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Ver Sacrum Book I: Prelude to a Race

 

Riker Rouge

Book I – Prelude to a Race

By Bethalynne Bajema

 

 

Riker Rouge Book I, Prelude to a Race is copyright ©2016 Bethalynne Bajema. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact: legal@versacrumbooks.com

 

 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Foreword

 

Prologue

And It Was Going So Well

 

Chapter I

Airships, The House of Time, & Mr Nine

 

Chapter II

First Sightings, The House of Obediah & The Baron’s Proposition

 

Chapter III

Sapling Sacrifices, The Magnus Certatio & Frangipani

 

Chapter IV

Black Waters, The End of the Reevers & Oleander’s Secret

 

Chapter V

Vitandi Objections, A Sleeping Dragon, & The Beginning of a Race

 

Parting Notes & About the Author

 

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Foreword

 

When I was a kid I enjoyed adventure shows with my big brother. The best night I can remember is when he took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was incredible, even if I had nightmares about melting Nazis for a few weeks. After I saw it I spent my evenings in the backyard making my own get-the-treasure obstacle courses. When I had to come inside for the night I would turn to using my rather large walk-in closet as my tomb of secrets. Sometimes he and I would see how far we could get in the very pixel challenged Atari game Pitfall.

 

With my mother it was all about races and westerns. I loved Saturday afternoons when we watched The Great Race and Around the World in 80 Days. I wanted to be Princess Aouda walking into the Reform Club after that great adventure to see Phileas Fogg win his wager. I would chatter at her about my own idea for a massive race that would take us into secret worlds and unknown places. I would draw out maps for her and, much to her worrisome questioning now and then, put a lot of detail into my race villains.

 

I think for me these stories helped me deal with the vast amount of travel I stared down every year to see my dad and the stress of having to get to know the new cities where he came to live. He lived several states away and getting to him meant at first many hours in the car to his home and back on the weekends. Later on it meant plane rides as an unaccompanied minor to spend the summers far away in an eastern part of the country that was so incredibly different from where I was growing up. Turning those tedious drives and somewhat intimidating plane experiences into an adventure helped me cope and even grow excited for them. My mom always prepared me for those adventures with her movies nights. My favorite is still either watching The Apple Dumpling Gang or True Grit with her before I left her for a spell. I have never shed my wanderlust or desire to see new places as a result.

 

Of course there are all kinds of influences that move me to write and they come from a variety of different genres. I adore the dark oppression of a good Lovecraft story that is paired with this desire to seek out the unknown regardless of what might come of it. I love alternative histories and how retro futurism can be worked into them. And from time to time I enjoy a good nighttime soap opera that is most serious television shows. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly that turn up among the tedious hospital dramas and sitcom pulp. They all get thrown into that blender of my imagination and come out in my own voice. I dabble into that a bit of my past experiences and those things that have so greatly imprinted upon me over the years. Sometimes I get something I’m really excited about. This book would be one of those things I’ve been excited about writing.

 

Riker Rouge is in essence an episodic fiction about a very great race. It features characters that I have been writing about for a very long time. They turn up for wee cameos throughout my fictional universe. I know them very well: Their strange quirks, their obsessions, all the incredible places they’ve traveled to and seen. It was time to let their stories play out in their own tale and for me to finally get that great race I’ve been mapping out since I was a kid out of my head and onto paper.

 

Episodic fiction can be a turn off for some readers. When you pick up a book you tend to know you have a beginning and an ending. I like to think of them as a series that you tune into each week. You can watch every week for a new chapter or you can save up and binge. I’ve written Riker Rouge so that it can be read in that way. It’s offered chapter by chapter on my Ver Sacrum Books website, with chapter bundles that are a specific segment of the story that has a beginning and an ending that is a pause between the next segment of the story. Think of it as a season in a television show.

 

Book I, Prelude to a Race introduces readers to this world of mine and its main characters. You get a peek into the aether and the dusk-lands, as well as some of the people and the sects that inhabit these places. You get to meet the great Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second, one of my most favorite of explorers and collectors of the arcane. And my new favorite villainess finally comes out from the shadows, who shall remain nameless until her proper introduction a few pages on. There’s a little bit of everything I love in the first season of this story.

 

One thing I think important to note that this story does follow an alternative timeline and at no point do I offer a set moment in time that it takes place. There are heavy neo-Victorian themes throughout it, but I don’t think it can completely be classified as a steampunk story. It does have airships and it does have old timey inventions with a more familiar modern twist, but all in all it’s a work of pure fantasy that quietly weaves within it science fiction and horror. I would prefer for the reader to gently slip into the style of the world as they read and become familiar with it rather than bluntly lay out what you’re looking at.

 

So this is where I leave you with my introductions. I promise after this no more wordy author bits. As this is the beginning of the story I just wanted to offer a little background on it and what you’ll find if you decide to give it a read. Now, onto the race. -Bethalynne

 

 

PROLOGUE

And it was going so well

 

 

The circle had been drawn and all the players in this dark melodrama where on their marks. The rituals were remembered and acted out in every intimate detail. The talismans and offerings had been discovered and laid out around them. There was not one player among them who didn’t stand there with complete confidence that they had done their individual part. Dark glory was at hand.

 

The final task to complete this puzzle had been solved and its solution was to find the leviathan that led them to this place. And now heads and hands were forced to be steady despite the terror the unseen creature put into their hearts with every agonizing and unearthly noise it made from beyond the veil.

 

The doorway was in motion and every pair of eyes was locked on to this singular vision, this one moment in time. No one dared speak or be heard breathing; though the booming of one unified heartbeat could faintly be heard in the background. It was like a steady drumbeat that vibrated the air around them.

 

So focused on the unfolding moment was this gathering of eclectic souls that not one of them took note of the brilliant gleam of light coming from behind the rock monoliths that served as the gate between their reality and the veil they wished to draw aside. Nor did they hear the buzzing sound of a massive electrical charge that seemed to be embedded in that brilliance. The moment and that light would come together with the destructive power of a volcano’s eruption. This coaxed an earthquake to follow. It was a soundless explosion that touched the ground and caused it to violently shake. The brilliance of the exploding light blinded those not thoughtful enough to shield their eyes the moment they realized it was coming.

 

What came next was a moment of pure chaos stretched out so far that everything moved in slow motion. It was impossible to decipher that strange event because there were no markers of reality to hold on to within it. The rational human mind could not comprehend what it was seeing or experiencing. The overwhelming nature of the rush of chaotic sensations was crippling for the strongest minds and destructive to the weaker ones. The creature roared as men cried out and when it was over the very nature of life, death, reality, and unreality was forever changed for those who acted as player and witness.

 

Time corrected itself. As soon as it began the moment was over.

 

The ground stood charred from the event, with strange plumes of angry crimson smoke rising from it. The symbols that had once been carved by unknown hands into the sides of the rock monoliths had been all but erased by the blast of light. The players, once so special and specifically picked for their needed talents and knowledge, were reduced to simple men either crawling among the aftermath, bewildered and forever touched by a thing they could not unsee; or lay dying unable to live with that vision. The latter were the lucky ones.

 

Here and there a player was caught in a loop of the events. The moments of chaos repeated themselves over and over across the landscape of a mind that couldn’t push the visions out. One player mentally fell to madness as he physically fell to his knees and began crawling backwards. As he spoke his words were in reverse as well. He did this until exhaustion and fright were too much for his heart and it decided it was easier to simply stop beating. There were many different variations on this type of strange behavior, but each ended in the death of a player. The crowd of many was becoming the few.

 

At the edges of this scene an old man was trying to see through the red smoke and make sense of what had just happened. For as long as he could remember he had prepared for the task of observing what was to take place on this day, but the need to offer such observations was now the farthest thing from his thoughts. There were only two things on his mind in those moments.

 

Silently he kept the first thing to himself: It had been going so well. What had happened? The other thing he cried out to anyone who might be listening.

 

“Where is my son?”

“Where is my son?! Has anyone seen him since the glow?!”

 

There was no one left standing to answer the father by this point. Those nearest to him were either dead or lay stunned on the ground playing out their last moments of madness and misery. He was for the moment alone.

 

“Please…” the old man whimpered. “Please, somebody, anybody… tell me where my son is…”

 

“Dead or trapped old man. I can tell you from experience it is better he be dead than trapped.”

 

The old man turned towards the unfamiliar voice speaking to him. It was more than unfamiliar, it was unnatural. The creature it belonged to was indeed most unnatural.

 

Standing naked before him was what he presumed to be a woman. Her frame was stronger than what he was used to seeing in the average woman and more masculine. Her face, though stern, was quite feminine, even beautiful. Coupled with her modest breasts and the hairless v where her thighs came together he had to assume this was a female; otherwise he might think this a short, slight of build man. Regardless, she was not a human female.

 

The woman’s skin was glossy and the color of cooled ash. Her eyes were the color of silver as were her long nails. Her very coarse looking hair was a dark bluish gray that had been put into double braids that snaked around her head and neck. The father might have found the creature quite exotic, even alluring if he wasn’t still in the grips of the horror he’d just experienced. The only thing keeping him from fully giving into that horror was his need to find his son.

 

“Did you come from the doorway?” he asked.

 

The woman looked over her shoulder where not long ago a tall wall of fluid had served as a type of water mirror. It had been the physics defying gateway between the two rock monoliths. It was the veil the players had hoped to draw aside. It was now gone and the woman couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief that was tempered with loss. She looked back at the old man.

 

“I did.”

 

He nodded, trying to decipher some positive meaning from this admission. “If my son fell behind the veil and could not get back before it closed, would he still be alive?”

 

The woman didn’t immediately speak. Though she had a face harder to read for its differences to what he was familiar, he still saw the shadow that passed over her features. Her eyes became sad and he knew she did not want to be completely honest with him.

 

“Please.” he implored her. “I need to know one way or the other.”

 

“He…” she began, finding the right words hard. Her tribe were never ones to show empathy when dealing with others of any tribe or breed. Time and circumstance had changed her greatly in that respect. She felt his pain and wanted to ease it as best she could. “If he crossed over before the light touched him, he will be alive.”

 

The old man’s face showed hope. “Yes? Yes?! For how long? How long do I have to save him?!”

 

Again the woman looked troubled, but it was not a sadness she felt. The son might very well be beginning the experience she was coming to the end of. It was unlikely their fates or experiences would be similar though.

 

“There is no how long there. There is no true sense of time in that place trapped behind the water mirror. It can’t kill your son…” she quickly held up her hand as the old man began to speak. “No, wait. Listen carefully to me. It can’t stop his heart or take his breath, but the mind is a very different thing. There is no telling what your son would be upon returning. There is no way of knowing how he is perceiving the passage of time there. It could be mere moments or he could have watched a star born and die by the time you reach him. If you seek to return him, consider it as a kindness to free him from his pain. Wish for death though. Sometimes death is better.”

 

There was a silence between the old man and the ash colored woman. The father understood. His wounded heart was quickly tucked away and his intellectual brain took its place.

 

“So be it.” he said, accepting all the possible outcomes.

 

There was a soft murmur of voices starting to rise up around them. The noise was not coming from the mad and dying on the ground. These voices were from those who had been at a safe distance when the horrible event had occurred.

 

The woman looked around nervously. She was realizing she would be very alien to those that came upon her and she felt her nakedness. The old man realized this too. He set down a heavy bag almost forgotten on his shoulder and took off his long coat and offered it to the woman.

 

“Quick, tell me your name. Your first name. I’ll keep you protected from the men that are coming and you will help me find my son. Yes?”

 

The woman nodded in acceptance as she gratefully took the coat and studied it a moment to see how to properly put it on. The clothing of her tribe was not meant as a thing of modesty, but as a utility. Braided ropes holding tools and herb carriers were all her form used to know.

 

“Talha.” she whispered as she adjusted to the strange sensation of the material against her skin. It was heavy and itchy, but warm and protecting. “My mother Ilt named me Talha.”

 

“I am Juniper, Talha. Juniper Driad. Come stand behind me. Er, try and make yourself small if you get my meaning.”

 

Talha did as she was told. She did her best to let the old man’s body obscure her as a group of men started to amass in front of them.

 

Juniper Driad put an arm out and a little behind him to offer some protection for the female behind him. He tried to make his heavy bag more pronounced at his side for an added measure of concealment.

 

“Juniper! My god man! What happened here?!”

 

A very tall man pushed through the small crowd of men. His face was intense as he surveyed the scene. He was addressing the old man.

 

Juniper started to shake his head slowly. “I don’t know Edward. Everything was going fine, all the signs where there. My Mayworm was closest to the front of the event. He showed signs of…” his voice fell off there. He realized he didn’t want to share with this tall man what he’d seen happening to his son. It felt like a reward for a man who had, in the end, been too much of a coward to be at the front of the very ritual he’d set in motion.

 

Juniper sighed wearily. “He showed signs that things were starting to go wrong the more solid the doorway became. It is hard for me to describe. There was a very strange and off-putting feeling to the air here before the event. And a strange glow from behind the doorway. I’m not sure the men standing directly before the doorway could see it.”

 

Edward’s face had looked excited for a moment, then it was gone. His one hope had been with the old man’s son and if that had failed to work than the heart of the ritual was a failure. Despite all that he’d told his men (that he hadn’t shared with the players) he had only one thing he’d wanted to achieve on that day.

 

“Sir?”

 

All eyes moved from the two men talking to a young man kneeling over several dead men. He was inspecting their faces and clothing.

 

“What is it Olwen?” Edward asked.

 

The young man pointed to the dead men. “These aren’t our men nor are they from any of the players’ crews. I don’t know who they are. They appear to have our men’s credentials though. They have racer plaques.”

 

Edward turned away from the old man and roughly pushed through his group of men. He moved next to Olwen and stared at the three dead men. On first glance they looked much like anyone else in the group. After giving them a bit of a better look though, some of their rough edges started to present themselves.

 

“Open one of their shirts.” he commanded the youth.

 

“Beg your pardon sir?”

 

“Tear open one of their shirts!” Edward roared.

 

The young man, startled, quickly turned to the dead man nearest to him and took hold of his shirt and tore it open. Beneath the fine white linen was a broad chest covered in strange symbols and crudely rendered creatures. Olwen looked up, bewildered.

 

Edward made a hissing noise and slammed his fist into his hand.

 

“Bastards!”

 

He knelt down and violently ripped open the shirts of the other two men. Each presented a similar scene: A chest full of simple tattoos offering a language of symbols that was alien to most men there. What was worse were the indescribable creatures that moved among those symbols.

 

“Damned curs!”

 

Slowly the men in the surrounding group began to realize what they were looking at and what this meant. Outside forces had moved unseen in their mist. What they had or hadn’t done to bring upon these events was the question. A general noise of mumbling voices ran through the group.

 

Edward turned towards his men and began barking orders.

 

“Every man down on the ground must be checked. Shirts off all of them! Dead ones can be piled over there. Keep our men away from this filth so we can tend to them properly, respectfully. Anyone of these tattooed miscreants that are still alive need to be tied up and put in one place. Be wary of all chest markings. Not all of them will be of the black water tribe. Some will simply be marked with talisman or protections. We can’t take chances though. Anyone with marked skin, inked, branded, scarred, or otherwise put in bindings and sat together. We must act quickly before all is lost.” He paused a moment to look at those players who still thrashed or wailed from the ground. “Give care to anyone who is still alive but do not hope that they will continue to breath long. Calm them. Make their passing gentle.”

 

The men went into action, falling into small groups and dedicating those groups to different areas.

 

Edward turned away from the scene and moved as close as he was willing to get to the open spot between the two massive boulders. He held his hand up as if to feel the air coming from the monoliths and quickly snatched it back. There was still a hum coming from the area.

 

Through all of the renewed movement in the area, Juniper stood steady and unmoved. He kept the woman mostly obscured behind him, though he was sure she’d been noticed. There was simply too much else going on at the moment to address her. He wasn’t sure how he would explain her presence or her strange appearance. The only thing he knew for certain was that the leader of this expedition, this great race, would not harm her. The great Edward Longview still needed some type of trophy to bring home to compensate for all the madness stricken minds and dead bodies he now had to atone for.

 

As though called to by the old man’s thoughts, Edward turned away from the boulders and moved back to Juniper. Very little escaped his attention.

 

“Who’s the woman behind you Juniper?”

 

The old man could feel the woman’s body start to tremble a little against him. How frightening this had to be for her. He could only presume where she had come from and what that might mean she’d already gone through. That idea gave him hope. She was like a living, breathing ash colored key that would help him unlock the whereabouts of his son. There was no man there, not even the thunderous and dictator-like personality that was Edward their leader, that would wrench this woman from his hands until his Mayworm’s fate was known.

 

“The woman behind me is Talha.” he replied but did not move to reveal her.

 

“Instruct her to come out where she can be seen.”

 

Talha, in a very strong, inhuman voice, answered for herself. “I can be talked to directly. No man here instructs me to do anything.”

 

Edward scoffed at this, but took immediate notice of the strange nature of her voice and inflection. “Very well. Come out from behind my man so I can get a look at you.”

 

Talha was hesitant for a moment. She took a deep breath and let the fear drain away from her like the last of a good hard rain washing the skin. It had been quite a long time since she felt fear. These pale skinned men with their scratchy clothes and watery pale eyes were not going to remind her of that feeling.

 

The woman stepped out from behind the old man. She held her head up high and unblinkingly stared down the tall man across from her.

 

Edward looked the creature over. His expression was blank.

 

“Are you from the dusk-lands? The secret places?” he asked as he studied her face. “I’ve seen none like you among the sky people.”

 

Talha motioned to the area around them. “I come from here. At least I did a very long time ago. The time of my tribe has come and gone.”

 

This peaked Edward’s attention. He moved towards the woman as though he meant to lay his hands on her. She took a defensive posture that caused him to stop. He held his hands up to show he was no threat to her.

 

“I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I’m a little excitable at the moment and I am one to put hands on things to get a sense of them. You are, of course, not a thing. I beg of you to please explain. I’ve read no histories with people like you described in them.”

 

Talha stayed on guard as she answered his questions.

 

“We are tribes of the moon and we were here long before your people. We had no written language. There is nothing of my people still in this world except for this body of mine and in my memories.”

 

Juniper recognized the look coming over Edward’s face. It was a mixture of understanding and excitement. He looked from the woman back towards the two boulders.

 

“Your English is impeccable except for a few slightly strange inflections…” he murmured, sounding distracted. He looked back at the woman. “You speak our language with an easy tongue. I’m curious how you come to know it. Might I inquire where you’ve been hiding all of these years?” he asked.

 

“From the underneath.” she said simply. She offered nothing more than that.

 

The questioning was interrupted when one of the men called to their leader. Edward and Juniper turned towards the scene they’d mostly been ignoring.

 

The dead greatly outnumbered the living and some of the living could only be described as the mad living dead. Having all the deceased players and their crews cleaned off and neatly laid out in rows showed just how horrific the scene truly was. All manner of ills had fallen upon these men when the doorway had turned foul.

 

Juniper had been close to the doorway, just off to the side of the left boulder. He had wanted to keep his son within his view. His eyes had been so focused on him he hadn’t seen what happened to the others. His mind couldn’t wrap itself around what he was now seeing.

 

“Dear god.” he whispered.

 

The man calling to them was Olwen and he was waving Edward over to him. Of all the many men who had been directly before the doorway, only six of them sat grouped among the living. Two unfamiliar men sat tied together a short distance away from them.

 

“Sir! These two men have the same markings as the dead men.”

 

Edward quickly left his questioning and moved towards the bound men, leaving Juniper with his strange woman. The old man took that opportunity to gingerly guide her away from the others. The men who’d come to the area with Edward were starting to notice her. Thankfully they had the sense to give her a wide birth. At least until Edward told them differently.

 

“Come Talha. I think it would be best to get away from these men while they sort out the chaos.” he said nervously as he picked up his pace. “A lot has happened and I think the horrible outcome of those happenings is going to become more apparent the longer they deal with the living and the dead.”

 

As they moved away there came shouting from the leader. Juniper chanced a look back and saw the large man roughly pulling one of the bound men to his feet and yelling into his face. He hit him several times before throwing the bleeding man into the hands of his men. The tattooed man appeared to say nothing. There was probably no secret truths to get from him now no matter how the tall man beat him.

 

“Talha? You said you came from the underneath?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“The underneath is the place through what you called the water mirror? Is it unseen beyond the two boulders even now?”

 

Talha looked conflicted. “Yes and no. It is not a simple thing. The underneath is as close as your breath and as far away as the end of time always, no matter where you are. Most often connecting to it is as random as the weather. There are rituals to force a connection though. This place is marked by too many of those rituals. It has created a link from this reality to that unreality. The old things in that unreality are drawn here and ever lurking. This is a damned place.”

 

Juniper stopped walking and turned to face the woman.

 

“Did your people do your rituals here?”

 

Talha was quiet but her face was quite thoughtful. Nearly a life time was passing by her mind’s eye and for a moment she was somewhere very long ago.

 

She saw the ghostly apparitions of children running about burning fires. Tents made of dried animal hides and tree parts were scattered about. They lived near the two boulders, but not right next to them so that conjuring could be done away from their camp. They had been nomadic people who called to the aether for help when needed. They had not known this place was already tainted. They didn’t know they were not reaching out to the aether there. When they performed their ritual at the boulders they were fearful of the old ones that came to them. So old… so dark. Old ones who would not let them leave. They became bound to that place with no choice but to serve.

 

“Talha?” Juniper nudged her. “What happened to you and your people?”

 

The woman’s head nodded slowly. “The land is stained and when we conjured here we helped make that stain darker. We were reaching out to something different, more benign, and made a mistake. We gave those who had been trapped a place to find and touch this world. They were imprisoned in the underneath beyond the water mirror, like being on the other side of the glass. I’ve been there with them for a very long time. I have seen so many tribes come and go… lured here because they could feel the old things beckoning them.”

 

She looked back at the group of men taking turns trying to forcefully make the tattooed man talk. She then looked to the ground disgusted by what she was seeing.

 

“The old ones only inspire wickedness.” she whispered. “The painted man will never talk. The men who witnessed this event will never recover from their madness. It will leave its mark on all of you. Whatever it is your tall man back there was looking for he would not have liked it if he found it.”

 

The old man shrugged as he frowned. “He just wanted to know… to understand.” Juniper said weakly in the other man’s defense. He was defending them all honestly. They were all men of scholarly pursuits that went well beyond the average man’s needs. Perhaps they had been fooled by these old ones like so many others.

 

“Sometimes it’s better not to know.” Talha offered. “Sometimes there is nothing to understand. Evil doesn’t have to define itself or its reasons for being. It only needs to be evil. Look at what just a moment of it did to your friends.”

 

There was a moment of silence between them.

 

For Talha there was too much knowledge and understanding and her mind just wanted to be still. She wanted to get away from these men so she could lay down and sleep her last sleep. She wanted to chase her people across the stars and find their after-world. She had played guardian of the water mirror for long enough. It was time for someone else to worry about this world.

 

For Juniper there was precious little knowledge and only a small bit of understanding and it wasn’t enough. He no longer cared about anything his people, the Vitandi, desired. He cursed his foolishness for being so taken in by the Magnus Certatio or letting Edward convince him that allowing his son to be apart of the most dangerous aspect of the great race would be something of greatness. All he wanted was to know what happened to his son. This creature made him fear for what that might be.

 

The old man’s thoughts became more focused on what he needed to do for himself. He tried to tuck away the guilt that was already starting to sting his conscious.

 

“I have one last question for you Talha.”

 

The woman looked up, curious. “Yes?”

 

“There was a man of about thirty years old standing in front of what you call the water mirror. He had an olive complexion, dark hair, and a plain but handsome enough face. Something was starting to happen to him before the doorway began to glow. Did you see this man?”

 

Talha nodded her head but said nothing.

 

Juniper made an awkward smile. He took the heavy canvas bag from his shoulder and set it down. He reached into it and rummaged around until he found the enchanted item created for him in case things went very wrong for his son. Mayworm had special traits that had made him stand out to Edward and because of this father and son had done as much research as they could to find an extra level of protection for him. A protection that might create a pause long enough for the father to find a way to heal his son. It was dusk-land magic.

 

The old man withdrew from his bag a long, curvy ornate metal urn. Edward nor none of his men knew he had the object. Such items were not allowed per race rules.

 

The woman looked over the item but did not recognize the symbols inscribed on it. It looked like something to hold water. She thought perhaps he meant to offer her something to drink and did not feel a need to put her guard up. For her the old man was someone to pity, not be afraid of.

 

“Please tell me what happened to him.” Juniper asked as he ran his fingers over the sides of the urn.

 

“He was becoming the true doorway. Another man from the group saw this and took hold of him and pushed him through the water mirror. A third man went in after them with a knife in hand. They all fell through together.” Talha replied. Her words felt heavy and harming. She would not lie to the old man, but she had decided from the start she would only tell him those things he directly asked about.

 

The old man’s eyes closed as tears threatened. His breathing became heavy as he started to accept what had happened, piecing it together moment to moment from where the doorway had grown so bright that he couldn’t see anything taking place in front of it.

 

“Did any man come back through the water mirror before it became unstable?”

 

Again she nodded. “The man with the knife came back through.”

 

“And the man I described?”

 

“He had to stay in the underneath.”

 

The tears started to stream down the old man’s face. His voice got choked up and he had to take a moment to catch his breath before he could go on.

 

“Why?! Why did he have to stay?!”

 

Talha’s face grew very sad. “It is hard for me to explain. The water mirror is not the only doorway. We are the true doorways. We must act in unison and only certain people have that ability. This man by the door? The darkness was coming into him, through him into this world. The man that pushed him? He was one of the painted men. They’re a different tribe who worship these old ones and this place. To them it would be a sacrilege for anyone but one of their own to bring the darkness through.” Her face grew even darker. “The first man? He was like me so long ago. The true nature of what was happening was very real for him and he chose to stay behind the water mirror to protect this world. He was very brave.” Talha reached forward and gently touched the old man’s cheek. “This was your son?”

 

Juniper’s head bobbed up and down frantically as he clutched the metal urn to his chest. “Yes. My Mayworm. But you said he can still be saved?”

 

“Saved from that fate, yes. To live again as you knew him… as I said, most likely not.”

 

The old man accepted this and regained his composure. He knew what needed to be done. When the idea of it started to pain him, he simply turned his thoughts to his only son who was trapped in some place his mind could not begin to comprehend. He would not leave him to that fate there alone. Especially if what this creature said was true… that he had sacrificed himself for the safety of everyone else.

 

“So you should know how I can reach him and release him then?” he asked in almost a whisper.

 

Talha shook her head slowly. “It is not so simple. This doorway has become feral and many have attempted to calm it over the many centuries. The old rituals have become more complex and it’s a matter of timing and where it is in relation to the stars above. Your people must have had some knowledge of this to know when to be here. I cannot begin to tell you when the next moment of opportunity would come to pass. You…” her voice grew very quiet. “You may not live to see that time Juniper Driad.”

 

Juniper nodded his head slowly as a small, sad smile spread across his face. He was screwing the lid off of the metal urn.

 

“This is true. However, I belong to a silent society within this greater society you met here and we are loyal to one another. We’ll find a way. We look after our blood, our people. No matter how long it takes. And well… I have you.”

 

Talha shook her head sadly. “No, I can help you no further. My time has passed. I am very tired and I wish to be with my people again.”

 

“I understand Talha. Please forgive me.”

 

Before the woman knew what was about to happen the old man pulled the lid off the metal urn and threw the contents of it over her.

 

Talha immediately stumbled backwards and swatted at the strange vapor that was moving over her skin. It didn’t move in a natural way. It passed over her skin and came to cling to it like it had thought and purpose.

 

“You have lived long and you shall rest while I have you. I cannot chance losing your knowledge though. You will pass into a thoughtful smoke and be safe within this vessel until we wake you again. This is what I had planned for my son if something went wrong. I would never harm a hair on my son’s head, so please know you will experience no harm either. You will be my secret.”

 

The ash colored woman looked on in fear and panic. She understood what was being said and there was more sense of horror over that fate than what she had experienced for so many millennia. She tried to speak but her form was no longer solid. Her words were vapor.

 

The old man chanted over the urn before moving it out to catch the vaporous form of the woman. She was but a series of swirling colors as they settled into the urn. When all that had been the strange woman was within the metal container, Juniper replaced the top and hidden it away in his bag. All that was left was his long coat that he picked up from the ground where it lay.

 

His body was shaking. Despite the cut throat nature of the Vitandi and their aggressive means to discover, learn, and know all that was arcane, Juniper Driad was of a much softer heart. It had been soft much of his life and then grew softer upon the birth of his son and the loss of his wife within the same hour. He would do anything for his only child, though it did not make him feel good to do it.

 

After he gained control of himself he moved back to the scene he’d left. The tall man Edward was standing among his men barking orders. Funeral pyres were being built for the men who were dead. Men were scrambling everywhere. It looked as though final decisions had been made in his absence.

 

Edward turned and saw the old man coming towards him. His eyes darted all over the scene behind Juniper. There was no strange woman with him.

 

“Where is the woman?!” he cried.

 

“When she heard the shouting she fled.” Juniper called back.

 

The two men finally came to stand together. The scene around them was a flurry as fires began to be lit. There was a near manic sense of urgency to everything going on. Not far off the sun was starting to set.

 

“We must find her.” Edward panted.

 

Juniper tried to look sympathetic. “She isn’t long for this world Edward. She’s in shock. She was born to this area so long ago, she’ll seek to stay here. We will find her”

 

Edward shook his head frantically. There was something very wrong with him. There was a drastic change to his eyes as he looked at all that was going on around them. He hadn’t even taken the time to wipe the blood from his hands.

 

“You will find her Juniper. Find her and put her down!”

 

The old man looked concerned. He’d never seen the other man looking quite so crazed. He was dangerous. To prove this suspicion Juniper took note that there were no longer any players on the ground moving and some of the recently wounded, but living, were now still with cords around their throats. Juniper tread carefully.

 

“Sir? I will find her, yes, but? Is everything alright?”

 

Again the tall man’s head shook violently. “No! This must all go! Every trace that we were here must be gone. All things that lead to this place must be gone!” He lunged forward and gripped the older man by the face. “I had no idea the evil… the darkness…” his voice became deep and soft. “I was so foolish… so obsessed. So many have died for something that should not move among us in the light. No one can follow in the wake of my foolishness.”

 

Edward pushed the old man away and stumbled off mumbling to himself. He remained in that stunted state for awhile. The reality of what had taken place fast overwhelming him.

 

Juniper moved among the scene looking at the faces of the dead. He both feared and hoped to see his son among the bodies, but his Mayworm was not there. He had to look away from them. Each was being given whatever last rights was written down and on their person. The bodies wouldn’t be taken home to rest with their families. They would be burned here and what remained would be scattered or buried as if they never existed. These were the leader’s orders.

 

There was a strange feeling to the place as it came closer to sundown. Everyone there felt the same sensation of unease. There was the smell of ozone in the air like there had been a great lightning storm. The air was heavy and felt hard on the lungs. The silence was the worst of it though. There were no nature sounds. Not one chirping cricket or bird singing. The only thing that offered some type of noise was the occasional gust of wind that blew around the massive boulders offering an eerie rasp.

 

As the daylight started to take on a more waning orangish gold light, the men moved faster. It was a ten minute walk to get back to the horses and no one wanted to make that hike in the dark.

 

Juniper looked towards the open space between the two boulders. His mind was already trying to soften the details of what that watery doorway had looked like. He hadn’t gotten a good look into it himself, but he’d seen the look of horror on the men’s faces who were closest to it. He saw his son’s face; watched as the shadow of that entity began to come into him.

 

A sharp spasm ran through the old man’s chest and down his arm. It was a wonder his heart was still beating at this point. It was also growing cold and he was loath to put on the jacket that had been on the ash colored creature. He rooted around in one of its pockets till he found a small tin of salve. He took a finger full and rubbed it over the front of his teeth. His heart settled down.

 

His niece was always very good with roots and remedies. She made the salve and said it would keep his heart strong. Juniper was fairly sure his calm after digesting the slightly minty tasting mixture had more to do with the juice of the poppy. Whatever her secret herbs, he was calmed.

 

“Olwen.” Juniper called out to the young man as he was rushing by. The youth stopped. He was looking at the old man but not seeing the old man. His face was blank.

 

“Sir?”

 

“Tell Edward old man Juniper went to take care of his run away. I’ve seen her just down the hill. I’ll meet you all at the horses.”

 

The youth nodded his head, almost looking grateful he had a task that didn’t involve overseeing the cremation of his friends and colleagues. He quickly moved away to find their leader.

 

Juniper moved to the edges of the scene, letting his feet take him by where the bound men were. The first interrogated tattooed man lay unconscious on the ground. Given the severity of the beating he had taken he was probably sleeping his way into death. A second tattooed man was awake and looking like a devil in a human suit. His face had seen the same abuse as his companion. The old man stopped next to him.

 

“You know what lies beyond that doorway don’t you?” he asked. He wasn’t expecting any answers from the bleeding man, but he still felt a need to ask. He was surprised when the man replied.

 

“We do.”

 

“Why would you worship such things then? Why would you want to knowingly bring them into the world?”

 

The bleeding man smirked. “We weren’t the ones attempting to bring something through the doorway, you were.”

 

The reality of that fact was jarring. Juniper nodded his head slowly.

 

“Aye, we’re guilty of that. We didn’t understand… we… we wanted to know. Knowing and understanding the forbidden is everything to us. We didn’t understand what the true nature of the doorway was or how we could be used by it.”

 

The bleeding man scoffed at this. “Did it ever occur to you there were things you weren’t meant to know or understand? Isn’t that the very nature of the forbidden?”

 

This caused the old man a small laugh. It was an excellent statement of fact while at the same time explaining why he and all the other men of his ilk were there: They felt themselves deserving of understanding the forbidden and not drawing the same consequences others would. The bleeding man was an even better example of this idea. Why did they deserve to understand more about this thing than the scholars who devoted their lives to it?

 

“The forbidden doesn’t seem to scare you either.” he countered.

 

The bleeding man shrugged in his bindings. The act caused him to wince in pain and Juniper realized this man was probably not long for this world either. Much of his exposed body was turning very ugly shades of blue and purple. If internal injury wasn’t causing him to count his last breaths, most likely Edward would ask one of his men to finish him.

 

“Nothing scares us.” he said once the pain settled down. “We worship those things that can never die. We pray to the creeping blackness that lies behind the wall of sleep. A thing that is an eternity away while at the same time just beyond your reflection in a mirror. Our payment is pain and madness and we’re glad for it.”

 

The horror of what this man was saying struck Juniper profoundly. How awful it all sounded and yet look at the very lengths he and his fellow players had gone to look upon the very same thing.

 

“Why?” he asked mostly to himself.

 

“Because the world in the light is a boring lie. Look into the light long enough and you’ll simply go blind and see nothing. Look into the darkness long enough and you’ll feel the thrill and the terror of it looking back at you. Then you’ll start to see things. Horrible and beautiful things. I’ll take the thrill and the terror over the nothing.” he stopped a moment to spit blood that was pooling in his mouth. “I’ll take the brutal beauty of it. This world and the lives we live in it are just an attempt to starve off death and spend as little time in pain as possible, because the truth is all this world wants to do it hurt and kill you. It feels good to accept that. You should try it old man. You’ll find yourself laughing as you stare down death instead of cowering and pissing yourself.”

 

“And are you laughing?” he asked the bleeding man.

 

The man’s response was to offer the old man a big grin with a mouth full of blood and broken teeth. He said nothing more.

 

Juniper turned away from the bleeding man and his dying companion. He started to walk towards the horses. He moved much slower than the other men, so it would take him longer and he was happy to go at a slow pace.

 

The land in front of him was mostly sparse. There was tall grass and the occasional thin and nearly naked tree. Every now and then he moved past a tumbleweed of sorts that was dried grass tangled up in branches and leaves. An idea came to him as he happened upon a rather large one.

 

Light was starting to grow dimmer so Juniper felt a sense of urgency. When he could see the horses off in the distance, he looked for a clearing to place the large tumbleweed he dragged behind him. He took a digging tools from his bag and did his best to carve out a circle that separated the grass within from the grass outside. He didn’t want his fire to spread, he just wanted it to be big enough to be seen.

 

The tumbleweed went into the middle of the clearing. He stomped it down a little to make it more compact. From his lantern he spread a small amount of its whale oil to help the tumbleweed burn quicker. He took a tinderbox from his bag and waited.

 

Everything around him was fast becoming a deepening shade of dusk blue. He heard the distant sounds of men moving in his direction. He quickly set the tumbleweed on fire and waited for it to take hold. He dumped his coat along side of it. By the time he was walking away from it there was a healthy blaze burning. It was large enough to catch the attention of the men in the distance. Juniper left the fire and started for the horses.

 

Olwen and one of the other young men from the group caught up to him and questioned him about the fire. He settled them down and convinced them everything was alright and they should get back to the horses. They were running out of light.

 

Edward pushed through his men as the three caught up to them. He roughly grabbed the old man by the shoulder and leaned in close so only Juniper could hear him.

 

“Is it done?”

 

Juniper gave him a tired and slightly disgusted look. “It is done.” he replied. “It looks like she was trying to reach the horses and gave out. I burned the body. Her bones were much more soft and brittle than our own. There will be nothing but scorched earth where she lay.”

 

The leader did not question any of this. His mind was not thinking right. It was easier to simply believe the old man and leave it there.

 

Edward turned to his men. “Let it be heard loud and clear: There will never again be a great race. We shall treat the Magnus Certatio as a thing that only existed in our past. No Vitandi will ever again seek such things out. We speak of what happened here to no one. No one! We will compensate the families of those who have died. We will honor them in our archives as heroes. If one man speaks of what they saw here today exile from the Vitandi will not be his biggest punishment! I mean to bury this moment in time. In our thoughts, in our feelings, in all that we researched and created to make this event. I will not let a soul keep breath in their lungs if they don’t do as I say. I vow this.”

 

Juniper looked on with a stony expression. The great Edward Longview, the man who said he would see the Vitandi to the greatest race of them all, reduced to threatening his men with murder should they share what they saw. How pathetic he was.

 

It was just as well. Most of these men would not want to remember what had happened. Many of them would not want to admit that they followed the orders of a mad man to end the lives of their colleagues. Perhaps they would tell themselves it was to ease them from their madness. It was a kindness. The truth was it was to ensure their silence. Juniper certainly didn’t want to add any truth to the legacy of what happened there. He had only one mission now. He had to be thoughtful. He was the only man left who had seen what had happened. He could only hope Edward would think him too old to worry about.

 

The two youths helped the old man onto his horse. There was a slight twinkle of pain in his chest as he looked at his son’s white horse whose saddle sat empty of its rider.

 

“Will one of you lads lead Maple here back. I don’t think I have quite the strength to do it.”

 

Olwen started to say something about Mayworm tending to his own horse but quickly caught himself. In all the commotion he had failed to notice the old man’s son was not among them.

 

“Of course Juniper. I’ll see to Maple myself.” the young man replied as he untied the horse’s reigns and moved him over to his own horse. There were going to be many riderless horses making the return journey back. And it had been going so well, Olwen mused to himself.

 

 

Chapter I

Airships, The House of Time & Mr Nine

 

 

I

 

Gil hated this room. His employer called it the time room and it was in fact devoted to the visual act of watching of time. That is to say the room’s wall space was completely covered in clocks. They were rather impressive clocks. There were coo coo clocks and proud grandfather clocks. There were strange Switz constructions that housed small mechanical dramas that popped out and began their tick-tock productions on the hour. From a collector’s standpoint it was an enviable room. However, the richness of it could not overcome its eeriness.

 

As Gil stood in the doorway he felt like his heart’s own rhythm was becoming overwhelmed by the steady ticking sound of the room. Every clock, telling the time of some place different, still ticked in steady beat with its brothers of another time zone. Only two clocks moved at a different speed and he preferred to not be around on those rare occasions a tick or chime was heard from either of them.

 

Gil took a deep breath and stepped past the room’s threshold.

 

“You wanted to see me sir?” he asked the gentleman in the room.

 

At the center of the room in an expensively crafted chair made to accommodate the rather massive man’s girth, Mr. Nine sat silently smoking his cigar and sipping his brandy.

 

Truth be told, Gil couldn’t think of any room in the house where he liked dealing with this man, his current employer, but here the damn ticking all around him made it near torture. There was something about the ridiculously large man that was as quietly insidious as his time machines.

 

Mr. Nine set his brandy down on a narrow table at his side and held up one finger. This was his very simple and silent way of telling Gil he was not ready for him just yet. It also meant that of all the times to come into this horrible ticking room, Gil had once again found the anti-perfect moment to arrive and experience what for him was a moment of pure dread.

 

Seconds ticked by audibly heard. Then there was a slight moment (perhaps imagined or a trick of the mind) where the ticking of the other clocks was dragged out before everything fell into a moment of silence.

 

Gil knew it wasn’t his imagination, this moment of silence. His heartbeat was just as regular as the clocks in this room and when those clocks were silent his heart continued to beat uninterrupted. One beat, two beats, three beats and then there! His own internal ticking had to pause for a second as though a great wind swept through the room and ripped the breath from his chest. Then a clock tick of such gravity and depth sounded that it caused the walls and floor around him to shake. The clocks on the walls all rattled and remained silent for just another moment; either in respect or out of fear for the clock that had just ticked off its own time-line of a second.

 

For a moment Gil felt slightly panicked as he tried to reclaim the breath he felt stolen from his lungs. He silently urged his heart to start back up and find its rhythm again. It was so brief a sensation but no less shocking for its quick nature. He wondered if this happened, in some mechanical form, to the clocks around him as well.

 

Mr. Nine picked up his glass of brandy and took a sip as the room around him went back to its overwhelming sound of clockwork ticking.

 

“That clock is speeding up.” Mr. Nine offered off hand. His voice was unnaturally deep and gravely and when he spoke, no matter if he was talking directly to you or at the room, it still felt as though he was speaking to himself. There was something about the man that kept him from directly connecting to anything—living or mechanical—around him.

 

“Speeding up sir?” Gil asked.

 

Mr. Nine looked over to the slender man standing just inside the room’s doorway. For a moment his face looked confused as if he couldn’t remember why the other man was there.

 

Gil would have loved to have used that moment of confusion to slip from the room and go back to his writing. It might take another hour for the large man to remember why he’d originally sent for Gil if he was allowed to go back to his clocks. It would just delay the inevitable though and some things were best to get out of the way as soon as possible. So Gil stood there waiting for his employer’s thoughts to catch up.

 

Eventually Mr. Nine collected his thoughts and came back to the present. “Yes Mr. Gil… speeding up. I imagine I could have missed it before this. I haven’t been able to keep my vigil as often as I’d like to. It’s something I’ll have to contemplate more aggressively. For the moment, however, I have other pressing things to concern myself with.”

 

“Of course sir. You sent for me because?”

 

Mr. Nine took a deep drag on his cigar and slowly blew the smoky air back into the room. His head nodded up and down as he continued to collect his thoughts. Gil was left to stand for a few more minutes with the air around him growing steadily more cloudy. He could think of no more mild and sublime torture than this.

 

It was a curious thing that the room didn’t smell more like the perfumed and musky creature at its center or the many smelly cigars that he smoked in there. Gil often thought it most smelled like dead time, if there were a scent of such a thing. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but neither was it something he liked leaving the room smelling like and it did embed itself in every stitch of his clothing as a lingering reminder he’d been there. It was a more subtle form of Gil’s perceived torture.

 

“Sir?” he prodded, hoping to move things along.

 

“Yes…” Mr. Nine’s face finally showed thoughtful intent. “My new boy Marcus… his clock is showing a storm.” Mr. Nine motioned towards one of the more elaborate clocks on the wall. It ticked along with the others like a normal clock, but below its clock face it also gave time in a weird sort of quarterly pattern that was based upon the weather. There were three of these types of clocks housed in the room.

 

Gil was always quite fascinated by these style of clocks. He couldn’t manage to work out how they could be so accurate for weather in places so far away. There had to be a trick to it. Physics had rules after all.

 

Then again, physics was not highly courted in this place. Tricks and reality were much the same thing in places set just outside of the everyday. Gil had to remind himself he was in the dusk lands. Reality towed a very different line here.

 

Presently, the clock Mr. Nine pointed at had an angry display of thunderstorms over a violently churning sea. It was like a perfect little theatrical scene. It was a strange sight for Gil had never actually witnessed a storm in the clock’s theatrical window. It almost looked like real water was splashing around it.

 

Stranger for Gil was the display of tentacles coming not out of the angry water below, but down from the storm clouds above. It was like the world was tipped upside down and the things meant to be found below were coming to the surface above. He knew there was something very important about this hint in the skies, but such importance did not readily come to mind. He was, for lack of a better explanation, a whale watcher. A large floating gray body in the scene would have meant much more to him even if that body was coming from the clouds. Gill had only ever read about such a scene though.

 

Mr. Nine had a great many different secrets he was privilege to and therefore nearly everything was of some importance to him. This storm seemed to have him particularly excited, or at least as excited as he ever appeared. It had taken awhile for Gil to notice the very minute changes in his bland personality that signaled this excitement. It was there tonight though, now that Mr. Nine wasn’t thinking of the dreaded unseen clock.

 

Mr. Nine finally turned his head to give the other man his full attention. Gil could feel himself shrinking down into himself a little. It was amazing how one pair of penetrating eyes could feel like a small collective staring at him.

 

“Marcus… this new man of mine…” the large man looked upset and choosing his words carefully. “There is a storm where he is and yet he’s sent no messages for you to deliver. Unacceptable. I want you to message the ship and make it quite clear to the young man that he is to send his findings in real time as they come in. I don’t want them coming to me all at once when things are over. It’s important for my agent to be properly instructed. I need to be able to monitor that storm!”

 

Gil nodded his head in understanding. “Of course sir. I will do that straight away. Is there anything else you need Mr. Nine?”

 

There were no more words from the large man. That short interaction was about as animated as he was going to get.

 

Mr Nine settled himself back into his chair and took up his smoking and drinking again. When the other man didn’t immediately leave he nudged his brandy glass in the direction of the door. This was the final signal that Gil was done there.

 

Exiting the clock room had become a very quick and reflexive action for Gil. It had taken time to find the best way to get himself out in so few steps. First he would take a large step backwards. Then he would swivel and step forward and find his foot coming to rest just past the door frame. One more step and he was out. He’d learned this form of exit by heart so that he could close his eyes as he did it and move in the darkness. These were small methods of survival for Gil in that place.

 

The mansion that Mr. Nine found himself the governor of was called the Time Keep. It wasn’t the most inventive name given the room Gil found himself leaving, but it surely wasn’t a misleading name. Nearly every room in the massive and old structure had something to do with the process of time, though few of those rooms were as obvious about it as the clock room.

 

For example: In the bamboo room the process of time was recorded through the growth of bamboo. It might sound quite simple but when Gil first saw the room he found himself speechless. He could never truly describe the unnaturally tall room that was built at the side of the mansion that faced the rising sun. It was stories high and walled in glass. Within the room it was like stepping into a tropical keep on a continent far away from the one the manor existed in.

 

The bamboo trees that lived and grew within this room went unchecked for years. It was a breathtaking sight. There was also a great interest as to where the growth would finally go. There were a few bamboo trees that had finally managed to come precariously close to the ceiling. It was a rule the bamboo must go untouched except for light care. When they reached the glass top they would be allowed to push through it.

 

The mansion was an oddity of such things throughout its many different custom built rooms. Who had come up with the idea to chart the course of time in such ways was unknown to Gil. Much of the mystery behind the founders of the mansion and its many companion houses around the world was just that: A mystery. Mr. Nine was just a facilitator. He was someone who understood the nature of this place and how to navigate its many systems of time collection. There was someone beyond him that he reported to though. Some very secret and shadowy characters who needed this information for whatever reason.

 

At first the nature of the mansion and its unknown owner and provider of resources was very exotic and interesting to Gil. He often found himself after-hours in the employee parlor trading theories with some of the other staff. As time marched on though, he found himself engaging in these discussions less and less, just as many of the other long time employees did as well. Such talk was most often exclusively for the new persons in their midst. The nature of the place slowly wore on the soul and the idea of understanding it became lost. It didn’t take long to understand one’s self as little more than a cog in the machinery of the mansion. This made the work somehow easier to deal with when the mystery of it wore off.

 

Gil followed the maze of halls and stairways until he came to the message room. Unlike the somewhat soft romantic glow the rest of the mansion had with its gaslights and beautifully shaped glowing amber crystals, the message room was brightly lit. The walls were covered with a variety of alien-like machinery that took in messages in a variety of different ways. The world outside might be reduced to letter writing and telegrams, or even the occasional telephone that was growing more popular; in here there were communication inventions only a small collection of the world would ever see or use. Many of the machines most likely only worked in the dusk lands.

 

It was, as a rule, a reflex of Gil’s to stand in the doorway and allow himself a moment of childish wonder. He still found this room fascinating. It truly illustrated how the mansion was quite literally set outside of the actual time-line of those who lived beyond the mansion walls. It was the one place you could step up to a strange looking device and use it to contact the place of legends. No amount of drudgery in his everyday life could take that away from him.

 

During the daylight hours the room was nearly wall to wall with staff manning the machines. When the sun went down many of the machines went dormant on their end and staff fell to two or three overnight operators. Tonight there were two: One very young looking man monitoring the on and off light patterns of a massive machine in the room’s corner. With him a milquetoast-looking gentleman who was nervously watching the machine for sky communications.

 

Gil addressed the milquetoast. “Anything yet?”

 

Gil startled the poor man who jumped nearly a foot. He had to take a moment to fidget with his handkerchief and glasses before he seemed composed enough to answer.

 

“Nothing yet sir.”

 

“Henry -I keep telling you to call me Gil. I'm not your employer.”

 

“I’m sorry sir, I mean Gil.” the milquetoast tried to reply light-heartedly. “We’ve had no communications as of yet. The skydomitor for that region is telling me the barometric pressure is very low, which suggests that a very large storm is either brewing or taking place over there. It could be interrupting communications.”

 

Gil nodded. “Perhaps. Mr. Nine’s weather clock was indeed showing a storm over there.”

 

This perked up the other man’s attentions. “Really? Did you get a good look at it? Was the octopus coming up out of the waters or down from the sky?”

 

Gil’s skin crawled just a little bit. “Down from the sky.”

 

“Oh!” Henry exclaimed. This news seemed to excite him greatly. “It must be a very large storm indeed! That could definitely slow communications down a bit. Oh that would be something to see!” He went back to cleaning his glasses, but there was a big grin across his otherwise dull features.

 

Gil had no time for the other man’s excitement. It also irritated him that the milquetoast understood the symbolism of the tentacles better than he did.

 

“Perhaps.” he said finally. “Or it could be the young man. He’s still pretty new and I didn’t provide his instruction; Dominic did. Sometimes my dear coworker is not as efficient as I am when it comes to stressing certain rules of the job. So be a good man and give the ship a ring. We’ll know it’s interference if you can’t get through.”

 

Henry nodded his head enthusiastically and went to his machines.

 

Gil would never be able to explain to someone how any of this equipment worked. He could describe the physical beauty and obvious craftsmanship of any of the machines in the room, but how their internal mechanisms clicked along was a complete mystery. He knew the large, bouncing light machine being watched by the young man in the corner communicated with a similar type mansion in India. He knew the tall brass and wooden beast Henry was now turning nobs and gears on would put them in direct contact with an airship that was many miles above the ocean; one that was set just a degree left of popular reality. Everything else was beyond him.

 

Henry put a cone shaped brass instrument up to his mouth. There was a round leather cord that ran from this instrument into a brass circle on the machine itself. He spoke a strange code into the cone and turned a dial on the machine’s face. The dial looked like a radio dial but with symbols in place of numbers. Somewhere unseen an operator attached to all of these machines would take in the code and the dial settings and direct their machine to the proper airship terminal.

 

There were several minutes of Henry repeating his code and adjusting the dial till finally a violet light lit up. Henry’s entire being perked up. His hand quickly moved to a different dial on the side of the machine; this one for cranking. He quickly cranked the dial as he spoke into the cone instrument. This was no longer code. He was just casually asking if there was an operator available on the airship.

 

A second violet colored light lit up and this caused Henry to move the cone instrument from his month to his ear. He nodded his head stupidly as if the person on the other side could actually see him.

 

Violet lights went on and off and Henry moved the cone back and forth from his mouth to his ear. Finally he paused long enough to look back at Gil. “What are we asking for again sir? I mean Gil?”

 

“Report.” Gil sighed, growing more annoyed. “Look, just have the operator put the young man on the other end. When he’s there and listening give me the speaky thingy and let me talk to him.”

 

“Of course Gil sir! Though there is no operator. The young gent is working everything himself. It may take a few minutes for him to get fluid communications set up on his end.”

 

Another fifteen minutes passed before Henry finally motioned for Gil to come over. He handed the brass cone over to him.

 

“Just speak casually into this and let me know when you’re done.”

 

Gil took the instrument and put it up to his mouth. He felt like he was speaking into the end of a megaphone. It gave him the overpowering urge to shout into it.

 

“Um… alright, Marcus this is Gil. I don’t think Dominic was clear with your instructions. We need you to send your information as you’re inputting it. A good rule of thumb is to input for fifteen minutes and then stop and forward it to us. Mr. Nine is very explicit about this instruction. Do you understand?”

 

Gil motioned to Henry who quickly took the cone, turned some more dials and put the instrument back to his ear. More head nodding. “He understands. He’ll start sending his data straight away. Says there’s a really big event tonight with the storm. Would you like to hear from him yourself?”

 

Gil shook his head. “No. I just want information to give to Mr. Nine. Everything else is Mr. Nine’s business.”

 

“But sir…”

 

Gil held up his hand to silence the other man. He was tired and growing more in need of a break. There was something about that insipid grand tick that always left him feeling like this; weary and overwrought.

 

“Just collect the information Henry. I’ll be in the parlor across the hall taking a rest. Bring it over when it gets done printing.”

 

He didn’t wait for a response. Gil was quickly out of the room and moving towards the parlor in hopes there was a warm kettle of water for tea in there waiting.

 

There was no warm water at the ready, but there was a comfortable parlor chair available that he liked. There was also a non-employee of the house (a friend of Mr. Nine’s if such a thing were possible) who was casually sitting at one of the parlor tables and drinking from a bottle of clear liquid. As exhausted as Gil was, he was always happy to have the chance to run into this woman.

 

“Ms Zylphia.” He said politely as he stepped into the parlor. He tried to act nonchalant but in truth the woman always caused his blood to pump.

 

“Now don’t make me scold you Gil.” the woman said as she delicately waved a very long and tailored finger nail at him. Her nail color was a very shocking shade of emerald green most proper ladies he knew would never dream of wearing. It complimented the matching green of her fitted dress.

 

He smiled and blushed a little at his sudden lusty thoughts. He couldn’t help himself. This woman always wore her dramatic greens and he knew she did so because it brought out the perfect alabaster nature of her complexion. It made her brilliant Irish eyes of green sparkle and that shocking crop of copper colored hair that she kept in neat little finger waves even more striking.

 

Gil was a boring man at heart, but every little detail about this woman in her green and copper made him desire not to be. Women like this did not tend to attach themselves to boring men.

 

The woman let her scolding finger drop as an alluring smile moved across her rouged lips. “I have told you again and again that you are to call me Ev. Ms. Zylphia is my mother and that makes me feel old.” She pouted a little, putting a delicate finger to her cheek as if she were wiping away a tear. “Feeling old makes me sad… it makes me want to…” she grinned, “cry. You don’t want to make me cry now do you Gil?”

 

Evil. This woman was evil and knew how to so effortlessly work a man over with silly talk and gestures that would have been pathetic and comical on any other woman. It didn’t matter with her though. It was part of her charm. Gil was happy to play the sucker to that charm.

 

“Of course not. My many, many pardons Ev. I hope you will accept them.”

 

For a moment Ev looked as though she were thinking it over and then her face became alive with cheer and warmth. “Of course I do! How could I ever be offended by you?! See! I even knew you were coming. I made sure the most comfortable chair in the room was here for you to have a sit.”

 

Gil looked towards the oldest and most unattractive chair in the room. It was the most comfortable to him because it had been so utterly forsaken by all other house employees that he’d had the chance to force it to conform to his body. He moved towards it like the walking dead seeing the possibility of life teasing on the horizon. He let his tired body fall into it and the poor beat up old thing sighed against his form. He was the hand and it was the glove. They were meant for one another.

 

“I thank you then Ev.” He whispered as he temporarily forgot his lust as his exhaustion got the better of him.

 

The parlor was quiet for a short while as Gil allowed himself a moment to relax. His companion in the room busied herself with a deck of cards in front of her and her bottle of unlabeled liquid. Finally, after a moment of rest, he felt he could continue torturing his lusts a little further with a conversation with the woman in the room.

 

“Did you really see me coming in the cards?” he asked casually.

 

Ev didn’t look up from her spread of cards, but her head was nodding slowly. He’d given her enough time to let her cheeky persona slip back behind her true personality a bit. And who was Ev really? She was a strange creature who was gifted from birth with a power over cards. Some called it cartomancy, but Gil tended to associate that with things like the tarot. You could cut up a stack of papers and crudely put numbers or symbols on them and give them to Ev and she could create a system of divination out of them. There was just some power between her and the process of shuffle, spread and read.

 

Finally she looked up. Her serious look was far more attractive to Gil than her teasing one. However, her serious look was a little bit haunted as well. Honestly she was like most things in the mansion: Beautiful and haunting.

 

“In a manner of speaking I did.” she said softly, thoughtfully. “Something’s not right around here. This mansion, like most of its counterparts, serves a function. But someone is trying to disturb this function and take from it. It’s…” she fell silent. She stared so intently at the strange little deck of cards she was hovering over that it caused Gil to take better notice.

 

Gil sat up in his comfortable chair, though it begged him to lean back and continue to relax. “Disturbing how?” he asked.

 

For one brief and beautiful moment Ev looked at the slender man and he thought she was about to trust him with a grand secret. She was actually going to tell him what she saw in her cards. His heart beat rapidly for that moment. Places far deeper down began to stir themselves even though the conversation at hand had nothing to do with those things that gave rise to the libido. It was just the very idea that he was alone with her and she might confide in him. To a thoughtful man who lived among secrets it was as good a turn-on as a glimpse of nudity or a flirting kiss.

 

However, the moment was there and gone. Her face went from honest and thoughtful to disguised and teasing. She picked up a random card and laid it down on the table. It was an aged sepia toned thing with a large serpent cradling many spoons on it. She took her bottle of unlabeled liquid and took a swig from it. A pleasant sort of nothingness spread over her features soon afterward.

 

“Oh my dear Gil…” she said with a lilt to her voice, “the same bullshit as ever.” and then she laughed. “The people in these mansions… the stupid games they play over things they’re not meant to understand or contain. The promise of strange events… races no one needs to race…”

 

What happened next was as quick as it was dramatic and Gil, remembering back upon it, would never be able to decide if he should have thought more with his bigger head than his little one when it all took place.

 

Ev swept up her cards and tucked them into her clutch. She stood so quickly her bottle of unmarked liquid tipped over and fell to the floor. The contents splashed across the rich rug. This caused the copper headed emerald to laugh.

 

“Oh dear! Tell all your smoking brutes to keep their cigars and cigarettes out of here for a bit! That was top quality moonshine made from the Namman pear tree that just never stops dropping silver pears! It’s somewhere out there lurking in the states. They make pear sauce, pear butter… pear moonshine… oh it’s good for so many things, but lethal. Don’t light up in the room for a bit or else time might literally go up in smoke!”

 

Ev started to move towards the door and Gil had to, though out of his character, reach out and take her by the arm as she passed. When he spoke his words were so soft, so wounded, and for days afterward he would find it so ridiculous to remember himself in such a state.

 

“Am I such a person who can’t be trusted? Really?” he whispered.

 

Ev leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. Just as gently she slid his hand from her arm. “No. But some deeds need to take place before better things come of them. Thankfully you’ll be too sleepy to remember this properly and you’ll always assume I was just drunk. At least you’ll tell yourself that to better sooth your ruffled feelings.”

 

The woman leaned in even further and moved from his cheek to his lips. She kissed him gently and left just enough of her flavored rouge on his mouth that he would remember the taste of her forever after. He didn’t even realize she was putting a charm on him.

 

“However, tonight you need to sleep Gil. Take a break. Take a nap. And then get back to the business at hand… because there is some very big business at hand. Just as you were, that is in the cards as well. But don’t worry. I’ll see you again.”

 

Whatever the minx had done, Gil found himself settling into it with heavy eyes. His body grew relaxed and he couldn’t keep himself from falling back into his comfy chair. He could have sworn he’d only blinked, ready to reply back to her, when Henry was rousing him. Two hours had passed by.

 

“Your reports sir!” Henry set a leather folder in his lap that was full of parchment. “You might want to give them a look over right away. Something big sir!”

 

By then the copper emerald was long gone.

 

 

II

 

 

Marcus had always wanted to fly as a little boy. What child didn’t? But where other children dreamed of opening their arms like a little bird to the skies, he thought of commanding a massive and majestic bird to carry him through them. He was never a solo flyer, he was a rider. No matter where his daydreams led him there was always this tiny thought that brought him back to the story of Icarus and he thought: What if my flapping arms suddenly become weak or the wings I crafted for myself begin to melt as I sore towards the sun? No, caution had always been apart of his personality. That caution made him feel safer as the passenger in flight.

 

There was no majestic bird whose back he road on now, but he was flying in the skies all the same. Beneath him was a sturdy structure made of wood and light steel in the shape of a very long and narrow boat. Above the deck a massive balloon of heated air kept them drifting among the clouds. All manner of strange contraptions and spinning propellers were attached to this balloon to help keep the air warm and the ship pointing in the right direction. It was a marvel of old and new world technology.

 

The airship was moving just above the clouds and the young man stood at the railing of this ship watching them pass by. When he first viewed the ship anchored in its high dock he thought travel in it would feel just like moving through the seas. This had not been the case though. When it finally took to the skies he had to overcome the sensation that it would fall to the ground at any moment. Then he also came to understand clouds were nothing like the dense waters below. It was one of his many fascinating lessons.

 

“Mr Marcus, would you like some simery?”

 

A small but powerfully verocious voice addressed him as respectfully as he’d come to expect from her. Although to suggest there was truly any respect to her voice was simply his way of ignoring the fact that the woman had no respect for him, but he hoped there would grow some small bit of it between them despite the circumstances that brought them to know one another.

 

The young woman stood at the edge of the ship where the deck met the start of the observation rooms. For some reason she didn’t like coming onto the deck itself and she always looked around cautiously when she came this far. Marcus assumed this had to do with his strange companion on the ship and her relationship with the help.

 

“No thank you Jahr. I don’t suppose we still have tea? A cup of tea with a bit of orange in it perhaps?”

 

Jahr made no attempt to hide her disgust at his suggestion. Her face was so petite and innocently pretty in nature, but her eyes were pure fire. A violet colored fire as brilliant as any lethal clear eyes that had ever looked at him. They wonderfully accented the bronze-like quality to the young woman’s skin and the deep plum color of her very long hair. She always wore it tightly pulled away from her face in a series of braids that wove a pattern around her head.

 

The young woman was quite exotic to a young man who’d been raised on the tales of fairies and strange creatures. That allure was kept strongly in check, however, by the certain knowledge that the forced servant of the airship would gladly take out his eyes or throat given half the chance. He had come to find out that fairies were brutal in much the same way.

 

Marcus turned to approach the young woman and she took small steps backwards as he came towards her. He stopped and held up his hands as a show of no ill intention.

 

“Please?” he asked softly, respectfully. “The simery tastes wonderful, but it’s quite a disaster on my stomach. I was raised in a place where food and drink were plain and as a result I have no palate for the adventurous.”

 

The admission that her preferred drink of choice was tasty but too harsh for him softened her a little. His show of respect when few others could muster it here also made her bend just a little. Her eyelids lowered and she didn’t look quite so aggressive.

 

“Alright then. I’ll see if any are left. The thing likes to suck on those round fruits of yours.”

 

“Oranges.” Marcus offered out of a reflexive nature to correct.

 

“Oranges.” The young woman repeated almost properly. She slightly changed the sound of the word because of her thick sky-people accent. She quickly turned and moved away.

 

“Thing?! Oh that little purple painted fiend. I’ll have a go at her one of these nights. I’d have done it sooner if I wasn’t so put off by the idea of tasting something that looks like a flower.”

 

Marcus jumped at the sound of this voice. He always jumped, even when he could see the creature before it spoke to him. There was something powerful and ancient about its voice. Or her voice, Marcus silently corrected himself. It was in fact a female, though a female of a type of being he’d also always thought a thing of myth.

 

The young man turned to see the creature MemNous standing at the edge of the deck. She was leaning dramatically over the side of the railing, letting her nose sniff at some scent Marcus’ own nose could not detect. She straightened herself back up and turned towards the young man. There was a wicked smile playing at her lips that always suggested she had something nefarious in mind. He couldn’t help worrying for the safety of the young woman now trying to brew him a cup of tea.

 

“Now MemNous, the captain has specifically instructed you not to harm anyone on the ship. She’s just a kid and doesn’t want to be here. I don’t think it right that you should wish to harm her.”

 

This brought a low and crawling laugh from the creature. “Oh really? The captain said that? So protective is he?” she sneered. “The captain just wants to touch a flower’s bud when the night gets dark and quiet. My employers could give a fuck and a shit about what happens to anyone on this boat except for you and the crew who keep it sailing. The slaves are not a concern.”

 

“Forced servant.” Marcus corrected her.

 

The creature’s low laugh soared to one that was loud and mocking.

 

“Oh Marcus my precious young man! Do you even hear yourself?! Making the nature of a word sound softer and less offensive does not change the nature of the word’s meaning. Forced servant? Really? That’s two fancy and neutral sounding words that mean the same thing: Slave.”

 

MemNous crossed the deck, slowly letting her laughter subside. She knew her crass way of talking often upset the young man and she had been given strict instructions not to do that. He needed to be focused on his tasks just as she was there for her own tasks. So when she spoke next it was with her soft and only slightly seductive voice meant to sooth ruffled feathers.

 

“Alright then, forced servant.” she offered. “Or just servant if it makes you feel any better. But all the same, she does look like the gods painted her like a flower. And if we’re being honest here, simery is one of the most awful tasting cups of anything that can be drank. It’s made from wood chips off of air trees and cured with ogger piss.”

 

Even though Marcus wasn’t drinking anything in that moment he choked a little as though he were. He suffered through many cups of this dark brew the sky folk called simery and having seen an ogger for the first time not so long ago he didn’t like the thought of its urine.

 

“Oh that is a rank thought.” he said as he got his involuntary reaction in check.

 

The pair became quiet as a small rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Those few moments of distraction had helped Marcus forget the darkness looming off on the horizon. He wasn’t even being fanciful when he referred to this sight as the darkness. It was in fact a thick wall of near bruised black in the guise of storm clouds.

 

“We’re actually going to sail into that?” he finally asked in a very soft and apprehensive voice.

 

MemNous looked towards the distant skies as she nodded her head. “Yes, I’m afraid so. You can’t find what we’re looking for among these happy little clouds.”

 

The creature’s face grew dreamy as she stared off into the sky. She reached up and pointed in different directions.

 

“If you go high enough you find the sky-lands hidden in the aether. If you keep low enough you will stumble upon the floating cities that are hidden behind the veil. We have to go beyond both of them and into the darkness to find the right environment for our prey.”

 

The creature studied the young man as he digested her words. There was such a pure innocence about him that it took everything in her power not to fall upon him and feast on it. She was, as her employers would say, domesticated to a degree. There was no getting around her true nature though and sometimes she couldn’t help but desire to disobey.

 

MemNous moved over to the young man and gently slid her arms through his and embraced him. She put her lips near his ear and whispered comforting things into it before lowering her mouth to lightly kiss his neck. Goosebumps rose over his entire body and a wonderfully pleasurable sleepiness came over him. It was a strange sensation he knew he’d have a hard time describing where he asked. It was like falling into the most perfect of waking dreams that filled the body with all manner of feelings that were only felt so perfectly in a dream. It brought his usually dormant lusts to the surface and a rapid beating to his heart. The young man would have loved to have given in and let the creature take him to her room and steal the youth from him just so he could languish in that sensation.

 

A small voice cleared her throat to get the pairs attention. “Your tea Mr. Marcus. With orange.”

 

Before Marcus pulled away from the creature he whispered into her ear. “How much did those moments cost me? A few hours, days? Or is that enough for a month of my life?”

 

The creature pulled away from the young man and let her contact with him drop slowly. She didn’t answer him though. Instead she gave him a smile and playfully tweaked the end of his nose with her thumb and forefinger. Then she moved down the deck towards Jahr. She was almost past the much smaller girl when at the last moment she turned on her with great speed and growled. The gesture made Marcus jump even though it was not aimed at him. The servant girl didn’t so much as flinch. With that the succubus was gone.

 

Jahr brought Marcus his cup of tea. The severe look she normally reserved for him was replaced with a very distressing look of pity. He took the small cup from her that held a sliced orange floating on the top of the clear amber water. He couldn’t help but feel somewhat ashamed by this look of hers. Or weak? Weak was probably a better description.

 

“Thank you.” he said in a very soft voice.

 

“These men who have you up here…” Jahr began, trying to find the right words to be honest without showing disrespect. She knew this man was nothing like the crew of the ship or those who’d stolen her from her family, but he walked among them and had worse men who governed his actions. These things made her very cautious as to how she spoke to him. She also wasn’t raised to be a cruel and thoughtless person though. She was taught to fight back against the evil that would keep a person down or harm them. As a result she couldn’t quite keep in check a desire to be protective of the young man who seemed so woefully innocent to what he was apart of.

 

Jahr sighed, deciding to simply go with honest and let what may come, come.

 

“These men who have you up here are not good men. They put you in the care of airship pirates and then give you a hell-creature as a guardian and companion. Why would you work for such bad men Mr Marcus? I sense nothing dark about you.”

 

Marcus felt the last of the succubi’s blissful sensation leaving him as Jahr put the reality of his situation back into clear view. He had no desire to answer her. To truthfully tell her what put him on that ship would be to go back to the discussion of using the term forced servant and all the many things it meant or suggested. He wasn’t ready for that and he didn’t know if this plum haired girl was someone he could trust with such things.

 

The sky angerly sounded off distracting both individuals from their conversation. The wall of darkness was no longer so far away. With speed Marcus would never have assumed possible, the storm in the distance had quickly covered the sky between it and the ship. It was so close the young man could feel the electricity of it starting to hum over the airship.

 

“You need to go down to your quarters and secure yourself. This is going to be a very brutal thing for this ship to weather.” As he gave instructions the wind kicked up and acted as though it wanted to drown his cautioning words. “Dear lord…” he said as he tried to catch his breath. The wind was sucking the air from his chest. “If… if something happens to the ship and the warning bells go off come up to my observation room and get a parachute! I have a spare one!”

 

Jahr could barely hear him and wasn’t sure she heard him right.

 

“Parachute? What’s a parachute?” she shouted over the roar of the wind.

 

“Something that keeps you from fast falling to the ground if this ship starts to go down. Don’t tell anyone! Now go!” he replied.

 

The young woman quickly turned and disappeared from view. The airship began to rock as the first of the dark clouds started to engulf the space around them. A streak of lightning cracked to the right of the ship and a moment later the thunder sounded with such force it shook everything. Marcus was knocked from his feet back against the windows of his observation room. The tea cup in his hand went flying and smashed against the wood planks of the deck below.

 

With fear rising in his chest and a dread he was trying to keep at bay, Marcus slowly pulled his way around the edge of the observation room until he came to the door. He quickly moved inside and had to use great force to get the door to close behind him. Once inside the room much of the noise of the maelstrom was abruptly cut off. He could still see the growing violence of the weather through the observation windows, though he felt slightly safer not being thrown around by it.

 

Outside on the deck crew members began to appear wearing heavy leather suits that were meant to protect them from flying debris. Marcus could not say what any of them were doing, but they were quick about their work with the ship’s ropes and levers. After a few moments of fussing on the front deck many of them returned to the back of the boat or below deck, leaving a handful of them struggling up poles to the upper reaches of the airship. Marcus did not envy the position of those who worked in the ship’s rafters.

 

Nearly ten minutes of watching in awe passed before it occurred to Marcus he had a job to do. His official title as researcher on the ship was observationalist and stormurator operator. This broke down into: He watched things and fed his observations into a series of large and very complicated machines. There were places for every sort of observation to be recorded and noted. It was a rather large task and he was now officially a third of the storm behind on making these observations. He hurried to his wall of machines and began cranking his tuning devices to wake them all up and get the process started.

 

As the minutes ticked by the storm became more angry. The captain’s orders were to always keep the airship as close to the middle of the storm clouds as possible but the violent nature of the storm was making this difficult.

 

The captain stopped into the observation room to let Marcus know he was going to have to bring the ship down a few clips or else risk having much of the navigational tools above ripped from the balloon that kept them afloat. He was aggressive about this as if he wanted to make sure the young man knew he had no choice.

 

“There ain’t nothing for it. No ship, no damned research! If anything stirs up there you’ll still be able to see it and my lightning rods will take less of a beating.”

 

Marcus just nodded dumbly. He was all for not riding through the very heart of the storm. He knew the captain was worried about him telling his employers differently. He told the captain his plans sounded proper and he’d note it in his observations. This appeased the rough looking man enough to allow him to leave and get back to steering the ship at the other end of the deck.

 

A half of an hour passed with the storm showing no signs of wearing out. The airship, though now flying slightly lower, was handling its own against the winds that beat against its sides. The lightning was not kind either. There had been two panicked moments where lightning hit the ship itself instead of one of its many lightning rods. This caused small fires to be sparked. The crew men ran to put the fires out but the storm’s rains were actually kind and heavy enough to do that for them. And so the whole airship continued to bump and roll in the chaos of nature.

 

The violence of the world outside his room was suddenly let in. Papers went flying and Marcus cried out fearing the storm had broken through the door. He looked around in a panic for anything to keep the rainwater from touching his precious (and most temperamental) machinery. Then the touch of the storm was gone and all was calm again except for the soaked presence of the creature MemNous now in the room.

 

“Isn’t this thrilling!” she gasped.

 

There was no part of the creature that wasn’t drenched in water. There were places on her pale gold skin that looked singed, as if she’d been struck by lightning herself. Her chest was heaving up and down and caused the young man’s face to grow flushed. Her silk coverings were clinging and opaque against her wet skin. There was a perfect crimson colored outline of the creature’s entire body from her wet dress. She swelled in all the right places and Marcus had to look away. At least for that brief moment his attention was not on the storm.

 

“It’s terrifying is what it is.” he replied. He went back to imputing his information into the various dials. He did his best to ignore his sudden libido and to make-up for his earlier neglect of keeping track of things.

 

“So serious!” MemNous teased. She quickly crossed the room and reached for the young man’s shoulders and he pulled away from her as if she were ready to touch him with poison. Given her excited state it wasn’t far from the truth.

 

The creature quickly took a few steps back and gave the young man room. She wasn’t remotely apologetic for the little taste she’d had of him earlier, but she was smart enough to know she had to keep that in check; especially now that he was working.

 

Quietly she moved to the front of the room so she could peer out the windows. She would have preferred to be back outside enjoying the storm as a creature like her could enjoy it. However, she was contracted (in a manner of speaking) to stay close to Marcus and make sure no harm came to him. Either by drawing lightning away from him or making sure the crew didn’t get too panicked by the danger they were in and decide to mutiny and throw him over the side so they could run away to safer skies.

 

Perhaps MemNous greatest asset to help the young man was her particularly sensitive nose for the scent of certain upper atmosphere creatures. Her nose was tingling that night and she wanted to keep in eye on the distant sky.

 

Both creatures were startled when a strange buzzing noise came off of the far end of the room’s machines. Marcus looked up from his inputting and blinked in confusion. At first he thought one of his machines was sounding an alarm, then he realized it was the communication hub. Quickly he moved to it and picked up the cone and cranked its dial. A whiny sounding man on the other end was telling him a Mr Gil needed to speak to him. The young man felt his stomach drop. For all of this work he was doing he’d forgotten the most important thing his instructor Mr Dominic had told him: Always input and send. Do it as close to real-time as possible. All this time Marcus had been so intent on making up for his earlier distractions he hadn’t been sharing any of his information. He was at least an hour behind now.

 

The conversation that followed was thankfully brief. Mr Gil was quite mild compared to some of the other people he’d had to deal with. He promised he’d be more thoughtful and only moments after he put up the communication cone and began transmitting his notes. It was a slow process as the storm was causing a great deal of interference. The room became filled with the sound of beeps and ticks as the info was tapped out in code to be received somewhere very far away.

 

Outside there was a strange noise that was booming and heavy though it couldn’t be chalked up to thunder. The sound was organic and massive in nature. It was an abstract noise that caused Marcus to step away from his machines and look apprehensively towards the dark skies beyond his observation windows.

 

The noise caused MemNous to stand up and put her hands to the window. She held her breath and waited for the sound to come again. Several minutes passed and finally the sound did come again, only louder and more anguished. Whatever was creating this strange noise it didn’t sound happy.

 

“By the gods.” she whispered. She put her forehead to the glass and closed her eyes. The sounds came again and bypassed all of her other senses and went straight from ear to that place in her body that held a great thirst for energy. The energy of other living things. “I thought they were all dead.” the creature hissed.

 

“What? What is it? What’s all dead?” Marcus was frightful over the storm but whatever was calling out made the storm seem small.

 

On the horizon of the storm a small patch of glowing light could just barely be seen. It was like a softly moving whirlpool in the middle of all the darkness.

 

Marcus could almost make it out. From what he could see it was quite out of place in this chaos.

 

MemNous could feel it though. She grabbed Marcus by the hand ignoring any protest. She pulled him behind her out of the observation room. “You can’t witness this through a glass window!” she yelled. “You have to feel this in the almighty flesh!”

 

Marcus at first protested by way of words but as they grew closer to the edge of the deck he began to pull away from the creature. His panic finally moved him to begin slapping at her pulling hand. MemNous was deceivingly strong and moved him along with little effort. She took no notice of the smacks to her hand. When she had him at the railing she put a steadying arm around him. Her grip was strong. So strong Marcus was more concerned the aging wood of the railing would give under their combined weight before the creature’s strength allowed him to be blown overboard by the wind.

 

“Try to be calm and just watch Marcus. Just watch.”

 

He took several deep breaths and tried to do as instructed. The wind beat against his face and caused horribly strong updrafts that sucked the air from his lungs. Lightning struck nearby and he could smell the ozone produced by it. The thunder groaned and then whatever was coming for them within that whirlpool of light groaned even louder.

 

The whirlpool was maybe a third of a mile away but it was large enough to allow for a good view. Something massive in size partially burst from within the pool of light and could be seen. Marcus didn’t know what he was looking at.

 

“What is it?!” he shouted over the noise.

 

More of the creature’s body dipped from the light above. It was massive and a pale silver color that seemed to exude its own light. It dipped and then was violently pulled back upwards into the light. Marcus had to wonder what could be strong enough to move something that size so easily?

 

MemNous pointed towards the front of the whirlpool of light as it came closer. Being closer to it Marcus could see it wasn’t so much a whirlpool but a wave pool, like the light was its own little ocean in the middle of the storm. He focused on the place where the creature was pointing and finally saw what she wanted him to see.

 

The thing in the light broke through the bottom again and this time Marcus was looking towards its face instead of its massive body. He’d seen drawings of such a creature when he was younger during his ocean life studies. Only in those illustrations the creature had been mostly black with white markings around its facial areas and no where near as big as this creature. This thing’s body was silver where it would have been black and the markings around the face that should have been white were more like pale gold. Like he noticed before it was glowing. Marcus was speechless.

 

The succubi smiled and caterwauled to the winds. Then she began laughing in an exited and near manic way.

 

“This is an aethergrumpus! Hunted by air whalers for centuries! They steal every inch of the creature for novelties among the decadent sky elite and the dusk-lands below. They were thought to be extinct! But here it is! Isn’t it glorious Marcus?!”

 

It was glorious. As frightened as Marcus was by the deep and mournful noises it was making and it moving through the air, the young man was overcome by the thrill of witnessing it.

 

The flying creature was in distress. It was being pulled upwards again and as it got closer Marcus noticed long barbed rope-like things attached to its side. There were long rivets cut into its sides where it looked like these rope things had pulled free. Something was trying to capture it.

 

“Are there whalers at it now?!” he yelled into the wind as he pointed at the barbed ropes.

 

MemNous looked to where the young man pointed and whatever she took these things to be it caused her body to suddenly grow cold. She stepped away from the railing, letting poor Marcus go in the process. Without her steadying arms around him the young man’s body was quickly thrashed against the railing and he was in fear of falling over.

 

“MemNous!”

 

The succubi continued to stare on in shock. Eventually it was the young man’s cries of fear that brought her out of her stupor. She quickly moved back to the railing and took Marcus into her arms again. She didn’t keep them at the railing though, instead moving them back to stand in front of the observation room windows. There she reached for a thick rope that went around the entire cabin. She wrapped it around Marcus’ arm so he could steady himself within the small bit of shelter the overhang the cabin roof provided.

 

“You’ll have to get yourself back into your room. Just go slow and make sure you wrap one hand each time you unwrap the other to go forward. You’ll be fine. I need to go help that beautiful creature.”

 

“Why?! Is it whalers then? Is there a ship up there we can’t see?”

 

MemNous shook her head. “No. An aethergrumpus is safe within the sea of its own light. Whalers used to lure them down with different baits. This creature is being attacked from above by something much larger, ancient, and more deadly than an aethergrumpus will ever be. Those aren’t ropes you’re seeing around its sides. Those are tentacles and they belong to a creature you most surely don’t want to meet. But cheer up my young man! Your employers will be thrilled.”

 

“What are you going to do?!”

 

MemNous stepped away and tore her wet clothes from her body and stood there in all of her unnatural nude glory. She winked at the young man as all color went from his face looking upon her.

 

“I’m going to let my true nature out and eat a bit of lightning. I’m going to give that nasty ole’fucker a good shock to send him fleeing. Then I’m going to take a swim with that beautiful creature and give it a taste. I’ll have quite a tale to tell your masters if I return intact. Good-bye Marcus.”

 

With that she went running to the end of the deck and jumped up and off the railing. It looked like she did a straight diving fall into the storm until she suddenly soared upwards. Apparently the creature had done very well in hiding the translucent and fleshy wings that attached her arms to her sides. She extended her wings out to full width and caught the air. She rose up into the sky and followed the aethergrumpus back up into the swirling sea of light. Neither one broke the bottom surface of it again.

 

Marcus waited several minutes for something else to happen. The light pool was moving immediately over head and the size of it could have engulfed the airship and three of its sisters in size with no problem. There were shadows moving within it but Marcus could make out no details in their shapes. He almost felt a sense of calm being beneath this break in the storm until a sound of the now unseen creature crying out rattled everything around him. The noise was so unearthly the young man had to clamp down on his water works to keep from losing his bladder in his shock.

 

“Enough of this.” he whispered. He pulled himself back slowly and with great struggle to the door of his observation room. Once inside all became calm again. Outside the violent storm went back to being a nearly silent flipping picture show.

 

“Is that thing dead?”

 

For the third time in just one day Marcus jumped at the sound of a female’s voice. He scrunched up his shoulders and silently cursed his body for being so skiddish. He turned around and the young plum haired girl with her many braids sat huddled in the corner of the room. She was hiding under a tarp that normally sat over the machines when they were not in use.

 

He walked over to her and knelt down. “I don’t think there’s a lot that can kill her. This is why they put her here to look after me. Well, one of the reasons. Hopefully whatever she experiences up there keeps her busy for a bit. I think my stomach has taken just enough of her for now.”

 

Jahr tentatively got to her knees and peered over the bottom ledge of the window. She was looking for crew men who might be on deck. Marcus assured her that except for those up in the sails and the captain well down at the other end of the ship with his steering wheel, they were quite alone.

 

“You said you had parachuty things? They can help get a person off the boat without crashing? Give me one! Please! Help me get away while no one will notice!” she pleaded.

 

“Parachute.” Marcus corrected out of habit. He felt an enormous wave of shame coming over him. For the first time he could see the young woman’s fear and he had some idea of what it must be like for her on that airship. But there was no way for him to help her. “I’m sorry but they’ll do you no good.”

 

“But you said…”

 

Marcus held up a hand to silence her. “They’re in the case of an emergency and there are no other alternatives. Right now with the rage of this storm a parachute would most likely get you caught up in the wind and tossed about. And when you did finally find your way out of the clouds, we are over a very large body of water. We are much lower than your sky-lands right now. There are no islands in the sky between you and the world below. We’re just too low for such strange things. I still can’t figure out why such a mythical type creature that passed us over was flying so low.” For all his aether world studies, something seemed out of place. He was at a loss of words, for him… for her.

 

“The electricity.” the young woman whispered.

 

“Pardon?”

 

Jahr shrugged as if her knowledge should be common, especially when her fear should not. “Many of the creatures that live in the high aether feed off of light, electricity and other creatures like themselves. A grumpus feeds off of electricity. It gets lured down here by the electrical storms and this was a very big one. That’s how the air pirates used to get them close enough to catch them. They had these old machines that made false lightning. They would float them in the skies and drag the beasts down when they took them.” She looked around, still so fearful. “Are you sure the parachute won’t work? I am very good at flying and I am very brave. I don’t want to be here any longer. The captain looks at me too long with expressions I don’t like.”

 

Marcus’ thoughts went back and forth looking for a way to be this helpless girl’s champion while he did a job he had no choice but to do. He was not so brave though. He’d never learned how or had a time to practice it, but he knew how to put himself in the way of someone else’s harm.

 

“No, the parachute is a bad idea. But I think…” he started to speak as a thought came to him. “I think that if you’re willing to trust me a little I can find a happy medium.” He pointed to his wall of machinery. “I could use help running this and if you were willing to learn how to do that then perhaps I could convince my employers into believing you’re a needed assistant. They could tell the captain to leave you alone and you could stay up here with me. Especially through storms like this one. I need a good storm assistant.” A smile came to his lips as he looked back at the young woman. It was a good idea and he was always exceptionally happy when he happened upon a good idea.

 

Jahr nodded and took the young man’s hand when he offered it to her. He led her over to the first series of machines. “The first thing I’m going to teach you is how to send transcripts of the information I take here. This will be very important to know. Especially now that I finally really have something to tell them.”

 

Outside of the protected cabin the thunder roared on as the sound of the wailing air creature grew distant.

 

 

III

 

 

After being woken by the milquetoast Henry, Gil found himself sitting up and smacking his rouge tinted lips as he looked towards the grandfather clock in the room. He was shocked to see how much time had passed as he dozed in his favorite chair.

 

The weight of the leather folder given to him was confirmation the new lad had waited to send over his information until he’d been contacted. Perhaps there was a reason for this or it was indeed that Dominic hadn’t explained procedure to him very well; either way it annoyed Gil as he opened the folder and began to sift through the copious amount of notes.

 

Most of what Gil was looking at was foreign to him. He was only educated in the language and nature of these findings to a small degree. What he was meant to look for were the things that would make his employer come away from his clocks.

 

There were all manner of things they were looking for in the clouds, but somethings were more sought after than others. As far as the clock watcher was concerned. Finding such a thing was a mixed desire of Gil’s. On one hand he wanted desperately to go to Mr Nine with news of a big sighting so that he might finally get moved on to something new in the mansion. Or perhaps beyond the mansion. On the other hand he was quite afraid of what a sighting of one of these things might mean on a grander scale. There wasn’t a middle ground.

 

As Gil looked over the papers he came upon something that caused him to feel like he’d been punched in the chest. There in his hands was exactly what he’d been waiting for as well as dreading. It had only taken nine years for it to appear.

 

Gil was up and running back through the maze of mansion stairways and halls. He nearly tripped over a maid or two on separate occasions and accidentally bumped into and sent flying a very old vase or two. He was moving so fast he barely heard the crash of one hitting the floor.

 

When he got back to the time room, Mr Nine was still in his chair, the perfect replica of the scene Gil had left hours before. This time Gil didn’t hesitate to join him in the clock room.

 

“Mr Nine sir, the report from Marcus…” he could barely speak as he tried to catch his breath.

 

Immediately the large man’s hand went up and for a moment Gil was horrified that he was going to have to wait once again for the special tick of that dreadful secret clock hidden deep below the room. Hearing it again so soon would mean a variety of equally dreadful things Gil didn’t have room in his mind to contemplate. Even worse, it could be that hidden clock’s twin. He was relieved when his employer simply told him to catch his breath.

 

“Take a breath and tell me from the start calmly. Don’t skip details.”

 

“Of course sir.” Gil took a few deep breaths and calmed himself.

 

“Sir… the H.M.S. Talluh is in restricted skies. North end, close to the territory of the Til-Mox Trading Company. They’ve not seen any Til-Mox ships, nor any pirates presently. The storm was an upper aether type, quite harsh and traveling far lower than expected. They found it there… beasts swimming low!”

 

It was the first time that the large man in the room showed any signs of true interest in anything other than his clocks. He set his brandy down and rubbed his cigar out. He struggled to pull himself to the front of his seat as he turned to face the slender man.

 

“Is it…” his wide eyes turned to look at the weather clock, towards the tentacles dangling down from the sky, though now they were barely noticeable among the clouds that had lightened in color. “Is it him?”

 

“I’m not sure sir. One creature was unseen and attacking a silverward air grumpus. Your man described the grumpus being roughly pulled up from the storm on several occasions and thinking there were barbed ropes attached to it. Your agent corrected him and said they were tentacles. Only the legends speak of one that could be that size. Your agent went after them. Marcus said she went to help the grumpus and feed from it. Can she really do that?”

 

The large man’s face lit up as he listened and he began to struggle to pull himself up from his chair. When he finally found his footing Gil was, as always, taken aback by just how large the man was. Not only in girth but in height. He was a small giant.

 

“Yes she can. She has proven herself through the years to be quite capable of many things with the right motivation. MemNous is an extraordinary creature my grandfather captured and domesticated very long ago. She used to be little more than a seductive thief of life, but we’ve put a lot of effort into making her more than a pet leech.” Mr Nine boasted proudly. He thrust his snubbed out cigar at the other man. “Tell Marcus that we need my agent’s report the moment she returns. Tell him I want it first hand. Put a runner in the message room to come for me when she has made contact.”

 

Gil nodded his head absently. His mind was still awash with excitement that was beginning to mingle with his exhaustion. His thoughts were not in a place to comprehend what was just said about the ship-man’s guardian or the idea that she had the ability to help a flying whale before feeding off of it. At that moment Gil was simply pleased he’d finally accomplished a major task set for him by the large man in front of him.

 

The large man seemed in his own little world after receiving this news. Mr Nine began walking in a small circle whispering to himself. It was an unnerving sight after having only seen him in his chair with few words to spare. He appeared to be having a conversation with himself. Finally he came to a pause and acknowledged Gil again.

 

“This is excellent!” he exclaimed. “If it is him this means the doors must be opening again. That would be the only thing to account for his sudden appearance at this most special of times!”

 

Mr Nine went silent as he turned towards his own thoughts again. His head moved up and down absently as his lips moved with unheard words. Finally he looked up; his face a mixture of elation and slight sadness.

 

“He had been unseen since that tragic day.” This statement seemed to be the source of that sadness. “Many of us have postulated he was lost behind the doorway when it closed. Those bastards used no fail-safe for the leash they put upon him for their event. They had no right to him… they couldn’t begin to understand what he is! With their insipid book learning and scholarly beliefs. We’ll be lucky to not find him half crazed because of them. That will have to be dealt with. For now the important fact is that there is a chance that we might find him and access his state after all these years. We’ve long planned for this possibility. This is very exciting indeed. There is much to do though. Much to do. We must contact Maureval immediately!”

 

Gil nodded, even though he didn’t understand anything that was just said. There were some secrets of the mansion and its keepers that he was not privilege to nor did he want to be. He was simply content to have something new to do. “Absolutely sir. I will go and…”

 

Mr Nine raised his hands and shushed the other man. “No! No! This is something we’ll do ourselves. There are bigger things at play here and we’ll have to address them with Maureval directly.”

 

For a moment the smaller man was going to inquire if “we” meant Mr Nine and the secretive owners of the mansion. He never got the chance though. What came next was a scene that Gil would forever tuck into the back of his head as a piece of a bad dream; not a hidden memory.

 

The massive human in front of him began to move in a slow and wavering manner. It wasn’t him moving that way as a whole, but his skin and fat moving within itself. A horrible squishing noise sounded from the man’s beefy head as a slight part in his skin took shape.

 

Gil wanted to look away but found he couldn’t turn his eyes from the sight. He couldn’t close his ears from the terrible sounds being made. The whole scene took less than a minute. In Gil’s mind it was an hour that passed in slow motion.

 

At the end of the gruesome scene Mr Nine was slightly smaller, slightly shorter and next to him was a very slender carbon copy of the large man. Even his clothes had morphed and separated to give them matching suits. The larger man motioned towards the new man.

 

“Mr Eight will contact Maureval directly. He is better informed on this subject.” Mr Nine snapped a finger at Gil. “And you! For the moment I want you to monitor all of Marcus’ reports and enter them properly into our house ledger. I don’t want a single important detail left out. “

 

Mr Nine approached the slender man and made the first physical contact with him ever by giving his cheek a light pat before pinching his chin like he was a child. Gil could only look on mystified.

 

“Chin up my good man! Things are looking up and your contributions after these many years will not go overlooked! After we know better what is going on a promotion to something more exciting is in order for you Mr Gil. Be sure of that!”

 

As Mr Nine moved away from the slender man, Mr Eight casually moved towards the clock room door, pausing long enough to politely nod at Gil as he passed. Gil stared and reflexively nodded back. Then a small light went out in Gil’s eyes as all that he’d just seen and heard overwhelmed him completely. A moment later he fainted.

 

Mr Nine observed his employee as he fell to the floor but made no move to help him. He went back to his large chair and heavily fell back into it, finding there was a little more room around him. He took a fresh cigar from his coat pocket and lit it. He settled back and puffed smoke as he reached for his brandy glass. He waved the glass at the unconscious man on the floor.

 

“We’ll figure out where a good place is to send you next. Perhaps nothing too exciting given you seem to have the potential to be delicate. Something interesting nonetheless though. After you recover of course.”

 

 

Chapter II

First Sightings, The House of Obediah & The Baron’s Proposition

 

 

“Can you see it?”

 

This question was met with silence.

 

“Anyone?! Can you see it?!” The blind man raised his voice, he was growing frustrated.

 

There were many eyes there to bare witness to the unfolding events, but nearly every pair of them was turned downwards observing the strange fluctuations on mechanical devices few of them had any true understanding of. No one was looking at the scene before them. It was too much for the blind man named Max. He needed their eyes and they were looking in all the wrong directions.

 

“Damn it!” he roared. “Your devices will measure whether you look at them or not! Lift your ridiculous heads up and look at the bloody scene before you!! Now! Can someone see it?!”

 

The gentle giant seldom raised his voice let alone used a scolding tone with his men. There was a small murmur of shock that riffled through the collective. They whispered to one another about how unlike it was for their teacher to be cross. It had the desired effect though. Gradually each pair of eyes looked away from the machinery they were put in charge of and simply peered across the dry expanse before them.

 

“My lord God in heaven…” one of the men whispered as he looked on in disbelief.

 

The teacher locked onto this shocked voice in the group. This was not one of his younger men so there was a deeper, more profound guard around his mind and thoughts. At best Max could only get a shadow of what the man was seeing as he probed his thoughts. It was enough though.

 

“It exists…” Max exclaimed, though his voice was barely audible. There was a deep fear that was starting to creep over him and he knew time was of the essence. “Gabriel! To me!” he cried out.

 

A young man in the group quickly moved over to the blind teacher.

 

“Yes Master Max?”

 

Max’s hand blindly reached out and motioned in all directions.

 

“Go! Go collect all the meter tapes and put them in the special bag. Once you do that, get a little ways away and stop long enough to take the special photograph if you can. But if you can’t just be gone! Don’t look back! A witness will do!” His big hand moved wildly about until it caught the young man’s shoulder and gave it a death grip. “Don’t look back Gabriel! Let the camera be your eye but if it can’t just go. Do as I’ve taught you and get the information back to the Vitandi. Do you understand? She’ll be waiting for it.”

 

Absently the young man Gabriel nodded his head up and down even though he knew his master could not see his movements. The old blind man couldn’t even look through the youth’s eyes as he had been trained to keep a very strict guard on his thoughts and senses.

 

He snapped from his daze and promised out loud to his teacher he would do as he was taught. He gave the blind man an unseen bow (again out of habit) and quickly headed into the crowd of men telling each it was time to give up their machinery’s records and pass them along to the younger man. Most of the men were so mesmerized by what they were witnessing they barely noticed the youth emptying their devices one by one.

 

Once all the recording goods were collected Gabriel grabbed his own heavy back pack and headed away from the group of men and the scene beyond them. He ran till he was out of breath and gasping. Only then did he stop long enough to take out a camera set-up from his back pack.

 

The youth quickly set up the camera equipment and aimed it towards the events unfolding in the distance. He kept his eyes lowered at all times. When he wasn’t directly looking at the camera he simply looked at the ground.

 

Before the group had reached their destination his teacher impressed upon him the importance that at least one set of eyes never look directly at the events taking place. No one knew what was going to happen, though there was some fear that just viewing the event could be harmful.

 

The older men were well seasoned and aware of the risks involved; each had volunteered. Gabriel was still young though, barely to his seventeenth birthday. Max didn’t want him taking potential risks and instead tasked him being the one that didn’t play witness.

 

The camera equipment was strange and despite knowing every little detail of how it was meant to be put together, Gabriel still felt clumsy and slow doing so. It didn’t help that his hands were shaking from the adrenaline coursing through his veins. The camera itself made him slightly nervous. It was created by an infamous man known to most as Professor Vogel.

 

Vogel had a mixed reputation. Some of his inventions were truly incredible and did as they were meant to do. He was respected world wide for many of his ingenious contraptions that helped individuals with a disability work around that disability. However, for all the professor’s good intentions and incredible inventions, there were other creations of his that didn’t act as they were meant to. These other machines malfunctioned in dark ways and did things that could put fear into a person’s soul.

 

Gabriel knew the details of every single contraption that Professor Vogel had ever brought into creation. He planned to write a book about them one day. This fact was partly why his teacher Max trusted him with the camera when he’d been able to secure one directly from the professor himself, newly made. This was the first time this particular camera was actually going to be used though. This, the young man knew, left room for errors.

 

It had been said by many scholarly types “Professor Vogel’s camera does not capture what the photographer wishes to see, thinks they see, or any static ridden middle of the two. The good professor’s camera captures what is there and needs to be seen. That which is begging to be seen.”

 

Once Max had the camera he’d convinced the Vitandi to use it for this excursion for that express point: To capture what needed to be seen free from the taint of impressible human minds.

 

Gabriel finished putting the camera equipment together and set it atop a tall enough tree stump to allow it to focus on the scene in the distance without the young man having to look at it himself. He pointed the lens, set the timer, and turned away from the set-up and hit the “live” button. He turned his back to the whole process as his master had taught him. Eighty seconds slowly ticked by and then a strained grinding sound came from the equipment and a flash of light that the young man could feel on his skin; then all went silent.

 

There had been noise in the distance coming from the group he’d just left. When the camera fell silent so too did the noise from the group. The silence was absolute right down to the last cricket ceasing to play its leg fiddle. It was unnerving.

 

Gabriel’s every desire was to look back upon where he’d come from. He wanted to know everyone was alright. He could use the excuse of looking back to make sure he’d aimed the camera true. He knew better though. From the very beginning of his instruction he’d been taught the one great rule of separating what the heart wanted with what the intellect was trained to do. As a result he followed his blind teacher’s rules without a second thought even if it caused his heart and curiosity to ache.

 

With his task done, the young man gathered up the camera equipment and all the other gear that was almost too heavy for his poor young body to accommodate. He headed towards the cliff that looked out into the nothingness of the sky. There he knew an airship was waiting for him to take him back to the Vitandi, whether the teacher and his research party were with him or not.

 

 

II

 

 

It was a stormy night. This is what they said in novels was it not? It was a stormy night! And the reader’s mind is immediately taken to a place of bruised skies marked by the sudden and dramatic white lines of lightning and the rumble of thunder. A good storm was always the way to set the mood.

 

In this case it was in fact a very stormy night, though all the moodiness and drama was being eclipsed by the fact that the room this storm was witnessed from happened to have a leak in the ceiling. A leak that was persistent and evenly timed as it went drip! drip! drip! into a very elegant and expensive glass vase. The leak and the receptacle it dripped into was causing more than just a little irritation to the man sitting in the room.

 

This man sat scowling in his very richly crafted winged back chair with his feet lazily spread across a matching foot stool. In one hand he held a pipe he’d yet to light and in the other a glass of gin and tonic, which he’d paid far more attention to. His eyes went from the leak in the ceiling to the glass vase on the floor. His upper lip twitched just a bit as he noticed the dark colored pattern of an emerging stain on the carpet around the edges of the glass vase.

 

Drip! Drip! Drip! Miss! As a bit of water found the floor instead of the vase. It was on the note of the “miss” that the man’s unlit pipe fell to the floor sending pipe tobacco scattering.

 

“Stella!” the man yelled before downing the last of his gin and tonic.

 

A few moments later a very cheerful and rather hefty older woman scooted through the door with deceptive grace. She’d always reminded the man of a petite toed hippo moving through the world in ballerina slippers. She had with her a fresh glass of gin and tonic (with a cherry in it, which for some reason always annoyed him) and presented it to the man in the chair.

 

“Need to be freshened up there on your drink Mr Obediah?”

 

The sitting man, whose name in full was Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second, ignored the question and instead used his empty glass as a pointer. He tipped it towards the leak in the ceiling.

 

“Stella, I’d like to think one of the many benefits of wealth is the ability to get my faulty roof fixed so that I’m not sitting here amid my own private rain shower. And Stella…” he looked annoyed as he tipped his head towards the glass vase. “My mother’s priceless Lasher vase? Surely we have a bucket somewhere in vast expanse of my very large home?”

 

Stella frowned as she looked from the gentleman in the chair to the glass vase on the floor. She turned back, all smiles again. Very little rattled the woman’s good cheer.

 

“I thought the vase kept the ambiance of the room better than a bucket sir.” she replied very earnestly. “Besides, Mr. Olophant has all of the house’s buckets in the basement at the moment.”

 

Octavius shook his head slowly, knowing he’d probably have preferred he didn’t ask. Curiosity was his weakness though.

 

“Why does he have the buckets in the basement?”

 

Stella’s face lit up. “Oh! For his homemade ghost traps! Yes, he says we’re just riddled with them down there. He swears they’re worse than having gophers in the lawn!”

 

Octavius sighed and offered the woman his empty glass. With the sweetness and motherly gestures found in all things that Stella did, she quickly took the empty glass and handed him a full one and stepped back, all smiles. Not one thing she just said struck her as strange.

 

“Well… Stella… setting that aside, isn’t there someone we can get out here to fix the leak? It’s been a very long stint of traveling for me. I’d really like the comfort of coming back to my home and not having these minor but annoying details to attend to. This is why I employ you. You’re my hands and eyes around here.”

 

Stella set the empty gin glass down on the gentleman’s table and clasped her hands together as though she were about to deliver very unsavory news.

 

“I’m afraid not sir. Handyman Gregory used to handle all of those issues but he’s not wanted to return since he was left alone with the auspicmoriscope that last time. And Mr Kimber got lost behind the walls when he was trying to fix the electrical works in the parlor and refuses to come back now. They were the last handymen from town willing to come work on these things.”

 

“Well then… what about Mr. Olophant? I employ him to take care of the grounds don’t I? Can’t he get up there and fix a hole?”

 

His maid’s face took on a sympathetic motherly look as though she were attempting to explain something complicated to a child.

 

“Mr Olophant doesn’t like heights. And besides, he’s really involved with those ghosts in the basement at the moment. He is one for doing things in order of priority.”

 

All Octavius could do was smile and nod his head as if all of this were just common knowledge. Just the everyday run of the mill sort of thing. And were he to set his own personal irritations aside he would know this to be true: Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second had chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps and lead a somewhat extraordinary lifestyle. These minor, though bizarre, irritations just went with the territory.

 

“Fine.” he sighed. “Can you at least ask Mr. Olophant to sacrifice just one of his buckets here? Or find me a pan from the kitchen? Really Stella, that glass vase is quite expensive and my mother really did love it. I think the ambiance of the room can handle it.”

 

The good maid Stella smiled and nodded. Whether she’d do anything that he asked was up for speculation. As far as Octavius could tell she was good for fixing meals and bringing well mixed drinks when needed. Perhaps she’d been better at her job in those years of old when she’d first been acquired by his parents.

 

Octavius held up his drink and scowled at the cherry leaking its red juice into his otherwise perfect gin and tonic. He pulled the cherry from the glass and took a deep swig of it before setting the glass down. “Stupid cherry” he whispered before tucking it into his mouth to suck on. He leaned over the side of his chair to pick up his pipe and try to reclaim some of the spilled tobacco.

 

Stella stopped by the door and stood and watched, all smiles as if she was rooting him on. She didn’t move to help nor did she move to leave the room.

 

“Um… something else Stella?” he asked, the cherry at the corner of his mouth warping his voice.

 

Stella’s face looked confused for a moment and then her memory caught up to her. “Oh yes! The Baron has been waiting to see you. He sent word a few days ago that he would be by when you had returned from your travels. I sent word to him earlier today that you were on route home.”

 

Octavius bit down on the cherry and spit the stem onto the floor.

 

“The Baron?!” he cried. “Why am I only hearing about any of this now?! Are you daft woman?! Why on earth would you let that awful man into my home?!”

 

Stella, still smiling, shrugged her shoulders. “He seems friendly enough. Oopsies!” she said by way of explanation.

 

Of all the things for the woman to forget or do, this ranked up there with the worst. Octavius was mortified to think such an awful spreader of gossip had been left waiting alone in his home of valuable things while he made insipid small talk about ghosts and leaks with his squirrely maid.

 

There was nothing for it now. It would be far harder to put a positive spin on kicking a man out of his house after he’d been invited in. It wouldn’t matter who that man was when it came to the politics of polite society; especially the side of it both men dealt with.

 

Octavius drained the last of his drink and quickly got to his feet. He straightened his attire and ran his hands through his thinning dark hair. He made an attempt to clean up some of the remaining pipe tobacco by kicking it underneath his chair. As prepared as he was going to be with such short notice, he nodded at his housekeeper. “Alright then, show him in.”

 

Stella smiled and quickly removed herself from the room.

 

A few minutes later the door opened and the maid Stella stepped back into the room and made grand, almost silly gestures welcoming their guest in as she introduced him. Soon after a very tall and stern looking man with an almost comically thin and curling mustache followed her into the room. He was good enough to give the ceiling leak only a slight acknowledgment before moving towards his host and extending his large hand towards him.

 

“Mr Obediah! So good to finally get an audience with you sir!”

 

Octavius extended his hand and mustered up a smile. The other man’s grip was strong and he gave the somewhat smaller man’s hand several very enthusiastic pumps up and down. This caused a ricochet of tired muscles protesting up Octavius’ weary arm.

 

“Baron Wikanman, it is quite the surprise to have you come by! I’m sorry I haven’t had much of a chance to get my home in order before your arrival. I only just learned of your intended visit.”

 

“I care little about such domestic niceties.” the Baron said almost dismissively. “Superficial courtesies mean little in situations like this.”

 

“Wunderbar!” Octavius replied, trying desperately to work up some of his charm despite how irritated he was. “Please, come have a seat. Can I have Stella bring you anything?”

 

The Baron made a stiff shake of his head. He instead took a cigarette case from his coat pocket and offered his host a very fragrant sepia colored cigarette. Octavius declined.

 

“Thank you but no thank you my good man. My time in Calcutta has cured me a bit of my smoking tendencies. Even my pipe is for show.” Octavius held up his depleted pipe and gave his guest a good natured shrug.

 

The Baron leaned in, suddenly looking very serious. “The Secret Calcutta?” he asked.

 

In this exchange there was no reason to lie. The Baron traveled among the same secret back roads as his host.

 

Octavius nodded his head wearily. “Oh yes, I’ve been there often. I was just there in fact. I was put on the trail of an artifact that was stolen from my father many, many moons ago and when news of it turned up I meant to find it. No matter where I had to travel. I have to say, despite my calling in life? I’m not a fan of the secret places. The food and culture is often too exotic for me.”

 

The large man’s eyes grew wide. He didn’t care about food or culture. His curiosities lay elsewhere.

 

“Did you happen to see one of them? There?” The Baron’s voice was eager, almost lusty.

 

This question was puzzling for Octavius though, who could think of any number of strange questions or remarks that could be made about the place he spoke of. The question of them was a little too vague and the Baron’s needy tone when asking about them was a bit unsettling.

 

“I’m sorry Baron, I’m afraid with such a place you really have to be more specific.”

 

The Baron leaned in closer, bringing his rough voice to a whisper.

 

“The Saturnines. I’ve been told they linger there, but a particular one…” his face looked most dreadful as he thought about it. “This one stays near the gates and it has with it a black cat… a devil cat they say. It lulls people into a strange state by causing all the blossoms around them to sing this otherworldly lullaby. It is a brutal creature I’ve been told, with a bird’s face and long quills for hair. It’s devil cat has a forked tail! I’ve had nightmares of it and its feline familiar since I was a child.”

 

This enlightened Octavius somewhat. He was familiar with tales of the Saturnines, but not this one in particular. They were but one of the many strange and exotic bogeymen that existed in the secret places. No matter the tale spoken of them though, it was folly to seek out such creatures. Their legends were born of the forbidden and interactions with them out of need or curiosity almost always ended poorly.

 

The inquiry did give Octavius a little insight into the quietly hidden character of the man sitting next to him. Such insight was valuable to have when dealing with heathens like the Baron.

 

“I’m afraid I did not encounter such a creature.” Octavius admitted. “However, I was no where near the gates. As you might imagine the roads I travel tend to be the back ones so I can slip in and slip out with little attention paid to me. It’s why our community values my work.” He smiled, feeling just a little cocky. “Discrete and stealthy. Those are the trademarks of the House of Obediah.”

 

This bit of boasting seemed to bring the Baron back to his reasons for the meeting. He nodded in agreement.

 

“Very true. Which brings me to why I’m here.”

 

Octavius perked up. He disliked the time wasted on courtesies and small talk most gentlemen engaged in. He was a man of action. He liked things to be to the point and free of the societal niceties imposed upon them. More dealing and less talking was another trademark of the House of Obediah. It especially applied to unexpected (and unwanted) visitors.

 

“So what does bring you here Baron? Especially at this hour without invitation?”

 

The Baron smiled his shifty smile. “A proposition my good man… a proposition. And a very fine one indeed.”

 

Octavius studied the tall man’s face. He was looking for tells

 

Octavius himself was very trained in the art of being unreadable. Given the nature of his business and his life really, he had to be calm waters that never rippled. Tells were the physical demons that led to so many of his competitors losing artifacts or paying far to much for them. His father taught him both things were in the same class as a mortal sin.

 

The Baron’s face, in contrast to his own, was open and expressive. Too open one might say. He countered the idea of calm waters with chaotic ripples in the river of his own face.

 

Having too many ticks appeared to be as good as having none. Octavius couldn’t read him. He knew his reputation all too well though and upon hearing the word “proposition” his own face mutinied and gave him away by offering a slight twitch in his right eye. The Baron, also very good at reading someone, noticed it right away.

 

“That word bothers you Octavius?” he asked with just a touch of humor to his deep voice.

 

Octavius tried to play off his slip while still being honest about it.

 

“No. I can’t say the word in and of itself bothers me in the slightest. However, given the very different worlds you and I inhabit, you having a proposition for me can be…” he tried to find the right word to be assertive but not completely disrespectful. Whether he liked or hated the man it was important not to burn a bridge with someone of such access to the arcane. “Tricky?” he finally replied. “We do seek very different things from the world, do we not?”

 

The Baron nodded his head thoughtfully and took a deep drag off of his cigarette. He exhaled the flowery smelling smoke and leaned over and most rudely tapped his cigarette ashes into the other man’s empty gin glass since no ash tray was offered to him.

 

“This is very true.” the smoking man replied. “This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments for our paths to cross and good things to come of it. Such very good things.”

 

The room fell silent. For several minutes there was no sound except for the drip of the ceiling leak. Octavius was trying to play down his curiosity and the Baron was letting the other man stew a bit in the curiosity he knew he’d just created. In the end Octavius decided to address something else to leave no one a winner of their strange stand-off.

 

“Setting that idea aside for a moment Baron, I have to ask you why you would come to me with a proposition anyway? I do believe I have always made it clear that I have no desire to deal with you unless you have something of special value to sell me. No offense my good man, but barter or trade is the only reason I would spend any time in your company. You are only in my home now because my maid is very old and neglected to tell me you were coming until you were already here.”

 

This might have offended another man. The Baron was not moved in the slightest by Octavius’ honesty. The Baron was by no means a charlatan, but neither was he looked upon favorably by many in their circle of business. He was quite aware of that fact. For him there was no fun in simply having a strange artifact or discovering a legend. He was all about putting such things on display. He was about the theatrics of it all. The Baron loved the great and secret show as he loved playing the master of ceremony to it. This left little room for proper respect for the things he was putting on display.

 

The Baron leaned back in his chair and offered the other man a small laugh. “Oh don’t I know that Octavius. Don’t I know! But you will just have to work with me here a little. I am indeed trying to sell you something even though as of this moment it is just an idea. An idea of such grand proportions others will be envious of you for getting offered it first. There will be tangible treasures, of course. I know the House of Obediah well and without an artifact or fabled thing in the pitch I know you’ll be disinclined to do business with me. So yes, you might be one for keeping me out of your business affairs, but here we are. And since I am here, at least grant me enough of your time to make you believe this idea is worth your consideration. After that I will be gone and you can yell at your maid for letting me in or spank her or whatever it is your house does to your servants.”

 

Octavius said nothing, mildly put off by the suggesting of spanking his very old maid. That alone gave him the desire to grab the Baron by the scruff of his collar and drag him from his home. Were he not a curious man, that is. The Baron was already in his company and he was right. There was no reason to dismiss him without hearing what he came to say. For curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

 

“Stella!” he yelled to the door.

 

The door opened almost immediately (he knew she would be on the other side of it eavesdropping) and the maid moved into the room all smiles. “Yes sir?”

 

“Another gin and tonic for me. Bring a good bottle of brandy for the Baron.” He looked down at his ash spoiled glass and gritted his teeth a little. “And an ash tray.”

 

The two men sat quietly until the maid returned with fresh drink, brandy with brandy sifter, and a glass dish for the Baron’s cigarette ashes. They remained quiet until the maid finished with her fussing and left the room. Finally Octavius turned to the other man.

 

“Alright, tell me. But be to the point and don’t bother wasting breath on flattery or any of that nonsense. We’re going to be very plain here. I frankly don’t like how you handle your business Baron. I think what you do is often times reckless and puts people at risk just so you can make absurd theater for the rich. Be that as it may, I do respect your ability to find artifacts that others cannot. Don’t take that fragile respect as a way to talk me into working with you. My father’s mission in life was to explore and discover the miraculous. His was a museum curator’s way. This house respects the artifact and the legend. We don’t treat it like a carnival show.”

 

The Baron poured himself a glass of brandy as he nodded his head. He took a deep swig from his brandy glass and exhaled after he swallowed it. This was the part he liked best when it came to the start of negotiations. To him it was as exciting as that first time he was allowed to slip his hand under a young woman’s shirt and touched her breasts. Then, as now, a flushed redness came to his cheeks.

 

“I have no desire to waste time on useless flattery. I’ve been contacted by a very prestigious collective to help organize a very grand event that has not taken place in nearly two centuries. You will know this event when I share its name with you. My personal involvement is not only for the spectacle I could make of it, but as a facilitator of the massive planning that will be involved to bring it back to the full grandeur it was once known for. The collective I am representing knows a great deal about you and would like your help in this planning. Does this peak your curiosity?”

 

Octavius’ face was blank while his mind was quite busy. The Baron was being purposefully vague while still offering just enough to spark the other man’s interest. It was having the desired effect.

 

“Perhaps. Who is this group and what is the event?”

 

The Baron’s smile was growing ever more shark-like as he circled his prey. This great reveal, though not allowed the build up a showman like the Baron would prefer, was still a thing he took great pleasure from. Seldom had he the opportunity for this type of reveal to a person who would appreciate how massive it was.

 

“The Vitandi and the Magnus Certatio.” he replied.

 

Octavius willed his face to become stone. A blank face wasn’t good enough here. At the same time he had to still his mind. In the House of Obediah those two things were seldom spoke of because of the reaction they might bring. To have them uttered by the Baron, of all men, in the presence of potential Obediah ghosts was almost blaspheme. To have him do it in the name of a proposition was far worse.

 

“Go on.” he replied softly. Octavius did his best to be unmoved.

 

This masquerade did not fool the old showman. The Baron knew he’d chosen the right yet simple bait and now he had his hook in the other man’s mouth. He hoped all he needed to do was give a gentle tug to land him. It had to be a delicate catch though.

 

“The Magnus Certatio, the great race beyond the veil…” the Baron announced with great dramatic flair. “An event of such magnitude! Hosted by the most notoriously well known and respected collective of other worldly scholars… the Vitandi. Once a much anticipated and celebrated event on the eve of each new decade that anyone of note would sacrifice everything they had just to be a player in… a racer! Oh such times. Now a thing of legend.” The Baron’s voice softened as the word legend left his lips. He paused for dramatic effect. When he spoke again his voice had heat and energy. “They want to bring it back. They’re putting out invitations to the very talented in our circle who might help doing just that! Not just bring it back, but bring it back even more sensational than the original race.” Here was where the Baron gave his cast line that tug to land his fish. “My proposition for you is that invitation. That is… if you think yourself capable.”

 

There was silence in the room. A very serious thing was being dangled in front of Octavius. Even as his mind was a rage there were thankfully some cohesive thoughts moving within the chaos. Thoughts that warned him to be weary. Thoughts that demanded he better question this shark here trying to prey on him.

 

Octavius’ eyes narrowed as he stared down the Baron. He tried to appear casual as he leaned back into his chair. He quickly realized casual was not the mood he wanted to set though. He instead leaned forward and sought out the more important questions. Things that might help him.

 

“Why now? What is the possible catalyst that would finally push this group into such an action?” Octavius took a breath and let it out slowly. “What in this world and the unseen one would move these people to reach out to anyone outside of their collective for this type of help? They were closed off as a rule, but after the events of the last race? They completely closed ranks. They ended their grand event…” There was more to say but Octavius didn’t know which questions were actually important. So he went back to his original ones and repeated them. “Why now? Why allow anyone in?”

 

The Baron expected this line of questioning and he was thankful he could be quite honest about it. He was not a man above spinning a tall tale or twisting an exaggerated truth to get what he wanted. It was far easier when he could just go with the simple truth of a thing though.

 

“Slow death.” the Baron answered gravely. “You have so many great minds within the Vitandi who are growing old and unwilling to let go of their old ways. And what are their old ways? They used to be set in stone. An ideology that was thought out and refined centuries before we came into the common era. It took one bad event, one bad race as the case is here, to overshadow all of their better beliefs. The race ended. The old world of the Vitandi ended. There a narrow and elitist view was allowed to flourish within a society that was already private, but knew when to bring fresh blood into the fold.

 

“Now? After so much time? There is no new blood within the Vitandi. They are a completely blue blood styled society these days. There are incredible minds that are born into their collective, but no society can survive as such a closed group forever. There are those among their younger sect who want to end this era. How best to kick start a dying society? Turn to the spectacle. Turn to the one thing that might lure fresh blood in. This is the goal of bringing the race back. This is the goal of turning to trustworthy outside resources to help them with this task.”

 

Octavius’ head moved slowly up and down to note that he understood what was being said. He didn’t want to offer much more. It was easy to understand what was going on within the closed society. These events begged more questions though than answers. So he decided to keep his inquiries to the offer at hand.

 

“Alright then. What do they want of me? What is your proposition offered as an invitation?” he asked.

 

What was the word Octavius had used to describe his apprehension to involve himself in dealings with the Baron? Tricky. Here was the tricky spot for the Baron who knew what he was about to propose was going to be met with much mistrust. This was the hurdle he was fearing he wouldn’t be able to talk the other man over.

 

The Baron smiled. “More than anything they want your advice. They want your knowledge and the knowledge you have inherited from your father. Along with that they wish to temporarily have access to a few of your artifacts for the event.”

 

There was total silence in the room. It seemed even the dripping ceiling was having its fears about adding its droplet notes to what was going on. The Baron remained silent because he feared the other man’s response. Octavius remained silent because he was disappointed. He felt as though a great opportunity had been dangled in front of him and just as quickly snatched away.

 

Octavius ended the silence and stopped the other man there.

 

“If the Vitandi simply wants to exploit my catalog of artifacts we can stop talking right here. The House of Obediah will not give up any of our artifacts for use elsewhere. More than half of what is under my care is considered dangerous. I might be persuaded to share my knowledge, but I will stand firm on the artifacts.”

 

Octavius moved to get up. The Baron’s hand reached for his arm and he quickly pleaded for the man to remain seated and hear him out. He knew this would be the place where his pitch would become a hard sell. He’d already prepared for it.

 

“Of course. Of course! No one is asking you to give up anything. We are only asking to borrow a few things with extreme care guaranteed to be given to them. The reward for doing so will be well worth such trust. Please, hear me out.”

 

There was a small voice in the back of Octavius’ thoughts telling him to go with his first reaction to send the Baron away before he could continue his seduction. It was a seduction after all. The moment the Baron admitted what he needed of the other man his tone had changed. To ask for something so big meant he had to have something of equal value to barter with. He couldn’t begin to imagine what the Vitandi had to offer.

 

The Baron allowed the other man time to fight with his misgivings. He leaned back in his seat and let his eyes scan the vast library that surrounded them. The Baron couldn’t put a price on many of the books housed there. In a different time the Baron might have tried to run a con on the collector. His obsession was apparent and obsessed men were easy to get the better of. Still, the ability to build such a library (not to mention just the few displayed artifacts the Baron had viewed while waiting for his audience) meant he might have met his first obsessed man he couldn’t get the better of.

 

The large man’s eyes came back to the face of the man sitting next to him. There was no trust in the collector’s hard stare, no room for error. All the Baron had was his precariously placed hook in the collector’s mouth and the hope he could get him into the boat. It was time to tug the line for real.

 

“Such trust is too high.” Octavius quietly replied after a long silence.

 

“Perhaps, but what if I told you that the Vitandi means to allow you unrestricted access to all of their libraries for your participation in the planning of this race? This is only one of the things they’re prepared to offer you. And this trade doesn’t come at the end of the race. You’ll have access to their libraries from the moment you sign on to be apart of this event. There will also be room for you to make requests, within reason of course. You don’t find that even a little bit enticing?”

 

Enticing was not a strong enough word.

 

Octavius Orwell Obediah the First had been granted three hours of access to the Vitandi’s precious library once. He’d gone immediately to the restricted section so that he could make the most of his limited time there. A young Octavius the Second could remember the state of his father after that. “Even if I had a lifetime in that library it would not be enough.” he’d whispered to his wife upon his return home. Then he’d wept for hours over the things he’d read. It was perhaps one of the most clear and unchanged memories Octavius had of his father. His father’s obsession with the Vitandi was something that would trickle down to the son.

 

“It is.” he finally replied, somewhat off hand.

 

The Baron could almost hear the conflicting voices in the collector’s head. He chanced giving the other man one last push.

 

“There’s more to it than that of course. You’ll have access to things that might be found only through the race.” the Baron offered. “Wasn’t it your father who spent a lifetime looking for the Keachie Obelisk? The Vitandi has books, maps, all first hand accounts. I’m sure the Vitandi will wish for the race to go through the Keachie occupied sky-lands. Wouldn’t it be a nice addition to the race? Perhaps you could find what your father could not?”

 

Octavius scowled. This bit of the hard sell was too much to overlook. “You go a little too far and dig a little too deep Baron.” It was a great offense for the son to hear anyone point out what his father saw as failures. His father’s failures had had a way of turning into the son’s quest to one up his father. It was a very touchy subject.

 

The Baron apologized, realizing his error, but he knew his words had the appropriate effect. Few people of good taste would bring up the rumored competition Obediah the Second felt towards the First. The Baron was not a man of good taste though. The offer of library access was his trump card and the small tidbit about his father was just to ruffle his feathers a little bit and see if it was a direction he could pursue later on should the other man start to change his mind.

 

“I get blunt sometimes.” the Baron confessed. “I apologize for that, but this is something that I want very badly and I am very grateful that the opportunity is mine. Part of my task is to get you on board though, so I must work with what I think will best show you the same great opportunity beckoning you. You know as well as I do that for men such as ourselves this is an opportunity that cannot so easily be passed up. Am I wrong?”

 

Octavius shook his head slowly. There was a small voice of self hatred for giving into the truth of it.

 

“You are not wrong.” he confessed. “At the same time how can I possibility take you and this offer seriously? Baron Wikanman the great showman sweeps into my home uninvited and proposes something that is too good to be true from a collective that most surely would never work with him. I have a reputation to consider Baron. If I were to seriously court your offer what do you think that would do to the reputation of the House of Obediah? Simply allowing you to stay and try and tempt me will sour some of my clientele to working with me should it make its way through the circle of societal gossip. I’m the one person in our field who is supposed to know better than this.”

 

The Baron scoffed. “That is horseshit! There is very little that could truly tarnish the reputation of the House of Obediah. Who would fault you for giving me enough of your time to see if my offer is true? Any one worth their salt would do most anything for access to that library for ten minutes! Imagine what those same people would do to be apart of the reinvention of one of the greatest intellectual and adventurous races to have ever existed?”

 

The Baron shook his head growing slightly annoyed. Some of his trademark excitability was starting to show itself. He took a few deep breaths to get it in check. The collector remained silent while the other man flustered.

 

“My point being…” the Baron settled down and found his thread. “Very soon there will be quiet rumblings about the Vitandi’s plans and everyone will be falling over themselves to first find out if it’s true and second find some way to be apart of it. You’re free of those hoops. You are being invited to take part in an event that will become a major chapter in the history of our world. It is not only your precious things that are being inquired after, it is also you and your great knowledge. You will be a bold name in that chapter and the reputation of the House of Obediah will become nontarnishable. You will become a celebrity and there will no longer be one single door that is locked to you. You would be foolish if you didn’t at least humor this offer long enough to see just how incredible it is.”

 

There was silence between the two men. Octavius imagined he could hear the thumping of his own heart, only it beat too quickly. Perhaps it was the Baron’s heart he was hearing.

 

“I have only one question… a curiosity actually.” Octavius replied.

 

“Ask me anything.” the Baron countered.

 

“Why, of all people, would the Vitandi send you to solicit me? Why didn’t they send one of their people who I would have gladly let into my home?”

 

At this the Baron smiled and leaned back in his chair. He was worried for a moment that events were going to have to play out in a very different way. This one inquiry told him things were going to go exactly as he planned.

 

“A collective of other worldly scholars who have spent a century behind closed doors might be very aware that they are lacking in the social skills the present world demands of them. As a result they looked for an opposite to themselves and found me. They found there are two things every single person who has ever heard my names knows.” He held up one finger. “One, that I have taken the time to research every single individual who might have value to me no matter how big or small that value might be. I am an encyclopedia of our secret world.” He held up a second finger. “Two, that when I resolve to get something I get it. By persuasion or brute force, I get it. My determination is my true reputation Mr Obediah. My Vitandi mistress knows this and this is why she has unleashed such a scoundrel on their behalf. You can detest my personality and what I stand for, but I do get people to listen to me through one means or another. The fact that I’m sitting here with you now is evidence of that. The Vitandi very much want you Mr Obediah. More than even your precious artifacts. Think about that. Could even your father say that?”

 

With this said the Baron stood and straightened his jacket. He had done what he promised his mistress he would do. If it was not enough there was plan B, but he was confident they wouldn’t have to go there. Time would tell.

 

“I will be taking my leave now. Please think long and hard on what has been said here tonight and at your earliest convenience contact me with your final decision. I do advise you don’t keep me waiting long. There is much to do and a somewhat limited time frame to do it in. Thank you for granting me your time Mr Obediah.”

 

Octavius got to his feet and offered the Baron his hand, this time noting the other man’s grip was not so tight or enthusiastic.

 

“Of course.” he nodded. “I’ll sleep on it a few nights and get back to you shortly. Stella will see you out.”

 

On cue the door opened and the daffy maid was offering to lead the Baron to the front door. The two men finished with their parting formalities and Octavius was once again left alone with his leaking ceiling.

 

The collector’s mind was all over the place and he couldn’t find one point within it to focus on and settle it down. There was so much to think over. Octavius wanted to pretend he would be thoughtful when considering what the Baron had just told him. The truth was his mind was made up the moment there was even the slightest hope of getting anywhere near the very closed off Vitandi. The frenzy his thoughts were in was simply all the devils and angels warring back in forth over that fact.

 

After a few minutes Stella came back to the room. She set a fresh gin and tonic on the table before going over to the leak. She placed a kitchen pan under the leak and then took the vase and put it back on the shelf where Octavius’ mother always kept it, rain water still inside. She was quiet as she did this. There was no characteristic smile on her face or lilt to her step. This did not go unnoticed.

 

“Stella? Is something wrong?” Octavius asked.

 

His maid said nothing at first. Octavius might get flustered with the old woman or think she was as daffy as the day was long, but the truth was she’d been apart of his household, and therefore his family, since he was a young boy. He liked her eccentricities. He didn’t like her lucid moments.

 

“Well sir it’s just…” Stella fell silent. She looked terribly conflicted.

 

“It’s alright Stella… you can always be honest with me.”

 

“It’s not right sir.”

 

This caught him off guard. “What? I mean… what do you mean?”

 

Her face fell into an uncharacteristic scowl. “That man is bad down to his bone marrow sir. I can feel it. He only tells you half of the story and picks and chooses what of that should be the truth. Mr Obediah senior would have never trusted him and…”

 

At the mention of his father Octavius immediately became defensive. It was almost a reflexive thing at this point in his life. He held up his hand to stop Stella from going on.

 

His father had been a very good, supportive parent, there was no question of that. He was also a man driven by his own obsessions. So much so that sometimes he was driven right out of the lives of his wife and child. This led to a son feeling the only way to be apart of the father’s life was to adopt the same obsessions has him. They were never so close as when they were researching Obediah senior’s personal projects.

 

If anyone was to know how Obediah the First would react to the Baron’s offer it would be Obediah the Second.

 

“My father was cautious to the point of missing out on several great opportunities Stella.” he finally replied, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Of course he would never have trusted the Baron. He would have thought him a charlatan. But for all of his great caution and wisdom do you think he would have declined that offer for even a moment?”

 

Octavius turned away from his maid and went to the window. The storm had been calm while the two men talked; now it was starting to kick up again. The thunderclaps made him feel as though the sky was barking at him.

 

“Don’t think my father was so high and mighty that he wouldn’t have been tempted.” he whispered more to himself then to his maid. “My father would have been tempted by the potential to find the Keachie Obelisk alone. It’s the Vitandi Stella. It’s all my father ever thought about.”

 

Stella didn’t answer him. She stood by the door giving him a stern and disapproving frown. She had more to say but Octavius knew the moment he’d shushed her she would stay quiet. The longer she watched him in silence the more agitated the man became.

 

Octavius stomped over to the table and took his gin and tonic, drinking it down in two gulps. He took the cherry from the glass and threw it into the Baron’s ash tray.

 

“Please make me another gin and tonic Stella. And for the love of god please stop putting those damn cherries in them.”

 

Stella slowly turned to the door but stopped before leaving. She looked back over her shoulder. Her voice was low and calm, all the more threatening for it.

 

“You’re a fool Octavius. A fool just like your father. I was hoping the apple had fallen farther from the tree.” Her eyes looked him up and down with disdain. “And you drink too much!”

 

The maid stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her.

 

The minutes passed and the maid didn’t return. Octavius decided this was for the best and retrieved the scotch he kept hidden in his library shelves.

 

She was right that he didn’t need to drink any more. His thoughts were chaotic though and he wanted to still them under the cover of haze. Tonight he’d give himself the freedom to be drunk and oblivious to what was right or wrong. Come morning there would be plenty of time to decide what he Obediah the Second should do for Obediah the Second and not for the memory of the First.

 

 

III

 

 

“Baron Wikanman? A telegram arrived for you sir.”

 

The Baron smiled down at the young girl running towards him. She had the most beautiful bronze skin and her hair was a very rich lilac color. She was one of the Keachie sky people, taken captive by his host years ago when he sent his Dread Captain there to wage war in the aether. The girl had been just a toddler at the time and so she had acclimated to life on the true ground quite well.

 

The young girl handed a folded sheet of paper to the tall man.

 

“Why thank-you miss.” the Baron said politely. He reached over to a spread of flowers on the entry way table and pulled a white orchid from the collection. He leaned over and gently slipped the flower behind the girl’s ear. “Run along now sweetie.”

 

The girl grinned as she felt the flower in her hair. She turned and quickly moved back into the heart of the house. The Baron briefly thought about how attractive a woman she would become and felt a brief bit of pity that there was no way to truly take the savage out of the Keachie, or at least this is what the people of the grounded world thought. She was a happy little house servant now and she’d grow up beautiful and become a house servant in a very different capacity.

 

The thought was there and gone. The Baron didn’t like to dwell on things that tried to provoke a reaction from his conscious. He opened the telegram and smiled.

 

“To the Baron Wikanman, I accept your offer. Please advice me on how to proceed at your earliest convenience. Yours, Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second.” he read aloud. “Well this is good news.”

 

The Baron moved out into a beautiful spring night. There were night birds singing and the air smelled pleasantly of all the many varieties of flowers his host kept in his Victorian style garden. The Baron took all of this in and offered the world a content sigh.

 

His auto slowly pulled around the large looping driveway. The Baron reached for a cigarette and casually smoked as his driver stepped from the auto and opened the back door for him. He made the young man wait patiently as he slowly worked at the cigarette, every so often casually (and without concern) tapping the ashes onto the neat marble path beneath his feet. When he was done he stamped out the spent cigarette beneath his heal and walked away from the small mess he left on the otherwise unmarked white surface.

 

As he sat in the back of his automobile being gently rocked side to side, he reached for the zephyranode and requested a direct line to his Vitandi mistress. Minutes passed as the connection was established, clarified and returned. Chills ran over his skin when he heard the woman’s voice addressing him.

 

“My mistress. I have good news. Mr. Obediah has agreed to my proposition. He is awaiting further instructions. I will set up a mee….”

 

The woman on the other end of the zephyranode cut the Baron off.

 

“No. I will do this myself. Thank you for making the initial contact for us. I think it best from this point on that we work directly with Mr Obediah, especially given his general opinion of you.”

 

The Baron felt both disappointed and offended. The planning stage of the big event was where he would have the best opportunity to not only push his influence onto things, but also where he might spend the most time around his mistress. He was aware the Vitandi’s plans called for a great deal of insight from Obediah junior, yet he’d still assumed he would be there to help steer the boat, so to speak. If he was not needed there he would be relegated to just his showman duties planning the society events.

 

“It really is no trouble. I was looking forward to the opportunity to work directly with you after all of our negotiations. And to be very frank, Mr Obediah is lacking in imagination. I fear your charms might be lost on him for what you need. I know how to work him. I brought him to you after all.” The Baron countered.

 

He knew the moment the woman spoke there would be no changing her mind. She was shrewd in her decision making and seldom swayed no matter how good the argument. In helping her bring Obediah and his private collection into the event planning, the Baron had effectively and unknowingly removed himself from it.

 

“No Baron, I need you where your skills will be best put to use.” the woman replied. “You are my social butterfly, my wizard of charm. I need these socials to be the biggest and most grand spectacles that they can be and I know you’ll do this well for me. I have complete confidence in you. Now I leave you to it. Goodnight Baron and thank you.”

 

The zephyranode went silent when the woman stepped away from hers. It fell to static as she cut off their direct contact.

 

The Baron threw the dusk-land communication device to the floor and watched as it smashed. Though Octavius was ignorant to what had just happened the Baron would still hold him personally responsible for it.

 

As a showman touched with no small amount of narcissism, the Baron was like a grown child with reckless ambitions and a disregard for the rules placed upon the rest of society. So grand could his neediness become and so touchy his bitter disposition that it took little to set him to rage. A type of rage he would go to great and petty lengths to quell. His neediness had hit a fever pitch over his desire for his Vitandi mistress and this event they were going to create together. It was his show, no matter who helped draw out the maps and lines for it.

 

As his automobile drove him through the sleepy hills to his private mansion well outside of the city, the Baron was planning. He was planning his events and planning his revenge.

 

 

Chapter III

Sapling Sacrifices, The Magnus Certatio & Frangipani

 

I

 

 

“What is it?”

 

“It’s a rune… the symbol for sacred protection.”

 

“That seems out of place for her.”

 

“It does.”

 

A young woman’s body lay lifeless in a bed of moss. She looked quite peaceful, as if death had come over her like a soft breeze that wrapped its arms around her soul and gently carried it away to those better places beyond. What it left behind was a pale body that was coming out of that brief time of after death stiffness and now growing soft. In a few days quite a bit of the woman’s flesh would gently fall away into the moss bed beneath it. Strangely there was an absence of insect life on the surface of her dead skin.

 

There was a rune on the dead woman’s forehead. The rune sat in the middle of a woven flower headdress. The same type of flowers were woven around the woman’s neck, wrists and ankles. She lay naked and in the place where her thighs came together there was a patch of moss with smaller flowers within it giving the woman a more intimate decoration. Above this a very ancient symbol had been delicately branded into the skin below her navel.

 

A man and woman stood on either side of her body. They offered the woman a respectful distance. Neither individual moved to touch the body or disturb the death bed it lay upon. The woman in the pair pointed to the branded symbol.

 

“Is the symbol for the Meliae? A tree cult?”

 

The man shook his head slowly, letting his eyes wander over the vast and abandoned area. There was nothing but undisturbed nature in all directions with just this one natural clearing in the middle of it.

 

“Not Meliae. They’re not quite old enough. This comes from the old tribes.” he whispered as if he was afraid of having the woods around them hear. He pointed to the place where the woman’s thighs came together. “Where we to take an intrusive look I’m sure we’d find a tree seed placed inside her.” His eyes looked from the woods to his companion to see if the suggestion would upset her.

 

The woman said nothing. She was nodding her head slowly as a look of sadness and understanding came over her features. She was starting the process of sensing the scene.

 

“She volunteered herself to her people and was probably excited to be chosen.”

 

She knelt down next to the body, some of the sadness leaving her features. She looked on with nothing but peaceful understanding.

 

“I bet her heart was near to bursting as they prepared her. They washed her in mother’s milk and probably had her drink a good honey mead to sooth her nerves as they wove the flower wreathes for her body. She probably blushed a little when they brought her the more intimate seed. By the time they walked her out to this spot and laid her down in the moss she was all smiles and beautiful feelings; a fine combination of drunkenness, youthful spirituality, and perhaps a promise of strength for her people. When they gave her the final cup of poison, she took it without hesitation and laid back peacefully into her eternal bed.”

 

The woman slowly laid herself down along side of the moss bed and looked into the darkening sky above. It was a fine place to look at the stars. It was a beautiful view to leave the living world with.

 

“She looked into the sky and saw how incredible and vast the heavens are and as the poison started to come over her she was filled with the absolute joy of knowing she was going to die and be reborn as something strong and eternal.” The woman let her head fall to the side so she could look at the dead woman beside her. “They choose her to be their next sacred tree. She will always be within her people’s mythology. Can you imagine? Dying to become the birth cradle of something so new, so natural, and having everyone believe your soul is within it?”

 

The man felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t always sure how to address his companion’s moments of wondering.

 

“Is this what you think or what you can see?” he asked tentatively.

 

The woman’s dreamy face came back to the present moment as she sat up and got back to her feet. She lightly swatted the loose dirt from her clothes.

 

“What I see and what I can feel. This is a sacred place Dore. We should move on before any of her people come back to check on her. The worst thing we can do is taint this place and ruin this young woman’s sacrifice. I don’t want to do that. She’s going to make a fine tree one day.”

 

Dore, the man in the pair, remained along side the woman’s body for a few more minutes to quickly sketch what he was witnessing. He especially wanted to make note of the symbol branded into the skin; that would be most important. The rune placed on the woman’s head was probably more to ward off some of the Nordic people in the region who could possibly stumble across the body. It would warn them to leave her alone.

 

Test, the woman, was already starting to walk away. Her head was in a dreamy place where her empathetic talents for lingering emotions was continuing to walk her through the ritual that had taken place there. She’d need a few minutes to let the feelings calm down and slowly fade away before her head would be right again. This was usually how long her companion Dore needed to take his pieces from the scene.

 

About an hour later the pair were quietly walking and finally coming back to the old road they’d followed to get to the spot. Their automobile was sitting in the shadows by the side of the road. Test never thought about it, but it was always in the back of Dore’s mind when they wandered into such places that he was happy to find the auto waiting for them when they returned. He only allowed himself to feel safe again when the worn leather was under his legs and the glass windows were offering a transparent shield between him and the world outside.

 

The pair drove in silence for awhile until a passing steam-locomotive caused them to stop. Dore took the opportunity to get out of the car and pull his pipe out. He didn’t like to drive and smoke, nor did he want to trap his companion in an enclosed space where the corrupted air would fuss with her senses; especially after such a find.

 

Test moved from the auto as well and walked towards the passing machine. It was a cargo locomotive moving supplies. There were no passenger cars on it. She looked lost to her thoughts as she watched it pass. When she looked back at her companion her face looked disturbed.

 

“Something the matter Test?” he asked between puffs of his pipe.

 

Test’s head nodded slowly. She was wearing one of her strange faces and that was the only way Dore could describe it. It was a mixture of dreaminess and utter seriousness; something her face displayed easily.

 

The woman was at the start of her twenties and while her face looked younger than her years, her eyes had a deep, ancient quality about them. Dore always thought if Test had lived a past life it would have been as a Greek Sibyl: A creature that was wise and mysterious and as alluring as she was frightening. This is how Dore often felt around his companion.

 

“Care to share?” he gently nudged her.

 

“Not here.” she said simply. She moved back towards the auto. “It might hear.”

 

Dore put his pipe out and joined the woman in the auto. They sat in silence for ten minutes until the locomotive had passed and was well out of sight. Only then did Test look at her companion and say the strangest thing.

 

“The locomotives are migrating.”

 

It, like so many of the things the woman spoke of, didn’t make immediate sense nor was there a guarantee it would ever make sense. Some people looked at the world through a simple color wheel, where Test looked at the world through a kaleidoscope of unknown colors and textures that pretended to be colors. She could sense things few others could and she knew a great many truths that she accepted as facts without questioning them no matter how strange they may be. Dore did his best to try and translate and understand the truths and facts that Test offered him.

 

“You think the locomotive paths are starting to follow a changing course?”

 

Test shook her head. “No. They’re migrating… like big foul coal eating snakes. Some place they’re all meeting up for a type of season man never knew before the invention of them. I can’t explain it any better. Making them move through the dusk-lands is changing them… making them more rebellious. I’m sure someone will eventually start noticing them disappearing. I just worry about the few passenger trains that feel the pull. They’ll take their passengers with them and I don’t think a place of irritable migrating locomotives is anywhere a person wants to be.”

 

Dore listened but had no thoughtful reply to her statement. His head moved up and down slowly so his companion knew he was listening but the conversation ended where Test finished it. After all they’d seen that night Dore was not prepared to figure out the riddle of the migrating locomotives.

 

A few hours later and a good many miles put between them and the place they’d come from, Dore and Test found a bed and breakfast that offered a beautiful hand painted sign saying weary travelers were welcome at any hour. They secured a room and were happy to be out of the night.

 

When Dore returned from the communal bathroom Test was already in the bed fast asleep. He moved over to the bed and gently let his fingers run over that especially soft place where her sun kissed forehead turned into an unruly line of pale gold hair. Her breathing was heavy and every now and then her eyes flicked this way and that beneath her closed eyelids. He knew that somewhere deep down in the waters of sleep she was dreaming of being that dead young woman in the last few hours of her life. She was finishing the experience by playing it out moment to moment so within the dreaming it would become more than just a feeling to her; it would become a memory.

 

Dore, ever the gentleman (sometimes to the displeasure of his back) took an extra quilt from the end of the bed and moved over to a reasonably comfortable looking overstuffed chair that had a matching foot stool. He sank into the chair and propped his feet up and with the quilt over him he wasn’t too uncomfortable. Sleep came over him quickly and he happily slipped into a place free of dreams and thought.

 

The man would stir only for a moment in the middle of the early hours with a thought so pressing that it should wake him. As he tried to blink the sleep away and hold onto the thought it slowly disappeared. His last thought, before sleep reclaimed him, was: They are migrating. Something is happening. Then the darkness pulled him back in and all thoughts fled.

 

 

II

 

 

It was an exciting day and Octavius felt as though each of his actions were taking place somewhere outside of consciousness. It was like he was following himself around the world just a few feet from behind. In this way everything he did seemed exaggerated and worth studying intently.

 

He watched himself carefully work the shaped material at his neck into a tidy little bow tie. He watched his hands as they moved to and from the sink with comb in the left hand as he attempted to get the right shape to his sometimes unforgiving dark hair. His right hand was just all a flutter and failed attempts to correct the left one. Never had he found his first moments of grooming so pleasant and perhaps meaningful.

 

The collector continued to watch himself and make notes about his own behaviors and mannerisms. There was a dream-like quality to all of this that made the events of the day more surreal, but all the more wonderful for it. This strange quirk was offering him a good start. He needed a good start to keep his confidence in check. Quite suddenly he was feeling very overwhelmed with what was to come.

 

There had been many restless nights after he sent a telegram to the Baron confirming his interest in the proposition offered to him. Plenty of nights he’d been plagued by dreams of his father telling him he was a fool even though he knew his father would never say such a thing where the Vitandi was concerned. When his dreams were not weighing on his conscious, his maid Stella had taken to chastising him for his rash decisions as of late, though this was the only decision she found rash. For a man who seldom second guessed himself it was all a bit much.

 

Octavius had said nothing to Stella about when his first meeting with the representative of the Vitandi was taking place nor had he said where. He was growing quite weary with her mother-like scolding of him and decided it best to make sure she wasn’t there when the meeting took place. So he sent both Stella and Mr Olophant on short vacations. The maid offered some resistance to being sent away but once Octavius booked passage for her back to her native Friesland for two weeks she quickly changed her tune. Mr Olophant was so removed from anything happening to the living members of the household he’d simply shrugged and given his employer a brief tutorial on how to work his ghost catching bucket trap in the basement.

 

After getting his regular staff out of the way, Octavius hired temporary help to come in and give his entire property a thorough cleaning. Or, to be more frank, a proper cleansing. It had been a good ten years since Stella went from dedicated housekeeper to an old woman in a maid’s uniform who liked to flutter about with her feather duster in hand while ignoring all the dust around her.

 

Within a day the temporary help had gone through and given his old mansion the proper cleaning it had needed for far too long. There was even a newly relocated builder in the area who had yet to be spoiled with rumors and tall tales of the strange estate that belonged to the Obediah clan. Octavius put that young lad to work fixing holes on the roof and the stained ceiling inside. He also paid him twice his asked for rate hoping this little greasing of the palms might keep him resistant to those tall tales.

 

The house was now open and freshly aired out. Each room had fresh floral pieces to give everything the smell of a spring garden. The many bookshelves were dusted and all of the exhibition cabinets had their wood oiled and their glass windows cleaned. It felt like being taken back to the house of his father’s. A place where a man of his wealth would never let his sentimental nature keep him from having proper help and a proper home.

 

Now the big day had come. Soon he would meet the Baron’s mistress from the Vitandi.

 

Octavius, still caught up in that weird sensation of seeing things outside of himself, eyed the back of his head as he finished with his hair and then the illusion was shattered. Whatever trick of his brain had been at play it had sadly given up. He was once again back behind his own eyes staring at his reflection and feeling all the tension that was growing inside his head.

 

As Octavius looked at his reflection he had a brief moment of vanity where he wondered at what point exactly he’d started to grow older. It wasn’t his father’s face staring back at him, but there were definite allusions to it. Most prominent was the worry line across his forehead that never settled down anymore, even when his face was relaxed. By the time his father passed he had a similar line so deeply set into the space over his eyes it almost looked like it had been carved into the flesh there. It gave him a quality of constant intense thought or contemplation.

 

“It is not beauty or the strength of physical character that dictates how the world sees us my boy.” Octavius whispered to his reflection. “It is a well made suit, a well timed laugh, and a charm that could stir life in the dead. This is what makes the world bend to your needs. This is what you’ve inherited from me in spades. Never forget it, especially in times of apprehension.” These were his father’s words and he was able to repeat them in a near identical timber. This was a time of apprehension. Octavius said these words over and over a few more times like a chant to chase away the worry.

 

The collector stepped from his private rooms and moved to his library. There was still an air of the Baron in the room even though it had been weeks since the man had been there to seduce Octavius. It was like a physical stink had been cast off from him and it left a ghost in the room that brought attention to itself via the nostrils.

 

The roof was no longer leaking and the stains in the floor and ceiling had been dealt with. Octavius counted them as small victories even though the Baron’s presence still lingered.

 

There was a small rap on the door before a very attractive young maid entered the room. She was barely of age and on loan to him from a friend’s house as a favor. As far as servants went she was quiet, polite and could easily disappear into the background of any scene until needed. Octavius had noticed this at his friend’s house where the young woman’s mother and older sister also worked. He’d thought of her when he decided to bring in temporary help for the day. She was like a pretty vase: Proper and alluring on the outside and quite empty and thoughtless on the inside. This was not meant as a slight against her. One could never underestimate the power of thoughtlessness when you had people always hovering at the corners and potentially hearing things they shouldn’t hear. The thoughtless seldom found a need to spy in such cases or at least pretended well enough and kept their gossip to themselves. His own maid would be hanging on every word if not offering her own input every so often.

 

“Excuse me sir.” she began in her little song bird voice. “Your guests have arrived. I’ve shown them to the display room and served them tea. I told them, as requested, that you were finishing up with business matters and will join them shortly.”

 

Octavius nodded and motioned the girl away.

 

It wasn’t his usual habit to keep anyone waiting. He hated it when it was done to him and often it curbed his view of the parties involved. He saw it as a juvenile tactic to gain control of a situation. In this particular instance he was setting that belief aside and using it. He had a certain impression he wanted to make and at the heart of that impression was the suggestion that he was doing them a favor by seeing them in his home and offering his services, not the other way around. This was very much the case, but he knew the reputation of this group and they would quickly try to turn things around in their favor.

 

It took every bit of self restraint to wait ten minutes before slowly leaving his library to join his guests. As he walked he did his best to remove the fear from his features and put on his best showman face. He tried to make the mask of his father become all that anyone would see from him.

 

His last lingering concern was who exactly was this liaison the Baron called his mistress? The true identity of this individual would greatly influence how he acted and therefore how events played out.

 

The Vitandi were a tightly guarded group but this did not keep some individual personalities and reputations from making their way into the outside world. From those individuals he was familiar with he hoped for certain personalities more than others. Much of his rehearsed and intended conversation was based upon his hope of being introduced to those he preferred. So it was with great disappointment when he entered his display room and saw his waiting guest.

 

A bulky woman stood at a small, antique Japanese table at the heart of the room, holding her tea cup in hand and surveying the brewed liquid inside. She dismissively set the tea cup down on the expensive table with little regard to table’s delicately carved surface.

 

Octavius knew this woman’s reputation well and he didn’t like it. Seeing her in the flesh, without having seen any photograph or illustration of her previously, she looked exactly as he’d pictured in his mind.

 

There was a natural shape to the woman’s features that made her face always look slightly displeased. She looked upon the world with a dowdy appearance that even her expensive and overly decorated clothes could not improve upon. The only thing that might make her appearance seem less harsh and judgmental was a smile, yet she possessed a mouth that found very little to smile about. She was, in so few words, the absolute last person Octavius wanted to see for this first meeting. Insulting his selection of tea would be the very least of her jabs.

 

Quickly Octavius attempted to gain control of his reaction so that as she looked up from her discarded tea cup she would not see his look of distress. The horrible woman quickly let him know there was no mask he could wear to hide his true opinion of her.

 

“Ah Mr Obediah, not the person you were hoping to see, that much is obvious. I should worry less about who you would prefer to be here and more about properly treating the person who is taking the time to actually come here. A few minutes longer and I would have left. It is very rude to keep anyone waiting when you have established an appointment time.”

 

The woman, with the uncommon name of Ms Parka Driad, waved her hand and made a dismissive face as though she didn’t expect such courtesies from him. Everything about her, even down to the very heavy sound of her breathing, was off-putting.

 

Octavius had a corner of the room he’d planned to take this meeting and had a cozy set-up already arranged, but the foul woman found a solitary chair to her preference and sat down without any courtesies to her host. The collector stiffly snapped a finger and requested his temporary butler to move a chair for him so that he might sit across from the woman as he addressed her.

 

As Octavius took a seat he allowed his displeasure and annoyance with the woman to bully up his confidence. Rudeness was something his father could not abide by and he’d grown to adopt that feeling as well.

 

Everything about Ms Driad was rude. She was in his house coming to ask for his research and his private things. She could be as horrible as she wanted, at the end of the day she was still coming to him with her hand out. This needed to be clear.

 

“I apologize for my delay but in my line of work there are times when one thing has to be attended to at the momentary expense of another. I’m afraid sometimes necessity trumps courtesy no matter the guest.” he replied stiffly.

 

“May I ask what was so important?” Ms Driad shot back. She was staring at him coldly and doing her best to intimidate him. She was probably the Vitandi’s star player for this type of confrontational interaction.

 

“No you may not.” he said curtly.

 

Octavius realized he was pleased with the horrible woman being there. There was no longer any hint of worry in him. There was nothing but the strong man his father had raised and one of the most well respected men in his field. He was not prepared to let this woman take the lead, especially as she sat among one of the finest private collections of unusual things that she was there to arbitrate for.

 

The collector narrowed his eyes at the crude woman. “Now, before we continue I want to be perfectly plain about this meeting. It was your group that reached out to me via a very obtuse and obnoxious man who is neither known for his good manners or strength of character. Had the incredibly grand nature of your proposed event not been so overwhelming in every aspect we wouldn’t be having this meeting at all. So please mind your manners and remember you are in my home and my guest. I don’t respond well to the petty tactics of a woman such as yourself Ms Driad.”

 

Octavius’ hand shot up like a weapon and caused the woman to wince for an unguarded moment. He drew his fingers in, leaving one out that he dramatically pointed towards the table in the room and the temporary butler rushed forward and picked up the discarded tea cup. He whisked it over to the woman’s chair and offered it back to her. Octavius quietly stared her down until she had no choice but to take the tea cup back in hand.

 

There was a change in the woman’s expression. It was but a shadow crossing her dull sun of a face but it was a noticeable shadow nonetheless. She did her best to try and regain control of the situation but it was apparent she realized her error. “And what type of woman am I Mr Obediah?” she asked stiffly, daring him to be honest with her and therefore be rude himself.

 

“A boorish one.” he replied plainly. “A boorish one with little tact and a complete disregard for respect when a little respect would get you much farther. Now give me your pitch quickly before I have no more time to spare on this meeting. You’ve already soured me quite thoroughly on this subject.”

 

The brute of a woman looked truly offended and Octavius couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something so rude that gave him that much pleasure. It was what he needed. After the weeks of excitement mingling with him second guessing himself, he needed this short and harsh exchange to remind him of who he was and what he was meant to be in the scheme of these things. He almost wished he’d let his daft maid stay so he could have seen the inadvertent ways she too offended the ole sourpuss.

 

Ms Driad nodded her head somewhat dumbly and lifted her hand and snapped her fingers. At first Octavius thought she was moving onto a different tactic to control the moment, but she quickly called for the twinnies. He then realized she was not the negotiator here, she was simply the warm-up act to test the man’s resolve.

 

There were two bodies unseen moving towards the back of the display room. They had been obscured behind a very large reading machine contraption that Octavius kept behind a very secure display. He heard and smelled the first twin before he saw her. The woman’s voice alone stirred goose-flesh on the man’s arms. The alluring scent coming from her went a step farther to make his thoughts soften.

 

“Oh don’t mind our aunt Parka Mr Obediah, she’s bracing but quite harmless. She does a very grand job of looking after us and making sure we’re in company suitable to our needs and temperament. Consider her an extension of our hands to feel you out.”

 

The woman’s voice was young and like the softest of silks sliding down a wall of ice. There was something quite graceful and beautiful to her slightly husky voice while still lightly threatening.

 

Octavius caught himself straining around the many objects in the room to see the woman as she approached.

 

“And if I’d cow-towed to your aunt?” he asked the voice.

 

“The conversation would have been over before it ever began.” the woman replied.

 

She stepped from behind a display and Octavius had to strain to conceal his immediate reaction to the unearthly creature standing there.

 

The creature, for he found it hard to call her a woman and therefore put her into the mundane category of every woman he’d known before her, was a tall and slender thing. She was almost androgynous with her lack of sharp curves so often forced into a woman’s body with corsets. Her body swelled naturally free of such restraints with just a pleasant hint of a modest womanly anatomy at the bust and the hips. She wore a form fitting rich purple dress that hugged her body like a second skin from the top of her shoulders until is slowly flowed downwards and only began to fan out just before the start of her knees. It brought attention to her flawlessly slight, sloping breasts and how wonderfully flat her stomach was below. The whole effect made her seem very tall and more of an imposing and regal presence. Around her shoulders she wore some type of leather harness that looked to serve no useful purpose but worked well as a decorative piece to give more character to her simple but elegant dress. It suggested something powerful and almost industrial.

 

It took a moment for Octavius to let his eyes move from that body to her face and when he did he was done in.

 

The creature’s face was slim and distinctly laid out in sharp angles. Her cheekbones were almost painfully defined and moved up towards cat-like eyes that were outlined in coal liner. Her hair was the deepest shade of black and partially hung in long tendrils that framed her face with severe dark lines. The eyes they framed were a brilliant amber color the man had rarely seen in a human eye before. Her lids were heavy and gave her an ever-bored but intense look. Then her lips… such lips that were neither overly plump over unattractively thin. They were painted in a shade of purple to match her dress. Octavius could honestly say he’d never actually seen a woman use such an unusual color of lip rouge before but it worked well on her. The rest of her hair was tightly pulled into a thick bun on the back of her head, held in place by two long silver sticks that looked as though they could be neatly pulled free and used as weapons.

 

The creature, despite her slight build, walked with the swagger of a panther. There was something very aggressive and masculine about her movements and it only served to make her more hauntingly beautiful. Octavius found himself sitting there gawking like an idiot.

 

She moved across the floor and came to stand behind her aunt’s chair. There she rested her slender and perfectly shaped fingers on her aunt’s square shoulders. She was smiling.

 

“I don’t like weak men and I will not work with one no matter what novelties he possesses or knowledge he claims to have. There are always ways to get around a trivial thing such as possession, so knowing that we might work together and avoid that ugliness is a very good start.”

 

She leaned over and gave her aunt a quick kiss on the head, which worked wonderfully to distract Octavius from the fact that his collection had just been lightly threatened with theft. The aunt and niece made such a very disturbing juxtaposition next to one another that let the idea quickly slip from his thoughts. “Thank you auntie.” she whispered in the older woman’s ear.

 

The boorish woman nodded her head stiffly and stood up. She offered her seat to her niece. “You are most welcome my darling.” She looked back at the collector, a deep seething dislike in her stare. “This is Miss Frangipani Driad. We will need another seat for her brother.”

 

Octavius didn’t hear the request as he was busy musing on what a lovely name that was for a lovely thing. Something moved in the back of the room and he was reminded there was someone else there. The boorish woman had mentioned twins after all. He quickly called to his temporary butler and had another chair moved next to the niece’s.

 

“Yes, let us not forget about little ole me.” This voice was deep and attractive for a male’s voice and very easily carried with it a suggestion of humor, boredom and elitism if such a thing described were possible to discern from the sound of so few words.

 

The man that came into view was very much like his twin in that he was extremely handsome, but there was something about him that lacked the same swagger and aggressive nature of his sister. He seemed bored and perhaps itching to do something that might entertain him even if this thing was rude or harmful. There was a distinct air of disregard coming off of him. He’d spent a life rich and pampered and very little gave him a thrill. Octavius knew the type all too well. It was this very type of individual he’d managed to attain so much of his personal collection from.

 

The male twin came to stand next to his sister. His attire was as well tailored and fitting to his toned body as his sister’s was to hers and like hers there were strange pieces to the outfit that looked as though they should serve a practical purpose but were just for decoration. Whoever styled and sewed for them they had a futuristic eye and knew how to make the pair look uniquely attired. It was easy to imagine neither of these creatures had any desire to dull themselves down in the popular fashions of the day.

 

“This is my nephew Mr Oleander Driad.” Ms Driad offered.

 

The aunt looked at the twins and almost in unison they curtly nodded their heads and dismissed their aunt as though she little more than a common servant. She was quickly up and out of the room.

 

“Everyone calls me Lee.” the male twin replied. “Our mother and her stupid love of flowery names gave us all insipid little titles like that. At least my shrub is poisonous.” The man offered this observation with a smile made of dangerous looking white teeth and a slight shark-like appearance to his jawline. His eyes were the same shade of bright amber as his twin’s.

 

“Frangipani and Lee, if I may use first names.” Octavius said, trying to find his rhythm again. “It is good to meet you both. I’m sorry about that little scene with your aunt. There are certain types of personalities I prefer not to deal with, no offense meant to her. Am I to understand I will be conducting this meeting with you two?”

 

Frangipani’s head moved up and down slowly as she smiled. The smile softened her face somewhat and Octavius felt like he could finally take a breath. She crossed her long legs beneath her dress and let her hands come to rest together on her knee.

 

“Yes, you will. Well mostly you will be dealing with me. My brother acts more as my companion in situations like this and really has nothing useful to add to the conversation except his charm.” she paused and gave her brother a wink. “Please don’t worry about my aunt. She is a harsh and brittle woman and as we use her as a thermometer for first introductions she has grown used to not being too offended by the responses she elicits. As I said, I don’t like dealing with the type of person who would let our dear auntie walk all over them. After all, we stopped letting her do that when we were barely four.” There was a strange look that passed from brother to sister and in unison they laughed softly as if they were privilege to a secret joke. Lee took that opportunity to casually drift back into the rows of displays and leave his sister to her talking.

 

Octavius nodded his head as he tried to relax. The edge that had gone was now back. It wasn’t that he wasn’t confident around women. Charm was one of his natural gifts. There was just something very strange going on behind the woman’s eyes that was unsettling him a little even as he found her quite enticing. He was finding it hard to get a handle on the sudden gut punch he’d taken to his libido. It had been quite some time since a woman had so instantly affected him. Though the longer he looked upon her the more he felt he needed to be on guard.

 

He cleared his throat and nodded stupidly again, “Understood. So, why don’t we get straight to the point of the matter and explain this event to me and the thoughts behind it.”

 

“Of course Mr Obediah.”

 

Each time she said his formal name the goosebumps raised on his skin anew. He needed to stop that.

 

“Please, call me Octavius. I prefer first names.”

 

This won a more gentle smile from the young woman. “Alright, Octavius. I know you are well versed in the history of the Vitandi and what we primarily study there. I know you are also aware of how closed off we’ve been as a collective since nearly the beginning. Perhaps the Baron mentioned that as times continue to change the Vitandi has not always changed with them. While this was alright to some degree internally, we’ve felt a keen change in our reputation in the outside world. It had been a very long time since we’ve done anything to attempt to draw the best minds or the young prospects we once did. Instead the Vitandi has taken to simply training the offspring of their members for decades now. This has become such a habit much of our own group and the world outside has forgotten we even used to seek out the best in their fields. The Vitandi now acts as though it’s a pure blood sort of creation and because of this, like interbred royalty throughout history, we don’t always have the best and brightest seeing to our needs.

 

“This lack of fresh blood is finally starting to be felt among us as the elders slowly pass into the shadows and we the young of the family must try and find a way to keep things progressing. It’s quite a burden for such a small group. Especially when not everyone is so thrilled with this handing over of the torch. Those of us dedicated to our collective know it is time to replace them with the minds that will appreciate what we can offer. Minds that the collective can benefit from in return.”

 

The young woman stopped there, taking a moment to collect her thoughts and reevaluate her approach to explaining what the Vitandi wanted to do and ultimately what they wanted of Octavius. She was constantly fine-tuning how she interacted with people according to their way of speaking and slight facial ticks. The collector was on guard. So much so the young woman was having a hard time reading him.

 

“Mr Obediah… Octavius… can we be honest for a moment?” she smiled, letting her slender hands glide through the air to punctuate her words. “I had a very long and drawn out conversation already rehearsed before I arrived here. You will undoubtedly understand how important this event is to us and therefore how much planning went into what I was to say in this meeting because of how important your role is meant to play. Now that I am here, I find that whole plan to be folly. I want to instead be very direct with you. Can I be direct with you Octavius?”

 

More than anything he wanted to smile and open his arms up warmly to the woman and exclaim that he would welcome such directness. To mutter some gibberish about how badly he loathed all the fake niceties and pandering in the attempt to sway a person into giving up what was wanted of them. The collector had more sense than that though. The way he was reacting to the woman was most likely exactly what the Vitandi wanted. Frangipani seemed like the type of creature who was more than used to getting her way on just her charms and when they failed he had no doubt she was thoughtful enough to work a person just as easily with her words. Octavius had to throw some water on the dragons she’d created in his stomach and get back to the matters at hand. In that case honesty would be welcomed if that was what the woman really had to offer.

 

“Of course you can.” he said in a very stiff voice. “You will, however, have to imagine that I believe everything you do here will have been rehearsed. So asking for my compliance in being direct, as you said, sounds no less like a well thought out sell. But please… continue.”

 

Frangipani smiled, bemused by being called out. “Oh it’s all a scripted drama Octavius. Be sure of that. However, this is my take on the drama that is about to play out. You see the Vitandi wants a great many things from you to make this event as grand as desired. They also want to offer you many things in return to bribe you into getting those things they want. You stand to make out very well in this arrangement. We are indeed looking back to the old days where such an event will help us add to our numbers and we’ll get that fresh blood I remarked upon. And yes everyone hopes this will help bring the Vitandi back into the spotlight and bully up our reputation again. We want our power and influence back. Your own reputation will become a thing of legend I would imagine. However, when all of this fluff and fodder is set aside, you’re not going to like the Vitandi’s true goal.”

 

“And what is that?”

 

The smile on the young woman’s face was no longer playful or even beautiful. It was a cruel and calculating thing that gave the only true hint to her actual nature. It was foreshadowing Octavius should have taken better notice of at the time, not that it would have ultimately swayed his decisions in the least.

 

“After all the big announcements, speeches and other horseshit the mouth pieces of this grand event will offer, the true goal of the Vitandi is to make their way to the doors of Riker Rouge and enter. The very thing our collective failed to do with their very last great race.” Frangipani’s smile widened after this unexpected reveal; all narrow shark teeth gleaming in the light just like her brother’s. “Enter in blessed dark glory and look upon the midnight sun and its mate the black star. We will know the black court and look upon the yellow sign. This is something the secret heart of the Vitandi has always wanted. Something your own family’s research knows a great deal about.”

 

The room fell silent. Lee was still somewhere not far off inspecting the items kept in the room. He made a soft hissing noise as he heard what his sister had just said. The aunt was hiding outside the door listening in, now trying to keep herself from rushing into the room and fixing what her impulsive niece had just done. You could hear her bulk pressing against the closed door.

 

Octavius was the most silent of anyone there. He was in fact holding his breath as he tried to calm his heart. Every tick in his body was being firmly held back for fear he’d let a tell show. He just needed enough time to decide if the young woman was trying to be shocking to see his reaction or if she was indeed being honest. There was a horrible sense of dread coming over him as he realized it was the latter.

 

Finally the collector let out a weary sigh. He’d let the excitement of the Baron’s offer get the better of him and now he was dealing with that consequence. This was no simple race to find new members or new treasures. It was one of the few fool’s quests that was the one constant in his world for centuries. It was also a source of irrational fears he’d spent much of his adult life trying to shake. It was the dark bedtime story his mother often told him as a way to keep him from too blindly running through the world looking under rocks for hidden things with his father.

 

Carefully he choose his words as he replied. “I want to think you’re just adding to the drama of this whole event Frangipani, but I am fearing you are being quite serious, just as I’m sure the handlers who sent you here are going to be furious with you for being so transparent.”

 

The young woman’s eyebrows raised as she nodded her head slowly. “Oh they will want to skin me alive when I return to them. There is nothing they can do about it now, however. I think that is for the best. You see, we can waste time trying to lure you, nay, seduce you into taking part in something that ultimately I fear you would take leave of once you found out the truth behind the lie. Or? We can be honest right from the beginning and you can understand our intentions, our plans, and how you can be apart of them. You can decide to remain in your safe little corner of the world with your impressive but small treasures. Or you can remember why you followed in your father’s footsteps all these years and come with us. I can promise you the latter will be far more entertaining, even life changing.”

 

The young woman leaned forward and slide a hand onto the collector’s knee. Her very touch was cold and hot at the same time and brought a deep redness to his cheeks. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling in the least.

 

“I’m almost positive your father would have taken us up on the offer without a thought.” she cooed.

 

Octavius wanted to bat the woman’s hand away and that said a lot considering how attracted he was to her. There was something very wrong about Frangipani Driad. He didn’t like hearing her so easily speak of his father. It made him feel as though she understood all the things he tried to hide from himself.

 

From somewhere deep within the room the voice of the twin brother broke the tension and briefly pulled the collector away from his sudden repulsion of the woman.

 

“Just remember my good man, this is only a sinister temptation if you honestly believe there is a Riker Rouge to be found. Supposedly the Vitandi are experts on the subject, even stood before those doors once before. And yet? Even those of us with unrestricted access to our histories only find the occasional urban legend.”

 

Lee appeared from behind a large glass case containing a series of enchanted tools to which only the collection of cursed shears had yet to be found. His attractiveness was not as intimidating as his sister’s and this was not just because he was a male. He lacked a certain amount of… darkness. He smiled and the dark cloud over the room passed. This was probably why he was sent with his twin. The brother was there to force a little light into his sister’s darkness. He continued.

 

“After all, there are cities of gold still left undiscovered, an ark… a chalice… the burlap wrapping that was used to suffocate the Bejhaung witch… all in the wind just like the place that hides access to the fabled dark stars and its scary chess pieces.” Lee sounded utterly bored as he offered his wisdom. “Do you really think you and the Vitandi are going to discover it? If you really think about it what is going to happen is a very expensive and overblown race of adventurers and intellectuals is going to take place. Strange things will be found and even stranger places will be seen, to be sure. The secret goal of finding Riker Rouge at the end of that race, however, simply puts a dangerous and romantic spin to it for the chronically bored.”

 

Lee walked past the couple in their chairs and moved to the display case that lined the far wall. Slowly he drew his hands behind his back as he leaned in to look at the title cards for the items on display behind the glass. He looked back over his shoulder. “And know that my sister is always on the verge of being exceptionally bored. If she finally reaches chronically bored I’m not sure we’ll be able to bring her back over the edge. So humor her.”

 

Frangipani glared at her twin and Octavius made a mental note to never be on the receiving end of that look. He said nothing though and quite frankly didn’t know what to say. What the woman admitted to was borderline madness; the thing the zealous occultists were known for, though her brother raised valid points.

 

There was also a third possibility: That this was a well thought out back and forth between the pair to confuse him or make him doubt his first instincts. He didn’t know. He’d never dealt with these types of people in all of his years of dealing. They were too young, too… aggressive and strange.

 

Octavius cleared his throat. For a moment those harsh eyes of Frangipani snapped back to him and he had to look down. He didn’t have the stomach to be caught eye to eye with this creature while she still looked so annoyed.

 

This meeting was going nothing like the collector had hoped for. Like his father before him though, Octavius had learned the very profitable art of finding a happy medium. It was time for him to change the tone and mood in the room as well as the direction of the conversation.

 

He chanced looking up and was glad to see the woman had put her bemused look back on.

 

“I honestly don’t know what to make of you two.” Octavius said with a sigh. He stood up and moved over to a display case and stared at its contents without seeing them. “I have been looking forward to having an audience with members of the Vitandi since… well since I can remember. You mentioned my father Frangipani? Well my father was always quite obsessed with your collective and growing up listening to the details of that obsession left an impression on me. My father would be so greatly disappointed to know that when the Vitandi finally took tea at his house they sent you two here to represent them. He would have found you distasteful and certainly nothing like the brilliant scholars of the unknown that he pined for.”

 

Frangipani looked deeply offended by this comment and began to say something but her brother cut her off.

 

“Finally!” Lee exclaimed. “Finally a man thinks with his brains around my sister and not from his trousers! Couple that with how he responds to our bullish aunt’s intimidation and they were right! This is a very good man for the job.”

 

Octavius looked over at the young man, offering him a saturnine smile. “I imagine you number among one of those your sister mentioned who’d prefer not to be apart of the group any longer? You seem absolutely devoid of any true intellectual temperament. You’re like a bored college boy playing side-kick to his sister.”

 

Lee stopped laughing but he was far from offended. “You have me there Mr Obediah. I’m sorry, Octavius, the man who prefers first names. My sister has all the passion, I’m simply content to enjoy the wealth and privilege. But I fear I have over-stepped here and perhaps did my sister a great disservice. This was not my intention. I sometimes get too wrapped up in the enjoyment of being glib.” The young man came away from the display case and took the empty seat next to his sister. “Please, let’s restart this conversation.”

 

Octavius returned to his chair but he did not take a seat. Instead he stood there with his hands in his pockets looking down on the twins like they were bad school children in need of scolding. This is exactly how he felt. The point of the meeting was to talk about the potential for something massive and yet one spoke of it like a joke and the other a dark fairy tale. He was going to channel his father a bit and educate them. Someone had to show an actual and thoughtful passion for the things being discussed if there was any hope to salvage this meeting.

 

“Yes, lets. Frangipani? Do you know why the Magnus Certatio ceased to take place?”

 

The slender woman shook her head slowly. “No one within the collective talks about why it came to an end only that it should be revived. Revived for reasons mentioned and the one I have personally admitted to. As my brother stated, within the collective we have been raised on mostly urban legends as to why the great race ended. It is likely those legends have been embellished through the years.”

 

Octavius nodded his head thoughtfully. “This should surprise me but it doesn’t. My father always said the legend of the race was kept much more grand and larger than life than the actual facts of it. The facts of the largest of these races was heavily pushed to be forgotten. Now… timing…” his voice trailed off.

 

Again his thoughts were all over the place. It had been a very long time since he’d let his thoughts dwell on his father’s true obsession or acknowledge it always having been there in the background for Octavius as well. Ever since that night when the Baron showed up in his library he’d thought of nothing else. He had to wonder if his father’s obsession wasn’t coming through in his own actions no matter how he told himself his desires to be among the Vitandi’s libraries was his own. The pair in front of him added a surreal tone to it all.

 

As he began to speak in the voice of his father he was trying to organize the many thoughts in his head.

 

“Nearly two centuries ago the last Magnus Certatio took place. At that time no one knew it would be the last one. No one knew what events had taken place during the course of it that caused the leader of the Vitandi to refuse to plan the next one. Two hundred years of tradition simply ended.” Octavius snapped his finger for effect. “Just like that.”

 

He turned away from the twins and began to slowly walk around his room until he came to a small plaque on the wall. It had a man’s profile crafted in bronze and there was a brief inscription above the head in Latin. Octavius very gently ran his fingers over the words inscribed there.

 

“This plaque belonged to a very distant relative of my family. My grandfather found it one day when he’d been charged with the task of going through boxes upon boxes he’d inherited from a newly dead third cousin. It had been a rainy day as he was sorting and my father was getting unruly being stuck in the house. So my grandfather upon finding this old thing gave it to Octavius the First and told him he should investigate who this man was and what these unknown words said about him. My father was only eight at the time. It’s the very thing that started him on the course he took through life.

 

“You see, he found out that this man, also an Obediah from a very distant line of the family, had been apart of that last Magnus Certatio race. He’d never made it to the finish line it was thought. In fact, he was never seen again after being accounted for at the last stop before going onto the final leg of the race. The Vitandi gave his family this plaque to denote their respect of his fierce intellect, quest for knowledge, and passion for all the things the Vitandi believed in. It was small conciliation to a family who lost their only breadwinner. I guess that’s why the plaque also came with a small fortune to help care for his family.”

 

Octavius moved back to the twins and now that he seemed to have their devoted attention he retook his seat across from them. For the moment they both looked every bit their young age and curious. It was a good start that he could at least spark some curiosity in them.

 

“I’m going to assume access to rare books is a fairly common thing for both of you. I’m also quite sure that you, my lovely Frangipani, have studied some of the most arcane secrets the Vitandi has in its possession. I’m sure when you researched me you recorded to memory every item within my collection, no matter how big or small. You offered me a small slight by calling them little treasures but you and I both know that there are countless people in my world and yours who would give anything for just one of the items I possess.

 

“So this is why I feel the need to give you this brief history lesson of my family and your own collective. You see something very huge happened during the course of that last Magnus Certatio and while no one outside of the Vitandi of that era knows what that was, we know it was the biggest race ever to be organized by the Vitandi and the participants were some of the greatest intellects and explorers of that time. We know it was a very dangerous race that traveled a tricky line between the physical world and the metaphysical one. Racers died or went missing. Curses kept safe on the dusk side were brought into the light. It was a dark event that cast shadows for years afterwards. It’s no mystery to me why the Vitandi leader of that era decided to retire the event. It’s also not a mystery to me why this missing man my father never knew in life would spark him to become one of the few people who would finally know what happened during that last race.”

 

Octavius fell silent as he continued to sort through the things that needed to be said; things said for both the benefit of his guests and himself. There was an answer in there somewhere to the thing troubling him.

 

The collector nodded his head back towards the plaque on the wall. “The plaque of this other Obediah sparked my father’s imagination and he began the process of researching him. Of course my father knew nothing about how to do this so he first had to learn how to be a researcher. Libraries and museums became second homes to him. His father would have had him an architect like himself, but Octavius the First already knew, as he got to know this other Obediah, that he was going to follow in that man’s footsteps.

 

“When he went to university he met a professor who would become his mentor. Instead of spending time in the class room he’d be off in some foreign country taking notes for this man and following after him with archaeological equipment. His young life was something incredible.

 

“Oh the stories my father told about those early days! How could I not follow in his footsteps after hearing such things? And the things he would bring home! As a child I spent more time around that professor of his than I did my own grandfather, that’s how close the two men where. I had the benefit of both men educating me on their craft. The one thing I know better than anything is that no matter what adventure my father was on or what thing he and his mentor were studying, at the end of the day he reserved his last hours to add to his research about this mysterious Obediah and so also his knowledge of the race that apparently ended his life. When it came right down to it that was what really mattered to him.”

 

Octavius paused, leaning back casually in his chair. He looked at the woman and offered her a very slight smirk. “Do you know why I’d bother telling you all of this?” he asked her.

 

The sleek, black haired creature shook her head slowly. There was a slight smirk settling on her lips as well.

 

“No.” she replied in the more seductive tone she’d began their conversation with.

 

Octavius leaned forward speaking directly to her. The brother might as well have not even been in the room.

 

“I tell you this because something has been troubling me a little since the Baron approached me. At first I thought it was just the simple fact that I don’t trust a word that comes out of the Baron’s mouth and therefore I’m somewhat reluctant to become involved with something he is apart of. It wasn’t that though. It was the fact that my regular maid Stella kept at me for how stupid I was being even considering being apart of this event. The wonderful dear is older than dirt I’m sure and been apart of this household for long before I was born into it. She does have her great moments of clarity though. She was not chastising me for this because of the Baron or the danger such an event might pose, but because she knew what my father went through with his obsession with the Magnus Certatio.

 

“You see, there was not one racer whose name my father didn’t know. No route, no found artifact, not one little detail that he didn’t discover. He was so thorough in his research and somehow ridiculously gifted with acquiring the information he wanted that he was probably the only true authority on the event in the world. That goes for the people within the Vitandi as well. The Vitandi sought to cover the event up thereby creating an environment where my father was quite alone in his research. That made him rather unique. It also made him quite the nuisance to some in the Vitandi.

 

“After all that time and research my father reached out to the Vitandi with one request: Bring back the race. He was willing to chart the race’s course and set the goals and basically do anything the Vitandi required of him. All he wanted was the right to be among the racers.”

 

“To what end?” Frangipani whispered.

 

“Can’t you guess?” Octavius replied. “To recreate the very last race, the one that brought an end to the Magnus Certatio altogether. To take up where our lost Obediah left off. He wanted to succeed where the other man had failed and hopefully discover what happened to him in the process. I think he began to feel like that lost relative was somewhere alone in an unnatural place and needed to be free… to find peace. It was an obsession of his that became more pronounced the older he got and the more he was turned down by the Vitandi.”

 

Octavius asked his temporary butler to bring them some fresh tea as an excuse to take a breath. The twins sat quietly staring at him waiting for him to continue.

 

It was a funny thing for him to be speaking so candidly to these strangers, as he had not started his day off with any intention of offering the story of his father. As things started to take a wrong turn with these two youths, both so very much the types of individuals he didn’t want to deal with, he had began to think more and more about what his father would have thought of the affair. There would have been no moments of confusion for him. He’d never have let a seductive voice and a pretty face startle him. Stella had told him his father would have never been so foolish as to take part in this thing and that just went to show how well he’d hidden the scope of his obsession from everyone but his son. Not only would his father have taken part in this in a heartbeat, he would have seen it as a way to help heal the Vitandi. By the end of his lifetime he seemed to be privately aware of the state of the collective even if he hadn’t wanted to share that part with his son.

 

By the end of his life Octavius the First had solved his mysteries and learned a great deal of unsettling things in the process. He’d kept these things to himself though and not shared them with his son. Instead he left Octavius the Second the keys to his private library and a request to not access his private research until the son felt it was the right time. Somehow it felt like that piece of his life was unknowingly entangled with the moment at hand.

 

“One day someone will seek out the things I know and then it will be up to you to decide if the burden of my life need be passed onto you. Until then enjoy the world I have educated you to move so successfully through. Be weary of any quest that seems too dark and foolhardy. And know that wherever life takes you it is where you were meant to go, whether that be your own path or the one I set for myself and left to you.” These were his father’s last written words to him. Octavius had an overpowering sensation that these words were almost prophetic to the woman and her collective who were now seeking him out.

 

The butler brought a tray of tea into the room along with a small table he set between the three seats. Octavius pulled himself from his thoughts back to the present as he took a cup of tea.

 

“There is much I could continue to say in my little history lesson but I guess my desire was only to educate you enough on my past so you can better understand my position here. You see, no one knows any of those things about my father except for me and the few Vitandi elders he dealt with through his life. It helped keep that part of his life a secret, which he thought was very important. He deliberately put red herrings out into the world for those who tried to tempt him into giving up his research and there have been many who want what he knows.

 

“When the Baron came to me with his proposition he had researched me well enough to know that using my father’s own obsessions to bait me would on the surface offend me while deep down it would be the thing that stirred the passion within me to agree to work with the Vitandi. But the obsession he offered was one of those red herrings so it also told me that he didn’t truly know anything about the Magnus Certatio and its relationship to my father. He was just fishing for the right bait.”

 

Octavius set his tea down and stood up again. His head was starting to ache under the enormity of what he was slowly realizing. He walked back over to the wall to look upon the bronze profile of a relative he would never know. His actions weren’t meant to be dramatic; he was simply starting to feel overwhelmed.

 

Frangipani was eerily silent with her movements and Octavius didn’t realize she’d gotten up until her slim fingers were gently moving over his shoulder. She gave his tense muscles a gentle squeeze.

 

“Please continue Octavius.”

 

Octavius had little doubt this creature Frangipani was a truly dark individual, but in knowing that the moments where she was soft felt all the better.

 

“The Baron…” he faltered for a moment as he looked for the right explanation for his suspicions. “The Baron knew how to tempt me but he had the wrong information to do so. Still, it worked because I knew what my father would tell me to do. However, what has struck me as curious is that he said the Vitandi had specific items of mine they wanted to use for their race. They also felt my knowledge of previous races could help me chart the course they were hoping to use for this reinvention of the event.”

 

He turned around so he could look the young woman in the eyes. “I won’t sell myself short. I’m very good at what I do and I’ve seen and discovered my share of grand things. There are, however, any countless people in my circle of peers who would be far better planning such an event than myself. Many of them are trying to actively put together their own events. The Baron is one of them. Yes, he might be all glitter and extravagance, but he knows how to organize events of this grand scale, but the Vitandi sent him to enlist me to that purpose. And the notes sent to me to look over before this meeting? Not one item on there is something that I found. Though they are the property of the House of Obediah, they are all still my father’s conquests and relate directly to his private research. This leads me to believe someone within the Vitandi is still aware of my father’s obsessive studies and they would like me do what he was never allowed to do. This wouldn’t bother me so much but you say your race has dual intentions.” Octavius shook his head slowly, conflicted. “And you did manage to so subtly slip in a reference to my family’s history with this matter in your sales pitch.”

 

Frangipani smiled and let her fingers (in a gesture a bit too casual for a first time meeting with a stranger) gently touch the man’s cheek. Again the goosebumps found his skin.

 

“Is that such a bad thing really? To know we’ve done our research?” she whispered.

 

Octavius took her hand with gentle but assertive force and removed it from his skin.

 

“I guess that depends.” he replied.

 

“On what?”

 

“Why now? Why not before when my father was alive and well and not only offering but begging for the opportunity? My knowledge is second hand at best. He was the authority.”

 

The woman smiled at him. That smile… a smile all white and full of shark teeth like before.

 

Octavius was losing his authority over their meeting again but he didn’t really care. His mind was already made up. It had been made up long before the twins stepped into this room and brought with them their reasons for doubt. He didn’t care though. It was as if he’d already sold his soul at the first offer of doing so. Signing the contract in his blood was now simply a formality. He just needed to know the true reasons behind the offer where he was concerned.

 

“Why now Frangipani?” he whispered.

 

“Weren’t you listening?” she cooed. “I told you in the beginning, Riker Rouge. Timing is everything when seeking out the miraculous. An anniversary is fast approaching and we only just found confirmation of this. Perhaps it would have been your father’s honor but the timing was not in his favor. It’s in yours though. I think perhaps you’ve closed yourself off to your father’s full history or else you would know this. The path to Riker Rouge is on the rise. For us it now or never in our lifetime.”

 

“It doesn’t exist.” Octavius insisted. “It’s a dreamer’s dream. A fairy tale or a lullaby with some very hideous notes.” He shook his head. Was he trying to convince himself or her? Or was the truth that he had honored his father’s wishes and never pursued the final secrets to his research and he didn’t want this fool’s quest to be his father’s secret? “Folly…” he whispered.

 

The woman would not be swayed. She straightened up and took a few steps back and looked deathly serious. She called for her aunt. The dowdy woman quickly stomped back into the room upon her niece’s command.

 

“Octavius? Have you ever heard of Professor Vogel?”

 

Octavius nodded his head. Of course he knew the man; his collection hosted the majority of the strange inventor’s more dangerous or mischievous creations. Vogel was the last person he wanted to come up in a conversation like this.

 

Frangipani smiled, ignoring the collector’s growing discomfort.

 

“Professor Vogel is a bit of an enigma. He’s a professor of languages. In his youth he had a bit of a reputation for his gift with deciphering lost or dead languages. At university he taught linguistics and was considered a likable but absent minded man. Because of this his colleagues and students found it amusing when he decided to take up inventing. No one was laughing when they saw the things he invented, the good or the bad. I know you’re keenly aware of this.” She motioned towards the large display holding Vogel’s infamous reading machine for the blind. “So you can appreciate what it means that Vogel has created his own camera. He wanted to create something that captures what needs to be seen. Plain and simple. However, as simple as that sounds his camera is every bit the strange invention. Perhaps more so because as strange as it is it actually does what the man intended for a change. And it has shown us something very interesting. Granted it is but a murmur and where we found it is most likely just an echo to help give us a direction to follow. Yet…”

 

The woman snapped her delicate fingers at her aunt and pointed towards the bag the aunt carried. “Show him.” she instructed.

 

The aunt dropped down to one knee and opened up a leather bag she had at her side. From within it she withdrew an object that was wrapped in a linen cloth. She stood, pulling the edges of the cloth back so that the item inside could be seen. It was a glass plate with an image burned into it. The strange photograph was presented to the collector and he felt his heart catch in his chest as he looked at the scene within it.

 

“Does that look like a fairy tale Octavius the Second?” Frangipani whispered.

 

 

III

 

 

The house was empty. The temporary help had been given their full wages and sent back to their permanent places of employment. The awful young woman and her evil twin were thankfully long gone, though like the stink the Baron left in his library, the smell of Frangipani’s perfumed skin lingered in the display room. Octavius caught himself drifting in there now and then to remind himself of that scent. He wasn’t sure if it was a pleasant thing or something to torment himself with. It was hard to admit he was as frightened of the young woman as he was attracted to her.

 

The meeting with the Vitandi representatives did not go as he’d planned or even remotely as he’d hoped. As he had time to sit and contemplate these facts Octavius wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing. There had never been any doubt in his mind he was going to pursue this interaction with the Vitandi. The ghost of his father would have propelled itself through Mr. Olophant’s ghost traps and haunted his son to the end of his days if he’d declined even if his father’s own words had said it would be his choice. There was also the fact that in doing this Octavius the Second finally had the opportunity to propel his reputation past that of Octavius the First. It was a selfish aspiration but still something he was willing to admit to. When one adopted the obsession of another the desire to see that obsession satiated where the other could not came with it.

 

No, what was weighing heavily on the collector’s mind was the enormity of what he was about to willingly undertake. It was a massive thing and he could already feel how it was starting to press down upon him from all sides. He would only have a week to get this weight under control and show up at the Vitandi’s main house to begin the process of planning a very great race.

 

Octavius stood outside of his father’s private library. He rarely entered the room and on those few occasions he did it was to go through files pertaining to anything but his father’s main body of research. That room still held an entire place of mystery for the son.

 

His hand was shaking a little as he reached for the door handle. He brought the door’s key forward and then found himself staggering backwards. There was already half a bottle of whiskey making its way through his liver and he still didn’t feel sufficiently numb enough to go into his father’s library. In a rather cowardly fashion he turned his back on the door and rushed back to his library to finish the rest of the whiskey.

 

 

IV

 

 

“Be a good little auntie and bring me an iced tea, tall glass, extra ice, with some of that peach liquor the sky pirate brought us.”

 

Frangipani’s voice was not the soft and seductive thing she used for the collector Obediah. This was her real voice. A voice that was much deeper and far more threatening even when asking for little things like spiked ice tea. Those around her were used to this voice but felt no less dread when listening to her. Her gruff aunt felt the most hassled by it.

 

“Yes Frangi.” the aunt said and quickly rushed out of the room.

 

The slender woman made her way through the Vitandi’s main mansion until she came to her series of private rooms. She snapped her fingers as she passed through a set of French double doors and a servant popped out of nowhere at attention. The tiny maid quickly snatched up articles of clothing as Frangipani walked and undressed. When she reached her bedroom she was nude and pulling the silver sticks from the bun at the back of her head. Her very long black hair spilled over her pale form. She looked like a black haired Godiva.

 

She pulled a silk kimono from her wardrobe and slowly slid it over her arms as her brother came casually waltzing into the room. He set a tall glass of iced tea on the night stand before flopping himself down on his sister’s bed. If there was one gift the young man had it was to be casual and lazy without ever spilling his drink. The whiskey sour in his hand never so much as jumped as he fell into the soft down comforter of the bed.

 

“Auntie asked me to bring that to you. She’s a little upset at the moment. The elders heard we were back and sent for her immediately.” He sipped from his drink and grinned. “I’m sure she’s absolutely looking forward to explaining your aggressive approach with the collector. I thought things like knowing what his father had been up to and the Vitandi’s secret intentions were need to know?”

 

Frangipani scoffed at this as she pulled her long hair from her kimono. She moved over to her vanity and took a seat. Her eyes squinted a little as she tried to see herself in the mirror in front of her. The glamour cast on the mirror was growing weak. She snatched her brush and began roughly brushing her hair as she looked back to glare at her brother.

 

“She should be grateful anyone has any use for her at all.” she barked. “Besides, I was given the council’s full confidence in handling the meeting as I saw fit. Being honest with Mr Obediah was how I saw fit. He’s not a man we’re going fool into giving us what we need. He’s not the Baron; ever ready to do whatever I want with little more than some baby talk on my part and some pampering of his ego. Octavius is someone who will fall in line and do as we want because his father’s obsession has already influenced him to do so.”

 

Lee shrugged his shoulders and finished off his drink. He set it on the night stand and laid back on the bed, slipping his hands underneath his head.

 

“I don’t care one way or another. At the end of this whole boring affair I just want what you promised me.”

 

Frangipani set the hair brush down and stood. She slinked onto the bed and slipped her legs over her brother’s mid section and straddled him. The contact was far too intimate for siblings. To make it more uncomfortable to anyone looking in on the scene, Frangipani leaned over her brother so that her kimono fell open and exposed her slight breasts. She reached for Lee’s hands and pulled them from behind his head and placed them on her chest.

 

“I keep my promise to you and you keep your promise to me and we will be the avatars in that dark place when this is all over. We’ll see those in the deep and have their power.” She moved her brother’s hands around as she ground her body into his hips. “Real power is the only thing that will break through that jaded skin of yours isn’t it?”

 

Lee nodded, letting his mouth slip into a smile. He’d long since lost any form of shame this type of interaction with his twin should have brought. “Indeed.” he whispered.

 

The next moment Frangipani lunged at her brother, grabbing him by the throat and digging her nails into the skin there until she drew blood. Lee choked but he made no move to stop the creature’s abuse. He knew better than to fight back. That too was something he’d long lost the will for.

 

“You’re hurting.” he wheezed. The slender woman was deceptively strong.

 

“That’s my intention.” she hissed. “You should have been studying up for today last night but instead I saw you playing up to that whore from the Hollow Society. Neither one of us will get what we’ve been promised if you lose your way now. Keep it in your pants!”

 

Lee said nothing. On a day to day basis he doubted the things the Vitandi had taught him and the fate they had planned for him and his twin sister. He wanted nothing more than shun everything he’d been raised (or better stated, forced) to believe and run off with his inherited fortune. He wanted to know a woman in the way young men were allowed to know a woman; especially one he hadn’t spent nine months sharing a womb with. He wanted to spend a day where he didn’t wake to dark prayers and soul bruising rituals. The only thing that kept him from fleeing that life was the tiny possibility that what he’d been raised to become might actually come to pass. And what kept him believing it was possible? The absolute belief and conviction of his twin sister.

 

Frangipani loosened her grip on her brother’s throat as Lee brought his hands to her face and pulled her towards him. He kissed her in the passionate way he would his soulmate. She was probably the closest thing he would ever know of such a thing.

 

“There is no other as important to me than you my sister. Forgive me for my brief distractions, they aren’t meant as a slight to you or a show of weakness on my part. It was just out of boredom and a desire to see how much of a fool I could make out of her. I thought you liked those games. You used to play them with me.”

 

The young woman smiled and let her body gently fall to the bed beside the man. Lee rolled to his side so that he could run his hand through his sister’s long hair. Her eyes closed and her body relaxed. A relaxed Frangipani was a happy Frangipani.

 

“I’ll put the glamour back on your mirror tomorrow after the morning rituals.” he whispered into her ear. “No one as beautiful as you should be denied seeing that beauty.”

 

His sister nodded her head as she turned away from him, to silently implore Lee to rub her back. He sat up enough to put his hands to the delicate lines of the her back.

 

“Do you think this collector man really is the key to our goals?”

 

Frangipani said nothing but nodded her head slowly.

 

“How can you be so sure? We’re waging nearly everything on him.”

 

Frangipani’s eyes lazily opened and looked back at her brother. “He is his father’s son. He just needed a little nudging in the right direction. We were able to provide that for him today.”

 

“If you know his father has all the information we need, why aren’t we simply going in there and taking it? Why allow a variable we can’t control?”

 

The young woman sighed, only barely tolerating these moments when her brother attempted to play a thoughtful part in Vitandi plans. She let her eyes close again and didn’t answer him immediately. Slowly she brought her hand up to her brother’s cheek and gave him a pet like he was a nervous child.

 

“My love, I know a lot but I don’t know what Octavius’ father knew. There might come a moment where we have to explore a more aggressive approach which means liberating the collector of his father’s things, but we’ll worry about that after we’ve seen just how helpful and devoted to this task the son is. He has experience we do not.”

 

Frangipani sat up and reached for her spiked tea. She took several healthy gulps from the glass and let the blissful sensation of the extreme cold mingling with the strong liquor cool her. Slowly the alcohol calmed her further. She reached for her twin and pulled him to her.

 

“Sweet Lee, today I offered that man the very thing his father never had access to. I know he is where I want him to be. So please try to understand that the Vitandi never throws away a potential resource until we’ve exhausted every last opportunity it has to offer. Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second, the great collector, will help us till the absolute moment he can help us no longer. Then we will take all that is his and soldier over the remains of the House of Obediah. Now…” she pulled Lee close to her lips. “Tell again that I’m beautiful and make me feel it.”

 

 

Chapter IV

Black Waters & The End of the Reevers

 

I

 

The swamp offered an unforgiving muggy heat during the day that wore on anyone unfamiliar with the terrain. It made breathing nearly unbearable by attaching a dank and musky earth stench to that heat. The idea that anyone choose to live in such a place seemed most unreasonable to the three proper gentlemen who found themselves exploring this place of hateful green waters.

 

Cecil, the smallest of the three men, had found the swamps during the day as close to a physical hell as he ever wanted to visit. His two companions had made a daily ritual out of convincing the young man what they were doing was worth his fear and discomfort. It had worked to some extent, until they realized their presence had been discovered and they were being followed by denizens of the swamp. To him it felt as though they were trying to outrun dark water demons.

 

The sunlit swamp was a distant memory now. Cecil sat huddled between his two companions in the darkness of a moonless night. The small torches the three men gripped were not up to the task of throwing much light over the dense scene around them. What was worse than the darkness for Cecil was knowing there was something moving in that darkness. His demons were in those black places that could not be illuminated.

 

One by one the swamp’s demons moved from the darkness to show themselves. A torch would suddenly come to life and reveal a well dressed man standing not far away from the three men. Ten men in all came out of the darkness and formed a circle around their prey.

 

Cecil let his eyes dart over the scene. It was unlikely they would be able to pass through the circle of strong men around them. Even if they could get through they’d been caught in a treacherous spot in the swamps when the sun went down. There was no way the trio would be able to navigate the boggy area without better torches. The best they could have hoped for was to huddle together for warmth and ride out the night until the sun came back up. The appearance of the demons now made that idea moot.

 

“What do you want?”

 

This was asked by Matthew, the oldest man in the trio, though that still didn’t make him very old. He still liked to think of himself as their group leader. If anyone was to challenge the circle of men he accepted it would be him. His question was answered with silence.

 

The third man in the trio was Clint and he was overly sensitive to things that became apparent when least expected. In this case, having Matthew ask a question that was not addressed made the other man aware that the silence around them was absolute. He reached over and gave Matthew’s sleeve a tug. The other man swatted at his tugging hand.

 

“Matthew!” Clint whispered as loudly as he dared. “Listen!” he insisted, again pulling at the other man’s sleeve.

 

Cecil was doing what had been asked of Matthew as he let his ears do a sweep of the area around them. The swamp was anything but quiet, especially at night. At least until that moment. All of the nightlife around them had gone silent. It was eerie and most unnatural.

 

“He’s right.” Cecil whispered, his shaking becoming more pronounced. “These men aren’t the only things that are silent.”

 

Matthew pulled away from the hand that pawed at his coat and pushed the smaller man away from him. The fear of his colleagues was infectious and he didn’t want it getting to him. Though he did turn a listening ear to their environment and Clint had made a good point: It was far too silent around them.

 

The leader of the trio was about to question the circle of men again when an unseen voice addressed them.

 

“These men don’t speak, they just hold the circle. When the circle is being held there is not a creature in the swamp who will interrupt it with so much as a sneeze.”

 

The speaker moved around the outer edge of the circle of men. He kept far enough away from their torches to be little more than a series of dark colors wrapped in moving shadows. His voice was deep and rich with the local accent. It was a little bit southern mingling with French creole.

 

“We don’t want any trouble.” Matthew offered.

 

The unseen man came to the head of the circle of ten and passed through the two largest men as though they were a living gate. He was well dressed like the men around him, but in a more casual state. He’d rid himself of a formal coat and stood there in a form fitting vest and tie. His white shirt sleeves were rolled up past the elbow. Something about this casualness in his formal dress made him seem more menacing.

 

The man reached into his pocket and retrieved something that went unseen in the low light. He raised his hand and flung something towards the ground of the trio. There was a collective wince among the three as they waited for whatever was to come from the item thrown. There was only a small pop of noise and then a flood of light that seemed to radiate from the ground itself. The scene was fully illuminated.

 

“How did you do that?” Clint asked out of shock. The whole of the ground was glowing. It was a strange thing to witness.

 

The man before them moved his hands about dramatically and laughed. “Magic!” he exclaimed.

 

Cecil and all of his five foot five inches of slender man was almost completely obscured behind the much taller Matthew. He felt no shame cowering in such a way. He made no grand allusions to being the brave man… the strong man. The only thing strong within his fragile body was his mind. So as his core strength, he tried to put his brain power to use and deconstruct the situation that was occurring around him.

 

The man addressing them was undoubtedly from the people Cecil’s group knew to be the black water cult, or locally as eau noire. Small pockets of the cult were found throughout the south and all the way up the coast into New England, though the swamp cultists were considered the most zealous and aggressive in nature.

 

The cult followed a hodgepodge of different beliefs, most rooted in ancient mythology regarding the darker side of nature. Water played an important part in their belief system, especially very dark or corrupted waters. They believed the water was a mirror of the sky above and therefore a way to gain access to a dark place in the heavens that held the deities of their trapped black court. What was known of the malicious circle of court characters was that they were cruel and defined as evil. It was a trait shared by their followers.

 

Cecil was not originally an expert on the history of this water cult, but he’d studied under the expert. He’d been very proud when that expert offered his full confidence that Cecil would well represent him when he wasn’t able to join the other two men on this task. Now, as he stood cowering between two men he barely knew in the middle of the muggy and wretched smelling swamp, he wished he’d never campaigned for it. Being able to replace the expert simply meant that he understood how precarious their position among these bad men truly was.

 

The small man’s eyes nervously darted around the circle of men who could now be seen clearly by the light of the glowing ground. Each was tall and thick: Men that were born in a harsh environment where they were raised to be strong and cold. There would be no reasoning with such men. Of course they weren’t the ones who had any sway over the scene taking place. That power belonged to the casually dressed man who, by reasoning, was their leader.

 

Cecil dared peek around the side of Matthew so he could get a better look at this man.

 

The leader was maybe in his late twenties. He might have been a handsome man if he’d been raised in a more polite society. The swamp had left its mark on him though. He was lean but strong looking, with features that were sharp and overly defined. His eyes stood out the most. They were a very bright gray and peered out from under heavy eyelids. He looked bored and mean. The kind of man that had a lot in common with a feral dog.

 

The leader was moving around the circle quietly. His hands were casually tucked away in his pockets while his face looked bemused. He was enjoying this situation. He was enjoying having absolute power over the three cowering men. This made Cecil worry more for his trio.

 

Clint was skiddish by nature, however Matthew was headstrong and thought his intellect was all he needed to maneuver the world. He had a very bad habit of underestimating those he looked down on. In his mind the members of this water cult were nothing more than swamp rats who worshiped smelly ponds and juvenile stick sculptures. This lack of respect didn’t escape his companions in that moment.

 

“Matthew!” Cecil whispered as he leaned into the other man. “Please, be smart here. Show these men respect. We’re in their house.”

 

Matthew started to reply to this urging when the leader turned towards the three men.

 

“Smart advice little man. Who might you be?” the leader asked.

 

With all his failing courage Cecil stepped out from behind the taller Matthew. He didn’t move far from him; just enough so he could properly face the man addressing him.

 

“I’m Cecil. This man to my right is Matthew and behind us is Clint. We are researchers.” he tried to make his voice steady.

 

“Hello Cecil.” the leader replied politely. “My name is Willum. I thank you for acknowledging that you are in my house. I assume you were reminding your friend of this fact because he has a tendency to speak before thinking?”

 

The steadiness in his voice wavered as he replied. The very last thing Cecil wanted was the be the voice of his group.

 

“He means well, but yes, sometimes he speaks plainly in inappropriate situations.”

 

Willum nodded. “I thank you for your honesty Cecil. It allows me to skip the niceties and be quite frank.”

 

The leader approached the three. He took a hand from his pocket and ran it over his closely shaved head. There was a hint of a tattoo lurking at the back of his head. Cecil could only make out small lines of it that swept around the sides of his head. He might have been curious to see the full markings if he didn’t want the man to get any closer.

 

Willum stopped a few feet from Matthew and looked him up and down with great intensity. His head dropped to look at the man’s shoes and followed his legs up to his torso and so on until he was looking him in the face. There was a strong look of disgust coming over his sharp features.

 

“See Cecil, I know this type man… this Matthew of yours. He’s an intellectual who takes great pride in his research work while at the same time having nothing but utter contempt for the focus of that research. We’re all just ignorant specimens to him.” Willum spit on the ground at Matthew’s feet. “I know this kind of man well.” he sneered as he turned and moved away from them.

 

Matthew took a step back from where the spit landed, giving the ground a soft kick to throw loose earth over it. “I have no respect for a glorified swamp rat that worships dead twigs and yet thinks throwing on a suit somehow gives him substance.”

 

Almost in unison Cecil and Clint rolled their eyes in irritation. Clint made a hissing sound and gave their unofficial leader a poke in the back. Cecil started to say something that might diffuse what was said.

 

Willum put a finger to his lips and shushed him.

 

“Ssh ssh Cecil. It’s alright. I’ve had far worse things said about me by men I actually have respect for. There’s very little that could come from your friend’s mouth that would actually bother me. I’m not one to invest much value in the intellectual mind that isn’t also tempered with common sense, thoughtfulness, and a healthy respect or fear for that which he doesn’t understand. So in that sense you friend Matthew here is one of the biggest idiots I’ve ever met.”

 

Matthew’s body became rigid and he started to speak up. This prompted Cecil to do something very uncharacteristic and move himself in front of the offended man. Clint followed this lead and moved around so the smaller pair could form a semi wall in front of their foolish companion.

 

“Not another word you fool!” Clint hissed in their unofficial leader’s ear as he passed. “Has that big brain of yours not realized that we’re in danger?”

 

Willum’s hand shot out and pointed at Clint.

 

“That is an excellent point! Thank you for making that point, er… your name is Clint? Yes Clint, you three are in some very serious danger here. Think dire.”

 

None of the three dared make a sound after this was said. It was the magic words that needed to be said for them to fully realize where they were and their potential jeopardy. They were three young scholars in the middle of the swamp at midnight surrounded by a group of men they’d just stolen from. Though only two of them were aware of the theft.

 

It was as if the leader was able to hear their collective thoughts. His head started to nod slowly as his reached out a hand to them.

 

“Hand it over.” he instructed.

 

Quickly Cecil pulled the bag at his hip open and pulled out a small pouch. He hadn’t had a chance to look at the stones inside of it yet. He offered it to the leader.

 

Willum came forward and snatched the pouch out of the smaller man’s hand. He opened it and the look on his face was incredulous and annoyed.

 

“Oh Cecil.” he said with disdain. He looked down on the smaller man with honest disappointment. “Do you really think this is going to fool me?” He poured the contents of the pouch into his hand and flung them at the three men.

 

Cecil’s arms went up to shield his face from the small black rocks that came flying at him. He wasn’t sure how his actions were meant to be misleading. He was giving back the one thing they’d intended to take from the cult’s sacred place.

 

“I… I don’t understand!” he stammered. “That is what we have. That was one of the small things we were sent to find! Our people were very specific!”

 

Willum moved forward quickly and grabbed the cowering man by the neck. He gave him a hard stare before letting him go with a push. Cecil fell back into Matthew who had to help keep him from falling to the ground.

 

The leader sighed. “I believe you Cecil. I believe you. However, that isn’t what we want returned.”

 

Cecil shook his head furiously. “I swear to you that’s all we took! I was told they were black water runes. My teacher specifically said they were not a relic in your culture so it was not an offense to bring them back. We just wanted to study them, not steal something of importance!”

 

The leader said nothing. He pointed towards Clint and then motioned for the man to go to Cecil and move away from their unofficial leader. Clint quickly wrapped an arm around the smaller man and led him away. Matthew was left standing apart from his companions.

 

“I won’t ask you again.” Willum warned.

 

Matthew’s face was defiant though. He looked proud and upset. Past that there was a deep look of growing contempt for the man who was addressing him.

 

Cecil was beside himself watching this arrogant and defiant display from the other man. The other man in the trio was seeing it very differently.

 

“Damn…” Clint hissed under his breath. There was a look of sudden understanding crossing his features and with it fear. “You didn’t?”

 

“What did he do?” Cecil asked in a panicked voice. “What the hell did you do Matthew?!” He felt woefully left out of something the other two men knew. Something that might mean the difference between life and death.

 

Willum slowly moved towards Matthew, shaking his head slowly. He stopped a few feet from the other man as he slipped his hands back into his pockets. He looked casual, but the tense lines in his face suggested a man that was trying to keep a great anger in check.

 

“Cecil, your friend here stole from one of our alters.” he offered for the other man’s enlightenment. He looked towards Cecil as he took a hand from his pocket and pointed at Matthew to accent his point.

 

“I would have had my men take his offending hand that only touched our alter and sacrificed it to the dark swamp. That would have been the end of it. Life would have gone on after such ugliness. And yes, perceived ugliness, but just. I don’t care what you intellectual types think about my people and our beliefs We have our convictions we live by and when you force yourselves into our world without permission you accept the outcome of such convictions. Or at least you should.”

 

Willum took a few steps back and became eerily calm.

 

“This is not ugliness though.” he offered with a distressed face. “This is a theft that is a direct insult to our beliefs… our dogma.”

 

The scene fell utterly quiet. There were no crickets strumming, no night birds singing. All the frogs had fallen silent. There was just the statues of large men outlining a circle offering so little, not even the sound of their breath. Their leader was still. Of the three men standing at the center of this scene, only two made heavy breathing noises and only because they were not so disciplined that they could keep themselves from it. Everything about those moments was unnaturally calm.

 

Cecil broke this calm.

 

“Matthew?” he asked softly. He pulled away from the restraining hands of Clint to approach their other companion. “I’m sure anything happening here is a misunderstanding. Right? Right now might be the time for all of us to clear those misunderstandings and settle up before this gets out of hand.”

 

For poor Cecil he thought he was offering a good, mediating point among all who were there. The intense man in charge had already made it clear that circumstances had become very grave. In Cecil’s worrisome mind their fates had already been sealed and all he could do was attempt to grasp at whatever rescuing vines might present themselves. He was willing to grasp at what he could. Cecil was not a proud man, but a loving one: He loved his life. He meant to keep it.

 

“Please Matthew.” he pleaded. “Show this man our caliber.”

 

An entire lifetime existed in those few moments where Cecil made his plea and the person in power answered him. It was a very diverse expanse of time that was quite personal to the person contemplating it.

Cecil was perhaps the most easy to surmise. He was a good man who didn’t try to claim to be anything but what he was. When he’d found himself to be smaller than normal, though quicker in thought, he’d gone with his strengths and sought the knowledge of power. His soft, empathetic nature also showed him to be kind, thoughtful. He might fear much, but it was because he wished to protect so much.

 

Clint was born to be a side character from the moment he drew his first breath. At the moment of his birth his older sister fell from a staircase and nearly died upon impact. A very clinging father prayed to the heavens to bestow its grace upon her instead of the newborn because he, sadly, had already grown to love one while he didn’t know the other. Clint understood trying to find a place in the middle so as to have a place at all.

 

The last piece of their trio was far less thoughtful than either when it came to desire and accepted weaknesses. Matthew had a great loathing for the strange collectives he was asked to study. The one he disliked the most was this one. To be trapped in the swamp by such a cult sickened him and he didn’t want to hide his disdain.

 

It was Matthew who finally brought this long moment to an end. He pulled his side bag open and withdrew a very strange looking relic made of some type of weak metal. He didn’t bother handing it to the leader, he simply threw it to the ground at his feet.

 

“Have your cheap trinket back.” Matthew sneered. He looked on defiantly and both Cecil and Clint couldn’t quite figure out what had gotten into their fellow researcher.

 

The leader said nothing as he slowly moved forward and knelt down. With the utmost care he took the object into his hands. He stood up and walked to the edge of the circle. One of the men standing there quickly took off his coat and offered it to Willum. Carefully he wrapped the thing with it and handed the coat back to the other man, artifact now inside.

 

“Material worth makes no difference to us.” the leader whispered.

 

Willum turned back to the three men and approached them. He looked at each of them long and hard as he came closer. He stopped in front of Cecil and reached out and put on hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. The small man’s trembling because worse.

 

The leader leaned in close so he could whisper in Cecil’s ear.

 

“Don’t be frightened little man. You are as open as a book and I’m sure honest to a fault. I have no ill will towards you. I’m sure you’re just a simple researcher. Unfortunately you were sent with these men under false pretenses.” he leaned in even closer so that no one but Cecil could hear his words. “They have all lied to you little man.”

 

“Lied?” Cecil replied in the same hushed tone.

 

Willum took a step back and let the smaller man go. “Lied.” he said in a strong, loud voice. “They used your knowledge to make their way through our sacred waters and steal our relics.”

 

Cecil looked at his companions, confused. “What on earth is he talking about?” he questioned them.

 

Matthew was silent. His hateful stare was latched onto the leader and Cecil couldn’t be sure he’d even heard him speak. Clint, on the other hand, became so flushed in the face it could be seen even in the fading light of the glowing ground. Red cheeks were Clint’s tell. It almost always meant he was being dishonest.

 

“It’s nothing Cecil.” Clint quickly replied. His voice was nervous. “I think this gentleman has the wrong idea of what we are doing here. And I’m sure Matthew just made an honest mistake when he picked up that thing.” He turned and looked towards the leader, his words now coming fast and frantic. “We were told to acquire anything that was not one of a kind or sacred to you in nature. That’s why Cecil was instructed to take the pouch of runes when he came across them. And we didn’t even take them. We bartered for them from a local. We came across that metal object by accident and I instructed my companion to leave it alone. I’m sure it was just an impulsive thing to take it.”

 

Cecil listened to the other man practically falling all over himself to defend their actions while at the same time clearly singling Matthew out as the only one who was to blame for the relic theft. Cecil had no idea where the thing had even come from.

 

Willum was not swayed by Clint’s words. He remained silent, eyeballing the man until he finally shut up. Then a slow, creeping laugh started to come from him. It was unsettling.

 

“Impulse? I was thinking more along the lines of premeditated.” Willum replied.“We were told there would be academic types coming here to steal from us. Especially now, on the eve. And don’t worry Cecil…” he turned and pointed at the smaller man. “We know you bartered fair and square for the pouch of runes. I’m sorry I got upset and threw them away. Anger is a gut reaction for me when outsiders are found with our private things. It took a moment for me to realize you weren’t truly with these men.”

 

Willum turned back to Matthew and Clint. His face was stony and suggested whatever was to come next would not be savory.

 

The leader brought his hands up to his chest and unbuttoned his vest, removing it and letting it fall to the wet ground below. He took his shirt in two hands and tore it open sending buttons flying. Beneath the fine linen was a well defined but lean chest that was covered in a series of tattooed scenes and words in an unfamiliar language. He pointed to his chest.

 

“This is our true history, this is who we are.”

 

Willum motioned to two of the men in the circle. The men rushed forward as the other men spread out to keep the circle even. The two men came for Matthew and Clint and roughly grabbed them and forced them onto their knees. The leader moved to stand over them.

 

“We here are older than the moon in the sky and the blood in the water.” he said with teeth clenched. “Ours were the first gods and they came from the twilight of the endless night. We were raised up from the hidden waters underneath the black star of the first dawn. We are nothing but word of mouth and stinging whispers in the dead of your witching hour. We wear our beliefs and history in the grooves of our skin where it was meant to be kept. With us in life and back into the secrets of the waters at death. Your people have sought to force it into words and paragraphs and books. For centuries you’ve attempted to define us with your language. We are not for your research!” he yelled, sending spit flying at the men.

 

This sudden outburst finally put the fear in Matthew he should have felt from the beginning while Clint was shaking harder than Cecil. Neither man moved to say anything in reply.

 

Willum continued, lowering his tone.

 

“Here in this moment is all the time you and I will have together in this world. So I’m going to indulge you three with a story. Listen closely to it. Few are the people who have heard it.”

 

The leader grew quiet, his face thoughtful. He looked down at his torn shirt and took it off, tossing it to the ground with his vest. He looked more natural standing mostly uncovered in the night. The only thing that served to make him look less feral had been his fancy clothes. Seeing him bare, a tall and fit man covered in a history of tattoos suited him better.

 

“You are quite right calling that particular relic you stole a cheap trinket.” Willum began. “It was crafted a very long time ago using whatever metals were available and not useful to my people. No care was put into its creation. It meant nothing. My ancestors used a false language to etch into its nonsense. Any place my people considered sacred we left one of these relics, these trinkets, just in case that place was discovered. They were in essence an anti-fact for when your kind came to invade our culture. They offered a fictional mythology that had nothing to do with what my people practiced and believed. It was the best way we knew how to keep pretentious and invasive groups like the Vitandi or the Reevers from taking our faith and treating it like little more than a specimen in a jar; something that you dissected and documented.”

 

Willum’s head casually fell back as he looked up at the night sky. He slipped his hands back into his pants pockets. It was a strange clashing of looks between the relaxed stance and the chaos of the tattoos lining his chest and arms. He let out a deep sigh.

 

“We never used to care about getting these things back once they were taken. We’d simply make new ones to replace them. It became a game really. That is perhaps where things took their turn. There were those among us in the past who decided they didn’t like the disorder of the relics. They wanted them to have meaning, or… anti-meaning. They started creating puzzles. Puzzles that those early researchers could find and piece together. The solutions depended entirely on who was the relic creator. It was a very secret game that our leaders would have never approved of.

 

“Games change don’t they? They change when the people crafting them decide there needs to be some deeper meaning to them. A purpose more thoughtful than the truth. What was meant to be a simple way to corrupt the studies that sought to exploit our people soon evolved into a subset of our faith. That cheap trinket? It became something more profound as a result. Profound and yet hideous because it was being designed and crafted for the benefit of outsiders.

 

“This subset of puzzle makers was finally discovered and they were treated most harshly for their betrayal of our traditions. There is a moment in our shared history each of you should have studied at some point. I believe the Reevers called it the Red Morning. Do you know it Cecil?” he looked over at the small man.

 

Cecil, trying to find his tongue, nodded his head slowly. It was apart of his dedicated black water cult reading: An event that happened and had as of yet not fully been explained.

 

“Yes…” he stammered. “It was a morning in October more than a century ago where all of the research houses, of any name, woke to a mutilated body at their front doors.”

 

“And who were the mutilated?” Willum asked.

 

“It wasn’t known for a long time, but eventually it was decided they were exiled members of the different water cults. The reasons for their deaths is not known. Researchers took it as a warning to stay away.”

 

It felt eerily natural to talk about history, even in the middle of the night with men who were most likely very close to savages. Cecil was able to take a quick breath and calm himself down a little.

 

Willum nodded. “It was a warning, but not to researchers. It was a warning to our people. It was a lesson in how deeply our faith keeps its rules. Rules that spare no one. Our little puzzle makers were dragged into the light and punished accordingly. The act of leaving them at the doorsteps of the researchers was to make it known they would not rest in their beloved black waters. They would be buried as the disgraced in the dry dirt outside of our lands.

 

“Our people went back to the old ways. Useless and nonsensical trinkets once again left as relics. There was one problem though: Not everyone took the punishment and purge of those puzzle makers well. Some tried to honor and avenge them by keeping up the practice and instead taking it to the extreme. Do you know what that means Cecil?”

 

Cecil shook his head slowly and mouthed the word no.

 

“We have doorways Cecil. Some more sacred than others. The way through these doors is often branded into the skin of one chosen person at any given time. These great individuals are our gatekeepers.

 

“One such gatekeeper was married to a woman who was not born into our faith, but turned by it. She brought with her two brothers. I will simply sum up their story by saying they found our rituals and beliefs fanciful… intriguing, but placed little to no value on them. They delighted in the puzzle making games of the subset that welcomed them in. They were not among them long when the purge began.

 

“The brothers, as twins, were allowed to at least hang together outside of the Reever House of Blye. They were also spared the mutilations that pure bloods were given. I guess you could say our people simply felt they were to be pitied and treated like outsiders; meaning it was not worth our time to waste such rage and focus on them.

 

“Needless to say the sister did not take this well. Her revenge was slow and quiet though. Every night she would feed her husband just a little belladonna to see him sleep deeply. And while he slept she documented every last inch of the language of his skin. Can you imagine what she did with that rare and sacred information?”

 

Cecil shook his head slowly, standing there in his stupor. His fear was being replaced with his genuine love of learning secret histories.

 

“That woman went to blacksmiths outside of our lands and had proper relics made containing this information. She broke it down into pieces so that it truly was a puzzle that needed to be collected and then solved. Then she took her relics and placed them who knows where. Some where in our sacred places, some fell into collector hands. She was quite thorough with her scattering of them to the four winds.

 

“When this task was done she killed her husband, our gatekeeper. Apparently she found it hard to continue to love a man who helped kill her brothers. She defaced his skin with knives before burning him. Her actions took away the last known ways to pass through our most sacred of doors. We, the keepers of these passages for a millennium, were made equal to the researchers with their scattered bits of knowledge. That was her revenge. She is still the greatest traitor of my people. And think…”

 

He walked back over to the two kneeling men. He ran his fingers over Matthew’s face. The other man recoiled at his touch.

 

“No one in your world of books and scrutiny knows that story. I think it was the Vitandi who first found two of these special relics and realized they were different from the others. They have their theories without access to any knowledge to back such theories up.”

 

Willum leered over Matthew. He gave the man a sharp push to the side of his head that upset his balance and sent him falling over. He started to right himself. The large man behind him put a foot on his hip to keep him down. The leader made a motion for him to stay down like he was a scolded dog.

 

“Cecil.” Willum looked back to the small man. “Your companion here was tasked with finding these false relics and taking them whenever he came upon them.”

 

Cecil for a moment forgot the situation he was in. He wanted to defend the men he traveled with, but truth be told he really didn’t know either very well.

 

“He shouldn’t have taken your sacred thing. It was foolish. But…”

 

Willum held up his hand to silence the small man.

 

“Don’t defend him Cecil. This man would have gladly offered up either of his companions to save himself and get his loot back to your people. Your friend Clint here would have been the first, he offers the least. Then it would have been you.”

 

The leader walked back over to Cecil, his face now looking somewhat sad.

 

“You see, the Vitandi is planning a very big event. The price to get into this event is very high. Despite all of the Vitandi’s power and influence they only have a few pieces of the puzzle they’ve been looking for. After a disastrous event they didn’t have the same enthusiasm to collect our things as they once did. Your Reevers, so small now, so stripped down and belittled by the other collective over time… they never stopped collecting. And now that this event is coming upon us they want in and this collection of theirs is the only thing of value they have to barter for entry. This trip of your friend’s was a last moment attempt to discover a few more relics to add to their barter. And they do need all they can get. After all, you can’t tell which are genuine until you know the fakes, yes?”

 

Cecil understood. His own face came to match the sadness on the other man’s, though his sadness was born from a different place. A place of sudden and complete understanding.

 

“I see.” he whispered by reply.

 

Willum reached over and gently cupped his hand to the small man’s cheek.

 

“If this were any other time things might have gone differently. However, a very long time ago the Vitandi cheated us out of something that was rightfully ours. We tried to get it by force last time and bad things came of it. This time we shall use stealth instead. We need every little thing we can find or steal to realize this.”

 

The small man almost felt himself nuzzling into the warm hand at his cheek. It was as if he could ingratiate himself to this powerful man in the same way a submissive dog seeks approval from its owner. He felt his eyes starting to water as he realized this would never happen.

 

“This is not fair.” he whispered. “It’s just not fair. I only wanted to learn… to understand.”

 

Willum gave the small man’s cheek a gentle pat before pulling his hand away.

 

“Understanding is not something that comes without a cost Cecil, I’m sorry. I can only hope you’ll take solace in the fact that it will be quick and painless. I promise this to both you and this other man. To show you I have no malice in my actions I will also give you one last thing that no other man from your collective has ever seen. Should your ghost come back and share that secret fair play to you. It means our gods are approving.”

 

The leader turned away from the three and walked towards the other edge of the circle. He looked over his shoulder.

 

“Suffer unto the first the worst. Grant unto the second and the third the least. Take them to the alter and let this circle be broken.”

 

Willum the leader passed through two men again as though they were some type of gate. The eight men remaining came to life and broke the circle. They moved towards the three shivering men.

 

The man behind Clint took him by the throat and brandished a knife to it to keep him in place. A strong hand grabbed Cecil by the arms and pulled him over to where the other two were. Another man came into the scene and he took one of Matthew’s arms while the man who’d been holding him down with his foot grabbed the other arm.

 

Cecil and Clint watched in horror as Matthew was dragged into the darkness outside of the lit earth. His protests turned to yelling and soon after he was simply screaming. There was no end to his horrible cries, they simply faded into the distance eventually.

 

Minutes ticked by slowly and for each one that was experienced Cecil tried to convince himself it meant his fate was going to change.

 

“The swamp sounds like the swamp again.” Clint whispered. “Except the swamp sounds a little afraid.”

 

Cecil turned his ears to the soft din of the swamp night life waking up. Clint was right though; it still sounded subdued.

 

It was hard to tell how much time passed as they stood there. At some point the two men holding them seemed to rise from their stupor and began pulling the smaller men towards the end of the lit ground. Passing from that place to the darkness on the other side was enough to steal Cecil’s breath. He reasoned he had to be imaging the sensation of hitting a wall of something solid and unseen. His body told him real or imagined it felt it all the same.

 

The path they walked was pitch black, yet the two men guiding them had no problem maneuvering it. Every so often one of the men would turn his head and an unnatural shine would come off of his eyes. A chill passed down Cecil’s back the first time he witnessed it. There was absolutely no light for the man’s eyes to be catching.

 

Finally they came to a stop. Cecil, counting his footsteps and silently doing the math in his head reasoned they’d walked about fifty yards in all. He forgot this as a stone archway started to glow. It gave off just enough light to see the strange woven structures in the trees and the path through on the other side of it.

 

Willum stepped into the light offering Cecil a welcoming smile. He motioned towards the place beyond the arch.

 

“Natives from places farther north used to make these types of structures in the trees. Trees were very sacred to them and they used them for nearly everything.

 

“Sometime after my ancestors came to these lands on Viking long boats they made their way to the west. They settled in all places that had dark waters… places our deities called to them. Some were more inclined towards the warmth of extended summers so they moved south and passed through the places of the natives who created these structures. They adopted the technique as they continued south.

 

“The trees along this path are old. They were old before my ancestors came upon them. They took all the surrounding young trees and used them to make these structures that are woven around the older trees. New trees themselves have grown into the structures.”

 

His head dipped back to appreciate how tall these structures went up. They only stopped when the darkness of the tree tops obscured their view.

 

“They house so many small rooms and private alters. This is the place our scared gatekeepers are laid to rest as well as our leaders who allowed themselves to be made keepers of the night instead of being laid to rest in our dark waters at death. This is but one of our great holy places that outsiders never see. Unless of course…” his voice trailed off.

 

Unless?” Clint asked.

 

Willum smiled. “Unless they are offerings to our gods.”

 

The reality of the approaching scene hit Cecil hard and he couldn’t refrain from pulling at the strong hands holding him there. His mind was in a panic.

 

The leader reached out a hand to calm him. When he spoke his words were soft and soothing.

 

“There is nothing to be afraid of Cecil. Death is not the end, it is only one doorway in an existence we shall all be made to pass through many of. And this is a special doorway. Past this arch our sanctuary and the path leading to it has passed into the dusk-lands.” Willum turned and passed through the archway and stopped. “These men are going to let you go and you have the opportunity to come with me as strong men with pride. If you decide to run you’ll be lost to the swamps forever. You have long since left the natural world. “

 

Cecil and Clint both felt their holding hands leave their arms. The moments that followed were stretched over a lifetime.

 

For Cecil he remembered the very first time his father picked him up and set him on his work table so he could share in the pieces of his father’s project. His father had always been good to him that way. Early on the man of massive and strong proportions realized his youngest son would not grow up to be the same type of large and commanding figures his brothers were. So instead he nurtured his intellect.

 

His father once confessed to him “Sometimes I frighten myself when I am able to honestly acknowledge just how far I would go to see the miraculous… the hidden… even that which is forbidden. If that path was presented to me I would put foot to it and never look back.” It made the son somewhat sad to hear it as a young man, yet here it gave him strength. He took his first step towards the archway.

 

For Clint there were no coherent thoughts in those last moments. He didn’t want to walk through the horrific row of oppressive trees. He didn’t want to see what the most holy of places for these crude and backward cultists would be. All he wanted was to run and do anything to get the musky scent of the swamp out of his nose. So that’s what he did.

 

Cecil was almost to the archway when Clint cried out in fear and turned to flee. The small man only got the briefest of a last look at the back of his companion’s head as he was swallowed into the darkness. There were a few wet footfalls and then a sharp cry as the fleeing man found the swamp instead of the path back.

 

“God speed.” Cecil whispered and passed through the arch.

 

Willum smiled at the small man. “Walk with me.”

 

As the leader moved through the long path of tree sculptures Cecil kept pace at his side.

 

There was a very noticeable change in the quality of the space around him. It wasn’t oppressive, though it did feel like even the air itself needed to press him down.

 

Cecil had never thought himself one to see the dusk-lands. Such adventures were meant for braver men than himself. He had always been content with his studies and to be the expert who could be used for research. Had the real expert for this cult been in better health Cecil wouldn’t have been there in the first place. He tried not to dwell on that fact.

 

A thought occurred to him as he moved along a path that seemed to go on without pause or turn.

 

“Willum… can I ask you one last question?”

 

The leader nodded. “Of course Cecil. Ask me anything.”

 

“Whatever happened to the woman who stole her gatekeeper husband’s knowledge? Did she end up some place like this?”

 

Willum shook his head. “No. She fled. She was given refuge by a small collective that split off from our beliefs centuries ago. Still worshipers of nature, but much more genteel than we are. They moved away from the dark waters and instead embraced the oak.”

 

“Did they protect her?”

 

Again Willum shook his head. “No. My people found her there and they invoked the laws of a truce we once had with them. The truce demanded that they judge her by her crimes against us. Though it stated that her punishment would be at their discretion. She murdered a sacred person and they could not overlook that even though they didn’t believe in death as a punishment.”

 

“What did they do to her then?”

 

Willum came to a stop and Cecil realized the path had come to an end at a narrow tunnel of overgrown brush. It looked like a horizontal hole made of sticks. The leader knelt down before it, looking up at the small man.

 

“They bound her to a very old tree. This is to say in their beliefs she was put inside of the tree to be its protector and would live within that tree until she had made amends by the will of nature for her crimes. At the time my people felt this was good enough as basically they were saying she would die of hunger and exposure trapped inside of a great oak tree. I guess they didn’t really think they understood the power behind nature as we did.”

 

Cecil thought about that a moment. “Do you think she’s still in that tree somewhere?”

 

Willum shrugged. “I have seen many things in my life and a few of those things have proven to me that one should never doubt anything is possible. She could still be in that tree. How long must one suffer to atone for the theft of life when it is taken without a proper purpose? Revenge and rage are not a proper purpose.”

 

“How long will you atone for taking my life Willum?”

 

This brought a most dark smile to the leader’s face.

 

“I have purpose for taking your life Cecil. But that’s not the answer you want. You want the truth and the truth is this: We are a people who worship the darkness. We are the black underbelly that must exist to give reason for that bright world you live in. It’s a balance. I have no illusions that my life will not follow a path of pain, madness and eventually an ugly death. I’ve accepted that fact. It does not pain me or fill me with guilt to take a life. Not yours, not anyone. I can sound kind and I am in my own way, but I am every bit the feral dog you see me as in your thoughts. Now, please…” he motioned towards the small doorway. “After you.”

 

Cecil knelt down and peered into the darkness. He realized this part of his journey he was going to have to take in darkness. There was at least a soft light at the end of the passage to move towards. He knew he wouldn’t be moving through the sticks and brush long.

 

As he came closer to the end of the passage he began to see the space on the other side. It took every bit of his being to continue forward.

 

The horrific scene on the other side of that last doorway was a thing of nightmares. Nightmares that were created in some type of wet hell where bones and cruelty were mixed into it along with the stink of a watery death. He stopped at the last moment and needed a gentle nudge from the man behind him to pass through the doorway.

 

Cecil’s mind took in every horrible thing in that earthy room. It was a scene of nature gone mad and violent. Only men of the most hateful kind could have come in and dressed it up with set pieces that made it even worse. This was not the last thing he wanted to see in life. He couldn’t help himself; he began to weep.

 

Willum rose up behind him and directed him to the center of the sanctuary. He whispered in a language that was unfamiliar to the small man. His hands came up and covered Cecil’s eyes.

 

“Close your eyes Cecil and imagine yourself some place beautiful.”

 

Cecil did as he was told. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and thought of the most beautiful places he’d ever been blessed with seeing in person. He cried out a little when he felt something cold and sharp briefly touch the back of his neck. Willum steadied him.

 

“It’s okay Cecil, it’s okay. This was just a test. I think that I am meant to see you again in a different light. Take a breath and relax, it was just a test.”

 

All the air poured from Cecil’s body as a sense of relief washed over him. He knew he was never meant to die in such a way. Of course it had to be some dark and gruesome test. He pitied his companions for having failed it.

 

Cecil was most calm and smiling when the long blade came sweeping down into the back of his neck. There was nearly no time for his thoughts to register what had happened. One moment his eyes were closed to the black cell around him, the next he was lying lifeless on the ground with unseeing eyes open.

 

Willum knelt down next to the small man and smiled as he took the man’s motionless head into his hands. “I will see you again Cecil.” he whispered. He stood and moved to ready the sanctuary alter.

 

 

II

 

 

Parka Driad sat at the breakfast table looking worried. She was a wax figure of that intense look of worry. Her food sat untouched. Her juice glass and tea cup remained full. The only movement in this scene was the occasional ruffling of the newspaper in her hands.

 

“You look more pinched than usual my dear aunt. Do we need to get some more fiber into that cowish body of yours?”

 

Parka looked up from her newspaper, her face blank. She hadn’t heard her niece’s taunting words. She wasn’t even quite aware she was no longer alone in the room. Her lack of response caused her niece to take pause.

 

“Auntie Parka?” Frangipani asked, looking on curiously. “I can’t believe I’m going to ask this, but… are you alright?”

 

These words slowly penetrated the older woman’s thoughts. Parka set the newspaper down and looked up at her niece. She started to speak, though all that happened was her lips shaping words and no sound coming from them.

 

“Auntie!” Frangipani snapped as she clicked her fingers at the woman. “What the living hell is wrong?”

 

Parka snapped from her daze and finally acknowledged her niece. She shook her head, still finding it hard to speak. Instead she handed the newspaper over to the young woman.

 

Frangipani grabbed the paper from her. “What am I looking at?”

 

“Bottom right.”

 

The niece quickly read through the short article. Her eyebrows knit in confusion as she tried to understand what was upsetting her aunt so.

 

“So a few librarians died because of a gas leak? This is making you act weird why?”

 

The older woman’s face went from perplexed to annoyed. She stood and snatched the news paper from the young woman’s hands.

 

“How can you be so aware of everything else in our world and completely miss this?”

 

Frangipani shrugged her shoulders and casually took a seat at the table. She called out for a servant to bring her breakfast. When a balled up bit of the newspaper hit her in the head she cried out in shock. She looked up to see her aunt glaring at her.

 

“What the hell woman?!”

 

“That wasn’t a bunch of librarians Frangi! Those were Reevers! Some of the most respected in that collective… what’s left of it anyway. This is the fourth such account this week. Gas leaks, accidental fires, I could go on. Someone is plundering the Reevers libraries and killing their best members. Tell me this doesn’t have anything to do with the plans you don’t discuss with me?”

 

Frangipani was shocked, though not because her aunt had just asked if she was involved in theft and murder. She knew nothing about these events.

 

“Of course not!” she snapped. “The Reevers have more than half of the found Negra Aqua artifacts. We need those artifacts! The price we set for any Reever to race was the artifacts. Those idiots don’t even know what they’re for!”

 

Parka studied her niece intently and decided she was telling the truth. She didn’t put it past her to take such lethal means to get what she wanted, especially as they grew closer to the blessed anniversary. If the Reevers had things she wanted from them and she wasn’t behind these events it meant something else was at play here. Or rather, someone else.

 

“This is not good.” Parka whispered.

 

“Do you think?!” Frangipani snapped back.

 

A house servant entered the room with the young woman’s breakfast. She was met by a smashing hand as Frangipani hit her breakfast tray and sent fruit and tea in all directions. The servant woman quickly knelt down to pick up the pieces of the fallen meal, profusely apologizing for her own clumsiness even though it was the young woman’s fault.

 

“Leave it and get out!” the Frangipani shouted. The longer she thought about what she’d just learned the more volatile she became. She turned on her aunt. “Find out what is going on! Now!”

 

“Who should I contact?” Parka asked.

 

“Everyone!” Frangipani roared.

 

Outside of the dining room Lee stood unseen by the doorway. A smile spread across his lips as he listened to his twin screaming demands at anyone within earshot. His sister seldom lost her composure and when she did it was like an unsightly shit-storm that he enjoyed with great pleasure.

 

Aunt Parka raced from the room so quickly that she never noticed her nephew just outside the doorway. The lumbering woman was moving with a stealth seldom seen from her. That too amused the young man.

 

Gradually the barked orders of his twin became more distant as she passed into the mansion through the opposite doorway in the dining room. He wasn’t sad to hear her go. As time progressed he became more and more alienated by that harsh woman’s voice. Oleander Driad was a slow moving glacier that crept an inch a year from his blood ties. This was the first year he started to feel more free of that chain rather than guilty for wanting to be free of it.

 

“Sweet relief… silence.” he whispered.

 

A middle age man stepped into the otherwise empty entry (except for Lee) with a curious expression on his face. He looked from the smiling young man to the open doorway that only moments before held the main characters in the current drama. This man would have been met with a lack of recognition from Frangipani Driad, but he was no stranger to Oleander Driad.

 

“Sir? Might I inquirer…”

 

Lee held up his hand. “Give me a moment to savor.”

 

Lee let his body fall flat against the wall. His eyes closed as he slowly slid down the wall to sit on the floor. With a laugh he made a motion for the other man to continue speaking. “Alright Odhinn, let your inquiries come.”

 

The man Odhinn appeared middle aged. His hair was a light color of sandy blonde with many white hairs mingling with the faintest of gold hues. His eyes were a watery blue and for many people simply looked sad or worrisome. To those who really looked into those eyes they’d see a stare so intense one needed to look away. He was of modest height, average weight, and appeared to be nearly the every man as far as the average European man was concerned. It was a very bland ruse.

 

Odhinn offered a passive smile. He’d also heard the temper tantrum that had just taken place in the other room.

 

“Your sister is excitable and reckless. You will need to be more guarded from here on out.” he cautioned.

 

Lee’s head nodded slowly. He was more aware of his twin’s unforgiving disposition than anyone.

 

“Yes… I know. I’ve been with her since conception. Do you really think I don’t know what she’s like?” he asked.

 

Odhinn offered the younger man a hand and Lee took it and let himself be helped from the floor. He had an itch to get a drink or indulge in his potent opiate laced snuff. He knew the other man would keep him from such distractions though.

 

Lee absently shook his head. “If that evil creature hadn’t had enough thought to think I might benefit her in life, do you really think she would have let me survive the womb?” He shook his head and looked panicked for a moment. “I must have a death wish.” he confessed.

 

Odhinn said nothing, but did offer the younger man a sympathetic smile. Lee came across as bored, shallow, and thoughtless. The truth was he was acutely aware of his situation and his surroundings. Perhaps this is why he tried so hard to appear pampered and useless. It was the one disguise he could easily master and make people believe. This is how Odhinn knew he’d been the right man for his needs.

 

“Come with me Lee.” he instructed.

 

Lee said nothing and allowed himself to be directed away from his eavesdropping spot. The two of men made their way through the mansion until they came to one of the most unused libraries in the place. So unused that the only one that actually bothered to find the key to it was Lee a long time ago.

Chapter V

Vitandi Objections, A Sleeping Dragon & The Beginning of a Race

 

I

 

 

“As your legal council I really must object to this offer you’ve had me read.” the first man replied.

 

“As your friend I’m just going to outright tell you to tell these people to go to hell and to close the door behind them.” said the second man.

 

Octavius let out a long, pent up sigh as he let his body fall heavily onto the couch. Two hours had passed as he went over the pros and cons of the event planning he’d taken on. This had been done with the only two individuals he completely trusted with such things.

 

The first individual was his long time lawyer Remy Faith. His father had always advised him to have his own lawyer and for that man to be a good friend and someone he could trust with his life and secrets. Octavius had come to find this was good advice. Remy was faithful to the last and had gotten him out of many jams and not all of them were of the legal variety.

 

The other individual was his close friend and fellow collector Negal Smitts. He went to school with Neg (as he called him) from the very first grade up until they parted their shared path at college. There were few things the two men hadn’t gotten themselves involved with together, or in trouble for. There was no one he trusted more than Neg. Sometimes he trusted Neg’s insights far better than his own.

 

Right now though he wasn’t getting the kind of feedback he wanted out of either man. He was finding that more than frustrating. He’d made up his mind and signed all the legal papers the Vitandi had drawn up. The first batch of boxes with files and race information had been delivered to his home. Come the following week he would take his first official meeting with Frangipani and afterwards be granted his first access to the Vitandi libraries. What was set in motion was roaring straight along with little time to hit the brakes. All Octavius had wanted was a little last minute courage from those he trusted.

 

“Are you giving me that advice as my lawyer or my friend Remy?”

 

Remy Faith, always a somewhat pinched looking gentleman, shrugged his shoulders and looked away. Octavius always marveled over how much the man’s profile looked like that of a crescent moon with spectacles on.

 

“Remy?” he nudged.

 

Remy crossed his arms over his chest. This was his way of showing he was going to be very defensive and less likely to commit to a reason. This meant his reason was that he had a feeling. Octavius was not a fan of his lawyer’s feelings, mostly because they were often right. This is probably why he did his best to be dismissive of them when they suggested he not do the very thing he wanted to do.

 

“Alright, my lawyer has nothing but goosebumps to offer. How about you Neg? What have you got other than telling them to kiss my ass?”

 

Neg shrugged his shoulders as well, but it was more of a casual gesture. He was far more carefree than the lawyer and had absolutely no problem speaking frankly to his long time friend.

 

“Setting aside the heifer beast that is Parka Driad, I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with the twins when I found the Drhite documents. I will admit I kind of liked Oleander. He’s not half the snob he comes across as when he’s away from his sister and has a little gin in his system. Frangipani? If someone told me she was the devil in a woman’s suit I would not doubt it for a moment. With her it’s not even a matter of if you can trust her. You simply can’t. Contract or no contract. She will take every last bit she can get from you and then toss you aside. That is the Vitandi’s way. No one could ever convince your father of that. I’m hearing the same from you.”

 

Octavius’ shoulders twitched and forced him to make a strange dipping gesture with his head. This was his reflexive action when Neg brought his father’s character into question. Neg had spent a good share of his life around Octavius the First. He always claimed the reason he went into the hunting and collecting business was because of his time with his best friend and his dad. He didn’t have the son’s bias though. He was able to be far more honest and to the point than his friend could.

 

“Father knew them better than you.” Octavius quietly replied.

 

Neg laughed, not with humor but annoyance. “Are we going to go to this conversation again my friend?”

 

Octavius nodded his head slowly. “Yes, if it involves your perceived shortcomings on my father’s part and how I’m not much better.”

 

“It’s not a shortcoming. Why do you always take that defensive stance?” Neg sighed. “Every man in our business has that one thing that we can only see in one way. It’s like having three children and you see one of them through rose colored glasses at the expense of the other two. For me it’s the sky hunters. For you it has always been your inability to see that for every one invention of Professor Vogel’s that works right, two of them are frightening and unnatural in function. For your father it was the Vitandi. I don’t fault him for that or think less of him. With that said, the dignified glory years of the Vitandi, if ever they truly existed in practice and not simply in reputation, were long gone by the time your father became obsessed with them. They’ve only gotten worse now that they’ve become so closed off to the world.”

 

“So you’re suggesting I tread carefully?” Octavius offered. This only caused his friend to make an exaggerated gesture of pulling his hair out of his head.

 

“No!” he barked. “I’m saying don’t tread at all! Back out. Turn the other way. Do not pass go! I’m telling you that I honestly fear for your safety if you work with these people.”

 

Octavius let out a low and cruel laugh. “Oh really? A hunter warning me about safety? That’s rich.”

 

Neg offered no reply to this. Whenever Octavius wanted to be dismissive of his friend’s opinion, even if he felt it was right, he called into question Neg’s career as a hunter. Being a hunter meant collecting only it was living beings that were sought and collected for a bounty. It was the only thing the two disagreed greatly on.

 

The quiet in the room was finally broken by Octavius.

 

“I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I asked for your opinion and now that I have it I’m unwilling to listen to it.”

 

This admission prompted Remy to find his way back into the conversation.

 

“It’s not exactly something we weren’t expecting Octavius. The moment you told us you were contacted by the Vitandi I think I can speak for us both by saying we knew you wouldn’t be swayed. You tend to underestimate just how well Neg and I understand your relationship to your father’s work, his legacy. We wouldn’t be your friends if we didn’t try to talk you out of it though. Neg is quite right. These are dangerous people.”

 

Remy pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and took his glasses off. He fussed with cleaning the lenses as the other two men quietly looked on. The pinched looking man put his glasses back on his crescent moon of a face. This had always been Remy’s way of signaling he was about to offer his final words on the subject.

 

“I only advice you to seek out a partner you can trust and who cannot be manipulated by the Vitandi. Someone they may not know very well. In other words, someone who has your back and who will be less likely to be compromised by the collective. You can of course call on me for help, however, I will not directly involve myself with these people. I can only advice and research. You understand of course.”

 

Octavius nodded his head slowly, a little sad. He would have liked both men to be on board for this adventure. He didn’t like wading into this massive thing and feeling so alone.

 

“Yes Remy, I understand. And this is good advice. If I can’t have you or Neg with me, I still have a few people in mind.”

 

“I never said I wouldn’t be with you.” Neg interjected.

 

Octavius looked at his friend surprised. “What do you mean?”

 

Neg crossed the room and fell onto the couch next to his old friend. He gave the other man’s leg a good punch like they did playfully as kids.

 

“There is no way in hell I’m going to let my best friend swim among Vitandi sharks alone. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be at your side holding your hand the whole way. I’m going to do what I do. I’m going to be out there in the dusk-lands and secret places doing leg work for you. I’m going to discreetly use my trusted collective of eyes and ears to keep a watch on things. You have to promise me you’re going to be smart about this though. Don’t get caught up in it. If things start to go south do not follow these people down like your father would. There is no treasure or prize for the House of Obediah worth your life.”

 

Octavius nodded but said nothing. He couldn’t bring himself to vocalize a promise he knew he couldn’t keep. There was always something worth that risk. It was up to the individual to decide what that thing was. Neg let it go.

 

“So how do I start? What do you want me to do?” Neg asked.

 

That was a very good question and Octavius had to take a few minutes to think on it. A few ideas swished around in his thoughts. One of those ideas he focused on.

 

“I would like for you to attempt to locate a woman by the name of Ev Zylphia. She’s a cartomancer I’ve worked with over the years. She doesn’t like to be easily accessible though so finding her could prove a bit of a challenge. She tends to keep to the dusk-lands.”

 

“For what purpose?” Neg asked.

 

“Remy suggested I get someone to watch my back. I can think of no better person than Ev. If she accepts of course.”

 

Neg looked put off by the idea. He’d never heard of this woman.

 

“Some bird who reads mumbo jumbo in cards is going to be your back up? If you’re that close and trusting why don’t you look her up yourself?”

 

Octavius smiled. “If you knew this woman you would understand the term mumbo jumbo does not apply to her. And I simply don’t have the extra time to invest in the search for her. Even if I did it doesn’t work that way. In the end if she wants to help me she’ll seek me out. Putting you on her trail for my needs will be seen in her cards though. It’s how I extend my invitation. There’s really no easier way to do it. The harder you try to find her the more she will see it in her cards and cling to the shadows. I’d actually challenge you to find her before she comes calling on her own.”

 

Neg still didn’t look as though he liked the idea, though turning it into a challenge of sorts made him more accepting of it.

 

A strange look came over Neg’s face as he looked at his lifelong friend. It was a dreamy sort of look that made Octavius feel strange.

 

“Why on earth are you looking at me that way?”

 

Neg remained quiet for a bit, simply looking on with that same dreamy stare. Finally he let out a soft laugh as he shook his head.

 

“Sometimes it’s so surreal to sit here looking at you. I know I’ve gotten older with you, but I never stared at my face in mature form for so many years.”

 

“What do you mean?” Octavius asked.

 

“You. You look the spitting image of your father. I know I must have seen it for awhile now, but sitting here trying to talk you out of his old quest it just hit me how very much I feel like I’m sitting with him. I almost expect you to call out for Tavi and a younger you comes running through the door.”

 

It was meant as a light hearted thing though it hit Octavius very hard. He’d spent a lifetime learning from his father while struggling to define his own identity aside from him.

 

“I’m not my father.” he replied in a very soft voice.

 

Neg clapped him on the shoulder. “Given the territory you’re about to tread? I hope for your sake that’s true.”

 

 

II

 

 

Frangipani sat at an enormously large desk. The desk had always been its own type of entity when she was a little girl. She could remember the first time her mother brought her into the Vitandi founder’s secret library and showed it to her. Her little girl mind could barely comprehend that something so beautiful and otherworldly had been crafted by one man’s hand out of wood.

 

The desk was, in essence, a sleeping dragon. It was hard to tell this at first because the eye wanted to take in all the different elegantly carved details one at a time. It was only after the mind was allowed to fully swoon over the strange lines and alien scenes that it could take a step back and see these things all came together to represent a sleeping dragon coiled up into a ball.

 

Her mother Lily had taken the time to show her daughter all of the places where something was hidden within this sleeping dragon. Like, for example, the flat compartment hidden within the middle of the dragon’s tail. If you placed a finger from both hands in just the right spots a pressure spring was triggered and a wide, flat drawer slowly slid out. Inside were various tools used for smoking opium. The little girl didn’t know what that meant then. For her the tools were elegantly crafted living parts within the dragon’s body. It was like her mother was pulling out the creature’s lungs from her talk of inhaling smoke.

 

In all there were seventeen hidden places within the sleeping dragon desk. Seventeen was a special number for the original Vitandi. One plus seven equaled eight and eight was the number the Vitandi was founded on. Eight was the sign of infinity. Forever. The founding members of the Vitandi had a very special definition of forever. This idea was represented by a spider; a creature also crafted onto the dragon’s body. Frangipani new all the spiders lurking on the back of the sleeping dragon. She knew their symbols and what they represented.

 

Of these seventeen hiding places the most important one was a narrow drawer hidden within the dragon’s head. The drawer itself was empty. It pulled out so that a hand could reach into the space beyond. It was a dangerous space though. When the drawer pulled out it allowed pressure triggers to push spikes into the open area. One had to accept that their hand was going to get cut and torn in order to get to the hidden place beyond this painful gauntlet. It was worth it though to retrieve the contents hidden within.

 

Frangipani’s eyes on reflex always looked at her left arm in that room. It was the only place she felt truly comfortable being less covered outside of her private rooms. She wore long sleeves most of the time to obscure the many scars riddling her left arm. Since she was right handed her mother had advised her to use her left hand when attempting to retrieve the item hidden within this drawer. It would ensure the hand most observed would remain unharmed. Using her left hand had proven to be clumsy though and it had taken her a long time to move through the spikes. Most often she would get to the last one and misjudge the distance and deal herself a cut that she would have to attend to or risk losing too much blood. That was the nature of the beast though. One had to bleed for the information hidden within the dragon’s brain. One had to be thoughtful or risk bleeding to death before reaching it.

 

The wounds on the young woman’s arm were old now. She’d quickly learned how to snake her way through the many sharp objects to the pressure release at the end of the passage. Flipping a small lever there would pull all the spikes back and leave an open space. The very awkward way a person had to get to this lever made sure no one could cheat and simply use a stick to flip it.

 

The prize inside the dragon’s head was a very old journal. So very old that few actually dared remove the original from its safe spot in recent centuries. Instead there were secondary journals that copied the contents of the first. These would fall to time eventually too, so there was always a journal being written to replace the writing of the last. It was not allowed to make more than one copy though. The rule was: Old one to feed the new one, all the others left to turn to dust inside the head. They were to remain untouched when they fell out of favor. The air tight metal box that held the original one was most likely the only thing that kept it from turning to dust, though Frangipani’s mother Lily had a theory that a little of the old magic helped keep it whole.

 

Mother Lily had been the last person tasked with copying the newest version of the journal. She had beautiful penmanship and the artistic skill to recreate the journal’s drawings. She would bring her little girl with her when given access to the secret library for that task. Frangipani had wonderful memories of sitting at the edge of the desk as her mother worked. She liked to think she was riding the back of the sleeping dragon. Quite often she fell asleep there herself.

 

As her mother transcribed from one journal to the next she explained the nature of the writings to her daughter. Few people within the Vitandi actually knew their original history; its true history. Time had greatly altered the nature of the collective. Time and changing attitudes. Somewhere during medieval times newer members felt a need to slowly ween out the darker aspects of the group. The darker aspects they felt made it more of a cult rather than an intellectual collective.

 

Mother Lily was quite dismissive of these stupid and short sighted men. The Vitandi had been built on eight profound desires and she felt that no one who was not of those original founding bloodlines had any right to try to change the collective and steer them away from those original desires. Sadly the predominant leaders over the years were men, bullied up by cultural bias, leaving the women with little to no voice. This was perhaps why the women of the collective became the secret guardians of its true history.

 

“Only women are allowed into this room Frangi. Even though your brother is half of your being his half is still male and he can never be allowed in here. You will have to educate him word of mouth as we’ve done for centuries. It will be important for him to know, to understand as you do. This will be your task. There will come a day that his masculinity clouds his judgment and they will try to steer him away from our truths. Don’t let it happen Frangi. We are counting on you.”

 

These were her mothers words, repeated often. Frangipani took them very seriously. It caused her brother’s leash to grow shorter and shorter as they grew older and she grew more powerful.

 

A smile came to the young woman’s lips as she thought of her mother. Lily Driad had been a powerful and most feared woman. She was a strong member of the internal revolution that had begun shortly before her birth. The decedents of the original founding members were done with the foreign blue blood style of academics that had flourished in the Vitandi at the end of the last century. They wanted their old ways back.

 

For Lily she didn’t just want the old ways back. She wanted to put into place her ancestor’s original desires. This was an end game. It would see the end of the Vitandi and the start of something far larger and more grand. She accepted she would not see it in her lifetime, but she knew there would be ways to shelter her soul to still be apart of it.

 

“One day Frangi you will see the completion of your ancestor’s great plan. I never would have believed it would be my daughter who was born to see that task fulfilled. I have to admit I fear for you as I’m envious of you being chosen for such a great thing. I only wish that I could see you on that great day. Sadly, my body grows weak. One day the glowing ember inside me that is my soul and my ego will be confined to the heart of this sleeping dragon with the others. I had never thought I would be able to have a child so late in life that I would grow too old to see her grown. I am sorry for that Frangi. You are my heart, my everything, and before I die I will make sure you know how to be the dragon you were born to be.”

 

The young woman’s hand moved over the surface of the sleeping dragon desk. She almost thought she imagined a warm spot that gave clue to where the sleeping dragon protected its hidden souls.

 

Frangipani often thought of her mother’s words. A person who didn’t know Lily Driad might think she was a soft and loving mother the way she spoke so tenderly to her daughter. She was not. When one is a dragon raising what should become a greater dragon there is no room for softness. Moments where her mother allowed herself to soften were few and far between. She was strict with her children and placed a great weight of responsibility especially on her girl. The type of discipline expected of her children at times was greater than anything expected from well trained adults. It had to be that way.

 

Frangipani was grateful for the strict guidance of her mother Lily. There were few women who would have had the ability to be so wicked and loving in equal measure. It left the appropriate marks on her.

When her mother was coming close to her last days she finally shared with her daughter a secret she kept close to her heart. A secret about a father and son and their influence so long ago. The tale of the two was fragmented over the years and had become more of a reason to explain why the Driads were the chosen ones among the collective. Why their remnants of the original Vitandi eight made them special.

 

Her mind came away from thoughts of her mother and back to the present moment. On the desk in front of the young woman were four folders.

 

Earlier in the week she’d had all the necessary information collected together to be sent to the collector. His job would be to study these papers and decide who were good candidates for racers and what places and organizations should be considered for the course of the race. He would know what would work best to recreate the last race. It was so important that old steps were followed as best they could with their current resources.

 

The race itself was partly a scavenger hunt paired up with an obstacle course. Each racer would have a series of places they needed to reach. Each destination would provide them with the materials and information to go onto the next place. How they got there would be up to them. There would also be an artifacts list. Some items on this list each racer would be required to find. Other items would be awarded to whoever got to them first.

 

These few folders she kept belonged to the racers and places that she would see to herself. Knowledge of them might cause the collector to second guess his decision to take part in the event. While she had contingency plans should he become less helpful, she hoped to have him as an asset for as long as possible. His involvement in the race planning, and eventually the race itself, was far more important than she wanted to admit.

 

After the chaotic ending to the very last Magnus Certatio race Edward Longview, the leader of the Vitandi at that time, had done his very best to scatter all information about the race. The smart thing would have been total destruction of that information. There was no greater crime to a scholar than to destroy information though. Ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to do this. So instead he scattered it to the four corners of the world. For reasons she’d only just been made privilege to, Octavius Obediah the First had been obsessed with finding and putting all those pieces back together. It had long been rumored that if anyone knew the exact course of that lost race it was him.

 

Frangipani rose and moved around to the front of the massive desk. She stopped at the tail and triggered the tail drawer to open. She withdrew a pipe, an opium lamp, and a small box. She placed these on the desk and took a few moments to move through the ritual of steps that allowed her to smoke away her anxiety.

 

“Dear mother I hate to admit this aloud, but sometimes I fear this task is too big for me.” she whispered to the memory of her mother.

 

The young woman liked to tell people she rooted for the villains in the fairy tales. For her these were the characters who had true strength. They had purpose and desire. Only a villain understood how hot a fire could burn within their chest and how badly it singed the soul. Only they knew how strong one had to be to not be consumed by that internal blaze. For those Frangipani burned with her heated dragon’s breath it was a momentary pain. For her it was a burning inside she felt every moment of every day.

 

“Whimpering cow.” she hissed at herself. “Save your self pity.”

 

Frangipani blew a heavy stream of smoke out as she opened the top folder and looked at the information neatly presented.

 

The swamp rats had finally come out of hiding after all but destroying the last lingering remnants of the Reevers collective. They made no apologies for taking back relics that were stolen from their places of worship. The Reevers who had died were considered just punishment for their collective’s thievery. They were willing to offer up their recollected relics and with them the ones they still possessed. It was clear from other things mentioned that the swamp rats, whose history was all word of mouth, had knowledge of the events of the last Magnus Certatio race and how their cult had played a part. They stopped short of confessing their motivations for being in the race. She had to assume they were scheming.

 

Frangipani took one last drag from her opium pipe and set it down. She leaned back into the over sized chair and let her eyes close.

 

There was some point in her life where she had to have been a simple human. A time when she was allowed to look at the world plainly and without some deeper purpose pushing her forward. It couldn’t have been a very long time. Most likely it was a short moment when she was a child with an empty head. The gods only knew what she began to turn into the moment her mother started filling her head’s empty space. That was the last time that the young woman could remember knowing a simple peace.

 

She leaned back over the table and took up her pen to scribble notes onto the back of the swamp rat’s papers.

 

Frangipani had been expecting the swamp rats, among others, to eventually show their faces in some way. The news of the race planning had made its way into the world and anyone that information might affect was starting to turn up. She had plans for all of them and their schemes.

 

The young woman closed the folder and pushed the whole stack aside. It was growing too late for her to think clearly and the opium was sending her thoughts to a kinder and more abstract place.

 

She reached down and slipped her heels off before climbing onto the desktop. She re-positioned her opium lamp near the edge of the table over the dragon’s sleeping head. Near her was a very large leather bound book. She wrapped her arms around this book as though it was her favorite doll. There she laid down and curled up into a fetal position much like she did as a child with her mother.

 

The leather bound book was in fact the latest version of the journal that her mother had been tasked with transcribing. Frangipani felt she knew the journal better than she knew her own mother. She’d had the opportunity to spend more unrestricted time with it. She knew every single word in it, every illustration.

 

“Mama? Do you think anyone has ever changed bits of the book when rewriting it?” she had once asked her mother.

 

“What do you mean? None of us has the right to use our own words in place of our founding father’s original words.” is how her mother had originally answered. This had been a test for her mother.

 

This old journal had many things written in it. One of those things was the date the final generation of the Vitandi’s original bloodline would be born. A very important date. A date that her mother changed to reflect the day her twins were born.

 

Frangipani put her pipe over the opium lamp and deeply took in the dream laced smoke. Her mind relaxed further and she willed her body to continue to transform into something greater than it was actually born to be.

 

“Sometimes predictions are wrong Frangi and they need to be corrected. The Fates chose you, no matter what the founding fathers wrote.”

 

This was the very last thing her mother ever said to her before she slipped into her last sleep. Upon being challenged with the truth, her mother had confessed. The daughter, then starting to feel the full weight of what her life was meant to be, had hoped it would ease her of her burden. Instead, it had changed her entire perspective and the small ten year old had realized she would have to do more, go further, and totally recreate herself to be this entity she had not truly been born to be. That was perhaps the last time the young woman had felt any true sense of humanity.

 

Frangipani let the pipe fall to the table as her eyes grew too heavy to ignore. She let sleep come over her. Like times past, she lay there atop the sleeping dragon, cuddling her book of old words and one very big lie.

 

III

 

 

Octavius stood in the middle of his father’s private library. In one hand he held the library’s door key and in the other hand the last remnants of what had been a fresh bottle of whiskey. Whiskey seemed to be the only elixir that could work up his nerve.

 

The collector’s thoughts were no longer chaotic. The spirits had calmed his body and relaxed his mind. This was only a temporary state, though it would last long enough for him to do what he needed to do. It was something he should have done a week ago. He needed to force himself to cross the threshold of his father’s private place.

 

It was late; well past midnight. Every so often there was the sound of a loud ding that rang up from the basement. Mr. Olophant was back from his vacation and hard at work battling his basement ghosts.

 

Down the hallway deep snores were coming from Stella’s room. Octavius could remember his father once saying the maid’s snoring was the most calming ambient noise he’d ever heard. He preferred to do much of his personal research in the late hours so that Stella’s snoring kept him company. Octavius had to admit it also made him feel more at ease. He was happy to have her home despite the eccentric air she brought to it.

 

Octavius put the whiskey bottle to his lips and drained the last of its contents. Gently he set it down on his father’s desk as his eyes moved to the massive portrait of the man himself hanging over the fireplace.

 

“Why do you have a painting of yourself papa?”

 

This was a question he’d asked his father when he was six.

 

There had been a two week period where he’d seen little of his father. During the day he worked for his associates, during the night he was locked away in his private library chasing his obsession. Normally there were a few hours set away after dinner time where he spent dedicated time with his son. For those two weeks Octavius the Second was cheated out of that time while his father sat like a statue in front of a famous painter.

 

When the painting was finished, framed, and finally delivered back to their home, there was much ceremony and fuss over it being installed over the fireplace in his father’s private library. Young Octavius hadn’t liked it from the moment he saw it. It represented time with his father that was stolen for stupid reasons. Why did a man need a painting of himself in the one room only he spent time in?

 

“Sometimes a good man can feel very small Tavi. When he feels small there is risk of him living below his potential. So he creates something of himself that is larger than life so he can turn to that and see that he is not small, he is not simply good, but that there is every potential for him to be something great. That painting is me as a great man and I have placed it where I need to remember that potential the most.”

 

This is how his father had responded. As a child he hadn’t really understood his father’s explanation. Now, as not only an adult but a maturing man, he finally understood.

 

Octavius moved over to the fireplace. The portrait of his father hadn’t been painted so he was looking down into the room. His head was held high and looking off into the distance. There was an intensity in the man’s stare. What was the painted Octavius the First looking at with such desire? “A destiny that I will never see achieved in my lifetime.” was his answer.

 

Rarely was Octavius allowed in this room so he rarely ever had the opportunity to give the portrait a good viewing. Even after his father passed he seldom visited his father’s library. Now he was there and his eyes were allowed to roam over all the minute details and take it all in.

 

This was his father while not his father. Some of the differences in the facade were minor and most likely a thing of vanity. Some things were more along the lines of how his father actually wanted to be seen. Perhaps it was a portrait of his psyche.

 

The portrait of Octavius the First had a beautiful head of hair the real man had seen for only the first twenty years of his life. Gone was the severely expanding widow’s peak. There was no thinning of his hair or the slight view of the small bald patch at the back of his head.

 

This portrait of a man also had steely blue eyes that radiated out from his face with great intensity. The real man had large blue eyes that were often most kind and easily carried a sense of joy and humor. This was something Octavius the Second liked best about his father, those big happy eyes of his. At the same time those eyes could express such sadness.

 

The portrait of his father was strong, unwavering, and at no time showed any sense of doubt or worry. This was not a man who had a family to worry about. This was not a man who couldn’t destroy a goal. He was as his father wanted to be without the hiccups of life and responsibility to bring him back down to reality.

 

“You but not you.” he whispered to the portrait.

 

Ten years had passed since he’d lost his father. Time had not softened the loss nor helped ease him of the painful duality he felt towards the man. He loved his father and was proud to be his son. There had never been any ill will between them. And yet? The son felt such utter need to outdo the father; to reach all those great pinnacles his father hadn’t reached in his lifetime. It was hard to determine if this was the desire to be better than him or to simply see his father’s work completed.

 

Octavius stared long and hard at the painting as his drunken thoughts came to answers his sober mind would not allow. This was the moment that Octavius the First and Octavius the Second were simply Octavius. For some reason his mind told him this meant setting aside who either of them had been and simply become who they should be.

 

“Me but not me…” he whispered. “Not the me that is so much like you.”

 

He staggered backwards away from the portrait. “Pardon me a moment papa. I have to do something before I can get to our great work.”

 

Octavius left his father’s library, closing and locking the door behind him. Stella’s snoring kept him company as he moved down the hallway to his private rooms.

 

In his bedroom on his dresser was an old photograph of Octavius and his father. The son was seventeen and the father forty-two. They were standing together, arms over one another’s shoulders with a view of the great lost pyramid of Taltose behind them. It was lost to the dusk-lands nearly a hundred years previously and no one had been successful in locating it until the House of Obediah set to that task. It was the first expedition that both father and son had equal investment in. When they stepped into the clearing and found that pyramid together it was one of the happiest moments of young Octavius’ life. He liked to think it was a stand out moment in his father’s life as well.

 

Octavius took the framed photo in hand and felt a momentary thrill of that experience again. He did look so very much like his father, even then. Neither one of them had much success with keeping a clean chin. Octavius the Second was already fighting five o’clock shadow by the time he was sixteen. His father always assured him that no matter what polite society had to say about it, the ladies liked a little grit on a man.

 

“You were so right about that one papa.” he whispered. He set the photograph down and moved to the bathroom.

 

In the bathroom he prepared his shaving kit after looking around for a pair of scissors. As he ran the water in his sink he gave his reflection a long hard look in the mirror.

 

As with his father, his features were large and well defined. It was an expressive face. Theirs was an approachable handsomeness. With a handshake, a clap on the back and a wide smile father and son could put most men at ease. With a kiss to the back of the hand and a well placed wink, father and son could charm nearly any woman. They worked with what they had.

 

He looked hard into his own eyes. For everything he knew himself to be, he understood he would have to be far more than that.

 

Octavius took the scissors in hand and took a deep breath. There was a strange clarity to his drunken state and he wanted to act upon it before the sensation wore off and he was just his everyday self again. That everyday self was not enough for the approaching events.

 

The first lock of dark brown hair fell into the sink. Then the next and so on. He made quick work of the hair that was thinning like his father’s. He then took a razor to the remains and shaved his head down to the skin. He knew come morning, much like his lower face, there would be a shadow. That was alright. It was symbolic after all.

 

The Octavius that now looked back at him was not so soft around the edges. It wasn’t just the slight change in his look, it was the change in his personality that it represented. He had swam with sharks and made deals with men who weren’t truly men as the regular world understood them. He’d outsmarted and out-shined others to see the House of Obediah expand by great leaps. His reputation was priceless to him and he guarded over it with great pride and protection. He did not want to start into this next chapter of his life caught off guard as he was when he came into the room to see Parka Driad sitting there.

 

Octavius stumbled into his bedroom and fell heavily onto the bed. The whiskey was finally overloading his senses and all he wanted to do was sleep. As his mind swam in that place between consciousness and dreaming he saw dragons. Long sleek dragons that were coming for him. Quickly he pushed himself forward to a place well beyond dragons and dreams. The reborn Octavius slept.

 

 

VI

 

 

Frangipani stood at the window in her favorite parlor. She tried very hard to keep a minimal attachment to material things, but she loved this room. Everything in it was an extension of her.

 

The windows of the parlor were styled in stained glass. At the center was a circle of clear glass offering a pleasant view of the sprawling garden outside. Around this circle a maze of beautifully rendered art nouveau style flowers. The coloring of the stained glass gave a warm colorful tint to the sun shining into the room.

 

All around her were well tended tropical plants and their blooms. Frangipani was most taken by anything that seemed exotic and perhaps dangerous. This is why there were several of the prettier breeds of carnivorous plants hiding among the harmless ones.

 

Here and there small shrines had been worked into the natural flow of the plants. You might look towards the orchids and spy the scene of the goddess Olean. This included a small golden statue of androgynous design set atop an ornate and narrow table. In front of this statue were three small golden bowls ready for the offering of incense, flower petals, and honey. Not far away from her was a similar shrine to the goddess Brine. The difference in her shrine was the use of stone instead of gold and the offering of blood instead of honey.

 

Everything in this parlor was deceptively attractive and yet still represented power and death. Even the two wing backed chairs and table at its heart were beautiful, but so severely designed that they looked like they would be most uncomfortable to sit in for very long. This was Frangipani: Deceptively beautiful and yet a human representation of power and death. Someone who was very uncomfortable to be around for any given time.

 

Today in the parlor Frangipani was taking tea with the Baron. The large man was precariously seated at the very edge of his chair. The chair was not large enough to accommodate his hefty frame. He looked much like an uncomfortable grown man trying to squeeze himself into a child’s seat.

 

Despite his discomfort the Baron was, as always, delighted to have an audience with his mistress. Since achieving the task of getting the collector to take part in event planning, he’d had few in-person meetings with the young woman. As a result he’d taken a few juvenile approaches to getting her attention back. He had no doubt this was why he was now there with her.

 

A somewhat frightened looking servant bustled into the room with a tea tray in hand. He quickly set it down on the table between the two severe chairs and waited for the woman in the room to approve of the serving tray. Slowly Frangipani moved to the tea tray and scrutinized its contents. Then she gave the nervous servant a quick nod of the head and he practically ran from the room.

 

“You seem to inspire a desire to please in your servants Frangi.” the Baron observed.

 

The young woman lazily shrugged. She was quite indifferent to the servants. They held little value to her except for their service and the minor moments of amusement she got out of them.

 

“He’s new to our house. He opted to pay for his severe gambling debts by becoming an indentured servant. He thought it a soft way to atone for his weaknesses. Yesterday he found out that lashings are the preferred method here for correcting a lackadaisical attitude towards his work ethic. He also realized the next seven years of his life are going to be quite unhappy.” she replied.

 

The Baron said nothing in way of reply. He never quite knew what type of reply would be appropriate when the young woman shared things that would make most people uncomfortable. He wasn’t personally bothered by such things. He felt the woman wanted to be shocking though, so he used his silence to suggest any manner of things she might make of it.

 

“So Frangi, what calls me here today?” he said, now trying to change the subject.

 

Frangipani had moved back to her window. She was trying to keep her temper in check as she decided how best to approach the subject that had her reach out to the Baron. Every time she thought of those reasons it caused her to get irritated anew.

 

“You’ve been a naughty baron.” she began, keeping her tone light and playful. She turned from her window, crossing her arms in front of her chest as though she were about to scold a child. “You’ve been acting out like a spoiled brat who isn’t getting enough of his mother’s attention. You’ve had… temper tantrums.”

 

The Baron shrugged his shoulders dismissively, a wry smile on his lips. “Perhaps that’s how I feel? I came into this plan of yours thinking I was going to have a much larger part in it. Now that you have your precious collector I’m hardly being called upon for anything. I’m not apart of any of your decision making. I’m nearly the last to know anything! I feel like I’m the victim of bait and switch here. Does that not deserve a tantrum?”

 

This caused the young woman to laugh. The idea that the Baron was a victim to anything was rich.

 

“Oh there… there’s that Baron sense of humor I find so adorable.”

 

“I wasn’t trying to be humorous my lovely, I do feel wounded.” The tone of the man’s voice suggested that this was him being quite honest. “If my actions have come across as childish it is because I do seek more attention from you. Those actions finally got me an audience with you after so long. Perhaps we should agree to a more face to face communication in the future?”

 

The Baron pulled his large frame from the uncomfortable chair and straightened himself out. If this were any other woman he would have walked over to her and taken her hands. He would have attempted to ply her with his over the top charms. If that failed he would have turned to more forceful means. This was not a woman whom charm worked on though. He wasn’t sure if force would work any better. So he instead opened his arms to her as a way to express his sincerity.

 

“I am an asset to you. What I bring to the table has value. So it should be beneath me to have to turn to such juvenile tactics to get the appropriate attention from you. It is about respecting one another.”

 

Frangipani let the Baron plead his case for more of her time. She barely heard anything being said though. Inside of her head a small voice was repeating a chant over and over to help keep her anger in check. A thing to keep her in control. It was only when the Baron finally shut up that she let her attention come back to the room around her.

 

“That’s all well and good Baron, but I didn’t ask you hear today because of your little outbursts.”

 

The Baron perked up. “Oh? Then why am I here?”

 

“As you might know I have little birds everywhere. Humming birds to be precise. They flutter about so tiny and mostly unseen… quiet. My little birds are so quiet. Their silence is so they can eavesdrop. They are an extension of my ears. And when they hear something good, they come home and sing to me… hum to me. Would you like to know what tune my little birds have been humming?”

 

The Baron said nothing. All humor and charm left his face. He was a man who was always scheming. He was always looking for a way to get ahead wherever he could. There were a few dangerous schemes he had brewing this woman might not like.

 

Frangipani slinked across the floor in the seductive manner she reserved especially for the Baron. He was a lusty and gluttonous man who was weak to the things he desired. She would always have that very easy way to control him. The mere act of coming closer to him erased some of the concern from his face.

 

She gently glided a nail down his pudgy cheek. “My little birds have told me you’re upset with our collector friend Mr Obediah. That you find him responsible for the downsizing of your role with the Vitandi.”

 

The Baron’s eyes closed as he felt the woman’s touch. Just having her so close made all the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She smelled like white tea mingling with ginger. It was a strange and alluring scent.

 

“I…” he stumbled to find his words. “I might have a grievance against Obediah. I assure you I have more reasons than you to have issues with him. I might have acted out a little.” he whispered.

 

Frangipani let her fingers move down the man’s fleshy neck and brought them to a rest on his shoulder. She gave him a sly smile that suggested they were both in on a great secret.

 

“I’m not sure your acting out is an appropriate summation.” she cooed. “My men intercepted your package to Mr Obediah. You know the one? The package that was meant to give him an overview of your plans for the race’s social functions so he could work with you to make them compatible with the stations of the race?”

 

The Baron’s eyes snapped open and looked nervous. “Oh?” was all he said for a reply.

 

The woman nodded her head slowly, giving the man her best sleepy eyes. She squeezed his shoulder and he almost purred.

 

“Yes. I had the opportunity to read much of what you wrote before we forwarded it on to the collector. I was taken aback by how there were more insults to the man’s character than there was information on your plans.”

 

The Baron shrugged. “I might have sent a few professional barbs his way. He’s been in the business a long time. I’m sure he’s heard worse.”

 

Frangipani gave the large man a scolding tsk tsk.

 

“Now Baron, where is all this hostility coming from? We’re all friends here. We’re all looking for the same thing. So let me suggest you improve that attitude of yours and try to at least pretend we’re playing nice.”

 

She gave the man’s chin a playful squeeze before turning away from him. Her hips swayed back and forth as she moved towards the untouched tea tray. In the past she found this coddling approach to be most effective on the Baron when he was having his spoiled child moments.

 

The opposite effect was starting to happen though. The Baron enjoyed when the young woman used her seductiveness to influence his actions or even to change his opinions. He didn’t like it when it went too far and he felt more like an actual child that she was talking down to. More than that, he was simply becoming angry because of all the secret schemes he had so that he could take utmost advantage of this event and the woman’s collective, she had focused on a few jabs at the collector.

 

“I apologize for my slip.” he said through clenched teeth. “I assure you any grievance I have with the man will be kept in check until the conclusion of the race.”

 

“I think this is a grievance you should simply drop Baron.” she replied.

 

The Baron’s face was growing red. He was starting to think less with his libido and more with his ego. He was a man who was not told what to do. Especially not by a little girl no matter how attractive she was or who her people were. He’d weathered far worse than them in his day.

 

“I don’t mean to be difficult my lovely, but this really is none of your business. As far as I’m concerned the planning and execution of my services for the race is the only area of my interests that you have an influence upon.”

 

“I would disagree.” Frangipani countered.

 

“Well then we can at least agree to disagree then. I am in your employ, which means something very different than how you would treat a servant. You can scold me and use your considerable charms to sway me, however, I’m the Baron. No one tells me what to do.”

 

Frangipani was silent for many moments. She was looking down at the tea tray and despite how calm she appeared, there was a rage taking place in her head. When she finally spoke it took all her effort to keep her voice calm.

 

“Ah Baron.” she cooed. “See, there illustrates something my mother first pointed out to me as a little girl. She explained that with great men often come great egos. You can influence the man, you can even seduce the man, but when you prick his ego just so, all that influence and seduction is lost. You’re left with nothing but that ego and egos are a hard thing to work with.”

 

With great grace and pose she leaned over and poured a glass of tea. She added a dash of honey to the rose colored brew. A strong scent of hibiscus filled the room and mingled well with the woman’s own white tea and ginger scent.

 

“I have no time for egos Baron, especially one as large as yours. So I will tell you this as gently as possible so as to try and avoid pricking that ego further. One way or another you will do as you’re told. It’s as simple as that.” She held the teacup out to him. “Some tea? It’s snapdragon tea, your favorite.”

 

All of this was the last straw for the Baron. He swept across the parlor and knocked the tea cup out of the woman’s hands. It went flying across the room and smashed into the goddess Olean’s small shrine. Pieces of fine china rained down on the plants below, mingling with flower petals and honey.

 

“I don’t want any damn tea you wicked woman!” the Baron roared. If it were possible for his face to go a deeper shade of red it did. “Someone should have put you over their knee a long time ago and taught you to show respect where respect is due! You have no idea of who you’re dealing with little girl!”

 

Never before had the Baron lost his temper and shouted at the raven haired woman let alone insulted her. He’d had a go at her brother, he’d called her aunt every name for beast he knew, but his lust for Frangipani had always kept his ego and temper in check. As he watched the thunderstorm erupting over the young woman’s face, he realized it was more than lust that should have helped him keep his manners.

 

Frangipani moved over to the shrine that had been disrupted by the flying tea cup. She leaned down and picked up the fallen idol and set it right. She looked up from the mess she could not so easily straighten and the Baron wanted to run away. Her face was barely human.

 

With stealth the young woman crossed the parlor and grabbed the large man by the face. Her fingernails bit into his lips, his cheeks, and dug in precariously close to his eyes. Blood began to pool around the edges of her sharp nails.

 

“Idiot!” the woman hissed.

 

With strength betraying her size, Frangipani roughly pulled the large man forward before violently pushing him backwards with such force the Baron lost his balance. He toppled over onto the floor taking a narrow table supporting a shrine with him. The table smashed and sent black lacquered wood splinters everywhere. A jade cat fell to the floor with the bowl of cream sitting before it.

 

“Let me be very clear Baron.” Frangipani hissed at the large man on the floor. “Your ego, your desires, all that you want means absolutely nothing to me. You mean absolutely nothing to me. You are but a means to an end. You are here to help me provide the Court of the Witness and nothing more. This is a task I could do myself and probably do it far better than you. However, this race must be planned to perfection down to the littlest of details. My attention needs to be on that and I at least trust your skills and your greed enough to provide me with what I need so I can do that.

 

“I have been very good to you thus far Baron. I’m gracious enough to pay for your time and services. I have spoiled you with my good nature and been kind to you by hiding my revulsion every time I’ve found you lurking behind me, sniffing after my ass and acting as though there was any possibility that a woman like myself would have anything of an intimate nature to do with a man like you! You’ve run my well of grace dry!”

 

The Baron stupidly stared up at the woman who now towered over his fallen body. Everything about the dark haired woman he found so intoxicating before were the very things that were putting fear into his heart now. Her beautiful face was a mask of cruelty and hate. Her slight body was a beautiful deception containing a strength he knew could outmatch his own. This wasn’t a woman. This was a beast masquerading as a young woman.

 

Frangipani wasn’t done with the Baron yet. She wanted to make sure he absolutely knew where his place was. She kicked the large man’s legs to either side and stepped in-between them. She brought her very narrow metal tipped heel to just above the Baron’s manhood and held it there threateningly with great control.

 

“I want to hear you say we’re all going to be friends.” she said softly, almost in her seductive voice. “That any plans you have for pathetic and ill placed vengeance against the collector will be kept in check until well, well after the race is over and I have what I want. Then, you’re going to get your fat ass off of my floor and go home and plan the grandest Court of the Witness to ever be experienced. Because if you don’t do any of what I’ve asked of you, I’m going to neuter you in one very painful step.” she smiled, almost girlishly. “And know that this will not be the first time I’ve had to do so. The only distress it will cause me is having to throw away a perfectly good pair of heels because they will be stained by your blood and panic piss.”

 

The Baron’s mouth flapped up and down like a fish out of water but no words were coming out. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the position he was in.

 

“I’m not hearing anything.” the young woman warned as she brought her sharp heel down to press into the front of the man’s pants.

 

Quickly the Baron repeated the words Frangipani wanted to hear and as he said them he meant them. He no longer had any illusions as to the nature of the woman he was dealing with. Not only had it completely robbed him of any desire for her, it had replaced all his lust with terror.

 

“Good boy.” she whispered.

 

The woman took her heel away and leaned down to offer the large man her hand. The Baron didn’t want her to touch him but he was more afraid to refuse her helpful gesture. He offered her a shaking hand and she took it, pulling him to his feet with little effort.

 

Frangipani smiled, the mask of cruelty gone. Her face was all attractive angles and beauty again. She used exaggerated gestures to pretend to dust off the Baron’s expensive suit, finishing it off by pulling a small splinter of the shrine table from his lapel.

 

“Now, you’re going to go home and?” she asked.

 

“Start planning the very best Court of the Witness within my ability.” he answered quickly.

 

“Good.”

 

Frangipani moved away from the Baron and for the first time he was glad to have her take her white tea and ginger smell with her. She moved to the tea tray and fixed herself a cup of tea.

 

“And while we’re discussing your planning…” she began as she sipped her tea. “I think it would be beneficial to you to find your own resources for it. Work those circles of yours. Given what is at stake here and what you desire, you should show your support a little more by putting into the pot, don’t you think? I’ll still compensate you… afterwards. If I’m satisfied with your effort.” This was the woman’s punishment for having to address the pompous man’s ego so directly.

 

The Baron’s first impulse was to balk at being told he would have to help finance the very thing she had contracted him for. He quickly stifled that impulse. The time for acting impulsively with this wicked creature had long passed.

 

“Of course. I’ll put my feelers out immediately.” he replied meekly.

 

Frangipani moved back over to the Baron. She reached towards him and he recoiled before he could catch himself. This caused the young woman to laugh. She put her hands on his shoulders and gave the air to either side of the large man’s face a parting phantom kiss.

 

“That’s my good Baron. Now see yourself out and if you happen to pass the collector in the front hall please give him directions to my parlor. And remember to be nice.” She put great emphasis on the word nice.

 

The Baron nodded his head and quickly exited the room. He wanted nothing more than to put some distance between him and the raven haired woman. He nearly tripped over his own feet as he moved his large form through the hallway at speeds his leisurely pace normally never exceeded.

 

In the mansion’s massive front hallway he almost missed the collector tucked away to the side. He was sitting at a small table with his legs crossed and a folder of papers in his lap and some papers in hand. He looked up as the larger man heavy footed over to him.

 

“Octavius!” the Baron panted. “My good man! Sorry about the state of my first notes. I was having a tantrum in regards to some unrelated thing and it bleed into my writings that night. I will have more thoughtful notes drafted and sent to you straight away.”

 

The collector shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “It didn’t effect me in the least.” Octavius smirked. “Have you been jogging Baron? You look and sound absolutely ragged.”

 

The Baron straightened himself up and took a deep breath to bite back the wicked remark he wanted to counter with. Instead he pointed towards the far doorway.

 

“Miss Driad is waiting for you in her parlor. The main hallway past that doorway will lead you directly there.”

 

The Baron turned away from the smaller man and moved for the front doors. He needed air and he wanted to feel the warm sunlight on his face. More than that, he wanted to be in the spoiled comfort of the backseat of his automobile as he drained the flask of spirits he kept in his inner coat pocket. He opened the door but couldn’t help but turn back to the collector for a moment.

 

“I don’t envy you having to work with that woman one bit. She’s your demon now, so try hard not to piss her off. And what may come, let God have mercy on you.” he offered before passing through the door, slamming it shut behind him.

 

Octavius’ head cocked to the side in confusion as he watched the large man hustle from the building. Apparently his ragged state had something to do with his mistress. It didn’t appear the Baron got the better end of that interaction.

 

He pulled his papers together and tucked them back into his leather portfolio. He stood and moved towards the hallway where he was directed.

 

The Baron’s words struck him directly as he found his pace slowing the closer he got to the parlor doors in the distance. If he were completely honest with himself, he was dreading his second meeting with the woman. The duality of his feelings around her caused his stomach to go sour.

 

Before Octavius reached the parlor doors they were opening. An anxious looking servant stepped to the side and offered a free hand to welcome the collector into the room. The servant’s other arm was cradling a small bundle of broken table pieces.

 

“My mistress had to take a temporary leave of the parlor but she will return shortly. Would you like water, tea or perhaps something stronger?” the servant asked.

 

Octavius thought about it a moment before answering. “Tea.” he said finally. “With a shot of something sweet but stronger in it.” he added as he tried to stop staring at the broken table pieces clutched so precariously in the other man’s arm.

 

The servant nodded his head and was away.

 

The parlor was a beautiful room that was a combination of traditional art nouveau mingling with more modern accents from the far east. As he studied the various plants that flourished in the room he took note that many of them were meat eating plants. “Almost cliche.” he whispered to himself.

 

“Mr Obediah!” Frangipani’s voice carried through the room. The collector jumped, fearing for a moment she might have heard him. He put on an insincere smile and turned to greet the young woman as she walked towards him with her arms wide open. He was thankful that she appeared to have dressed down a little for this meeting.

 

Frangipani put her arms on the collector’s shoulders and gave him a bird peck of a kiss on each cheek.

 

“I’m so glad to finally welcome you to the Vitandi’s inner sanctum and my home!”

 

She turned away from him and moved to a table that now replaced her severe chairs and tea table. It was covered in very neatly organized folders.

 

“The Baron, as you must have seen, was here earlier and we talked a little about his part of the event, but I am very eager to get to work on the true heart of things.”

 

Octavius followed behind. “Yes, I saw the Baron on the way out. Is he why the butler was leaving here with broken things?” he said off hand, offering a small chuckle at what he thought to be a joke.

 

Frangipani looked back over her shoulder, solemnly nodding her head. “Yes.” she replied. “He’s a bit of a brute sometimes and he needed to be put in his place. I’m glad to say he should be all sunshine and proper manners from here on out even if he has to fake it.”

 

His mind went to a variety of scenes where the big and brash showman was cut down to size by the much smaller woman. For a moment it gave him an intense pleasure to picture such a thing, then his thoughts turned back to the Baron’s parting comments and the humor left him.

 

“Well there’s that.” he said when nothing else came to him.

 

Frangipani pulled a chair away from the table and motioned for the collector to take a seat. For the Baron she had her most favorite severe chairs in the parlor to make him uncomfortable. For Octavius she wanted something formal but comfortable for them to begin their planning.

 

The young woman scrutinized the man as he stepped to his chair but did not sit down. She knew he was a gentleman and would not sit before her so she drew the moment out.

 

There was something different about the collector. Something that made the man more alluring than the first time she met him.

 

“You’ve changed something.” she said softly, thoughtfully.

 

Slowly she approached Octavius and the man remained still. He didn’t show any fear or desire for the woman; this was something she wasn’t used to. She did note one obvious change.

 

Frangipani reached out and gently ran her fingers over the side of the man’s shaven head. He watched her with a slight smirk, but he still didn’t move or shy away from her. Honestly he looked bemused. The young woman pulled her hand away and walked to her side of the table.

 

“I like the change in style.” she offered as she stepped to her chair.

 

Octavius casually walked around the table and pulled the chair out for the young woman. She took a seat. He returned to his side and finally sat down.

 

“I felt it was time for a change, even one so minor.” he offered.

 

The room fell into a silence as the two sat quietly summing the other one up. Somewhere in the middle of this the anxious servant returned with the collector’s tea.

 

Octavius thought of his friend Neg’s words as he sipped his spiked tea and accepted that he was sitting across from a shark. The goal was to tread lightly and keep his blood out of the water.

 

Frangipani, on the other hand, was trying to figure out how she’d missed the quiet bravado of this man the first time around. She’d heard rumors of the legendary charm of the collector and had been disappointed to find him quite ordinary. He’d been assertive enough to pass the aunt Parka test, but his confidence had wavered back and forth during that first meeting. He didn’t seem to catch his stride until he started speaking of his father and by then the young woman had already summed him up as potentially easy to manipulate. Now there was a strong confidence radiating from him. She liked it, though now she’d have to figure out how best to use it to her advantage.

 

“Alright, now down to business.” Frangipani said as she broke the silence. “You have received all of our research correct?”

 

Octavius nodded. “Yes. And I must thank you for how thorough and well organized it is. I don’t always have the benefit of working with someone who is as detail oriented as I am.”

 

“Some would call it anal retentive.” Frangipani laughed and for the very first time it sounded sincere and light hearted. “But thank you. I’m very thorough and my aunt, despite her someone irritable disposition, is very thoughtful and organized. So… how do we begin?”

 

Octavius had been wondering that very thing from the moment this entire event was placed in his lap. The man who had first spoken with this strangely dangerous beauty had ideas that were cautious. That man wanted to play it safe and tread lightly. He would choose his words and actions wisely. Octavius felt almost no connection to that man now even though he’d been there not long ago. His new approach was very simple.

 

“We will begin with complete honesty and transparency.”

 

The young woman nodded her head. “Of course. I thought that would be a given?”

 

This caused Octavius to chuckle. “No Miss Driad. I mean true honesty and transparency. Not the versions of those things offered by the Vitandi and scheming though charming imps like yourself.”

 

He stopped there for a moment. He was waiting to see if his words were offensive to the young woman or caused her to react poorly. It appeared they brought about the exact opposite. There was a slight change to the young woman’s face that was good, open. Perhaps even the devil didn’t always enjoy having to keep up appearances.

 

“As you wish Mr Obediah.”

 

“Octavius, please.”

 

She smiled. “Oh yes, I remember. Alright, Octavius.” she nodded her head. “Frangipani.”

 

“Frangipani.” it almost came out as a whisper. “I spoke of my father and his knowledge of the last Magnus Certatio. I know you sought me out to have access to his research, his notes. You don’t want a race like that last race, you want that race itself and as exact as possible.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So at the heart of it you simply want access to my father’s things through me. You even insinuated you would take those things if necessary.”

 

“I did.”

 

“And your ultimate goal is not the success of the race or what it brings to the Vitandi. You want to find out if the legends are true. You want to find the fabled Riker Rouge.”

 

“Absolutely.” her voice almost sounded hungry.

 

“Then I think it important that we get a few facts straight right from the start.”

 

“Alright. They are?”

 

Octavius smiled. He’d thought long and hard on how he would have approached his father’s research differently. What questions he would have asked that his father would not have. He also considered all the things this group and this woman in particular wanted. That’s how he began to scheme, to plan. It was there he came to his revelation.

 

“The first and number one fact is that no one but that original group of race planners knows every detail about that race. My father pulled together most of the pieces and put them together like a puzzle. What pieces he could not find he used common sense to work out. And some of those common sense missing pieces I have since found out had little to do with common or sense. My father and I always worked best together because where one of us was weak the other was strong and vice versa. So you might find a time where you think taking my father’s research would benefit you, but that would be like taking the coded message without the cipher. I’m the cipher of my father’s work. I’m there to find his mistakes and correct them.”

 

Frangipani’s head fell to the side a little as a smile spread over her lips. She liked this direct approach. It was plain and to the point even if the point was a sour subject.

 

“I will acknowledge that.” she replied thoughtfully.

 

“I think one of the biggest facts to be addressed is almost somewhat like an elephant in the room.”

 

“And what is this elephant?”

 

“For all the planning that was originally done, for an outcome you have confessed to me? It didn’t work. Many of the racers died and the ones who didn’t never spoke of what happened to anyone. The leader of the Vitandi immediately put an end to the race and hid away all information about it.”

 

Octavius leaned across the small table and put his hands over top of the young woman’s hands. He looked her in the eye.

 

“If you follow the exact same course they took what guarantee do you have that your race won’t end up exactly the same? Your racers dead. Your survivors mentally ruined. The Vitandi finally pushed to a very precarious place where it might finally fold under time and pressure… you see don’t you?”

 

The young woman’s head nodded slowly. “I think I do.”

 

“This can’t be a replica of the last Magnus Certatio. It can’t even be the puzzle piece version my father laid out in his research. We have to take elements of both and combine them with the newer things we know now. It will be our race. Similar though different. It is my aim to see you succeed where they failed.” Octavius paused a moment letting that sink in. He gave the young woman’s hands a gentle squeeze. “It is my desire to see you to the gates of Riker Rogue.” he said very softly, almost like a seduction.

 

The room fell silent again except for the sounds of Frangipani’s deep breathing. Her eyes were wide and for the first time in a very long time she desired the hands touching her own hands to touch her further. It was a strange sensation and had nothing to do with lust or attraction. It had simply been so long since someone not only dared correct her ideas, but expressed a sincere desire to make them happen for her. All those around her were yes people who just wanted to feed off the crumbs she might provide. They were afraid of her. Few of them had true conviction. She felt the collector’s convictions.

 

“I had never thought of it like that.” she whispered. She turned her hands upwards to hold his. “I would like that very much Octavius.”

 

“So ask me now how do we really start.”

 

She smiled. “Mr Obediah, Octavius… how do we begin?”

 

“From scratch. We’ll take what we know and pair it with what we learn and create a new map. We’ll take the fairy tale and study it for the facts that are hidden within it. We will dissect why these steps were required to find this place of legend and why we must follow the rituals set forth to enter it.”

 

He tightened his grip on the young woman’s hands to the point of almost intending to cause pain. He wanted her undivided attention.

 

“No secrets. You and I will have to be thick as thieves to get this just right. And please believe I know how huge a thing that is to ask. It does not escape me that this lovely creature before me is nothing but a mask to hide something far greater. I can see through that Frangipani. I can see the dragon at your heart and I desperately don’t want to get burned by it. And if you see anything in me I hope it is my absolute need and desire to be something far greater than just Octavius the Second of the House of Obediah.”

 

When Octavius woke up that morning he didn’t know what he was going to say to this woman. In finally going into his father’s private library with a sober mind he’d gone through much of his research. He’d compared them with the papers that the Vitandi had given him. It became very clear that the last Magnus Certatio had been a disguise for a very large ritual. A ritual that had gone terribly wrong. To treat this new race in the same manner was folly. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to convince this young woman of such a thing.

 

At first his mind tried to figure out how to play it safe. How could he protect the new racers? After all, the ones from the failed race had been nothing more than pawns for the Vitandi. Then he realized there was no playing it safe. Every racer who came into the event would be warned of the potential for harm; mental and physical. He had to give up this side of him that adhered to some sort of innocence. He’d lived a life of extremes and was only starting to admit his boredom with that world. This was something altogether different. This was life changing.

 

As he sat across from the young woman with his change in perspective, the answer came very clear to him. If there was such a thing as Riker Rogue he wanted to be the one to find it. It was apparent in his father’s writings that he was too afraid to admit to wanting the same. He wasn’t sure how far his father would have actually went if he were given this type of audience and was staring down this type of person.

 

The look on Frangipani’s face was not quite content feline, nor was it that of a lioness about to take down her large prey. Somehow the collector had managed to gain the creature’s favor and it was a thrilling and terrifying sensation. Octavius had to admit he liked it.

 

Frangipani dipped her head as she pulled his crushing hands to her mouth. She kissed the back of his hand with lips so incredibly soft that finally the hairs on the back of his neck stood up for a pleasurable reason. She looked up from this kiss, a face full of mischievous evil.

 

“Alright then.” she whispered. “To Riker Rouge.”

 

“To Riker Rouge.” Octavius whispered back.

 

[ * ]

 

Parting Notes

 

Riker Rouge is published bi-weekly at VerSacrumBooks.com/library/ and always available online there for free. Chapter bundles are collected and offered in ebook and print books at the end of that story segment. You can also find a variety of short stories and related characters from this story such as tales of Professor Vogel’s strange inventions and where those cursed shears are that are missing from Obediah’s collection.

 

About the Author

 

Bethalynne is a Michigan native who spent much of her early life chasing the fae around her grandfather’s nearly mythical fairy tale garden. Where the fae weren’t calling, the strange shadows in the closet were whispering. When it was finally suggested that she kindly bring herself down from the clouds (and out from those dark places) she turned her expansive imagination towards capturing her characters and their worlds through writing and drawing. The latter has led to her having a notable career as a professional commercial artist for the past twenty years. She happily shares the stories behind the art through her writing site Ver Sacrum Books. To view all of Bethalynne’s written works please visit VerSacrumBooks.com. Or to view all of her creative works visit her online portfolio at Bajema.com

 

First Ebook Edition

 

Book Cover: The cover was created by Bethalynne and features classic artwork that is in the public domain. The original digital collage is of the Hierophant card from her tarot deck Madam Lydia Wilhelmina’s Tarot of Monsters, the Macabre and Autumn Scenes.

 

 


Ver Sacrum Book I: Prelude to a Race

In the world of Riker Rouge there is reality, the dusk-lands, the secret places, and how each slowly blends into one another. The Vitandi, a secretive group of arcane researchers, want to bring back their beloved and cursed event the Magnus Certatio: A race of such massive proportions that not only is victory and wealth promised to the participants, but the enlightenment and freedom of the soul. One arcane collector, Octavius Obediah the Second, is asked to help plan the perfect race route to help the Vitandi to their ultimate goal… something many souls failed and died for two centuries ago. What comes from that invitation is a spiraling story of eccentric characters, dark events and adventure.

  • Author: Bethalynne Bajema
  • Published: 2017-04-28 23:05:14
  • Words: 71809
Ver Sacrum Book I: Prelude to a Race Ver Sacrum Book I: Prelude to a Race