“The Players Take the Field”, Fiction from Airship Anubis

This is an excerpt from the journal of the renowned psychic, Madame Bella Rose. It describes events that occurred on the day of the masquerade ball hosted by John P. Morgan, and therefore coincides with Episode 3 of the first season of Steamworks & Shadows.

 

Journal Entry #6546

I found him!

Since arriving in New Arcadia, I have received no further portents on how to proceed in my quest. So, today, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I have been experimenting with the properties of a ‘spirit plant’ from Mexico called peyote. It has been said that it can open doors into the spirit world and reveal things beyond what is normally shown.

I increased the infusion of aetherite, but diluted the peyote with cocaine to stave off its lethargic effects. The result was exhilarating! Images came to my mind faster than I could follow. Colorful entities of pure energy passed through the walls of my hotel room. I could see the true essences of whatever fell within my sight. I could see the raw cotton from which my blanket was made, and my dressing table evolved back and forth from a small tree to its refined state.

It took some time to adjust to this new awareness, because whereas it had been just past breakfast when I ingested the concoction, when I looked out the window, it was well past midday.

On the sill of my open window, there was a small dove. It looked at me and urged, “Come! Come!” Then it took flight. I ran to the window, and looked outside. The dove had not flown away, it was perched on the rail of my balcony. I climbed through the window and did my best to follow my guide through the crowded streets.

 

red devil

At last, he came to rest on a lampost and waited for me. Confused, I looked around me and realized that I was in the courtyard of a posh hotel. The dove flew away while I was distracted by the bright waves of music coming from the ballroom. When I tried to look for him, my eyes fell upon an advertisement for Red Devil Tools. Some of the lettering had worn away and in my native tongue it read, “Caută-l în” or “Find him,” in English.

I followed the music to the ballroom. The man at the door did not see me enter. Inside, I encountered a man with the head of a bird. He told he was the Shine Man, and that I must wear a mask to enter the ball. When I told him I didn’t have one, he produced a ball of fire and placed it over my face. It did not burn, but the effect on my vision was startling! Everything was so focussed! It was like peering through a spyglass that revealed the people’s inner selves!

The ball was a dizzying array of sight and sound. The partygoers were not people, they were expressions of who they truly were. On woman’s head was was a clockwork machine. One man was a raven in a suit. Another man was a harlequin, and yet another guest wore mask upon mask upon mask. How would I find the one I was looking for? …the man who walked in shadow and light, who would throw away the world in order to save it?

Suddenly, I felt a gnawing hunger. Not from myself, but from one of the guests. I turned, and there was a beast wearing the mask of a woman. Dark wisps whirled around her, transparent tendrils that reached out to caress each person she passed. The phantom limbs would recoil from some people and stroke others with a lover’s affection. She felt important to me. …like that bit of string you feel compelled to pick up even though you have no immediate use for it.

I approached the creature and offered to read her cards. She looked me over as if she wondered what I would taste like. Her tendrils sniffed at my flesh like curious pets. I held my breath, awaiting her verdict. Apparently she found me lacking, for her interest quickly turned to mild amusement and she accepted my offer.

With the first turn of the cards, I knew I was in danger. The cards spoke of an ancient evil from across the sea to the east. They spoke of inner conflict, hidden motives, and death. …so much death. …and hunger. But there were also portents of a powerful enemy locked within, an enemy who daily grew in strength and threatened to overtake her.

When I heard the beast speak, I heard in her voice a rich timbre that bespoke wisdom of the ages. I saw in her eyes that she would know if I tried to lie to her. I walked a delicate line between truth and feigned ignorance. She seemed unhappy about the reading, but in the end decided that I was not a threat to her. She placed a silver coin on the table and rose to leave.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I found myself asking, “What is your name?”

She smiled queerly and said, “Lilith,” but beneath her voice, I heard the name Algul. Then she turned to liquid and melted into the crowd.

I breathed a sigh of relief as she departed, and cradled my head in my hands. My enhancement was wearing off and I still hadn’t found the object of my search. I had not determined functional dosages yet, so I was leery about taking more. I could not afford to be incapacitated for hours while I stabilized.

I raised my head, and there he was! A red devil-man escorting a woman who wore a mask beneath her mask. Together they moved past my table on their way to the dance floor. I rose and followed them. They had only been on the floor for a moment before a serpent cut in and took her away. Before the devil could leave the floor, I intercepted him and asked for a dance.

For a time, I forgot myself. The devil was smaller than I expected, but his smile was charming, his dance was graceful, and his touch was firm but gentle where it seared my flesh. Confidence and charisma flowed from him in waves, and his voice was rich and melodic. He smelled of rich cigars, and beneath that an aroma of power and earth. Frankly, I was enraptured.

We danced and we talked and we laughed. For how long, I don’t know. Suddenly, I was aware that the music had ended. I looked into his eyes, and I saw a darkness within him that struggled against the light of his soul. A trance overtook me and I spoke these words to him.

 

“People leave, people die.

You can only trust yourself.

And the only thing you can depend on is the yeti.

 

The yeti is true.

It offers no pretense.

It is not pleasant,

But the yeti will do what the yeti does.”

 

I still don’t know what the words meant, but the devil stepped back in shock and surprise. Heartbeats stretched into years as he regarded me with great intensity. Then he pulled a mask over his red face and closed a wall of steel around his heart. With controlled graciousness, he thanked me for the dance and then vanished.

I felt a great emptiness when he disappeared, as though something had been ripped from my arms. But I also felt a sense of relief. Whatever I had been sent there to accomplish had been done. The pieces were in place, and the game had begun.

By this time, my enhancements were wearing off and I was feeling quite ill. I decided to return to my rooms and rest.

It wasn’t until I read the latest issue of Modern Marvels this morning that I learned of the excitement that occurred after I left. The article also gave me a name for my red devil.

 

Sterling Callahan.

 We will meet again.