February 3rd, 1834, Boston
“Congratulations on your success, Ariane of the Nirari,” Constantine declares with all the enthusiasm of a city clerk delivering a building permit, “you are now the legitimate ruler of the State of Illinois with all the duties and rights entailed.”
Said duties and privileges are mostly about ruling properly and answering a call to arms in the event of a war.
“Thank you, Speaker. Now, what shall I call myself? Queen of Illinois?”
“I highly discourage traditional nobility titles, especially that of sovereign,” Constantine scolds.
He reflects for a moment, then concedes: “Given the size of your territory, European vampires would give you the title of Duchess. I, however, prefer the term ‘head’.”
Well, we shall see what the others call themselves. I never considered that before.
“Are there any other ‘heads’ I know of?” I ask, clearly showing my disdain of the unassuming word. Constantine still does not understand that the trappings of power need to be solemn and awe-inspiring. Perhaps he will never learn.
“Of course. There is me. I am the head of Massachusetts. You also know Kouakou, who recently took over Louisiana with the blessing of the Rolands. Sephare rules Washington and Jarek is settling in the Texan territories in Mexico. Of the Cadiz, you know Suarez who rules the Carolinas and Ceron who commands Florida. The Roland twins rule over Mississippi and Alabama,” he continues in what I recognize as his lecturing tone, until he catches himself. The speaker frowns and when he speaks again, his voice is slightly clipped.
“You do not need me to give you a lecture. I am sure Wilhelm will be more than happy to enlighten you.”
I know for a fact that he will not. The Erenwald steward is far too busy handling the day-to-day affairs.
“In any case, here is your official deed, not that it matters. A formal acknowledgement is all you need. Will you be hosting a celebration here?”
“I was planning on it.”
“Good. Once more, congratulations Ariane of the Nirari. I will be following your progress with great interest,” he finishes before returning his attention to the pile of documents in front of him. I understand that I have been dismissed and stand up from the couch. I make my way out of his elegant office. I cross the antechamber and nod at his two mysterious bodyguards, as well as to Sophie, the Rosenthal renegade, who returns a congratulatory smile. The only surprise comes from the corridor.
Lord Ceron is waiting, standing in the middle of the hallway in an elegant old-fashioned suit. His piercing blue eyes turn to me and he shifts his muscular frame to give me a light bow. I did not even know he was in the city.
As usual, etiquette is everything. I return a low curtsey as a gesture of respect. We may be political rivals, we may have different allies and assets. None of this matters when two vampires come face to face. I am a newly minted Master and he is a centuries-old Lord who could control his essence before my ancestors even stepped on this continent. Deep inside, I can feel the power he wields, and my instincts urge me to show respect, and so I do.
“Congratulations on your victory, Ariane of the Nirari,” he says in a neutral voice. The Cadiz lord’s countenance betrays no sign of aggression. A mortal passing by could assume we were talking about the weather.
“Thank you, Lord Ceron. My condolences on the loss of Reyes. He did not deserve it,” I tell him honestly.
“I agree, still, it does not lessen your extraordinary achievement.”
The lord’s eyes glisten dangerously. It is coming.
“Tell me, how did you manage it?” he casually asks.
I feign ignorance at the implicit meaning behind his question. The old monster is fishing, just as Sinead predicted.
“You would be amazed what you can achieve when you treat other species as more than food,” I answer honestly. My face is completely expressionless because what I said was the absolute, undiluted truth.
I just failed to clarify which specific race I was referring to.
The Cadiz nods slowly, before stepping to the side and letting me through. We part ways after a last polite exchange, and he enters Constantine’s domain. As soon as I know with certainty that I am alone I allow myself a victorious grin.
Nami was right. Gloating is our guilty pleasure.
I do not take part in the purge of the rest of the Pyke family. The reality is that there are few of them, barely twenty including their retainers. Slave hunting was a valuable business that gave them a cover to abduct young casters with no formal training and induct them, twisting their minds with sick games to better serve them and cull those who would resist. As unpleasant as they may be, they do not present a challenge, therefore I let Urchin handle this issue at his insistence.
I may be annoyed, but I am also busy.
The White Cabal gets massively involved as well and our two groups find unity in common hatred.
With this concern out of my mind, I return my focus to settling my affairs. Melusine is granted the title of City Master for the future cities of the north and she decides to settle in a tiny place called Chicago, which she assures me has potential. I also organize a party to announce my ascension and invite all of the Accords to attend, knights and recently arrived Lancasters included. Finally, Blake of the Roland sends me an interesting letter offering a trade agreement between her new holdings and mine, which I accept after careful consideration.
On the diplomatic side of things, I confer with Lady Sephare, still busy worming her way into every interest group she can find. I can tell that she prods me a bit too much on my mysterious adviser, and I deflect with amusement. Sinead has grown into a master of deceit and disguise. She will have to be left wondering. In fact, she should even suspect that I am receiving help from Nirari himself since he is my most likely source of support.
With this lull in activity, with no one actively trying to kill me, rob me, or take over my lands, comes a time of planning and introspection. Painting all those new sources gives me all the time I need to ponder on the recent developments. I am only interrupted once, when I realize that a small version of the Watcher I drew over a large group of naked werewolves in human form turned into a nightmarish nose with tentacles coming out of the nostrils. Truly, an abomination that came from the recess of a completely twisted mind. Fortunately, I blink, and the image is gone.
I still look outside to the cosmic entity and get a feeling of placid innocence.
Sometimes I wonder how close the blasted thing is to full consciousness.
Except for this small distraction, I am mostly left alone with a fateful question, one I had so far avoided.
Two decades ago, Loth came to me after a particularly playful display of cruelty on my part. He advised me to develop a set of rules to follow when dealing with my foes, an advice I elected to follow. He was, as always, right. The laws I defined that night helped me keep myself grounded. Rather than base all my decisions on instinct and emotions, I set up a semi-permanent set of rules that could guide me through clouded judgement and moments of extreme stress. I have the feeling that I broke that law in the previous contest.
More specifically, I broke the law on how to deal with enemies who did not commit acts I deem unforgivable. Reyes was not at fault for Ceron’s decision to encroach on my territory. I did not consider him responsible for the backstabbing, which is the most important factor. Yet, he was tortured by the loss of his Servant, an event which I caused by unleashing Sinead on the Cadiz faction.
It would be dishonest of me to say that I am not responsible for the Likaean’s action. You do not put a snake in a crib and complain about venom. I knew he would inflict untold torment on a group who represents everything he resents about my kind.
I relished it. It made my essence sing in anticipation.
So, in some ways, I broke my own code. It matters little that it was through an agent, I knowingly let it happen. What surprises me is that I would not feel worse.
I realize that when I set the code, I allowed myself some flexibility in the future. It acts more as a guideline than a dogma. Now a new situation has come up and I have to decide whether or not I should amend it. Should I accept the devastation caused by my allies or agents in a conflict?
I do not believe so.
It is a poor tool indeed that escapes its wielder’s control, or rather, a poor wielder who allows their tool to destroy what was meant to remain untouched. In this regard, I erred. I could have set boundaries within which Sinead had to operate. I did not, because I was angry.
I do not feel remorse. Vampires are distanced from guilt in a way that only the sickest of mortals are. I do, however, believe that I made a mistake. I will offer no reparation for the damage I caused as it would be suicidal and idiotic to reveal my role in this fiasco. Instead, I will remain vigilant and take responsibility for the behavior of those under my command.
Yes, this seems wise.
After coming to a decision concerning this issue, I feel better. I accept that perfection will never be within my reach. Decades of hard work and immunity to the ravages of time will not change this fact, yet there is no reason not to keep trying, not to improve. It will take a miracle to stop either my sire and his insane mother. I might as well start by learning self-control in times of intense emotion.
Speaking of emotions, there is one invitation letter I need to deliver in person.
February 10th, 1834, somewhere in the Appalachians.
I stalk my prey with patience and determination. My feet are silent on the wet loam. No twig cracks under my steps and no hanging branch snags my clothes. I am on unknown land but on familiar ground.
The forest extends far in every direction and in its midst, a secluded cabin with a vast underground serves as home for my quarry tonight. Soon, a clearing comes in view and in it, three people are standing.
I recognize the mysterious bald woman with the tattoos on her bronze-colored scalp. The second one is a man with the lost look of a fledgling. He possesses a sturdy frame with just a bit of paunch and a bushy yellow mustache. As I watch, he closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of the forest. I remember being overwhelmed too on the first night I left the fortress.
The last man has his back turned to me.
I approach and climb up a large pine, taking additional care as to not draw attention. The figures below appear oblivious.
I grin at the prospect of capturing my prey. It will be glorious.
I place both feet against the trunk at my back and push, arcing delicately in the air.
Torran’s back is close, so close.
I extend my arms and try to grab his back.
“Hah! Gotchaaaaaaaaaaarg!” I scream as the tall man grabs me by the throat without looking. He flips me like a crepe and slam me into the ground, not as heavily as he could have.
My lungs are emptied of all air. Torran’s face is just as handsome and slightly intimidating as I remember. His hawkish traits show cold anger, but I recognize the twinkle in his eyes.
“My dear Servant, please take Hardy inside while I deal with this intruder,” he says with mock menace.
I look up to see the bald woman take the fledgling on his way inside. She is smiling knowingly.
“Now then, what shall I do with this little spy,” Torran declares teasingly as he drags me up and holds me by the collar. I channel a smidgen of Hastings essence and struggle like a mortal, letting my feet dance a little jig. There is a dangerous glint in his gaze now at the show of fear.
“How did you even know I was coming?” I object with a choking voice.
“You masked your aura well and you came from downwind, but you forgot an important detail,” he whispers in a husky voice. Then he pulls me in so that my back is against his chest. I still cannot touch the ground. His breath tickles my ear.
“Your dress flaps in the wind like a mighty sail.”
“And I was forewarned of your arrival by the appearance of an ominous portent,” he adds with obvious amusement.
A portent? Is Torran a seer?
The man himself turns to face the forest trail leading to the clearing. There, between two leafless trunks, a certain Nightmare observes us with curiosity.
“METIS! You treacherous backstabbing silly pony! No ears for you!” I sputter in outrage, but alas, the vile two-timing harridan neighs in a way that sounds suspiciously like a laugh before galloping away. The wench! She ruined my surprise!
“Now then little spy, tell me why you have come.”
Feeling cheated by fate, I wiggle my butt against my captor in a pretend attempt to escape. I do not miss his groan.
“I will only speak under duress, you big monster. Just try and interrogate meeeEEEEEEEP!”
Half an hour later, I am thoroughly interrogated and rather grateful that the log cabin’s curtains happen to be drawn. I am playing with Torran’s hair and pulling it above my lip to pretend I have a mustache when he finally speaks.
“Congratulations are in order, I believe.”
“You know?” I exclaim with surprise, blowing the gray strands away.
“Of course. I asked Salim of the Rosenthal to keep me apprised of your success via mage sending.”
“Aw, were you going to ride to my rescue?”
“By the Watcher, you really were!”
“No! No… but I did buy an option for the Rosenthal mercenary branch in case the task proved to be too much,” he concedes.
“Thank you, Torran,” I say, genuinely grateful.
“No need to thank me, my star. I knew that you would succeed. That was merely for my own peace of mind,” he replies while avoiding my gaze.
My, what a little fusspot.
“In any case, I actually came here to deliver this!” I proudly announce as I pick up my dress and remove a folded paper from a conveniently hidden pocket.
Torran opens it carefully before reading its contents.
“A celebration of your ascension with both a reception and a private concert, featuring the works of Schubert, Chopin, and Paganini,” he notes with the beginning of a smile. Once more I am amazed by how quickly he goes from stern and severe to radiant. I find the transformation uncanny.
“I have recruited two different mortals to play the piano. One has a classical education and the other is a prodigy from a poorer family, more unstable but also more expressive. For Paganini, I have called upon a newly come Roland vampire. Paganini’s caprices are designed to be displays of skills so a highly technical approach will work, even if it remains colder than what humans can achieve.”
“An excellent choice. I notice that you have picked only recent composers as well. Do you wish to convey a message?”
“One of embracing modernity, yes, but I also wanted to give those who have stayed here for a long time an opportunity to enjoy Europe’s latest creations.”
“How very thoughtful of you, my star. We will see if those old grumps appreciate novelty.”
“You think they will not?” I ask, scandalized. Torran only chuckles at my vehemence. Honestly, I am doing my best to bring them recent masterpieces. I would be profoundly offended if they did not show proper appreciation. Any grumbling will be met with a scathing silent glare. Repeat offenders will be tutted at. I will show no mercy.
“Do not concern yourself overmuch, my star. Even the crustiest of lords appreciate a good show of human creativity, and a display of technique from a fellow vampire is always a pleasure. Everything will be fine,” he replies in a conciliatory tone.
February 21st, 1834, Boston.
Winter came to the bay for one parting slap, and the air outside is bitingly cold. Standing in the ballroom of Constantine’s fortress, one could not tell.
Hundreds of candles line the windows and the back mirrors, their warm glow turning the vast hall cozy. The walls radiate a soft heat thanks to the miracle of good plumbing and those of us who still breathe have discarded shawls and gloves to luxuriate in the pleasant atmosphere.
Just like last time, I have stayed at the door to welcome newcomers and I am already noticing some major differences.
To begin, everyone is significantly more polite.
I would like to think that this was caused by my sterling behavior, my good manners, my irresistible charm, and the previous undeniable displays of competence on my part.
That would be nice.
Unfortunately, I will attribute it to the Lord by my side. Torran the soul weaponsmith stands protectively with my arm in his. Lady Hastings and Lord Suarez, who came from Charleston to offer his support, are never far. The Cadiz presence is modest after their setback, so his coming is that much more significant, and I let him know I appreciate it.
“Think nothing of it, us Cadiz are not ones to hold grudges for an honest fight. You did well.”
If he knew the truth, we would be having a different conversation.
After half an hour, it is now time to start and the crowd progressively switches to front seats. Wilhelm helped me assign them, for which I am grateful, otherwise I would have just given up and gone for alphabetical sorting. Constantine and the other lords are at the front, naturally.
I step up the dais at the back of the room and feel their attention on me. Once more, all the present members have subdued their auras.
I take a moment to appreciate the masterwork piano Wilhelm lent me for the occasion. It sits there, slick and black and entirely massive. I am really looking forward to this.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, noble assembly, thank you so much for joining me tonight. I am delighted that we have enough room tonight, seeing that perhaps a quarter of my clan is present.”
That gives me a few nose exhalations, as well as knowing looks from the lords at the front who know that there are, in fact, four of us. The others would assume that I refer to a hypothetical spawn.
“This land is one of opportunity,” I start, and stretch my hands in a gesture of offering. “This sentence is as true for us as it is for the mortals. Three decades ago, I was indentured to another clan, and did not even possess the clothes on my back. Tonight, we have gathered to celebrate my ascension as head of a territory. My success is not due to skill, or luck, though they played their part. I am here because of the opportunities I found and seized for myself, and so can you.”
Some of the younger members shift in their seats, eager to know how they could replicate my success.
“We are still parts of our respective clans and need not forfeit our traditions. We can, however, cast away the chains that tie us down. Past grudges. Past prejudices. Those prisons of the mind hamper us and limit our vision and options. I started in this world with no allies, but also with no enemies. A Cadiz freed me, an Ekon trained me, and I was proven innocent by a Lancaster. My path was made possible by the people who helped me along the way. Look to your left and right, and you will see your allies of tomorrow, if you so choose.”
No one moves but I see that quite a few people are thoughtful. Others remain unconvinced, which I naturally expected.
“Now enough words. I promised you music and you shall receive it. Tonight, young and newly arrived artists will present you with works from recent masters, those who have known how to draw upon the classics to create a new current. Please give them a warm welcome,” I finish.
I quickly step down the dais to invite the first performer of the night. She had been waiting at the back with a plump old relative acting as guardian. The girl is young, with a severe and rotund face. She steps forth with all the grace she can muster and climbs the few steps under a hundred predatory gazes. She goes through the motions of curtseying with the rigidity of an automaton, then, as she sits before the massive piano forte, her demeanor changes. She turns more graceful and more fluid. In less than ten seconds, she has shed any trace of anxiety and the music rolls free under her delicate hands.
Schubert’s sonata is beautiful and energetic, and the girl plays it well. Her interpretation is classic and scholarly but here and there, she teases a different tempo or a daring forte that hints at the character underneath. She is like a blooming flower struggling against the cage of rigid training and the others like it as much as I do. I can feel it in their immobile attention and carefully controlled auras.
When she is done, the assembly gives her the applause she deserves. She smiles radiantly before stepping down and joining the now ecstatic plump woman on her way out. I smile and grab Torran’s hands who gives me a supportive squeeze.
The next artist enters the room. He is a young black man, barely a day above eighteen, accompanied by an older man with white hair and the tracking eyes of someone who never lets his guard down. Amusingly, it is the elder who shows obvious hints of fear. He can tell that something is off by our expensive clothes and the immobility we affect when we are amongst each other. His weathered face turns grey and his grip on the shoulder of his protégé tightens. A few of the youngest Courtiers shift at the obvious show of weakness.
The pianist, however, remains unfazed. His stare has not left the masterwork piano since he entered the room. He frees himself and jumps the few steps up to the object of his fascination, belatedly remembering to bow on the way. He plops himself on the seat and plays a few arpeggios. His thin fingers dance on the black and white keyboard with the speed of knitting needles.
Finally, he settles and gives us Chopin.
I will admit that as much as I appreciated Schubert, the Polish turned Frenchman has my favor for the night. I am sure a true critique would find the perfect words for the music and compare him to great masters but since I am a neophyte and cannot, I will satisfy myself with the simplest of terms.
The music is alive.
It represents everything that we have lost and cannot possibly find again. It is clear to me that Chopin is or was a virtuoso, and the Nocturne played before us shows signs of a man improvising and searching as he plays. Some repeated sentences flow into each other in their hunt for illusive perfection and the artist knows it. The young man’s style is flowing and smooth and his movements are never twice the same.
I love it.
There is so much innovation here, so much life. Never have I so clearly understood the appeal of the Mask faction. To be the shepherds and the hands in the shadows, pushing civilization and fine arts forward. I can certainly understand.
Far too soon, the piece is over and the young man blinks as he seems to remember where he is. We applaud him with enthusiasm, and he steps down shily to rejoin his guardian who fearfully pushes him out. Both of the players tonight will be paid and sent on their way safely. There is little need for additional precautions.
The last performer makes his way in. He is a Roland Courtier by the name of Yves with close-cropped blonde hair and brown eyes who holds a violin as if it were a treasure, and perhaps it is. The mood of the assembly changes slightly as we now judge the artist with different criteria.
Yves bows slightly and starts without ceremony.
I admit to being impressed.
Paganini’s caprices are the playing field of the technical genius and Yves proves his worth with sober and measured movements. Complex melodies cascade over us at inhuman speed and with exacting precision. Not a single note is out of place and not a single interval is missed. In the middle of this impossible show, the Courtier still manages to instill a few marks of originality and personality. It does not hold a candle to what the mortals offered us earlier, but we still smile appreciatively as we all know how difficult we find it.
That last part ends quickly by virtue of Yves’ speed. We applaud him too with benevolent appreciation and respect. Soon after, we stand up as he steps down.
The humdrum of conversation is immediate. I pick up words of pleasure and wonder in Akkad as well as in English, to my pride. Torran smiles and he wordlessly takes my hand in his, caressing one finger after another with a light touch.
“For the second time you gather us and share your love of the world and its wonders. Thank you.”
“Of course, I am a woman of exquisite taste after all,” I reply without seriousness as I place a hand on his chest.
Torran chuckles warmly.
“Indeed, and although you like to mislead your enemies and allies alike through your love of gunpowder, there is, as you have taught me, no incompatibility between pyrotechnical violence and the sensitivity of the gentler sex. My own bloodline could learn a lot from this lesson.”
“Torran?” I reply, amazed.
“I will never repeat those words before my faction’s grumpy elders of course. I have a reputation of cold disdain to maintain, after all,” he finishes with a grin.
“Tch! I care not about them. I only care that you approve.”
“And I do. Ah, if we could have an organ here, my star.”
His eyes turn dreamy and I find myself smiling too. A few other revelers use the lull in our conversation to come and express their gratitude. I wish the artists themselves could have mingled but alas, they are still young and it is quite late, and I agreed to let them go.
It is for the best. They burn bright and the allure might be too much for some of us.
Constantine comes to greet me on his way out. The tall man does not enjoy celebrations, it seems.
“A capital performance by your guests, House Nirari. I find your choice quite pleasing.”
“Thank you, Speaker.”
Of course, he would. It was all very polite and consensual, just as he imagines the world should be, and will be tonight. The truth is that no agreement will be reached before dawn comes. Plotters and schemers, sycophants and the mighty will make tentative gestures and contact the more receptive audience at a later date. My party is neutral ground.
The Progenitor leaves soon after. I can tell that he makes efforts to mingle but they feel somewhat forced, while smoother conversationalists like Sephare flit from group to group, firing smiles and witty repartees like others fling arrows. The Accords will not survive long under their current structure if our numbers keep increasing. Only his personal might has kept him at the top so far.
Our next notable visitor is a man with black hair that reaches the nape of his neck. He has an angular face with a large nose and a pointy chin. With his dark coat and trousers, he looks like a prince’s tutor or a stern college dean. The impression is smoothed by the genuine smile he wears.
“Ah, Ariane of the Nirari. I am delighted to see another patron of the fine arts join our modest numbers. There are too few of us in these as of yet untamed lands.”
“Thank you for your kind words, Lord…”
Something to do with music.
“…Madrigal,” I finish, with a hesitation that he does not miss. He is a Roland as well, though seemingly less stubborn than some of his kin.
“Splendid! You remember the name. Ah, to be entirely truthful my name was Jean-Paul, but alas it was already taken. I named myself Madrigal to show my love for vocal composition in the typically childish fashion of those who do not plan. I am now stuck with it.”
“It could be worse, you could have called yourself Lieder,” I remark teasingly.
“I was naïve, not stupid,” the man castigates without any real bite. We all smile genially.
“In any case, this is a busy evening so I will be brief. I act as an ambassador of sorts for the Roland faction in Europe, and I extend a formal invitation to visit our lovely Nadir,” he continues.
“Nadir?” I ask.
“Nadir is the capital of Masks in Europe, my star,” Torran explains, “It occupies some of the catacombs below Paris, with surface access to many inner courts and buildings.”
“As drily accurate as it is irrelevant,” Lord Madrigal replies with a hint of condescension, “Nadir is a center of art and politics. We have masquerades and games that the mortals can only dream of, set in a oneiric locale transfigured by generations of artists. Some were even sane!”
Torran does not rebuke the man, though they exchange a glance I cannot decipher. I think they know each other from before.
“But I digress,” the sharp man finishes, “just know that we will always welcome such a connoisseur and that should you plan a trip to the old world, you may contact me. I will make sure that you are received with all the honors. As I have already taken too much of your precious time, I bid you a good night.”
We all bow and the man departs. I might just be tempted to travel to Europe, if only because Torran will return to his home territory as soon as his fledgling is mature enough to travel. Before it happens, I have something to finish.
Jonathan’s pale figure wavers as a lapse in concentration destabilizes the sending. The mage Salim lent me recovers and I continue our conversation.
“Are you quite certain?” I ask.
“Yes, he is your best bet.”
“You surprise me, Jonathan, I expected you to try and keep this in house.”
“It would be counterproductive. Your growth will be slow, and I need to maintain your flawless image,” he retorts with a smile. Jerk.
“Besides, you asked me for the best and he is it. Go and meet him. If he does not measure up to your standards, I have others who could.”
“And how shall I approach him?”
“Directly, of course. The more direct the better. Impart upon him the, shall we say, unfortunate consequences of refusing your offer,” the Cabal Black Dog replies with a ghastly smile.
“He would also not be an opponent you wish to intimidate, would he?” I ask with a frown,
“He is not. With that said, the White Cabal could certainly impress upon that man and his associates our power and our reach. Think of it as payment for this nugget of information. Good luck Ariane,” the infuriating man finishes before cutting the link.
I hope he is right.
March 13th, 1834, Philadelphia.
My secret lair is ready and well-protected. The local Roland coven gave me their approval, and it is now time to finally take the next step in my snail-paced yet inevitable plan to take over the world.
I pick a cheap pamphlet from my official dress, the blue one that would look nice in a salon and can also stop a bullet fired at point-blank range into my heart. I unfold the now-wrinkled paper and inspect my notes. The door facing me is as innocuous as the five others in this place of half-abandoned brick factories, save for a specific sigil that looks like the zodiacal sign of the lion.
I find all this cloak-and-dagger nonsense too amateurish to be amusing.
“Let’s see now,” I grumble, “ah, there it is.”
I find a dial conveniently hidden behind a greasy piece of paper (Old Lady Grayson Sausages, five cents apiece!) and turn it.
“Five, Six, One, Nine,” I whisper.
“Maybe Five, One, Six, Nine?”
With the ominous sound of rusty hinges, the massive gate swings open to reveal the impenetrable darkness below.
Not absolutely correct of course, it reveals a downward set of stairs in good need of a sweeping. I also notice strands of energy hanging in the air like a spiderweb. Probably an alarm system.
I poke one out of politeness and the whole construct folds on itself like a mousetrap. Runes set in the wall a few feet ahead ignite and throw a bolt of lightning which I casually deflect with a charged claw.
They still shine purple, I notice. It feels strange to bring the light of the Watcher into the world of the mortals. They… do not deserve to gaze upon its alien glow.
Or perhaps I am being snobbish.
With a sigh, I lift the heavy bag by my side and descend into the unknown, which end up twenty steps into another corridor blocked by another pane of reinforced planks. I knock politely. A deep and unsettling voice reverberates throughout the damp air. I easily recognize an intentionally garbled sending.
“You are not welcome here, dark creature. Return to the night from whence—”
“Look, we can have this conversation face to face or not at all. There are limits to how much bad taste I can tolerate.”
“I said, return from whence, gah, foolish woman! Thine path is barred by the stoutest of—”
I boot ‘thine path’ where I think the opening mechanism is and the old thing bangs open, smashes against the wall and half-closes again.
I ignore the whines and step into an open space that tries really hard not to look like the vaguely redesigned basement of a derelict cotton mill. I judge the effort passable.
Banners wearing eldritch symbols hang from the wall, which would be more impressive if the fabric was not so cheap and if the runes did not spell air, fire, water, and increased body weight. Between those amusing works, bookshelves filled with manuscripts of forbidden lore as well as cookbooks and at least one children songs compendium mark the den of a powerful mage. Said mage stands inside of a small stone building, a building within a building, if you will. I also note a few more doors on the side and far walls as well as a lack of ceiling. The space above us is empty as far as the roof of the factory and its dirty glass skylight. It all looks like a good idea with poor execution.
Besides the mage, three more beings occupy the cramped space. Two are clearly apprentices in ratty red robes that look like theater props dug up from a mass grave. The third one is more impressive, and I look forward to some interaction.
“Away, foul fiend! Away! You will find no easy prey, for you have entered the chambers of Ezekiel the Red! Away, I tell thee!” the man vociferates. He is indeed a redhead, with a sharp and manic face covered by a wild beard, a hawkish nose and rare green eyes. His hair reaches below his shoulders in a good attempt to mask an advanced case of bald spot. He seems tall and gangly, though it is hard to tell for sure behind a robe in marginally better state than that of his wards.
“Let me consider the question,” I answer, and I tap a claw against my chin. “No?”
A plume of fire erupts from the mage’s gauntlet. I grit my teeth as my instincts cry out to JUMP and, instead, angle my chest out of the spell’s trajectory. The roaring missile passes me by and crashes against unyielding bricks at my back.
I pretend to brush ash away from my shoulder.
Truth is, that was quite hot, and my dress might be singed.
“BLOODCHAIN!” the man yells, undaunted.
This time, I dance away from the links even as they pursue me. Lambert of the Lancaster used a similar spell and I know what to expect. It takes a few seconds for the mage’s focus to falter, which is quite a long time given the complex path the bindings followed. It speaks well of the caster’s ability, if not of his wisdom.
“Anything else?” I ask in a bored voice.
“It matters not,” Ezekiel the Red spits as his two students grow more and more nervous, “you will never breach my sanctum!”
I smile at the challenge and approach the single door leading inside of their safe room. The obstacle is made of reinforced steel with an opening sealed by vertical bars at head height and some respectable enchantments. I am not confident that I could destroy the lock, especially not with a caster able to reinforce the defenses as I work.
I will, of course, not waste my time on such a stupid method.
I grab two bars and place my feet against the walls on each side on the opening, careful that my dress does not ride up my legs and gives the quartet an eyeful. Once in position, I channel the Natalis and werewolf essences and pull.
The metal hinges groan until, with a last tortured crack, the masonry gives way. It only takes a few pulls for the heavy piece to finish in my hands.
I set it down on the side with deliberate slowness.
Inside of the safe room, the mage and his pair of dunces have crawled against the walls with faces of unmitigated horror.
The last occupant is a golem made out of an old knight armor and some nifty bone constructs. It stands ominously, holding a slightly rusted mass in its ivory hands, exactly like Jonathan described.
“You… my guardian will make short work of you, night creature! It has no blood to drink, nor mind to corrupt!”
“Oh no!” I retort with a flat voice as I drop the heavy bag I was holding by my side, “I am undone! A golem, my very obvious and totally unexpected weakness! What am I to do?”
I rummage inside the bag and drag a three-parts handle which I quickly assemble into a stick the length of a quarterstaff.
“If only I had planned and brought an appropriate tool!” I continue in the same dead voice. I pick a hammer head from the bag and screw it on the handle.
The hammerhead is an inelegant work of steel with a single silver pane at the point of impact. The pane itself is engraved with a single rune that spells “shatter”. Even my own budding skills are enough to charge such a simple and specific apparatus.
It will hurt, too.
The mage observes the barbaric tool, aghast. He inspects his creation and the harbinger of destruction in the hands of she who just popped his door from its frames, bricks and all. He calculates his chances. It does not take long.
“Can we talk about this?”
“Certainly. We may even have started with that if you had not attempted to roast me.”
“Err really? What is it you want, exactly? I mean, state thine will, foul fiend!”
For a moment I consider roaring and spreading a bit of terror, so he stops with the nonsense. In the end, I consider them soiling themselves to be counterproductive.
“Is this little treasure hunt your doing?” I ask, holding the pamphlet. The crumpled piece of paper was published in a journal and advertised ‘the secrets of the universe’ for those who could decipher its code. Ezekiel led me on a merry chase, one that required the ability to perceive magical workings to complete but was otherwise as boring as it was obtuse. And now, here we are.
“Yes, I am here to learn magic.”
I could shove a fist in the man’s opened mouth. I refrain from doing so.
“And you will teach me,” I finish.