“Catherine, you suffer endless torment.” Wolfram knew me as well as anyone did. Always did he know the state of my emotions. His head shook, as if not understanding. “You feel too much. You think too much. You let that serpent live rent-free in your head. The wages of you doing this is continuous despair.” He lifted the cigarette up to his lips with one hand while the other brushed my bangs out of my eyes. “I know the look in those two green daggers of yours all too well. I know you know what I’m talking about. I hunt to rid the world of evil, one fiend at a time. You hunt one man for one purpose.”
Many a day had I spent out on the streets, helping those in need, the poor, the disadvantaged. As an Adjuvare, that was my calling, Wolfram reminded more times than I can remember, not trolling the world for Lord Bishop.
“If you want peace,” casting an eye down at me through his bangs, “you must be willing to let go of the past. We’ve hunted him for all these many years. And here it is 1773.” He fiddled with a black onyx button on his coat, thinking of something, and then he looked at me. “I’ll continue to help you hunt him till the end of time, but just think of all the emotion you waste in his pursuit.” He looked at the yellow butt between his long white fingers as if contemplating whether he was finished with it, then his eyes floated up to my face for a response.
I wiped at my eyes. “What’s your point?”
“What’s my point?” he sighed with a shake of his head. “My point is that you spend so much time thinking of the dead you forget about the living. But you must release your pain someday--before it devours you whole.” He bent an eye at me. “It begins with willingness, Catherine.”
I knew the pain was beginning to destroy me from the inside out, but I didn’t want a lecture on my reasons for doing what I did from this living sculpture of a man. Try as I might, I couldn’t divorce myself from the desire for vengeance. Justice for Lord Bishop’s litany of crimes was all that I thought about these days--for his one crime that bade me into a well of sorrow. He was responsible for the murder of my beloved apprentice. Three hundred years had I spent hunting Bishop to no avail.
And here was Wolfram reminding me of my shortcomings.
He stomped the snow off his boots. “Let’s get going before we’re both icebergs.”
We started down the boulevard again, turning the corner onto a narrow lane that slanted down into darkness, a dark abysses that called to me. My step slowed. A hand rose to my chest, feeling it heaving. Memories of my apprentice who was more like a son flooded my heard and mind. His death lay squarely on Lord Randolph Bishop’s shoulders; countless other murders lay stacked upon that. These thoughts made me swallow hard. It felt like a cold hand was squeezing my heart. This deserted lane seemed oblivious to the pain of its passing occupant. The entire city of Paris seemed oblivious to my pain. Somewhere off in the distance a horse and carriage rumbled through a street, the grinding of wheels on cobbles, the hollow clop, clop, clop of hooves. As I focused on that sound, the tears began building again, the heartache tightening its grip on my heart.
Push it down, I told myself. Push it down deep.
No matter how much time passes, a parent never fully recovers from the loss of a child--nor a sorcerer from her apprentice.
A hand reached into Wolfram’s coat to fumble for leather pouch. He loosened the pouch strings, withdrew a small square sheet of wrinkled paper and a pinch of dried golden-brown leaves. “You suffer like no one on earth,” he said rolling another cigarette without breaking stride. “Do you know why?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t even move my shoulders or head to indicate I’d heard any part of what he’d said.
I came to a complete stop.
Wolfram shuffled to a stop beside me. He took off his black felt hat and handed it to me. He smoothed down the raven strands and reached back to retie the black ribbon that secured his ponytail.
I thrust back to him his hat while gazing at the thousands of falling snowflakes. With the cigarette hanging from his lips as he talked of the theater we had attended that evening, he put his hat on off to the side dashingly.
The worn brown leather strap that kept my tangled mass of red curls tied back had begun to loosen earlier, but it unraveled completely as we stood there and a shock of hair tumbled into my eyes. I pulled it back and tried to retie it but was having trouble.
Wolfram moved behind me and gently pulled my hair back and retied it, his breath hot on my neck and smelling of whisky.
As he stepped back to draw puffs, a fleeting figure moved before one of the glowing lanterns hanging beside a door, casting a momentary shadow on the shimmering snow. We both froze.
A whisper came clear to my ears. And someone snickered.
I withdrew a step. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Didn’t you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“I thought I heard someone say...sugar plumb.”
“Sugar plumb?” Wolfram laughed softly while glancing about.
Wolfram withdrew a step. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Didn’t you hear that?”
“I heard someone whisper.”
The voice wasn’t the utterance of a mortal. Sounded ethereal, like a dream voice, the trace tongue of a cherub--or a dark angel.
Again the faintest silvery voice encircled me. “I heard it again.”
“So did I.”
“What is this? Trickery?” I hazarded.
Not seconds after I put forward those words of question, someone threw the words back at me in mockery, like a child does to another child to induce aggravation. “What is this? Trickery?”
The tension mounted.
A voice inside my head now said, Above and before. It was as dark as pitch. There wasn’t a torch or oil lamp anywhere. The moon was full, but the strange greenish-gray scudding clouds that hung low over our heads like a great velvet tapestry masked it. Even with sorcerer eyes, it was difficult to locate the source of the voice.
Looking around and up to the rows of four story high houses on either side of the street, I determined there were creatures on the rooftops and ground.
Were we surrounded?
Whoever and wherever they were, they were using magic to throw disorienting voices, to confuse.
Still looking up, in the periphery of my vision, I caught glimpse of a head, a white face, two burning orbs, and a cameo of scorn. Then it drew back into the liquid darkness, having realized it was seen.
A figure slipped across our path again. Both our heads turned as it crunched off to the left. But then nothing. Silence. No sooner had we begun to move, I became aware we were being followed. Whoever or whatever it was stepped as we stepped. They crunched snow as we crunched snow. They paused when we paused. Perfectly in time with our step.
We both spun around to find no one there.
There was a rustle of garments and a scrape of boots landing on tiles as a lone figure rose to the roof.
“ Wolfram von Goethe, the Nequam filth,” came a voice,
The words rode the frosty air, sweeping down upon the night from some unseen stratum of the sky.
“Catherine Brutticelli, the Adjuvare--,” began another.
I didn’t allow the insult to be uttered. I ran up a wall, with Wolfram fast on my heels. We both landed with a slide on the roof to find three young men dressed in white from head to toe standing before us, as if spawn of the very substance on which they stood. The wind carried on its wings the smell of cologne, the scent of aristocrats. Two of the three were twins. One of the twins, grinning with obvious amusement, looked straight at me with a shaft of derision and said, “Don’t you know us, sugar plumb?” I felt my forehead wrinkle. His words “sugar plumb” rang with odium. In his eyes was more hate, more virulence than I thought possible in any creature. Something about this person revolted me, but why? They scattered in opposite directions before I could separate the entanglement his question.
Wolfram pushed ahead in pursuit, his black cape flowing after him.
As he bolted left and I right, I sensed immediately that the one I was after was less sinister than the other two. He was one of the twins. He jumped from one roof to another, with me in pursuit. He leapt down to the street. I was surprised by his abilities--such agility. Few could maneuver as he. He gestured in my direction and shouted, “Accendere!” A fireball the size of a pumpkin shot in my direction, as if the earth had belched its molten blood. Whoosh! I dodged the fire by running up the entranceway arch of an abandoned hotel. The rush of hot air brushed past my face as it shot up into the sky like a rocket gone astray. The one I was engaged was nowhere to be seen. From my vantage point, Wolfram’s tall form could be seen jumping from roof to roof, roof to ground, ground to roof, the scissoring of his long legs, dodging the smoking chimneys in pursuit. Moonlight and snow dueled to paint the rooftops platinum, and it was difficult at times to see the creatures. I got the impression watching the white-clad figures’ quickened tread that they were just toying with Wolfram and me. That they could have moved much faster. Only their capes seemed animate, like white sheets having escaped a clothesline to dance in the wind. They had no trouble negotiating the chimneys and hairpin curves of the streets and roofs. I spotted the one I was after. I jumped and was born aloft, landing down on the street before him. He slid to a stop some twenty feet distant. He hesitated. He made to turn and run but twisted around and threw out a hand and shouted, “Accendere!” A fireball hurled towards me. I jumped out of the way as the fireball struck the front doors of the hotel. The doors blew out in a tangle of smoke and shattered boards. What remained hung in splinters, the latches glowing orange and falling with a sizzle into the snow. As I began in his direction, something hit me in the head that stayed my tread. Then a knife sliced painfully across my neck and a curtain of blood began down my chest. Desperately I looked around but saw not a person. In my solar plexus, I did sense the tingling presence of another immortal. Then I heard a rustle of clothing as a fist smacked my face, sending me stumbling into a blazing lantern post, cracking the glass panels. I gathered all my power and lunged forward, taking hold the neck of this fast moving creature, and threw my full weight against him so that we both fell into the street. I rolled over and over with him in the snow. Mustering all my strength, I punched at his face with my naked fists. It was the weaker one, the one I’d been chasing, the twin. A sudden gust of wind caught my cape and threw it over my head to cast us both into darkness. “Who are you?” I pressed. His lips quivered attempting to form words but couldn’t. I released his neck so he could speak. I threw back my cape. “How do you know me?”
As he began to speak, I was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. The one I’d grabbed jumped to his feet. I lay on my back stunned for a second. Both stood over me scowling, backlit by the greenish glow of the sky, the wind snapping their capes about them.
When I rose--and I rose quickly--they were gone. They vanished as swiftly as lizards vanishing into cracks of walls.
I was now alone; could feel they had gone. And my heart pounded in my ears like a caveat drum.
Wolfram came running up. He’d lost track of the one he’d been chasing. His white face was smeared with soot, coat missing buttons and torn at the sleeve. “Never seen sorcerers move like that. So fast they were nothing more than blurs. Are you all right?” His chest heaved, his stare level, pirouetting round on the ball of a foot scanning the area.
“Yes,” I coughed, stroking my throat, feeling the wound healing by the minute.
“What’s going on?” I lobbed the question into the wind, not just to Wolfram. “Who were they?”
Feeling half-past exhaustion, we returned to our hotel, with an agreement that we’d search for the three in white next evening.
I repaired to my chamber without another thought. Entering, I withdrew my dagger from my boot, clunking the heavy dagger down on a bedside table. I kicked off my boots, unbuttoned my collar, shed my coat, and threw myself on the mahogany four-poster bed with a moan, not bothering changing out of shirt, waistcoat, and breaches.
It is difficult to say how long I lay there before the voice.
For a brief moment, I thought it was Wolfram standing beside my bed. “Yes,” I mumbled drowsily.
“Catherine, look at me.” One eye cracked open. I pitched my head up, glimpsed the figure and rolled out of bed and onto my feet. I grabbed him by the throat and took him down to the floor. It was one of the three in white.
“What are you doing here?” I screamed. My eyes darted about to insure I wasn’t surrounded. One hand pushed him down. The other reached clumsily for my dagger, nearly upsetting the small table as it balanced on two legs. I drew the leather sheath off with my teeth. “What are you doing here?”
“I mean you no harm,” his limp arms held out before him. “I mean you no harm.”
Wolfram burst through my chamber door. He took the door off its hinges as he did. He stood dagger in hand ready for battle. Realizing there was an intruder, he charged. “Get back, you!” Wolfram rumbled in a low key of command as he gained the room. He grabbed him by the arms and thrust his dagger into his stomach.
“Pray listen to me. I mean you no harm. Will you at least listen?” fled his lips as he was tossed about like a rag doll.
Blood was soaking his white coat.
Not responding, I picked him up by the ruffles of his shirt and slammed him against the wall, leaving a smeared trail of blood on the magnolia-painted wall and the chestnut parquet. A painting fell as he elbowed the wall in a failed attempt to stand up. I stooped over him holding my dagger to his neck with one hand and rummaged his pockets with the other. I don’t know what I was looking for, perhaps some reason for his being there, or who he was. All his pockets yielded were lint and a crumpled theater ticket.
He was rattling off: “I mean you no harm. Please allow me to explain,” when I looked into his eyes, into his dark orbs--into his soul. What I saw sent me stumbling away, only to hastened back.
My Adjuvare vows rose in my head now, the vows I took when I promised my master that I would uphold the sacred covenant of my religion. It is my sacred duty to always be of service to all souls in need when anyone, anywhere reaches out for help.
I helped take off the young man’s coat and shirt. I fetched a towel from the privy and dipped it in the pitcher on a side table. The Elixir had already begun to heal the wound when I returned with the towel. The wound came together and closed. We’d drunk the Elixir that same day, as all sorcerers do on every full moon to render us immortal, a product of sorcerer alchemy, and so the wound healed quickly. As long as we drink it on every full moon, we will remain perfectly preserved, as when the nectar of the sorcerer first passes our lips. I rubbed the blood away where the wound had been, revealing his unscathed, smooth white belly.
My companion’s mouth had dropped open, as if thinking, What in the hell are you doing? Confusion was stamped on his face.
“Look into his eyes. Look into his eyes.”
Wolfram did what was suggested, taking a step back. “What’s your name?”
“Ethan. Ethan Bishop.”
I gasped. Words of shock rested on my lips half formed as Ethan’s words fell with disbelief upon my ears. Stunned, my eyes passed from the intruder’s white face to Wolfram’s.
“My God,” I managed.
Mein Gott,” Wolfram chorused in the language of his birth, his eyes dilating with astonishment.
In Ethan’s eyes, carefully hidden behind the hard eyes he had to show his father and brother, lay an honest soul, a good soul unhardened by the way of deceit, the way of Sanius. A hurting soul did I see, a soul in need. I saw this. Taking his arm, I helped him to his feet. His crushed hat had lain under him. Picking up the hat with my free hand, I conducted him to my bed.
Other than Ethan muttering he no longer subscribed to the ways of his father--the way of Sanius--he was silent. He knew reason for our near faint. He knew at mere mention the name Bishop we’d recoil, for he was the son of Lord Randolph Bishop. The most insidious sorcerer I’d ever known was again in our midst, his namesake was anyway.
Ethan was Lord Bishop’s child, meaning he had his father’s blood coursing through his veins, powerful blood, powerful lineage.
Drawing near, I could see his father’s features in his face, as if he’d been cast from same mold, only Ethan’s features were smooth, not fully developed, boyish.
Wolfram turned to me. “I just don’t know what to think about this. It’s so...”
“Bizarre,” I breathed, completing his ellipsis that contained the shock of the years we’d searched for his father.
Wolfram dropped a nod of agreement, his bangs falling into his eyes.
I laid a hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “So why did you come here? What do you hope to gain by telling us this?”
“I want to join you. I want to learn your ways. ...The way of Adjuvare.”
Did I hear that right? Could this be true? The son of my enemy seeks my counsel? Something about this was very wrong. A trick, it had to be a trick. Yet it couldn’t be.
An opium haze had engulfed us, or so it seemed. “Lord, this is like a dream.” I gestured at Ethan. “Here in our suite is the son of the very man we hunt.”
“And he wants to join us,” Wolfram added with a chuckle. “How do we know this is not a ruse.”
“Do you not feel my intentions?” Ethan’s brow rose. He turned from Wolfram’s face to mine. “Do you not discern that I am no threat to you? Do you think I have designs to bring you harm?”
We didn’t respond.
A shadow of contrition crossed Ethan’s face now. “I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I probably wouldn’t trust me either, considering my family’s constitution ...all the terrible things they’ve done. All the terrible things I’ve done.”
“How did you know where we’re staying?” I wanted to know this more than anything.”
Ethan didn’t immediately answer. He scratched his abdomen, eyes glassy, reflecting. “We saw you at the opera. And we followed you after the performance. After we had that run-in with you, I told my brother I wanted to walk alone, to think. I saw you walking down the boulevard toward your hotel. And I followed you.”
Knowing they had seen us and we hadn’t seen them was uncomfortable. But knowing Ethan had followed at such a close distance was disturbing.
The idea that he had stared up at my silhouette framed in my chamber window as he debated whether to enter added to the consternation.
“My father knows whenever you both get close.” This statement left his mouth with such suddenness it caught me off guard. “I see by the surprise on your faces you didn’t know that. That’s why you have never been able to get him. And he told my brother and me all about you. Where to find you. How you practice. We spotted both of you as you arrived in port. We would see the red and black hair all over town.” He gestured at me and then at Wolfram. “That’s how we know you. Not many Adjuvare sorcerers associate with Nequam sorcerers.”
Ethan was right about that. Most Adjuvare live pure, peaceful, honest lives to the glory of the Creator, helping the poor and the disadvantaged whenever and however possible--the commission of the Adjuvare. But I was not most Adjuvare. Nequam are irrepressible rogues with a singleness of purpose--hunt the creatures of the night. It’s something about the hard look in the unblinking eyes of the Nequam that distinguishes: fierce protector of the innocent and brutal slayer of the wicked.
All religions of the sorcerer have a text of magic that incorporate similar spells and incantations. Although the Nequam and the Adjuvare have different beliefs, the objective is the same: the use of white magic to help humankind.
Those who practice the way of Sanius--Lord Bishop’s religion--care not for anyone but themselves. They help and heal no one. They take what they want and kill any and all who attempt to stop them.
All immortal sorcerers memorize their chosen religions’ spells and incantations. And we all take the Aeternitas Elixir (Elixir of Life) on the full moon to render us immortal. But it’s what we do with our knowledge of the magical arts that defines us as good or evil.
Wolfram withdrew a sheet of cigarette paper and a pinch of tobacco from the pouch, laying the pinch in the center and rolling. Immersed in thought, he eased the cigarette up to his lips. “Ardesco.” He filled his lungs and let the smoke out slowly. Running fingers along the stitching of the black leather pouch, he asked, “And what will your father think when he discovers that you have betrayed him,” his head cutting through the soft curl of smoke to display a raised black eyebrow of curiosity. “Betrayed his beliefs.”
“I have not and will not betray my father; I love him. I just don’t accept his interpretation of the ways of the sorcerer. That’s all.”
Wolfram laughed soundlessly and blew smoke. “It’s not nearly that simple.”
My bed was covered with Ethan’s blood which was black and sticky on the gray coverlet. Ethan collected his shirt and coat and our gathering moved from my chamber to the salon, to a walnut settee. Wolfram lit a single candle, casting a feeble radiance on the table like a spilled jar of yellow watercolor, the rest of the salon draped in shadow. The candlelight carved out his prominent cheekbones, his features luminous like a figure in ivory.
I got dressed and Wolfram got dressed. Ethan ‘s clothes were covered in blood, so Wolfram lent a change to our houseguest, black from head to knee. The white blood-spattered boots gleamed against the black breeches. Looked very much the Nequam from knees up he did.
“I apologize for your stomach,” Wolfram said to Ethan as we took seat. There was no longer any noticeable mark on his body, owing to the Elixir’s healing power, but he felt it necessary to apologize.
Ethan turned to me. “And I apologize for Julian taking hold of your neck last evening.”
“Julian?” I questioned.
Ethan threw back a tuft of brown hair fallen in his eyes. “Julian’s my twin brother. And Bjorn is the blond one.” Ethan cleared his throat. “Bjorn and my brother are more alike than my brother and I. They are both vicious and ruthless. More so than my father. My father...he calls us Darklings.”
“Darklings?” Wolfram questioned with wrinkled brow.
Ethan nodded. “A gang of powerful sorcerers that make the night their realm like the Nequam.”
I shook my head. “A gang of white-clad sorcerers bent on death and destruction, you mean.
“It is what it is. But do not misunderstand. I make no excuse for them.” He looked off into the room and then back at me. “Because of the way they are, I am here. And because you are an Adjuvare, I am here.”
Wolfram crossed his legs, amazingly at ease. “So you’re here because you want to change your ways?”
“I’m determined to change my ways.”
I noticed a small shiny silver pin attached to the lapel of his coat crumpled at his feet. I took hold the coat, lifting to my lap. Plucking the pin from the coat, I rotated the pin in the light. Inscribed on a round face were the words Nec Aspera Terrent, Latin for Fear Not the Use of Brutality. I pointed to the pin. “What’s this supposed to be?”
I nodded with understanding. “Figures.”
“It’s supposed to counter the Nequams’ motto of ‘whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.’ ”
Wolfram didn’t respond. He merely shook his head with a frown.
With a cigarette between two fingers, Wolfram gestured at Ethan’s clothing. “Tell us about your father’s reason for dressing you in white,” a sprinkling of ashes falling at Wolfram’s bare feet. He must have been caught in the middle of undressing when he’d heard my screams rent the air. His wrinkled black shirt hung out over his black breaches. “The Nequam wear the color of night to blend into the night. But the color you wear...” motioning at Ethan.
“The white is supposed to be the antithesis of the Nequam. And my father doesn’t want the Darkling to blend in with the night like the Nequam. He wants us to stand out.”
“Brazenly stand out, you mean,” I added.
Wolfram’s lips parted exposing teeth. Whatever momentary humor he felt hardened at once with solemnity. “What does he hope to accomplish by organizing sorcerers such as your brother and Bjorn?”
“What does he hope to accomplish by organizing a gang?” I sat forward, giving Wolfram a sidelong glance.
Ethan received the question with sadness in his eyes. Lines of anguish creased his face now like a map of where he’d been, completely changing his appearance. Suddenly he looked older. “I told you I would not betray my father. I will not do anything that harms him.”
Wolfram heaved a loud sigh; the candle extinguished. Candle smoke wafted. It was pitch until the oil lamps on the street slowly seeped into the room. “You come to us for help, but you won’t give even the tiniest information in return.”
The inner turmoil was palpable. “You telling us what he’s planning won’t get him hurt.”
Ethan blinked at me.
“If anything, it will help keep us from taking him out for good.”
I picked up a long matchstick off a side table, struck it on the floorboard, the sharp crackle of the flame bursting to life (To this day, I love the sound of a match strike), and re-lit the candle. The redolence of sulfur thickened the air.
I drew near to Ethan and touched his bare chest. He drew back slightly in response to my cold fingers. “What I mean is, if we find out down the road that your father is doing something that is hurting people, we won’t hesitate taking him out. But if you tell us in advance, we can prevent him even starting, and thus save his life.”
Ethan gazed down at the street five stories below through the ironwork baluster on the balcony. “He’s assembling...”
A pregnant pause lingered in the air.
He stood up, turning with folded arms to the frosted window. “He’s assembling sorcerers that recognize the way of Sanius to go to America. Has a large financial interest in America tied to the British government maintaining control of the colony. He fears tensions could escalate and affect his business interests. Affect his profit. And he’s going to stop the colonists from rebelling.” Then as if to punctuate importance, he said us, “At any cost.”
Realizing the gravity of Ethan’s words, Wolfram’s and my eyes brushed past each other’s faces, exchanging shared concern, shared urgency.
Redirecting his attention from the window to me, Ethan said, “He’s gathering sorcerers and training them to be warriors--like the Nequam--to fight with the British. The British won’t know they’re sorcerers. They’ll just think they’re volunteers. Sorcerers that will fight the Americans and crush any talk of American freedom. And, if need be, kill those responsible.”
Everything was grist that came to Lord Bishop’s mill. Nothing was sacred to him. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to win. I knew what we had to do. We had to work in tandem to prevent him from aiding the British. France was the nursery where he grew these beasts--these demons in white--and we were resolved to put an end to it, here and now.
Ethan went on to say that his father had a château in Orléans.
Wolfram and I had our swords, having retrieved them from our suite. Ethan had but a dagger. I always felt more in control when in company of arms. I’d learned how to defend myself utilizing magic, but there’s just something comforting about having a long, shiny blade at my side.
Ethan knew Wolfram’s and my desire to right his father’s wrongs. He implored us not to hurt his father or his brother, saying they were all he had. His words tugged on my heart, for I am an Adjuvare--and the defining principle of the Adjuvare sorcerer is compassion. Yet, we knew what had to be done.
From where we were, hidden behind the evergreen trees that stretched out to make a perfect concealing screen, a singe road winded, twisted up a steep hill to the portal his château, over looking the Loire River, which slices through the center of Orléans. His château was actually a church, an abandoned Romanesque church, with an enormously high square bell tower that seemed to rise like a sinister spike into the clouds, as though to impugn the sanctity of the heavens with the evil of the Sanius. A great wall encircled the property, punctuated by an enormous heavy-forged iron gate. Rough-hewn stones stained with age made up the ancient façade of the church and the wall. Mortal guards walked the grounds, as did Darklings, their gleaming white garb. The guards, the Darklings, Lord Bishop, my desire, need, to kill him consumed me! All this was bane congruity!
“To defeat me you must first become me,” echoed in my head.
A gasp escaped my lips.
Wolfram turned to me.
“He knows we’re here,” I breathed.
Wolfram remained speechless as he looked at me fixedly with wide-open eyes.
Ethan turned and gazed off towards the compound.
Wolfram remained speechless.
I shook my head with astonishment.
Then Ethan, “He always knows...everything.”
With singleness of thought, and without saying a word, we three sprang into the air, landing within the compound, the austere courtyard. The moment we touched the ground, we were met by a sortie of sword-drawn fiends. Volley after volley of metal striking metal rang out like music, a symphony of clangs and clatters. A half-dozen Darklings were taking us on. I recognized Bjorn as the one fighting Wolfram. Receiving my wrath was a nameless face. Ethan was fighting his brother and a nameless. Julian was issuing obscenities between breaths, “Zounds you idiot! You worthless pile of shit! You miserable coward!” We each fought two or three guards as well. I was hit in the face hard. The impact launched me like a projectile onto the stone-topped lauze roof. I landed on my tailbone. I lay dazed seeing blue circles float across my closed eyelids. My eyes opened and I tried to climb backwards up the roof, my slipping feet sending tiles shooting off the roof into the snow. I jumped down and returned the blow, sending my opponent hurtling into the side of an apse. A sword swung at my hand by a new opponent, sending my sword somersaulting away. When I reached for it, he kicked it away. He drew near to finish me off. I dug into the snow, to the hard crusty earth. I threw a handful of rocks and dirt in his face, and kicked him away, allowing me to retrieve my sword.
This lasted for several minutes until the mortal guards were slain and lay in ghastly piles of tissue, blood, bone, fabric, as well as two Darklings. We were surely gaining the upper hand.
Then, amidst the bedlam, the words “tempestas nix!” filled my ears. It was a hard as steel voice I recognized as Lord Bishop’s. Instantly, a blast of bitterly cold wind and snow swept through the courtyard. We stood our ground until the force became too powerful, and were carried away into the abyss.
When I opened my eyes, we were in what appeared to have been a wine seller at one time. It was now a sorcerer’s studio, presumably Bishop’s, nestled deeply in the earth, presumably beneath the church, the cellar more ancient than the above church. I sat up, eyes half open, and took a look about the room, at the intercourse of light, stone and shadow. I was hunting, in my dazed state, for a breach in this impenetrable prison. We were each seated in chairs carved from solid oak, Wolfram and I, padded with carmine velvet cushions. Drops of water seeping out of the stone walls hemming us in like a dungeon looked like beads of gold above the wrought-iron candelabrums. The room contained a table supporting our swords and empty bookcases. A fire burned in a deep fireplace carved crudely into a stone wall. Open crates and chests were scattered throughout, presumably for the voyage across the Atlantic.
There were two backs to us warming to the fire’s heat, one immensely tall and wide figure with dark bushy hair dressed in puce contrasting the brown haired tall and lean figure in white.
Years seemed to pass imprisoned in those chairs.
I realized that I hadn’t tried to move. I attempted to stand up. I wanted to stand up. All but my head was as immovable as stone. Wolfram was on my left in a trance of some sort, what I must have been in before I snapped out of it. “Wolfram!” I whispered. His eyes cracked open. His head tossed back and then forward as though drunk.
The two figures turned to us.
“We have awaken,” said the larger of the two.
The smaller one grinned despicably.
“Where’s Ethan? What have you done with him?” As I spoke it seemed the walls breathed and moved, delirium threatening, the ground shifting beneath my feet. The room was a wave of flowing stones. I closed my eyes. We were under the influence of a spell. “What have you done with Ethan?” I repeated, opening my eyes.
Just as I began to ask the question for the third time, the door opened. Ethan entered carrying a tray of glasses and a wine bottle. He set the tray on the table.
“Ethan?” I fumbled with the word like it was cold to the touch.
“Yes,” Lord Bishop smiled, “the prodigal son has returned.”
I couldn’t believe it. Had he deceived us? God, no, he couldn’t have. I felt the sinking feeling of having been violated. Then the thought that I am too much like elder Adjuvare coursed through my head--giving people the benefit of the doubt, believing there is good in the worst of people, that all people no matter their transgressions are reachable.
Ethan filled a glass with wine and handed it to his father. I remember focusing on the dark fluid in the glass and thinking it looked like tar. I wanted to reach out and touch the glass, feel the smooth, rounded shape, dip a finger into it to see if it was thick and sticky like tar. Bishop took a drink and his eyes fell upon me. He put the glass down. Ethan laid a hand on his father’s back and leaned over as if to speak to him, but was waved away. Ethan placed the bottle and the glass on the table and left the room with the tray tucked under an arm. As he was leaving the room, he took a last mournful glance, or at least I thought it was mournful, at Wolfram and me before he vanished into the narrow stone stairwell. I closed my eyes. The image of his dark orbs was vividly burned on my brain like coal afire. Pity was his glance, what one gives the condemned before put to death.
I opened my eyes.
When Lord Bishop spoke, no matter the number of voices near, it seemed there was no one else speaking. There was something about his voice that forced you listen, commanded you take head. It was effrontery, the earth trembling in his presence. His enormous size and his powerful voice were intimidating. And he knew it. He knew how to use it to his advantage. His very presence always sent revulsion coursing through my veins like lava, hot anger, a feeling of intense anger.
Bishop leaned over me now, a great beast towering over its prey before it gobbles it up. “Did you really think my son would revolt against his father?” He straightened up, then, with his hands loosely clasped behind him, moved about the room, thinking out of loud. “Did you really think you could use him to get to me? Did you really think you could defeat me? I see by the look in your eyes that you did. You delude yourself.” His words thrown into sharp relief, I turned my head from him genuinely hurt. I’d placed a margin of trust in Ethan. A margin of trust is a lot for me. I’d believed him, his desire to change, his ardent plea to help him change his ways. And it was all a lie.
A hard pain began in my stomach, inching up to my heart, traveling all the way to my larynx and eyes. I felt the tears building again. Have to push them down, I told myself. Push them down deep. But it was no use. Tears began down my face, and I sniffed back more. It wasn’t a full on cry, but it was enough for Lord Bishop to take notice.
His thick wooly eyebrows rose. Laughter the song of heartless demons passed his lips.
I tried to reach up to wipe my face, but my arms wouldn’t budge. They were frozen to the armrests. I did my best to reach out and strike Bishop. In my periphery, I saw that Wolfram also struggled against the unseen restraints. He was a flame in the corner of my eye, a flickering black tongue of fire.
Bishop reached up dragging a hand across his lantern-jawed chin, features so strong they seemed chiseled out of stone. “I didn’t realize...” he began with a lengthening grin,” that I could move with my speeches. Perhaps I should run for elected office.” He laughed again at the mere suggestion.
A hand of realization caught me by the throat, stopping the tears. “You’re responsible for the murder of my apprentice,” I burst out in a fevered state. “You’re responsible for the murder of children, you bastard! Innocent children!” The words jumped out of the very depths of my being, the ascent like some red-hot force that tore from my lips. “God knows how many other innocent people you hurt or killed.”
“A tragic monologue,” Lord Bishop sighed.
I fought the unseen restraints. Straining to stand up. Groaning. Enraged. “Why don’t you let me up and fight me like a man. You coward!”
Julian scurried over to me. “Easy, kitten,” he grinned patting my arm. His smile twisted into a frown as he forcefully pulled my head back by the hair and put the cold blade of his dagger up to my bare throat. “Shall I do it now, Father?” His eyes flashed. His throat, full of excitement, told of sweltering hate and ridicule.
“No...Ethan will do it.”
At this moment there came a knock at the door that sounded like the knuckles of a large fist thrown up against thick oak boards. Julian dropped my head to answer the door, my hair loosening out of the tie and bouncing forward into my face. I shook my hair out of my face. A guard came in and asked Bishop a question about estate business. Bishop grunted, “No, no, I’ll take care of it.” With a gesture, he bade his son follow. They all left the room, but first Julian locked the door. I remember hearing the grinding of key in lock and the thumb of the bolt.
We struggled against the force that restrained us, but it was no use. The spell had us securely moored to the chairs. I felt the resignation creeping in, delivered into the hands of my immortal enemy.
What happen next was fluid and fast.
Just as I began to give myself over wholly to doom, I heard someone try the locked door, the jiggle of the handle. Then Ethan crashed through the door, sending splintered wood flying in every direction. This had a jolting effect, a snapping awake.
He wasted no time. He hurried up to us and said, “Up!” as if his power enough would release us.
He backed up and moved frantically about the room, overturning crates, rummaging through chests. He was searching for the Sanius spell book.
I spotted it. “The far chest,” gesturing to the right with my head.
He picked up the huge leather-bound text. He unfastened the straps, threw open the cover, and began thumbing madly through the pages. Flustered, “Where is it, where is it?” Then, “Here it is.” Upon examining the page, he began reciting the words. Instantly, it felt as though a pile of stones had been lifted off my chest and shoulders. Wolfram and I sat up and tried to stand up, but we both fell to the flagstone, weak.
That was when they returned.
In a force equivalent to a hurricane, Lord Bishop, Julian, Bjorn and two others, as well as three mortal guards, stormed into the room. Each drew his sword. They made a triangle around us. Ethan drew his sword, striking down two of the guards. One would punch Ethan right as another punched him left. One would slug him left as another slugged him right. Ethan made a last swing, and then Julian and Lord Bishop grabbed an arm and slammed him against a wall.
I sprang to my feet, grabbed my sword from the table.
Bjorn spoke dark poisonous words, his hands weaving a spell in the air, sending me hurling into the stone wall. He lunged at me ready to strike. But Wolfram caught him in the arm with his blade before he could make it to me. Bjorn raised his sword, thrust to the left, slicing Wolfram across the leg. Bjorn swung again. He severally injured Wolfram in the stomach, then backed up with a glow of triumph.
Wolfram staggered, fell to his knees, then collapsed into a wall.
Ethan, quite unexpectedly, broke free of his captors. I thought Wolfram was done for, but Ethan felled Bjorn’s blade with his own, to the start of Bjorn.
The world waited in breathless suspension for a response from Lord Bishop. For a moment, father and son’s eyes were locked in mutual, yet polar disbelief, Ethan, shock at what he was doing, Lord Bishop, shock at what his son was doing.
I had taken Julian on, but when Ethan broke free, Julian focused his attention on his twin, and I Bjorn.
He punched me in the face. I drew breath and kicked him in the chest, sending him into the fireplace, his coat taking the fire. Overcome with smoke, he stumbled into an empty bookcase, the dry wood pilfering flames, spreading up to the timber beams. He started smacking the flames out on his sleeves. When extinguished, he set his sights on me, sword at the ready.
Julian and Ethan were engaged in a bloody battle. Both had severe cuts to their torsos and limbs.
I turned to engage Bjorn. Just as I did, Bishop threw some kind of blinding powder at me. I began swinging my sword wildly, madly. A thrust cut into my arm. I released a cry of pain. I was able to wipe enough of the powder out of my eyes to restore partial sight. Blood pumped through my exterminates, adrenaline surging as Bjorn swung a fist at my face. I lost grip of my sword. I drew my dagger and sliced into his jugular.
At the exact moment Bjorn slumped to the floor, Julian cut into Ethan with a force that almost took off his head.
“No!” I screamed. I felt the wind leave my chest, that terrible spike in the gut.
Julian paused taking in what he’d done, then crossed the room to me.
Bishop moaned deep in his throat like an injured animal and flung himself at his now lifeless son’s side. His hair loosened out of the tie and fell into his face. Ethan lay sprawled out, a macabre figure, swathed in his own blood, his hair matted, stuck to his face. The anguish his father felt spilled out of his eyes. He held Ethan’s head up and brushed the hair out of his face.
“He loved you!” I cried to Julian. “You heartless monster!” He was blind to what he’d done and ignorant of his father’s agony. This energized me. I kicked at him then swung at his face, cutting into his pathetic visage. As he collapsed beside his brother, I stood panting as his eyes rolled over to me. He tried to raise his hand but it fell hard like lead. I hovered over him ready to strike. His head lifted, his chest heaving, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Then he fell motionless. I stood over him still, lest he rise out of the shadows like Lazarus.
Only then did I stop to catch my breath. I was expecting Bishop to fly at me enraged. Yet, he had positioned himself between his two sons. His Head bowed; a hand rested on each chest. He released the most heartrending supplications I’d ever heard.
I was taken back by Lord Bishop’s mourning as Ethan and Julian’s stream of crimson life widened about their bodies.
I knew this the perfect opportunity to take him out in his moment of weakness as he knelt there as if positioned for the guillotine. I approached. I lifted my blade. I swung up and...froze, blade suspended in the air. Something within me hesitated. A voice inside my head now said, Show him the compassion he didn’t show you. Give him his Life. Have mercy upon him. Help him. I lifted the blade again, ready to end it once and for all and...froze. Lord Randolph Bishop wailed gutturally, with no thought or care of me. I stumbled backwards and into a chair. I knew those tears. I knew the sickness that plagued his heart. “God, I hate this,” I muttered, raking fingers through my damp mane. “Why does it always have to come to this? Why do we have to kill each other? Is this victory? Is this how it always has to end?”
At this moment I understood Bishop’s words “to defeat me, you must first become me.” To defeat him, I must become filled with mindless rage, and act on that rage. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. I threw my sword down.
All around us lay bodies. All around us lay death.
The studio was rapidly filling with fire. Smoke was billowing along the ceiling. My clothes were blackened and singed.
“We have to get out of here,” Wolfram choked, struggling to rise, groaning to fall on his face.
Coughing and coughing, a hand up to my face, eyes narrowing against the smoke, feeling the moisture building in them, burning in them. Again I motioned to Bishop with my sword. The searing heat was an animal nearing to devour not only me but everyone in the room. I wanted to strike him down--yet I felt sorry for him. I slid my sword into its scabbard. “We have to get out of here,” I yelled at the grieving Bishop. He was sobbing, immersed in grief. He didn’t even look up, sobbing. I dropped and crawled over to Wolfram. He was too weak to get to his feet. And I was too prostrated with exhaustion to pick him up. All I could do was drag him by the arms.
Choking, I ascended the smoky stairwell with Wolfram, stumbling and falling on a stone step. A warm rivulet of blood ran down my leg. The door wouldn’t open. Mustering all my strength, I kicked open the door. A sucking draft drew the flames to us, the prickly heat at our backs.
Once out of the château, I lay Wolfram beside a tree. I started to go back to get Bishop when the roof caved in. Flaming fragments of the church and sparks like so many demons escaping hell shot up into the sky. I could hear the faint hissing of those demons falling back into the snow.
That was it. No sorcerer could have survived that.
Wolfram came to and we limped down the hill. We found a spot to our liking and lay in the snow to watch the blaze consume the church, a great body of purification.
If I said I was stunned that a son of Lord Bishop would come to us at our suite and plead help, then later race into his father’s cellar to rescue us, it wouldn’t even come close to what I felt. My lips parted to speak, to frame words, but nothing came out. Wolfram shook his head in private reflection, his hair falling down into his face to make a veil.
I can’t say how long we lay watching the place burn.
Streaks of crimson and violet were breaking over the horizon when we finally picked ourselves up and left for our hotel, where Wolfram and I collapsed into deep slumber.
We returned the following evening. We had to see that broken, burned wine cellar, that collapsed bell tower. The church/château was now nothing but a pile of ash, partially burned wood, and scorched stone. A few crumbling walls remained standing. A few skeletal beams jabbed at the sky like spikes. Three mortal guards still gripped staves. Their mouths were open wide in frozen screams, screams of pain. They looked like they belonged in one of Francis Bacon’s ghastly paintings. Several bodies I believed were Darklings still clutched hilts. All were charred beyond recognition. Frozen with death, they looked like hideous mannequins. I lifted blackened beams searching for more, but there were none.
“He’s dead.” Wolfram came up behind me, laying a hand of friendship on my shoulder--my companion, my eternal companion. “No one could have survived that inferno unless they’d limped out with us. Even sorcerers as old as they were.”
I knew he was right, yet I was still plagued by confusion. I’d been searching for this man for so long; I didn’t know how to live a normal life. What is normal anyway, especially to one who will live forever?
It seemed impossible that the long search had ended--so impossible. But it was true. My roots grasped a new soil. I finally could let go of the past. I had that elusive peace.
© 2004 by William Henry. I live in Irving, TX, with Mojo, my black Labrador retriever. I've authored several short stories and a novel. I write about five hours a day, working mostly on my second novel. My first is entitled The Ways of the Sorcerer and is due out at the end of May or the beginning of June with Treble Heart Books http://www.trebleheartbooks.com. The Darkling is a novelette that I'm expanding into the second novel with many of the same characters from the first book.