The rain was already coming down hard when Oliver Mason had gotten the call that his presence was required immediately at Avalon Asylum. He was at first quite bewildered by this, since Oliver Mason was not a doctor but the proprietor of a men’s clothing store. When he began to object, the voice on the other end cut him off and informed him that his presence had been requested by the Asylum’s principal donors; Crow, Crowley, and Chamberlin.
Oliver instantly fell silent at the mention of his ‘patrons’, as he referred to them in polite company. He briefly considered using the late hour or the weather as an excuse, but before he could even begin to speak, the voice on the other end once again cut him off, telling him that he was expected before unceremoniously hanging up.
Oliver sighed as he placed his own receiver in its cradle, but wasted no time in letting his wife and daughter know that the boys at the finance firm needed him to drive into Sombermorey so that he could take their measurements and place their order first thing in the morning. Given their usual hospitality, he might be a while.
They each gave him a kiss on the cheek goodbye, his wife quietly reminding him that she really wouldn’t mind him moving his mistress into town if it meant him having fewer late night ‘business calls’. He insisted it was actually for business, though she seemed as unconvinced as ever, and told him to drive safe.
It wasn’t even a half hour’s drive into Sombermorey, and it was one that Oliver had made often enough, but he still resented having to make it at night and in the rain just because some pompous plutocrats he owed a favour to decided they had some pressing need of him. And in a madhouse, of all places.
Avalon Asylum was over a hundred years old, its weather-stained and ivy-covered exterior walking a fine line between ‘quaint’ and ‘condemned’. Though the hour was still early, none of its many windows gave off any light at all, and any rational person could have been forgiven for assuming that it was utterly abandoned. Oliver didn’t know what kind of ‘lunatics’ the asylum actually claimed to treat, but he had an uneasy suspicion that tonight was the night he would find out.
The asylum itself was situated in the middle of the Avalon River that ran through the city. It had been built on a small island to create an illusion of security, but it was far from an Alcatraz. Any escaping lunatic who could swim would be able to cross the river easily enough, and if they couldn’t swim or just didn’t feel like getting wet, freedom was just a short walk over the poorly guarded bridge. The gate attendant had waved Oliver through without even asking for ID.
He parked as close to the main entryway as he could, but made no rush to get out of the rain. His fedora and trench coat offered more than adequate protection from the elements, and he was not eager to learn what nightmarish things awaited him inside the madhouse.
“Ah, Mr. Mason! Welcome, welcome! So glad you were able to join us on such short notice,” Seneca Chamberlin greeted him as he stepped into the asylum’s candlelit visitor’s parlour. Chamberlin, as always, wore an ornate three-piece suit, top hat, and an insufferably smug smile. “My apologies for the poor lighting. It’s, well, it’s related to the situation at hand, you see. Just hand your coat and hat to Mr. Woodbead there and have a seat. You know Mr. Crowley, of course, but I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure of Master Erasmus Crow.”
Erasmus Crow, like every other member of the Crow family that Oliver had met, had white hair, pale skin with an odd tinge of silver to it, and vivid blue-green eyes.
“What happened to Eratosthenes?” Oliver asked disinterestedly as he handed off his wet outerwear to Chamberlin’s butler.
“Crossed the River Styx, I’m afraid. The Crow family has never been as adept as Seneca and I at cheating the Dread Persephone,” Crowley mocked, his monotone voice booming through a gramophone horn. Crowley had ‘cheated Persephone’ by binding his soul to his brain, persevering his brain in a bubbling vat of alchemical elixirs, and mounting said vat upon a telekinetically operated clockwork pedestal; as one does.
“Well, let’s give credit where credit is due, Crowley. The Crows are good for dealing with our more mundane clientele, since we can’t exactly pass you off as just having a rare skin condition,” Seneca remarked, gesturing for Woodbead to offer Oliver a cigar.
“With all due respect, I didn’t drive all this way at night and in the rain just to listen to you three hens exchange petty insults,” Oliver said as he deliberately shunned the proffered stogies in favour of his own Satin Stag cigarettes. “Why am I here, boys?”
“That’s a good question,” Erasmus said as he impertinently snatched one of Oliver’s cigarettes for himself. “How’s a haberdasher supposed to help us out here?”
"Because before he was a haberdasher, Mr. Mason here was a soldier," Seneca replied. "More importantly, he was a soldier who fought against enemies he’s not permitted to talk about in polite company. He helped liberate the Hexenloch concentration camp at the end of the war. Shot a Nazi warlock while he was at it, too. Oliver, tell Master Erasmus about how you shot a Nazi warlock.”
Oliver took a drag from his cigarette before listlessly turning his head towards Erasmus.
“I shot a Nazi warlock,” he said apathetically.
“It’s a good thing everything you did across The Pond is classified, because you’re rubbish at telling war stories,” Chamberlin rolled his eyes. “Anyway, when Mr. Mason returned, we gave him the loan he needed to get his business up and running, and I personally arranged for a little Unseelie assistance when he and his wife were having trouble conceiving, because I knew that this was a man I wanted in my debt. I presume you’ve brought your sidearm, Mr. Mason?”
Oliver nodded slowly, and pulled out his gun from his suit jacket. It was a custom-made revolver that held seven bullets, forged from a marbled black metal that was unusually cold to the touch. Oliver didn’t know what the metal was or who had made the gun, only that it was able to kill things that claimed to be unkillable.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Chamberlin smiled. “And you have it loaded with the proper ammunition, I trust?”
Oliver opened the gun’s cylinder and pulled out a silver bullet etched with calligraphic runes around its circumference.
"Excellent! That ought to do the trick!"
“Do the trick against what?” Oliver asked, unable to suppress his irritation as he reloaded and holstered his gun.
“Well, you see, the thing is… it’s sort of a… some might call it a…. Crowley?”
“It’s nothing you can’t handle, my boy,” Crowley assured him.
“You’re serious? You’re just going to point me in the right direction and tell me to shoot first and ask questions later?” Oliver asked in disgust. Crowley and Chamberlin both turned towards Crow, as he was their junior-most partner, and as such onerous duties of this sort often fell upon him.
“It’s… mad,” Erasmus said at last. “The patients we take in here are the kind of lunatics that people just want to get rid of. They’re outcasts, no one gives a damn what we do with them, so we do with them as we damn well please. Crowley, in particular, comes up with all sort of occult experiments, and one of his experiments is now loose."
“Not loose, exactly. It’s still in its ward, which we’ve evacuated and sealed off. The situation isn’t completely out of hand,” Seneca insisted.
“Then why is the electricity out?” Oliver asked.
“We never said the electricity was out,” Erasmus replied. “Electric light seems to provoke it, so they’re off for the time being. Candlelight doesn’t seem to bother it as much though, so we can at least give you a lantern.”
Erasmus passed him a cast-iron kerosene lantern that looked like it had been there since the asylum first opened, but Oliver made no move to take it.
“What kind of danger am I in?” he demanded.
“None, if you shoot it in the head before it has a chance to retaliate,” Seneca replied.
“It has to be the head?” Oliver asked.
“Well, that’s technically all that’s left of it,” Crowley admitted. “Anything else you see in there is purely… affectation.”
"I'll keep that in mind," Oliver said as he put out his cigarette. "Which way is it then?"
“Woodbead will show you to the ward,” Chamberlin said with a nod to his butler. Oliver gave a purely perfunctory nod in return as he rose from his seat. With his gun in one hand and the lantern in the other, he followed Woodbead through the dark and deathly quiet hallways until they reached a wide set of doors labelled ‘Experimental Ward – Authorized Personnel Only’.
Woodbead slid open a metal viewing port and cautiously checked the inside of the ward.
“The entry is clear,” he reported as he pulled out his keys and opened the doors just wide enough for Oliver to slip through, abruptly slamming them shut as soon as he was on the other side. He remained just outside, though, peering through the glass, vigilantly watching to ensure that Oliver didn’t try to leave until after his task was finished.
The antiquated lantern did little to illuminate the abysmal ward. Beds and other furnishings had been thrown about, light bulbs had been shattered, and banks of industrial-sized medical equipment had been smashed and toppled. There was a strong scent of formaldehyde and other potent chemicals, powerful enough to make Oliver wish he still had his gas mask from his army days. The only sound was the rain pelting against the windows, with no sign of whoever was responsible for this disaster.
With a steady hand, Oliver slowly swept the lantern back and forth as he meticulously advanced through the ward, glass and other debris loudly crunching under his leather shoes as he did so. Even though the chemical fumes were stinging his eyes, he fought the urge to blink. The ward was so dark, with so many places to hide, that if something came hurtling towards him, the blink of an eye could literally mean the difference between life and death.
Oliver was over halfway through the ward when his light fell upon something that finally gave him pause. It was a metal bed frame, the first one he had seen that wasn’t overturned. It was draped in a black bed sheet, which itself seemed unusual for a medical facility, underneath which was a huddled figure. Oliver pointed his gun at it, but resisted the temptation to pull the trigger immediately. For all he knew, it was a patient hiding from whatever he had been sent in to kill, and he did not want innocent blood on his hands.
“Identify yourself,” he whispered, fully ready to shoot it in an instant should it become hostile. The figure under the sheet raised its head slightly, but made no effort to pull the sheet back. It sat up very slowly under the sheet, revealing itself to be well over six feet tall. “Identify yourself now, or I’ll shoot!”
Oliver took a step back as he held his gun towards the figure, his aim trained on its head as Chamberlin had recommended.
“My name is Charlie,” it replied timidly, speaking in the voice of a small child. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Shit, Oliver thought to himself. He scrutinized the figure as meticulously as he could in the dim light and without getting any closer, and realized he couldn’t actually tell if it was sitting on the edge of the bed or standing on it. If it was sitting on the bed, then it was bigger than he was, but if it was standing up on it then it easily could have been a child.
“Hello there, Charlie, nice to meet you,” he said cordially. “My name’s Oliver. Would you mind coming out from under that sheet so that we can talk face to face?”
“I can’t come out,” it said with a fervent shake of its head.
“Why’s that?” Oliver asked with a practiced paternal patience.
“You’ll shoot me if you see what I look like,” Charlie whimpered. Oliver let out a sigh and, against his better judgement, lowered his gun.
“Listen, Charlie, I’m not going to shoot you. How about you tell me what happened here? Can you do that?” he asked. The figure nodded sullenly, but its posture remained every bit as despondent, suggesting to Oliver that his promise not to shoot it carried little weight.
“Ever since I was little, I would shake and fall down for no reason. I couldn’t control it, it would just happen. The doctor called it epilepsy," Charlie explained. "Sometimes, I would break things, or wet myself. Mother used to say I would grow out of it, but it only got worse as I got bigger. I was an embarrassment, and too much trouble, so Father sent me away. Mother said it wasn't forever, just until I got better, but I don't think Father ever wanted me back.
“It didn’t matter anyway, because the doctors here weren’t even trying to make me better. They would strap me to the bed and stick me with needles. They said it was medicine, but all it did was make me sick and sleepy. Then they’d stick wires to my head and electrocute me to make me shake and wet myself worse than I ever did before, sometimes so much that I couldn’t even remember who I was. Then, then that brain in a jar came, shouting made-up words. He was so loud and he wouldn’t stop talking and none of it made sense.
“He called for his surgeon, and he was wearing a mask but not a doctor’s mask. It was leather and it covered his whole head with a brass mouthpiece and goggles, and it had long tubes feeding into it from a backpack. He took out a knife; not a scalpel but a giant, dirty knife, and started cutting. He just kept cutting and cutting and cutting and it hurt so much! He kept cutting no matter how much I begged him to stop, and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t dead and I still don’t understand. He cut so much. There’s nothing left.”
Charlie began to weep softly, his head hanging down limply as he drew the black bed sheet around him even tighter.
"Charlie… did you do this?" Oliver asked, holding up the lantern and shining it around the desolated ward. Charlie hesitated, but eventually, he shamefully nodded his head.
“Yes,” he admitted quietly. “They had tied me to the bed, but they cut so much there wasn’t enough left of me to hold down anymore. I sat up, and when I looked down at my own bloody and mangled body I screamed, but when I saw my reflection in the window I… I don’t even know. I smashed the lightbulbs so that I didn’t have to look at myself anymore, and then I smashed everything else until I was too tired, and I laid down to cry until I was too tired for that too.”
Oliver looked around the ward again, appraising the destruction. There was no way any child, no matter how mad with grief and rage, could have done all of that. He had to know what he was dealing with before he made any irreversible decisions.
“Charlie, listen. I need to see what they did to you,” he whispered as reassuringly as could. “Can I take this sheet off of you, please?”
“Do you promise you won’t scream?” Charlie whimpered.
“I promise, Charlie,” Oliver nodded, and he meant it. He was a disciplined soldier and had seen all variety of mutilated bodies, both living in dead, during his deployment overseas. More importantly, he was a fairly decent father, and the last thing he wanted to do was upset a troubled child.
Moving slowly, Oliver grabbed the top of the bed sheet and gently tugged it off. What he saw was a human nervous system suspended in mid-air; a floating brain with its spinal cord dangling limply like a tail. The nerves seemed to move of their own accord, and had been responsible for holding the bed sheet in the shape of a human body. The eyes remained intact as well; naked, bloodshot orbs with pupils dilated as far as they could go, leaving no visible iris.
What was truly repugnant though was that every inch of nerve tissue was coated with some kind of black, fungoid growth, rhythmically expanding and contracting as if it were breathing. It was fuzzy, and damp, and wheezing, and the way it so greedily engrossed and permeated the brain with its mycelium made Oliver think it was a parasite of some kind. Although, if it was what was keeping Charlie alive, then perhaps the term symbiote would be more appropriate.
“Crowley, you twisted bastard, why would you do this?” Oliver whispered in disbelief.
“I can never go back home now, can I?” Charlie asked, the nerves where his throat should have been vibrating slightly as he spoke.
Oliver sighed, setting the lantern down. He glanced around the upended ward, his eyes settling on the rain pounding upon a nearby window.
“No son, I’m afraid not.”
Everyone in the asylum heard the gunshot. By the time Crow, Crowley, and Chamberlin had reached the ward’s entrance, Oliver was already out.
“It’s done,” he reported solemnly, his gun still smoking in his hand.
“It’s dead?” Chamberlin asked hopefully.
“Shot in the head, like you said. Right between the eyes. The bullet tore right through it and still had enough energy to break a window, like the thing had been made of smoke,” Oliver reported, holstering his gun and taking out his pack of cigarettes. Chamberlin nodded towards Woodbead, who pulled out a clockwork device that resembled a Geiger counter and went in to confirm the kill himself.
“What about the body? Is it intact?” Crowley demanded shrilly.
“ ’Fraid not. The creature deteriorated into Miasma the second the bullet made contact, which promptly evaporated," Oliver claimed as he lit a cigarette.
“What?” Crowley demanded. “How is that possible?”
“Beats the hell out of me. I’m not a thaumatologist. You gents just brought me in to shoot the damn thing, and that’s what I did,” Oliver said nonchalantly. Woodbead stepped back out of the ward, holding his scanning device high so that they could all see it.
“I performed a full sweep. There’s no body, and I didn’t get a single ping on the parathaumameter,” he reported.
“You calamitous, blundering ignoramus! Do you have any idea how valuable that body would have been to my research!” Crowley screeched lividly as he rolled towards Oliver.
“Easy Crowley, easy!” Chamberlin shouted as both he and Crow held him in place. “Need I remind you this entire incident was your fault to begin with? I brought Oliver in to clean up your mess, and that's all I care about. If you want your test subjects in one piece, then you should take better care that they don't break loose to begin with!"
Crowley wrinkled his grey matter at Chamberlin, but said nothing.
“Mr. Mason, I apologize for my colleague’s outburst. You did splendidly,” Chamberlin congratulated him. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a neatly folded wad of cash. “Here’s a little something for your trouble.”
“And your silence,” Crow added.
“Yes Erasmus, obviously. No need to threaten the poor man after what he’s just been through,” Chamberlin rolled his eyes. “Honestly, of the three of us, sometimes I think I’m the only one who’s capable of being affable. You’re free to go, Mr. Mason. No sense in keeping you around these ingrates any longer. And thank you again, sincerely. Who knows what else that thing might have gotten up to if we had let it run amok?”
Oliver nodded without a word, pocketing the cash without counting it, as the exact sum hardly mattered to him. Woodbead escorted him back to the main entryway, helped him into his hat and coat, and cordially waved him farewell as he drove off.
As he drove over the bridge, he saw the asylum lights turning back on in his rearview mirror. A view which was quickly obscured, however, by a figure under a black bed sheet slowly rising from its hiding place in between the seats.
“…Thank you,” Charlie said softly.
“Don’t mention it, kid,” Oliver said, turning his eyes back towards the road. The rain was easing up, but the road was still slippery. “I’m just glad you got the right car, and that the range on that parathaumameter was crap.”
“Where are you going to take me?” Charlie asked.
“Up north, to a place called Dreadfort. I got an old army buddy who works there,” Oliver replied. “It’s a long drive, and it won’t help my wife’s suspicions that I’m having an affair, but it’s the only place I know to take you. I won’t lie, you’re not going to have a normal childhood there, but you’ll be better off than you would be with Crowley.”
Charlie nodded somberly, lowering his head but saying nothing. Oliver glanced up into his rearview mirror at the forlorn figure, and decided that there was no need to let their many hours together in that car pass in uncomfortable silence.
"Hey, Charlie; do you want to hear about the time I shot a Nazi warlock?"
Written by The Vesper's Bell