This is insane. There is no way this is possibly going to work.
Yesterday morning – well ah…. two afternoons ago, technically – I woke up on the pallet I’d snagged, and freshened up in the bathroom before heading downstairs. They were still serving breakfast, made-to-order in addition to the buffet. Good food. Delicious coffee.
Braced with a decent sleep and a good meal, I felt clear-headed enough to go in to the main mansion to see if I could start to get a read on what’s going on. The guard at the gate seemed nonplussed. He initially didn’t want to speak to me, but when pressed he explained that I was just so young. That the Duchess seeks to give all of her partygoers exactly what they want, and that what some people want might not be good for my pure young soul.
The sentiment was kindly meant. He really looked like he wanted to try to dissuade me from going in, although he knew that I was going to go in anyway. But this guy doesn’t have Feodor as his cousin. Rather than explain that my sadist cousin has a dedicated torture chamber in his home and has to pay resurrection fees up front before visiting whores in the Big House I just thanked the kindly guard and made my way on in.
It felt… wrong in there.
The ballroom on the first floor is huge, and magnificent. The far end is all glass. I’d been there the last time I was at Duchess Zeitgast’s home but this time it felt palpably different between the shoulder blades.
The first thing I noticed was that not everyone seemed to notice the Wrongness. There were some who clearly did, though. Some of them had an I-can-deal-with-this-shit attitude and were carrying on, most of them with posses of oblivious-seeming hangers-on. The others were all as alone as each one could be, with huge eyes and their backs against the wall.
The second thing I noticed was the demographics. More humans by far than not, but a sizable smattering of demihumans and subhumans. All of the subhumans were beautiful, though – centaurs, you know, not goblins. Almost all of the aware-seeming individuals were human, although a very few were not. The commonest age group in the room seemed to be mid-twenties, but there were ages up to fifties and sixties and down (self-evidently) into the teens.
I watched the pacing and interplay of the crowd for awhile to get a sense of the flow of things. It looked like the I-can-deal aware folks were faction representatives. Since they seemed like the most likely people to get information from, I intercepted one at the bar – his name was Ruffalo, maybe mid-thirties. He told me that the factions shifted a lot, although the Host was a constant – the Host being the servants of the house, evidently. He laughed when I used Shae’s term of “game” for what was going on. He said “if you see two giants throwing rocks at each other, do you know if it’s a game or a war?” He did grant that “contest” was a fair term.
He was willing to talk about the past few days, but as we talked I noticed he was avoidant about talking about how he’d come to be at the party, or his early days there. Eventually, curious about how he’d respond, I asked him about it point-blank.
What I did not expect was for him to go into a seizure.
I tried to clear the area around his head and called out for help. His doublet was constrictive, so I pulled it open. I hadn’t noticed earlier because of his courtier’s clothing, but he was built like a farmer. It was …odd.
Servants came rushing up and did all the right things. As they brought Ruffalo away one of them turned to the assembled worried crowd “It will be fine. Go back about your business. Have fun.”
And the vast majority of people there got this glazed look in their eyes and turned away to go back to what they’d been doing. The only four who didn’t get that look were some of the faction representatives I’d spotted earlier. They all looked right at me, clearly noticing me, but turned away with everyone else so as to not attract attention.
That’s when I realized that all of the faction representatives … something was wrong about them. Hard to put my finger on exactly what, but none of them seemed quite right. Like a farmer wearing courtier’s clothing. Something is off.
I attached myself to one of the Aware folks turning away, an older woman named Isadore. She told me about the Theosophists, wanting to understand the nature of the Divine. When I mentioned that I had an offer of patronage from another group she immediately jumped on it, telling me not to go with them, that her group was a much better choice. I asked what benefit she thought I would be to her, and what benefit she thought they would be to me. She offered an understanding of the Divine (albeit as only one part of a larger whole) as an incentive, and said she wanted to bring my understanding of the Divine into the larger picture.
She told me a bit about other factions – she was annoyed by the Scrivners and the Unbound, and scared as shit of The Yearning. I asked her about her time at the party and she told me the date she’d come, and the time from then to when she went upstairs to be Claimed. There was a gap of about a week after she was Claimed, but she didn’t see it. I tried to clarify, and she changed the date that she’d come in. I said I thought she’d come in the week before, and she replied that she had. She affirmed both dates equally, and seemed completely unaware of the discrepancy. I asked one of her hangers-on if he didn’t think that was odd, but he also didn’t hear a discrepancy in what she was saying. I said it must be my misunderstanding, apologized, and took my leave of them. I approached another one of the aware folk, a man who was sitting in one place but attended upon by many. His name is Jeremy Renwald, representative of The Balanced Scale, and he collects memories.
Jeremy was pretty expansive. I don’t know if his list was comprehensive, but what he told me was this:
Theosophists – want to understand the Divine. On the upper floors they wear Domino masks styled like glasses.
Scrivners – want to record everything, want to collect one of everything. Their masks upstairs vary in shape but all have handwriting all over them.
The Balanced Scale – Jeremy’s group, merchant/traders; upstairs they bind their face in strips of cloth. They claim to broker even trades between other factions.
The Messengers – can go to all floors, claim neutrality, but Jeremy thinks they’re planning a blitzkrieg when the time is right. They cover their lower faces, either with masks or scarves.
The Unbound – wear no masks, refuse to participate. It’s unclear whether they have a patron or not. I admit, I kind of like them. Part of me wants to just say “fuck it” and go up the stairs to see what happens.
The Yearning – Cover their whole heads. Are cut off from the gods, and are said to steal divinity and/or be able to cut off individuals from the gods. This understandably scares everyone shitless.
The Host – Duchess Zeitgast and her staff, wear Carnivale masks
Tragedy / Comedy – are all about finding the balance of duality. Upstairs they move in pairs, with two masks, one happy one sad.
The Sequestered – Shae’s group. Treat the proceedings as a serious game. They look for very specific puzzle pieces. Upstairs they wear porcelain masks like the one Shae gave me.
The Self, Unchained – upstairs wear stylized devil masks. Nothing is forbidden / everything is permitted — Jeremy says never be alone with them, because they embrace their dark desires.
The Shattered – individuals whose minds have shattered, but are still a cohesive group. They wear cracked and damaged masks, often versions of the other factions’ masks.
Jeremy also said he’d been at this party for two years — not at this location, they’d moved here three months ago, he said. As far as I’m aware this party only started three weeks ago, but either his timeline is messed up or the party was going on in private here well in advance of the public’s awareness of it.
I asked how most people go about deciding which faction to choose and he seemed a little baffled. He indicated that most people on the first floor would never be chosen. This confused me, since I’d had offers from both Shae and Isadore, but he said that was highly unusual.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to find myself self-aware in here, and I’m pleased to be in high demand, but what the fuck is going on?
Curious about what was keeping the terrified ones inside, I talked with an elvish girl next. She was only 19, so what, about ten years old if she were human. Barely came up to my shoulder. Her name is Tamalia, and she said she’d been there three days. I asked if she’d tried to leave and she said she had, several times, but she never got very far out before she felt irresistably called back. She said she hated it and was scared. The whole building smells like blood to her, although I didn’t smell it. She said the shadows moved when they thought no one was looking. I asked her to show me — I almost didn’t see it, but after a bit I did — some shadows bent towards people walking by, as if they were drawn towards the people. It was downright eerie.
I asked if she’d talked to any of the other people along the wall and she said no. I was curious what other people sensed about the place, so I brought her over to a man nearby. He really didn’t want to talk, though. He said it was Fifth-day, and I said no, it’s Third-day. Realizing, I think, that he’d lost almost a week, he freaked out and bellowed that he had to get out of there. He ran off. I tried to follow in his wake, but he lost me quickly.
Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to try to leave. I realized when I got outside that it was later than I’d expected, probably about eleven thirty. I expected it to be harder, but I walked out from the main house, out through the main gate, and out into the street. I turned to look back, but didn’t feel a compulsion to return like Tamalia said she had. I continued down the street and around the corner, and down to the District gate. I checked the date with the guard there, and yes, it was still Third-day, about to be Fourth-day. I wrote a note out to Cinnamon and the crew letting them know I was all right, then went back up to the party.
Just inside the gate I saw Jayson, a friend of mine from the Musters. He had some people he wanted me to meet, so I let myself get dragged further in to the party outside. I vaguely thought about going back to the main house, but after spending the whole afternoon and evening in the creepy weird place it was nice to be out in the fresh air. We headed over to where there was dancing, and I danced a few sets. I stepped out to get a drink and ended up at a table under a tree with those little lanterns on strings overhead. A pretty girl named Patrice with lively brown eyes snuggled up on my lap, which would have been nice if she hadn’t started talking my ear off about the merits and flaws of different styles of dancing slippers. I was sort of trapped under her, and couldn’t add anything to the conversation, so just kept nodding. Eventually a girl passing by caught my pleading glance and asked me sweetly to dance. Her name was Leda – and it turned out she was an excellent dancer. Also, curvy and soft in all the right places. And, as it turned out, very willing to wander off with me after we’d danced several sets. And very sexually creative.
I was hungry afterward, she wasn’t, so we parted amicably and I went off to look for some food. I found a buffet which had these amazing custard puffs with berries inside. I loaded up a plate with them and followed the sound of distant music to where a lithe dancer had just started a Dance of Seven Veils, although I think she probably had closer to twelve. They were all very cleverly tucked, but I’ll admit that’s not the part I was watching.
Jayson caught up with me and dragged me off before I could talk to the dancer. We ended up at a large table a few gardens away, discussing philosophy into the wee hours.
I woke up… in a pallet upstairs in the guest house. It was about two in the morning on Fourth-day, they told me. Blearily, I went to the gate to see if I could get out. “Feeling better, M’lord?” one of them asked. I asked what he meant and he said I’d passed out in front of the gate about an hour before as I tried to exit. And I realized that the whole night after I remembered getting out had all been a dream.
The guard’s name was Wilson – he got vaguely threatening when I asked about leaving the grounds. His compatriot’s name was Mayhew, and he was friendlier but not much more helpful. He just kept on repeating that he strongly advised against trying to leave, m’lord. He said it was his job to see to the safety and well-being of the Duchess’ guests. He started some fishy story about having dropped his matchbox and wouldn’t you pick it up for me, m’lord, which I started to refuse until I caught the look in his eye that he was trying to tell me something without saying it outright. So I picked up the matches and lit one for him to have a smoke. The shadow behind him did not move in the flickering flare of the light. I gave him a nod, thanked him, and went back into the party.
Just inside the gate I saw Jayson. Of course I did. And he had some people he wanted me to meet. Disturbed and curious, I let myself get dragged further in to the party outside. We headed over to where there was dancing, and I danced a few sets. I stepped out to get a drink and ended up at a table under a tree — a different tree, mind you, on the other side of the dance floor — with those little lanterns on strings overhead. And who should join the crowd I was with but a familiar girl I’d never met before. She introduced herself to me. Leda. My rescuer. Feeling like I already knew her, I invited her to sit on my lap. She snuggled in – her hair smelled just like I remembered it – and then started talking… about the merits and flaws of different styles of dancing slippers. And I was completely trapped under her, transfixed by the surreality of it. And then a pretty girl with lively brown eyes passed by and I cast her a desperate look and she dimpled a smile and asked if I’d like to dance, m’lord. And it turned out she was an excellent dancer. Also, flexible as hell, as it turned out, after she wandered off with me after we’d danced several sets. And very sexually adventurous. She looked just like the girl named Patrice I remembered from my dream, but her name was Nathalia.
I was hungry afterward, she wasn’t, so we parted amicably and I went off to look for some food. The buffet was just where I remembered it, but instead of custard puffs there were these chocolate pastries with caramel and whipped cream inside. I loaded up a plate with them and followed the sound of distant music to where a lithe dancer had just started a Dance of Seven Veils, and this time I actually counted — there were thirteen veils. They were all very cleverly tucked, but again, I’ll admit that’s not the part I was watching. The music was almost the same, but this dancer was shorter, with broader hips, than the one I remembered. Her dance was equally exotic, but definitely not the same dance.
Jayson, damnably enough, showed up just as she was finishing, and I didn’t get to talk to this dancer either. But instead of dragging me off to discuss philosophy he got me to join his team in an informal but loudly declaimed hedge-maze challenge. I guess the team of the first people to get to the center of the maze technically wins, but mostly it was a fun drunken stumble through the maze. There were pockets of lawn at a lot of the dead ends, some large, some small, most of which had good things going on. I have no idea who won, if anyone did.
I hadn’t seen him for hours, but when I got out of the maze Jayson was sitting on the ground nearby, stoned out of his mind. I got him up and walking, and we got to talking about drugs, and mental clarity, and I mentioned Flayleaf that that girl had told me about the night before. We figured we’d try it, so asked one of the servants to bring some over.
It was fascinating stuff. Didn’t clarify the cosmic order of things the way the girl had claimed, but patterns did seem a bit clearer. Jayson didn’t like it though, since it was, in his words, ‘harshing on his mellow’. He went off to go be sick.
We were close to the front of the estate, and there was a small crowd gathering near the main gate. The man who had run out of the ballroom inside the main house earlier in the evening was shrieking and moaning and thrashing on the ground. The staff seemed to know what they were doing; under the direction of one who was clearly the doctor, some of them picked him up and started carting him off. Curious what they were going to do with them, I followed.
The doctor had them take the man into the servants’ quarters. No one was there to stop me, so I followed them in. One girl got all flustered when she realized I was there – she’d obviously been told to accommodate guests’ whims and to not let visitors into the servants’ quarters, and was caught between the two orders. I stepped inside the sick man’s room to try to break the stalemate in her mind.
The doctor clearly assumed I was another servant, because he asked me for ice without even looking up. I called back into the corridor to see if someone was bringing ice, and then the doctor noticed me. He sort of flipped out at first, but I seemed to convince him that I had good intentions and was only following up on the well-being of the fellow I’d been talking with earlier in the day. He said that this man was the 7th with these symptoms this evening. That he’d have a fever, prodigious strength, would likely break the bed frame he was bound to, but that eventually he’d detox. I mentioned my little “passing out” problem by the front gate, which he dismissed as dehydration from partying too hard.
We talked a bit more and he is clearly very loyal to the Duchess and her household. By stressing that I wanted to promote the health and well-being of the Duchess and her guests, I think I got onto his good side. His name, he said, is Dr. Ashwall. It came out later that his first name is Matteo, but I won’t call him that unless he calls me Leonardo again.
Once he seemed to decide that I was on his side, he asked me to take off my shirt so he could do a physical evaluation. He seemed relieved not to see… something… on my chest, but had me take off my pants as well. He caught his breath when he saw something on my leg. A mark, as five bruises from fingertips. Probably while I slept, he said. In a later conversation he said that the servant on the fourth floor of the guest house showed up with the party three weeks ago and that she is NOT one of the Duchess’ people. I mentioned the weird shadowy figure. He agreed that it was entirely likely that people were being marked as they were carried to the pallets or as they slept. He also indicated that a number of people around – servants and non – weren’t human. Not demi- or sub- human, but not-of-this-world not-human.
The mark will migrate, he said. When it gets to someone’s heart they only care about the party, nothing else. He said that all of the food and drink upside is “more than it seems” and that detoxing from all of it was a way to slow down the migration of the mark. He offered me a padded room rather than being chained to a bed. I didn’t like the idea at first — rather, let me clarify that. There’s this orgasmically mind-blowing party going on outside and he was asking me to willingly give it up so I could go feral-psychotic with nightmares in a padded locked room for sixteen hours and then not go back to the party.
I may be reckless, but I’m not stupid, more’s the pity. I let him lock me in. I just couldn’t ignore everything I’d seen – the terrified little Elven girl who just wanted to go home, the unblinking eyes and shallow breathing of the man chained to the bed in the next room, the shadows that move towards people, the faction leaders who go upstairs and come back downstairs changed to something Wrong. The people who seem brainwashed into following Hosts’ orders. The dark nimbus around everything. The servants who shouldn’t be there.
All right, honestly, I might have been able to ignore all of that for just one more day at the party if it weren’t for the mark on my leg which he assured me would migrate upwards until it covered my heart and robbed me of my free will entirely. Everything else is unconscionable, but THAT scares the everloving shit out of me.
The night… was as bad as he’d warned me. I lost about sixteen hours, all told, although I only remember it as a series of nightmarish images. I’d shredded the pillow I’d asked for, and put several dents in the walls. Got some pretty new bruises, the gods know how.
When I came back to myself Dr Ashwall gave me some “safe” food – not terribly well cooked, but I ate it anyway. He said his only idea was to get us both inside using Host masks, calling me “Merriweather” his assistant, and to try to get to the Duchess and convince her to stop trapping people there. He doesn’t think she’ll listen to him, but somehow thinks she might listen to me. I have no idea why he thinks she’ll listen to me – he says he can’t get her out of the main house and can’t detox her there, which means that she’ll be under the full influence of whatever-the-hell is brainwashing people.
I described Anton to Dr. Ashwall – Jayson had said that Anton had gone into the main house almost straightaway after coming to the party. Of course he did. Dr. Ashwall said he’d try to keep an eye out for him and see to his well-being. It’s entirely likely that he’ll have a mask on, but he’s on the low end of the age demographic, and in better shape than a lot of the folks I saw on the first floor. And he has that sort of distinctive spikey shaggy haircut and duelist scars on his forearms. I’m not sure what mask he’d be wearing if he’s not Unbound… probably Self, Unchained or Sequestered. Possibly Shattered, if he didn’t deal well, but I’d be surprised. Hopefully not The Yearning, gods forbid.
I’d only had about an hour of sleep – when I was passed out from 1 to 2 in the morning – and had lived about seven hours in that hour, then lived it again, then did sixteen hours of nightmare superstrength detox. I was pretty wiped, so the doctor agreed that there was at least enough time for me to sleep a little bit before we go in.
This seems hopeless, but I don’t have a better plan just now, so we’ll give it a go.