The stairs into The Black Raven were steep and narrow, with deep grooves in the center of each step worn by the passage of countless feet. Red and black candles placed against the walls every few feet provided feeble illumination. Melting wax from the flickering candles had run and congealed, creating miniature stalactites along the edge of each step. Strange scents tingled in Konstantin’s nostrils; their narcotic properties building cobwebs at the edges of his mind. In the pervasive, gloom the stairwell resembled an underground lava tube, or the entrance to Hell. Hot air blew up from below. Konstantin was unimpressed. He knew only mortal men and women waited below. Even so, he was cautious. While the stair might not culminate in a boiling lake of liquid magma; their destination could prove to be just as dangerous.
Brita stumbled momentarily on the step behind him, grabbing his shoulder before she could regain her balance.
“Frederick, why did that man know you?” She had to speak into his ear to be heard over the music.
Konstantin’s smile held little humor. “I’ve been here before.” He resumed his descent into the club. Behind her brother, Brita was not reassured.
Turning a corner at the bottom of the stairwell deposited the pair onto a landing overlooking the nightclub’s interior. The Black Raven was packed. The club’s owner had made little effort to hide the building’s industrial origin; it was all exposed metal and cracked concrete. The pitted and scarred walls boasted graffiti in a half a dozen languages, including arcane runic texts that glowed eerily. Intermittent strobes revealed nearly a thousand long-haired youths crowding the stage, head-banging enthusiastically. Suspended in cages above the crowd, tired looking women scraped growling power tools onto metal bits in their revealing ensembles, showering sparks onto the revelers below. Flaring gas torches along the edge of the stage provided light while keeping the unruly crowd separate from the musicians. The band’s music was fast and aggressive; the singer’s voice a guttural growl that not even Konstantin’s fluent German could decipher. Across the skins of both bass drums the name Ragna-Rock was stylishly tagged.
On Konstantin’s left, a metal stairway led up to a balcony encircling the pit below. Here people sat in recessed booths, or stood leaning against the railing to watch the spectacle below. A busy bar filled the back wall; with swinging doors on either end leading into what he knew were the kitchens. He took this route, signaling for a bartender’s attention before seating himself in an unoccupied booth. As Brita slid in next to him, a striking young woman in tight fitting latex approached. Brita stiffened visibly, eyeing the woman with open suspicion.
“Relax sister.” Konstantin leaned back in the booth, placing both hands behind his head. “She is just here to take our orders.” Brita blushed, murmuring apologies to the waitress, who stopped glaring back only after Konstantin sent her to the kitchens with an extensive order.
Settling into the seat cushion Konstantin closed his eyes with a yawning stretch. Peeking out beneath heavy lids, he raised an eyebrow at his dejected looking companion.
“What troubles you now Brita?”
Continuing to pick at the edge of the table with her fingernails Brita shrugged half-heartedly. “It’s nothing Frederick. You would think it silly.”
“I’m sure you are right. Now tell me anyway.”
“I don’t think you like me.”
Konstantin stared at his sister. “So?”
“So? We used to be so close. Inseparable. Now, I barely even recognize you. You’re cold. And hard. And I can see the way you look at me, like I’m the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen. That hurts Fred.”
“Brita, we might not be friends anymore, and truthfully, yes, you do make me uncomfortable, but I’m still your brother. So what if we can’t be friends like when we were kids? We’re family. We don’t have to like each other for me to want to help you.”
Brita looked up. “How can you stand it Frederick? How does that not bother you?”
Konstantin rubbed his eyes tiredly. He had been an emotional void for so long. The last few days had stirred up repressed feelings he had not missed losing.
“Let’s just get you fixed Brita. We can figure out where we stand after that.”
The serving girl returned before their bickering could escalate, bearing a heavily laden tray of food. Konstantin nodded thankfully before bowing his head for grace. Her duties complete, the server stalked off without a smile.
“Nice girl,” Konstantin muttered through a mouthful of steak and potatoes. Reaching across the table he uncorked the wine bottle.
Watching him demolish his meal with customary zeal, Brita found her stomach feeling mildly unsettled.
“Frederick, do you know where the bathroom is? I… want to wash up a little.”
Konstantin grunted, waving his fork vaguely past the bar, his attentions focused on the bread roll he was dunking in a bowl of gravy. Excusing herself, Brita slid from the booth, leaving the preoccupied Inquisitor to his meal.
Konstantin had perhaps a minute of solitude before his feast was once again interrupted, this time by two huge fists slamming down on the table. They struck with such force that the just-opened wine bottle toppled over, spilling its contents dangerously close to the seated Konstantin. He leaned back with an exasperated grunt, placing his folded hands in his lap. With deliberate slowness his eyes tracked past his ruined meal to the fists denting the table’s metal surface. The fists were attached to thick arms, kept bare to show off a dense pattern of wicked looking scars. The rest of the man was no less wild looking. He dwarfed the wiry Konstantin, blocking any egress from the booth. An impressive beard flowed down the front of his open leather vest while a wild mane of blonde hair reached well past his shoulders. Eyes that looked like they spent a lot of time laughing were currently glaring fiercely.
“Inquisitor Konstantin, what an unpleasant surprise.”
Konstantin’s smirked. “Hello Felix. Fancy seeing you here.”
“I must admit when my doorman said you were lurking, I questioned his sanity. The bump on his head convinced me otherwise however.”
“I trust no permanent damage was sustained?”
“Only to his pride. And I trust you will forgive my invasive curiosity, but what the hell are you doing in my club?”
Konstantin’s smirk widened, “maybe I’m here to see Ragna-Rock play. I’m a huge fan, I have all their albums.”
Felix gestured to his men, “Kill him.”
“Wait.” Konstantin’s smirk disappeared as he stared at the young man looming over him. “Let me talk. When I’m done, you will get me an audience with your pet witch.”
Now it was Felix’s turn to smile evilly. “Inquisitor, contacting magic users is forbidden. I could never condone contributing to the moral degeneracy of a Church official. So what makes you think I want to speak with you? I think I’d rather have my guys kill you where you sit.”
Another gesture of his large hand brought the heavily armed men closer, blocking any possible escape the Inquisitor might try to make. Konstantin leaned forward. Even with the music roaring in the background Felix heard the clear snick of Konstantin disengaging the safeties on his pistols under the table. Speaking slowly and clearly, he addressed the standing man. “Maybe your people could get to me in time. Maybe. I strongly suggest however that you not do anything rash. Like I said, I’m just here to talk.”
Felix swallowed. Gesturing again he sent his men backing away warily, although they stayed close enough to react should Konstantin attempt to leave the booth. “Very well witch-hunter. What is so important that you would risk coming back here?”
At that moment, Brita returned, weaving her way in between the armed men without really noticing them.
“I found the bathroom Freddy, but there was no door on the stall and I couldn’t find any soap at the sink…oh.” She had just noticed Felix, who had turned toward her as she approached.
From Konstantin’s position at the table, a conveniently placed light behind Brita gave her a soft halo. If he didn’t know better he could have thought his sister was an angelic messenger. Judging by the look on Felix’s face, the effect was not lost on him either. Brita smiled shyly, brushing some hair away from her eyes with a finger.
“Hi…I’m Brita Konstantin.” She extended a delicate hand, which the Scandinavian giant engulfed in both of his callused paws.
“Felix Magnusson. You did say Konstantin?”
“Yes, Frederick is my brother.”
Konstantin cleared his throat, gesturing for Brita to sit down.
“You asked what is important enough for me to risk returning,” Konstantin addressed the man. “She is. Now are you going to listen to what I have to say or am I going to have to wreck your club?”
With a placating gesture, Felix sat at the edge of the booth. Once he was settled, Konstantin began.
“Three days ago I received a message from my sister…”
The hunter was hungry. Jingling the coins in his pocket he slinked toward the snack cart, his mouth wet in anticipation. He thanked his lucky stars for having met the kind woman that saved him from the dark eyed man. Resolving to be more cautious in choosing his targets he tapped loudly on the edge of the cart.
“Geben Sie mir eine Salzbrezel und ein Bier bitte.” The man at the cart peered suspiciously at the boy, making no move to produce the desired product. With a smile the boy brought out his loot, but before he could complete his transaction a bony hand reached over his shoulder, grabbing the outstretched arm in talon-like fingers. Spinning toward his captor the boy’s arguments died on his lips. He was being held by a robed priest of the Church.
“That is a large amount of money, now isn’t it child.” The priest licked thin lips. “Church coins no less. How do you suppose you went about acquiring such a treasure?”
The ragged boy swallowed. “Please Father, someone gave it to me.”
The priest chuckled merrily. Behind them both the snack vendor was busily closing up his cart. Only a fool stuck their nose into church business.
“Do you really expect me to believe that someone gave you this money? Who, pray tell, would be so generous as to give garbage like you a handful of good Roman coin?” The boy squirmed uncomfortably in the priest’s grip.
“It was a blonde lady alright. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“A blonde lady ehh? Did the good Samaritan have a name?”
“I don’t remember.” The priest twisted the boys arm painfully, eliciting a high shriek.
“Please, I remember! Your man might have called her Brita.” At this the priests eyes narrowed, and his grip tightened further.
“What do you mean, my man?”
“The Inquisitor that was with her.” The boy tugged his arm. “You’re hurting me.” The priest pulled the boy close, glaring at him with bloodshot eyes.
“Listen carefully boy. This is very important. The Inquisitor, what did he look like?”
“I don’t know. Like an Inquisitor. The woman called him Frederick. He had scary eyes.” Although his grip remained painfully tight, the priest seemed to forget his miniature captive. His face puckered like he had just swallowed a mouthful of curdled milk and he stared over the boys shoulder into space without blinking. Lord in heaven, he was here? In the city? But why? He hadn’t checked in at the cathedral, which could mean nothing, but it could be important.
The boy stood transfixed, fascinated by the vein throbbing impressively on the man’s forehead. With a violent gnashing of teeth the priest turned, dragging his captive toward the distant hulk of the Frauenkirche. Inquisitors were necessary for the continued dominance of the Church, but that did not make them any more likeable to the rest of the clergy. Nobody was safe from the attentions of the Inquisition. Not even the head-priest of the largest cathedral in the Northern reaches of the Empire. Especially when that head-priest had been quietly embezzling Church funds for various black-market projects for years.
Felix leaned back, running his hands through his wild hair. Blowing out a deep breath, he looked from Konstantin to Brita and back.
“Well witch-hunter, I can’t believe I am saying this, but you do tell an interesting tale. It explains why you would risk coming here. Brita, your brother has done a very brave and very foolish thing. Who might know how to cure you? He can’t. The Church won’t. He needed someone who deals in forbidden knowledge. He needed to find a witch. How was he going to do that dear lady? Could he have a taxi bring you to Witchmart? Perhaps he could put out a personal ad in the paper? Inquisitor and Franciscan Sister seeking strictly platonic encounter with outlaw blasphemer. Call if interested. Something like that? No, I think not. According to your government, magic use is illegal. We look like criminals because to you we are criminals. We were also his best chance of finding what you need. For better or worse, his chance is paying off. If what he says is true, it is not my place to decide your fates. You will get your audience with the Raven.”
His decision made, Felix once again pounded his fists into the table top. Sliding from the booth, he began walking toward the door behind the bar. Konstantin stood to follow, but his way was barred by the armed men. Felix turned back, smiling at the disgruntled inquisitor.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but appearances must be maintained. You understand.” Before Konstantin could answer, the men fell upon him, punching and kicking viciously. He tried to defend himself, but there was no room to maneuver between the booth and the wall. In short order his struggles had ceased and he lay still under the onslaught of stomping boots and clenched fists. Brita watched aghast as her brother’s limp form was unceremoniously lifted between two of the north men. Catching her eye, Felix shrugged apologetically.
“It actually is because I don’t trust him. Plus he’s a dick.” He offered his arm to the young woman. “The Raven is our most valuable treasure, something we protect from the Church at all costs. Your brother here has given us trouble concerning her before. You understand we must take certain precautions where they are involved.”
Brita hesitated only a moment before linking arms. “Frederick is not a bad person Mr. Magnusson; he’s just a little…conflicted. He has had a hard life.”
The northern giant rolled his scarred shoulders, smiling sadly down at Brita. “Aye little miss, I think that’s something we’ve all had.”
Solomon Rex knelt in the empty chapel, his robes chafing on his still tender back. The ointment he had received from the apothecary had been ineffective. Behind him the church pews sat empty, a small cistern in the center aisle full of stagnant holy water. Before him towered colorful stained-glass windows depicting scenes of God meting out punishment on the wretched sinful masses of humanity. No sun ever reached through the panes of glass however, they were lit from within by electric bulbs. The Inquisitors’ chapel was deep underground.
Solomon was growing frustrated. God had promised victory in his dreams but Konstantin was proving to be a canny adversary. No one outside of the Vatican with the exception of the dead ticket man admitted to having seen the fugitive pair. The tattooed inquisitor had apparently hit a dead end.
Rolling his shoulders, Solomon lit another prayer candle, bowing his head in reverence. With a little faith, all things are possible. As he formulated his mental plea for guidance the door at the rear of the chapel ground open, echoes bouncing around the empty stone chamber. A robed acolyte scurried forward, pausing only to make the sign of the cross with fingers wetted in the cistern.
“Forgive the intrusion Inquisitor-Brother Rex, but there is news. A priest in our Munich parish placed an inquiry through Churchweb that our snooper programs flagged. It seems he claims to have found someone that recently encountered Brother Konstantin and the witch.”
Solomon smiled broadly. He was so pleased he failed to notice the boys shudder as he tousled his hair. Bowing once more at the altar he moved to leave the chapel. His was a kind and just Lord. Solomon Rex roared with laughter. He was going to Munich.