“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
August 5th, 1592
The overgrown and crumbled remains of a stone circle lay buried beneath the mountain side. The snow line loomed another thousand feet above, while below them almost an equal distance a finger of Lake Geneva jutted like a spur into the wooded alpine forest. Surrounded on three sides by the pristine waters, a lone, black, stone tower stood cold and malevolent as the wind whistling through the evergreen trees.
“It's almost an ocean,” Aishe smiled at her husband. “And it reminds me of home. More tame perhaps, but otherwise even the air smells the same.”
Yasmin smiled thinly. “It did remind me of our former vitsa's mountain home. But it's not nearly as tame as it seems, child.”
Aishe scowled and Kilian lowered a hand between the two of them. “I think we all know the scene is belied by the presence of our quarry, who has managed to locate his refuge so that there's no hope of approaching it unseen.”
Yasmin shrugged. “I never promised secrecy. I can promise Mellaco won't escape, unless he defeats you. Unless he has a boat to flee over the lake.”
“That's something at least,” Janos grunted from behind them. “We never expected to take Mellaco by surprise anyway, did we Baron Kunzer?”
“One can always hope,” Kilian answered dryly. “But if we've forced him to stand and fight, even on his own ground, we've accomplished something.”
Yasmin bowed her head. “And I've done all my vows permit to aid you. I'll await your return here and watch against any flight on his part.” Then she smiled coyly at the Count Janos. “Fortune's favor, Lord Dracul.”
He smirked, and handed her the scabbard of his great-sword, smoke curling from its blade as he drew it. “I'll collect this later, Mistress De Wynter.”
As she accepted it from him, he turned on his heels and began the descent. Kilian's cloak was already wrapped around his left forearm, with Philahuros shining like a shard from the moon whose light reflected off the waves on the lake below. The rapier's glow pierced the darkness that was the Dracul's domain of sorcery.
As they drew near the lake's shore, Aishe saw there was no visible portal on the landward side. Shaking out her hair, she examined the walls. “It's not an illusion, ves'tacha. There's no way into the tower.”
As if to belie her words, dead rose from behind them, shambling soundlessly as they pressed them toward the lake. She reached for her power, half-expecting the struggle that still haunted her dreams. But instead, the fresh memories allowed her an ease in grasping her talent that left her surprised, like when she would lift a piece of luggage, expecting it to be filled with books or iron, and discovering instead find it filled with clothes.
Aishe laughed in spite of herself as she called forth fire and lashed it into the risen dead. The explosion lit the night and rolled like thunder as bodies were thrown across the hill and rolled toward the ground. Fire crackled in the trees, and branches snapped before falling toward the lake shore.
“I'd say Mellaco knows we freed you from his gift, my witch,” Kilian teased.
Aishe crossed her arms, tapping her willow-wand against her forearm as a round of musket fire from a dozen assorted Tabor and Habsburg soldiers removed the rest. She scanned in the direction they had risen from, and then hopped, pointing with her wand.
“Look here!” She took off at a sprint uphill. “This opening in the hill behind the brush, it's large enough for a person to slip through, no?”
“It does look very similar to another passage a certain Aurori took to freedom,” Janos replied with irony.
Aishe shot him a glance filled with memories of her lost vitsa, but the Dracul laughed, which only pricked her heart more. Truce or no, Count Janos, I've not forgotten the vow I swore to my people.
She turned up her nose, and then wiggled her way through the opening without concern for safety or the view it gave the men behind her of her shapely calves. As she scrambled to her feet inside the cavern, she touched her brooch and whispered, “Aster.” Soft green light illuminated the stone around her.
“This was carved by hand.” Aishe waved her wand at the cave walls as she called back to them, and then loosed a dart of fire at a shambling corpse.
Kilian was already through the crevice and beside her, the white light of his blade mingling with that from his wife's brooch in a chartreuse shade against the stone. He fired his pistol, and before the crack of his wheellock had returned to their ears, or the remainder of their guards had entered the cave, another revenant had fallen. Last of all came the Dracul, who stooped from his seven foot height to avoid cracking his head on the cave's ceiling, despite the lack of stalactites hanging from its roof. Aishe grinned at the rare advantage her lack of height provided.
Before them, the cave narrowed like a funnel into a slanting passage. Aishe knew before she heard the others murmur that they had found the way into Mellaco's Tower. She had been preparing herself to test her skill against his wards. But again there was nothing in the way of magic, other than the residual energy that raising the dead had required.
“Kilian?” she whispered.
But he was already creeping forward, his cloak wrapped around his left forearm; studying every step. Then he stopped.
“Lani, do you see it?” He glanced behind him at the Preceptra, whose hazel eyes blazed in the near-dark.
She brushed her hair behind her and nodded. “The lever's on the far wall. I'll hazard a guess if you put a foot anywhere along the incline before flipping it, you'll regret the choice.”
“For about two seconds, I'd imagine,” he agreed flatly. Then he commenced stroking his circle beard and gauging the distance before inclining his head at the vampires.
Janos shook his head. “We still walk, my friend. Camuel might have been able to cross this. But he couldn't open doors through the mists.”
“Would it cave in or fall down?” Kilian mused. Then he slapped his thigh and cursed, “Oh Hell. Give me a musket.”
A tall, blond Tabor Guardsman handed him a long gun and he nodded his thanks. “Aishe, can you light the passage?”
She tilted her head. “I can, what are you trying to do?”
“Play William Tell with a gun, I would guess,” Lantilla answered. Kilian's smirk confirmed her guess.
Aishe's mouth opened briefly, but she managed to contain her surprise, and annoyance at the Preceptra anticipating her husband's actions rather than herself. But with only a slight curl of the lip, she touched her brooch while pointing with her wand and chanted, “Aster.”
The emerald's light leaped from her brooch across the hall, leaving a path of light behind it like a shooting star. Kilian inhaled deeply and then pulled the trigger. The musket ball chased the fading tail of light, which bloomed on the lever just as it flipped with the musket ball's strike.
One of the Habsburg Guards started to cross, but Kilian held out his hand; warning, “Are you in a hurry to die?”
Then he handed the musket back to the guard, returned his rapier to hand, and poured power into his cloak; advancing by slow steps while Aishe bathed the hall in light once more. About two-thirds of the way down the passage he chuckled darkly.
“Why of course you would, Master,” Kilian loaded the term with as much irony as she had every heard in his voice. Then he leaned back before stomping on a stone, and an arrow-headed spear launched into the air. He kicked at its haft, sending it skittering across the floor.
“I'll wager the damned thing is poisoned, so don't touch it,” Kilian warned them as he scoured the rest of the passage. At the end he motioned for them to stop once more.
“Why would he invest in such mundane traps when he knows magic?” a guard muttered from behind them.
“Because he expects any unwanted visitor to be a mage,” Kilian replied, while working the lock on the door with two long, thin probes. “So why use the means they'd notice and be prepared for when you can kill them before they understand how they failed?”
Aishe began to sidle closer to him, but he shook her off. “Careful, love. There's something in this lock too.”
As soon as he'd finished speaking, there was a click, and a needle spat before the lock turned. But Kilian's tools had been long enough to allow him to turn his wrist to the side and still hold the lock in place to open the door.
“So if Mellaco prepared this hall to foil a magician...” Lantilla began with a coy smile.
“Then we can expect whatever lurks next to murder a thief or spy,” Kilian finished just before the howl of rising dead and stench of rotting flesh assaulted them.
“Fire and Darkness,” Lani cursed, only to have her invocation brought to life as Aishe summoned a wall of flame that crossed the chamber. But the sudden addition of burning quicksilver to the pungent odor of the chamber made the Rom's head spin.
Janos' blade added a black acidic smoke to the mix as it disemboweled two revenants. From her right, Philahuros flashed, and ran through a third, its light flaring to consume the abomination from inside-out. The crack of muskets struck the creatures like fists; stunning, but not felling them. But they did allow Aishe the time to clear her head and loose fire.
As the acrid concoction of alchemical substances, gunpowder, and magical fire subsided, silence replaced the din of battle to reveal they had entered what had been a storage cellar. The remains of charred vegetables, wine and meat remained. The spilled spirits stained the gray stone beneath them deep violet where the casks had burst.
“Damn! He always kept good wine, too,” Kilian muttered.
Lantilla grinned knowingly at him. “You'd rather make wine instead of ale or potions, if the Bohemian weather let you, wouldn't you?”
Kilian shook his head. “Not true. Melnick is further north than Tabor, and they make wine there. Though I'm not really fond of it. The truth is, I like brewing ale.”
He started off for the far door, and stopped to smile briefly. “That said, I'd make all three, if I had a satisfactory vineyard.”
They ascended by a circular set of stairs. This one was guarded at the landing by a tripwire Lantilla cut, releasing a sping-loaded gate. Aishe squeaked as it slammed into the stone and then bounced half-way back to the ceiling.
“You'd think Mellaco wanted no one but himself visiting here?” Janos chuckled darkly.
“Most inhospitable of him,” Aishe agreed. “One more vice in his character.”
Kilian opened the only door at the top of the black stone stairs, and the narrow passage opened into a wide chamber, filled with all the implements necessary to make uninvited guests regret their visit. Aishe had to close her eyes against the memory of her flesh being cut and coaxed at the hands of Del Grecco, even as the fresh irony of her life being in the hands of another of Mellaco's apprentices gouged her anew.
Draugar, revenants almost life-like in their movements, sprinted toward them with ravenous eyes and deep groans. Muskets fired from behind her, but the creatures were not dissuaded, even a wall of her fire thrown between them was shrugged off as if mere water, even as flesh and rags burned.
“Sheka,” she cursed, as Kilian and the Dracul set into them with their swords, while the guardsmen formed a hedgehog of steel in front of Aishe before she could join her husband. The steel pushed the Draugar back into the enchanted blades, while she touched the soldiers on their shoulders; whispering “Merel.”
The soldiers' pikes were wreathed in flame, and they boxed the clawing hands and teeth of the dead. The troops advanced slowly, trampling them into the pikes and blades until the fire consumed too much for them to continue.
Aishe glanced at Lantilla who had been trapped behind the pikes with her, with eyes that had lost their luster, as if they were a mere human's shade of brown. The Rom had not seen them so ordinary since their first meeting in the Round Fort Tower a year before.
“He's an adept necromancer, to be certain,” Janos admitted while prodding a re-slain corpse with his sword. “But so far, other than the traps, I haven't seen anything with more guile than Osnova had possessed, my friend.”
“Perhaps he's trying to hold us back long enough to escape?” Aishe suggested.
Kilian shrugged. “I'm sure he desires to avoid a true confrontation, unless he's certain he has a distinct advantage. We can only hope our friend-” He scowled and nodded upward. “-Is true to her word. But I agree, he hasn't shown any of his typical machinations yet. I can scarcely believe he hasn't been preparing for our arrival, and fortifying this place against any intruder as well. All I can conclude is we're where he desires us to be.”
“Since I'm sure you're not suggesting retreat, brave knight,” Janos growled with a wry grin. “I can only assume you're cataloging our stupidity for the sake of posterity, when you could have just destroyed this place with a dozen cannon and waded through the wreckage after.”
Kilian snorted a laugh. “If I wasn't certain cannon wouldn't survive a journey through the Borders, that's exactly what I would've done. But the wet and mist would've ensured that all we'd have arrived here with was so many brass tubes.”
He paused and rubbed the back of his neck. “It's a damned shame my brother gets to test my Tower's craftsmanship before I can.” Then he flashed his half-grin and motioned them ahead.
Again the stairs wound upward from right to left, wide enough for the column to climb two abreast, with Aishe behind Kilian, who had one guard in front of him on the left. Halfway up the stairs, a familiar song played in her mind. Aishe covered her ears, but that only amplified the music, and she doubled over as pain lanced in her left shoulder, as the brooch she wore against enchantments on her mind converted the mental assault into a physical one.
She cried out and Kilian turned, wrapping his arm around her, holding her steady as she gritted her teeth against the promise of an end to the pain that had marked her life.
NO! It's given me joy as well, her mind shouted as she felt Kilian's embrace and thought of the twins in Tabor. The pain rolled back like a retreating wave, and she exhaled her relief before looking up at her husband and kissing him.
“It's gone, ves'tacha. Thank you,” she smiled. And it was, the soft chime's of the song were replaced in her mind with the memory of her playing fiddle over the babies, and the desire to see them again. But as she glanced around Kilian, she glimpsed an ugly sneer from the Preceptra, even as her eyes blazed hazel once more.