He is dreaming. He is absolutely sure of it. Everything is murky, and he drifts weightless, his limbs moving sluggishly. He is going somewhere, seeking out a closed doorway, the image he remembers, fleetingly, from so many other dreams. Something catches him, presses down upon him. He tries to push it away—he knows with a greater clarity that this must be a dream, for the thing looks like a person, but as he pushes, his hands sink in and stick to it, as though into warm, slack dough. The effort wearies him. He can smell something, which is unusual for a dream, something like wet earth and sweat and smoke. He is underground, and something is burning.
“Smoldering,” a voice corrects him. “For near a thousand years now.” He tries to reply, but he cannot speak, and he has forgotten what he wanted to ask. The air is thick and heavy, and the more he tries to focus his mind and comprehend what is happening (it is all familiar somehow), the harder it is to think. He has no control here; he cannot move or breathe, cannot think properly. This is not where he belongs.
He tries again to move but his hands are still stuck and the voice holds him fast.
“Are you familiar with the Planck length?” it asks. His chest feels heavy; he cannot answer, and it does not seem an answer was expected. “Just a number, really—a figure so small you’ll never be able to see it. It’s what keeps your world stable. What keeps the walls solid and the avenues consistent, keeps you from manipulating your own space. It keeps you powerless.” There’s a cruel smile, sensed without being seen. Something wraps around his legs, like rope, or smoke.
“I, however, know better,” the voice continues. “I know this number to be but a meager protection against the chaos your kind so greatly fears. I know how simple it is to reach into the heart of nature and twist around her rules. I know that we are bound together, irrevocably, on levels so small and so insignificant that you would ordinarily never take notice. There is very little separating us, in the end. We are only matter; it is all the same if you look deep enough.”
His heart beats faster, stuttering into a frantic pounding, which echoes in the close, damp air. The smell is everywhere. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he manages to choke out between panicked, stabbing breaths.
“Of course you don’t; it’s not surprising,” the voice replies. “This information is terribly new to your kind. You’ll learn, someday. Of course your knowledge will only be theoretical; you will never be able to use it, not like we do. Your architecture will continue to be limited, your ability to build governed by immovable physical laws. Your world is stagnant. You will always be slaves to the dead, hard earth, prisoners of your own decaying bodies. Everything you learn, everything you can imagine, will never amount to anything more than numbers on paper.”
The words themselves hardly register, but the voice is so familiar—he knows he has heard it before, and he needs to know where and to whom it belongs, but still he cannot think, cannot remember. The name and face are on the very edge of his broken certitude, yet he is unable to grasp them, and this only frightens him more. He writhes and twists without purchase, and the voice continues.
“Imagine being swallowed by darkness,” says the voice. “Imagine a darkness unlike night, unlike any shadow; a darkness so powerful and complete that nothing, not even light, can outpace it. It is more than imagination; in years to come, your kind will know of this phenomenon; they will even use Max Planck’s numbers to understand it. They might react with fear, but none will experience that fear the way you are experiencing it now. There is something called an event horizon: the point past which you will never escape. You’re near enough to it now.” The smoke wraps tighter around him. “Stop struggling.”
“Let me go,” he whispers, his body aching from the strain.
“I’m not finished,” says the voice, cold and hard. “Don’t you want to hear about the mistletoe?”
Mistletoe cuts sharp and thorny through the fog in his mind, and abruptly he remembers: the smell of smoke, the wet earth, the familiar, soothing voice. He remembers Rainer, his pale face, his dark, glittering eyes. The taste of poisoned wine on his lips. The hands holding him down, gripping him tight.
“You—” he gasps, but before he can choke out the name, the smoke winds around his throat and presses tight.
“A sprig of it slew the god Baldr,” the voice murmurs, indifferent to his struggle. “He was betrayed by his own unwitting brother, who loved him. Aeneas presented it to the gatekeeper of Hell, to gain entrance.” The smoke wreaths itself around him, enclosing him slowly. He whimpers in the dark.
“Some species are hallucinogens,” the voice continues, “but all are parasitic.”
The smoke curls around him, probing at him as his strength weakens, and he gags.
“Don’t,” he pleads. He hears his own voice as if from a great distance.
“Once we descend to the very smallest scales of reality, time ceases to exist.” Rainer smiles and twists something within him, filling him with darkness. “The metaphysical becomes physical. The berries of the mistletoe represent drops of semen.”
A sharp, familiar pain shoots through him and he screams, grasping at fragments of memory, fighting to break free. Agony branches out through his blood and bones, and he knows the wound is inside him, where there is no hope of closing it up. The thin pale mouth covers his own, swallowing the sound. It burns through his throat and chest. He does not know what is happening to him, what has happened, what Rainer has done to him. Perfect white teeth bite down on his lips; he can feel the breath leaving him. “I can keep you here forever, if I wish to,” says Rainer. “You will never wake up.”
The smoke is in his throat now, suffocating him. He knows he is dying from the way everything is becoming dark and hazy. With the very last of his will he tries to speak, to utter the fearful name on his vanishing breath.
And then a sharp voice, a different voice, says, “Wake up,” and the hold on his throat loosens for an instant as a stinging hand lashes across his face.
3 November 1929
It was gone. From out of the profound void he drew breath, ragged and painful, and he was awake and staring into a familiar face.
“Peter?” he said breathlessly, dazed and tired.
Jemand paused a moment before leaning away. “No,” he said.
Awake now, the Inspector hoisted himself up into a sitting position, staring at his uninvited guest. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
Jemand shrugged and backed away, dropping himself into a chair, where he crossed his legs and sat studying the Inspector with a calm, passive expression. “Bad dream?” he said.
Herr Inspektor was faintly aware of the trembling in his hands and the dirty taste of iron in his mouth, remnants of a bitten lip. He was half-dressed and soaked in a cold sweat; he was still disoriented. Jemand had lit one of the lamps in the other room and as a result sat in partial shadow, his great coat draped over the back of the chair.
Herr Inspektor swallowed, his throat dry and sore. “I asked you a question,” he murmured.
Jemand examined his cuticles idly, with the apparent intention of displaying indifference. “So did I,” he replied.
“I am sure you already know the answer to your question,” said Herr Inspektor, frustration rising sharply. The nightmare had been his first since the night he’d gone underground, and it had shaken him a great deal. His intense fear of Rainer had risen up again like bile in his throat, but the worst of it had been the horrible sensation of powerlessness, that he had known he was dreaming but could not break himself free of it. He knew it was possible that he might never have escaped the dream, as Rainer had indicated, if Jemand had not roused him. He had no great desire to discuss it now.
“And you know the answer to yours,” said Jemand curtly, looking at him with green eyes blazing. “I gave you a simple instruction, Inspector: to stay here until I came to you again. So you not only knew I would return, but I am sure you knew my return would be hastened by your decision to once again ignore my instruction, which I had thought should be easy enough to comprehend.”
“It was an unreasonable request,” said Herr Inspektor defiantly. “Whatever I went through, I still have a job to do. I had to go back to work.”
“But you didn’t, did you?” said Jemand. “If you had gone in to work, that would be one thing. Instead you roamed the city until you were practically in their arms again. What is it about you, that you actually go looking for this kind of trouble? Do you enjoy relentlessly taunting the great unnatural forces? Does that excite you?” He smirked, eyeing the Inspector coldly. “Are you really so bored with yourself that you have to go seeking this kind of attention?”
“Shut up,” snapped the Inspector with a forcefulness that startled them both. He got out of bed and pulled on an undershirt before rounding on Jemand, who was watching him with a mixture of amusement and surprise. “I’m not interested in your insults, your condescension, or your analysis of my character. You may have taken a personal interest in me, and you may have saved my life, but I never asked for your interest or your care. I am tired of these games you insist on playing, tired of your gross inconsistencies. One minute you can be reasonable, even kind, and the next, rude and hostile. I’ve had enough of it. This is my home. Do you understand what that means? You are not free to come and go as you please, no matter what kind of access your powers allow you. I will not tolerate another intrusion. From this point forward, if you want to talk to me here, you will ask my permission, and you will show me some damned courtesy. Is that clear?”
Over the course of the outburst, Jemand’s expression had changed gradually, the amusement fading away into something like shock. Unable to tell if he was angry or not, the Inspector was quiet for a moment, trying to disguise his own nervousness.
“I see I touched on something there,” said Jemand at last, lacing his fingers together. “Well, so you have a bit of self-respect in there after all.”
Herr Inspektor gave him a withering look and turned away, feeling tired. He sat on the edge of the bed and held his head between his hands. “It’s not that I’m not grateful,” he said after a moment. “I am. But I’ve had enough of this. I deserve to know what you want from me, and what your intentions are. If you insist on becoming involved with my affairs, then it’s time you treated me as an equal.”
“Let us not forget that it is you who has insisted on becoming involved with my affairs,” said Jemand.
“That is utterly beside the point,” snapped Herr Inspektor. “Right now, you have a simple choice. You can leave me alone, to whatever fate awaits me, or you can offer me your help. I will not deny that I need it. But I’m not interested unless you can convince me that you’re prepared to honor my wishes.”
Jemand was quiet for a long time, watching him. Herr Inspektor sat waiting patiently, feeling some thrill at his own stubbornness. He still knew very little about Jemand, and had no sense of how he might react to this, but it felt good to assert himself, nevertheless.
“You’re right,” said Jemand at last.
Herr Inspektor blinked. “Am I,” he said dubiously.
Jemand shrugged. “I have not made it easy for you to know me. Generally, I prefer not to be known. But this situation is unusual for me. I am not… accustomed to it, I suppose.”
Herr Inspektor watched him with slight suspicion. His intruder seemed almost uncomfortable, fidgeting slightly.
“I’m…” he said haltingly. “I’m sorry, Herr Inspektor. It’s been rather a long time since I had to…” He trailed off uncertainly.
Herr Inspektor frowned. This response surprised him about as much as anything, and he hadn’t been entirely prepared for it. Jemand was still struggling to finish his sentence, and though he could not deny he was curious to hear how it would have ended, Herr Inspektor decided to take the pressure off.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I… I think I understand.”
Jemand gave him an inscrutable look and nodded.
The silence that followed was long and rather awkward, neither of them knowing quite how to proceed. In the midst of it, Ibsen stirred from the open drawer of Herr Inspektor’s dresser and sat up, staring with bright eyes at the intruder. Jemand looked at the cat in brief surprise, a smile playing at the edge of his lips.
“Is this your cat?” he said as Ibsen stepped down from the drawer and padded over, examining Jemand curiously.
“Yes.” Herr Inspektor smiled faintly. “He lives here, you see. Unlike you.”
“Point taken.” Jemand reached down and collected Ibsen up onto his lap. The cat meowed once and curled up, allowing Jemand to caress his fur. “Friendly little thing, isn’t he?”
“He is,” said the Inspector, a little surprised at Jemand’s easy rapport with the often shy animal.
Jemand studied the cat thoughtfully. “What’s his name?”
Herr Inspektor shifted slightly, gazing absently at the floor. “Ibsen.”
He could hear the smile in Jemand’s voice as he murmured, “Hm.”
Jemand stroked Ibsen’s back gently, and for the first time Herr Inspektor saw him smile in a way that seemed natural, and not unkind. For several moments they sat without speaking, the continuous purring of the cat effectively turning their silence from uneasy to peaceable.
“What were you dreaming about?” asked Jemand. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
Herr Inspektor sighed and rubbed wearily at the bridge of his nose. “Rainer,” he said.
“Ah.” Jemand set Ibsen down on the floor, and the cat came over to rub against the Inspector’s legs. “Did he tell you anything important?”
Herr Inspektor hesitated, then looked up at Jemand. “You make it sound like it was actually him,” he said.
“If you want us to be equals then I suggest you become immediately less naïve,” said Jemand. “Rainer has power you can’t even imagine; what you saw was only a taste.”
“Then I am going to have to learn,” said the Inspector resolutely. “I need you to teach me.”
Jemand gave him a small, reserved smile. Any sign of residual awkwardness had left him now; he was more or less back to his usual self. “It is quite possible that Rainer tapped into the nightmare,” he said. “He has his eye on you now. You’re going to have to be very careful from now on.”
“Could I—” Herr Inspektor furrowed his brow. “Could he have killed me? Is that how people are dying in their sleep?”
Jemand’s expression did not change, and he hesitated a moment before saying, “It’s possible.”
“You aren’t going to tell me?” said Herr Inspektor in some irritation.
“I don’t know everything,” said Jemand. “Furthermore, detective, if you’re so desperate to keep at this investigation of yours, you’re going to have to learn a new approach. Your usual methods of gathering information are not going to serve you here. In the Underworld, information is a weapon, but it only becomes dangerous when spoken aloud. There are some who will hear their names uttered anywhere in the world; some who will hear particular details, who can root out weaknesses and private knowledge simply because a specific word or phrase is used. That is why you cannot tell them your name; it is why you must be careful what you discuss, with anyone, including me. It is best that you lie low, do all you can to stay outside their awareness. You are safest here, at home. Very few of them are capable of entering your house while you are in it.”
“Clearly you’re an exception,” said the Inspector, raising an eyebrow.
“You should not take this lightly,” said Jemand. “As more of them become aware of your involvement, your very existence shall become ever more precarious. They will seek to destroy you, one way or another. You are not prepared to stand alone against them.”
“Are you offering to help me?” said the Inspector.
Jemand sighed and looked away. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice anymore. What’s done is done.” He glanced back at the Inspector, considering him. “What did Rainer tell you, in that dream of yours?”
Herr Inspektor still felt reluctant to discuss it, the memory of it still so fresh and clear. He picked Ibsen up and began petting the softly purring cat distractedly. “He… spoke about the Planck length. I don’t know why.”
Jemand frowned slightly. “Do you know what that is?”
Herr Inspektor looked at him, unsure of whether he was asking because he knew or because he did not know. “It’s a mathematical constant,” he said. “Determined not long ago by Max Planck. I only know about it because of my father.”
“Your father’s a mathematician, then?” said Jemand, sounding vaguely curious.
“A professor.” Herr Inspektor shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Rainer… he claims that he can use the Planck length in ways that should be impossible. That he can break down the laws of nature. I remember that was his explanation of… of what he did, how he reshaped the walls.” He broke off, unwilling to delve too deeply back into the memory of his near-death experience. “He also spoke of the mistletoe, its use as a key to the Underworld, I suppose.”
“Rainer does love the sound of his own voice,” muttered Jemand. “And did he say nothing else to you, what he intends to do to you, for instance?”
“I… I can’t be certain,” said Herr Inspektor. “I think he was trying to kill me. But that goes against what I was told just the other day.”
“What?” Jemand sat forward suddenly. “You saw him recently?”
“N-no,” said the Inspector, startled. “I was approached by the Mediator, the man in gray. He told me I have been granted immunity. Surely you knew this? I thought you had been watching me.”
“You seem to think I’m invulnerable,” said Jemand coldly. “I cannot defend you against every possible encounter; I have my own safety to consider. I cannot observe you closely if it will endanger me. This happened the day of your little promenade, I assume?” At the Inspector’s nod, he went on, “As I already told you, you came dangerously close to crossing paths with them again. If you wander alone too often, they will use that opportunity to seek you out. It is difficult for me to shadow you if they are present. You understand?”
Herr Inspektor was silent for several moments, studying Jemand in surprise. He had never considered that Jemand might be putting himself in danger. “So I was being followed,” he murmured. “I had thought I was just hearing things, but…”
“What did the man tell you, Inspector?” said Jemand urgently. “What do you mean by ‘immunity’?”
“He told me what you’ve told me,” said Herr Inspektor. “That I have become involved. And he told me I am the Man Who Survives.”
At this, Jemand laughed outright. He leaned forward, dropping his head into his hands, shaking with unsettlingly dark mirth.
Herr Inspektor watched him uncertainly. “I did think it was strange,” he began.
“Oh, did you indeed?” Jemand looked up with an expression torn between a smirk and a grimace. “Did you think it was a little strange that you were granted immunity by the man you shot in the back of the head?”
“I fail to see the humor,” said Herr Inspektor coolly.
“Rainer’s toying with you.” Jemand shook his head, all traces of levity draining from his face. “He wants to make sure everyone is paying very close attention to you, and he wants to be sure you stay alive in the meantime. This is almost certainly about me, of course, now that he knows I’m helping you, he’s much more interested in your stake in all this. Bastard.” He exhaled heavily. “The Man Who Survives is traditionally someone who has become involved without trying to hurt anyone. You obviously don’t qualify, after that little stunt you pulled.”
“I did understand that,” said Herr Inspektor, determined to prove himself attentive. “I had thought Rainer might not have told anyone about it, for his own purposes.”
“That certainly sounds like Rainer,” agreed Jemand.
“What does this mean, then?” asked the Inspector. “Am I safe, or not?”
“‘Safe’ isn’t really the word for it,” said Jemand. “The promise of survival is very real; they won’t hurt you. But it doesn’t mean you’re safe. This has put you at Rainer’s mercy. If he should decide he’s had enough of you, he can easily strip you of that protection. And of course this also means every one of them knows precisely who you are. You’ve been given immunity in exchange for complete exposure.” Frustrated, he dug his fingers into his own hair, pulling his hand into a fist. “This is exactly why I told you to stay put, you stubborn little child.”
“What’s done is done,” said the Inspector firmly. “I may have been more receptive to your commands if you had offered me any bit of explanation, but we shall simply have to learn from our mistakes and move forward. I think it’s time that you told me something about what all this is about, that I might be prepared for what is to come.”
“Stupid, stupid,” muttered Jemand, though it seemed he was speaking to himself. “Years of carefully cultivated anonymity wasted, all because some helpless pretty little thing gets himself in too deep. Pathetic.”
“Pull yourself together,” said Herr Inspektor with a stern frown. “Do not discount me because I am weaker and more uninformed than you. I will do everything I can to bring this to an end, but I need to understand what I am up against. I need your help.”
“And what is it that I could ever need from you?” retorted Jemand, meeting his eyes. “What could you possibly have to offer me?”
Herr Inspektor frowned. “Let’s find out, shall we?” he said, staring back resolutely.
Jemand gazed at him for a moment before looking away, as if in defeat. “Very well,” he said. “Then the first thing you must understand is that my goal is not to bring anything to an end. The Hunt will end when it ends, and it will happen again in the future. It always has happened, and always will happen.”
“If that’s true, then why does our first record of it occur only in 1908?”
Jemand smiled a little, as if recalling an amusing memory. “Because something changed,” he said. “And that, as an investigator, should be your primary concern.”
“What changed?” Herr Inspektor got back to his feet, standing before Jemand with his arms folded. “I’m fairly certain you know, and aren’t telling me.”
“You’re going to have trouble with this, I see,” said Jemand. “There are things we can’t discuss, remember? If we are going to work together, we are going to have to be very clever about it. I can go about without being noticed, but if I should say too much, or the wrong thing, there are some who will hear it. There is a great deal I am not at liberty to tell you. Do you understand?”
Herr Inspektor nodded thoughtfully. “What can you tell me?” he said.
Jemand mused over the question for a moment, studying the Inspector in a relaxed, unabashed way that made the Inspector somewhat self-conscious. Herr Inspektor’s eyes darted down to Jemand’s fingers, which were drumming lightly, one over the other; cold fingers that had once dug painfully into his cheek, warm fingers that had mysteriously healed the wound on his neck. He felt his face heat slightly, felt something turn over in his stomach, a discomforting echo of the awkward, childish impulses hardly befitting a man of his age. He was no longer a shy schoolboy; he was in no position to get flustered over a handsome face or a nimble pair of hands. He turned away quickly, but, having nothing with which to occupy himself and nowhere to go, he ended up standing and staring at his bed, feeling like a fool.
“Everything all right?” said Jemand, perceptive as ever.
“Answer the question,” said the Inspector.
“There isn’t much that will be of any use to you,” said Jemand. “Doubtless I shall serve you better in my capacity as a guardian, as I have already been doing. It would be best if you continued onward, just as you have been doing. Investigate, but take care; you ought not to approach this like an ordinary case. Keep everything to yourself. Learn all you can without being reckless. And do not let yourself become complacent; no doubt Rainer is waiting for that. I’ll keep watch, and continue about my business, and I’ll contact you when it becomes necessary.”
“So that’s it?” murmured Herr Inspektor, his back still turned. “Just continue on as if nothing has changed?”
“Everything is changing, every moment,” said Jemand absently. “You just don’t see it yet.”
Herr Inspektor turned back to him. Jemand was gazing into the distance, his face half-illuminated in the soft, dim light. Herr Inspektor felt a lingering shame and sadness at having mistaken him initially for Peter. He did not like thinking about Peter, and he wished he had not spoken the name out loud. There was indeed a certain resemblance; he had recognized it from the first moment he had seen Jemand’s face, and he had known that a part of him would always see it, would always be plagued by memories he had tried so hard to forget. This dilemma was hardly surprising; his tendency to make such comparisons, no matter how subconscious, was inescapable. But now that he had spoken the name aloud, he had given strength to the comparison, making it ever more difficult to ignore. As long as Jemand remained an enigmatic stranger, there would be nothing to stamp out such unwanted memories. It was important, now more than ever, that he develop a solid grasp of Jemand’s own, singular identity.
“Who are you?” he asked quietly. “What fight do you have with the Hunt?”
Jemand stirred, blinking at him as though awakened from some internal oblivion. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“It matters to me,” said the Inspector. “I want to understand your stake in this. I want to know what your… ‘business’ consists of.”
Jemand didn’t respond. He heaved a sigh and got slowly to his feet, gathering up his coat. “It’s late,” he said. “You should get some rest.”
“Are you always going to leave when I start asking questions you don’t want to answer?” said the Inspector dryly.
Jemand slipped into his coat and began closing it up. “It is a very personal query,” he said. “And it is also irrelevant. When I feel it is necessary to tell you such information, I will tell you. In the same way I do not find it necessary to prompt you with questions about your past, though there are certainly things I could ask you.” Finished buttoning his coat, he looked up and met the Inspector’s gaze. “For now, we must keep our secrets, if we are to be equals,” he said. “I think you are right in wanting that. And I do not consider you unworthy. If anything, it is I who has been unworthy of you. You might be weak, and uninformed—and hopelessly naïve—but in many ways you are a far better man than I.”
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t this. Herr Inspektor stood quietly, staring back at Jemand’s gentle, penetrating gaze.
“I hardly think that’s true,” said the Inspector, though the words seemed to come unbidden, and he wasn’t quite sure why he’d even said them.
“It is,” said Jemand. “You’re a good man. You suffer from the worst sort of goodness, the kind that is terribly easy to corrupt. Everything I have done, everything I will do, is in an effort to preserve that goodness. Remember that.”
Herr Inspektor did not reply; it did not seem that there was anything to say. A brief silence fell between them as they stood there, a little unsure of themselves. “Well,” said the Inspector.
“Well.” Jemand dug his hands into his pockets.
“I…” Herr Inspektor shrugged, at a loss. “I’m glad that you came.”
Jemand nodded reservedly, his mouth drawn into a thin, flat line. “As am I.” He turned away, stepping into the light of the open doorway, where he stopped again, a dim silhouette. He touched his fingers lightly to the door frame. Herr Inspektor watched him make this gesture, meaningless though it was, with strangely rapt attention. His earlier irritation had faded utterly; now he could not even find it in himself to feel apprehensive. Without even trying, Jemand commanded his focus, and his trust.
“Be well,” murmured Jemand. “We’ll meet again soon.”
Herr Inspektor stood with his arms hanging limply at his sides, feeling oddly disappointed that their conversation was at an end. “When?”
Jemand only smiled, then disappeared from the doorway, moving with silent footfalls; a moment later the lamp was extinguished, and the Inspector was once again swallowed by darkness. He stood still until confident he was alone, then groped his way back into bed, lying gingerly on his back. He was wide awake, his heart fluttering in exhilaration. He lay there, listening to the creaks in the building and the occasional howl of wind, and he thought about Jemand’s hands.