The Whispering came out of nowhere. The fairytales ran but the sound was soon loud and vicious and the flickering Shadow was upon them like a thousand flies of darkness.
Deidre tripped and it was on her in an instant. She screamed and cried and the last thing she saw was her parents laying dying in an overturned carriage.
Hours later Jack of Ash, Burlap Molly and Ironitsa sat huddled gasping for breath in an alley. Jack went over their story again for comfort and insisted Deirdre, like Piston Pete who had fallen first, was in all likelihood not dead, simply taken by the White Queen.
The Baptist was close and despite that the street separating them was filled with rioters and police clashing, they were nearer then ever to the Happy Ending. But first they just had to make it down the block and enter the corner building.
They mounted their courage and made their way down the war torn street.
The fighting was fierce. The crowd threw bottles at the police and the police surged forward with clubs violently raining down. Gun shots rang out.
The fairytales kept to the sides. A rioter stumbled into Burlap Molly and Ironitsa pushed him away.
Two policemen suddenly blocked their way, nightsticks raised. Before they could bring them down upon Jack, Ironitsa lashed out and almost too fast to follow both were suddenly curled up on the ground.
They burst into the corner building and ran up the stairwell to the second floor. They went to the door reading Solicitor’s Office and entered.
The large office space contained numerous desks for numerous employees to scrawl away at, and hunched over one of them was The Baptist, scribbling away in a shirt and tie identical to the five other men also present at their desks.
Molly ran to him, threw her arms around him and almost began to cry. The Baptist looked awkwardly shocked and pulled back.
Molly begged him to return with them to Arcadia, but The Baptist told her he was right where he belonged and to please not bother him.
They bantered back and forth but it wasn’t until Jack reminded him he was a Prophet that The Baptist became upset. He shouted they were quite mistaken, he didn’t have time for this nonsense and in his view faith was a delusional fairytale for the weak, a story people tell themselves to avoid dealing with reality at best and an illogical form of brainwashing that led to pain and bloodshed at the bottom of it. He firmly told them he was not “The Baptist”, just John, thank you very much, a normal man who wished to live a normal life.
Jack just stared at him. Molly cried and even Ironitsa, who almost never showed emotion looked uncomfortable.
Jack asked if The White Queen had spoken to him. John told him to never speak of the White Queen again.
Molly, sobbing, asked if he ever heard the Whispering and for a moment fear flashed across John’s face and they all stood listening in silence.
The room exploded.
Windows shattered and the force of the blast sent everything and everyone flying. A bomb from the outside had been tossed through the window.
Jack screamed they must run. Ironitsa was on her feet and Molly grabbed John’s arm and told him to come with her, just to get to safety. Reluctantly, as gunfire echoed from the street he nodded and let her pull him with them as they ran out the building.
The streets outside were a nightmare of violence, panic and chaos. They froze at the doorway as flaming bottles flew about, gunshots fired and people ran past, wild eyes flashing at them.
Ironitsa stepped forward. She looked back once and nodded, then moved out of the doorway into the street, violently clearing a path through the mayhem.
The Story Of Ironitsa:
Irene grew up in the slum. It was full of violence and desperation as one might expect, but there was also a lot of love, loyalty and small acts of kindness which inspired her. When she became a young woman and had the chance to leave, she chose to stay and teach the children of the Zerchick ghetto. As a committed pacifist, it was the best way she could think of to fight for her people.
Her brother on the other hand advocated a different, more aggressive stance.
The ghetto was indeed filled mostly with ethnic Zerchicks. Once, hundreds of years ago, they had dominated the area, but eventually the Emperor moved in. As the legend went, the Zerchicks were the most difficult people for the Empire to conquer. They had a dozen soldiers with magical masks and gloves that turned their bodies into cold, hard iron and made them near invincible fighting machines.
However, with the force of the entire Empire behind him, the Emperor eventually won, the Zerchicks were conquered, and now centuries later relegated to their ghetto within the great city that now stood on their former land.
It was whispered that the Empire even now would love to simply exterminate them, but one set of mask and gloves remained, waiting for the day it was needed most.
The Zerchicks had none the less found an industry they could thrive at: hard to find and banned books.
The Empire was a rigid one. Fundamentalist religion reigned, sometimes more staunch than others. Political dissidence was frowned upon. Literature and the arts were heavily censored and thus the Zerchicks found their niche.
If you wished to publish or purchase a political pamphlet, a religious tract, a book, a score which strayed outside the Empire’s rigid moral lines, you went to the Zerchick ghetto.
Unfortunately for Irene and her people, the new Emperor was a particularly hardline zealot who wanted all seditions and heresy removed once and for all. He ordered the Zerchick quarter to be searched shop by shop and apartment by apartment for all literary contraband.
Irene and her brother argued over what to do. Her brother insisted arms be taken up to defend themselves from persecution. Irene, always the pacifist, insisted violence would only beget more violence and suffering and counseled that if they all kept their heads down this would pass as it always did.
The Emperor’s soldiers swept into the ghetto. Irene and the other teachers brought their children to the main Church to wait out the chaos.
An hour into it, her brother and three of his comrades burst in, brandishing swords and insisting the legendary mask and gloves were hidden in a secret compartment in the altar. While one of the comrades worked at the altar’s base Irene stood next to him and scolded them for bringing arms into a place of worship.
A soldier entered.
The brother, standing at the entrance, whirled around and they faced each other, weapons drawn in a stand off, each uncomfortable with bloodshed in the Church.
It was too much for Irene however. She screamed. The scream made her brother flinch and the flinch made the soldier attack.
He sliced her brother down.
The three comrades fell upon the soldier, slew him and threw the body out the front of the Church.
A minute later an entire company of soldiers poured in. The children began screaming as they mowed down the three comrades.
Irene looked down at the altar. Sure enough, the comrade had succeeded in opening a hidden drawer. An iron mask and two iron gloves stared up at her.
She did not make any decision. She did not think at all. She simply put them on.
Wires from the mask and gloves slid into her arms and neck. Her skin became hard and metallic, her heart became cold and emotionless and her mind became clear and sharp.
She leapt off the altar, executed several flips and came to a stop kneeling above her fallen brother. She took his sword and stood.
The soldiers formed a circle around her. There was a long moment of perfect stillness. Nobody moved.
Then she did.
She was inhuman. She was exquisite. She was an Angel of Judgment and Wrath, a thing of terrible grace and violent beauty executing a ballet of almost achingly lovely slaughter. To watch her was to watch War made into a melancholic, holy art.
When she finally came to stillness again, the entire company of soldiers lay dead as did 7 children.
She never removed the mask or gloves.
For one thing, as long as she wore them the Emperor’s many subsequent attempts to destroy the ghetto and the Zerchicks were doomed to failure.
But more so, as long as she wore the mask she was devoid of emotion and feeling. She didn’t have to ever deal with the otherwise crippling grief and overwhelming guilt for causing the death of her brother, a company of soldiers simply carrying out their duty, and 7 innocent children who were unfortunate enough to be in the path of her icy rampage.