The cellar is quiet as a tomb as you collect yourself. Perhaps it is a tomb, you realize; but somehow, you are not afraid. Perhaps because both you and the Reporter have survived, for now at least. She flashes you a devil-may-care grin and holds up the sconce from before – the flame barely surviving on the worn-down wax of the wick.
“Well, that could've gone better. I guess it's just us, huh?”
Nodding, the two of you guide yourself along by the flickering light, and the walls closing in around you. It isn't long before you find yourself in an antechamber – one far vaster and more sturdy then all the great house above you.
Perhaps the entirety of the mansion was built to house this chamber – the walls lined with wood, and with lead, and with a strange stone that glistens and mesmerizes in the pale light. But as for the ceiling...
The ceiling itself is covered in the strange and pale pink material that seems to have completely colonized the house now so much cinder above you, and you can make it out very clearly now; it is in fact skin, skin stretched out and flayed and tenderized until it is barely identifiable as the skin of just one man – but skin, all the same.
Hanging from the ceiling and facing you is your Host, empty and lidless eyes staring at your direction as he speaks in a ruddy expellation of vapor. Yet his voice is soft and almost patronizing; proud even, as he addresses you.
“You've done so well, coming to me. I ran out you see – and needed more. That's why I called you here. There must have been five, for a total of six; else it would not work. That is why I called the five of you here. To die.”
“There's just one problem.” You state up at the abomination in the ceiling of this mansion as it stares sightllessly back at you. “There are six of us.”
Lips like so much dried parchment peel back and expose worn gums, stretched over meters of space. The head, distended enough to easily engulf you whole lowers towards you in a torrent of flesh, spitting vapor in an effectual rage – and inside, fragments of glossy bone and redundent organs threaten to devour you whole.
It is at that time that a strong right hook from the Major sends the head of the neck of the monstrosity flying through the empty space and careening into the wall. With a yell, the old soldier throws himself on the still-reeling abomination, clinging to it for dear life as it reels back and detaches itself from ceiling with a horrifying intake of air, collapsing to the floor.
You roll out of the way as fragments of slime-ridden flesh crackle onto the floor and immediately begin to spread out around you – making your every movement as sluggish as wading through tar. From beside you, the Reporter has began to burn her way through the squealing and semi-sentient wall of flesh with a fierce determination – and the moment she has cleared a path to you, the sconce is knocked from her hands by a tendril of pink skin.
Seeing the two of you struggling, the Major attempts to free himself, but is thrown against a wall and strangled by the creature's neck until he is no longer visible. A faint and familiar scent fills the antechamber, and it takes mere moments before you recognize that it is not only coming from the ceiling – but that it is the smell of smoke.
The Aristocrat collapses to the ground with a sickening crunch as she falls from above, her empty attache case in hand as she runs forward with a feverish yell, attacking the fleshy whips of the Host until the metal of the case is dented and jarred. Yelling out a horrific scream at the mottled bruises lining it's sensitive organ, the creature lets the Major drop to the ground with a thud, darting once more towards the ceiling as it draws it's viscera up and off the floor.
Using one hand to help the Major to his feet, and the other to place a cigarette between her lips, the Aristocrat is shocked and furious in the seconds before a hammer of flesh crushes her against a wall. Tremblingly, she reaches for the fallen tube, only to be smothered by another organ. The Major attempts to free her, and fails –
Before the piercing crack of gunfire tears through the chamber.
Having taken time to draw a bead, the Reporter shoots, six perfect shots. Flesh and mucus-accented blood spatter against the floor as the Aristocrat weakly pulls herself to her feet. For moments, it seems as if the Host has retreated through cracks in the ceiling – but then it drops to the ground, pulled and stuck into a vaguely humanoid and gigantic form from which countless unfinished limbs and writhing organs pulse.
It speaks, but you cannot understand what is said – only that the blood in your ears is flowing to the ground, as one by one the four of you collapse. You are just able to make out a sound through the trickling – the sound of footsteps from needle-point shoes. The Financier, who has wadded his ears with cotton to staunch the bleeding, is reading feverishly from a collection of letters held together by clips and string. The Host roars in pain, but that is all; and it seems the battle is lost, for the last of the Financier's strength fails him, and he collapses to his knees, still reading – then to the floor, spitting the words defiantly even then.
Burns and welts cover the mass of your foe as it towers over you, simply staring, though it has no eyes.
you must have lost
a lot of blood
from the wounds
in your ears
that you can hear again
and what's more
a second strength
begins to fill you
as the five of you
From down the hall
the Singer moves slowly
her voice strong
as she Sings
the words the Financier
And where the words are Sung,
they break the air
and it is too bright to see;
and then the brightness engulfs the Host -
and you do not remember any more.
When you wake up, the six of you are outside the burnt shell of the house. It is raining gently, and the sun is rising from behind a peal of clouds. What's more – in the distance you can hear the motors of several government cars as you recognize police automobiles pulling towards you, one by one. You look to your companions, an array of emotions on their faces and yours as the events of the night seem to fade away.
As each passes you in turn, they offer you a small gesture.
The Major, a warm smile and a handshake – though his hands seem so much smaller then a man of his stature. He whispers something in Deutsche; but his accent is thick, and in the briefness of the moment, you are not sure what he said.
The Financier, looking a little embarrassed, offers a pat on the back and an embrace – followed by a handshake. He looks as if he wants to say something – but thinks better of it, only smiling to himself. As they escort him into one of the cars, he waves and yells something out the window – only for it to catch on the wind.
The Aristocrat gives you an appraising glance, then fishes in her suit pocket – still wheezing from earlier. Producing a crushed cigarette, she offers it to you – and laughs quietly when you decline. She bows once before walking past, shrugging off attempts to guide her to a car with a practiced ease.
The Reporter flashes you a thumbs up and a wink before hugging you tightly enough to dislodge a rib – or surreptitiously pass you a worn notebook under the watchful eyes of the police. Finally pulling free, she wishes you the best of luck before walking away with the determined expression that only the press can truly master.
The Singer gives you a soft smile and takes your hand gently in hers. Her fingers are wrinkled as she leans close and murmurs to you - “We'll never see each other again, I know. But I wanted to thank you for earlier. Don't let them grind you down.” She clasps your arm tightly, then lets go as two officers march at either side, guiding her to car. She refuses to acknowledge them, her earrings held high as she goes.
Finally, it is your turn. You take one last look at the ruined estate – and smiling, head home.
The Major returned to Kamerun to spend time with his son; the two eventually made their way to Germany, only for the Major to die in the first World War. His son later moved to America, managing to found a charitable association in the name of his parents which sought to provide aid to those whose families were torn away by distance or difference.
The Financier was detained for several days, just missing the establishment of the Yuan Shikai government. Using his still significant resources, he maintained contact with the rest of you, writing frequently until an early stroke crippled and eventually put him to rest – though his name would live on in the warm toasts of those helped by his good nature, careful planning and business insight.
The Aristocrat maintained a residence in northern France until the first World War. Her smoking habit took it's toll, and eventually she moved to Britain, where she disappeared from contact until she was found in a single-room apartment, survived only by the countless letters she had written – and yet left unsent.
The Reporter survived through both World Wars, finally able to return to her government under the auspices of Getulio Vargas – and then becoming persona non grata during the end of his reign. Though her articles never reached the popularity they had at her height, as the century turned she received acclaim for her attempts to remain unbiased regardless of the situation. She died only a year back, and was mourned by a small but fervent crowd.
The Singer remained in southern France just long enough to capture the heart of the French with her blending of blues and opera, before returning to America for the last few years of her life. Though success eluded her, she found the happiness she sought – able to smile once more until a sudden pain in her side laid her low in 1915. The site were she died since had a cairn raised – becoming a place of pilgrimage for all those that still sing, and feel, the blues.
As for you...
It is the year 1953.
The Inspecteur Général is now 83, and no longer the Inspecteur Général, but just Monsieur Duplessis. Though the small hill overlooking the sea is not a cemetary, you like to think of it as a place of memorial. For your friends, whom you have met over the many years; for those you have loved and lost. For those that survived – and those that fell. And of course; for those five souls you met on that night, so long ago.
As the only two surviving people who have any direct stake in the events, it has become customary for you and Duplessis to make the trek here once a year, when able. Simply to talk of older, simpler times – when the world was not divided so harshly, nor such a fearsome place. In the new world, nightmarish creatures and horrific gods seem a far and distant concern, as the new monsters of the atom raise their face.
It is a perfect day – the weather is blue, as is the sea, and the fields are rich with heathers. You rest your feet over the bluff, wondering when you became so old, and wondering if Duplessis feel the same. You are about to turn your face behind you to ask him -
But the metal of the gunbarrel is cold against the back of your neck, as he speaks in a tone far colder still.
“I am sorry.”
A shot rings out, and you plummet into the water below.
Far below you, the water fills your ears. Despite your death, you are somehow aware of a sky unfolding above you – a sky that is both red and alien, and yet infintely familiar. Through the red petals blossoming in the muck, something wades to you, limbs shivering from the humid cold pressure of the abyss.
The stranger watches your corpse floating downstream, and drifts alongside you – and as it does, it whispers to your fractured spine... “You look so sad, *friend*. I hate sad things. Would you like to get revenge..?”
Case File A - In service: