People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
A Novel of the Side World
The First of the Valentine Chronicles
Copyright 1999 David Goodner
Artwork copyright 1999 Amanda Blessing
The mist outside the window cleared for a moment, revealing the world beyond. If the figure in the brown robe noticed, he gave no sign. He had far more effective ways of seeing. He glided through silent passages to a scriptorium. Books on oaken lecterns surrounded a central writing desk.
Though the room was deep inside the ancient structure, the nearly circular walls were decorated with stained glass windows. The panels glowed with refracted radiance, and the images depicted were so clear that they might have been real.
There were twelve panels, each showing a different scene. One window was cracked, as though a stone had been thrown at it, but didn't puncture it. A second was blackened as if by soot, so much so that it was impossible to tell what image was there, other than that it was the form of a man.
The brown robed figure opened the book lying before this window. Most of the pages were empty, and much of what was written there made little sense. Sighing, he set the book aside and moved to the table.
In the middle of the table was another book, bound in black leather with golden fittings like the others. This one was open to a page somewhere near the middle, more near the end than the beginning. The man took up a quill and dipped it into his inkwell and began to write:
I close my eyes, and I see a world fractured into a thousand, thousand pieces by man's hubris. I see a cold and silent heaven, content to watch the suffering below. I see powerful beings, only a little less than gods, who believed that what they did, was right. Their war left the devastation that I see now, the ruins of something that precious few remember...
At the end, there were thirteen. The others still combat amongst themselves. They still try to shape the world to their vision. I will not. I will record what happens, so that on the day of accounting, I may prove that the harm done was not mine. I watch the New York, called the City of Shadows by those who dwell in the Netherlands. The city is well named, a ghost wrapped around a dream. Ten thousand years have passed, and more, since the great wars almost destroyed everything. According to the Gregorians, nineteen hundred and ninety-nine years have passed since the birth of Christ. I suppose that is as good a measure as any, since time itself has been rent asunder.
An age of magic has passed away, to be replaced by an age of reason. Magic did not pass away, though. On an island mere miles from Manhattan, yet existing in another world, there stands a monastery dedicated to St. Simon-Magus. The monks there seek to preserve the old Arts, to safeguard the old Treasures. Even when they do not understand what they hold, they guard it well. Within the Vault of this monastery, there is a collection of books in the most ancient of scripts.
I see Covenshire, a place of demons, both more ephemeral, and more deadly than the darkest reaches of the City of Shadows. In Covenshire, Mordakai Coventry reaches out for the books. I do not know why he desires them. I do not seek to know men's hearts, nor to divine the future.
I wait, I watch, and I record. All will be known at the final accounting...
The scribe continued to watch, as the present unfolded into history.
Alone and tired, Gwenivere Valentine returned to the City of Shadows. The
sun had finished its journey, and only the gloaming remained in the sky. Her horse was near exhaustion, and she was not much better. Only a chain of miracles had kept her from being severely wounded as well.
"Come on, Bella, it's only a little farther."
They staggered up a path of highly cracked pavement, with grass growing through the cracks. The narrow track carried them up a hill, toward a compound of stone buildings.
"See, girl, the monastery is right up there."
The symbol of St. Simon-Magus was a shrouded shadow outlined by the fires of the light tower in the center of the largest structure. During daylight hours, it would also be visible on the gate in the outer wall.
As Gwenivere got closer, she could see the tiny silhouettes of soldiers standing on the guard towers. The monastery was a well-fortified position. The walls were thick, topped with battlements. Two high towers flanked the gate. Though they held bells, they would also provide a fine nest for archers. The gates were thick wood, bound in iron that would have been hard
"None of it is going to stop the Coventrys, though," Gwenivere said to herself.
Alistair was coming. Gwenivere had taken her horse twice through the Darkways to get here ahead of him. Somehow, the seals on Covenshire were broken. Covenshire was once again part of the Netherlands.
Bella stumbled. Gwenivere reined her in and dismounted. The white horse looked vaguely betrayed.
"Don't be like that. You're tired. I can walk for a while."
Gwenivere wasn't really doing much better than the horse. She undid the clasps holding her staff into a saddle scabbard and let the shaft of white wood hold her weight. Bella was smart enough to follow without being led.
A warm breeze blew past, and Bella snorted once. Her head came up, and suddenly she was flying down the road.
"Faithless beast. You could have waited for me to get back on," Gwenivere said to the horse's back.
Bella must have scented other horses in the monastery. Modern transportation was difficult to use in the Netherlands. Even steam engines could fail in some places, and gasoline was almost impossible to find. Most people who lived on the dark side of the Threshold avoided automobiles as being too much trouble.
Gwenivere was left to walk the last few minutes alone. She might have run to catch up, but couldn't summon the energy. Bella could take care of herself. With any luck, the guards would see a riderless horse and send someone to investigate.
At length, Gwenivere came within sight of the gates. Bella was nowhere to be seen, likely having already been brought inside. Strangely, the guards on the walls were wearing Simonite robes instead of the armor of Knights of the Circle.
Gwenivere had not come near this part of the world in some time. She wondered what had fallen between the two great religious orders of the Netherlands. The Church was not so well represented that it could afford petty squabbles. The Knights of the Circle, a group of religious warriors descended from the Templars and other Prime Realm orders, had always
defended the Simonites. If they were gone, the situation was even worse than Gwenivere had believed.
"Hello the house," she called.
"Friend or foe?" returned one of the guards.
The monks of St. Simon loved their rituals. Gwenivere decided to play along. "I am Gwenivere Valentine. I swear on my hope of salvation that I bring no harm to this house."
"If you be a true child of God, then enter freely."
There was a pause, then the gate opened wide enough to admit her. She paused in the yard to get her bearings. The monastery more closely resembled a small castle, save that the interior windows were larger than those on a castle would be. The monks had taken pains to make their home a place of beauty, or at least to avoid the ramshackle appearance of most
structures in the Netherlands. Though many of the stones comprising the walls were chunks of broken concrete, they were well dressed, and a layer of whitewash hid some of the transitions. The timbers were also well stained, by day they would be dark brown with a hint of red.
A central building stood against the rear wall, with several outbuildings around it. The Keep was four stories tall at the highest, with an inner wall forming a courtyard. Several of the lesser buildings were connected to the battlements, with wide ladders leading up to them. The Simonites were an order of philosophers, arcanists, and occultists. Religious piety played a
part in their doctrine, but was buried under a healthy dose of curiosity. A Simonite monastery was more like a Prime Realm research institute than any sort of church.
An old monk, wearing the red cloak, lined in runes of ebon and gold, that marked him as a member of the Order of the Magus walked out from the courtyard gate with his arms spread in greeting.
"I am Father Magius, Lady Valentine. I welcome you into our house. I thought I recognized the symbols on your packs when I saw the horse." The priest was silver-haired, with weathered features and bright blue eyes.
"A pleasure, Father. I wish I came under better circumstances. Where are the Circle Knights? I can't imagine old Kildare leaving you undefended."
The old priest laughed sardonically. "I wondered what would bring a Valentine to these environs. Your kin have been gone for many years. Much has past in your absence."
A wave of shame, guilt, and loss crashed over Gwenivere, almost drowning her, but she'd spent several years learning to swim in those undertows. "I know."
Father Magius' eyes darkened with sympathy. "I understand. I'm sorry if I caused you pain."
"It wasn't you, Father. It was the Coventrys. And they're going to do it again. Alistair Coventry is coming." Gwenivere's head swam, and the ground under her feet seemed to shift.
"Lady Gwenivere, you're exhausted."
"Rode hard. Came to bring warning. Without the Knights..."
"The Coventrys have broken free of their prison." Father Magius' voice was grave. "They will come for the books."
"Then they're really here? The Simion Grimories?" Even through her exhaustion, the knowledge that she was in the presence of one of the rarest collections of arcane lore in existence was enough to raise Gwenivere's interest.
"Yes, My Lady. But we can speak of these things later. You need food and rest."
Father Magius led her into a building to the left of the central keep. Beyond the door was a long hall with a roaring fire and comfortable seats, most draped in brown fabric to give them some congruity of style. Gwenivere paused at the doorway, giving her eyes time to adjust. She saw other people inside. A nun bent over the fire, stirring a pot. In a chair nearby, a small child was curled up with a doll.
The nun looked up when Magius entered. Her robes were a mix of homespun wool and pieces scavenged from the world above.
"Sister Magdalene, we have a guest. This is Lady Gwenivere Valentine. Sister Magdalene is the mistress of the novices in the nunnery. She also takes care of our rare guests."
Sister Magdalene nodded in acknowledgment. "I am honored to meet you. Have you eaten?"
"Not in recent memory." Gwenivere returned the nun's friendly smile.
Sister Magdalene chuckled. "I'll get you some bread and cheese. I was just stirring these leftovers for later."
"You have a refrigerator?" Gwenivere had heard the ubiquitous humming sound, but only now recognized that it was out of place.
"Yes, we traded for it in the city." Father Magius answered. "Some of us have the Gift of healing, a valued commodity in the city. More so now, if what you say is true."
Sister Magdalene paused on her way to the pantry. "Is trouble coming, then, Father?"
"Lady Gwenivere brings word that the Coventrys have reopened the Ways into Covenshire. After I saw to her comfort, I was going straight away to the Master at Arms to see to the monastery's defense."
The girl in the corner, Gwenivere noticed, perked up at the mention of the Coventrys.
"Alistair is leading the invading force. He'll bring rifles, probably cannon, too. You need to prepare to evacuate."
Father Magius nodded gravely. "I must consult with others, but you should rest." He turned to leave the room. "I will speak with you more later."
Just then, Sister Magdalene returned with a wooden plate and a bowl. She dished out some soup and set it on a table.
Gwenivere gratefully collapsed into the offered chair, unbelting her sword with a sense of relief. She attacked her meal with a total lack of regard for courtly manners. She hadn't eaten in the better part of two days. The bread and soup were like heaven.
She was about half way through the bowl when she noticed the girl staring at her over the top of her own meal. Despite growing up in a large family, Gwenivere had never been very comfortable around small children.
Self consciously, she said, "Hi. What's your name?"
The girl gave no answer. Gwenivere studied her serious face. She had large grey eyes framed with luxurious lashes. Her hair was platinum blond, shining white in the dim light of the hall, and bound into a simple tail behind her neck. She had thin, elfin features. Her mien was one of childish innocence but with a depth of understanding that would have better befit a much older person. Perhaps it was just the gravity of a child. In the face of Gwenivere's scrutiny, she held her doll closer to her chest, and clutched an iron key tied around her neck on a leather thong.
"We don't know her name. We call her Key, for the one she wears around her neck. One of the Brothers found her sitting amidst the remains of a small caravan that looked to have been sacked by Goblins. Somehow, she was spared. She hasn't spoken since we found her, so we don't know the full story." Sister Magdalene favored the girl with a soft caress across her
"The Goblins are more active everywhere." Gwenivere said. "That's one of the things that lead me back from the Far Countries. Something's changing. Something is about to happen."
"We have sensed the same thing. Father Magius has sent messengers to the other Houses, and to the nearest chapter house of the Circle."
Gwenivere suppressed a disgusted look at the mention of the Knights of the Circle. She was more concerned with finishing her meal than with starting an argument. As the conversation lapsed, Key got up from her chair and sat next to Gwenivere.
Sister Magdalene let Gwenivere concentrate on her meal. The nun returned to the domestic tasks she'd been attending when Gwenivere had arrived. Despite the urgency of her mission, Gwenivere was glad of the respite. She'd drained herself both physically and psychically in getting this far.
She ate in comfortable silence. The weight of the warm, tiny body was oddly comforting. Gwenivere felt herself succumbing to exhaustion and drifting off to sleep. She tried to stifle a yawn.
Magdalene looked up, stricken. "I'm sorry, Lady Gwenivere. I should have given you a room first thing. Our accomodations won't be as fine as what you're used to..."
"You mean cracks in the rocks, and huts made of tree branches? I've been traveling for several years now. If you have a room with a bed, I'll be perfectly fine."
Gwenivere displaced Key to rise and follow Sister Magdalene. The nun led her to a cell on the upper level of the hall. Key followed, still silent. She was carrying the sword belt Gwenivere had left behind.
"It's not much..." Magdalene started to apologize again.
Gwenivere stripped off her cloak and draped it over the top of her staff, which she leaned into a corner. She took her sword belt from Key and tucked it in behind the folds of her traveling cloak.
"Thank you," she smiled.
Key smiled back.
"Now, let our guest have some rest. She'll still be here tomorrow." Sister Magdalene gently herded Key from the room, closing the door behind her.
Gwenivere stripped off her tunic, and kicked her feet free of her boots, and was asleep almost before she could get the covers over her head. She dreamed of a beautiful minstrel with blond hair like the sun after a storm, and sad blue-green eyes. He sang about a dead girl whom he had loved, but he was singing to an empty hall. His instrument was a black, electric guitar.
It felt as though only minutes had gone by when she was roused by the voice of Father Magius.
"I'm awake," she said, or at least approximated. "How long did I sleep?"
She tried to shake off her lethargy, and the image of the melancholic singer. Precognition was not one of her Gifts, but any magician developed a certain affinity for the realm of dreams. She'd dreamed of people she'd never met before. The closest she'd ever come to meeting one was to see a portrait of someone who looked similar, but who had died during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. She put the singer out of her mind. As much as she would have liked to meet him and ask him about the song, she had other things to do.
The melody was haunting, though.
The girl had moved, or been moved. Gwenivere noticed that the little doll had been left behind. It was a girl doll, with black button eyes and black yarn hair, dressed in the robes of a Simonite, and wearing a small, wooden caduceus cross around its neck.
Gwenivere laid the doll aside and sat up. She was stiff and sore, but the leaden weight of her muscles had been lifted. She took up her staff and followed the old priest from the room. Her sword belt had been neatly coiled in another chair. The cloth wrapped blade was undisturbed. She slung the weight over one shoulder before grabbing her cloak.
Father Magius led her across the inner courtyard of the monastery. In the early light of dawn, it was a pretty place. A fountain in the middle was probably fed by a spring. It would provide water during siege times, a valuable commodity.
Four ancient stones surrounded the fountain pool. At one time they had been obelisks. Gwenivere recognized the style of the stones, and the intricate carvings in the sides. The runes were of a flowing script, and were cut so smoothly and evenly into the grey stone that a marble rolled along the channels would move without interruption, and would always show the same
amount of surface above the plane of the stone.
"Your well is from the Forerunners," she observed.
Magius smiled at her recognition. "The fountain is the true reason for this monastery's existence. When the stars are properly aligned, the waters take on strange properties. The most common is for the fountain to produce healing draughts. Our library began as a collection of works that our founders hoped would help them to chart the fountain's processes. With so
much of the carving destroyed, instructions are sketchy at best."
Gwenivere could sympathize. "The Ancients didn't leave much in the way of instructions, anyway. I suppose they figured that THEY knew what everything did. Is that why you acquired the Grimories?"
Magius opened a door to the light tower. Inside were a small anteroom and a square staircase.
"Though I would prefer not to posses the writings of a dark wizard, the works of Simion provide much insight into the writings of the Ancients."
The stairs led Father Magius and Gwenivere to a room on the second level. The chamber had been furnished with a long table, a lectern, and several chairs. The wooden chairs were a mix of styles from classical Italian to modern American. Two were already occupied. The seated monks rose when Gwenivere entered.
The first was a huge, barrel-chested man who wore hardened leather under his red robes. His staff of office leaned up against the table, braced against the legs of his straight-backed chair. The length of iron shod wood was more like a cudgel than a staff. The caduceus cross had been embossed into the iron head in bronze. His brown hair had been shorn very close to his skull. Together with his round features and dark eyes, this gave him the appearance of a great boar.
His companion was thinner, but nearly as tall, with warm brown eyes and dark hair. He put aside a book as Father Magius and Gwenivere entered. With some amusement, Gwenivere noticed that it was a worn volume of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Hollow World stories.
"Lady Gwenivere Valentine, allow me to present Brother Lucian and Brother Marcus." The first, Father Magius indicated, was the tall, thin man. The second was the more muscular. Both bowed slightly, more in acknowledgment than in any deference afforded to her title.
Gwenivere guessed that Lucian was the Archivist, and Marcus was the Master at Arms. Those two, together with the head of the monastery, would be the logical officers to consult in
the event of an invasion.
"Lady Valentine," Lucian said softly.
Brother Marcus merely nodded.
"Brothers." Gwenivere inclined her head in return. Since she wasn't in court, she had no intention of giving a formal curtsey.
Father Magius gestured for her to take a seat. She coiled comfortably into a U-shaped Italian chair with a blue velvet cushion. The priests took their seats as well.
Father Magius opened a ledger on the table next to him and pulled a quill from the inkwell. "I will eliminate the pleasantries, as I sense that we have little time for them. Lady Valentine, what more can you tell us of the warning you delivered last night? The auguries I cast after our meeting revealed nothing."
"Not surprising. Alistair is at least competent at masking his presence. He also will not have told anyone but his most trusted advisors of where he intends to go until he's well under way. The chance that you'd pick up a stray thought is almost nil."
"Then how do you know he's coming here?" Brother Marcus was not exactly accusing, but clearly somewhat suspicious.
"The short version is that he has to come here. You have something he wants, and nobody else close by has it instead. Besides, your Order was involved in sealing Covenshire. He'll want your blood."
"By your words, may I infer that there is a long form?" Brother Lucian sounded slightly bemused, as well as curious.
"I wouldn't know where to begin," Gwenivere said, considering. "Perhaps it's best to start with this."
She stood, and slipped her belt off of her shoulder, laying the scabbarded sword down on the worktable. With delicate fingers, she started to untie the cords that bound black cloth over the hilt of the blade. She ignored the mental protestations of the sword. If it couldn't appreciate her situation, then it could bloody well go back to the hole she'd fished it out of.
All three priests looked on curiously. Gwenivere felt clumsy under their scrutiny, but finally got the knots untied. She carefully pulled off the cloth without touching the sword any more than necessary. It was always quick to let her know when she was being too familiar.
"Holy mother..." Father Magius said as he realized what he was seeing.
Brother Marcus echoed the sentiment, "Bless us all."
"This is real?" Lucian asked.
"I have every reason to believe so," Gwenivere replied.
The last twist of cloth pulled away from the hilt, and the monks were left to stare at a sword hilt made of clearest crystal. It flickered in the candlelight of the meeting chamber, but also seemed to give off some light of its own. Warmth rose from the sword.
"The Sword of Glass. It is mentioned in the Grimories, and in other sources, but I had never thought to see it," Magius said. "How did it come into your possession?"
"That is a tale in itself. I was wandering through some of the Far Countries on a separate errand when I was led to the Sword's resting-place. I found it in a Necropolis, the monument of a great battle. I found Alistair there as well. That was when I discovered that the Coventrys had discovered some means of breaching the wards on their realm.
"I followed him in secret to his encampment. Fortunately, he had only two of those hounds of his, so I was able to remain undiscovered for a while. Alistair was in the company of a group of Goblins, and had a party of his own, including soldiers armed with repeating rifles. Most of his group were laborers, though."
"He was looking for the Sword?"
"No. I have no doubt that he wouldn't have minded finding it, but he was looking for something else. He was excavating in another part of the city, one that stank of sorcery."
As she told her story, she could almost smell the charnalhouse stench that floated over the death city. She could remember the steady pull of the Sword, that wanted to be somewhere else, and easily call to mind the image on the tomb Alistair was desecrating.
"Alistair had set up a work camp. His diggers were trying to enter one of the larger mausoleums. He had soldiers watching the perimeters. I decided I wanted to know what he was looking for."
Brother Lucian smiled, "In case you wanted it as well?"
"Precisely. I cloaked myself carefully and made my way into his camp."
"That would entail considerable skill with the Arts." Marcus sounded impressed.
Gwenivere was annoyed by the fact that she cared. "It wasn't the easiest thing I'd ever done. I never did find out what he was looking for, I don't think he found it. He had some fragments of parchment, though. I saw the seal of Simion on one of them, and I overheard him talking to one of his officers about needing the complete document."
"And we have the only large collection of the Grimories known," Magius said gravely.
"Well, you have the only copy that's not so deep into the Far Countries that nobody could get there."
"So you're certain that he knows that as well?" Marcus asked.
"Absolutely." Gwenivere gathered her thoughts and prepared to finish her story. "I ended up leaving Alistair's camp in a bit of a hurry, but before I did, I heard him report to his father."
That wasn't the half of the true story. Alistair's personal demons had sensed the Sword of Glass and closed in on Gwenivere. She and Bella had been hard pressed to elude the hounds, and the Huntsman who led them. Gwenivere had burned out most of her prepared stealth and transport magick to get as far as she did.
"Alistair was waiting for more troops to join him, a full invasion force. One of the other Coventrys may be joining him. Even without another Sorcerer, he'll bring his hunting pack. Unless you're hiding a troop of Circle Knights here, I don't think you can hold. You have maybe three days before Alistair comes, probably less. He'd know that I would come to warn you, if not how fast I could arrive."
"Regrettably, that will not be possible." Magius sighed. "Even if we had time to move a small portion of the contents of the Vaults, there's no way to move the fountain, nor to destroy it effectively. We are sworn to protect it. Saving the wonders of Magick for the benefit of our flock is our first duty."
"How are you going to benefit your flock if you're all torn to pieces by hell-hounds?" Gwenivere wanted to scream, but kept her voice calm.
Father Lucian stood, reacting to her tension. "Lady Valentine, you must understand our position. If this position falls..."
Gwenivere didn't even wait for him to finish. The brave, stupid sentiment he was expressing had cost her the life of both of her parents, and possibly the soul of her brother. "If this position falls, you can take up another one. If you all die here you're just dead. You don't even have a cohort of Knights here. That, at least would be something."
"The Coventrys are not assured of victory," Brother Marcus interjected. "This monastery is a strong position. It will not fall easily."
The man's pride was at stake, Gwenivere supposed. "Look, your walls are mortared rock, with wooden gates. You don't have so much as an iron portcullis. Alistair can bring cannons. With his sorcery, he can move through the Ways and be on your doorstep with an army in days. His guns will blow through your gates and tear down your walls"
"Nevertheless, we cannot abandon the well, particularly to a sorcerer. Our wards will just have to hold. We have already sent a messenger to the Circle chapter in New York. Though our orders are not on the best of terms, they will aid us in our hour of need."
This was a battle Gwenivere was not going to win. The monks were too attached to their moldering pile of stone, and, in a way, they were right. Unless they just wanted to hand the whole place over to the Coventrys, the only real alternative was to destroy everything they couldn't carry out with them.
"All right," she sighed. "You win. What do you have in the way of defenses? And where are the Knights? I thought there was a Circle here."
"Until recently." Marcus was simple and direct.
"What happened? Did they all decide to side with the Protestants?" The Order of St. Simon hadn't had any real contact with the Catholic Church since before the reunification with Ireland, but Gwenivere still liked to joke.
Lucian was the only one to laugh. "No, nothing so dire. When Lord Kildare ascended to leadership of the Western Knights, there was much dissent. He is a practicing Sorcerer, though he does not use Black Magick."
"So far as we can detect," Marcus put in.
"Quite," Father Magius allowed. "Lord Kildare consolidated most of his forces to deal with his internal enemies. We've been on our own for two years now."
"My, leave the country for a few years, and the whole place goes to pot," Gwenivere thought. She'd seen very few Knights in her travels. The Knights of the Circle usually stayed close to the Prime. Their primary, self-appointed, mission was to protect the people of the Prime Realm from supernatural evil. "I'm sure you've done well enough against scavenger packs from the city, but this is going to be a whole greater order of threat."
The rest of the morning was spent discussing plans for the coming invasion. A novice brought in a tray of food at some point. Gwenivere was too agitated to do more than nibble a bit of cheese.
The monastery had good stores. If Alistair wanted to lay siege to the place, he was in for a long wait. Marcus was counting on the monks' being able to wield sufficient countermagick to keep the Covnetrys at bay until the Knights could arrive and stop them. All that assumed that the messenger had made it into New York, and that the Circle there agreed to help.
Gwenivere was not so optimistic. She'd already lost two days, one getting to the monastery, and another sleeping. Alistair's advance force could arrive at any time.
By noon, they were reduced to repeating themselves, or arguing over trivial details. Gwenivere's help was no longer required. She had already told them everything she knew about Alistair's forces and capabilities. She excused herself and returned to the guest quarters.
On her way back, she saw a few other priests going about their business. There were several nuns amongst the male priests. The Order of St. Simon-Magus had given up distinctions between male and female, at least to some degree, long ago. Magickal Gifts were as common to women as to men, even if men were believed to possess minds more suited to the practice ofwizardry.
Gwenivere snorted at that thought and opened the door to the guest hall. Sister Magdalene was again tending the fire. Key was seated in a corner, with another of the nuns kneeling in front of her. A current running through the air chilled Gwenivere subtly. She shifted her perceptions to the realm of Magick, and saw the telltale marks of a divination spell.
Key turned away from her visitor, pulling her doll to her breast. The nun stood up, stiffly, and sighed.
"Still nothing. I see no sign of wards or curses, but there is no way to read the girl's thoughts. If I didn't know better, I would say that she naturally has perfect shields of her own," she said.
"You've done your best, Sister Rachel. Best not to trouble her any further." Magdalene said.
Key noticed Gwenivere, and hopped out of her chair to run over to her. The little girl wrapped her arms around Gwenivere's legs.
Not knowing what else to do, Gwenivere reached down to pick her up.
"Um...hi. Nice to see you again, too. Thank you for the loan of your doll."
Key smiled seriously.
"Lady Gwenivere, have you eaten? What was the outcome of your meeting?"
"I haven't had anything since breakfast, and the outcome is that your idiot leaders have decided to make a stand here."
Sister Magdalene and her friend both looked scandalized at Gweniere's breach of protocol.
"I'm sorry. I meant no insult, but I don't think Father Magius understands the gravity of the threat."
"The Knights of the will aid us," Sister Rachel sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as Gwenivere.
"If they get here in time. I still think you need to have a plan of evacuation, and a secured path of retreat. There are, what, two hundred people here?"
"Fewer, but more than one hundred," Sister Magdalene interjected.
"That's still a lot to try to move across open ground, and I know you won't use the Darkways."
"To go beyond the bounds of Creation is to sin against God's design."
Gwenivere didn't have the energy to go through this argument one more time. She took a seat, settling Key beside her.
"So, what's to eat?" she asked, changing the subject.
"There's fresh bread, made just this morning, and mutton, I think."
By mutton, she actually meant roast mountain sheep, Gwenivere knew. The little animals were one of the few really practical things to raise out in the Netherlands. They were almost as adaptable as pigs, and their wool was useful. On the other hand, the meat left a little to be desired.
Gwenivere, who'd grown up with five star restaurants and delivery pizza, had never really developed a taste for goat. It was better than rat, though, and she'd had her share of that in her travels.
"Key seems to have taken to you," Sister Rachel said.
In Gwenivere's experience, children always seemed to be attracted to people who didn't know what to do with them. Still, it was not as though she could push the girl away.
"Why is that, Key?" she asked. She remembered reading somewhere that it was possible to catch an elective mute off guard and get her to talk.
Not this one, though. Key just looked up at Gwenivere with her big, soft eyes.
Just then, Sister Magdalene returned with the food.
While she ate, Gwenivere tried to figure out what she was going to do. Even if she was of a mind to do so, she couldn't stay in the monastery. The only thing she could think of that would be worse than Alistair getting his hands on a complete set of the Simion Grimories would be Alistair getting his hands on a set of the Grimories and the Sword of Glass.
As exasperating as she found them, there was something about these people that Gwenivere admired. There was just the barest chance that their defenses would hold, at least long enough for the Knights to arrive. If that was so, particularly if Gwenivere herself could do anything to help them, then perhaps she should stay.
"What are you thinking on so deeply, if I may ask without intruding?" Sister Magdalene's voice was gentle.
Gwenivere sighed. "I'm trying to decide where my duty lies. It's all the more irritating because I've lived the past few years trying to avoid having to answer to anyone else."
"However you've lived, you've always had someone to answer to."
"I know." Knowing didn't make it any easier, though.
Gwenivere still hadn't reached an answer she liked by the evening. After lunch, she'd asked for a tour of the Vaults, and the library. Whatever her inner doubts, there was no reason to pass up such an opportunity.
Most of what was in the Vaults was of trivial value. The Grimories, though, were a prize beyond price. They were stored in an iron vault of their own, but spent little time there. Sister Magdalene showed Gwenivere to a massive Scriptorium where several monks were laboriously copying out the Grimories by hand. There was no other way to do it effectively. A copy made with a scanner, or similar device would have all the Latin words, but the all-important Magickal writing would be cold, useless, and unintelligible. At every stage, the language of Magick required the energy of a living soul. Otherwise, it was nothing but meaningless marks or incoherent sounds.
The Scriptorium turned out to be a real bonus. The Simonites were willing to share their supplies with her, so Gwenivere was able to replenish some of her expended spell tokens. By sunset, when everyone broke for the evening meal, Gwenivere was well supplied, even if she hadn't decided what she was going to do.
As it turned out, Alistair made that decision for her.
Gwenivere woke from a restless dream. A blond-headed musician was drenched in blood, some his own and some belonging to the woman he held in his arms, the woman who was already dead.
She was not disoriented from waking up in the unfamiliar monk's cell. She had slept in so many places on her travels that it was more unusual for her to wake up in a room twice than not. The odd thing was that there was someone on the cot with her.
"Key, what are you doing here?" she asked quietly.
Of course, the child didn't answer. Still, something clearly disturbed her. Gwenivere sat very still and listened to the sounds around her, willing away the filters that usually cut out extraneous noise. Something was subtly wrong about the noises of the monastery.
"Oh my god, he can't be here so soon."
The cold baying of one of Alistair's hounds split the air, giving the lie to her statement.
Key clutched at her talisman. The doll, Gwenivere noticed, was tucked under her arm. The girl was in her nightclothes, and wearing no shoes.
Gwenivere dressed quickly. Her traveling clothes were chosen for their utility, rather than for style. She pulled a pair of loose fitting leggings up over her shift, and shrugged into a thicker shirt. Her leather jacket went over that. It wasn't thick enough to be much protection against a direct attack, but the areas around the joints had been reinforced with metal. Against a glancing blow, it was good enough. Her boots buckled, rather than laced. In a pinch, one buckle would hold the boots on, whereas the laces could take a minute or more. Finally, Gwenivere put on the sword belt and shrugged into her cloak.
"Stay here," she said. "I want to find out what's going on."
She grabbed her staff and cautiously opened the door. There were no sounds of fighting from the outside, but that hound had been close. She padded down the hall to the stairs leading to the hall below. Her room had a window, but it faced to the rear of the monastery, and was too narrow to do much more than let in a little light. If Alistair was going to get in, he was going to have to take the gates.
The stairwell had a door leading out onto the battlements. It was barred from the inside, and Gwenivere didn't want to open it. She flipped the latch on the small window in the upper center of the door instead, and peered out onto the walls. There was a monk on guard, leaning up against a spear with one arm dangling listlessly, if not asleep at his post, then so close to it as to make no difference.
The subtle feeling of wrongness still wouldn't leave Gwenivere. Alistair's hounds wouldn't have sounded unless they had a reason. Even as she thought it, she heard them again, then twice more. She also thought she caught a strange smell in the night air.
Muttering a quick spell, she created a breeze from upwind of the guard.
"Blood." Alistair was already inside.
Now that she knew what she was really looking at, the image of the monk was sickening. Someone had breached the walls, caught him, and rammed his spear through his arm and shoulder to hold him upright, all so silently that no one had noticed.
A shadow passed across the window, blocking out all light for a heartbeat. Gwenivere gasped and stepped back involuntarily. When she returned to the window, she saw a dark form make its way across the courtyard.
The door bolt gave her a bit of trouble, but she threw it and flung the door open. Stepping out onto the battlements, she looked around. The shadow was half way across the yard, keeping close to the walls and hugging the ground. Both sentries on this wall were dead, and somehow the other six hadn't been roused.
"Don't these bloody monks Ward their walls?" Gwenivere asked herself.
To get the answer, she drew a detective's glass from one of the many pouches on her belt. The glass was etched with arcane symbols, as was the gold frame. She chanted another spell over it and looked through the golden circle at the walls.
Her spell revealed a dome of faint, blue lines. They ran together to form a warding field, one that would alert anyone attuned to the spell to anything bigger than a squirrel that tried to cross the barrier. Since the creature making its way across the yard was bigger than a squirrel, it should have set off an alarm.
At the moment, though, it was more important to stop it than to figure out how it had crossed the ward undetected. Gwenivere opened her card pouch and pulled out the deck of parchment cards. The temporary talismans were always arranged in the exact same order so she could grab the one she wanted with little fuss. She flipped past the defensive spells to her first attack card, a spell to call a bolt of fire.
The images on the card served as memory triggers, allowing Gwenivere to focus her will on the spell quickly. She had already imbued the card with the energy the spell required, so the effort of the casting only left her shaky for a handful of seconds.
The fire bolt lanced from her outstretched hand and crackled through the air. The creature had the devil's own luck, though, and dodged out of the way of the blast. Sparks struck the grass and fountained up into the air as the thing rolled to one side. In the light, she could see it better, for a moment. It was basically man shaped, but larger than a human, with a wolfish snout and a pair of antlers.
Gwenivere was not all together surprised to see one of Alistair's huntsmen. The creatures were fanatically loyal to their master, and faster and stronger than any normal human. Still, it couldn't have breached the wards on its own.
The pyrotechnics had attracted some attention. Two of the guardsmen were looking down at the yard. Another one ran across to where Gwenivere was standing.
"Invader!" she yelled at the top of her lungs. "He's headed for the gate!"
The approaching monk was about thirty feet away, running quickly. Gwenivere was more worried about the creature in the yard. It was almost across the yard. The monks watching the walls would be too far away to do any good. Two more rushed out of one of the outbuildings. One held an iron bound staff, and moved like he knew how to use it. His companion was unarmed, but was mouthing a spell.
Something whistled through the air past Gwenivere's ear, to clatter to the stones behind her. She was already rolling in the opposite direction before she realized it was the monk's spear.
With a mad look in his eyes, the monk was charging. He'd produced a knife.
Gwenivere climbed to her feet warily, keeping her staff at the ready.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked.
The monk answered by taking an experimental slash at her. He knew how to fight against a staff, pressing forward to defeat her reach, and striking at her hands. Gwenivere couldn't get a strike in.
She took a step back, angling away from his direct line of attack. "Never move straight," her teachers had told her. She hadn't absorbed those lessons as well as she might have, but she knew herself to be a match for a deranged scribe.
She thrust at his head, following that attack with a side strike to the left. The monk was left handed, and would probably favor that side.
He did, but Gwenivere's feint and strike didn't catch him. The monk moved with a speed that belied his bulk, and came up under Gwenivere's guard. His blade snaked in toward her ribs, but she didn't feel the white hot flash of pain that would have indicated a good hit.
Another lesson that had been drilled into her with many turnings on her butt was never to get so focused on the weapon in her hands that she was blinded to other options. She raised a knee, connecting with the monk's chin.
His teeth cracked together, and blood ran from the side of his mouth.
Gwenivere used the space she'd bought to sweep his feet out from under him. Her follow-up strike to his head failed when he rolled out of the way.
Spirits, he was fast, Gwenivere thought, too fast. She didn't have time to think of a spell. The monk flipped backwards, springing to his feet and charging again. This time he caught Gwenivere's staff in his shoulder. She knew she felt bone give way, but he wouldn't stop.
She got a hand up to block his knife before he could take her throat. He was stronger than he looked, too. Gwenivere was knocked to the ground, with the monk on top of her. Her staff was pinned between them. The shaft of wood ground into Gwenivere's ribs. The Sword was trapped under her leg. His hot breath was in her nostrils, and she could see black ichor at the edges of his split lips.
With her free hand, she fumbled for her belt knife. Naturally, it was on the wrong side. Her hand encountered the bulk of her attacker. She used the opportunity to punch him in the ribs twice, but to no great effect.
An explosion sounded below, distracting the monk for just a moment. He pushed up to get a better view of the yard, driving the staff deeper into Gwenivere's sore chest, but also moving some of his bulk off of her knife. She pulled the blade and stabbed him, aiming for the kidney.
The monk tried to squirm out of the way. Gwenivere's blow grazed his side, but didn't penetrate. It was enough, though. Gwenivere was able to crawl free. She tried to rise, but her leg was tangled in the Sword's scabbard.
"Die...Witch," the monk hissed, or rather the thing possessing the monk.
"You first." Gwenivere was almost moved to religion by the sound of Brother Marcus, and the sight of him standing with a morning star in both hands.
The monk's head was rocked on his shoulders by Marcus's first two-handed blow. The second sent him staggering to the edge of the wall. Marcus followed up his advantage with a thrust to the surprised monk's torso.
The spike on the head of his great mace penetrated the monk's side, and Brother Marcus calmly kicked him off of the weapon, allowing him to fall to the courtyard below.
Gwenivere worked on getting her heartbeat off of cut time. "Alistair...Huntsman...The Gates," she managed.
"I know." Marcus sounded grim. "Take the child and get to safety. Whatever else happens, the Coventrys must not get the Sword."
"Girl?" Gwenivere looked around, confused. "Key, what the... What are you doing out here?"
Key sniffled once, and clutched her doll to her breast. Her eyes were full of uncried tears.
Gwenivere picked her up mechanically and turned back to Marcus. "The central tower?"
"We will make our stand there, or not at all," he confirmed.
"Be careful. Alistair had one Skindancer. There might be more."
"You as well."
Brother Marcus turned his attention to the gates. There, several monks were trying to hold the gate closed. Alistair's pet monster had somehow set off a blast that shattered the great oaken bar. Without the bar to hold it closed, the gate wouldn't hold for long.
Gwenivere made her way toward the monastery's light tower. On a proper castle, the large, central tower would be called the inner keep, or the dungeon. In addition to the meeting room, and storage rooms above ground, there were underground storerooms. Together with the connected hall that contained the sanctuary and the kitchens, the structure was the best choice
for a last ditch defense. It would have been better with fewer doors, though.
She made it about half way across the yard before Alistair's first cannon shot blasted into the gate. Monks were bracing the doors closed with thick poles. The force of the impact almost blasted one door off its hinges. Two of the wooden braces splintered, raining down shards of broken wood.
"We're going to have to hurry, kid."
A Simonite, obviously one of those who worked with Marcus, was guarding the door. He had a loaded crossbow, and a great mace leaned up against the doorframe.
Gwenivere slipped past him, sparing a glance over her shoulder. Another blast rocked the gates, and Alistair's hounds howled in anticipation.
As she watched, the gates fell in. Alistair's hounds charged through, snarling and frothing. They were bigger than any normal dogs had a right to be, with short, black hair and red eyes. Despite being powerfully muscular, they seemed gaunt, almost skeletal. Gwenivere knew the process by which Alistair created his hunting pack. The fact that they were born as normal dogs only made it worse.
Gwenivere didn't have the same crusader mentality that others in her family did. Deep down, she believed that no matter how many sorcerers you killed or sealed away, there would still be more. Still, when she was confronted with the almost maniacal disregard for the sanctity of life that seemed to be the core of sorcery, she could understand her family's zeal.
The monks on the ground were overwhelmed in seconds. Gwenivere would have turned away, but that would mean turning Key's head forward. Instead, she backed into the church.
The monk fired his crossbow. The shot went home, but if the dog felt it, he gave no sign.
"You'd best get inside."
After the wave of dogs, Alistair's soldiers began their advance. Their rifles were bolt action repeaters, rather than the assault rifles common on the Prime now, but that made little difference to the monks on the ground.
Though the Order of St. Simon was dedicated to the study of Magick, the members were not especially powerful, not by the standards that Gwenivere measured power. They were faced with Coventry Sorcery and Covenshire technology. Mordakai's realm seemed to be eternally locked in the Victorian era, but that was more than edge enough now.
The irony was that New York, the City of Shadows, was only a short distance away. The teenage ruffians there were better armed than Alistair's crack troops.
At the rear of the Coventry force, Alistair rode in as a conquering hero, resplendent in a black uniform with a gold breastplate. His cloak fluttered behind him, a pair of crimson wings. He held the reins in his left hand. In his right was a gold-hilted saber.
"Gwenivere Valentine?" Alistair's sneering voice dripped with false sincerity. "It's been simply ages. You never call, you never write."
"You never think up new jokes."
"As shrewish as ever, I see." Gwenivere's insult had destroyed his friendly mien as easily as a needle pops a soap bubble.
As his troops subdued the monks in the yard, he advanced on Gwenivere.
He wasn't paying enough attention, though. Gwenivere had time to put Key down and pull something from under her cloak.
"I did get you a card, though," she said.
The second attack card was another fire bolt, bigger than the first. Gwenivere caught herself on her staff and watched the lance of flame fly toward Alistair.
The Coventry sorcerer raised his sword as if to parry the bolt. Gwenivere could feel her spell wash against his personal defenses, but some of it got through.
Gwenivere looked around. The tower's central passage led to the stairs, or deeper into the largest building. Gwenivere chose the stairs. Alistair wouldn't expect her to go up. There was no mode of escape from the upper floors. Key followed quietly.
Father Magius was standing in the meeting room, holding a book.
"Father." Gwenivere didn't know what to say. She had tried to warn him.
"Lady Valentine," the priest answered. "You were right."
Somehow, his acceptance of it bothered Gwenivere more than yelling and blaming her would have.
"I can still get some of you out. I can open a portal through the Darkways."
"No." The old priest's voice was iron. "I will not tell you what you should, or should not do, but I will not send my flock out of the Creator's world."
Gwenivere had two comebacks ready. She could have told him that he was being a fool, or asked him how he knew God didn't want people to use the Darkways, but none of that would have changed his mind.
Instead she took one look out of the window and determined that there was no way she was going to make it to the animal pens.
"I'm sorry, Bella," she whispered. "Father, I know you don't agree with me, but I'm going. Is there somewhere private I can do this?"
"My private study should suffice. It is the last door on the right on the third level."
Father Magius kept a clean study. Gwenivere was almost sorry that she was about to draw all over one of his walls. She pulled a stick of blue chalk from one of her pouches, chosen because it would show up well on the grey walls.
. Gwenivere traced out a rectangle on the wall, starting about an inch above the floor, and reaching up slightly above her head. Now she had a door, the problem was figuring out where to go. She wasn't sure where she was, in the grand scheme of things. Traveling through the Darkways was dangerous. She'd been able to do it twice before when getting to the monastery because she knew about waypoints that would lead her closer. After she jumped to those, though, she'd been forced to travel on horseback. Now she needed to jump from a location she didn't perfectly know.
She had to jump to somewhere in New York where she would find allies. She tried to clear her mind, despite the noise from outside, and formulate her spell.
Key ran to the office door and peered outside.
"Close the door and come back here."
The diagram took shape. Gwenivere couldn't define the exact coordinates she wanted, so she improvised. Slowly, the complex chalk lines began to glow with golden light. The radiance spread to fill in the inner spaces. It was taking too long, though.
By the sound, Coventry troops were already in the building. The barks and howls of Alistair's hounds echoed off the stone walls, and they were getting closer.
"She's this way." Alistair's voice was full of rage, even through the thick wood of the door.
"This is bad." Gwenivere couldn't cast another spell until the one she was working on finished.
She moved between Key and the door, and looked for something to hold it closed. Naturally, nobody needed locks in a monastery. She set her back to the door and just hoped.
The first hound smashed into the door, almost bowling Gwenivere over. The portal was almost completely golden now, but the diagrams hadn't been specific enough. The path through the Darkways was taking too long.
The door shook again, and a bayonet blade penetrated the boards inches from
She dodged out of the way, which cost her the leverage she needed to hold the door. A heavy boot connected, and the door flew open and slammed into the wall.
Gwenivere spun away, snatching up her staff. She worked the hidden switch, and three blades sprung out. The central blade was about a foot long, with two six-inch blades to the side. As the soldier who'd kicked in the door entered, she caught his rifle in between the tines of her feather staff and twisted it off line.
The surprised soldier was too slow to react, and Gwenivere was able to kick him in the stomach. Behind him, she saw three more, and two of Alistair's hounds. Alistair himself stood wisely back. His cloak was burned, and his armor a bit singed, but he seemed to have weathered the fire blast with little trouble.
"Gwenivere." Alistair's voice was almost an animal snarl.
She didn't waste time with a retort. The soldier nearest the door was open to an attack. Before he could react, she kicked him in the gut, then shifted her weight and kicked him again in the head. When he was bent over double, she shifted once more, dropping her foot to steady herself, and slammed the butt of her staff into his face.
He fell backwards, dropping his rifle.
Gwenivere snatched the fallen weapon up as she slammed the door closed again. One of the other soldiers had the presence of mind to fire a shot. The thunder crack sounded so close to Gwenivere's head that the room swam for a second. Even so, she had the presence of mind to jam the door closed with the rifle. A glance over her shoulder showed her that the portal was almost formed. All she needed was a few more seconds.
"Enough," Alistair barked.
Alistair's blow rocked the door on its hinges. One of the benefits he received from his sorcerous pacts was vast physical strength. A second blow tore wood from metal. Gwenivere backed away. She was out of options.
She felt a tug on the edge of her cloak, and turned to look at Key.
"Lady Gwenivere, its' time to go," the girl said gravely.
She had taken the key from around her neck, and thrust it into Gwenivere's portal. The portal was now a rectangle of utter blackness. Gwenivere's diagrams looked like a series of shimmering lines, multicolored spider webs that were only visible in certain light.
Somehow, the key had forced open the portal.
Gwenivere wasted no time. She dove for the portal, grabbing up Key, as Alistair's troops fired. Bullets whistled past her head, and she heard one of the dogs in the room.
Then everything was swallowed in blackness. Inside the Darkways there was no light, no sound, no feeling, no time. Many wizards wouldn't use the Darkways, thinking them to be too dangerous, even sacrilegious by some. Gwenivere was above such concerns, but even she didn't use the Darkways unless she had no other option.
As swiftly as it began, the trip was over. Gwenivere rolled to a stop in a dark alley. The smell of garbage and human filth was a relief after the all-consuming nothingness of the Darkways. She managed to get her feet under her and cast about for her staff. It was lying on the ground not too far away. She picked it up and used it as a lever to lift herself off the ground. The wood supported her weight.
She was exhausted. The portal had taken a lot out of her. She doubted that she even had the energy to use one of the spells she had stored on a trump card.
"Key?" Gwenivere looked around, taking stock of the situation.
The alley was cold. A biting wind found every gap in Gwenivere's cloak. On top of the smell of offal, Gwenivere thought she detected the possibility of snow. Night was well advanced. The moon and stars were hidden by a thick blanket of clouds. Light came from a flickering light bulb set over a doorway, and from the street beyond.
Not all of the bad smell in the alley was the result of other people's garbage. The first thing she noticed was the head and upper body of Alistair's hound. The dog had followed her through the portal, but not quite quickly enough. The door through the Darkways had closed with the dog half way through. Blood still pumped into the alley, and the pathetic thing
whimpered. It snarled when it saw Gwenivere, though.
"Bad dog," Gwenivere said. "Key?"
She found the girl huddled up against a wall, still clutching the key, with her doll held tight to her chest in her thin arms. She was shivering, too. Gwenivere had dressed for travel. Key was wearing nothing more than her nightclothes and a pair of thin slippers.
Gwenivere picked the girl up and threw a fold of her cloak over her.
"We're all right now. I think we're in Manhattan. I have a friend here who will take care of us."
Now all she had to do was find the place she had originally aimed for.
* * *
The stacks of the Foundries disgorged thick, sickly smoke, burning Magick and soulstuff to hold oblivion at bay. The fading rays of the sun painted the clouds in lurid shades of yellow and green. Below the cloud cover, the sky was dark red. Mordakai Coventry peered through the huge French windows of his private study, admiring the view.
From this angle, he could see the Simonite monastery perched atop a jagged, white cliff. There were fires burning in the lower windows now, adding to the gloom cast by the forges. Alistair was clearly about the work his father had set him.
Some of the other children had gathered, and were awaiting audience with the patriarch of the family in the greatroom below.
With great care, the aged sorcerer rose, and made his way to a large cabinet in the far corner of the room. The iron bound doors were carved with symbols in ancient script, a warning. Mordakai took out his key and worked the lock. The doors swung open easily, and the old man reached for one of the vials inside. There were scores of them, stored on racks like spices. They were filled with faintly glowing liquid. Velvet lining on the cabinet doors hid the radiance from the outside.
Mordakai's gnarled fingers closed on a vial of gold liquid, a very recent vintage. Sparkles of silvery light still danced within it. The warmth infused him, traveling up his cold fingers even through the glass. Perhaps it would have been wiser to take one of the older vials, one less potent for having been stored. He rejected that thought, though. His children were waiting below, and he would need his strength to face them.
He carefully closed the cabinet, feeling the wards restore themselves as he did so. With the vial in hand, he returned to his massive lounge chair. Beside the chair, an ornate hookah pipe rested. Instead of the long-stemmed mouthpiece most such devices possessed, this one had an elaborate facemask that would cover the user's mouth and nose. Mordakai didn't want any of the
precious smoke to escape.
His hands shook as he fixed the mask around his face. The breathing tube inside was uncomfortable against his throat. The fire was already burning in the base of the mechanism. He twisted open the lid of the chamber and poured the liquid inside. Only the barest trace of smoke escaped before he had the lid back in place.
Mordakai shuddered once in pain and ecstasy as the burning gas flooded his lungs. He could feel the torment of a life untimely ended, and moreover, feel the power that the unnatural death bestowed upon him. His old muscles were invigorated. His skin regained some of the resilience of his youth. The hair on his scalp was now full and thick, if still white.
By the time he found himself inhaling only heated air, few would have recognized him as the being who had first opened the cabinet a few minutes ago.
A mild pain in his joints, almost beneath notice, reminded him that the effect would not be permanent. Each time now, the revitalization was less than before, and lasted a shorter time. It would not be long before the precious elixir would be able to do no more than hold death at bay.
But it would not come to that, he reminded himself. His children were set to the task of purchasing him another lifetime, with their own blood if need be. Mordakai left his study, carrying his cane as a prop, rather than a necessity. As he reached the door, his private servant, Anastasia, glided silently from the corner and draped his black cloak across his shoulders. The hood fell naturally to shield his eyes. From under the shadow, he smiled.
Anastasia fell into step behind him. She was never more than a few steps from her masters' side now. Her steps were almost silent in the echoing hallways of Mordakai's manor house. She was dressed in a simple shift of pure white, the only sort of garment Mordakai would permit her to have. The high heels she wore gave her diminutive frame some height, but she was still elfin and child like. Her hair, snowy blond, was worn in a single braid. The black iron collar around her neck, a band of seamless metal with spikes at two-inch intervals, made the whole image exotic, and somewhat pathetic.
They descended the wide, curving stair into the greatroom. Mordakai went slowly, even though he ached to have this encounter over with. His stately pace had two purposes. First, it made his children below impatient. Their impatience was his ally, and he had few allies in the room below. Second, he had the time to observe each one, to take one last opportunity to read
the masks of their faces and learn what they were thinking. His network of spies was extensive, but not wholly adequate.
None of his children, some truly grandchildren or yet more tangential relations, shared a seat with any other if he could help it. The more powerful among them dominated the most prestigious, or comfortable pieces, leaving the others to stand, or pace the floor, or lean against the walls.
Mordakai concentrated his attentions on the seated children. Derdrie was coiled, catlike, on a divan. She held a goblet of red wine in one hand, and sipped at it delicately, more to enjoy the play of her tongue on the glass than to drink. She was dressed in the same Victorian style as all the others, but still managed to look erotic and inviting. One lock of her dark auburn hair curled provocatively down her cheek. Her dark eyes locked onto Mordakai's for a bare moment before she recovered her look of bemused unconcern. Her mother had been the same way, he remembered, until she'd decided to betray him and he had her killed.
Derdrie said something, and Elliot laughed nervously. He was seated in a simple, straight-backed chair. His brown hair was slightly unkempt, as though he'd hurried to make this meeting. His cravat was crooked as well. He seemed nervous to be surrounded by so many of the others.
Across the room from Elliot, Elysia was enthroned in the protective arms of a wicker chair. The veil she wore, coupled with the shadows, concealed her features from easy view. That was exactly as she wished it to be. Elysia kept her own counsel on many things.
Vincent, Elysia's nearest sibling, and most hated rival, returned to his seat with a goblet of wine. His military uniform was accented with a strange breastplate, and with a scarf worn loosely about his neck, both signs of his travels in the far countries. He wore an old styled longsword instead of a cavalry saber, as well. He had condescended to allow some of his lesser siblings to sit near him. Mordakai appreciated the strategy. If any of his children would be able to rein in the rest, Vincent would be the one.
Alistair, of course, was absent. His chief rival for the position of Mordakai's primary enforcer was Dominick. The stocky man paced restlessly at the back of the room, not for lack of power to demand a seat, but out of choice. He resented being drawn into the Netherlands, away from his greatest base of power. He stopped pacing when he saw Mordakai enter, and stood respectfully. Since he was not a member of Covenshire's military, he had been unable to wear a sword to the gathering. He carried a lead cored cane which would be almost as deadly, and was probably also armed with one or more pistols.
Mordakai dismissed him from mind. There were still others of importance. Elysia's son, Jared, by far the youngest of those gathered, had somehow secured a seat near his mother. He looked out into the room sullenly over the pages of an old book. He pointedly turned a page just as Mordakai came into view. The gesture carried no disrespect for Mordakai, but was meant to
show the others that the boy had no fear of him either.
Mordakai only smiled. The boy would learn to fear soon enough.
"Welcome, my children," he said.
"It is always a joy to see you, papa," Derdrie's return smile was that of a vixen. "I cannot help but wonder, though, why you have called us all here? Or where your favorite, Alistair, might be?"
"Alistair is about my business, as all of you will soon be."
Mordakai took up a position at the foot of the stairs, still more than a head above any of his guests. He could feel the presence of Anastasia behind him. He settled his weight gingerly on the shaft of his cane and cleared his throat.
"You all know of our ignominious defeat in New York ten years ago. Each of you bears a share of the blame for that. However, now is not the time for recriminations. We stand on the verge of retaking what was stolen from us."
A pregnant pause followed, not quite silent, as the gathered Coventrys turned to murmur amongst themselves.
"I have found at last the means to open the Box of Sorrows. When I have drained the power inside, we will descend upon the city and destroy all who oppose us." Mordakai considered laughing maniacally, but decided that would be a bit too much. His descent into melodrama had a purpose. If there was one thing he could predict about his children, it was their greed.
Their whispered comments rose in volume, as each Coventry tried to figure out how this new information could be of benefit. The Sorrow Box as much myth as fact. No doubt some of them did not believe in it at all. On the other hand, they had all learned from painful experience that their patriarch knew things they did not.
"And you have chosen to share that power with us, father? How kind of you." Elysia smiled.
"Each of you has a place in my plan. Already, Alistair is leading a raid against one of our oldest foes, the Order of St. Simon. When he returns, we will begin in earnest. Now, return to your chambers. There, you will be informed of the tasks to which I have set you."
By giving them their orders separately, Mordakai could keep his children ignorant of the full scope of his plan. What they did not know, they could not betray. By their reactions, they realized this as well.
"This is ridiculous," Dominick snarled. "You're sending us to our rooms to await your pleasure? I have duties in the real world, father."
Dominick was such a comfort to a father in his old age. The fiery comment could not be better timed.
"Leave then, Dominick." Mordakai answered calmly. "If you have no wish to participate, then I will not hold you here."
Dominick seemed to weigh further words. "You are right, father. I will speak with you later." He bowed stiffly and left the room.
The others followed his example. They clearly didn't like it, but none was willing to let a potential advantage go to the others.
Mordakai watched them go, sinking into an empty chair near the stairs. The essence he'd taken earlier was beginning to fail. His arthritic joints protested their treatment, and he closed his eyes against the pain. When he looked back up, he saw Derdrie watching him.
"You look ill, Father. Is there something I can do to help you?"
Mordakai forced himself to ignore the pain, and to rally his remaining strength. "I am well, Derdrie. Return to your chamber and wait for my orders."
He stood up and ascended the stairs. He could feel Derdrie's eyes on his back, so he forced himself to walk slowly, but with no sign of fatigue. She might be the most dangerous of them all, he thought. She would bide her time and learn as much as she could before picking a side.
Mordakai would just have to make sure she picked his or none at all.
* * *
"New York," spat Jason Valentine, as his motorcycle carried him across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. "I might have known."
Almost as soon as he'd reached the bridge, the restlessness that had been driving him steadily north and east for over a month had abated. It had started in New Orleans, another city stolen from the Indians and named after a place it resembled not at all. He'd been working as a private security consultant. His current job had been bodyguard work for a singer staying in
the city for the perpetual party.
The feeling had started as nothing more than a vague sense that something was about to happen, not to his client, but to Jason himself. The distracted sense grew to the point where Jason almost missed someone trying to get too close to the singer girl.
She'd been sorry to see him go, but a distracted bodyguard is worse than no bodyguard at all.
He stayed in the city for another few days, trying to figure out what was wrong. The feelings had only gotten stronger, and more intrusive. After three days, if he didn't pay constant attention to where he was going, he would find himself driving out of town.
On the fourth, he gave up, canceled his lease, and started driving. He had enough money to get by for a while without working, and he hoped to get the wanderlust out of his system. He'd initially taken off for Las Vegas, another party city.
"Obviously, that didn't work out," he muttered to himself.
Besides being big, crowded, and ugly, New York was colder than New Orleans had been. Jason pulled his coat closed and fastened the top two buttons. That kept the wind from whipping the black leather duster open, but kept his legs free. At least it wasn't snowing yet.
He was already close to the Village, even though now it was mostly a cheap, superficial tourist trap. Someone had called him here, summoned him from across the country. What he had to do now was find out who it was and what they wanted. He prowled around until he found a hotel with vacancies, and a place to park his motorcycle.
It was full night by the time he was settled. He left the bike in the garage and walked through the city. Most of the sidewalk carts were closed in the wake of the dark and cold. Jason found a pizzeria, and went inside.
The lights were dim. Bad 80s' music blared from a jukebox in the corner. Jason took a booth near the back. There was a point from which someone could see all the entrances, but a group of college kids was sitting there. Jason settled for sitting as far up against the wall as he could, with one leg extended along the vinyl-covered seat.
A dark haired waitress swayed up to the table, fatigue and world-weariness was layered over her cute and sexy act. She pulled an order pad from her apron and looked down at him expectantly. The nametag pinned above her left breast read "Lisa."
"May I take your order?"
Her gaze was drawn to his sunglasses, with a mild curiosity, but Jason saw no reason to explain.
"Medium pepperoni, sausage, and bacon on deep dish crust, and a beer." Jason
"One artery clogging special coming up." Her smile was sincere, if a little wan. Almost hidden beneath the surface was a flicker of interest.
As Jason watched her walk away, thoughts ran through his mind. He could start by asking her about her kid. The key chain dangling from her pocket had the picture of a child encased in plastic on it. He'd express sympathy about what a tough job she had, then ask her what time she got off work.
He pushed the thought away. She didn't mean anything to him, and never would, and he hadn't sunk quite so far as to use someone for his own pleasure unless she came to him.
She came back a few minutes later with his beer in a tall mug.
"Your pizza will be about ten more minutes."
Jason smiled, not with any warmth, but to be polite.
Lisa walked away again, to serve some other customers. Jason watched her go as far as the restaurant's bar, where his gaze was drawn to a TV that was mounted on the back wall. The news was playing, with a time/date stamp the date was November 15th. The scene in the background was Liberty Island.
Jason almost dropped his drink as memory hit him in the stomach. Ten years ago, on November 15th, both of his parents had died. Suddenly, Jason had no appetite. The breadstick he'd been gnawing on absently tasted like stale cardboard, and the beer in his mouth was almost enough to make him sick.
He didn't really want to eat anymore, and he certainly didn't want to be in a room full of people. He left the beer untouched on the table. The urge to drain it and ask for another was a persistent presence eating at the back of his skull. Drunk out of his mind he wouldn't have to remember what had happened.
When Lisa arrived with his steaming pizza on a wooden tray, he asked, "Can I get that to go?"
"Is anything wrong?" she asked.
"No. I just remembered something important."
Jason shoveled money, more than was really called for, onto the table, and almost left before the waitress could return with his pizza in a cardboard box.
Even in the half-hour or so that he was in the restaurant, the city had grown noticeably colder. Jason turned up the collar of his coat. He'd walked more than six blocks to find the restaurant. Now he wished he'd brought his bike. He wanted nothing more than to be back in his room where he could meditate, focus his concentration enough to drive all thought from
He was so wrapped up in himself that he walked three blocks before he realized someone was following him.
There was only one, a man in a dark coat. As Jason passed under a streetlight, he could see the man reflected in the windshield of a car parked by the curb. He was dressed in black, and carrying a concealed weapon, something long and stiff below the folds of his coat.
Jason had enough discipline not to reach for the gun concealed in the small of his back. That would just tip his hand. He turned down a side street, intending to lose his tail and approach the hotel from the other side.
Curiously, the trailer didn't follow. Jason allowed himself a moment of relief. Maybe he was just being paranoid. He cut through the back street quickly, wanting to be in the better light as soon as possible.
A shadow cloaked form jumped from the fire escape of a nearby building, and only instinct let Jason roll out of the way. He came to a stop with his back to a wall. The pizza box was upside down on the other side of the alley, leaning up against a wall. Jason pulled his gun, a beretta, and clicked off the safety.
His assailant was standing in the middle of the alley, holding a sword. The other one was blocking Jason's back trail. Jason couldn't see what he was doing, but he knew the man was there. Beyond the idiot with the sword, another form loomed, blocking the other end of the narrow street.
The sword wielder charged, blade leveled at Jason's head, held in a two handed grip.
Jason fired at him twice. The first shot missed. The guy was fast, faster than was normal. The second shot clipped him on one shoulder, and he switched his sword to a one handed grip.
The sword was a katana. By the look of it, it was not one of the half-useless replicas available through mail order. The wielder looked like he knew what he was doing, as well. He'd landed on his feet after Jason avoided his attack. He was still trying to close now, to get close enough that Jason couldn't shoot him effectively.
Jason moved in an arc, circling against the forward momentum of his attacker. Instinct screamed again, and he dropped to the ground just in time to avoid a shot from the original trailer.
Instead of some piece of archaic hardware, he'd brought a shotgun to the party. The blast thundered in the confines of the narrow battleground. He pumped the action to ready another shot.
Jason was faster, drawing his knees under him and firing off a round that took the man in the midriff.
The gunman staggered backwards, clutching his chest. Blood didn't spray out through the alley, so he was probably wearing body armor.
James didn't wait to find out. He was already spinning toward the dubious cover of a Dumpster and looking for his next shot. He had to duck again to avoid the katana swinging at his head.
The sword swinger almost took him, but had made one fatal error. He'd put too much into the crescent strike and overextended himself. Jason pistoned his knees while firing a shovel punch into his gut with is right hand. When the Beretta impacted with the tender flesh of his chest, Jason fired.
The swordsman spasmed once, lifted into the air by Jason's strike. His sword fell from nerveless fingers, and Jason caught it out of the air.
The blade felt good in Jason's hand. It had been too long since he'd held a sword. The balance on this one was almost perfect, with the slight difference that gave it some personality. It was heavy toward the hilt, robbing it of some power, but making it easier to control.
His maneuvers had left him standing in the middle of the alley. The big bruiser was bracketed in the alley mouth, drawing something from under his coat. He suddenly flattened against the wall.
Jason realized what that meant almost too late and ducked behind a Dumpster just in time to avoid another shotgun blast. He used the time it took for the shooter to ready another shot to close the distance between them, using the same tactic his earlier opponent had tried on him. He swept the shotgun across with the katana and swung his pistol into the side of the shotgun wielding thug's head. Still moving, he circled with the reeling man to interpose his body between himself and the third fighter, who had pulled out another gun. Jason fired over his living shield's shoulder. This shot went home. Since he knew his opponents were wearing armor, he aimed for the head.
The man Jason was holding was getting heavy. Jason let him fall. He hit the ground bonelessly, knocked senseless by Jason's abuse.
Jason set the katana down, to check the man's pulse. He was still breathing, but didn't look like he was going to wake up any time soon. Jason picked the sword back up and checked the second one. The third man wasn't ever going to get up again.
The swordsman twitched helplessly as Jason approached. Even through whatever armor he'd been wearing, Jason's shot had likely damaged his spine. Now that he had a minute to think, Jason looked the man over.
He was wearing a black coat, like the other two, and like Jason for that matter. The swordsman's was of a strange cut, however. His other clothes were unusual as well, a mismatched collection of rags and archaic clothing. Blood soaked his tunic, and pooled around him. Jason prodded his chest and discovered that he'd been wearing a coat of chainmail, adequate protection from most bladed weapons, but not very useful against Jason's pistol.
"Bastard Netherlander," Jason hissed. "Why did you attack me?"
"I tell you nothing," the swordsman said. His voice was weak from pain.
"Then I'll just leave you here. No one will see you. No one will help you. You could lay here for days before the dogs notice you. The ravens will find you faster than that, though." Jason turned to walk away.
"Wait..." the swordsman asked. "Not this way."
Jason paused, but did not turn. "You have something to tell me?"
"Not for you."
"I don't have time for riddles." Jason took another step to the mouth of the alley.
"Not come for you. Come for sister. Find you instead."
That got Jason's interest. As far as he knew, none of his siblings would want to come any closer to New York than he did. Had Colwynn or Gwenivere been summoned to the city by the same force that called him?
"Who sent you? Why did you come for one of my sisters? Which one?"
The warrior's eyes had closed, though. Jason shook him once, but he couldn't be wakened.
"Dammit, you're not going to die on me." Saying it, though, didn't make it so.
Jason's focus turned to the wider world. Several shots had been fired. The police would be coming, and Jason was standing in an alley with a sword and a gun. He put his pistol back into its back holster and took stock of the rest of the alley.
Neither of the other two men had much of value beyond their guns. They carried no identification. Jason had room for one of the shotguns, and he emptied their pockets of all their extra shells. He kept the katana as well. The dead swordsman had a scabbard, which Jason now claimed as his spoils.
He also claimed the pizza box. The pizza was in poor shape to eat, but the box had Jason's prints on it, and he didn't want to leave any unnecessary clues.
Before he left, Jason looked back down the alley. The swordsman was breathing, shallowly. Though unconscious, he wasn't dead. His wounds would be fatal, though. He was a denizen of the Netherlands, invisible to most of the world's population. Even someone who tripped over his corpse would probably forget it the minute after.
Sighing, Jason went back in. "This is more than you deserve," he snarled to the fallen bravo.
He made the cut as quick and clean as possible, then cleaned the sword on the man's coat hem. He walked back to his hotel as calmly as possible, deliberately walking through a puddle to remove most of the blood from his boots. As long as he didn't have to sit down, the shotgun and sword he now carried were hidden from casual notice. He entered the hotel from the back to avoid encounters with the desk staff, and made it up to his room without incident.
Once there, of course, he had the problem of where he was going to hide his new acquisitions. For the time, he chose to wrap them in the bulk of his long, nylon bag and stuff the bag under his bed near the headboard. The maid was probably not going to be quite thorough enough to check under the bed.
In the cramped bathroom, Jason washed the last of the blood from his coat, pants, and boots in the shower. That just left the problem of finding out who had drawn his family to New York to try to kill them.
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