A Mischief in the Woodwork - By Harper Alexander

Prologue –

The Echoing Place

Somewhere beneath the rubble, there was a story to be told. But if anyone read the testimony of those long dusted-over textures, it was only the looters.

The history of this place has crumbled. Scarce is the memory that ties better days to this wilderness. Once, there were golden things alive and well in the world. Screen doors slammed carelessly into the afternoon, in the wake of those embarking into the homey territory. The windows were thrown open.

Now, what windows there are lie in large part shuttered. The rest are broken. And the doors – the doors are all locked.

It didn't happen overnight, but it may as well have, where the history books are concerned. Dar'on reached a point very quickly that saw its livelihood retreated indoors. Anything uttered echoed in the streets. Sometimes there was the great sound of rubble shifting, of a building buckling and the rumbling landslide of shards. We would hear it, and be certain to stay away from the windows. We were beyond the fringes of the city, but we knew that when things shifted, it was the doorway to something happening. In the fragile aftermath of a great haunting, any shift in what has settled may well be the shift that cracks the balance, and awakens something.

For those of us who had to tread into that city, we could only hope not to be caught out in the open when a shift took place. So far, I had been lucky. But encounters with that place were no less haunting. One suffers a disturbing sense of morbidity at the epic disgrace that lies in heaps. As if the mounds are piles of bodies, and the shards a twisted mosaic of broken spirit.

The University is one example of the early, astonishing ruin. I looted there once.

When I stumbled upon it, I marveled at the threshold. There had never been so much ruined glory all in one place. It was a battlefield. A place where great things died. Akin to the realm of the gods brought to its knees, for all its destroyed grandeur.

Even as a slave, it was the most humbling thing I had known.

Sheafs of architecture layered the ground, as frivolous as old wallpaper peeled from its host. Pillars lay like felled trees, rolling pins to the rubble, broken off from splintered half-bases or pathetic stump-like nubs. The beams that pitched the vast ceiling bowed before the disarray, foundation at its most demeaned. Great cracks swam through the arches that still stood. There were small splinters of beauty, but it was dull behind a layer of powder.

I swallowed against the parchment coating in my throat.

A treacherous urge took me. There in the colossal chamber of artful decay, I spoke.

It was taboo in the open city – as good as forbidden. What had settled was not to be disturbed. But I could not leave it like that, a place once so vivid and vivacious strangled in tainted peace. The silence in that place was so great that it almost hummed by itself.

I broke that taut vigil. My voice strutted over the debris like a rock skipped over water. I glanced about, fearfully, half expecting the walls to start rumbling with the wrath of my treachery. Almost as if it had been an experiment.

The dust did not even stir.

One was not to breathe a sigh of relief, though. The powder that coated everything was a treacherous specimen. Even shallow breathing invited it to settle in my throat, to coat my tongue, to line the roof of my mouth. It sifted into my hair and became a film on my skin, a residue in my clothes. Whatever I commenced as upon leaving Manor Dorn, I returned as a respective albino.

Indeed, that was the slang going around for those, like me, who were sent out looting.

We were the Albinos.

What did we find on our missions? No quest was alike. I often returned with books to burn, drape scraps for mending, tile pieces – when they were whole, or essentially intact – to reinforce the decaying floorboards in Manor Dorn's worst corners, candlesticks, flint, used nails and splintered boards for makeshift barricades, crockery, shovels, and maps.

As Albinos, it was important to try to get our bearings in the new layout of the crumbled city, and document it for reference.

Sometimes, we found bodies. We did not look too closely – whether from the vertigo of being decently appalled, or the guilt of stealing their boots and clothes right off of