Mark reached into the deep-set draw of his mahogany table and produced something wrapped in a dark aubergine cloth. He placed it carefully upon the table, smoothing its edges. With great care, he began to unfold the fabric, revealing a dark crystal globe which contained a swirling, grey mist.
Gunther was the first to react. He was up in an instant, a shimmer of radiance surrounded Henry and Gwen with a wave of his hand.
"Master Chandler, Necromancy is an offence punishable with life imprisonment." Gunther's warning was tinged with uncharacteristic malice, betraying his usual stoicism.
"Mark, are you insane?" Surya swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously. "Why do you have a Deaths Orb? And more importantly, who do you have in there?"
Agnes nervously snuck a glance towards Henry.
The Geneva Convention strictly forbade Necromancy after the Undead crisis of WWI. Any Mage caught in possession of Necromantic items faced severe punishment with extreme prejudice. The minimum sentence for the practice of Death Magic was Exile, while the maximum sentence was Execution. Even Gwen knew of the dangers of Necromancy, for one of the first lessons taught in high school was the history of the Undead crisis which lost the human race almost half of its population, begun the great exodus from central Europe, and lead to the establishment of the Frontier Cities. Now, in front of Gwen, was an actual relic from that era. An Orb of Death, an artefact used to pluck individual souls from the aether and entrap them for the pleasure and perusal of the Necromancer.
In the next few seconds, Gwen could see her Master consider his options. As Lord of the Tower, it was well within his rights to silence Mark right this instant. The moment Mark had taken out the Orb, it was the beginning of the end. But Mark also knew Henry would listen: it was in his character to do so. The others likewise awaited Henry's decision patiently. The question that burned upon their minds, however, was what Mark hoped to accomplish with the Orb.
"Not going to silence me then?" Mark asked sardonically in that steady voice of his, testing Henry.
Henry closed his eyes as if in meditation.
"You may regret this yet." Mark smirked. "But before we begin, there are those of us here who have yet to know the truth. Agnes? Perhaps you can enlighten the subject of our little debacle? Our very own Acolyte of the Void, as to how exactly her predecessor faired?”
"Henry?" Agnes asked carefully. Henry was their friend, of course, but he was still the Master of the Tower, the highest authority in the land. If the Tower was going to censor them or act on Henry's behalf, there was little they could do. Who was Agnes but a retired Evoker and a Madam in a bordello, and Mark, a Diviner with scant favours to call? They were no match for Henry. Hell, if things got ugly, they were no match for Gunther, who could be done with them in less than a minute, leaving behind no evidence of a struggle.
Henry opened his eyes, and to their surprise, he was tranquil: there was no upset in his eyes, nor any particular sadness.
“What’s to come, will come,” Henry said slowly. “To even resort to Necromancy…”
He turned to Mark.
“Perhaps it is indeed time to raise skeletons from their shallow graves. Allow me to take over the tale for a while, Agnes.”
Her Master turned to Gwen.
“Child, I am about to reveal something that is very precious to me. It is not a pleasant tale. There are no happy endings. And so, I ask for your understanding.”
“Of course, Master,” Gwen replied politely, watching the weathered lines on her Master’s face.
They waited for Henry to gather his thoughts.
“Officially, the Massacre at Noosa Heads has but one survivor. The Hero of the Brisbane Line, Elizabeth W. Sobel. Later, a task force sent to investigate the incident found her.”
“I led that task force. A group of translocation specialists and I had reached the area by nightfall. The base had been destroyed, decimated. There was a semi-spherical inlet which had formed, now filled with the sea. Everything was gone, washed away, no buildings, no Mage, no NoMs, no Mermen. There wasn’t even anything underwater. Just smooth bedrock, sand, and whatever the ocean washed in. Further out to sea, we found a dead Kraken, most of it was likewise missing, by then it was already the victim of a feeding frenzy."
“We found Elizabeth the same evening, wounded but holding steady, hiding in a cavern. Sufina administered healing, and we returned with her to the city, thinking ourselves lucky that she survived. God knows I was.”
"As I was the Marshall, I put myself in charge of investigations. It was a hot mess. Five hundred Mages dead, over four hundred were cadets, most from influential families who had thought the school safe. Mothers and fathers wanted justice, and I had to give them something. At this stage, all I could do was ask Lizzy."
"According to Elizabeth, they were attacked by a Kraken which broke through the shielding of the base. She had been with Jane, Mark's sister, having tea at the mess when it happened. The whole building had folded in on itself, trapping the Officers inside. Elizabeth protected Jane, but had to use most of her vitality to Void shield the two of them through the falling concrete slabs."
"When they finally dug themselves out, the battle was in full force. The Kraken was tearing the place apart, penetrating the base's defences by ripping out the embedded Glyphs from the buildings themselves. There was chaos everywhere, Mermen were killing the students, and the teachers couldn't hold them back. I wasn't there, so Elizabeth couldn’t use her powers without draining her life."
"She eventually made it to the crystal storage depot, using her powers to slip through the gates, she tainted the crystals with motes of Void. Elizabeth told Jane to flee, but the Kraken was upon them. The behemoth blew through the walls of the bunker, and Elizabeth had to make a call, or die a needless death. With no other choice, she detonated the containers, and the resulting explosion took out everything in the vicinity. She made a Void Shield with the last of her strength but was unable to cover Jane. When she woke up, everything was gone, and she was adrift on a newly formed beach, with the tide coming in."
"That's the story we all heard," Surya informed Gwen. "At that time, there was no reason to doubt her. This was the Elizabeth we had known for years, she never lied to us or cheated us before, and we didn't see why we should start suspecting her now."
"Ha!" Mark chortled.
"So, back to the trial," Henry continued. "The families of the victims demanded a scapegoat, someone to blame, so the brass suggested Elizabeth. I was so angry, furious. How did that even make sense? I knew - we knew, that Elizabeth had Void magic, but they didn’t! They were purely using her to cover their intelligence failure! Then there was a rumour which started, a rather truthful one that suggested that the destruction at the cove matched the very same one that Elizabeth and the group had made during the Brisbane Line incident. People started to join the dots, and some members of the brass were baying for her blood, saying that she was somehow responsible. They wanted me, me! To prosecute her. I felt helpless, even as the Marshall."
“But then, we had a lucky break. The Mermen withdrew! They had retreated like the Saurians! There was such a thing as seizing the moment, so I did the only thing I could. Elizabeth and I went to the British Mageocracy. We showed them how her power worked, and what she could do. We even agreed to limited testing and experimentation. They were impressed, extremely impressed, excited at the potential game changer it represented. Suddenly, all the voices calling for her to go on trial silenced. She was now a priceless asset. I pleaded her case. The Tribunal reviewed the evidence and found it in Elizabeth’s favour."
"Then our troubles began,” Henry announced with a slight shake of his head. "We had no idea what using Void magic continually did to Elizabeth, only that we went on many missions, racked up victory after victory, drunk on our success."
"What was Mark doing this whole time?" Gwen interjected suspiciously.
"I was away with important research," Mark's voice trembled, full of anticipation. "I was here and there, but insignificant in any way. Pray, continue…”
And Henry continued.
“Elizabeth and I married a month later. We had always planned to get married after the Propaganda Tour, and we were now in it for the long haul. Agnes was the bridesmaid, and Surya was my best man. Mark was indisposed. It was a small, private ceremony, very romantic. We needed each other, both in love and in craft, the others came to call us the dynamic duo."
Gwen performed a double take, choking on her water. Debora eased her breathing by patting Gwen's back.
Sufina produced another cup of mead for Henry, who drank it, then closed his eyes for a long while to recuperate his strength. The room was silent, bar Mark’s incessant tapping of his feet. After a while, Henry opened his eyes and began to speak once more.
“We performed whatever missions the council set for us, travelled all around the world at the behest of this party and that government, serving her Majesty and the Commonwealth however we could. When the war took a lull in the mid-70s, we applied for a conditional discharge. Humanities’ lands were being reclaimed all over the world, and as Magister and Magus with a long service record, we had the option of staying anywhere we liked, so long as it was away from tier 1 cities. We wanted somewhere away from it all, so we choose Eger, a Hungarian township, an hour’s flight from Budapest. No one knew us there, and we barely spoke the language, it was perfect. I bought a vineyard outside of town, hired a dozen NoMs as servants, and set ourselves up as minor aristocracy from the Commonwealth. Elizabeth seemed to like the country air, really took to it, in fact, her constitution had always been weak after Brisbane, but she appeared to get better….”
Henry touched the brittle flowers in the vase; the once vibrant bouquet crumbled into dry flakes of brown-grey dust. He sighed, searched for a dustpan, then patiently swept the remains away. He placed his suitcase by the open kitchen and walked through the long hallway toward the bedrooms. The region had once belonged to the long gone Ottoman Empire, and the architecture of the vineyard had retained its Baroque influence. The hallway was a cross-crossing network of light and shadow, alternatively lit in bright sunlight and stark silhouette.
Outside, Henry could see the NoMs tending to the grapes, row upon rows of stakes pregnant with green vines, drawing as far as the eye could see until it bent across the horizon. As a hobby, Henry had tried his hand at winemaking in the months since they arrived. Unfortunately, his talent lied only in finding and drinking the most exceptional vintage stowed in the cellar.
It was a slice of paradise, a place of their own. Henry knew the bliss was ephemeral, but the respite of the moment was difficult to let go.
How long had they fought the beasts that came from the Wildlands? Two decades? He felt as though he hadn’t stopped since stepping out of his academy. His feet stopped before reaching the double doors of the master bedroom. Watching the emerald vista outside, he recalled another sun-tossed steppe. He thought of Sydney. Where was Agnes? How was Surya? Was Mark still mourning for his sister? What were they doing? Had they carved out a home of their own, taking their respite from the war?
He walked into a spacious bedroom with a vaulted, double storey ceiling. There was a four-post bed, double-king-sized, which he had custom ordered from the local carpenter. Henry pulled over the bed-tray and placed the breakfast gingerly by the oversized bed.
Elizabeth slept buried in a mass of pillows and soft white sheets. Her complexion was bloodless, her blue veins aristocratic against her pale, flawless skin. The NoMs had taken to calling her ‘The Countess,’ which made Henry laugh. She slept carelessly, a wayward sheet covering her scandalous figure, her petite breasts forming only the slightest of suggestive mounds. Henry savoured the moment, admiring, for here in one bed lay his whole world.
“Up, up, sleeping beauty.”
He waved a hand over the bed-tray. Coffee and sweet cakes materialised from the Storage Ring.
“I bought Presszókávé and Flódni.” He lured her to consciousness with the heavenly scented breakfast.
Elizabeth slowly stirred, twirling the sheets around and curling her slender legs behind her.
“Noon, you mean.” Henry smiled gently.
Elizabeth stretched; the white sheets slid from her torso. Henry looked nervously around the room. The bay windows were slightly ajar; the playful wind lifted the curtains carelessly.
“You look beautiful,” Henry remarked. “How do you feel today?”
She beamed at him, her baby-blue eyes refracting the warm glow of noon light.
“Energised. I would love to go into town later.”
“Shall I join you?”
“If you wish… have you finished all your work?”
“It’s never-ending,” Henry returned a little bitterly. “The negotiations for the Tower is taking some time.”
“I’ll be a while, lots of shopping to do. I haven’t even explored the old Market in full yet. Join me later then?”
They ate the desserts he had bought. Henry wasn’t a fan, but his 'Lillybird' was very much in possession of a sweet tooth. She could pack away the Madártej, the Dobostorta, and a whole serving of Gesztenyepüré in a single sitting. He sometimes wondered why she never seemed to grow fat, though he’d thought it wiser to avoid that question lest he risked her wrath.
After breakfast, he watched Elizabeth dress in a chiffon tulip dress that reached her knees, accessorised with sandals and a broad-brimmed hat, the very picture of grace.
“Kívánok…” the servants greeted her. She asked for the driver; it would be twenty minutes to get to the market from the vineyard, and she didn't want to fly.
Henry made for the study, a spacious converted bedroom that looked over the vineyard’s south, settling comfortably into his work. Endless paperwork and negotiations. Research. Treaties. Correspondences. Repetition.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. It was good. The work was quiet, and Elizabeth was snug in her white sheets morning after morning. Henry loved waking with his head resting in her lap, tying him to this land, lulled by everything around. His only wish was that perhaps, this would go on, day after day, their very own slice of paradise.
“I should have known something wasn’t right.” Henry sighed deeply. “But I was blinded by the impossible happiness we had shared.”
"Even when the dead plants turned to small animals, birds and the like, I choose to ignore it. Lizzy confessed, of course, she always did. Sometimes crying, sometimes depressed, sometimes angry and in denial. It broke my heart. I should have done something, gotten her help maybe, but I couldn’t disturb the life we had there. She was so happy, always sleeping until noon, rarely going out, even then, it was just for shopping and desserts. I convinced myself this was what she needed.”
“Then one day, one of the NoM servants brought his dog, saying that something had attacked it, fearing that it was a Magical Beast which had somehow snuck through the Barrier Shields. That happened pretty often in the old days; the Magi-tech was fairly new. I knew what had happened the moment I saw it. It was a big dog, one of the hunting hounds they used to clear out the rabbits and foxes, but now it was just a husk, skin wearing bones. It looked like a drain attack had stricken it.”
“I asked him where Elizabeth had gone, and he told me she’d gone to town. I had a terrible premonition. Whenever Elizabeth had an episode, she would be fatigued, tired, delirious even. She should be in no condition to travel to town after leaking enough void mana to drain a hound of this size. I had to find her before she injured herself.”
“So I abused one of the privileges I had enjoyed as an Administrator of the new Tower and used a Teleport to get to the town. I asked around the market. It wasn’t too difficult to track someone like Elizabeth. How many pale skinned girls in white dresses could there be in an old Ottoman market? I followed her dessert-crumb trail, and true to her word, she was leaving behind a whole chain of impressed pâtisserie and bakers.”
“Ultimately, I tracked her to the Varios-a-varos Alatt, the town under the town, a network of tunnels used by the old Church to store wine…”