The Journey Begins
For hours they travelled the London streets in silence, not really having much to say to each other: Mrs. Vole had said ‘drive,’ and that is what mattered, and that is what Boris Gant did. As the day sank away and ushered in the night, the old woman still said nothing. Eventually they needed gas, stopped, refilled their tank and got a bag of chips (which was shared by all), and continued driving as the quiet became expansive and the background hum of city chitchat faded — moving behind the doors of homes and of pubs and of nighttime haunts — until Boris felt speech the skill was story-stuff, a practice from long ago, and its occasional practitioners charlatans, no more credible than a whistler misrepresenting the notes of a popular song. Soon, the odd company ran out of chips, and nothing to say.
“What are we doing?” Vivian asked; it had an effect like shattering glass, Boris nearly hitting a post box.
Mrs. Vole sat with her fingers folded in her lap, seeming grandmotherly in way that suggested an oven full of pies, embodying the needed patience and time to bake. “Deciding what to do next, my dear” she said unhelpfully.
“You don’t have anything, do you.”
Mrs. Vole sighed. “No, I’m afraid not.”
It was then that Boris entered the conversation. “Well, let’s have a start, like this: What’s our best chance of not dying?”
He turned down an embankment and the car rocked slightly as he passed over a bump. “We’re being hunted by magical people and people alike. I’m afraid that I don’t see how there’s much we can do.” She didn’t add, but wait and die.
“Then why,” said Boris, “aren’t we already dead?”
Mrs. Vole considered the question. It was a good question — one which had lurked around the back of her mind for some time now. “I don’t know, mister Gant.”
“There is no profit in keeping us alive, is there?” asked Vivian. Mrs. Vole’s face became placid.
“I suppose there is one, small profitable reason.” The old woman hesitated. “They still haven’t discovered what they sent you to find out.”
In the fray and threat, Boris had forgotten the small dossier, which now seemed remarkably uninformed, and the purpose it had assigned. “Is it that important?” he asked.
“Then we could trade it for our lives, maybe?” said Vivian.
“Doubtful,” Boris said, “I think that option really never works out.” Then he thought of something else. “Mrs. Vole, hold on. You can do magic.” The bluntness of the statement took everyone by surprise.
“I had thought that apparent,” she said. “But, indeed, I am a sorceress.”
“Can’t you just hide us from their magic with your magic?”
“Not for particularly long,” she answered.
“Is there someone who can do it for particularly long?” asked Boris.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Vole, thoughtful. “My master can hide us.”
“Then hide us until we reach your master, whatever the hell that’s about,” Boris said, “and then he can help us the rest of the way.”
“She won’t do it,” Vivian said.
“Viv, shut it! Come on, what do you say?”
“Miss Bracht is right,” agreed the old woman, causing Boris’s new wellspring of confidence to dry up. “The risk of failure and them getting to him is too high.”
“The risk,” spat Boris, “is everything, if we don’t.” For several minutes, they all fumed, each for his or her own reasons.
“Actually,” said Mrs. Vole, once more breaking the quiet, “I think we have to go to him.” She studied the back of the drivers seat. “Or we must get Mrs. Bracht to him.”
Boris was lost, once again. “Why?”
“Because she defied the monster with a single touch.”
Vivian hid her injured hand. “I’m not doing that again.”
“No one’s asking you to, dear. We merely need to know why that worked, or at least some clue as to what that man was.”
Boris and Vivian both knew better than to ask questions, especially when things had finally started to go in their favor. The plan was settled upon, and all agreed:
They would go to find the master of Mrs. Vole.
Cloak; Dagger; Wizard
Hector listened, and the house whispered in bendy creaks and occasional scampers: they kept him awake, though the doorway’s dusty, plank-wood floor — his pillow and mattress —might have accomplished this unaided.
A noise like curtains swishing came, and he tracked it with his mind, not wanting to move and ruin the stillness he’d preserved while attempting sleep. The distance between him and the sound lessened with time and with each swish, until it passed him by.
He peeked, and discovered the silhouette of a man marked out by the street’s light, which came in from a broken old window. It must have been Holmes; the figure was too tall to be Arthur and too young to be Merlin. With Hector on the ground only one candidate remained, and he moved like a cat, noiselessly opening the door and slipping down the walk.
A few heartbeats later, Hector pursued him. He felt secure — after all, tucked about him were all those hidden, loaded guns.
Holmes was a lone figure, looking like the only person in all the world; but he wasn’t: there was Hector.
It was still dark outside, save the streetlights, and a weekday. Hector cursed himself; it was hard enough to blend in, be unnoticed, but it was only him and Holmes, who gave off a creepy vibe as it was, among the shadows and the roads.
Hector believed Holmes would turn around any second, catch him there, not so far away, dogging his steps. What would happen then was an unknown, and depended on why Holmes had gone out, whether he had wanted to be seen.
Given the circumstances, this stroll didn’t make sense. As he walked, Hector wondered over it all, his tired mind unable to twist or fabricate meaning from what was going on. Not a glimmer.
A few blocks later Holmes finally stopped walking, his entire body drooping sullenly, like an abandoned marionette. He stretched and sat on a nearby bench, which Hector made out in the dark.
“Come on then, Hector,” Holmes called out, cupping a hand to his mouth. Hector froze, his heartbeat racing. Instinctively, he reached for one of his guns, but held himself, letting his arm fall to his side. He made for the bench and sat down, hunching his broad shoulders forward and folding his hands in his lap.
“How’d you know?” he asked.
“The shadows ahead of me; your back against the lamps.”
“Could have been someone else,” said Hector, feeling foolish. The exhaustion was getting to him; his lids drooped.
“Not with leather soles,” came the reply.
“True enough. So, what are you doing?”
“Sitting on a park bench.” The answer was curt.
“You know what I mean.”
“I wanted to look outside, again,” Holmes said. “Actually, perhaps for the first time.” Hector rolled his eyes.
“Come on, you’ve been outside before.”
“Part of me has,” said Holmes, correcting him.
Hector yawned, getting a mouthful of humid air. “I’ve decided not to try and understand all… all this,” he gestured expansively, “yet.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Me being here is an accident.” Hector blinked a few times, trying to placate his ever heavier eyelids. “One second, I’m doing my job, the next I just snap.” He looked up into the sky, barely making out a handful of stars. “I just couldn’t take it, you know? Low satisfaction, high mortality. Not for me.” The other man nodded appreciatively.
“So you thought joining up with your targets might gain you some margin of safety from your old employers.” It wasn’t a question.
“Exactly,” Hector said. “That’s exactly it.”
“Well, in your defense, you could not have known what you were getting into.”
Hector laughed. “No, I couldn’t. But I don’t care anymore.”
“Why?” asked Holmes.
“I think I stopped caring when they told me I couldn’t change jobs. They kill you, if you try to quit. I mean, where the hell was I supposed to go from there?”
Hector let just one of his eyes close — a compromise of sorts. “See. No family, no prospects, nothing. Just, nothing.”
Holmes patted the muscle man on the back. “Chin up. You’ve won a fresh start. We’ve got a fresh start.”
“You’re right,” Hector said, rising. “I’m going to head back, you coming?” Holmes shook his head.
“No, I think I’ll stay out here and consider things for a while.”
“Okay, see you in a few,” said Hector, and, sleepily, he made his way back to the house, where he finally managed to rest.
But it wasn’t until both his eyes were shut and his groggy mind forgone that he finally managed to shake a strange sensation: Holmes’s eyes, drilling into his spine.
Moriarty Holmes watched Hector leave. When he became sure he was alone, he dropped his head into his hands and wept without tears - an intellectual’s weep, one of the mind.
Observing the night indeed. That idiot.
Parts of his mind rumbled with a maddening speed: deducing and calculating and feeling with shivering clarity; he wished it would slow. It almost hurt, and would, he knew, eventually.
Everything was so familiar, so real, but wrong. But where was Watson? Where was Moran? Each name stirred deep hatred within him, and deep love, the product of his two adversarial parts. Three parts, actually: Gregory’s memories linked with his own, which weren’t really memories — Conan Doyle’s fabrications. Magic was what he was. He didn’t feel particularly magical.
“That is because not even the wonders of magic can bring happiness,” whispered a voice. Moriarty leapt from the bench, twisting around, hands raised to defend himself. Standing behind him was Merlin.
“How did you sneak up on me?” He felt the irony, almost a full reversal of his and Hector’s positions just moments before.
In the streetlights, Merlin awarded the question a condescending smirk. “Magic. I am, if you’ll recall, a wizard.” He looked down, not meeting Moriarty’s eyes, suddenly grave. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” It appeared to be the truth.
“Me too,” said Moriarty Holmes. He thought about lashing out, striking the old fool to the ground. But he didn’t. “Your not sorry about what’s happened to me.” The bitterness seeped off him like smoke. “You’re sorry for Gregory.”
The silence was long and thick. “I don’t know any more, really.” This also seemed true.
Then, Moriarty said “Let me see your wrists.” The wizard pulled his sleeves down uncomfortably. “So, it’s true.”
“Truth is relative.”
“Who do you serve, Merlin?” The wizards lips frowned. “Is it the enemy? Someone else? It isn’t, Arthur, that is for certain.” More silence.
“I serve my order,” he answered, finally.
So, there was another player, as he’d suspected. “And what order is that?”
“One in which less than ten remain.”
“That’s still more than the confused three left to mine.”
“I’m here, fool. That’s worth a great deal!” Moriarty Holmes gave a laughing cough.
“Until someone tells you to otherwise. Isn’t that so?”
“I will serve Arthur with all my resource, power, and strength.”
“Is. That. So?” repeated Moriarty Holmes.
Merlin hesitated. “I suppose,” he admitted, “that I could, in theory, be recalled.”
“Fair weather friend.”
“You know nothing,” rasped Merlin, raising his voice.
“Oh, I see. You think I’m just going to follow along, like a good, stupid, organ grinder’s simian.”
“I said no such thing,” said Merlin.
“I said such a thing. I, who knows far more than nothing.”
“I’m sorry, I spoke in anger.”
“Can you give up your order?” Merlin looked horrified.
“What? No, that wouldn’t help anybody.”
“Because my order is what grants me the arcane arts. What use am I without them?” The man’s point was compelling.
“Then how can you be trusted?”
“Enough of this,” sighed Merlin; they weren’t getting anywhere. “Good evening, Mr. Holmes,” and he was gone as suddenly as he’d appeared.
Strike of the Deal; Flit of the Match
Hands cuffed, the shuffling of chains audible, attached to a stretcher, the Inflicted Man was rolled down a beige hallway, guards on either side of him, and behind, and in front. He was wearing a blindfold they’d wrapped around his face in the car. The procession halted.
He heard three short taps, and then “Come in.” A woman’s voice, succulent and languid.
He was moving again, then again stopped. The blindfold came off.
The light was harsh, blinding. Things resolved themselves.
He grinned. “Mrs. Morgose? Of all the people I expected to nab me up, you weren’t even on the list!” He spoke as if they had just bumped into each other on the street. “How are you? How’ve you been? Good? I’ve been good.”
“Be quiet,” said Morgose. Her hair was long, black, and straight. Her eyes were brown, but harsh red flecks that caught the light spiraled toward their pupils. She was young, beautiful, rich, powerful, and frightening. “I see my reputation has once again outrun me.”
She looked back down at some papers. “Aren’t you going to invite me to sit?”
Without looking up, she said, “Of course not.”
“Then why am I here if not to sit?” he grinned.
“You’re here because I need you for something.” She put the papers down, picking up a pen and marking something on one of the corners; and then down went the the pen. She folded her hands on the desk and looked straight into the Inflicted Man’s eyes.
“I think I’ll sit.”
“I think you’ll stay.”
“I think,” the Inflicted Man began, but whirled into action. He kicked out as hard as he could. If the straps had held his legs in place, he might have bruised them. The thick leather tore effortlessly.
His feet pushed hard off the ground, toppling the stretcher backward into the guard behind him, crushing the man beneath.
The Inflicted Man might have had his head damaged by the fall, if all the other restraints, defying probability, had not also given way, allowing him to backwards summersault to his feet; he used the fallen guard’s larynx to support his entire weight as he righted himself.
There was a crack and gurgle.
The men on either side pointed their guns at him, flicking the safeties off, aiming, and pulled their respective triggers. Instead of an automatic burst of fire, there was a clicking. Both weapons had jammed.
While this went on the Inflicted Man leaned over, picked up the dying guard’s pistol, and pointed it at his first target: the man on the left.
He pulled the trigger.
When nothing happened, he tried flicking the safety. The next time, he put the man on the left down, permanently; the man on the right rushed toward him, heaving his gun to the side, but his foot caught on the fallen stretcher. Bang, bang. Two rounds in his head, and now this guard, like his compatriot, was also dead.
The final guard who had taken point looked to Morgose, who hadn’t even batted an eye. She waved him away.
He went, leaving the powerful woman and the homicidal, cannibalistic lunatic staring at one another.
“Now why won’t I kill you, exactly?” asked the Inflicted Man, waving his gun.
“Because it’s hard to shoot someone with a tree branch,” she replied. And as she said the words, his gun became a gun shaped tree branch.
“I see,” said the Inflicted Man, tossing the useless piece of wood onto one of the corpses. “May I sit?”
“If you must.” He sat.
“So, Morg, what’s the deal-ee-o?” Morgose shuddered at the name, but tolerated it.
“I want you to use your unique gifts to kill someone for me.” The Inflicted Man giggled.
“Okay, why would I do that for you?”
“Because I can give you what you want,” Morgose answered. Her lip curled invitingly.
The Inflicted Man thought for a moment. “But I don’t want anything.”
“What if I told you I could kill you,” said Morgose, “would you want that?” The Inflicted Man laughed.
“Can’t be done, Morg.”
Morgose threw a letter opener at his leg, it nicked the side of his pants and landed in the carpet.
“Jeez, what was that for?” said the Inflicted Man. Then he saw his knee. Where the pants were ripped was red. Blood was welling up.
His blood. He was bleeding. He was bleeding.
He put two fingers in and tasted it, just to be sure. He looked up at Morgose, the humor gone. His face was a dark cloud. “How?” he demanded.
“Because I am the only one who can kill you,” she said. “That’s all you need to know.” The Inflicted Man got up, angry, and smashed his hand down as hard as he could on the desk.
It felt like he had barely touched it. A feather landing. “Fine, I’ll do it,” he said, but there was something icy in his throat.
“Good, you’re on the next flight to London. Company jet, very nice.” The Inflicted Man didn’t respond.
“But let’s get one thing clear,” he said. “If I do my half, and you screw me, if you screw me, if you think about backing out, I am going to hunt you down; I am going to hunt you down and eat your brain out with a spoon through your eye sockets.” Morgose rolled her eyes.
“Yes, no need for the dramatics.” He glared. “Anyway,” she continued, “that goes without saying.”
The Battle of the Orphanage
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 Truce and The Monster
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.