Note:

This story will get to some very dark places before it ends, so please be warned about that and skip ahead if you need to! (It starts getting better around chapter 17.) You can also read the story under my AO3 profile (link to it is in my profile here). There you can check the tags to see what's inside and also find the final version of the story, since it is much easier to edit a chapter there, so if I spotted a mistake or wanted to change something, I only did it there.

Many thanks to MilesHibernus for being my beta!


Prologue

Our story starts, as it will end, in a bookshop. The sign on the door says "closed", but let us not be discouraged by it. We can take a peek inside: the door is not locked.

It probably should be locked. Why would the owner leave it like this when it seems nobody is minding the shop?

The noise from the street subsides as soon as we get inside, as if the windows had some insulation. They don't. It is an empty silence. There are just the towering bookshelves, most of them full of rare first editions and priceless tomes. It really should be locked. Just one shelf near the front holds a series of books for boys. And then there is one shelf at the back of the shop different from the rest: the wood is smooth and black, the design modern. It is filled with books on astronomy, house plant encyclopedias, spy novellas and a few Nora Roberts romances.

The horizontal surfaces that are not occupied by books are overtaken by plants. It is quite amazing how lush they are, considering the light conditions in the shop. Every florist would tell you that Crassula ovata needs full sun, and yet here it thrives at the top of a bookshelf, the nearest window half a room away.

The shop's transition into private space is very gradual. One could probably say that the owner considers the whole shop private space. The little kitchen in the back houses an ancient tea set and a very modern and hi-tech coffee maker. There is some tea in a white mug with angel wings, and another mug - a black one - holding the dregs of coffee. Both are cold. The newspaper on the table is still folded, unread. The fruit bowl next to it is overturned, fruit scattered across the surface. One blood-red apple has fallen from the table and is lying on the floor.

Further to the side, there are stairs leading to the upper floor. It seems as if something heavy hit one of the bookshelves nearby. A few books have fallen out and are now scattered on the ground, pages crumpled. A pot with Maranta leuconeura (also called prayer plant) lies shattered among them. The plant's leaves are broken and the soil from the pot is trailing up the stairs, as if someone stepped in it and got it stuck on their shoes.

As we get closer to the stairs, the silence is interrupted by voices coming from upstairs. Ascending the stairs, they are getting clearer.

"...of you must go."

"Nothing personal, you know. Elimination of the weakest."

"Why one of us? How about one of you?"

"Numbers, dear. There's more of us. Now just to find out which of you is weaker..."

The stairs creak as we ascend, but the voices are not disturbed by that. Maybe they wouldn't notice if we just carefully peeked inside?

There's nobody there. The wide flat screen of a TV shines across the room. It is on, showing the channel it was last tuned to. Some kind of reality show taking place on a lonely island.

This must be the owner's bedroom. The walls have that look that says "recent renovation", very welcome in the real estate market. If you were looking to buy the flat though, you would probably replace the bed. It is a wide double bed with too many pillows, and it looks quite ridiculous with its black silk sheets and soft tartan cover. One side of the bed is unmade. The sheets on the other side are folded neatly. Next to that side stands a vintage night table made from an old crate with stars painted in a peeling color, which gives it a convincing look of a stage prop used in the show of an 18th century magician. There is a beige lamp and a stack of books piled on the table in precarious balance, the one on the top open. The other side of the bed has no night table, only an empty wine bottle.

A potential buyer would most probably want to do something about the strange smell in the air, too. It's like ozone mixed with sulphur.

But the strangest object in the room is lying on the floor, half-way between the bed and the only window. It's a heap of feathers, and the bird that lost them must have been huge. Or maybe two birds: some are black and some white.

The feathers are bloody.