I had already spent more time than I intended staring out of the void. I stood at the bottom of infinite darkness, listening to the flutter of black wings and whispers. The sound echoed down from the spiral of black and white, reaching high into the world above.
It had only been seconds, and yet that was too long. As much as I would have preferred to stay in that stillness, someone was calling me and I could not refuse.
I stretched my arms above me, ready to rise into the world above, when a glint of light caught my eye. It was a flame, like a falling star. I caught it in my hand as talons dug into my shoulder, accompanied by the weight of a sleek crow. It pecked at the light in my palm as a solid shape materialised from the fire.
"It's a spell," I said.
The crow cawed as I inspected the image that had formed. I could make out the silhouette of a broad-shouldered man wearing a top hat, and a scarf around his neck. Beneath the picture was the plea:
"Grant me the power which I seek."
"I can't even make out who this is!" Shadow completely concealed his face. I had no idea how I would be able to identify him, if I ever did find him to grant his request. Regardless, the summon was clear and there was no way to refuse.
"Let's go," I whispered. The crow spread its wings and rose out of the darkness. I followed.
We emerged in a city. The crow flew on ahead, high above narrow cobblestone streets and smog. It was not an unfamiliar area. The desperate call quite often, while hacking up blood in their beds or lying beaten in the street. The smell of sweat and cigar smoke was thick.
No one could see, yet I waited tucked away in a dark alley as people passed. Most of them looked sickly, hunched over and draped with filthy rags. They spoke softly and moved as if they were underwater.
Come nightfall, that would change.
I didn't want to still be around then, and I wasn't going to find the mystery man by slinking around alleys.
Everyone wore a top hat, but one in particular caught my eye across the street. He wore a long coat over wide shoulders, and a grey scarf was wrapped around the lower half of his face. The brim of his hat tipped to the right and I still couldn't tell what he looked like, but he seemed familiar.
He strode with long steps and moved quickly, not at all like a sick or dying man, but not so much that he drew attention to himself. In fact, nothing about him seemed remarkable or interesting.
Usually I know what is going to happen. How someone is going to die. They'd be sitting in the middle of some field, surrounded by their sacrifices, calling on whatever demons came to mind, bowing this way and that, not at all aware of what they'd done. This time I had no idea. There was no circle, no candles, no blood spilled upon the earth.
I stalked behind the man, still walking long after the sun had set. We passed lit windows pouring with drunken laughter, forgotten women shouting from street corners, other figures crouching in shadows. I grew bored with the wandering. He didn't stop, there was no pattern. I sighed.
He paused and glanced over his shoulder, looking straight through me. With a shudder he shook his head and continued on. A few paces in front of him walked a woman, counting a handful of coins. She shoved them into a coat pocket and ducked into a small doorway. The man followed.
I understood then.
No one else would have seen it, but I could see the sigil on the door.
I waited, watching as the light in the windows faded, letting the darkness wash over me as I melded into it. Screams emanated from within, loud at first but fading away into nothing but an echo. The whistle of a tea kettle over a crackling fire, and a cold laugh. All eyes were watching now. They opened, one by one on the walls, on the street, hiding even the sky.
He emerged, covered in blood and viscera. That he even bothered to wipe his hands with his handkerchief seemed comic. He stopped cold and looked around, and with a clear and steady voice said, "It's about time you came."
"I did not come for you," I replied, and let the darkness open wide, swallowing him whole.
Smog drifted back in as the illuminated windows returned their soft glow and I tried to ignore the taste of mud and iron.
The woman stood in the doorway, or what was left of her, her body emptied of all substance and life. Her fierce expression gave way to relief and she looked to the sky without saying a word. I followed her gaze to the black bird circling overhead. Without hesitation, she rose to it and vanished.