Listen to the Reaper around the corner,
who sings the song of the flesh,
while the tearful eyes of the mourner
beg forgiveness and egress.

The beginning of each spring was marked by a commemoration of the deceased. Adults held their own rituals on the surface with the exception of a few anointed ones, who stayed locked down with the children – at home, if they were too little, or at the collegium, if they were already on the path to becoming productive members of society. It was the only night when the purulent skin was faced with kindness and compassion.

Reminiscent of a Baroque cathedral, the knowledge facility overlooked diminishingly the fountain at the center of the square. Lights were on in two rooms – one on the left and one on the right side of the entrance, where yet another procession of guardians waited patiently for instructions. In a minute, each of them would gather a flock and head down to the appointed section of a lower level.

Victor was already there, lying in his sleeping bag, surrounded by a few anxious mates, who whispered a plan of mischief in the dead of night. It wasn’t like him to participate but he listened intently to get a sense of how long he would have to wait before silence allows him to travel to the land of dreams. Miss Alyssa shushed them. In half an hour, when she convinced herself that they were asleep, she moved to check in on another corridor. The boys took the opportunity and swiftly filled their sleeping bags with blankets from their backpacks. Then they quietly moved in the opposite direction to a different tunnel. Victor sighed with relief and let his imagination guide him to the vast forest, which he had only seen in a picture book, where he felt at peace enough to sleep.

He was abruptly awakened by sounds resembling muffled female screams. There was no one else in the room, but a light emanated from a corridor he hadn’t noticed before. Even if it was his business, he wouldn’t know how to handle it, so the reasonable thing to do was to try and go back to his dream.

Help us…” an unknown voice cried in his mind.
But I can’t!” Victor thought.
You have to know,” the voice answered.

The boy surprised himself by standing up and taking a few cautious steps towards the light. No sounds escaped the stone walls. He reached the passage and reluctantly tilted his head to look through, expecting some vicious monster to look back at him. Instead, he saw that the corridor stretched half a mile, illuminated by torches. It ended with a red velvet curtain, pulled by Victor before he could even realize his action, revealing a heavy wooden door. He slowly turned the doorknob and entered a small study. There was a globe on the desk, a machine with strange letter keys next to it and an open book. The walls comprised an envious library and Victor wished he could have the room to himself, forgetting for a moment the peculiarity of it all. He was about to reach for the third volume of “The History of Aeon”, when the wall to the right moved, opening a staircase going further down. Footsteps echoed closer and closer as the boy’s pupils dilated. A white-haired male head showed up, followed by small green eyes, surrounded by narrow-framed glasses, accompanied by a snub-shaped nose and thin, wrinkled lips. The old men’s vested suit made him look authoritatively intimidating, yet when he spoke the words came out softly.

“Come, she is expecting you,” he said.
“Who is she?” asked Victor.
“You’ll find out soon enough but your eyes need to see in order to believe. Come,” implored the old man.

The boy descended down the stairs and a second red curtain was pulled up. A smell of rotting flesh lingered in the air around a canopy bed where long dark hair was scattered all over the pillow. In the flash of a second, the girl stood up. The room filled with Victor’s screams of terror, while his mind filled with her internal pain. Her lips were glued together, covered in sores. Her hands were chained to the posts.

“No need to be afraid. She is harmless, if a bit restless,” reassured him the old man.
“What did you do to her, you monster?” asked the boy.
“You see, the proper question would be “What did she do to herself?” A question I still don’t have an answer for. Melania here was one of the first children of the plague. I watched her as silence crept up, until her mouth shut and her skin became spotted with scabs,” his voice lowered.
“You are too young but there is no other way…”
“Such a promising future ruined by a dance with mortality, “he said.
“This is our last chance. Listen to me…
“She tried to end her days, of course, but I couldn’t let her do that. You see, she was a valuable source of study, “he explained.
“He will be born tonight…”
“Each experiment could have led to a cure. Her pain was meaningful if it could lead us to salvation,” the principal continued.
“Search for him, look for the mark…”
A stream of blood slowly trickled down the old man’s ear.
“We failed. But you are capable of completing the work. You won’t be alone. They will help you,” he said.
“Who are they?” Victor wondered.
“Trust the cursed ones…”
“Our time has ended. Yours is the future. Let us rest,” his eyes begged the boy.
“Forgive me…”
“Forgive us,” he pleaded.
“Forgive me…”

And then there was darkness.
Someone shook Victor’s arm.

“Wake up, sleepyhead. Time to go home.” Miss Alyssa’s voice gently stroked his ears.

He felt a heavy object lying on his stomach. “An Anthology of Aqua Collegium’s Principals. 2000 – 2022” stayed safely hidden in his backpack on the way home. His mother walked along with him, trying to smile and cover up the news from the surface with questions about her son’s first commemoration.

“So, won’t you tell me about your night?” asked Anna.
“Nothing to tell, mum. Aaron and his friends planned on inking the doorknobs to the girl’s bathrooms but I fell asleep as soon as they sneaked out, ” mumbled the boy.
“Sounds like fun. Why didn’t you go along?” she asked.
“Didn’t want to get into trouble… Hey mum, when was the first commemoration?” his curiosity took over.
“Hmm…2023, I believe. It was over before you were born,” she explained.

Later that day, the contents of the secret book were carefully studied by the boy. There he was, on page 357 – Principal Tomas Harris and his commentary on “The Possible Causes and Treatment of Neo-Necrotizing fasciitis”. Victor was clueless about the meaning of half of the words but eagerness to learn was one of his better qualities. Children weren’t allowed to ask questions about the plague but he could try and find something in the library. He wondered how he could find the marked baby but even if he did, what then? Twelve-year-olds didn’t raise babies. And adults didn’t know any better. Lost in thoughts, he drifted off to sleep, where a purulent girl bid him farewell and he woke up screaming in the middle of the night. His mother ran to his room and tried to calm him down.

“She won’t leave me alone. She will NEVER leave me alone!” cried Victor as sweat poured down his face.
“Who won’t leave you alone, darling?” asked his mother.
He knew he had said too much.
“Never mind mum, it was just a bad dream,” he answered.
“Want me to stay here tonight?” she asked.
“No need mum, I’m fine,” he reassured her.

Victor ate almost nothing the next two days. His mind was preoccupied but there was a purpose to his madness. A purpose he would grow to love.