Blaise flew on enchanted wings; the head of the wizard order sped through clouds, holding the magical sword, Caledfwlch, in front of him. He had twenty minutes to reach a small warehouse downtown in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Fifteen hundred kilometers left.
“Fenri’ri’anae’ona’tamcha!” A hole opened in front of him, a strange entity hanging in the sky. He passed through it, taking him from over coastal India to New Zealand’s eastern tip. Five kilometers left.
He pushed for more speed. He had gotten the distress sign twenty minutes before from his apprentice, Vilamur. A sonic boom erupted behind him, tracking water droplets from the feet of his cloak. Two kilometers.
He sensed the screams. Then, he was slowing, crashing through a roof window. His wings dissipated into the air. He landed, his sandaled feet touching the ground. It was dark.
He raised an arm and tiny orbs entered existence near the roof, casting their light into the warehouse.
There was Vilamur, crucified. Blood dripped from his right lip, and he caught his master’s eye. Blaise was a wrinkled, tiny man adorned in rags with hair that fell to his feet. ‘Old’ would not account from this man, a spindly stick. “Vilamur, what has happened?” he said quickly, not waiting for nonsense. His voice was the billowing of thunder.
The small, brown man looked up at his master. “I’m sorry, master Blaise. They made me call you,” and before he could say anything else a bullet erupted from the back of Vilamur’s head, its path almost striking the old man.
Blaise whirled, facing the dark around him. “You kill my order,” he shouted. “You try and trap my might?” The bellows echoed around the warehouse. “Well, come and die!”
And they did come.
Fifteen men, dressed in body armor and fatigues. Instead of guns they carried swords: rapiers, scimitars, longswords, broadswords, claymores, and some of a make Blaise didn’t recognize.
“Master Blaise, how nice of you to come,” said one of them. Blaise didn’t care.
“Caledfwlch, burn and prepare for battle,” Blaise said, and the sword gripped in his bony hands caught aflame. Tension and heat brought sweat to his brow.
This was the fourth apprentice he’d found in such a state in three weeks.
These, clearly the men responsible. “Who are you?”
“We’re the order of the Grail, master Blaise, and our lady demands the blood of wizards.”
“Morgose,” he hissed. “Very well, I challenge all of you to combat.” Some of the men laughed. They were knights, real knights, each and every one. “State your names, blaggards!”
“You insult us, wizard?” spat a man holding a claymore. “I am sir Delany!”
They announced themselves one by one, Blaise barely listening. Finally it came to Blaise.
“I am the Wizard Blaise, first among Mages, carrier of Avalos’s keys, keeper of the Fates, master of the orders. Let us combat, cowards.” His mind saw only Vilamur’s head exploding outward.
Blaise charged before they even had a chance to move. One moment he was standing in the glow of werelight, the next everything was pitch black save for the burning sword.
It lit horrified faces, protruded from jaws and chests, leveled heads from their shoulders. One moment it was so clearly in front of the Knights of the Grail, then it was behind and someone was screaming.
Swords struck the ground as they’re owners arms were separated from their bodies. You could hear the swish of raggedy robes passing by you, brushing your clothes, and would check to see if you were still breathing.
Blood begot blood, and death begot death. None survived, save for a single, tired old man. He looked like a beggar except that he carried a sword. It looked like a normal day, except for the warehouse burning behind him and the bloody footprints his sandals left as he walked.
For a second he thought he heard something, but decided he hadn’t.
Arthur slept in an unfamiliar cot, or tried to sleep. The rest of the round table meeting had been uneventful. All had agreed that too much had been done for a single night, yet as the young man laid awake, realizations slipping across him — magic-real, gunman-after-him, wizard-rickshaw — one thought, a particular image, kept recurring.
The eyes of Moriarty Holmes: one green and glimmering, the other a dead black, like pitch. His fingers darted among themselves, head oscillating back and forth, sometimes rapid, other times slow, as he thought in silence, never speaking a word.
Had Arthur really created him?
It had felt like all that the man was had funneled out of him, into the white-aproned lifeless vessel; yet Arthur knew nothing of Moriarty Holmes, only able to hold in his mind the vague imprint of a person, a brief overview of the whole, a snake and a falcon smashing against each other.
Arthur knew he had heard something then. He forced his eyes open. In the dark was a single, lively gleam leaning over him. “Hello, Arthur,” said a voice. He recognized it.
“Moriarty,” replied the tired young man, overcoming his initial surprise. “What are you doing?”
The single glittering iota studied him. “I need to speak with you.” The iota backed away - the man straightening, Arthur realized. “Would you mind if I sat?”
“Go ahead, I guess.” Arthur felt something settle down at the end of the cot, squeaking the old springs and dipping the surface inward. “What’s up?”
“Besides you, about forty or so things,” he answered. “But I won’t trouble you with most of them.” Arthur’s brow creased.
“Alright, what’s up that you are going to trouble me with?” Arthur began to wonder why Moriarty had come to speak only with him, alone.
“First, I wanted to ease your mind on a simple matter, then unease it on a more complex few.” The one glimmering eye oscillated in the night. Moriarty waited for Arthur to respond, he didn’t. “I’ve finished reading Sir Thomas Malory’s book,” he continued, “Le Morte D’Arthur.” Arthur hadn’t even though of reading the book. He reddened, feeling ashamed that an activity that important had been put off because of the tome’s size.
“Wait, you read it all,” Arthur said, “tonight?”
“In the last few hours.”
“How do you draw breath, Arthur? How do you walk? I learn. I plan. I study. I conclude,” said the oscillating head, moving faster as he spoke. “It is the way of things.”
“Alright, and what did you find?”
“Do you speak French?” Arthur was startled by the randomness of the question.
“I studied Spanish.”
“Really? No Latin or Portuguese?”
“Hey, I work hard in my classes,” retorted Arthur, growing hot.
“I never said otherwise. In any case, have you considered the title of the book?” Arthur hadn’t, and Moriarty didn’t wait for a reply. “It means ‘The Death of Arthur.’”
The words hung in the air. “King Arthur didn’t die though. I mean, not until after a long reign,” Arthur managed to stutter the words out; Chill rode up his spine.
“Yes, but he dies at the hands of his enemies in the end.”
Arthur shook his head. “Why did you come in here to tell me this?”
“Because, boy, he dies as the result of grave betrayals.” Arthur thought quickly: Hector, Moriarty, Merlin. Who was there to betray him? He didn’t trust any of them, except Merlin, maybe, but…
“So you’re going to betray me? Now?” Arthur braced himself.
Moriarty laughed, a raspy chuckling sound. “Heavens no. I couldn’t if I wanted to.” Couldn’t?
“Why? Is that what you’ve come to reassure me about?”
“Astute of you,” he said. “Yes, these marks on my wrist are more than titles. They are shackles.”
“I didn’t ask you or anyone to do any of this!” Arthur shouted.
“Keep your voice down,” Moriarty hissed. “And I never said you did. I wouldn’t exist if not for you.” Arthur blinked hard, tears had started to come again.
“What do you mean then?”
The head’s oscillations slowed. “I mean that they are preventatives, Arthur. I could not hurt or betray you even if it were my fondest wish.” Arthur wondered if it was.
“How do you know this?” Arthur asked.
“I spoke with Merlin.” Again, Arthur was confused.
“Why didn’t Merlin tell me?” It would, after all, be something he’d like to know.
“You didn’t ask; in any case,” continued Moriarty, “I don’t trust him.”
“Ah,” said Moriarty. His head stopped moving, the gleam focused on Arthur’s position in the dark. “Now that is quite the question.” Arthur waited for an answer.
“Okay, again, why?”
“Because before Merlin served Arthur, he served someone else,” said Moriarty. “And if he has the marks on his wrists, like myself, he will be hard pressed to betray this other person.” Arthur’s mouth was dry. He wondered how long it had been since he’d had anything to drink.
“So what?” said Arthur; but it was a futile gesture.
“So, he isn’t necessarily serving you.” With that Moriarty rose and the sound of steps came as he walked toward the door. Arthur was stunned. “Food for thought, Arthur,” he said, and went out the door, shutting it softly behind him.
Mrs. Vole’s emotional state was in shambles.
As she made her way down the purple and teal hallway, friendly colors for the children, she caught herself staring at last week’s art projects. Her boys and girls had had a joy making them, and she’d lovingly taped their pictures onto the walls, all the while telling them how proud she was.
Now she passed that same hall, each lopsided house and discolored building haunting her steps.
Mrs. Vole shut her eyes tight, but the tears snuck past. Maybe she would see her kids again one day, when this was all over.
She could only blame herself, really. After all, her master had said that war was coming; that it would just be a matter of time.
Now, coming in a new unfamiliar march, war had arrived. This wasn’t a war of ideology or countries. This was a war being waged on her.
And she had nearly thrust her wards in the crossfire.
As she turned at the end of the hall, she heard scuffling and finally opened her eyes, which were still blurred with tears, her spectacles misty. Men in masks were what she saw, one of them balled up on the the ground, sucking in breath and clutching at his arm; broken, she guessed. Four of them pinned Boris down against the wall; another three had Vivian cornered by the exit. Oddly, the ones guarding her weren’t getting too close, which confused Mrs. Vole until she caught the glint of metal in the young woman’s hands.
She let herself wander over the scene, getting a feel for it. The conflict had chipped some of the red paint from Eve’s drawing of a squirrel, which the little angel had been particularly proud of. In addition, many others were being crumpled or damaged, especially where Boris was struggling wildly.
Apparently too preoccupied, no one had noticed the old woman with the stuffed paisley handbag. Good, she had surprise. Mrs. Vole noiselessly lowered the bag to the floor, freeing her hands. Delicately, she took off her glasses and hung them on the front of her shirt.
War was at the gates.
Vivian was the first to notice the old woman’s arrival. “Why are you just standing there?” Vivian cried, jabbing her knife at a man who’d tried to inch nearer.
Some of the men stole quick glances over their shoulders, but were too concerned with their work to care about Mrs. Vole.
What a terrible mistake. She raised her hands like a puppeteer, and in her mind’s eye she wasn’t wearing frilly clothes any more, but a green military uniform patched with a Union Jack on its sleeve.
Her head tilted so that her brow almost hid her eyes; she was too offended by the sight in front of her to continue watching.
Mrs. Vole spoke. “You think you can do just about anything, Uthor. Oh, how far you’ve come from your bedwetting days.”
The man on the floor looked up at the mention of Uthor. “I bear the mark of his highness, and you will give him his due respect.” Mrs. Vole sniffed. She hated lackeys.
Boris started freeing an arm, but his oppressors shifted in time to keep him held. “And who might you be?” asked Mrs. Vole.
“Sir Waites, The Landsman.” Vivian swung again, landing a glancing blow.
“Well then, sir Waites.” She raised her arms high, splaying out her palms and curling her fingers upward. “Allow me educate you about his highness’s limitations.” She balled them into fists and throttled the air.
All around the room came the sound of unpleasant cracking and gurgling accompanying the breaking of necks. Heads dangled at awkward angles. Bodies thrashed wildly; hands searched for their owner’s windpipes, hoping to clear whatever was stopping air from entering their lungs. The man on the floor, the only one to be spared, tossed his head back and forth in horror. Mrs. Vole twisted her hands more.
The four holding Boris slumped to the ground; so did the men guarding Vivian. Each and every one of them, dead.
Beneath his mask sir Waites’s eyes widened. Mrs. Vole moved toward him, and he tried to inch away. He failed, recoiling on the pain of his broken arm. Boris and Vivian wordlessly stared.
Aberdeen Vole loomed tall over sir Waites. He shut his eyes. She bent over him. “Please inform his highness that he’s chosen the wrong war.” He nodded, trying, and failing, to shield his face with his good arm. “Inform Uthor that Aberdeen Vole is coming,” she whispered. “And she intends to bring ruination down upon his head.” She exhaled and turned away. Sir Waites was breathing shallowly. “Miss Bracht, please get my bag. Mr. Gant, the car.”
They obeyed, and soon the three were speeding down the road.
After a while, Boris, without looking at her, asked “What the fuck was that?”
Aberdeen Vole had fought in wars, the experience building instincts into her, like run, dodge, fall back, or fight. Though her body had aged, her mind was a keen edge.
The instincts of war erupted through her. She needed time to consider.
“Valen drial’timo-tey!” she shouted, and the world around her rapidly slowed; then, it came almost to a stop. An invisible vice wrapped itself around her head, squeezing slowly as the energies needed to maintain the spell began to drain. She was unable to move, forced to stare at the horrifying thing in front of her.
Vivian was behind her on the left, and Boris on the right.
The vice began to tighten, and Mrs. Vole felt the pressures rise — her eyes bulged.
She’d faced tanks and men with guns, even minor entities with varying skill in the magical arts, but this was unknown. It felt raw, the very antithesis of what magic should be. Yes, it was certainly magical, or perhaps anti-magical. Her master would have known what to do.
The overexertion threatened to break her, but she pressed on.
She examined her options: fight or flee. Reaching through her soul, she tried to pick out a location to take her and her allies.
She remembered the children.
No, flight was no choice at all. She abandoned her search Leaving this…this shadow man with the children was not an option, but neither was fighting. What if one of her wards were caught in the mayhem. She would never forgive herself.
There was one choice left: move the children, but the power needed for that would leave her stranded in the orphanage with the shadow man, and she’d barely be able to put up a defense.
The pressure was about to destroy her.
Mrs. Vole decided on her course: send the children to safety and hope she would survive.
The old woman released the spell, instantly relieving the pressure and slipping her back into the normal flow of time.
She began to hastily murmur, focusing her intent.
“Where is Boris Gant? Ah, is this Boris Gant?” hissed the shadow man, still soaking in the darkness all about the room. Mrs. Vole kept murmuring.
“Who wants to know?” Boris asked, his voice unsteady.
The spell was done, and Mrs. Vole felt the power escape her, rendering her exhausted from the strain. The children were safe.
It was time to take control.
“Leave, beast. I demand that you leave at once!” shouted the old woman, surprised by the wash of vitality that swept over her as ballooned with rage.
The shadow man gave a shuddering laugh.
“I’ll leave when my work is done,” he replied. The voice was American, its normality grating against the speaker’s nature.
“What work?” she demanded.
“Murdering you all. I’ve been asked to find Boris Gant, and I have. I’ve been asked to leave no loose ends, and I don’t.” Mrs. Vole heard Vivian moving behind her.
Suddenly, the air held a storm of knives.
They came from and around Mrs. Vole’s left shoulder, heading straight toward the shadow man, where they disappeared into the wispy darkness, and were quickly met with the sounds of impacts.
The shadow-man grunted.
“That,” he said, “just put you on top of my list.” Once again, instinct took over, and Mrs. Vole knew what was coming.
Her arm shot in front of her, dropping her bag as it went. “Praenaut!” She had been just in time. Knives with shadows dripping across their blades and hilts flew out from the shadow man, heading straight for Vivian, but they didn’t find their target.
Blades struck an unseen barrier a meter in front of the old woman’s hand, embedding themselves in its surface. Mrs. Vole released her power’s hold, causing the knives to fall.
“Well, well, well,” cooed the shadow man. “Looks like we’ve got a contender.”
“Yeah, enough. Shut it,” said Boris, and Mrs. Vole wondered what he was thinking.
“Fine!” replied the shadow man, laughing wildly. He leapt from the door, charging at Boris. Vivian moved almost instantly toward the now unguarded exit. Mrs. Vole followed her example.
Boris fluidly moved left, avoiding the shadow-man’s charge, who went straight through the chair before stopping and whirling once again toward its target. What was left of the chair was shredded beyond recognition.
“I am the rock, and I cannot feel,” he shouted. It whipped out an arm that stretched toward Boris’s head, its shape becoming scythe-like.
Boris allowed himself to fall backward off his feet, again escaping, but hit hard against the floorboards. Vivian was now directly in the line of the shadow man’s attack.
The scythe hit her left palm, and the young woman yelled in pain so loudly that it took Mrs. Vole a second to notice the other cry. The much deeper cry —the shadow-man’s cry.
Cracks of light, so hot that Mrs. Vole could feel it from where she was standing, formed along the scythe, extending quickly along its length. Soon, it reached the shadow man, covering him in the cracks.
As the cracks seemed about to replace all the darkness, the shades lifted from him, exploding outward, disappearing into the air like an aerosol spray.
The shadow man, now just a man, really, was launched into the far wall, slamming against it. He twitched and began to rise, then slouched. Despite this, he started trying again.
Mrs. Vole turned her attention to her allies. Vivian’s palm was stained red, but not with blood. It had been as if she’d colored ink into her skin. She was holding her palm tightly in her other hand, the shock of the pain working about her features, flexing her jaw and blinking away water from her eyes.
She was hurt very badly, it would seem, and Mrs. Vole admired the young woman’s ability to keep herself under control.
“Boris, Vivian,” said Mrs. Vole, realizing they might not have long. “We must leave; this is no opponent for us as we are.” Boris lifted himself quickly off the ground, never taking his eyes of the shadow man, who was starting to regain his bearing.
“No shit,” said the cremator.
“I saw you had a car. We’ll use that,” said the old woman, “you lead, miss Bracht and I shall follow.”
Boris knew better than to argue when the whole world stopped making sense. He ran out the door first. Vivian followed, stopping at the door to look back. “Coming?” Mrs. Vole held back.
“Be a dear and have mister Gant pull the car up front,” Mrs. Vole said. Vivian looked once at the shadow man, nodded at Mrs. Vole, and took off behind her partner.
The old woman leaned over, taking her time, and picked up her bag. She placed it gingerly on the desk. The shadow man groaned. Mrs. Vole fished out a small, green gem, which had been loose in the bottom of the bag, and studied it closely. “This will do nicely, I think.”
“I’ll,” said the shadow man, but stopped, unable to finish.
“Yes, dear?” asked Mrs. Vole.
“I’ll turn your bones to gravestones,” he spat. Its contents had a reddish hue.
“Of course you will,” said the old woman in a motherly way, and with that held up the gem between her thumb and forefinger, pointing it at the would-be killer. “Flentia.” The gem shot out like it had been fired from a gun, imbedding itself deeply in the shadow-man’s gut. He gagged and flexed, grabbing his wound. “Of course you will,” she repeated.
And with that Mrs. Vole took her bag and left the shadow man to his writhing.
The stretched feeling faded almost the instant it had come leaving both Boris and Vivian dazed; it had been roughly like seeing a new colour.
“What the fuck was that?” Boris muttered groggily.
“That was me leveling the playing field, mister Gant,” replied Mrs. Vole. At the sound of his name Boris jumped, or would have, if something weren’t keeping everything below his neck from moving. This woman, whoever she was, had far superior resources and intelligence than the dossier had lead Boris to believe.
He swiveled field of vision, hoping to find that Vivian had gotten free and was about to make confetti out the old bird; unfortunately, his partner was in much the same state as him. He wondered how much of a liability she would be, now that she knew his last name. “Also, mister Gant,” Mrs. Vole continued, “please do watch your language. There are children scuttling about everywhere.” The look she gave Boris was comically stern, especially when he remembered he was in an orphanage.
“And how,” asked Vivian, “have you leveled this field?”
Mrs. Vole grinned widely, revealing gums and teeth too healthy for her age. “I have discovered that I do not need to — necessarily — kill you like the last few.” Tiny things began connecting in Boris’s mind with her words, giving him the sensation - then the realization - that something had eluded him. Something was not right with this assignment, something that didn’t quite sync. But that all depended on what the old bird meant by ‘last few.’
He needed to be sure.
“The last few?” Boris said.
“Yes, you are the fifth team that has been sent after me,” answered the old woman, “but I think I won’t have to dispense with you just yet or maybe ever, if you act sensibly.” The way she said think made Boris’s momentarily relief run out.
“And why might that be?” said Vivian.
“Ah, miss Bracht! You’ll have to thank your friend, mister Gant, for this good turn.” Boris memorized the name, in case he needed to use it. Gant for Bracht: he could make a trade of secrecy, maybe not have to kill her.
“Sorry, what I do?”
“You, unlike your predecessors, have knowledge which will allow us to converse on a,” she thought, “more reasonable and common ground.”
“And where does the path of this ‘common ground’ lead?” demanded Vivian, which made Boris worry that she would go into hysterics and get them both killed.
“That will be for you each to decide on your own — once you’ve gotten the gist of things of course.”
As a rule, Boris hated circling around the point; he wanted to charge in and get things done — or set them on fire. “Alright, transmit the gist.”
“Most equitable of you. Let us begin by understanding that we have mutual knowledge,” said Mrs. Vole in a lecturing tone that she might have to explain something trivial to a child. “I know that you and your predecessors are employed by the Goruiren corporation.” Vivian laughed. “What’s all this dear?”
“Then your information is wrong,” she said. “We are never told who employs us; it’s part of the contract!” Boris wanted to slap her. The ‘common ground’ may be they stood on to keep themselves alive. Spoiling it did no one any favors.
Then, he registered what the old bird had just said. The connections in his mind completed, moving faster and toward an inevitable conclusion.
“Ah, but look at your comrade’s face there, miss Bracht.” She did, becoming confused by Boris’s look of frowning concentration.
“What about it?”
“He,” replied Mrs. Vole, “knows that I am correct.” She dipped her chin to indicate Boris’s direction; Vivian looked again, studying her partner’s features more carefully, perhaps looking for denial somewhere inside them, but finding nothing but his stony face guarding his thoughts.
“Is this true, Boris?” Vivian asked hesitantly. There was silence for a stretch of time where everyone watched Boris expectantly. Finally, he snapped out of his thoughts, having reached the logical destination and felt he’d adequately considered the options.
“Yes, that is the truth,” Boris said. Something about his thoughts made his tone go very grave. He felt like all all of him wasn’t quite there. Could he even go back to the Crematorium after this?
“So, mister Gant, do I sense that you have a grasp on the implications?” asked Mrs. Vole.
“Yes,” he answered breathily. Sweat creased his thick brow, but he didn’t feel hot.
Vivian, feeling left out of life-or-death parts of the conversation, became insistent. “What implications? What is everyone talking about?” she asked in diffident tones.
“Alright,” said Boris patiently. Vivian alive might be slow to the uptake, but they’d need each other soon. This was reason enough to keep her abreast of things, though part of him wanted to cut a deal with Vole then and there, leaving Vivian out. She was, after all, also a liability.
Mrs. Vole sat quietly, looking not a little amused.
Boris sighed. “Alright, so four other groups were sent here, right?” The harshness of this fact — his closeness then to death — made him reflexively shut his eyes as he spoke.
“According to her,” Vivian replied almost instantly, spitting her words at the old woman. “She could be lying, trying to get more information before killing us.” Boris resented that, though mostly because she was wrong.
“You’re the idiot, love. She’s already got at least as much, if not more, info than I do. If there weren’t other teams she’d just kill us here and now, then go about her day.”
“Oh,” Vivian acquiesced.
“So?” Boris prompted.
“So they sent four inferior teams? What difference does this make?”
“They all died, Viv.” Something in her face told Boris she’d gotten it.
“They didn’t expect us to live.” She considered this. “But why send us in the first place then?”
Mrs. Vole interjected, “Miss Bracht, it’s terribly obvious, though. You were never meant to finish this alive.” Boris found a superior mind in Mrs. Vole and traced her conclusion.
“Shit,” he cursed. He’d found the flaw in the assignment, the oddity that had nagged at the back of his mind the whole time. “Even if we’d succeeded we’d have questioned you and then killed you. Shit.” He didn’t understand how he could have missed something that obvious — maybe if that stupid german girl hadn’t distracted him.
Boris groaned. He wouldn’t be going back to the Crematorium. They’d been double crossed. “If they knew the last four teams died they must have known that the old bird knew too much, or at least enough. If we’d questioned her there would be no way of telling what kind of information she’d have given us.”
“So what,” Vivian shouted back. “the other teams died!”
“That means worst case we die, best case we know too much. We’re risks. Risks get fucking killed, get it?”
Mrs. Vole slammed her hand on the table so loudly that it shocked the assassins into silence. “Mister Gant, I do not wish to do nasty things to you, but I must insist for the final time that you watch your language with children about.” The room was so quiet it seemed empty. Boris wanted to burn it all.
“We’re going to die,” Vivian said quietly. Something about the way she said it took the conclusion floating around Boris’s mind and made it finally sink in. Now, death felt all too real, too soon. He felt sick. Everything seemed queazy and slow, like the world was trying to jump up his stomach and escape through his mouth.
“Actually,” said Mrs. Vole, “you do have less fatal options.” To Boris, the words were a light at the end of a shortening tunnel or a pure ring in the midst of a metallic clamor. He grasped them tightly, and hoped.
“Tell me,” demanded Vivian, beating her partner to the punch.
“I’m afraid all these murder attempts won’t do anymore, especially with the children about. I’m going to have to leave the orphanage.” Something wet sped down along the ancient wrinkles of the old woman’s cheek. “I’ve known for a while now, you understand. I’m forced to look at everything and choose — forced to leave this,” she gestured to the room around her, “my life’s work.” She produced a small white handkerchief from a pocket and batted at her cheek.
Boris waited until she was finished before asking, “Nice that you didn’t have to kill us and all, but where exactly does matters?”
Mrs. Vole’s face took on stonier features, perhaps resolve, and she peered down the desk at the man and woman who’d come there to kill her. “By now, you must have realized that I am not all that I seem.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “You’ve got incredible information on a secretive company and have somehow used poison darts to paralyze us,” she said. “I think I’ve got the picture.” Boris blinked; he hadn’t thought of poison darts, but now that he did, it made sense.
Maybe Vivian wasn’t entirely useless.
Mrs. Vole tinkled another of her rusty-bell laughs. “Delightful, you young people are creative, just like my boys and girls.” At the mention of the children, she sobered and cleared her throat. “Yes, in any case, there are greater goings on than you perceive. Though, I dare suspect in time you’ll discover more than you’d ever want to.”
“Assuming we don’t die,” said Vivian.
“Quite,” answered the old woman. “In any case, I propose that we all leave this together and begin work on something much grander.” Boris wondered — had he not already decided to bolt for the door the second he could— whether he would still get to burn things if he went along with ‘much grander’ things.
“Done,” said Vivian.
“Right, as we don’t have choices, yeah,” assented Boris.
Mrs. Vole clapped her hands in the way that happy old women tend to. “Oh, that is lovely of you both!” she exclaimed. “Just one more small matter to attend to. Will that be alright?”
“Since we don’t have any real say, why not?” said Boris. The old woman ignored him. Vivian said nothing.
He wondered how long the poison would last before he’d be able to get up. Could this cause permanent damage or something? Hopefully not. Mrs. Vole continued, “I need you both to take an oath of binding fealty to me and those to whom I am, myself, obligated.” Boris checked that he had heard right, realized he had, and concluded that the old bird might be more insane than he already believed.
“Sure, yes, whatever you’d like,” said Vivian.
“And you, mister Gant?” asked the old woman. Boris gave a nod.
“Excellent,” said Mrs. Vole. “Please repeat after me, in unison if you would: I do swear by Avalos and Fate and Free Will to serve the fiefdom of Aberdeen Vole, and all to whom she swears allegiance, that I do this of my own volition and consent to the unbreakable pact which binds us in chivalrous servitude to the One True King.”
Both Vivian and Boris did as Vole asked, Boris growing more nervous by the minute that the old woman would kill them anyway after making them do all this rubbish.
A few seconds after they had finished, to the sound of many cries of surprise — except from Mrs. Vole — Boris and Vivian’s sleeves began to shine with warm, golden light. The skin under the sleeves lustered out, to the horror of the assassins.
“What is this!” yelled Vivian, frantically staring from arm to arm, still unable to move. Boris couldn’t words and just shook slightly in fearful shock.
“Those are your marks of allegiance,” answered Mrs. Vole matter-of-factly. While speaking, she pulled a colourful, flowery handbag out from under the desk and began packing it with various contents. “Here, this is a big moment after all, Plen’astria! There, the use of your arms should be returned to you.”
Just as she said, Boris watched as he twitched and lifted his arm; the light had stopped.
Suddenly, three razor-sharp knives hissed through the air at Mrs. Vole, aimed perfectly at her head. Then, a half meter from the old woman’s serene face they simply stopped and clattered onto the desk. Mrs. Vole promptly scooped them up and put them in her bag, giving Vivian a small smirk.
“Ow!” shouted Vivian. Boris watched her arms start glowing again, but this time with an angry, red light.
Mrs. Vole tutted. “Dear, I should have mentioned — I just thought the oath was so straight forward you understand. Anyway, you tried to betray your oath. I’m afraid twice more and you will die, and that,” she tutted, “will be your own fault miss Bracht.” Vivian moaned slightly, rubbing her arms through her sleeves in circular motions. “There should be a single black strike on your wrist to serve as your first reminder.”
Boris grinned. He ignored the two woman’s discussion, pulling his sleeves tightly over his burly arms to examine his skin; it came as s shock when a set of twin, amber-coloured tattoos came up to greet him. He didn’t understand.
No technology he’d ever heard of could do this.
He studied the pattern of the twin doves encircling one another, making two helixes around each of his wrists. Then, he noticed words among the pictures and colors. Inside the first loop read: Sir Boris Gant. He discovered more in the second loop which read: Champion of Dame Aberdeen Vole.
Things had officially gone beyond him, and he gave up trying to reason.
He glanced over at Vivian, to see if she had experienced something similar but found she’d already looked and replaced her sleeves. Boris looked back at Mrs. Vole who seemed to be having a rough time deciding between a roll of white and yellow yarn.
“Mrs. Vole,” he said, trying to be polite. Part of him was deathly afraid of all…all this..but at the same time oddly glad about there being an alternative to death.
“Yes, mister Gant?”
“I notice that you can paralyze our body parts at will and have tattooed my arms with very specific information and, well, doves,” he said in a tone unlike his own yet all he could come up with for addressing the situation.
“Yes, I do love doves. They’re my fiefdom’s raiment.” The old woman decided on both the yellow and white yarn, forcing them into her already overstuffed bag.
“Yes, it appears that’s the case,” said Boris, “But what I was wondering was how you’re doing all this.”
Vivian burst out laughing.
Boris glared at her. “Oh, and I suppose you’ve nailed it out, eh?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Vivian replied concisely.
“Oh, do share, darling, do share.”
Vivian smiled, “This old woman is using magic.” Boris didn’t even try to formulate a response and just let the statement pass.
Mrs. Vole hefted her flowery bag over her shoulder and muttered something under her breath. “You can move now,” she said. Boris was way ahead of her. He lurched up and made a run for the door.
Then, he was stopped. His arms glowed red and nauseous pain climbed up his midriff. The old woman sighed audibly. “You swore fealty, mister Gant. There are no special exceptions for you. Attempting to forsake your duty is dreadful.” Boris lifted up his sleeve, thinking about a few dreadful things he’d like to do to her, and saw a new, blackened strike on his upper forearm.
Magic, why the fuck not?
He was just about to say as much when Mrs. Vole made a hushing gesture accompanied by a hiss. She stood motionless. Vivian straightened from her seat and waited. “Oh, dear. Oh, oh, dear,” the old woman crooned.
“What?” asked Boris.
“Your old employers sent something to catch up with us,” the old woman whispered. “Of course, you two were the distraction. Oh, oh, dear. With me focused on you it could get close.” Mrs. Vole tightened her grip on the bag straps.
“Let what get close?” asked Vivian, backing off from the old woman.
“We must flee, now.” Her voice was urgent. “There is a monster here, close, too close.”
Boris grinned and then frowned, “A monster?” He noticed Vivian’s gaze had shifted. Then, Mrs. Vole’s gaze shifted in just the same direction. Boris turned, facing the door behind him.
It swung inward.
Standing in the frame was a tall man wearing an ink-black suit. The light from the window reflected red off of blotchy stains which peppered his clothes. Boris could tell, having enough similarly ruined clothes of his own, that it was blood; it looked fresh — wet. The man grinned, chuckled, opened his mouth to just a slit, and said “I am the Rock, and I cannot feel.”
Boris raised his fists. There was something rabid in the newcomer’s voice. That made him instinctively defensive.
“Come to burn your bridges to make me real,” the intruder whispered softly, and with the words the many shadows cast within the tiny office quivered and elongated sinuously outward until each shadow caressed the man, weaving together to consume the monster within the dark.