The Den of Disquiet
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The feeling was embarrassment. He was sure of it.

A fresh wave of agony drove all thought from his mind, and he fought to break free with wild, involuntary strength. Though with his brother’s weight pinning him to the carpet all that happened was a momentary spasm. “Squirmin' Herman,” Aloysius scolded. His smug grin was almost audible. “Hold still for once; you’ll get blood all over Mother’s new Turkish carpet.”

Then you should have waited till I went out to the kitchen, you ass, Herman thought savagely, before reaching again for the quiet place in the center of his mind, the one place the pain didn’t touch. He could ride it out. He could keep his will focused, and come out the other side of this with enough left of himself to rebuild. But it was embarrassing - humiliating! - to be so easily bested, the weakling of the family, fruit of inferior blood and Mother’s self-indulgence. Vicious as he was, eldest son Aloysius still had a long way to go to catch up to their mother’s flesh carving prowess. Even if he had finally mastered Madame Fuller’s favorite trick of paralyzing the larynx so the flesh in question couldn’t beg for mercy. Or argue. Or scream.

Seconds passed like hours, his brother’s cold hands fumbling around in the gash he’d pulled open at the base of Herman’s neck. “Carotid, carotid… got it!” He reached further in, pinched something between thumb and forefinger, and bracing his other hand between Herman's shoulders, began to pull.

Thought swept away under a tidal wave of pain. The mind called Herman Portunus Fuller was a burning tightrope, a taut thread strung across an ocean of suffering flesh, silence shredding in its grip.

After a minute, or a year, he came back to himself, blinking tear-swollen eyes, and drew a few deep breaths, not wanting to test whether his voice worked just yet. Aloysius sat next to him, camp-style, chin propped up in one blood-drenched hand. "Well would you look at that. It worked. And you managed not to soil the rug after all."

Herman hawked up a mouthful of spit, shakily raising himself up on one elbow. He hadn't yet decided whether to aim at the floor or his brother when he felt something tighten around his neck. A wave of blackness momentarily clouded his vision, Aloysius's grin of delight fading in and out of focus.

"Oh, that worked perfectly! And it's your own skin to boot, so with your collar turned up, no one will ever notice the difference! Come on." He sprang to his feet, reaching down to haul Herman up by the arm. Herman swatted his hand away, weakly, and used the leg of a nearby chair to haul himself upright.

"Hurts more when Mother does it," he growled, standing all the way up with a grimace, gratified to hear his own voice again. Even if it broke.

"Then why are you crying?"

"Make you feel better. Wouldn't want Mother's golden boy to get discouraged."

Aloysius smirked and turned to head for the library's door, expecting his brother to follow. He held his right arm carefully near his chest to avoid dripping blood on the upholstery.

At seventeen Herman was already bulkier than either of his siblings, though most of it was muscle. Aloysius was lanky and wickedly fast, and willowy Lucretia seemed to float rather than walk. But muscles weren't much use when any one of his family members could render him weak as a kitten with a touch - sharing half of their blood made him more susceptible to the magic, not less.

With a well-timed kick, Herman slammed the library door against his brother's backside, making the older boy trip over his feet and stumble gracelessly into the opposite wall. He palmed a letter opener from the nearby writing desk, testing its balance as the door slammed open again.

"You little —" his brother snarled, and turned to snatch a hooded lantern off the wall, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Herman felt the writhing end of the coil around his neck creep upward. It tugged on the skin under his jaw, forcing his mouth open.

This is going to be bad, he thought, gripping the tiny blade.

A mild, melodious voice drifted down the hall. "Boys, what's that racket?"

Both young men froze. They locked eyes, and with identical expressions of wariness, each slowly put down the improvised weapon he was holding.

"Very sorry to have disturbed you, Mother!" Aloysius called out. "We will join you momentarily!"

Hastily, they checked to be sure their shirts were laced, their doublets buttoned, their hair smoothed as they proceeded towards the salon. At an angry gargle from the younger boy, Aloysius waved a hand, and the new coil of flesh lifted dozens of delicate feelers out of anchoring skin and tiptoed back down to settle in its original location. Herman gnashed his teeth experimentally and wished for a glass of water. Or, he amended, gazing at the back of his brother's blond head, perhaps a revolver.

The salon at the front of the house faced the street, and was every bit as sumptuously appointed as the library. Two of the female servants sat discreetly in a corner with a basket of mending; the gas lamps along the avenue had been lit for the evening, adding strength to the fading autumn sun.

Mother looked up from her chair by the fireplace as the boys entered; her gaze was cool and thoughtful. Lucretia, sleeves rustling, set aside the book of poems she had been reading, a gleam of mischief in her eye.

This, Herman thought again, is going to be bad.

With a small nod, Mother acknowledged their presence, her attention on Aloysius's bloodied right forearm and chin. "Where were you boys playing this time?"

"The library, Mother." Her eyebrow quirked, and Aloyius added hastily, "Everything's intact, we were very careful."

"'We'?" Herman retorted. Lucretia held the back of her hand over her mouth, hiding a snicker.

Madame Fuller sat up in her chair, looking over her shoulder to the servants. "Sarah," she said quietly. The young woman set her needlework aside and stood, dropping a curtsy. "Yes, ma'am." Her soft steps swept around the brothers and she slipped from the room, dark face composed, eyes downcast.

"Now then. What have you to show me?"

Wordlessly, Aloysius reached over and untied the string that fastened his brother's shirt. Herman scowled but did not protest. He had, after all, failed to prevent it. And fighting back now would only irritate their mother.

Lucretia sprang from her seat and drifted over to the boys, peering at the modification with interest. She ran her fingers along the coil and tugged at it experimentally. Despite himself, Herman flinched, which won him a flicker of a smile. "How diverting," she exclaimed. "It's like a little serpent! And is that," she closed her eyes and sniffed a moment, "is that arterial blood?"

"The carotid," Aloysius replied, trying hard to not to look smug. "So that when it tightens, it cuts off blood flow to the brain, bringing on a faint very quickly."

He demonstrated this. Darkness clouded Herman's vision and he struggled for breath, hands clutching at his throat. The sound of a crash floated dimly through the haze and he realized it had been the sound of himself, crumpling to the floor.

"And you put it on the outside?" Lucretia's tone was faintly scornful as she prodded Herman with a silk-clad toe. Once again, he clambered awkwardly to his feet. He wished, and not for the first time, that he could have managed to pick up the servants' knack of keeping the dread and murderous anger from showing on their faces.

Aloysius looked nonplussed. Then again, Lucretia had mastered the art of seating her modifications not only within the body but somehow elsewhere several years earlier, and loved to tweak her older sibling's pride. "I had thought," he replied, "we could adapt this for general use. Perhaps after …amending it as you describe. Even the factory workers could benefit from this kind of motivation."

Madame Fuller sighed. She waved Lucretia back towards her previous seat on the divan, then folded her hands in her lap. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Aloysius, I really do. But I worry that the protections of this house have made you injudicious. We answer to none but ourselves, of course, but to indulge oneself in a manner that is wasteful of resources creates vulnerability. A man," her voice grew sterner, "must solve his own dilemmas, must think plans through before enacting them."

Sarah returned, as quietly as she had left, holding a bloodied cloth in one hand. Madame Fuller looked at it with a frown. "Where?"

"On the lantern in the hallway, ma'am. Nowhere else." She proffered the rag, which the lady grasped by the edge before turning to toss it in the fire. With another small curtsy, Sarah went back to her seat by the basket of mending.

Aloysuis's mouth opened in a silent rictus, his body quivering as wisps of smoke curled up from his face and hand, as embers lit and smoked on his bespattered shirt. His mother rose and walked over to him, footsteps heavy in the quiet room. She patted the unmarked side of his face with a slim white hand.

"My dear, sweet boy. I value you. I want you to succeed, to overcome, and I want you to remember. You have power. You will always have enemies, even among those who serve and fear you. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you are safe. No one is safe from us - not even God, if we fulfill our destiny. Therefore we, in turn, cannot believe we are safe from anyone. Will you remember?"

As quickly as it began, the heat dissipated. Gasping, Aloysius raised his cracked and blistering hand before his face, struggling to heal it as he spoke. "Y-yes, Mother. Thank you, Mother. I will remember."

"Good, my child, very good." She beamed at him and reached up to tousle his hair. "And I am pleased to see you experimenting with new techniques."

Madame Fuller turned to Herman, her smile taking on a tinge of pity as she clasped him by the shoulders. "My poor baby. Were you able to alter it at all?"

He managed not to grind his teeth. "No, Mother. I mean, I hadn't - I hadn't tried it yet." Shame roiled in his belly. Shame that she expected so little of him and still he had failed her. He had the talent, but it came to him more slowly — he needed time, he needed to concentrate to make it work. Physical violence was much easier, and he knew as long as he had the advantage of surprise he could do significant damage. Not that it mattered.

"Do you know the range on it?" Lucretia mused idly, fingers twirling a lock of her hair. "If he were in the cellar, for example, or the stables, would it still work?"

"That is an excellent question, my daughter. Let us put it to the test!"

Horses stamped and whickered in the gathering dark. Herman rubbed his hands together, musing as he often did that a good, strong horse was worth more than he was. Son of the house or no, if he took one and ran, it would be for the horse's sake that they were followed.

A now damnably familiar tightness at his throat brought Herman back to the present, and he looked up. Curtains twitched and he recognized his brother's silhouette in the kitchen window. This time, though, Herman was prepared, and he fought back the wave of disorientation to concentrate on the little snake around his neck, on the heat of his blood running through it, willing its grip to loose.

It eased, just a bit. He took a few steps backward, angling for the courtyard gate. It eased just a bit more. Step by step, like a mouse inching toward its burrow under the watchful eye of a cat, Herman slunk out onto the road.

He turned and started walking down the lane without much thought. Something in him soured at the idea of going back up to the house. Out here, the air was crisp and cool, clouds scudding over a waning moon in the quiet of evening. Passersby saw his fine coat and hat and his thunderous scowl and, more often than not, nervously stepped aside, despite his obvious youth. Their deference was a balm to his shattered pride.

Herman realized he could, if he chose, simply keep walking on his own two feet. In that sense he supposed he was lucky. If one of what Mother termed the "lessers" were to flee, with a head full of family secrets, they would more than likely meet Lucretia on a lonely midnight lane. Her insides were far, far bigger than her outside, and he had no desire whatsoever to know how many things that had once been people she had already collected there. And besides, he had to be discreet, for his own protection. Those who fed upon the power of Yaldabaoth had many enemies, of course, but any one of the rival families who'd been drifting north and east in the wake of the war would love to lay hands on even the least of Mother's offspring. And if it came to that, if he let himself be captured — she would never forgive him.

His thoughts had carried him past the wealthier district where the Fuller house stood, past a row of more modest homes, to the foot of a bridge that led to the factories on the other side of the river.

Reflected torchlight flickered on the water, and Herman squinted into the distance. Someone had set up… a tent? on a rough patch of ground next to one of the docks. Curiosity quickened his steps across the bridge.

It was indeed a tent. Two young men, not much older than himself, stood station at the entrance, but were too focused on whatever was happening inside to pay Herman much heed. A man's voice rose over the murmuration of the crowd.

"What praise is sufficient for such a gift? What glory can we, in our wretchedness, bestow upon the One who sheds His glory upon us?" The murmuration swelled in approval.

Herman stepped forward, lips parting with fascination. His family attended church services every Sunday - no person of their social standing could avoid it. But those were deadly dull, formulaic rituals, cast entirely into shadow by the bloody and far more potent practices with which the Fullers siphoned might from the raw, undulating vastness they called God. One of the boys by the entrance grinned at Herman encouragingly and lifted the tent flap, so along with the preacher's calls and the crowd's responses, the smell of the human throng drifted out to meet him - breath, sweat and pheromones.

"The power of the blood is the mercy of the Lord."


"The power of the blood is the mercy of the Almighty!"


"I say again, I can't hear you, I said the POWER of the blood is the MERCY of our Lord Jesus!"


His carving may have been shamefully inadequate, but Herman's nose was almost as good as his sister's. The body-warmed air of the revival tent swirled with a riot of emotions, leaking out through the congregation's pores - they were hungry, anxious, desperate, horny, lonely, grubby animals. But at this moment, swept up in the preacher's words, at this moment, almost none of them were afraid.

His world had always turned on an axis of fear. Fear of the pain he'd already endured, and dread of the pain yet to come. But if someone held the power to take a person's fear away - to dangle the irresistible lure of hope and mercy - didn't that someone, just as certain, show himself to be the master of their fear? The one they would follow, and obey?

The thought struck him like lightning. For a long moment Herman stood, gaping, a ridiculous grin spreading across his face. The other boy who had held up the tent flap came forward to clap him on the shoulder in friendly greeting, mistaking his revelation for religious fervor.

Here at last was a power to which even ordinary men, whose heritage lent them no secret talents, had access. This, Herman said to himself, THIS is a magic I can do.

Squaring his shoulders, Herman stepped inside.

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