Previously published in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction
CW: Grief and mentions of suicide.
Our Chymical Séance
By Tony Pi
To thoroughly inspect the spacious Silverbirch Room before the séance would take more time than we had, but I did what I could. No clockwork cheats lay hidden between the wall of books and the arched windows, and no mystical runes had been etched onto the crystals of the chandelier or cut into the fossil calygreyhound skeleton on display on the mantelpiece. All that remained was the grand salon harmonium, also the most troublesome. Madame Skilling could have hidden a charlatan’s trick anywhere among the instrument’s countless parts, from its mahogany upper casework to the hundreds of pipes at its heart.
Cesar De Bruin rolled the key to the room between his palms as he stood watch, peering through the slightly ajar door. “Anything yet, Tremaine?” he asked. “Too many so-called spirit mediums have preyed upon my family’s grief, but they were charlatans with parlour tricks, all. I would rid myself of this one quickly as well. We haven’t got much time.”
I couldn’t fault my friend’s dander. His only son Poul had shot himself with a palmcannon last summer, a year to the day. Cesar had this lounge closed to the guests at Château Banffshyre ever since. Had his wife not insisted on the séance, he would have been content to leave the Silverbirch Room sealed. “Laroux said he’d stall her, and he will. He’s nothing if not resourceful.”
“Let’s hope. This Skilling woman’s convinced my wife that her ‘chymical’ method will not fail to contact the other side. I know too little of alchemy to prove her and her Ektoptikon device false, and Fay will not see sense. Have you nothing?”
“In all likelihood Madame Skilling hasn’t breached this room, Cesar, judging by the dust.” I gave the lion’s-head handle on my new walking stick a quarter-turn clockwise, revealing a clever compartment in the shaft beneath the collar. Freed from its cherrywood cocoon, the foxfire-in-amber within shone brightly from its silver setting. I ran the illumination along the pedal keys, but they showed no signs of tampering.
Discrediting a medium had not been my intent when I came to visit Sir Cesar De Bruin at Château Banffshyre. My team would always visit his Château before and after a dig in the badlands east of here. What better way to bid adieu to civilized comforts than to indulge in them? Or afterward, to wash away the patina of antediluvian dust in the thermal springs? The grand hotel had much to recommend it, thanks to Cesar’s vision: scenery, hospitality, and luxury unparalleled. The railway baron had built a formidable chain of grand hotels across the Canadas and ensured that tourists would choose his line when they traveled across the continent by train. The Banffshyre was the jewel of his endeavours.
Cesar and I had become friends on my first foray to the fossil valleys of Canada Northwest nearly a decade ago, when rumours of newly unearthed Leolithic skeletons had lured me across the Atlantean Ocean. Though my doctorate was in Aigyptian archaeology, my research into sphinx cults had led me to fossilized specimens of countless leonine hybrids worldwide. By chance I had boarded the same empyreumatic train from Montraal to Calygrey as the De Bruins. I was surprised the President of Pacifica Railway of the Canadas was onboard and that he had heard of me. He had invited me to talk fossils over dinner with his wife and son in his parlour car. At journey’s end, Cesar wouldn’t let me continue to the badlands without a stay at Banffshyre at his expense.
The palatial mountain hotel among the pines was Sir Cesar De Bruin’s dream rendered real with unparalleled workmanship. During that first unforgettable stay, I walked Cesar and Poul through the hotel, teaching them about the fossils embedded in its limestone blocks. In the evenings, Cesar regaled me with tales of the Canadian rail over brandy.
I hadn’t heard about his son’s death until I arrived this morning with my team, when Cesar had met me in the foyer, a husk of his once exuberant self. I had gone through the same depth of grief when I lost my wife years ago, and asked if I could help. I could, he said, come to the séance.
“This spiritualist from Huronto has bewitched my wife with promises of contacting Poul on the other side through her Ektoptikon. If only we could, truly could!” His voice shook. “Fay and I were in Calygrey, only seventy-five miles away. We should have been here. He had such a wondrous talent for music, one that should have taken the world by storm! What pain would possess him to take his own life? We saw no signs, and he left no note. The question of why wakes me in the dead of night, every night, and it too is killing Fay. A séance might bring answers, but only if it’s not a scam.”
Hence my scrutiny of the Silverbirch Room.
Jules Laroux nudged the oaken door open from outside and slipped in. “You’ve two minutes before they arrive, Professeur.” The stout man unslung his handcrank cinetoscope and tripod from his shoulder, leaned them against the bar, and poured himself a shot of whiskey. “I tipped the porter well to take extreme care with Madame Skilling’s Ektoptikon device, and the lift man to stop on every floor on their way down.”
“Thank you, Laroux.”
“Will it be enough time, Tremaine?” Cesar asked.
I raised my walking stick to the pipes above the keyboard and stops so that they’d catch the light of the foxfire amber. “Only to clear the most obvious components of tampering, I’m afraid. But I suspect that whatever trick she has, if indeed there is one, would be part of her Ektoptikon.”
“Trick?” said a disdainful voice. A fawn-like woman invaded the Silverbirch Room fleetly and soundlessly. Dressed in a deep purple silk satin dress with a white tulle jabot, Madame Skilling regarded us in turn, first Cesar, then Laroux, then me. “A chymical séance may be a novel technique for channeling the spirits, but it is no trick. Do not mistake the new alchemy for chicanery. Skeptics are welcome at my sittings, and become believers soon enough. Mister…?”
“Professor Tremaine Voss, archaeologist.” I twisted my walking stick to re-seal the amber in its hidden compartment. “I never said I didn’t believe in spirits. Quite the contrary. I’ve roused spectres in Aigyptian tombs, fled from phantom tigers in the Orient, and faced down the ghost of a riddling sphinx. Put some to rest. Left others undisturbed.”
“It’s me you need to convince. Jules Laroux, truth-reelist.” Laroux set his shot glass down. “Didn’t you take the lift with Madame De Bruin and your Ektoptikon?”
Skilling smirked. “I sensed the stairs would be quicker.”
“Nothing thrills me more than unmasking a fraud. You won’t deceive us with mere clockwork poltergeists or magic lantern shows.” Laroux patted his cinetoscope. “Mind if I film?”
“You may not, Mister Laroux,” Skilling replied. “If you’re staying for the sitting, I require your full participation. Even the dead demand respect.”
Laroux began to protest, but I calmed him. “Perhaps it’s for the best, my friend. If our efforts succeed in summoning Poul’s ghost, it’d be considerate to pay heed to the moment. But if you could explain the workings of the Ektoptikon, Madame, it will help dispel our doubts.”
A chime from the mezzanine heralded the arrival of the limbeck lift on this level. Skilling smiled. “Ah, the Ektoptikon arrives. All will be clear soon, Professor. Gentlemen, if you could kindly draw the curtains?”
I made my way towards one of the round-headed windows, relying only slightly on my walking stick for support. In the past, the thermal springs here have had a miraculous effect on the old injury to my left leg, and each time I bathed in these waters I felt as spry as a man half my age. I hadn’t time to partake in a soak as yet, but it was a comfort I looked forward to.
As we pulled the red velvet curtains closed, a porter carried a sturdy metal trunk into the lounge with languid steps. Lady Fay De Bruin, clad in mourning black, trailed in behind him clutching a leather handbag to her bosom. I hadn’t seen Fay as yet this visit, and what I saw broke my heart. She was Grief herself, gaunt from fasting and pale from seclusion. Had her joy and pride died with her only son?
I crossed the room to take her hand. “Fay, I’m so sorry for your loss. How are you?”
“Adrift, Tremaine.” Fay brushed aside a stray lock of hair from my forehead. “I curse myself for being blind to Poul’s inner demons, for choosing to believe all was well when it wasn’t. A mother should know. A mother should have better instincts.”
Her words made me question my own fatherly duty. If my son took his own life as Poul did, could I say I knew him well enough to guess at his heart?
No, no parent could. We had to trust our children to tread their own path in life, for good or for ill. Fay would have agreed with that sentiment, once. Now she wallowed in a flood of what ifs and if onlys. The only glimmer of hope I saw in Fay was when she looked towards the spirit medium for support, who in turn nodded.
Skilling raised her hands and wandered through the room, whispering an indecipherable incantation under her breath.
Laroux watched the show with growing mirth. “I do that too, but only when drunk on absinthe.”
The medium ignored him. She stopped halfway between the unlit fireplace and the harmonium, where she was struck by a fit of shudders. “The chill’s here. Porter, please put the trunk on the seat of the harmonium, then bring that table to this exact spot. Five chairs as well.”
When that was done, Skilling unlocked the trunk. “May I have your assistance with the Ektoptikon, Mister Laroux?”
“With pleasure. Let’s have a look at this thing.”
Together, Laroux and Skilling lifted a magnificent device the size of a large pumpkin out of the cushioned box and placed it on the table, dead centre.
Imagine a krakenesque chandelier gilded with red gold, its mantle an alchemical show globe sloshing with a cobalt fluid. Its eight tube-like articulated arms extruded from the symbol-laden pyramidal base, and for the nonce they lay curled against the crystal core as though in defense of the filigreed automaton.
Madame Skilling flipped the symbol for tin to reveal a hidden keyhole in the base. She produced a slender silver key seemingly out of the air, and inserted it and turned it.
The arms of the Ektoptikon unfolded like a blossom greeting the sun. The limbs didn’t snap flat against the table, but retained their signature curl. At the terminus of each was an intricate silver iris valve.
“It’s less machine than work of art,” I said, appreciating the workmanship that went into the Ektoptikon. Like my walking stick, it was an exemplar of the new philosophy called Finesse Oblige: subtle gearwork, supernal grace. This design made alembic engines and other chymical devices resemble flailing, gutted automata. “But what does it do?”
Skilling offered an oaken chair to Fay, so that she would be seated directly in front of an Ektoptikon arm. “Do you know the theory of ectenic force, Professor?”
“Only vaguely. I read somewhere that it has to do with a hypothetical fluid in the human body.”
“Hypothetical? I think not. During a trance it can be coaxed forth as ectoplasm, a phantasmal vapour that manifests under certain conditions and aid in the manifestation of spirits and their power,” Skilling explained.
Laroux snorted. “I’ve seen frauds with their ectoplasm, always in the dark. In the light they’re just regurgitated butter muslin, or gauze rubbed with goose fat. Which is your hoax of choice, Madame?”
The medium gave Laroux an icy stare. “Obviously advanced alchemy’s beyond your ken, cameraman. The Ektoptikon uses a newly-discovered chymical reaction to create ectenic effluvium. Breathing the vapours induces the emanation of ectoplasm from the participants at the sitting, which greatly magnifies our chances of contacting the other side. All we need is the catalyst. Do you have it, Lady De Bruin?”
“Yes.” Fay took from her handbag a pink silk pouch containing something the size of a large goose egg, leaking a deep red light from within. I knew then, even before she revealed what the object was, that it was the rare amber that I had discovered in the badlands and gifted to Poul De Bruin ten years ago.
Unlike the yellow foxfire-in-ambers of the Old World or the blues from Antilla, this piece had the characteristic carnelian colour of ambers with Ignisfatuus inclusions found in Canada Northwest. I had donated all the ones I found to museums across the Atlantean, but had saved this sample for a wide-eyed, eleven-year-old boy who had promised to keep it safe for life.
Cesar caught his wife’s wrist before she could hand the glowing amber to Madame Skilling. “That’s our son’s.”
“Which makes this better than any other because it was dear to Poul, my love. She needs it for the séance and she shall have it.”
“You said reaction and catalyst, Madame,” I said. “Is the amber destroyed to produce the effluvium?”
“Of course it’s consumed by the process,” Skilling replied. “That’s the touchstone of my New Alchemy.”
“Technically, the creature in that amber is genus Ignisfatuus, not the Europan foxfire species, but what the paleontological societies are calling fellstars,” I told her.
She didn’t seem impressed. “You quibble over small details, Professor.”
While Cesar and Fay argued over the stone, Laroux pulled me to the bar to pour me a whiskey on the rocks. “Is that gem worth a lot?” he whispered.
“To some collectors and museums, yes. Not many fellstars-in-amber have been found.”
Laroux smiled. “Then I think I know her scam. Drop that rock into the blue drink, bubble it up to give a good show, but drop it through a hidden hatch in the machine and claim it had dissolved.”
“I had the same thought. Stir in some fumes to make our heads spin, and who’s to say that we didn’t see a phantom or two?” I furrowed my brow. “And yet I wonder. Such a unique piece would be too easily identified. It could very well be that she really does need the amber for her alchemical reaction. Likely she intends to fleece the De Bruins with a series of costly séances, leeching off their fortunes while living in luxury.”
The shouting match suddenly came to a halt. Though the amber was still in her left hand, Fay had worked her wedding ring to the tip of her finger.
At last, in defeat, Cesar released Fay’s wrist.
Madame Skilling took the fellstar-in-amber. “Dim the lights and take your seats. We are ready to begin.”
The porter extinguished the magnesian lanthorns in the salon and left us five to begin the séance in earnest. The only illumination remaining came from the amber and the dregs of light creeping around the curtains, beneath the door and through its keyhole.
Skilling claimed the eastmost seat and bade us to sit according to her plan. Clockwise from her, it’d be Cesar, then Laroux, then me, and finally Fay. As I was close to the fireplace, I rested my walking stick in the fire irons stand before sitting directly in front of a raised Ektoptikon arm.
The spirit medium unscrewed the lid to the show globe and dropped the amber into the blue liquid. The reddish light became a cerulean glow as the fellstar shone from within the concoction. I thought I saw a fleeting frown, but she reclaimed the air of confidence and replaced the lid. “Excellent. Join hands and listen carefully.”
I took Fay’s hand. It was cold.
Laroux set his shot glass aside and grabbed my right hand. His palm was sweaty.
“This will be unlike any other séance because of the Ektoptikon,” Skilling continued. “Once I activate the machine, it will generate ectenic effluvium through the duct in front of you. Effluvium has no pleasant smell but you must steel yourself and breathe it in. Within a few breaths you will feel ectoplasm flow like warm smoke out of your mouth and nostrils, but don’t be afraid if it turns viscous as it leaves you. Merely focus and do not break the circle under any circumstance. Once enough ectoplasm has materialized, I will enter a trance and guide Poul’s spirit to us. Any questions?”
I felt Laroux’s grip tighten. Knowing him, he was biting back a snide remark in deference to the De Bruins.
“What if nothing happens?” Cesar asked.
“Cast aside your doubts, Sir De Bruin.” Skilling took Fay’s hand, and with the other turned the little key in the base another full revolution.
The Ektoptikon whirred and hummed. Bubbles percolated through the glowing fluid in the show globe, changing the sapphire hue to emerald. The fellstar-in-amber was turning in the churn, bathing us in its eerie, mesmerizing light. Skilling took Cesar’s hand, closed her eyes, and began to chant and sway.
Eight sounds like sharpened knives ran clockwise around the Ektoptikon arms in rapid succession. A foul gas hissed forth from the valves, assailing us with a stench that reminded me of frankincense laced with rotting cod and sheep milk gone sour. My face must share the same snarled disgust as the others around the table, but for the sake of the séance I had to endure the stink and inhale.
On my fifth exhale, I felt it: a tasteless phlegm that coated my tongue, my teeth, and my lips. A white mist, not unlike a warm breath on a wintry day, escaped from my mouth in a constant stream. Yet instead of dissipating, it became semi-solid and gathered in a snakelike tendril that angled for the Ektoptikon orb.
Fay gasped as the same thing happened to her. I almost thought she’d let go of my hand, but instead she inhaled even deeper. One by one, tendrils from the rest of the participants merged with the swirling cloud of ectoplasm around the glass sphere.
I half-marvelled and half-questioned this phenomenon. What was this ectoplasm, I wondered? If it came from somewhere within us, what was its true function? Did we need it to live, and would something untoward happen to us if we forced it out our bodies like so?
“Damn, I need to film this,” said Laroux, his words slurred by the mucosal ectoplasm in his mouth and nose.
Madame Skilling’s incomprehensible incantation grew louder, and the Ektoptikon began to shake. The show globe, coated in ectoplasm, now held a roiling green tempest. The caged fellstar-in-amber rattled against the glass like hailstones in a storm. In the midst of the noise I heard a muted cracking sound, but it wasn’t the show globe breaking. The amber within had broken into shards.
The light in the Ektoptikon didn’t abate with the destruction of the amber. In amazement we watched a ball of golden light pass upward through the glass and into the ectoplasmic tangle.
No, that was wrong. The luminous object didn’t so much as find the plasm, but rather drew the substance to it. The pseudopods of ectoplasm seemed to vanish into the fellstar. At this, the ectoplasm in my throat suddenly thickened so much that I couldn’t breathe, and I felt stabs of pain in my lungs. I tried to call out to warn the others but found no voice.
I didn’t have to. They too were afflicted, same as I.
Skilling opened her eyes and seemed startled by the appearance of the unknown light. She used her last breath to spit out a spell, likely one to quell the spirits, but her words did nothing.
The séance had gone terribly awry.
I broke the circle of hands, as did Laroux, but Skilling held on to the De Bruins. I tried to look away from the hypnotic fellstar but found I couldn’t. It forced us to keep our eyes open and focus upon it.
Laroux flung his shot glass at the fellstar, but it only sailed through the creature to smash into against the floor.
I groped around the base for the silver key in front of Skilling, hoping to shut off the Ektoptikon before we all suffocated. But even as I turned the key and wound down the machine, I feared we’d already breathed in too much effluvium to make a difference.
Cesar had the good sense to cover his own eyes with his left hand, which seemed to free him from the fellstar’s mesmeric effect. However, it didn’t stop the ectoplasm thickening around his nostrils and mouth.
I could do the same, covering my eyes, but I didn’t. I had to understand what this fellstar was doing, which meant I had to keep observing.
Laroux stood and grabbed his chair from under him. Lifting it with both hands, he swung it at the fellstar. For some reason the chair managed to catch the creature of light this time, though I didn’t know why. Unfortunately, Laroux’s attack also smashed the Ektoptikon globe, sending broken glass and blue liquid flying into Madame Skilling’s face. She fell backward, her mouth open to scream, but only a squeal escaped.
Knocking the fellstar away from the mass of ectoplasm somehow caused the ectoplasm in our mouths to thin. I gasped for air, while the first words out of Laroux was an apology to Skilling. But though most of us regained our ability to breathe, the fellstar fixated on Fay, coiling up the ectoplasm still issuing from her mouth. Even as it was asphyxiating Fay, it lured her out of her seat, made her lurch towards the door.
That creature of light had been trapped in amber for untold millennia, and it hungered.
Cesar chased after his wife while I made my way to Skilling’s side. She was moaning. There were some cuts to her face but I was more concerned with her eyes. I didn’t know what that liquid was in the Ektoptikon but it might be caustic. “Don’t rub your eyes. I’ll get something to flush them clean.”
Laroux dropped the broken chair. With one hand he grabbed a poker from the fire irons stand, and with the other he tossed me my walking stick. I recalled that there was a bucket with half-melted ice for the whiskey on the bar, and pushed to my feet.
When Cesar caught up to Fay he stumbled to the floor, pulling her down with his weight but cushioning her fall with his thickset body. But the fellstar continued to drink in Fay’s ectoplasm, and she was on the edge of fainting from lack of air.
Laroux swung the fire poker at the fellstar, but again it passed straight through the ball of light.
My mind raced. Why did the chair work but not the shot glass or the poker?
Wood versus glass and iron. Was it as simple as that?
“Laroux, only wood will work!”
He dropped the poker but there wasn’t much in reach except the bookshelves. He grabbed a thick volume and swatted at the fellstar. His strike connected, sending the ball of light flying erratically away from Fay. The ectoplasm choking Fay suddenly regained smoke-like consistency, allowing her to take a giant breath.
Cesar lifted Fay in his bearish arms and carried her towards the chaise lounge. “Breathe, my love, breathe.”
The fellstar fled the room through the iron keyhole in the door.
“Don’t let it hurt the other guests, Laroux,” I said. “I’ll follow as soon as I can.” I knelt beside Madame Skilling and pulled out my handkerchief to soak in the cold water.
“D’accord, Professeur.” Laroux threw open the door and raced through with an atlas in hand.
As I washed away the alchemical brew from Skilling’s face and eyes, I started formulating a hypothesis as to what the fellstar was and what threat it posed.
Foxfires and fellstars both belonged to the genus Ignisfatuus, colloquially known as will-o’-the-wisps. Amber was fossilized plant resin from ancient trees, and the theory was that these prehistoric creatures of light had been trapped and died in the sticky secretion before the resin became amber. The foxfires-in-amber had been in use since early civilization as fireless illumination, and it was known that wood blocked their light. Like resin, paper and wood also came from trees.
“Madame Skilling, does your chymical reaction only work with foxfires-in-amber? And does ectoplasm only manifest when you use one?”
“Yes, and yes.” She sat up, taking the wet kerchief from me. “Thank you, Professor. Go help your friend. I’ll care for myself.”
“Your effluvium might not be the reason ectoplasm’s drawn forth.” I stood. “I suspect the foxfires and fellstars feed on animal ectoplasm, using their hypnotic effect to hold them. When you used the Ektoptikon, it likely revived the Ignisfatuus in the destroyed amber. The creature then coaxed ectoplasm from us to devour it. Maybe the ones you used before died or escaped in the process, but this specimen is hungrier and more predatory.” I called to Cesar. “Are you two all right?”
“She’s weak, Tremaine. I can’t leave her.” Cesar touched Fay’s face. “Take care of that monster for me.”
I hobbled out of the Silverbirch Room onto the mezzanine, finished in native fir. No sign of Laroux or the fellstar on this level or in the open lift ahead.
“Laroux, where are you?” I shouted.
The burly uniformed operator in the lift heard me but shrugged. “Who are you looking for?”
“A droll man in a rumpled suit, wielding an atlas, chasing a deadly ball of light.” I stepped onto the balcony overlooking the main lobby of the hotel and looked down at the crowd of glamorous guests below. Neither Laroux nor the fellstar were among them.
“Er, can’t say I’ve seen them.”
I looked up instead. The Banffshyre’s octagonal central rotunda rose nine stories up, topped by a glass dome.
There! On the fifth floor gallery, above and to my left. Laroux was leaning over the balcony, his hands locked around the legs of a young bellhop who had gone over the railing headfirst. The fellstar floated near them over the open area, devouring ectoplasm from their mouths and noses. The creature must have hypnotized the boy and lured him over the edge. The only thing saving the bellhop was Laroux, but who knew how long he could hold on when he couldn’t even breathe?
The people on the main floor were oblivious to the death scene about to play out.
Even if I could get to Laroux and the boy in time, what could I do against a flying creature of light? It was too far away. If only—
The damned creature was made of light.
Film captured light.
Laroux had left his cinetoscope by the bar. I couldn’t run, but the lift man could. “You, sir, fetch the camera from the Silverbirch Room. Now!” I shouted.
I entered the limbeck lift. Made of steel and glass, I could see out into the rotunda from the lift cage and keep the two in sight. I prayed that Laroux could hang on just a bit longer.
The lift man raced back with the cinetoscope. I hung my walking stick on the lift rail and took it from him. The pancake-shaped camera and tripod unit weighed fifty pounds, at least. How could Laroux call this portable?
“Fifth floor, please,” I said, as I unscrewed the lens cap to the camera.
On the long train journey here, Laroux had told me about the alchemy of filmstock. “Film’s made of nitrocellulose, which is just cotton exposed to an alchemical process,” he had said.
Cotton was plant matter. If I had extrapolated the nature of the fellstar correctly, then it might be possible to use Laroux’s film reel to trap the creature of light.
As the lift doors closed, I pointed the camera up and through the glass at the fellstar and the handle, keeping to the rhythm that I had become so accustomed to whenever Laroux was filming.
Chymical cylinders above and under us burbled and impelled the limbeck lift slowly upward.
From this distance, I couldn’t tell if it my filming was having an effect.
A bell chimed. “Five,” croaked the lift man.
“Thank you.” Now that I was at the same level as the fellstar, I thought could see it flickering. “Go help them!”
He nodded and hastened out while I kept cranking the handle. It’d be better if I could get closer. I used the cinetoscope tripod as an improvised walking stick, and hobbled as fast as I could towards Laroux and the fellstar while continuing to film.
The lift man had his arms around Laroux’s waist, anchoring him.
The closer I got, the more the creature flickered and dimmed. I was slicing the fellstar with every new frame, binding it bit by bit to the celluloid. The ectoplasm choking its current victims was thinning, allowing Laroux and the boy to draw breath again.
At last, the fellstar winked out.
Laroux mustered his strength and pulled the bellhop to safety, then fell on his back on the marble floor, his chest heaving. “That was a close one. Merci, Professeur.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and replaced the lens cap. “You’re the hero, Laroux.” I turned to the lift man. “You too, my good man. Your name?”
“Thank you, Willem.” I tipped him generously. “I will put in a good word with Sir De Bruin.”
Laroux and I returned to the Silverbirch Room.
Both Fay and Madame Skilling were recovering well from their ordeals, it seemed.
“What was it? Is it gone?” Cesar asked.
Laroux put his cinetoscope down. “Let’s just say we’ve captured it all on film.” He stretched his arms over his head and yawned. “I need a good, long soak in a sulphur bath after this.”
Cesar smiled. “Please do, Mister Laroux, and take advantage any other services of the Château, on the house.”
I explained to them my theory as to what the creature was, and recounted how we had defeated it. “Like the legends of the will-o’-wisps, the fellstar would lure its victims to their deaths so that it could feed on the ectoplasm from their bodies. Madame Skilling, your chymical séance revives these deadly creatures from their amber prisons. You must never use the Ektoptikon again.”
Skilling traced her finger over the remains of her machine. Her eyes were still red from contact with the alchemical substances, but we had washed them clean quickly enough. “Perhaps, Professor. Or perhaps you’ve shown me what’s missing from its current design.” She glanced at the cinetoscope. Then, with a flourish, she made the silver key in the lock seemingly vanish. “You cannot stop the progress of magic and technology.”
“That may well be,” I admitted. “But now that they march in step, in the wrong combination they also unwittingly cause senseless deaths. I’ve seen it firsthand many times.”
Fay stood. “Madame Skilling, I thank you for coming to Banffshyre, but my husband and I no longer require your services.”
Cesar nodded. “My porters will see you safe to the train station in the morning.”
“We could still contact your son, Lady De Bruin,” Skilling said. “I sense his spirit is near—”
Eerily, the harmonium played four mournful notes, startling us.
Fay’s eyes teared up. Did she recognize the music?
“It seems Poul will always be near, even without your trances,” Fay said, taking Cesar’s hand. “Good night, Madame.”
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