At the northern end of town, hidden between a cattle feed shop and a small glassmaker, stands the Alexandria Shop of Books Rare and Precious for the Discerning Gentleman. I immediately notice two major issues.
The first, neither Urchin nor I are gentlemen.
Second, there is absolutely no way that twenty people would fit in there unless the building also sports an extensive underground network, a stupid idea this close to the Potomac.
Hypothetically, if a mage wanted to slay a vampire, an effective way would be to attract them into a closed environment then detonate it. It is how I would do it. At the same time, I was not baited nor do I have any reason to go there myself.
“Urchin, we will go down and ask some questions. If I tell you to start running, you do.”
“I understand, milady.”
I gather my dress and we drop down from a nearby roof, then cross the deserted street to the entrance of the store. The curtains are fully drawn and the door, locked tight. I easily perceive enchantments of warning and reinforcement engraved into the solid frame. Those are permanent works and not the shoddy labor of a caster who expects to up and leave at the first opportunity.
The perspective of some elaborate trap grows more unlikely by the minute. Only the most fanatical madmen would draw their enemies in the heart of their domain and destroy it around them. Satisfied, I do the most logical thing.
I bang on the door.
Urchin looks at me, askance, and I feel the need to explain.
“Lady Sephare bid us bring the mages to the negotiation table. There is no need for us to antagonize them if they bend willingly.”
“Are those men likely to accept her dominion?”
“Some will not, but some may, and it is them that will be of use in the coming years,” I reply as I keep smashing the wooden frame.
“I see,” Urchin replies thoughtfully.
A moment later, the curtains part and reveal a panicked young man hastily fixing a monocle on one of his pale blue eyes, growing it to comical proportions. He bites an already bloodied lip and comes to a decision, opening the door between us.
“I am not here for the books,” I reply with a glacial tone.
I expected many reactions, and yet I still find myself surprised at the sheer, pure expression of orgasmic relief on the meek man’s face.
“Oh thank God, you are here to help? Right? Did someone get my message?”
Well, no reason to waste this opportunity. I give him my most genial smile and answer:
“Why yes, I am certainly here to help. Why don’t you let us in and tell us everything we need to know.”
“Of course, of course. Sorry.”
We follow the man, apparently a clerk if his sweaty clothes are any indication, to a short counter surrounded everywhere by bookshelves filled to the brim by tomes of all ages and sizes. The air smells stale, the stench of the man’s ripe sweat overloading the delicate scent of ageing paper. Powerful waves of magic surge from a massive cabinet placed against a wall on the right, the apparently unused space an anomaly in the otherwise cluttered store.
The clerk sits down heavily into a battered chair, sending a loaded pistol clattering on the ground. I note with interest that the seat is facing the aforementioned cabinet.
“Oh, where are my manners? My name is Eric Booth. And, er, who might you be?”
“My name is Ariane and this is my assistant, Urchin,” I reply with a light smile. I do not use Charm, as I do not think it necessary. This man is desperate. He wants us to be his saviors and his addled brain will naturally omit all the little details that should arouse his suspicion.
“No last name?”
“You should know better than to ask,” I chastise him with amusement, “All you need to know is that we are only called when the situation is urgent. Speaking of which…”
“Yes, yes, my apologies. It’s just… I was getting desperate. It has already been a day, you see.”
“Why not start from the beginning?”
“Right! Right, so, the head librarian gathered everyone for his experiment, right? That was three days ago. I don’t know much about what they were doing, only that it related to aligned spheres and some such, all hush hush spell thingies, right?”
Oh no, please no.
“So, I was there last night minding my own business when I heard a terrible sound, like breaking metal. It was coming from the portal! I was close at that time so I jumped up and went to open it.”
The first thing to do when magic acts erratically is to take cover and find protective equipment. This man is an absolute moron.
“So, I open it without worry and I hear the most horrendous screams! As if, er…”
“People were eaten alive?” I suggest helpfully.
“I guess? Hold on, you don’t think…?” the clerk replies fearfully.
“Please go on.”
Noticeably paler, the clerk continues with his recollection.
“I was looking down the stairs and then the lights started to flicker. Then after a while, I heard a noise, like something really heavy walking forward. I panicked and I closed the door and I’ve been waiting here ever since. I managed to get a kid to send a message to magister Schultz. He must have received it since you’re here.”
Urchin hides his mouth behind a sleeve and whispers in a voice that only I pick up.
“There is a Schultz who died yesterday. He is the talk of the city, on account of dying after the consumption of an excessive amount of aphrodisiacs. It could be the same person.”
I would not be surprised.
“I did not know what to do so I just took a pistol and waited in front of the door. I only left to go to the lavatories, make food, make tea and find the 1628 version of Don Quixote that had gone missing.”
The world is doomed.
“Thank God you’re here now!”
“Indeed,” I reply drily, “I would like to have a look at the library now.”
“But… you are not exactly armed?”
I take a long silver dagger from a sheath at my back and wave it under the clerk’s nose. Tonight, I am not wearing my armor but a light grey travelling dress plus hood, currently lowered. Urchin wears a black ensemble under his unfortunate beret.
The clerk swallows nervously before looking at my companion currently spinning my gift in the air. He then materializes two throwing knives from a side pocket and starts juggling.
“Right away then.”
While the man fumbles with a keychain, I open the cabinet out of curiosity.
Three empty ink pots and a crude drawing.
The Clerk rushes by me, closes the door, locks and unlocks it. Along the frame, metal decorations in curls and spikes glow gold before fading away. The magic pulses once, then fades back to normal.
Eric Booth pulls the door open, steps back and gestures wildly.
“Welcome, miss, to the Library of Alexandria.”
I walk forth, speechless. My hand caresses a marble wall engraved with images of scrolls and books. Monumental stairs descend onto a platform below, lit by shining blue orbs fixed on the walls by sconces of polished bronze. Their shimmering glow reflects in the odd square of golden sheaf discreetly integrated into nearby carvings.
With every step, the light shifts to focus on another detail, another scene. Here, the titan Prometheus grants fire to mankind, before being punished by an outraged Zeus. There, a Renaissance scholar dissects a man’s body before an assembly of his peers. Astronomers work side by side with dragons, mathematicians with sphinxes in an impossible festival of colors.
Runes in all shapes and sizes flash before my eyes, harmless yet distracting by their sheer number.
Still amazed, I finally attain the landing to find myself in a circular room. Filled bookshelves cover the walls. Two alcove doors lead left and right while right in front of us, glassless windows with a stone railing show similar openings in the distance as if we were part of a building around a circular inner court of massive proportion. I do not see the floor from where I stand.
By the Watcher, I wish Torran were here to see this! Is this library as large as it looks? A hidden depository of magical knowledge exists here, below my feet! How I wish to explore it, plumb its occulted depths in the search of rare tomes and fantastic knowledge. I could spend years here, caressing those august spines and searching through ink of red and gold for that one pearl of wisdom, that one exquisite manuscript!
Excited, I pick a book at random, marvelling at the quality of the preserved leather cover. I turn it around to read the title.
“De Contemptis of Luve and Evill Wemen, cum commento.
Scottish Poetry as compiled by George Bannatyne, a merchant of Edinburgh.”
It would be unfair of me to expect all of them to be life-changing masterpieces.
Aww, this just ruined the mood. Bah, never mind, I am here to purge and subjugate. I shall not let such trifling matters affect me. Really.
On a side note, I see no trace of eldritch invaders from another dimension just quite yet. There is however, a strange beastly musk in the air as well as the stench of stale blood and wastes, the source of which I promptly find. To the side of the room’s only desk, I find a ghastly pile of purple leavings.
“What is that?” Urchin the city boy asks with a mix of disgust and fascination.
“A massive pile of excrement,” I suggest helpfully.
He stares at me, askance, before coming to a revelation.
“Oh, I know this one! You just used a metaphor, right?”
“I’m afraid not.”
My fellow vampire appears troubled by the droppings. I suppose that both the size and the unusual color are a cause for worry. Ah, and speaking of the devil.
“Mr Booth, go back up the stairs please. Urchin, come here,” I order. The Vanheim vampire looks at me uncomprehending.
“Take out your dagger.”
He materializes it mechanically.
“If I do not miss my guess… Ah, indeed not,” I announce casually as heavy footsteps sound from a side corridor. Soon after, a head made of a large open maw surrounded by questing tendrils emerges from the door, sniffing the air with the power of a forge’s bellow.
“What the hell is that?” Urchin hisses, panicked.
“Tut tut, language,” I chastise him, “that is a Merghol mana hound and you’re going to kill it.”
Silence reigns as the creature steps in and turns towards us.
“I am?” Urchin squeaks.
In answer, I boot the vile creature back from whence it came as it jumps at us and then gently push Urchin forward.
“It shall be your first time facing an inhuman opponent. Enjoy the practice, and do your best!”
Thankfully the creature does not call for its brethren as it throws itself on Urchin with abandon. This specific hound looks like one of the middle-sized ones we faced near Marquette, with several physical differences that could be due to any number of factors. This creature’s skin is purple, it is shorter and stockier than the others and possibly stronger, though it lacks grace. I encourage Urchin as he does his best to fend the creature off.
“To the left. No, the other left.”
“Focus, Urchin, you’re faster than it.”
“Do not concern yourself with that knife, you can just fetch it back with your power.”
“Stab under the maw to free yourself now!”
“That is fine Urchin, you don’t even need all those fingers. They will regrow!”
And finally, because I am losing patience and the smell of Eric Booth’s empty bowels are trying my patience.
“By the Watcher Urchin, are you a sheep or a vampire? It is Prey, pathetic and filthy. KILL IT. KILL IT NOW.”
With one last scream of rage and desperation, my subordinate jumps on the creature’s back and stabs its spine, flanks and neck repeatedly until the thing stops moving. Behind him, a rumble announces the arrival of some more of the pack. I suppose we were a bit noisy.
“I will be right back,” I declare.
I enter the corridor and find three hounds and, on the ground, an old splash of blood with bits of mangled fabric. I stab the first hound in the heart as it passes by, cleave through the second one’s neck and break the spine of the third just for variety’s sake. In this narrow corridor, they had to come after me one by one, making them easy targets.
I clean purple blood from my long dagger on a nearby tapestry depicting a man conversing with a devil, then return to my allies.
Urchin is on the ground, looking a bit blankly at the alien corpse before him. Booth is slowly stepping away from us and towards the entrance.
“That should be all for now. Urchin, stand up.”
The man obeys.
“And you Booth, come back here,” I order without even a bit of compulsion. The man is a wimp and a glorified doormat, used to taking orders without question.
“Give me the key,” I order, and extend a hand in which he places the golden and intricate object.
“What sort of mages are you?” He asks with a trembling voice.
“The sort that can defeat those creatures,” I reply.
He just accepts the explanation without complaint.
I do not understand why a secretive organization would not use their best agents to guard the gates. This level of oversight is beyond ridiculous, a sign of unwarranted confidence and a complete lack of common sense.
Now that I think about it, those morons apparently opened a portal and got eaten as a result so I should not expect too much.
All that knowledge and no brains.
“Now, I need to check something. Wait here.”
I approach the window to the inner court and look out and down. Right above me, a ceiling imitating a night sky blocks the way up, indicating that we are on the topmost level of the library. Below, the structure continues over seven floors before ending on a large circular plaza of white and black tiles, over fifty paces across. In its center, an elevated platform of rose stone serves as a ritual locus. It also serves, for now, as a portal between dimensions.
A large crack in the very air tears the veil between realities in a show so strange that my mind revolts at the sight, my eyes slipping away from the rift. The edges of the opening glide senselessly inside of the circle, painting the room in ever-changing shapes of magenta. As I watch, another hound crashes in, then shakes its maw and bickers with one of its siblings already pacing the hall.
Creatures such as this one patrol the ground, sniffing at demolished furniture, pools of blood, and each other. Their grunts and huffs offer a disturbing counterpoint to the portal’s steady hum. Of the mages, very little remains, most of it smeared on the ground.
The runes of the portal flare wildly one after the other without apparent rule. Every five seconds or so, the rift rotates abruptly.
This spell is far from being stable and there is also a good chance that the Merghol hounds disrupt it by their very presence. They do feel queer, the aura around them empty and deleterious. If they truly are magical scramblers, I can already see a few problems looming.
Loth was unusually thorough when teaching me the art of magic despite my own inability to cast. He started out of affection, but the real cause of his seriousness is the perfectionism with which he approaches every aspect of his craft. Barring demanding circumstances, Loth will not start any work that isn’t worth being done perfectly.
One of the first lessons he taught me was the importance of safety. He would drill it into my mind until it became second nature. I still carry in my mind the lessons he shared.
“If it’s unstable, it’s gonny explode, and it’s gonny explode in yer face,” he would say.
And other pearls of wisdom.
“If it can splash on yer fingers it can splash in yer eyes, on yer feet, and on the neighbor’s dog.”
“Measure twice cast once.”
And finally, my favorite.
“It’s only when I’m elbow deep in quicksilver that my arse starts to itch.”
That last one I was thankfully spared due to my immortal nature. One must note that Loth had a vertical pole covered in dense boar hair specifically installed to remedy the situation. It pays to be prepared.
In any case, if he were here he would have some choice words about the situation. An experimental spell is fizzling quickly. An experimental spell that played with the very fabric of the world in a field of magic I am unfamiliar with for the simple reason that it did not exist two years ago.
I cannot even begin to consider what the worst case scenario is. We are in uncharted disaster territory.
The real question here is, do I cut and run? I could leave Alexandria to its fate. It would be the most reasonable action, at least in the short term. However, I dismiss this thought as soon as it comes to my mind, and I know why.
It is not duty, though duty plays a part.
To flee now is to give up on not just the task I was granted, but also on my alliance with Sephare and, possibly, even Constantine. Who would respect a vampire who had a chance to stop the cataclysm and turned tail instead? I would not. In managing our territories, we are expected to solve supernatural threats if only because we do not tolerate competition.
It is not greed either, though greed plays a part. I found a treasure trove and I resent the very thought of leaving it for alien beasts to despoil. Already, the signs of their presence in those halls of gold and marble fill my heart with cold anger. We stand in a hallowed place, a temple to knowledge and humanism. I will not part with it so easily, and yet, it is still not the true reason.
The real cause is, of course, pride.
Our greatest sin.
The ever-present cause for our demise.
I have been thinking about it.
I believe that in order to become a Lord, the Watcher’s influence is required. The mark of a Lord is the Magna Arqa, their strange power. When Lord Suarez demonstrated it against the Knight Squad, his eyes briefly flashed with the color of the vampire star.
I know that I am relying on a vague impression or rather a hunch when making this assumption. It matters not. Hunches are born from instinct and experience, neither of which have failed me when it came to understanding my own nature. That influence will not be bestowed upon the meek, the useless and the stupid.
Pride is simply at the heart of what we are. To deny it is to deny our nature. I cannot flee as surely as a fish cannot breathe air.
“Booth,” I ask, “where would the notes on this spell be kept?”
“The—the mage quarters on the fourth floor, I believe. All their laboratories are there.”
“Excellent. I will need those to close the portal safely. For now, we must prepare.”
“Milady?” Urchin asks with doubt in his eyes.
“We came equipped for a diplomatic mission. This is now an extermination mission, and I need my gear for that. We will return to base and fetch our weapons.”
Pride must be tempered with caution.
“You mean, a search and rescue mission, right?” our guide asks worriedly.
“Yes yes, Mr. Booth. A search and rescue mission,” I reply with rolling eyes. Perhaps I should have just bitten that idiot.
According to our guide, the Library consists of seven main floors and an archive under the central plaza, which contains advanced magical knowledge and tomes of forbidden lore. In other words, the good stuff. The Fourth floor is dedicated to offices, quarters and laboratories. Enough for twenty people to conduct their research comfortably. All of the rift’s preparatory work should be there.
Booth was quite helpful in describing the architecture of the library. I ended up biting him because I cannot take the risk that he would grow a spine as Urchin and I conduct our search. It would not do to solve the issue, only to return and find out he somehow sealed us in.
“Milady, I am scared.”
“Then don’t look down,” I reply drily. The stairs up and down are situated at either end of the circle and we would be guaranteed to get in combat with packs of the beast. Fighting now would be counterproductive. We need to close the portal first, then mop up.
And so, we climb down the face of the inner court, using our claws to prevent an untimely fall onto the plaza. Also onto said plaza’s fauna and strange magical phenomenon. Even now, the chaotic light coming from below casts strange shadows on the walls’ white stone.
Urchin slips. I dig one claw in the carved figure of a well-endowed nymph and grab my accomplice by the collar as he gasps. On the other side of the wall, a few huffs signify the presence of a hound. The creature is unimaginative, however, and after a few disappointed grunts, we hear it paddle away.
I shove Urchin against a column which he clings to like an oyster to a hull, then resume my descent. A few seconds of muttered curses after, Urchin follows suit.
Our climb ends without further incidents at the edge of the fourth floor. Looking over the railing, I immediately notice differences.
While other floors are densely packed labyrinths of bookshelves around small study rooms, this one is almost entirely open. The gap in front of us opens into a vast study room dotted with support pillars and luxurious desks, all of which stand abandoned. A few doors on the opposite walls probably lead to the offices Booth described.
Contrary to my expectations, the center path to the laboratories is currently sealed by stacked bookshelves and other various pieces of furniture. A quartet of hounds patrol the open space, occasionally prodding at the improvised barrier.
I know what that means.
“Urchin, take the beast on the right,” I order.
“The one currently licking its—”
“Yes,” I answer tiredly, “that one. On my mark. Ready? Go!”
I charge and impale the first hound in the heart before it can even detect my presence. In one movement, I dig out the spear and plant a dagger in its companion’s head, then complete the twirl with a thrust forward that ends with Sivaya’s spearhead in the last creature’s skull.
I turn around and watch Urchin as he climbs on his hound’s back, using his gift to stab the creature repeatedly without having to extricate his blades. The hound gasps in agony, its shrieks dying in what passes as its throat under the unimaginable pain. In only a few seconds, Urchin has dispatched his target which is, I will admit, a marked improvement.
My minion stands up and turns to me, proud of his victory. He takes in the surgically dispatched targets and my waiting form, deflating a bit in the process.
“You did well,” I reassure him, “much better than last time.”
Carrot and stick, Ariane, carrot and stick.
“Thank you Milady. Should I clear the irrigation system?” he offers, pointing at the barricade.
“Yes, we will clear the corridor together,” I correct him, stressing his mistake.
“Do not worry about it.”
“Thank you, you are most grapefruit.”
I sigh and we get to work. Our task is made more complicated by the need to stay relatively silent. We are forced to cooperate and create a small pile to the side. Fortunately, we receive unexpected help when someone else starts clearing the blockade from the other side. After one last bookshelf tucked away, I come face to face with an astounded wizard.
He is rather short, with frizzy dark hair and curious brown eyes of noticeably different colors. His face is handsome, with a scar on his right cheek that grants him a rugged look. His aura is peculiar, as if it had depth.
“You are not from the Society,” he observes. Too late, I feel a small spell bouncing against my essence, tasting it. The mage reacts immediately by taking a nervous step back.
“Indeed not,” I reply with a fanged smile.
The mage stumbles away and crosses himself. I do not feel the same threat as usual. Rather than pushing me away, he is simply accepting his fate.
I use the opportunity to inspect him. He wears a beige suit and white shirt set I would expect from a well-to-do gentleman, though currently wrinkled and smelling a bit ripe. His right hand is clad in the most intricate gauntlet I have ever seen. While many mages will restrain themselves to a few combinations of runes for a good balance between power and versatility, the man facing me has clearly gone for specialization. He wields a tool, not a weapon.
“So, er, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asks, a bit flustered.
So very courteous.
“My name is Ariane, this is Urchin,” I offer.
“Oh, where are my manners? Ricardo Solo, at your service,” he answers with a short bow. The familiarity of those words help him settle.
“Charmed. Where were we? Ah yes. We were on our way to visit your most honorary Society as we meant to… get acquainted with Alexandria’s respectable citizenry.”
“As is our wont,” Urchin contributes.
“When,” I continue with a reproachful look, “we came across a tear in the very universe and a cataclysm of biblical proportion in the making.”
“Not to mention those weird dogs,” Urchin continues, on a roll.
“We would be really interested in a way to close the rift lest it swallows us all and casts our wretched coils into the great beyond.”
“Preferably before the sun rises,” Urchin finishes, to my dismay.
Solo’s wary expression turns hopeful, which I always find curious in people I have half a mind to eat.
“Oh, then our interests coincide! I, too, would prefer not to be disintegrated into my component atoms. Should we work together?”
“That would be brilliant.”
“Then follow me, fellow, er, non-hostile sapient beings,” he declares with just a bit of hesitation, before heading back to one of the doors in the hallways beyond.
As we step forth, Urchin leans towards me.
“Milady, I believe this man is a bit out there, if you catch my meaning.”
“Thank you for your valuable input, Urchin,” I retort.
We follow the weird survivor to a side room clearly set to be a laboratory. Working stations line the walls, covered in protective white ceramic. The stone floor is corroded or oddly colored in some places, while to the side, our guest has set up an improvised camp. Several experiments are in progress, one involving temperature variation to condense the collected water which then drips into a beaker. Ricardo passes by and casually gulps its contents before moving on.
We follow him to the largest table, set in the middle of the room. On it, a plan of the central ritual has been laid out with colored notes and pins stuck in strategic places. The complexity is breathtaking, and the difference to Semiramis’ work is that this time, it is simple enough that I manage to grasp some of the underlying concepts. The ritual uses two batteries, one instruction set, a stabilizing array on a loop and coordinates based on resonance codes.
“Where did you get this?” I ask while pointing at that last component. The glyph used is unknown to me while the rest of the runes are typical Western Standard.
“Oh, a practitioner as well? You must be well-educated to understand the spell that quickly,” Ricardo answers. When I do not volunteer more information, he averts his eyes.
“To answer your question, there has always been a, er, background mana signature in the air. Recently, that background became much more stable though we are not sure how and why.”
Because an old monster decided to play god.
“There are several sequences of mana waves in the air, which we can capture on an electrum sheet using an appropriate apparatus.”
Pretentious. Silver ought to work just as well.
“A mage from Switzerland correctly identified that the waves were not one, but instead a multitude of sequences of various lengths. I surmised that the main sequence identified our own world due to its intensity and perfect stability while others are echoes of distant worlds.
“Those worlds move relative to ours and so their sequence is not perfectly stable, but thanks to a mathematical model, I was able to predict a time when a sequence would match a specific set of coordinates. Now, you have realized that the door to the bookstore manipulates space, correct?”
“I made it ten years ago. The framework is mostly the same, the main difference being said coordinates.”
“Impressive,” I note with grudging respect. The design is simple, clean and elegant. I remember that powerful casters age more slowly as they grow in power. For most, the slowing down occurs in their later years, meaning that most archmage gatherings look like geriatric wards. The fact that Ricardo does not look one year above thirty is a testament to his skill and power.
“We now face a complication. The portal was fed energy for two days, and should naturally close within the next eight hours.”
“Let me guess, we do not have eight hours?”
“Well, the coordinates are slowly changing as the connected world moves away from ours. It will place an ever-growing strain on the portal. There are also unexplained disruptions.”
“Probably those creatures.”
“Hmm, yes, likely. Whatever the cause is, the spell will go critical in less than three hours.”
“Remember when I talked about disintegration?”
We both fall silent.
“I assume you have a failsafe?” I ask after a while with just a little bit of apprehension.
“I do. Please look at this section.”
I follow his direction and find a sub-system of runes attached to the two batteries. It is part of the spell, and at the same time, it will not activate unless triggered separately. The glyphs for a sort of vent that should syphon out energy in record time.
“This looks promising.”
“It will close the rift almost instantly.”
“I feel a ‘but’ coming.”
Ricardo looks aggravated.
“Obviously, I could not let anyone shut down my experiment with ease after all the work I put into it. In order to activate the failsafe, I must input a glyph code in a very specific order.”
“Let me get this straight. Your fail-safe, which you placed on an experimental work of great might with the potential to explode in your face and lay waste to the entire region, can only be used by you and takes seconds to activate.”
“A full minute.”
“By the Watcher!”
“How could I know that things could go so bad?!”
“Yes, how could the disaster occur with such competent people at the helm? I am positively flummoxed,” I reply with an acerbic tone.
Ricardo crosses his arm on his chest and lifts his chin, a gesture that would be considerably more intimidating if he were not so short.
“So the rumors are true, vampires are creatures of sarcasm, eh?”
I take a step forward and invade his personal space.
“You should simmer down before I remind you of what else we are famous for.”
In this specific context, extreme violence. Ricardo understands my meaning clearly and raises both hands in a placating gesture.
“My apologies. You are correct, of course, there were… oversights. Including on my part.”
I step back, signaling an end to the hostilities.
“If I understand correctly, we need to get you to that part of the glyph and give you one minute of calm, is that correct?” I ask the mage.
“Yes, preferably before long.”
“Before we plan for that, I have another question.”
“How come you are the only survivor?” I ask lightly.
Mr. Solo frowns as he realizes that I boxed him against the table. My relative closeness makes him uncomfortable.
“I… did not participate in the casting,” he admits, “The design is mine but I wanted to wait another cycle to double-check my calculations. Hazel, er, that would be our previous leader, he wanted us to be the first to reach a new world. I have been corresponding with other researchers around the continent. We were at the vanguard of research, but Hazel wanted the prestige associated with a first successful rift.”
“So he cast it himself?”
“Him and our other senior members. They took some precautions, of course, they even kept everyone around with battle spells ready. I had taken refuge in an isolation pod in a nearby laboratory just in case. When nothing exploded, I came out to the railing to watch the completed ritual. When I approached, I heard screams, then I saw the moving blasphemy my creation had vomited into this world.”
He shakes his head and grows visibly nervous. He grasps his hands tightly as if to exorcise the memories from his mind.
“The screams, my god. Our spells did nothing against the creature. They only seemed to energize it. Then another came, probably attracted by the smell of blood, then another. There was nothing I could do. I retreated here and prepared a desperate plan to close that portal before it swallows us all.”
Ricardo shudders and averts his eyes, now brimming with unshed tears. I feared that he may be dangerously cold, and I was mistaken. He merely postponed his grief and his horror.
There is no deception in him, I am sure of it.
“Could there be any other survivors?”
He considers the question for a moment.
“I find it extremely unlikely but yes, someone may have locked themselves in one of the reading rooms on the first floor. They are specifically designed for isolation and privacy.”
“Why?” I ask excitedly, “are those where the books of hidden lore are stored?”
I look on with confusion.
“Well, the first floor contains a very expansive collection…” Ricardo continues sheepishly
“Of what?” I ask with impatience.
“Pornography and Erotica.”
Just. I. What? I cannot. Seriously?!
“You have to understand…” he continues, while behind us Urchin sniggers. I throw both arms up in exasperation. I cannot stand this stupid place anymore. Those people…
“We are mostly celibate…”
“Have you considered getting in touch with the exclusively female society of witches living in the same Watcher-accursed city?”
“There have been a few tentative openings, of course. Unfortunately, they didn’t pan out. A question of ego, on both sides I’m afraid.”
“You don’t say. You treated them like conceited tarts and they thought you were a bunch of pompous dolts, am I correct?”
“More or less, yes.”
“Well, you were both right. Now, and before any more disappointing revelations, I would like us to focus on the task at hand. We have a cataclysm to stop.”
“Yes, my apologies. My primary concern is the ritual. Fortunately, the matter is simple, really. I need free access to the glyphs while remaining free of the attention of those wretched creatures. There has to be a dozen now, at least.”
“A little more than that, I’m afraid.”
“But surely… You are here…”
“We did not slaughter our way down, we bypassed them by climbing down the inner court’s walls.”
“So, they are unstoppable…” Ricardo whispers with dread.
“We still killed eight on our way here,” I retort somewhat defensively. Nothing is unstoppable for me. Well, no, many things are unstoppable. Just not these mutts. Pah.
“Oh good,” the man continues, “then perhaps… Yes. If we could lure the beasts away from the central position…”
“Then you could get down the same way as us, and close the portal as the hounds are otherwise occupied,” I finish for him.
“Precisely. As for the lure, a powerful spell coupled with some noise should be enough to draw them to the upper floors.”
“But we can’t cast spells,” interjects Urchin, who had been quiet until now. I silence him with a glare. We never admit a weakness before a stranger, though in this case, his mistake is minor. I would have had to admit it at some point.
“You are not a mage?” Ricardo ask me, stupefied, “but—”
“I am trained in magical theory. I haven’t found the time to practice yet.”
“How can you not find the time to study the Art of all arts!?” Ricardo demands, scandalized.
I grab him by the collar and pull him in until our noses almost touch.
“Because I keep being distracted from this noble goal by imbeciles with much more skill than common sense.”
He averts his eyes.
“Point taken,” he croaks, and I release him.
“I cannot believe you have never cast,” he mutters as he fixes his tie. Clearly, the revelation has rattled him. Typical of one whose existence does not depend on his ability to make himself too bothersome to kill.
“Technically I have. Before you ask, I would not be able to reproduce the specific circumstances that allowed me to do it.”
“That changes everything! If you can cast, you can cast. I can help you.”
“Hold on, are you saying that you can teach me how to do magic in less than an hour?”
“No, not as such, no,” Solo mutters as he opens a cabinet under one of the tables and rummages through its contents.
“Aha!” he exclaims.
The proud mage turns around and both Urchin and I watch the massive gauntlet in his hands.
“This is a focused gauntlet. It offers a considerable power boost, but you can only use it to cast one spell. We use it when we need to do some heavy lifting and neither flexibility nor subtlety are required.”
“It sounds right up your alley, Milady,” Urchin whispers before recoiling when I fix him with a murderous glare.
“With this,” Solo continues, “you shall have no difficulty casting a basic spell. Did you have something in mind?”
I consider it. Yes. As a matter of fact, I did.
“Must I engrave the central plate here with the appropriate rune?”
“That is correct. Do so, then follow my directions and you will find yourself casting in no time.”
I have a feeling it cannot be this easy. Ricardo rightfully takes my silence for doubt.
“We are brute-forcing the spell. It will work, I am sure of it. I got a measure of your aura earlier and, well, you have a lot of power to play with. You will definitely succeed.”
“Hmm. If you say so,” I concede.
The seventh floor, near the entrance.
Everything is ready. I left my pistols with Urchin, whose task it will be to protect Ricardo from stragglers. They are noisy but powerful weapons. By the time he uses them, I should have the full attention of the packs. In the meanwhile, he has knives.
The pair is hanging from a delivery basket on the fourth floor, ready for the signal.
The very first one I will cast voluntarily and without Likaean essence flooding my veins. I look at the unwieldy gauntlet around my left hand. It fits snuggly. I believe that one day, I will have my own, crafted for my own needs and according to my preferences. For now, I will make do.
I use a claw to slice my thumb and christen the rune on the back of my hand with a bloody imprint. I extend a tendril of essence through it and into the gauntlet, feeling a queer sense of feedback. The reaction is both filling a container and lighting a fire.
After only a moment, something clicks and yet I still feed more power into the conduit until it grows uncomfortably cramped.
I have the symbols; I have the power. The last ingredient is the will.
I call the concept into my mind.
The interior of the sarcophagus as I wake up. The shadow of a building in the dark of the night. Storm clouds passing over the moon. It shelters me, protects me, assists me. It is my element, a tool and a weapon. A familiar absence.
Sinead used to say that under its dominion fall both the caress of the lover and the stiletto to end a life, and he was right. It conceals the whisperers and the moaners, those who succumb to pleasure and to death.
Science says it is the absence of light. That it is empty. Foolishness, for it harbors the fear of men in its vast, incomprehensible depths.
Let it come now.
Let darkness be.
I open my eyes to… nothing. The orbs are muted, the candles extinguished. Black clouds, tarry yet immaterial roll away from me, taking with it an amount of energy so large it makes me gasps. The spell is born. It slithers between chair legs and through the interstitial space in the shattered bookshelves. It crawls under blood-drenched banners and over the cooling corpses of the slaughtered hounds.
Darkness, pure and simple.
I see nothing, yet I know where things are. The awareness comes to me for the cloud is from me, and through me. It is me.
And below, the creatures bay. They can finally taste the scent of the prey that had eluded their efforts so far. A stampede makes the ground tremble, starting from below.
Suddenly, an intuition comes over me. The same way I sometimes know from where an attack will come, I feel something. My death.
I am going to die?
No, I could die. I need to…
I cling to the impression, focusing on it as it drifts from my grasp like sand. I need… I need…
Yes, of course. My usual strategy will not work against those creatures. I need to keep moving, always. Vampire strength will not save my life here. Vampire speed will.
I approach the railing and pass my head through the cloud of unnatural darkness to stare below and check my allies’ progress.
Some hounds on the ground have not moved yet. They just paddle on the white and black tiles sniffing as they go. But of course! My spell is darkness. It must be stealthier than the classic firebolt, and they have not felt me! How did I not think of it?
What should I do? I need to attract their attention. Quickly Ariane, do something!
Well, I could just do that.
I step over the railing.
I stand straight, feet apart and hands on my waist.
The hounds stop and raise their alien maws as my voice resonates, clear and, of course, horribly off-tune. On the fourth floor, the two men stare with sheer horror as I inflict the most disgraceful, the most shamelessly vile treatment possible on Adina’s sublime aria. Somewhere in Italy, Donizetti’s poor ears ought to be bleeding.
“Prendi, per me sei liiiiibero
Resta nel suol natiiiiiiiio.”
I slaughter the song and the remaining hounds rush up the stairs with the wrath of ten thousand sopranos. The men wince and with one last look of pained incredulity, make their way down with the delivery basket.
I just cast my first spell and instead of riding the wave of my pride, I am forced to commit musical murder in the name of survival. Truly, this world is cruel beyond compare.
No time to cry, the first beasts are already coming. The time has come for me to fulfil my purpose, the reason why our bloodline exists in the first place.
The fracas of heavy bodies galloping on solid stone grows like the sound of a rolling drum. It echoes across the void of the inner court and down the maze of shelves on all sides. I take my spear and point it forward.
“You are not welcome here.”
I thrust through the first hound’s skull, catch the one jumping over the corpse of its companion in the heart and sweep a third against the wall, then I fall back as three more take their place.
“We have claimed this land.”
With precise thrusts, I dispatch more hounds. A strike must kill with impunity or I do not take it. I run, I flee, it does not matter. Tonight, I am not the pouncing predator but a lone wolf harrying a stag. I cannot slay it in one go, and that is fine. Bit by bit, nibble by nibble, I will take their numbers down until the end. I just need to survive and not be swarmed. One mistake is all it would take.
Thrust and sweep, kill two as they hamper each other trying to pass a small alcove. Always, I stay aware of my surroundings. I jump backwards over fallen bookshelves and slide below the largest desks while my pursuers ram themselves into every obstacle. I remain untouched, as swift and elusive as the wind.
DANCE WITH ME MONGRELS.
Yes, no matter how long I live I cannot give this up, the ecstasy of deadly combat. The waltz on the edge of a blade! Another fall as I dodge left, then retreat right, always keeping to the outside circle of the library. If I enter those labyrinthic inner rooms, I shall surely die.
I go on, thrust, kick and dodge, until the inevitable happens. I hear growls at my back.
I cast the spell while close to a first stairwell, and now I have completed a half-circle and reached the second. Without hesitation, I grab a desk and send it smashing into the lead hounds and turn around. I lower the spear and charge like a jousting knight, Stabbing into the first hound in front of me and pushing it into the next. I move left, along the railing, and use a palm to push a third hound away. A lucky swipe catches me in the calf, making me stumble.
I use the other leg to propel me forward as I turn to check the damage. I find very little of it. A trickle of blood and a gash in the intricate network of mail. I test my weight gingerly and find my mobility unimpeded, the wound already healing.
Thank you, Loth.
I rush to the stairs, slaying two more creatures on the way and jump down as hounds arrive from everywhere. I hear a gunshot coming from below and hope that Urchin did not miss this time. I did train him, after all.
At the next landing, I move again, the horde still on my trail. I am faster, but killing slows me down and kill I must, if only to avoid being overwhelmed.
Dodge, thrust, sprint, push. My universe is reduced to these actions. There is nothing but the dance.
Then it happens. A lucky maw grabs my arm. I punch the creature, jump up and dig my claws into the plaster of the ceiling, pushing away.
Far beneath my feet, the portal dies with a whine and a fizzle. I stumble at the wave.
The dimensional spell’s energy bleeds out into the world.
The purple beasts shiver, energized.
Ah, by the Watcher.
Faster now, faster, cannot afford to be boxed in. Just punch and sweep, no time to kill.
And then, I feel a pull. The same intuition I practiced with cards, the very instincts that kept me alive so many times tell me that this is it, this is the moment.
All the creatures must be here now, on this floor. Their insane baying drill into my ears. So loud. They are packed three-thick in the narrow corridors.
With a roar, I push forward and into a study, take a sharp turn and, with all my might, jump over the railings. The creatures scramble after me, many falling to their death. The head pursuers are pushed into the abyss by the ravening mass of their kin.
I fly through the air in a beautiful arc, turn on myself and pull the satchel charge from my back. In one graceful movement, I trigger it by pulling on a rope and send the fuming package back where I came from.
The dark leather bag disappears in the mass of bodies glutting against the gap.
I remember to protect my ears.
The charge explodes in a cataclysmic blow. The shockwave travels through the densely packed flesh with the ghastly sound of crushed meat and shattered bones. The explosion sends pieces of masonry flying in the central court, opening a hole six yards across. And from this gaping wound in the pallid flesh of the building, a cascade of purple ichor flows freely. The remnants of the creatures, torn apart by the detonation, leak the viscous fluid as if the marble was but a shell to some unnatural, titanic life. Monstrous slabs of bruised meat soon follow and with it, a few hounds saved by the unwilling sacrifice of their brethren.
A half-pillar smacks into my back, sending me reeling. Momentum carries me on the opposite balcony, around the third floor. I smash into the carving of the gargoyle arms-first and manage to stop my fall.
On the ritual ground, Urchin and Ricardo step back as a handful of surviving beasts rise, shaking their heads. I let go and land on the closest one, spear first.
I slam my weapon into the ground with a loud crack, turn around and dispatch the survivors as they struggle to climb to their paws.
The others stare at me, open-mouthed.
It is done.
I can mop up the stragglers later. I have succeeded. All our objectives are fulfilled, and we are still alive. We won, and yet, I cannot help but feel a little bit of sadness.
Urchin steps forward, as proud as can be. He grabs a dazed Ricardo by the shoulder. His stretched arm encompasses the unholy mass of alien flesh before him, the flaming pieces of masonry and other burning debris, the dark snow of burnt paper falling over us like some hellish weather in the apocalyptic vista of death and destruction this place has become.
“We did it, people! We saved the library!”
I slowly massage the bridge of my nose and ask the one question burning on my lips.
“Urchin, are those my precious pistols I see discarded on the filthy ground?”