The kitchens were warm, lit by a central fire where several large caldrons hung over the dancing flames. Madam Wu, an aging Chinese woman who’d once been a proud warrior before suffering a crippling injury to her back, tended to the caldrons with a long handled spoon. Her sun-weathered face turned to regard Mei, eyes warm as she smiled.
“Ah Pater, here for the nightly feeding of the scum?” She asked, her tone friendly.
Adopting her father’s voice, Mei cleared her throat. “They need to be tended to. Christ said to turn the other cheek and to care for the unfortunate.”
“I don’t think he meant those infected by the Darkness, but an old woman’s thoughts on the matter are hardly heard. I have their meal ready for you on the cart, as per usual. Rice and pork, with plenty of water. The guards tonight are from Britannica so be sure to give them a little grief for me, will you?”
Mei chuckled, her voice dry and wheezy. “I’ll do my best. I was hoping I could take a few strips of salted pork for my own dinner, if’n you have some to spare.”
“For you? I keep some on the stove just in case. I’ll wrap them in leathers so you can smuggle them into the dungeons with you in that cloak of yours.”
“I knew I could count on you Madam Wu,” Mei said with a smile, her face hidden by the hood.
Madam Wu bustled over to the stove, the vents for the smoke from the coal leading up into the stone ceiling. She pulled three slices of thick pork off a tray she had prepared and dropped them onto a skillet, the pop and sizzle of the meat filling the air as she quickly cooked the meat while seasoning it with salt from the Balkans.
The Order had hidden enclaves throughout the world, mostly hidden in mountains and valleys ignored by the overzealous armies of the French or English. The Order was a secret organization, that operated where it saw fit. It would subdue cultists and Aberrants, those infected by Darkness and those composed of it, only to send them over the course of weeks all the way here, to Nepal. With the hostile takeover of the British East India Company a year ago, many of the locals were worried that their way of life would go to the wayside.
Mei knew otherwise. She knew the Order had taken to striking against transports of goods for the Company, liberating goods and foodstuffs, which were distributed to the poverty stricken people of the region while bringing the salt and gold back to the Monastery. It was here they gilded the great statues of Buddha, and created works of art from wrought silver that rivaled even the greatest artisans of the West. In the Great Hall where the odd thousand students dined three times a day, a titanic Buddha sat behind the Order leaders table. Carved nearly a millennium ago, it was now a gleaming golden figure with a basin of blessed water, taken from the Fountain of Elohim in the Wetterstein Mountains. The Winthrop Order Hall was one of the largest bases of their organization, filled with hunters and healers, mystics and Walker in White. The Monastery, a nameless place that wasn’t on any map outside the Order’s strongholds, had only Walker in White with a handful of mystics. The training here was to create those who could detect and contain the Darkness, as well as Aberrants.
Mei was pulled from her thoughts when a warm leather-bound bundle was dropped into her gloved hands. Madam Wu smiled. “Now don’t be a stranger, feel free to stop by the kitchens for a chat anytime. Most of the time I have to deal with students trying to sneak a meal because they were too busy with classwork to properly feed themselves.”
“I can imagine how annoying that would be,” Mei grumbled, tucking the warm bundle into her coat. “I rarely interact with the students; they seem to think I’m a boogeyman out to harvest their organs for my bread.”
“Well you do dress rather ominously…” Madam Wu said, obviously trying to peer beneath the hood.
Mei shuffled to where it covered her face better. “I don’t like being seen. Too many scars…”
“I understand,” Madam Wu replied softly. “After my injury I didn’t let anyone see me without my thickest robes. The Darkness… it never truly leaves the body, does it? I feel it throbbing in my back even now. Did you get your scars through…?”
“Too close to an infected when he burst,” Mei grunted, thinking back on her father’s stories.
The infected were ones who were possessed by the Darkness unwillingly, slowly transforming into monsters of hate and scorn. Walkers in White could purge them if they were found early enough, but if they were found too late they had to be captured or killed. Killing them allowed the Darkness to slip away to infect someone else. Witches and Warlocks, practitioners of the Black Arts and benders of the Darkness, would wield it as a means to do many profane acts. Father had been too close to an infected that had too much Darkness flood into him at once.
The man had burst, tainted bone shrapnel slicing through Pater’s skin like hot razors. The explosion had left him blind in one eye. He rarely spoke of the event, and Mei knew he had nightmares caused by the Darkness that lurked within him.
“That’s right, you were a hunter! Well we hunters have to stick together, so let me know if you need anything else, alright?” Madam Wu said, bowing slightly at the hip.
Mei bowed slightly in her slouched position before taking hold of the cart and pushing it towards the door. Madam Wu walked ahead and held the heavy oak door open for Mei, a smile on her face.
“Take care Pater,” Madam Wu said in parting before closing the door, leaving Mei in a darkened hallway.
Seeing the shadows swallow her up, Mei pulled the bundle of salted pork out from her coat. Unraveling the straps, she lifted the top of each great pot of rice and slid in a slice of salted pork. While those consumed by the Darkness were whole-heartedly evil, Mei felt a bit of kinship to them; she was an Aberrant, an offshoot of humanity that was the result of a pregnant woman becoming infected. Mei was hardly human, thus her need to be hidden from the Order members.
Aside from her feet and ability to see in the darkness, Mei was a… carrier for her true friends. She felt them stirring within her abdomen and she rubbed the spot, calming them. Mei knew that if she were discovered, even her father’s hero status wouldn’t save her from her own cell deep within the mountain.
Moving to resume her way down the hall, Mei slowly hobbled the hundred or so yards of winding tunnel to the locked gate, guarded by a pair of hunters.
Both were tall, hooded with wild eyes. Their lone torch shed light over the area. They seemed jittery, as if they were ready to bolt or draw a weapon at the slightest movement. Mei breathed out, steadying her nerves. She stopped the push cart and waited for the men to check over the food.
“So, you’re the hero of took down a Flesh Wyrm in Stalingrad, eh?” One of them asked, his accent heavy and barely understandable to Mei.
Mei nodded, keeping her head low.
“You don’t look like much,” the other said with a chuckle. “Still, Redmoss is rarely one to exaggerate. Is it true that it took your leg?”
Mei let out a low growl and tapped her shoe on the ground, warping the sound through the Ether to make it sound like wood upon stone. Both men laughed. The one on the right, hood decorated with scales, blue eyes with wide shoulders. He walked over to the cart and looked it over. The stack of wooden bowls and tub of spoons, along with the great gourds of water, seemed to be of particular interest.
“What do you say Pater that we add something to the monsters’ meals?” The blonde asked, winking at Mei.
Lifting the lid to one of the great ceramic vases of rice, he snorted before spitting into the fluid. The other hunter laughed, his fur-lined hood and deep guffaws made him seem more intimidating than the blue-eyed hunter. Mei fought the urge to snap back at these men as she didn’t want to reveal what she was.
So she chuckled, forced laughter that seemed convincing enough. A loud buzzing noise rose in the hall, which had the hunters drawing their short swords from their hips instantly. Mei drew a throwing knife and turned, though she knew what the buzzing was. She tried to calm down, breathing in and out through her nose and counting backwards from ten. The buzzing slowly tapered off before falling silent.
“I freaking hate this place,” Blue-eyes said. “Every night we hear things, see things. Some of the creatures in there do what they can to lure us in.”
Mei, using her father’s voice, clucked her tongue. “That would be most unwise.”
“How do you do it?” The other hunter asked, sheathing his blade. “By Elohim I’m losing my mind watching over these halls! How do you visit each one without going mad?”
Mei smiled in the shadows of her hood. “Easy,” she said in her father’s gruff voice. “I’m not afraid of them.”
A distant scream echoed up from within the dungeon, pained and hoarse. The hunters looked beyond the iron grate serving as the barrier between the Abyss and the rest of the Monastery.
“You ready to go in?” Blue-eyes asked, not looking away from the darkness.
Mei chuckled, tucking her throwing knife back into her bandolier. “Always.”