Miskatonic University had always been something of a magnet for eccentric people – ranging from innocently curious to dangerously aberrant, these scholars of the strange were among the most ardent patrons of its Library. The latter were promptly (and rather thoroughly) discouraged, while the former were tolerated - mostly in the name of close observation, as their interest could quickly mutate into obsession. It came with the territory, really, as very few people could truly understand or (Heaven forbid!) utilize the contents of certain books that were located in the Library - and the fewer of them had access to said books, the better.
Asenath Waite had been working there for almost a year – barely a year, one might say; her duties certainly did not include interaction with readers, but it was more or less inevitable. A poet had once said that no man was an island, and the girl was inclined to agree… and, perhaps, to add that people were actually boats – mobile and fragile in equal measure. And the Library made for a harbor, of sorts - a peculiar harbor for peculiar vessels, true, but a serviceable harbor nonetheless. Still, she avoided the company of others, limiting herself to stiff gestures and dry responses whenever approached. Her colleagues were the only exception – they had earned her trust, and vice versa. What was more, she actually liked her colleagues, and she was quite sure they liked her as well.
That being said, her colleagues happened to be at least three decades older than her, and therefore boasted experiences that she could only dream of – academic titles and ornate diplomas, trips to New York and sabbaticals in Europe, even spouses and offspring...
... she supposed she could have avoided Charles Dexter Ward more persistently, but he was only three years older than her, and Asenath had been curious enough to listen when he talked and amused enough to answer when he asked. But it was not as simple as she initially thought it was.
The boy lived and studied in Providence, but he visited Arkham at least once a month. Tall and slim, with a carelessly knotted tie and a slightly stooped posture, he was awkward and harmless. The girl was not sure how exactly she had come to this conclusion, but she suspected it had to do with the way he spoke to her - respectful yet informal, almost eager to intrigue her, quite happy to be intrigued by her.
Asenath had never been anyone’s peer. It took three months and five conversations before she realized that Ward saw her as one, and another month and two more conversations before she realized that she did not mind it.
Six months and ten conversations in, Ward decided he could trust her with his research. It should have been flattering, as he had told none of the other librarians what – or rather, whom – he was looking for.
Instead, it was disquieting.
Asenath was familiar with the names of Joseph Curwen, Simon Orne and Edward Hutchinson. Her father (might he burn in hell!) had admired the Salem triad as much as Ephraim Waite could admire anyone who was not himself. Back in Innsmouth, Asenath had often caught snippets of conversations – about alchemy and necromancy, about Prague and Rakus, about covens and marks and the Dark Man.
Back then, she had not thought much of it.
Now, she knew better - or, perhaps, knew worse.
Ward had managed to piece together at least several chapters of Joseph Curwen’s horrific history. The boy’s fascination with his vile ancestor had somehow overpowered his own squeamish nature, to the point where Asenath was almost impressed. She often found herself torn between destroying his notes and adding to them – there were many a blank spot that she could fill, either through actual knowledge or through solid guesswork.
She did no such thing, of course, as Ward’s fire did not need more fuel – it had to burn out, lest it burned down the world. However, her mask of polite indifference apparently left something to be desired, because when his research did not yield much in the way of results, Ward asked for her help in a manner that could not be ignored.
Asenath was reluctant to agree, at least at first; she was almost relieved that she had caved in when she discovered that her friend had been standing before the proverbial Gates of Hell, pounding on them with both fists.
He invited her to visit his parents‘ house in Providence – his letter promised her something that was too wondrous to be put into words. You are, perhaps, the only person who understands how important this is to me, he had written. You were actually listening when I rambled about my research. I could see it in your eyes – comprehension, instead of apprehension.
After two very awkward conversations – first with Dr. Armitage, who warned her against strange occultists, and then with his wife, who warned her against strange men – Asenath was allowed to go. She took the first train to Boston, where she managed to eat breakfast before getting on the train to Providence. It was early spring and the world was pale – the green of the fields, the blue of the sky, even the pink of the faces. Asenath watched the sunrise and thought of another train ride, over two years ago, when she had been running from an old wizard instead of towards a young one.
Ward was already on the platform. He grinned as he helped her descend – a grin that was almost as wide as it was warm, a grin that revealed that there was nobody else he would rather meet than her. Asenath could not help but notice that his teeth were slightly crooked; oddly enough, it suited him.
“My mother will be delighted to meet you,” Ward confided as they walked along what he described as the scenic route. “She has doubts regarding my work, but your presence will assure her that everything is under control.”
“Fingers crossed,” Asenath muttered, her hands stuffed deep in her pockets, lest she started fiddling with her necklace.
It was impossible to determine which was worse – the portrait or the papers.
The papers could only be described as a manuscript of madness; if Armitage would have been disturbed by their content, Asenath was disgusted by their form. Arrogance wafted from every word. Curwen spoke of ancient rituals the way housewives spoke of cooking recipes – the name of Yog-Sothoth was the meat in beef Stroganoff in terms of importance and the god in goodbye in terms of reverence. To someone who had been raised to worship the servants of Yog-Sothoth’s grandchild, Curwen’s impudence was inconceivable.
This man found a box of lead soldiers and thought he had an army. Her father had once said this about Obed Marsh and the Devil Reef, but the remark fit Joseph Curwen and his experiments like a glove.
Next to her, Ward was almost fluttering with enthusiasm.
“I think” he began, as soon as he noticed that she was done with the reading, “should his discoveries were to pass through the prism of modern necessities…”
“The only necessities” Asenath interrupted, “any of this could satisfy are Curwen’s – and nobody else’s.”
She was in his home – in his study, even – and they were discussing his ancestor. She would have been polite about it, were it merely an old shame instead of a current threat.
Ward’s tentative smile melted like a sugar cube in hot tea. Asenath almost felt bad about what she was going to say next.
“You have to destroy this.” She gestured at the papers on the table, then glanced at the portrait over the fireplace. “All of this.”
“What? No!” She had expected the indignation, and Ward did not disappoint. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve searched, how hard I’ve worked… how much my father has paid for this?”
“Your father will pay a lot more if you keep poking at it.” Her smile tasted bitter on her lips. “And so will you, and so will everyone else.”
Something flickered in Ward’s eyes – suspicion, perhaps? But of whom – his ancestor or his friend?
“What do you mean?” he asked, even as the rest of his face begged her to give an answer different from the one they both knew.
Asenath had intentionally left Curwen’s Journall and Notes open on one particular page. She picked up the book and more or less shoved it under Ward’s nose.
“It’s all written down, as clear as day.”
Ye Verse from Liber-Damnatus be’g spoke V Roodmasses and IV Hallows-Eves, I am Hopeful ye Thing is breed’g Outside ye Spheres. It will drawe One who is to Come, if I can make sure he shal bee, and he shall think on Past thinges and look back thro’ all ye yeares, against ye which I must have ready ye Saltes or That to make ’em with.
“Exactly! I was meant to find this!”
Asenath was sorely tempted to hit Ward with his precious ancestor’s precious diary.
“No, you idiot! You were meant to be used!”
As if to prove her right, Ward began to argue:
“Joseph Curwen’s legacy – that is to say, my inheritance – could transform our understanding of the world! History, chemistry, physics…”
“Pillar of Dagon… It’s necromancy, Mr. Ward – the very opposite of both humanities and natural sciences!”
“Indeed! It’s blasted necromancy, and yet he – a man who had travelled the world and escaped the witch trials – he still believed in it! Dedicated his life to it! Died for it, even!”
“He died because he was a horrid man who inflicted nothing but pain and misery to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves at his mercy.”
“I’m not saying that he was a good man, Miss Waite. But while he had many flaws and committed many crimes, he also sought to expand…”
“… his life and his power. Because a wizard only values that which they can possess.”
Asenath had not cried in weeks, but her voice cracked as a sudden gust of memory parted the curtain she had drawn over her past.
Ward fell silent.
Asenath rubbed at her blurry eyes with unnecessary viciousness. She heard Ward ruffle through his pockets for a handkerchief, so she quickly wiped away the tears – her knuckles came away wet – and coughed to indicate that it was back to business with her.
“I… don’t actually know any wizards, at least not personally” Ward admitted; to his credit, he hesitated before he asked, “Do you?”
Asenath looked at him – really looked at him. He was three years older than her, but he seemed so much younger. The shadow over his life – the shadow of Joseph Curwen – was yet to hurt him or even scare him.
Her own shadow – that of Ephraim Waite – was gone. His death had made him less than nothing, but Asenath would never forget what he had done to her – what he would have done to her.
“My father was a wizard.”
Ward did not gasp. Did not pull away. He simply nodded, as if to say, oh, of course.
“He wished to possess me. So I ran away. And I made sure that he wouldn't follow me."
Asenath remembered the candelabrum. It had not been lit, and yet it had still banished the shadow.
“Mr. Ward… Charles.”
He blinked at the sound of his given name. The corners of his mouth twitched upward.
“Charles, let us try something. An experiment, if you like.”
“What do you have in mind, Miss Waite?”
Asenath would have liked to use the diary, but grabbed one of the letters instead – the one where Curwen mentioned Yog-Sothoth and recommended cooks in practically the same breath.
“Burn this in the fireplace.”
Charles glanced over the letter’s content and shrugged.
“Here goes nothing.”
The portrait’s eyes seemed to follow them as they approached the fireplace. Asenath had to suppress a shudder – the man depicted on the wooden overmantel was the spitting image of her friend… if her friend had ever cared about things like silk and dignity. Looking at the portrait of Joseph Curwen was almost as terrible as lifting a hand and seeing Ephraim Waite’s fingers.
It took some time and effort to remove the electric gadget that was supposed to imitate glowing embers.
“Was this your idea?”
“My father’s, actually. It cost a small fortune to have the fireplace installed and renovated – we actually took the entire thing from Curwen’s old house.”
“Your father must really love you.”
“Adores me, even. I’m his favorite son.”
“Aren’t you an only child?”
“That explains a lot.”
“It does. Anyway, we were told that real fire could damage the fireplace, perhaps even the painting. Hence the heater.”
Charles took the antique tinderbox from the mantel and, to his delighted surprise, managed to produce a spark on the first try.
The burning letter was tossed rather unceremoniously into the firebox. The unnaturally clean bricks gleamed orange and pink – they had not seen a single lick of flame in over a century.
Charles moved to put the tinderbox back on the mantel, only to drop it. His cry swallowed its crash. Asenath followed his gaze and almost swore when she saw the cause for his fright.
The face depicted on the portrait was no longer calm – rage had twisted its thin lips into a snarl and hatred dripped from its pale eyes.
The boy and the girl did not even bother with exchanging looks – they rushed to the table, each grabbing as much paper as possible. This time, it took Charles three attempts before he could get a spark out of the flint and the steel. Asenath let him fumble – after all, it was his shadow to banish, not hers. Once a blazing fire engulfed the ancient secrets, she allowed herself the quietest of sighs – of relief, of regret, perhaps even of relish.
They watched the painted image of Joseph Curwen writhe in agony, until it finally crumbled into strange bluish-gray dust.
In the following weeks, Asenath caught herself thinking – what if.
What if Curwen had shown grief instead of fury? What if his image had transformed into that of a misunderstood scholar instead of a possessive monster? Would it have softened Charles' heart, the way her tears had?
And what if her tears had been in vain? What if her words and warnings had fallen on deaf ears? Would Asenath have been able to go against her friend's wishes? Would she have won or lost that fight?
Only when Charles visited Arkham as a tourist rather than a student and went to the Library as her friend rather than her patron, only then could Asenath finally admit to herself that she was glad to not know the answers to these questions.