Gertrude seethed quietly at Elias. Reviewing the yearly budget was a tedious chore in any organization, but when working at the Magnus Institute it was an absolute nightmare. Perhaps other departments could simply submit a budget proposal and be done with the matter, but Elias demanded a personal, line-by-line review from the Archives.
Gertrude had no problem with maths, numerical systems were key to a properly organized—or in her case properly disorganized—archive. But if she had wanted to analyze financial data, she would have become an accountant and not an archivist.
“No need to fret, we’re almost done here,” said Elias in the exact tone necessary to drive her up the wall. He’d been saying the same thing every twenty minutes for the past two hours.
Gertrude wanted to hiss or possibly swear at Elias, but she refused to give him the satisfaction. Before she could decide how best to retort, something strange happened.
The roof of the Institute disappeared and suddenly it seemed as if she and Elias were sitting on top of a tall tower. There was no wind despite the height, but there was a loud moaning as if a thousand thousand voices were crying out and weeping all at once. Gertrude stared up at the sky, and the sky stared back.
Gertrude was not one for poetry, but the sight of the Eye watching balefully above stirred something deep within her. She wanted to sing out hymns of praise at its terror and its beauty. This was her god and she was Known to it. The world around them belonged to the Beholding. There was nothing that went unseen, no secret denied to her, no darkness unplumbed. She didn’t have to look at Elias—Jonah Magnus, she Knew—to know that the tears on her face were mirrored perfectly on his.
Then the great Eye closed and the world of the Beholding was hidden away again. Gertrude gasped in pain. She could not have been more wounded had she been shot. Elias went so far as to wail in dismay. But the vision was lost to them both.
Gertrude couldn’t help but strain her eyes upward looking for any hint of what had happened to the Ceaseless Watcher. After some time, she spied a tiny dark speck in the vastness of the sky. As she focused on it, the speck grew clearer and clearer in her vision until she could see it was a man spiraling downward in dizzying freefall.
Gertrude only realized that the Eye had not enhanced her sight but that the man was actually falling toward them just as he slammed limply into Elias’ large oak desk.
The desk survived the impact. It was a sturdy thing built in Magnus’ day that had never been replaced. The computer monitor was not so fortunate. It went crashing into the ground along with a great number of office supplies and whatever progress they had made on the Archives' budget. The man had also improbably survived his fall. At least, that was what Gertrude assumed when he let out a weak moan. Though given what she knew of the Fears, a voice was not a guarantee of actual life.
The man laid out on Elias’ desk was certainly unusual. He looked grimy as if he hadn’t taken a bath in a very long time, but there was no odor of sweat or dirt. For a moment, Gertrude thought he was close to her age. But then she realized that was merely the liberal amount gray in his hair and the strange scars dotted across his skin. He was, in fact, much younger than her and likely younger than Elias. Of course, his most stand out feature was the glowing eye across his brow which watched her and Elias both until the man’s natural eyes fluttered open.
“Are either of you dead?” he rasped tiredly.
“No,” answered Elias. He looked not so much curious as ravenous. Gertrude suspected she looked much the same.
“Not yet,” said Gertrude drily. “How about yourself?”
“It seems I have managed to survive yet again,” said their visitor. Then he began the slow process of sitting upright.
Despite his youthful features, he moved slowly like an old man or someone living with chronic pain. Gertrude found herself unusually concerned. Her connection to the Eye had eliminated most of the disadvantages that came with age.
“I have been falling a long time,” said the man. “I need to adjust to moving in gravity again.”
“How long is a long time?” asked Gertrude, not entirely pleased that this was another man seemingly capable of knowing her thoughts.
“Is this 2008?” asked the man.
“It is 2007,” corrected Elias.
“More than ten years either way,” said the man. He slid off the desk and lowered himself into a conveniently placed third chair that Gertrude didn’t quite remember the room having before.
Gertrude realized she was standing and quickly sat back down. A quick glance about confirmed that the walls and ceiling were back in place if they had ever been gone at all. Elias reluctantly lowered himself into his own seat, automatically settling the lines of his suit but forgetting to wipe away the tear tracks on his face.
Gertrude subtly glanced in one of the many reflective surfaces littered about Elias’ office and checked her makeup. It was an utter disaster. She would have to touch herself up before she saw anyone else lest they think Elias had succeeded in making her cry. Gertrude set her jaw and refocused her attention on the visitor.
“Archivist, Overseer,” he said politely nodding at her and Elias in turn. “I am the Archive, Jonathan Sims.”
“The Archive?” repeated Elias. He appeared delighted at the title of Overseer, which Gertrude personally thought was a bit ostentatious.
“It is my experience that archives are not people,” said Gertrude primly.
“In general, you are correct,” said Jonathan. “But I am a necessary component of the Watcher’s Crown.”
Elias hissed in an excited gasp. Gertrude narrowed her eyes. “The Watcher’s Crown is the name of the Eye’s ritual then.”
Jonathan nodded in confirmation.
“We were successful?” asked Elias. The excitement was making him giddy. Gertrude hadn’t seen such a delighted expression on his face since he was actually Elias.
“As much as one can consider remaking the world to suit the desires of the Fears as a success,” said Jonathan looking pointedly dour.
Despite his clear disdain for the affair, Gertrude couldn’t help but notice a wistful yearning cross his face. She thought back to the brief glimpse of the world Jonathan had come from and felt her desire to see it again war with her disgust at the waste of human potential.
“Did something go wrong?” asked Elias. “Is that why you were sent back?”
“Nothing went wrong,” said Jonathan firmly. “The ritual worked perfectly as it was meant to.”
“But?” prompted Gertrude. The Archive wouldn’t have splattered himself across Elias’ office for no reason.
“But that world is a trap,” said Jonathan. “In a world ruled by Fears, humans do not do anything except suffer. They do not change, they do not grow, they do not reproduce. Eventually everything falls to the End.”
Gertrude could feel the truth in his words. As he spoke, she could almost recall a statement given by an avatar of the End outlining that very reality.
“Then what are we supposed to do?” demanded Elias angrily. “Abandon all our plans? Give over the world to other Fears?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Gertrude. “It’s the same problem no matter which Fear wins.”
“Indeed,” agreed Jonathan. “That is why the Archivist will continue to disrupt the other rituals, which requires much less effort than you currently utilize. No need to sacrifice any more Assistants for the cause. And you, Overseer, will need to develop a new kind of ritual altogether. One that will bring the Eye into the world without reshaping it as is our god’s new desire.”
Gertrude and Elias both froze and Knowledge poured down their connections to the Eye. The Archive had brought with it the memories and experiences of a world ruled by the Ceaseless Watcher. There was no need to attempt the Watcher’s Crown again. The Eye, as always, wanted more and wanted new.
Gertrude was aggravated to learn that she had never needed to do anything for the other rituals to fail, that they would do so on their own without interference. But she understood the necessity of a smokescreen to prevent the other avatars from realizing what was going wrong. Her job had become infinitely easier, especially on her conscience. On the other hand, Elias’ task had become almost impossibly difficult. No one had ever imagined the kind of ritual Jonathan wanted him to perform.
“What will you be doing?” asked Elias. Gertrude was curious as well. The Archive was clearly a title, which meant Jonathan had to have a special duty for the Eye.
Jonathan smiled beatifically at both of them. “My task will be recording whatever results the two of you manage to achieve.”
Gertrude did not expect the Archive’s serenity to aggravate her as much as it did. What kind of job was that? “So you’re essentially doing nothing?”
“The last time I tried to do anything I brought about the end of the world. That’s not what we’re going for this time,” said Jonathan. “But I will also be wooing my boyfriend.”
Gertrude huffed incredulously. “Is that really the best use of your time?”
“Everyone needs an anchor,” explained Jonathan. “Speaking of which, do I look ten years older or ten years younger than I used to?”
“How old were you before?” asked Elias.
“Time and biological process went a little strange after the end, but about thirty,” said Jonathan.
“Younger,” chorused Gertrude and Elias. They both glared at each other.
“That makes things easier,” said Jonathan, rising to his feet. “I’ll check in with the two of you later after you get that budget business sorted out. No need for me to interfere in that.”
Gertrude scowled at Elias, who looked like he was ready to approve whatever document she put in front of him for once. Jonathan was already striding toward the door.
“Jonathan,” she called sharply.
The Archive stopped walking. He didn’t look back at them, but she had the feeling he was watching all the same.
“Yes?” he asked cautiously.
“Were you going to start searching for your—” Gertrude paused briefly. Boyfriend was a term for young people and didn’t seem appropriate for the avatar an of Eldritch Terror. “—anchor at this very moment?”
“Yes,” said Jonathan firmly.
“Then I suggest you take a shower,” said Gertrude.
“And change into nicer clothes,” added Elias. “If you want to make a good impression, then you need to put in some real effort.”
Gertrude looked at Elias unimpressed. “You’ve married and divorced the same man three times already.”
“But he’d never agree to remarry me if I didn’t work for it,” countered Elias.
Jonathan hummed. A few dozen eyes popped into existence and examined him from every angle. They winked shut a moment later.
“Good call on the shower,” said Jonathan. “I’ll be Seeing you around.”
With that, he was gone. Gertrude stared helplessly at Elias and hated every second of it. Elias stared right back at her looking just as unhappy.
“Shall we reschedule our meeting?” asked Gertrude at last.
“Yes, I expect you’ll want to decrease your travel expenses now that you don’t need to cart your assistants everywhere as sacrifices,” said Elias.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Gertrude. “The travel budget stays as is. And I’ll need an increase to purchase Semtex.”
“And how would you categorize plastic explosives?” questioned Elias.
Gertrude kept her voice perfectly even. “Miscellaneous office supplies.”
Elias glowered and Gertrude scowled. The budget was always a nightmare.