamed in most of the other rooms, though the Conray flat was ominously silent save for the flames pouring out of it.
Mark was horrified to remember Ransom going inside the Conray apartment with a bottle and a box of matches. Had he started the fire? Was he to blame?
It wasn’t the time to think these things over. Mark shouldered Matthew and ran for the opposite door, avoiding the flames for the most part. He put his hand on the doorknob and instantly regretted it. The metal was hot, and it burned him so badly he was certain he lost skin. He screamed, and nearly dropped Matthew. What was he doing here? He was only fourteen. Still a child.
Mark slammed his shoulder into the door, which did the trick. The wood had been weakened by the fire, and it buckled under his considerable weight. He slammed into it again, and again, and again, until he was coughing and his eyes were stinging but the door was open, and the children could get out.
“Come out!” Mark shouted.
Davey and Eliza Egerton ran out and past him, down the stairs. They’d probably be able to get out, but Mark didn’t see any of the others, or if they were awake. “Martha?” he called. “Margaret?”
The heat was unbearable. Mark realized that he was going to have to run, and he prayed all the way down the stairs that his sisters would be able to get out, too.
The stairs were on fire as well, but not as much, and Mark was able to dodge the flames, for the most part. Matthew sobbed all the way down, and Mark realized that he was crying, too, though maybe that was from the smoke. He could see the doorway, and he could hear people outside. Mark picked up his pace to run the last few feet, out the door. Once he was out he barely registered it, but kept running until he was as far away from the heat and smoke as he could be.
He then set Matthew down and turned around to see what they’d just escaped.
The entire building was engulfed by a ball of fire. There were firefighters there, but they weren’t doing much against the blaze. Mark had a feeling that they would just elect to let it burn out.
He wondered who had opened the door for him. An angel? Mark said a prayer of thanks to himself and looked around. Johann, Deirdre, Sylvia, and Jean had all escaped, and were huddled together outside of a nearby building. A baby was crying somewhere, and a man’s voice quieted it. Mark began to feel very lethargic. He just wanted to lie down. It would be so nice to simply lie down on the pavement and nap… Who would miss him?
No. No, no, no, he was still standing. He was still standing. He struggled to breathe, and even when he did draw enough air into his lungs it was accompanied by stabbing pain. Mark knew what that probably meant, and why his body wanted him to give up.
Well, he refused. He would not die. He was strong. He had just accomplished something that had killed many others. He would make it out of this. Somebody would help him and even if they didn’t, he’d make it. Mark waved to Johann, who stood up and came over to him.
Johann shook his head, already knowing what Mark was about to ask. “How much smoke did you breathe in?”
“A lot,” Mark rasped.
“I don’t know, Mark.”
Everything felt so heavy. His body was trying to force him to the ground, to lay down and close his eyes, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t give in, not yet. He could still make it, he just needed some rest. He supposed he would lie down for a little while, but he would not close his eyes. He repeated it over and over to himself, as a mantra. Do not close your eyes.
Johann sat down and took Mark’s head in his lap. “You’re very brave, you know. You saved your brother and you saved the younger Egertons.”
He knew his lungs were too ravaged to be saved. Mark looked up at Johann, and smiled. He had always feared dying alone. He was glad to have somebody by his side until the very end. There was Matthew, too, holding his hand. Mark smiled and, breaking his own order, closed his eyes.
He couldn’t focus, everything was spinning. He felt dizzy, even with his eyes closed.
Mark squeezed Matthew’s hand, and thought of seeing his family who had surely died in the fire in the afterlife. It would be nice to see them again. He imagined seeing his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles who had died. It was a pleasant thought, and it was his last before unconsciousness overtook him.
This is the last chapter of part one, apart from a short epilogue! Part two will be published on its own page, and the first part will be released next Tuesday. The epilogue will be released this Saturday, along with something else I’ve had planned for a while. Thank you for reading!