~ A Prologue ~


Mayan Viking


September 1895. London.

Annabelle listens as Big Ben chimes the hour of nine, observing impassively as the resonance of the sound permeates the city around her, echoing and reverberating, forming a chorus in honor of the passage of time. She can feel the cold autumn wind passing through her, but she remains untouched. Her flesh would be chilled by the wind, pale and fragile as it is, but she knows she is merely a memory of flesh in this moment. She is unconcerned with trifling matters such as comfort. She has greater plans tonight.

Her senses then focus upon another sound - the repetitive percussion of horseshoes upon cobblestone, wheels grinding against the street, the rattle of a carriage. It is approaching swiftly. She doesn't have to look to know who the carriage is for. Yes, the horses and wheels stop, and she hears the gate attendant calling out to the driver.

"You're 'ere to gather Master Markus, then?"

The driver's reply is too subdued for Annabelle to make out the exact words, but the two men converse for only a short moment before the creak and groan of the iron gate announces the carriage's entrance into the courtyard. Leaning back against the stone fountain in the center of the lawn, Annabelle turns her head to watch the horses as the team makes its progress around the circular path, coming to stop before the red door of the opulent house.

The driver approaches the door, the bell is rung, the carriage is announced. Moments later, her quarry emerges in his cape and hat, cane in white-gloved hands. It seems to Annabelle that his hands are disembodied things, white phantoms adrift in a black silhouette. She catches sight of his face as he gazes out across the courtyard - it is surprisingly young and fresh, with wide, bovine eyes and a slack, guileless mouth. He is soft and unformed, like a lump of clay.

Annabelle approaches, crossing the lawn on silent feet, her shadowy form invisible to most eyes. The driver and passenger are confirming their destination as Annabelle steps up and inside, sitting next to the young gentleman, and he does not even realize she is there.

"Andrew Killian Markus," she says, with more than a touch of mockery. "What an honor it is to meet you at last."

As if in reply, he taps the head of his cane against the roof of the carriage, and the driver cracks his whip. The team of horses starts moving.

Annabelle studies him closely, going over what she knows of him in her mind - he is twenty-four, unmarried, the only son of Sir Gerald Isaac Markus, studying to be a physician. He has none of the strong proclivities endemic to most men of affluence his age - namely, drink and prostitutes - and carries himself with the unassuming air of a man accustomed to living a life of perpetual inconsequence. His suit is fine, his topcoat well-crafted, his white gloves immaculate. His face is round and pale as a cherub's.

He sickens her deeply.

Sliding forward, Annabelle passes through the front of the carriage, stepping up to seat herself next to the driver. Out here, she can see the winding London streets, the gaslamps marking the end of the road and the beginning of the unknown. A thin fog has settled over the streets, rendering everything more than twenty feet away murky and indistinct. The driver - a middle-aged man with moth-eaten gloves - nods to the drivers of the other carriages as they pass, almost as if they share a silent, secret bond. Perhaps they do. Annabelle doesn't know. She shares bonds with no one.

They've nearly reached the crossroads; she can see it up ahead. They are headed north, but this is not what Annabelle intends. Her destination lies east, and so does theirs, but they don't know it yet.

She slides sideways, through a tiny crack in space, emerging ten feet ahead of the driver, on the back of one of the horses. She turns her head to face him, raising her hand, willing it to light up like one of the gaslamps, a beacon in the foggy autumn night.

The driver's eyes fall upon it immediately, wide and unquestioning, his gaze rapt and focused. He no longer watches the road ahead of him, indeed, all of his attention is now devoted to the pale, greenish light that hovers before him, lighting his way. She can see the flickering flame reflected in the driver's dark eyes, shrouded beneath the brim of his hat.

Good, thinks Annabelle. She knows she can lead him now, lead him anywhere she desires. As they approach the crossroads, she moves her hand outward, to the right, and the driver turns. Once they are on the road heading east, she brings it back to rest right between the horses' necks, in the center of the driver's field of vision.

"You've turned the wrong way, driver," calls Andrew from the carriage window. His voice is soft and carries none of the authority of his station. If the driver hears him, he makes no indication, besides, Annabelle knows it would be impossible for him to tear his gaze away from the ghost-light that guides him. From his position, Andrew cannot see it, but Annabelle knows he will not risk leaping from a moving carriage, especially in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Thusly, Annabelle leads the driver east, making him turn where she wants him to turn. Andrew calls to the driver a few more times, but she can hear the uncertainty in his voice, and she knows he has no hope of getting the driver's attention. Eventually, he lapses into a frightened silence, apparently resolving to deal with the driver's mistake once the carriage has reached its destination. After a journey of nearly half an hour, the carriage comes to a stop in one of the labyrinthine alleys of London's East End.

Annabelle has appeared right next to the driver, who is still stupefied by the lingering impression of the light that hovers in his mind. Willing herself to become partially visible for a moment, she catches his gaze. Her dark eyes are alight with a hellish green flame, and a pale aura surrounds her gauzy visage, entrancing him.

"Leave now," she whispers. "You don't want to see what is about to happen, and if you remain, you'll be blamed." She reaches out to him with the force of her internal light, and watches as the words sink into his addled brain. His jaw is slack, his eyes reflecting ghost-fire. She vanishes.

After a moment, he blinks, as if awakening from sleep. Startled, he looks around, confused by the change in his surroundings. He remembers the road headed north, but then his thoughts become clouded in fog, within which floats a disembodied light, a beautiful, haunting light ...

He regains his senses, and a cold fear settles into his bones. He shouldn't be here, he knows, so he hurriedly slides off the seat of the carriage, dashing away into one of the many adjacent alleyways.

Annabelle watches him go, a satisfied half-smile on her lips. One down. One to go.

She walks to the side of the carriage, coming to stand directly before Andrew's worried face. He is looking around, trying to fathom where he is, how he should go about finding his way back. Tentatively, he calls out to the driver.

"Hello?" he says, his voice quavering. "Is anyone there?"

Oh, I'm here, Annabelle thinks, and raises her hand, lighting it in front of Andrew's eyes. The effect is immediate - the brown irises lose all focus, fixing on the pale, luminous orb in Annabelle's hand to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't even fight, like most of them do ... his mind simply shuts down and allows itself to be led.

Slowly, she steps away. Andrew fumbles drunkenly with the latch of the carriage door before opening it. He doesn't - he can't - look down as he steps out. Misplacing his footing, he falls rather badly, his face smacking against the cold cobblestone alley floor. Annabelle waits for him as he picks himself up, grit and grime now dusting the front of his luxurious suit. His once-pristine gloves are now stained with the filth of the road.

With measured steps, she leads him away from the carriage, turning left, then right, then left again, luring him deeper and deeper into the dodgiest part of the city. He follows, entranced and completely unaware of his surroundings, mechanically placing one foot in front of the other.

Finally, when Annabelle is sure he won't be able to find his way back, she closes her fingers over the glowing light, snuffing the yellow-green flame out. She watches with satisfaction as he stands, stupidly swaying back and forth, before his reason returns.

Miles away in the distance, Big Ben begins to chime the hour of ten.

Andrew glances about wildly. All around him are cold brick walls, refuse gutted alleys, and darkness. The fog creeps between the buildings, slinking like an unfed cat, shrouding the night in uncertainty. His fear begins to rise when he realizes he cannot put together in his mind the moments that led him here, and he has no hope of retracing his steps.

"Hello?" he calls.

Fool, thinks Annabelle. She smiles, knowing he will bring his doom upon himself, just as she knew he would. Behind her, she can hear footsteps.

"What 'ave we 'ere?" a gruff voice says from a dark alley. "Looks like a lost dandy, all by 'imself."

"Looks like it, mate," says another voice, from another alley.

"I'd say so meself," says a third.

One by one, they emerge, their crooked, reddened noses and soot-stained, stubbled faces blurring together in Andrew's view. Yellowed teeth, filthy clothing, callused hands - they seem like human rats to him, but their eyes gleam with a malicious intelligence.

"Bobby!" Andrew shrills. A lump of panic rises in his throat when the three men start to laugh.

"Aren't no bobbies down this way, mate," one says. "You're a long way from 'ome, you are."

"Please, sirs - I have money, I'll give you anything, but please, don't hurt me," Andrew begs, his voice trembling.

Annabelle knows his pleas are futile. The men circle him, not bothering to negotiate, knowing they can take what they please from the young gentleman once he is dead. Invisibly, she turns and leaves the dark alley as Andrew screams. She can hear the blows raining down, the soft crunch of flesh and bone. Concentrating, she slides again between time and space, emerging near the abandoned carriage. From there, she finds her way back to the street and begins her short walk home, reviewing the completion of her assignment in her head.

With Andrew dead, his father will have no one to whom he can bequeath his fortune. Sir Gerald's wife died almost five years ago, and the pair had no other children. Sir Gerald himself is already ailing, and the loss of his son will likely deliver a near-fatal blow to the doddering old gentleman. Once his is gone, the seizure of his estate should be a simple matter for Annabelle's employers, and Annabelle knows she will be richly compensated for her efforts.

As the wind picks up and Big Ben chimes the quarter-hour, the shadowy woman glides invisibly between the rows of glowing lamps, disappearing into the murky, nighttime fog.

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