The Bizarre Clue of the Agony Column
“Ah!” cried Vail with sudden enthusiasm, straightening in his chair abruptly and peering down at the morning edition of The Mordentshire Times.
The outburst was so unexpected that I very nearly dropped my fork. But before I could ask the reason for this abrupt interruption of my breakfast, Vail was out of his chair and striding towards me, brandishing the newspaper as if it were a flag of victory. “Third morning, Pendleton! Third morning running!”
“What do you mean, Vail?” I asked, mystified. “You’re speaking in riddles.”
“See here, Pendleton!” he said, thrusting the paper at me and pointing to an item somewhere near the bottom of the page. He chuckled triumphantly. “Third morning in a row this has been here. What do you think of that, eh?”
I was already scrutinizing the item, brow furrowed. Vail had been searching through the Agony column again, and had apparently discovered something arresting, though even after reading it through twice I could not see anything other than an ordinary advertisement. (For those readers who are from lands outside Mordent and who are unaccustomed to our parlance, the ‘Agony’ column is that section of the paper devoted to personal advertisements – three or four line entries relating to positions being sought or offered, or items for sale. Any person willing to pay the paper for a spot may advertise for any item or service he wishes, so long as it falls into the boundaries of propriety, and hence there are often many odd and strange items. Vail is a voracious reader, but I believe the Agony column is of special interest to him, as it has often proved invaluable in his work. Most notable was the case of the Missing Necklace – detailed elsewhere – which Vail was able to solve once he determined that the criminal co-conspirators were communicating with each other using bizarre advertisements in the Agony column.)
Item: One gentleman’s cane, extraordinary quality. Heirloom – must require paid in Mordent currency. Entirely Zeidenburg oak, ivory handle, Tedore-Nuis finish, steel-shod. Sundry often uses; protection from monstr, brigand, beast, or weather. - - pmar
Vail, of course, was watching me expectantly, his lips pressed into a triumphant smile. “Well, Pendleton?” he asked, when I finally lifted my gaze from the paper.
I shrugged. “Obviously you see something in it, Vail, but as far as I can tell, it is merely an advertisement for a gentleman’s walking stick. Poorly worded in parts, but altogether understandable. Certainly no more bizarre than some of the other advertisements that crop up in this column from time to time.”
Vail shook his head. “Look again, Pendleton. Is there nothing in the advertisement that strikes you as odd? Suppose you were interested in purchasing the cane, for instance.”
I looked again, but could find nothing. “I’m sorry, Vail, I don’t see it.”
“How would you purchase it?” he asked. “There is no address given, no name, no price.”
“Why, you are certainly right,” I said, surprised. “Why, the thing is useless as an advertisement. It must be a misprint or something.”
Vail shook his head. “If it had appeared once only, then it might have been a misprint. Twice could be coincidence. But three mornings in a row? I need not remind you that these small adverts cost money. Why deliberately place a useless one three times in succession?”
“Is it a code then?” I asked, thinking back on the aforementioned ‘Missing Necklace’ case.
“Absolutely,” said Vail, “but more than that, it is a personal invitation. Something very interesting is afoot, Pendleton, and we are invited to give aid.”
He paused expectantly, and I glanced back at the advertisement again. “Well, don’t keep me in the dark. I’m no expert on codes, Vail, you know that.”
He laughed. “Yes, Pendleton, I am sorry to have kept you in suspense. Truthfully it was no simple task to crack this particular riddle. I started in on it yesterday afternoon, when I still wasn’t sure I was dealing with anything other than an ordinary misprint. In fact, I doubt I would have been able to solve it if I hadn’t already seen this particular code before.”
I leaned forward. “Was it the same as that code used by those criminals who were communicating using the Agony column?”
He shook his head dismissively. “Nothing so simple as that, Pendleton. This is a sterling example of what is termed the 3 over 2 code. I shall show you how it works. When I first saw it, I knew right away that something was a bit odd about it. As you know, these little adverts are paid for by the word, so when I saw the extra use of words that could easily be dropped – the ‘one’ at the beginning for example, and the ‘often’ that appears to be thrown into the middle of nowhere – that was my first hint that this was something other than what it appeared to be. The real tip-off, though, was the use of the phrase ‘Tedore-Nuis’. On the surface, in context, it appears as though this is some sort of finish applied to the wood of the cane, or perhaps a special working for the steel that caps the foot. But any woodworker or metallurgist could tell you that no such ‘finish’ exists, at least not by that name. The phrase is composed of words from two separate languages. ‘Tedore’ is eternal in Borcan, and ‘Nuis’ is the Dementlieu word for night. The pairing does not exist in any context that I am aware of. Also of interest was the spelling of the word ‘monstr’. Though in most of the Core the common spelling is ‘monster’, it is grammatically acceptable to spell it this way in Darkon. So right away I deduced that the author must be an educated man, perhaps well traveled – note the reference to Zeidenburg, a city in Barovia.
“In any case, I puzzled over this one for quite a while before I realized how it was solved.”
“And how is that?” I asked.
“First, eliminate the first three words,” he instructed, “They are unimportant to the riddle. The following two words are important. Then eliminate the next three words. Keep the next two. And so on, until you come to the end. Thus the name 3 over 2 for the code.”
I took up paper and pen from the writing desk and quickly penned the advert, then began crossing out words. This is what it looked like when I was finished:
cane, extraordinary – require paid – Entirely Zeidenburg – Tedore Nuis - Sundry often – monstr brigand
“Well, Vail,” I said, scratching my head, “I have done as you asked, but I cannot say that I fathom the message any better than before. And what of the postscript – this ‘pmar’?”
“Leave that for now,” he said. “It is important in context, but unnecessary to the heart of the problem. Now it becomes interesting, and indeed this is where I had the most trouble. For each pair of words is actually only a single word. The first three letters of the first word and the last three letters of the second word combine to form one word. However – and this is what makes the code so diabolically difficult – they may be combined so that the letters from the first word come before or after the letters to the second word. I admit it takes a little more time to figure, so let me instruct you from here.”
He pointed to the first pair of words. “The ‘can’ and the ‘ary’ go together just as they are, forming ‘canary’. The second word is different, though – the ‘req’ actually comes after the ‘aid’.”
“But that would form the word ‘aidreq’, which makes no sense at all!” I protested.
“Patience, Pendleton. I told you that this was a rather difficult one. It will all make sense, I assure you.”
A few moments later he had shown me all the different word combinations. The ‘sentence’ if that is what it was, now looked something like this:
canary – aidreq – urgent – uested – tensun – strbri
“I still make nothing of it,” I confessed.
“Almost there, Pendleton,” Vail assured me, “almost there. Now there follows a simple rearranging of the segments. This ordering of the segments was completely random, but it was not difficult to puzzle it out.” He quickly scribbled down a new order, and this time rather than keeping the segments apart he wrote it as one long word.
Immediately I saw a few things become clear from this, but before I could comment he scratched lines between certain of the words, clearly defining them.
“And so, Pendleton, we have a message directed strictly at us. ‘Urgent, aid requested.’ And the meeting place – ‘canary str bri’, which we may assume refers to the Canary St. Bridge. And the time. Ten o’clock Sunday.”
I nodded slowly. It was all there, and yet it seemed so tenuous, so improbable… “But Vail, couldn’t you be reading too much into all this? Might it not all be merely a coincidence?”
“Possibly, except that the signature is from the one person in all the world who might employ this particular code and send a message in this particular way.”
“The signature?” I asked. “Do you mean the ‘pmar’?”
He nodded. “It is part clarification, part signature. It is actually ‘PM/AR’. The PM is in reference to the time, so we know that the meeting is to be at ten o’clock in the evening. The AR is actually the author’s initials. Can you think who it is, Pendleton?”
“Alanik Ray!” I said, immediately putting into words the thought that flashed into my mind.
He nodded again, and his smile widened. “And so you see that it is to be a very interesting business indeed, if the Great Detective himself requires our aid.”
“But Vail,” I said, “I had thought that Ray was involved in some business in Tempe Falls – the papers certainly place him there, at last report. Something to do with a kidnapping or something. And why on earth would he contact you in such a strange manner?”
“He was involved in a kidnapping case there,” admitted Vail, “but that was several weeks ago. News travels quickly, but Tempe Falls is nearly a continent away. Though it is possible that he has sent someone to meet with us, I strongly suspect that this is to be a meeting with the man himself. As to his method of contact, I find it ingenious. He is obviously involved in some very dangerous work, and needs to make contact in secrecy. Conventional mail must be suspect; any letter he sends may be intercepted. But he knows full well that I make a habit of watching the Agony column, so what better way? Yet the Agony column is widely available, and any foe might see the message as well. So he encodes it, but employs a code that both he and I know. It is, in fact, a code that he had told me of in previous correspondence – a particularly subtle and difficult one that he encountered in one of his cases. Coincidence, Pendleton? I tend to strongly doubt it, especially with the very clear signature.”
My mind was racing. “But Vail… today is Sunday!”
He nodded. “And so we shall not have to wait very long to see whether this encoded message is coincidence or not. This very evening we shall have our answer.” He chuckled. “He left himself very little margin for error. Three days of adverts in the Agony column. If I had not caught it… but there is a genius in this as well. It allows only three days for whomever it is Ray fears to break the code. His opponent must be fearsome indeed to warrant such precaution.”
For those readers who are unfamiliar with Alanik Ray (though I am certain that number must be very few, as the man was himself a resident of our fair city not many years ago and his deeds are nearly legendary here and in other northeastern parts of the continent) I shall take a moment to discuss him here. Often referred to as the ‘Great Detective’, Alanik Ray is an elf native to these lands who has made an excellent career for himself in solving crimes and hunting down undead.
Many long-time readers will know that Vail and I are not native to these lands, and, in fact, are relatively recent arrivals (the tale of how the mists came to embrace us and pull us into this dark land is penned elsewhere). In contrast, Ray was born within Ravenloft, and consequently has been at practice in the profession that both he and Vail share for a much longer period of time. I will not attempt to recount here the many exploits and adventures of Ray, for they are legion. It is enough to say that Ray is one of the preeminent criminologists and undead-slayers of our time, and has worked with such luminaries as Dr. Rudolph Van Richten and Sir Anton Moore.
Neither Vail nor I have ever met Alanik Ray face to face, though we have both met his longtime friend and assistant, Dr. Arthur Sedgewick (a bluff, cheerful older fellow with a great bushy mustache). Despite this fact, each detective is certainly aware of the other. In fact, an active correspondence sprang up between the two almost immediately following our arrival in these misty lands. They share points of interest in particularly baffling cases they encounter, and occasionally one asks the other for advice or requests aid. Too, it is natural enough that they have each referred clients to the other, when the case or problem the client had brought seemed closer geographically to the other detective.
It is worth mentioning that occasionally Vail receives correspondence intended for Ray, and vice-versa. It is not at all surprising that the two are confused, especially as their professions are so similar. I myself have been mistaken for the good Dr. Sedgewick, a fact I find most amusing, as the two of us look nothing at all alike.
I have also been asked many times by readers whether or not there is any sort of rivalry between the two men. Neither is well known for his humility, after all, and perhaps it is only natural to assume that there might be something of a competition between the two whenever they interacted. If there is any rivalry, I will say it must be an entirely friendly one, and neither man is so prideful of his work that he will not ask for the other’s help if confronted with a challenging puzzle. Still, as I said before, Vail and Ray had never met each other in person, and perhaps it was because of this that Vail spent the remainder of the day in a state of nervous energy, pacing the room impatiently. Occasionally he would throw himself into his armchair, but almost instantly he would leap to his feet again. Twice he lifted his violin and began to play, and for a few minutes he would lose himself in a sad melody, but even the graceful tones of his favorite instrument failed to give him solace. At last he tossed it aside and gave me a rueful look.
“Well, Pendleton, I suppose our roles are reversed. You seem calm and composed, and yet I am in a storm of impatience and curiosity. The ‘Great Detective’ himself has come to our little city and implores our aid. I cannot but wonder what excitement awaits us. Ah well, speculation is useless. All will be explained this evening.”
And so the hours passed. At long last, Vail sprang to his feet and went to fetch his coat.
I glanced at the clock. “Is it time already Vail? It is scarcely half past nine. Canary street is not so far off as all that. Won’t we arrive too early?”
“Not if we walk,” said Vail. “I cannot wait another moment. A brisk stroll will get us to our appointment just on time, I think. Come, Pendleton, let us away.”
And so the two of us wrapped ourselves in coats and gloves, and exited into the cool winter evening. At Vail’s request I armed myself with my pistol, and both of us had our canes. “I do not expect that Ray means us any harm, Pendleton,” he told me in explanation, “but he is certainly involved in a very dangerous business, and it is well to be prepared. And there is always the possibility that it was not Ray himself who sent the message, but some brilliant enemy intending to lead us into a trap.”
There was a light sprinkling of snow on the nighttime streets, a remnant of a brief flurry that had graced our city earlier in the afternoon. It was still early in the season, and though it was chill out, most of the snow had melted off into dark patches of sparkling ice. A few carriages and hansoms passed us as we walked, but there was virtually no-one else afoot at this hour, save the occasional policeman huddled beneath a streetlamp.
We walked in silence, Vail leading, the occasional patch of hardened snow crunching underfoot. He set a brisk pace, partly because he was anxious to meet Ray and partly because it served to keep us warm from the chill. It was in the vicinity of Fleet Street, still several blocks from our appointed meeting place, that he dropped back to walk beside me.
“We are being followed,” he said. “Don’t turn your head.”
Indeed, my impulse to halt and look back was so strong that I nearly stumbled and fell. “Followed?” I asked, forcing myself not to turn, “on a night such as this? Who would…?” I lowered my voice, struck by a thought. “Is it Ray?”
Vail gave a quick shake of his head. “I hardly think so, colonel. Ray set our appointment himself. I do not think he would be rash enough to compromise himself by dropping in on us early unless the situation has changed quite dramatically. No, I think it rather more likely that this is some agent of our opponent.”
“Where is he?” I asked, careful to keep my gaze straight ahead.
“Nearly a block behind, on the other side of the street and keeping well into the shadows. He is excellent at his craft. We were nearly two blocks from our apartment when I first noticed.”
“But that was some time ago!” I protested. “Why did you say nothing?”
“I was considering what to do.”
Vail took a breath. “We must separate, Pendleton.”
I looked at him in alarm. “Separate? But why?”
“There is only one man pursuing us. He cannot follow us both, and we cannot lead him to Ray.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think, Pendleton! If it is Ray’s opponent that trails us, what else could his aim be? We receive a coded message from Ray; why else should it be coded but that he fears his opponent will see it? His opponent has followed Ray to this city, and whether or not he realized Ray sent us a coded message he must have strongly suspected Ray would enlist my aid. What better way to find Ray than to trail us?”
“But if we do not meet Ray at the appointed time, it may take days for him to devise another code and meeting place.”
“You see my dilemma,” said Vail with a sober nod. “That is why we must separate. You will continue on to meet Ray and I will lead our pursuer off on a fool’s chase. I have every confidence that when presented with the choice, our pursuer will continue to trail me. If he does not I will be aware of it and will double back to ambush him from behind.”
I was alarmed. “But Vail, the man may be dangerous! What if he means you harm?”
Vail came to a halt beneath a streetlamp at the corner of a crossing street. “The man most certainly is dangerous,” said Vail, “but I am not his target. He will not attack me while he believes I may lead him to Ray. Fear not for me, my dear colonel. I shall lead him a merry chase. As for you, keep the appointment with Ray and extend my apologies. Tell him everything, and he will know what to do. Now we must part.”
At that he turned and took the street to the left. I looked after him a moment, then remembered myself and hurried on my course.
* * *
It was only another five minutes before I arrived at the Canary St. Bridge, but it seemed longer. I could not help feeling Vail might be in mortal peril and I was not with him. Too, what had started out as an interesting adventure had changed in nature when it was brought home to me how dangerous an endeavor we were embarked on, and it was with a growing sense of unease that I proceeded. More than once I looked back, but if there was anyone trailing me I could not see him.
At last I arrived at the bridge, which many readers will know passes over the Tyne roadway, but to my dismay I discovered it was empty. Aside from a light dusting of snow and a flickering streetlamp at the far side, there was nothing whatever to be seen. Even the surrounding shops and houses were dark.
Quickly I checked my watch and found that it was nearly two minutes past ten. Had I arrived too late? Surely Ray would have waited a few minutes at least.
It was then that I heard a soft snort and a low wicker, coming to me faintly as if from a distance, but I could see no horse or carriage. I had an idea, and moved to the edge of the bridge, leaning out over the railing. Just as I suspected, there was a small hansom waiting there, tethered to two horses.
“Stand and turn,” I heard from behind me. “I have a weapon aimed.”
Slowly I turned and faced the man, who held a hand crossbow in one hand and a torch in the other. “Alanik Ray?” I asked.
He was younger-appearing than I expected, though of course since he is an elf and much longer lived than any human his appearance is no indication of his actual age. But to my eyes he looked not much over twenty, though very tall. He was dressed in very fine clothing overlaid by an excellent cape that was lined with white silk on the outside and some rich velvety material on the outside, golden and worked with beautiful red and blue embroidery. Though he wore a hat I could see that his hair was long, and pulled back in ponytail. His face was gracefully beautiful, as most elves are, and his eyes were a piercing green, and flashed with intelligence.
To my question he gave a measured nod, though he did not lower his weapon. “And you are Colonel Pendleton, or at least appear to be. One question before I accept your identity, colonel. You have met my associate Dr. Sedgewick, yes?”
I nodded. “Almost six months ago, now.”
“How did you meet?”
“Why, you sent him to us. To obtain a certain artifact, an amulet made of corundum. We did not have it, but Vail had an idea where it might be found and together we managed to obtain it. I assume he brought it to you and that you made some use of it-“
At last he lowered his weapon and offered me a small smile. “Indeed, it was instrumental in putting a restless spirit back into its grave. Come, we must fly. The fiend who is after me may have followed you here.”
I followed him down the snowbank at the edge of the bridge and onto the road below, where he hurried me into the hansom and barked an order to the driver, handing the torch he held up to the man. Immediately we set out, though I had no idea where we were going.
“I apologize for holding a weapon on you, colonel,” said Ray once we were underway. “But I have every reason to believe that the creature who has dogged my heels these many miles is capable of changing its appearance. I had to make certain you were who you appeared to be.” He removed his top hat and set on the seat beside him, and raked his fingers quickly through his hair, which I could see in the better light was golden in color. “So, I assume that you were followed, and that Vail is leading the pursuer astray, yes?”
I was caught off guard by his quick deduction. “I… er, yes, that’s exactly correct. But how did you know?”
He shrugged. “You are here; Vail is not. The only other conclusion is that you spotted and decoded my message yourself, an unlikely possibility at best. Um… no offense intended.”
“None taken,” I assured him.
“As for the creature that is after me, it is as intelligent and resourceful a foe as I have ever faced. It was always a possibility that it would stake out your apartment and attempt to trail Vail to me. But it was a risk I felt confident in taking, forVail is extremely capable.”
“Who is the driver?” I asked.
“An ordinary fellow who makes his living driving fares about this city,” said Ray. “I gave instructions before we left.”
“Where are we bound?”
A thin smile came to Ray’s lips. “No place you are not already familiar with, colonel. Ah, here we are.”
The hansom pulled to a stop and I peered out, discovering that we were in the street that runs directly in front of our apartment.
* * *
“Miss Sherington has retired for the evening,” I said apologetically as I led Ray into our drawing room and took his cape and hat, “else I would offer you something to eat-“
“Better that she does not know I am here, colonel,” said Ray, moving quickly to the window and pulling the curtains closed, “though I thank you for your offer. Ah!” His eyes eagerly surveyed the small laboratory and the rows of books on the far end of the room, “so this is Vail’s famous little study. I wonder if I might take a peek at it. Colonel?”
“Oh yes, of course,” I said, gesturing, “though you may find it a bit disorganized. Vail has an erratic sense of order.”
Ray strode over and glanced along the top shelf of books. “Hmm… yes, there is an order here, though not alphabetical. It looks to be by subject. Helger, Van Diesel, Griegham… he has an excellent library. Oh! Here is an original text by Nefarr!” He took one of the older books down and began leafing through it excitedly.
“I believe I shall fetch myself a pot of tea,” I said, excusing myself and leaving him perusing the volume.
When I returned he had a stack of several books piled on Vail’s desk and had lighted the lamp there. He had several splayed open on various parts of the desk and appeared to be reading from all of them at once; jumping from one to another.
“Tea?” I asked, offering a cup.
He seemed immersed in his studies, and did not immediately take notice. “What? Oh, no colonel, thank you.”
I took a seat in my armchair and settled back.
It was not twenty minutes before I heard the door open behind me and Vail entered.
Alanik looked up, then stood. “Hector Vail?”
“Constable Ray, I presume!” said Vail, stepping fully into the room. The two men met in the middle, shaking hands.
“I suppose there is no need for introductions,” I chuckled.
“Indeed not,” Vail agreed, smiling warmly. “The Great Detective himself! You are very welcome to our humble home.”
“I thank you for your welcome,” said Ray, “though I wish the occasion was happier. I am a hunted man.”
“Yes,” said Vail, “I have just returned from leading your foe on a sightseeing tour of our little city. He is quite capable at trailing, whoever he is. I doubled back twice but never caught more than a glance of him. He vanished completely the second time, and I could find no trace of him. An extraordinary man.”
“No man, but a creature of darkness,” said Ray. “He has dogged my heels for more than a week now. There were times when I feared I might not reach you at all. But now I have, and with your help I have a plan to destroy him.” He shook his head. “If we can find a way.”
Vail gestured to a chair. “Please, tell us all. Pendleton and I have been bursting with curiosity since we received your message.”
Ray gathered his thoughts. “You have heard of the Kargatane?”
Vail grunted. “I have read something of the Kargat. A secret police force for King Azalin, or so the rumor goes. Of course that is Darkon, and I have never been there. It is your province.”
Ray nodded. “The Kargat does indeed exist, but I speak of the Kargatane. It is a secret society which is linked to the Kargat.” Vail was silent, so Ray continued. “They are devoted to gaining the secret of immortality, and are willing to do anything to achieve their goals. I have uncovered evidence of ritual sacrifice, murder, and worse.
“All the members are powerful and wealthy men in their own right, some well known public figures, so opposing them is difficult, to say the least. The organization is large and vastly powerful, and I have been blocked in my attempts to bring them to justice at every turn.
“At first I only suspected that some shadow organization was working against me: evidence I had submitted to police authorities would somehow be ‘misplaced’ or ‘lost’; witnesses would vanish; and eventually even magistrates would dismiss my investigations as unwarranted, even when presented with irrefutable evidence. It was after a series of related instances like these that I began to investigate the possibility of some secret organization manipulating events against me. What I found astonished me.
“This secret and abominable society is vast. There is no part of Darkon culture and politics that it does not touch. It is the unseen hand that guides magistrates, nobles, and commoners alike. It has agents in neighboring lands as far south as Nova Vaasa, Dementilieu, and Falkovnia that are actively involved in subverting power and working by secret and terrible means. It is conspiracy, Mr. Vail, as great a conspiracy as I have ever encountered.
“Worse still, my darkest suspicions about its leadership were confirmed. While many of the rank and file members and agents of this society are merely evil men, I am convinced that the upper echelons of Kargatane society are filled with all manner of unnatural and evil creatures. Diabolical undead, vampires, and sorcerers work behind the scenes, playing even the human members of the Kargatane as pawns.”
“Intriguing,” said Vail. “You were a natural target for them, of course.”
Ray nodded. “Indeed, as my awareness of them grew, so too did they come to know of me. That is no surprise; I hardly keep my affairs secret and have become, thanks to the writings of my dear friend Dr. Sedgewick, something of a local celebrity. But when they realized I was focusing my investigations on them-“
“They didn’t appreciate the scrutiny,” supplied Vail.
Ray smiled. “To say the least. In their eyes I had shifted from a potential threat to an active and dangerous enemy. They underestimated me at first, and sent a couple of mortals to ambush me. I make it a practice never to be caught without some means of defense, and I was able to handle this threat without much trouble, escaping with only a few bruises. But I knew it was only a matter of time before they sent more terrible assassins. So I made a decision.
“I determined they could not be fought by conventional means. Their reach is too long, their power too overwhelming. And I was mindful of the risk to my friends and associates, Dr. Sedgewick in particular. Even if I were able to fend off a series of assassination attempts, how could I protect my innocent friends? Should the Kargatane hold them hostage for my good behavior, rendering me powerless to oppose them? It was impossible.”
“Hmm,” said Vail. “What did you do?”
“I died,” said Ray. “It was the only way.”
“You… died?” I asked, uncertain what he meant.
He looked from one of us to the other. “I see I have outraced the news. To all the world, I am now a dead man. I faked my own death. It was necessary for the protection of my associates, and I had hoped to lull the Kargatane into a false sense of security. You see, I had learned something of their organization, and I determined that though there were far too many members to oppose it directly, there were only eight or nine leaders. If I could identify and deal with each of the ringleaders, the rank and file members would be left leaderless, and would splinter and fraction.”
“How did you do it?” I asked. “Fake your death, I mean. Something like that cannot be easy.”
Ray shook his head. “It was not too difficult to arrange. I was in Tempe Falls with Dr. Sedgewick investigating a string of disappearances among the children there. It was widely thought that a werewolf was prowling the area, but I soon discovered that a sorcerer who planned to use them as sacrifices in a ritual to become immortal had kidnapped the missing children. Ezechial, the sorcerer, had made his lair in a cave hidden in the cliffs above the falls themselves, and with Dr. Sedgewick’s help I managed to free the children before the awful spell could be completed. I gave them to his charge while I pursued the mage.
“Ezechial met an ignominious end when he slipped on the rocks near the falls and plunged into the gorge. There was not even a final confrontation between us; I was much behind him when I saw him fall. But standing there, gazing down into that misty abyss, I realized that the perfect moment to orchestrate my death had come. Sedgewick was hours in returning; during that time I left false trails and marks to mislead him into thinking that the sorcerer and I had struggled, then plunged together off the cliff.”
I spoke up, surprised. “You mean the good doctor believes you dead as well?”
Ray gave a sad nod. “That was the most difficult part, deceiving Sedgewick. I watched, hidden in the rocks, as he returned to the scene and discovered the ‘evidence’ I had left. He was so torn with grief over my apparent death that it took all my willpower not to go to him at once and tell him my whole plan. But I could not. If my death were to be believed and accepted by my enemies, it was absolutely essential that my comrades believed it as well, Sedgewick above all. It was a good plan, and it worked nearly perfectly. In all the world there are only four people who know I am alive: the two of you, myself, and the fiend who has followed me these last several days.”
“Who is he, then,” asked Vail, “and how was he not taken in by your ruse?”
“I will tell you what I know,” said Ray, “though it is precious little. In my investigation of the Kargatane, I learned that the organization had many assassins within it, but there is one that is feared above all others. They call him ‘Blade of Darkness’ and he reports directly to the highest of the leaders, and acts only on their behest. Apparently after I foiled their first assassination attempt they decided to send their most accomplished killer.
“As to how he knew that I was not dead, I cannot say, but it was later the same day that I first realized I was being followed. I set a trap that night in a local inn near the falls, but it was I who was nearly trapped, and I barely escaped with my life. For the past week I have flown across the continent, yet my pursuer has dogged my every step, and nearly caught me several times.
“What he is, I do not know, though I am convinced he is no natural creature, but rather some undead thing.”
“A vampire?” I asked, but Ray shook his head.
“Not unless it is some new variety I have never heard of. He operates as well during daylight as at night – perhaps better.”
“But wasn’t there a daywalking vampire, Vail?” I asked. It seemed to me he had mentioned something about a daywalker.
“Yes, but that was a unique case. And even she was forced to retire to her coffin during the night. The creature Ray has described is not affected by night or day.”
“Nor does he sleep,” said Ray. “I am exhausted from my flight, for I was only able to snatch sleep in small naps, so unrelenting was the creature’s pursuit. Were I not elven, I might have succumbed to my exhaustion and been destroyed in my sleep. In any case, he is no vampire. He shows no fear of any vampire ward I know, and I have tried them all.”
“What does he look like?” asked Vail.
“I cannot say with certainty, but I very much suspect that he can change his shape and appearance. There have been at least three occasions I suspect he passed near me in a crowd, but I saw nothing familiar about any of the people around me. Of course, I have no reason whatever to believe that he can change his basic size, only the shape of his form.”
“A shapechanger,” mused Vail. “Perhaps a doppleganger, then?”
“I think not. He has displayed a strong aversion to holy sites, and his affiliation with the highest leaders of the Kargatane leads me to believe he is an undead. Too, the one thing I noticed all three times that he passed near me was a lingering and persistent smell of wisteria.”
Vail sat up straight. “Wisteria is often used as a preserving agent.”
Ray nodded. “My same thought.”
“Then you believe-?”
“I strongly suspect it. The second clue may be his choice of names. Though I do not know its true name, he has used the aliases ‘Hadrian Allandaros’, ‘Asmund Thorarin’, ‘Tomia Kindle’, and ‘Linias Kelar’. You recognize the significance?”
“Of course,” said Vail, visibly excited. “Historical figures. All knights or sworn warriors who were betrayed by their masters.”
“And all were falsely accused by a treacherous woman,” pointed out Ray.
“Yes,” said Vail, standing and moving towards his bookshelves. “I imagine you have already begun looking through my little library for clues.”
“I had started, yes,” said Ray, joining him, “though I had discovered nothing yet.”
“Tomia Kindle was the most recent of those named,” said Vail, “and he lived and died over two hundred years ago. So your ‘Blade of Darkness’ must have undergone transformation some time after that. An excellent clue.”
I was left alone in my armchair, a little confused at what had them both so excited.
“Here it is,” said Vail, pulling down a small volume that I recognized as Van Richten’s Treatise on the Ancient Dead. “An excellent place to start.”
I stood and approached, holding myself a little off to keep out of the way. I knew something of Van Richten’s work, and I was surprised by Vail’s choice. “You believe this foe of Ray’s is some sort of mummy, then?” I asked, confused. To my mind mummies were the stuff of Har’ Akir; shambling desert undead risen from pharaoh tombs, emaciated and wrapped in bandages. Ray’s description sounded nothing like that.
“Not a mummy, Pendleton, though related,” answered Vail. “Not all ancient dead are mummies, though all mummies are ancient dead.”
“If the wisteria is the primary preserving agent,” said Ray, turning Vail’s attention to the map of Ravenloft that hung from the wall, “we may assume that he underwent transformation in a land where it is found.”
“If he is a native of these lands, and not an outsider,” agreed Vail, letting his finger run over the chart. “Let’s see… wisteria is found in Dementlieu, Richemulot, our own Mordent, Valachan, and some parts of Verbek. Sithicus has a type of wildflower which smells quite like wisteria, though it has no preservative qualities that I know of-”
Ray shook his head. “It was definitely wisteria. We may rule out Sithicus.”
“Very well,” said Vail. “It is worth noting that wisteria is not found in Darkon at all, which would strongly suggest this ‘Blade of Darkness’ is not native to that land.”
“But we are thinking only of the map as it is drawn now,” interjected Ray, “If the ‘Blade’ underwent transformation two hundred years ago, the world would have been a very different place. There may be other lands where wisteria once grew, perhaps even Darkon.”
“Very true,” conceded Vail.
I retreated to our little chaise lounge as the two of them fell to studying through the many tomes that they deemed might have bearing. I could tell that both men were excited and absorbed in their researches, even if I could not follow their rapid-fire deductions. I knew I could not be any help, and indeed it was as if they had ceased to take notice of my presence, so I determined to keep quietly out of the way.
* * *
I came awake at Vail’s gentle touch on my shoulder. Ruefully I realized that though I had meant to stay awake I had fallen into a slumber on the chaise. Sometime during the night Vail must have brought me a blanket.
“Vail,” I murmured, sitting up and stretching the cramps out of my shoulder, “what…? How long was I asleep?” I could see faint light spilling through the crack in the curtains at the window, which were still drawn.
“It is mid-morning, Pendleton.”
“Oh,” I said, yawning. “I am sorry to have fallen asleep.”
“It was for the best,” said Vail with a smile. “We will have errands to run today, and I need you awake and alert.”
I stood and stretched again, then abruptly realized Ray was not in the room. “Where is Constable Ray?” I asked.
“I offered him my room. He was exhausted and needed a chance to sleep.”
“So you found… what you were looking for, then?”
Vail nodded. “We believe so, though it is impossible to be certain until we face him.”
“What did you find out?”
Vail led me over to his desk. “We were fortunate that it was an ancient dead that we were researching. As you know, the vast majority of ancient dead are bound to something they knew in life – a specific place or item. This makes it much less likely that an ancient dead from another world should be pulled into our little demiplane. So right away it was more likely that this ‘Blade of Darkness’ was native to this land of mists. Then there was the wisteria, which only grows in a few lands. And the aliases that the creature has used – there was a pattern to them that must mean something in relation to the creature’s own identity.”
“Then you have discovered the creature’s history?”
Vail gave me a sober look. “Nothing is certain in these speculations, Pendleton. We may even be incorrect in our assessment that it is a member of the ancient dead that we face. That said, we have discovered a very likely suspect.”
He pulled open a slim volume that I did not recognize and leafed through it. “This is ‘Slykov Nataya’, originally penned in the native falkovnian by Pavel Kutchevski in the year 589, translated to mordent common by Anton de Gheyn in 690.”
“I have never heard of it,” I admitted.
“There is no reason you should have,” said Vail. “It is a little known work, and deals mainly with the seasonal variations of the Aerie district of Falkovnia. But it mentions an account of one Lucien of House Toraine, sworn knight of Duke Mendel Fyodor, apparently a petty noble of that area. The details are sketchy, but it seems that Duke Fyodor falsely accused Lucien of treachery, even though Lucien apparently served his household honorably. Lucien was hanged on Fyodor’s damning testimony, but less than a month later Fyodor and his entire household were murdered in one night. The person or persons who did this crime were never found.”
“You think this Lucien is the ‘Blade of Darkness’, then?” I asked. “But I thought you said that wisteria doesn’t grow in Falkovnia.”
Vail nodded. “It does not. And the burial practice at the time was to cast the body into a fire until it was consumed, hardly conducive to creation of an ancient dead. But Lucien was not originally from Falkovnia. He was born to a poor family in Richemulot, and had taken service with Duke Fyodor to support them. His brother Laurier claimed his body after he had hanged, as was his right under the law, and he was brought back to Richemulot.”
Vail reached for another, thicker volume. “Ray stumbled upon the first account quite by accident, but it caught his attention, and reminded me of something I had read elsewhere. This is a more recent work, ‘Tempe de Gerre’ penned by Remi Marais, of Richemulot. It gives brief histories of all the minor noble houses of that land.
“The section concerning House Toraine has a more detailed account of Lucien’s story. Lucien served Duke Fyodor for three years, and rose to the position of captain of Fyodor’s personal guard. That position was known as the ‘Lightblade’.”
“That sound’s strikingly like ‘Blade of Darkness’,” I said.
“Our thought as well,” said Vail, “and the change in title would reflect the creature’s fall to evil. As for Lucien, he was reportedly a fair-looking fellow, and the duke’s wife Katerina was apparently quite smitten with him. During all the time that he served the duke, she had watched him rise through the ranks, and made repeated attempts to seduce him. Lucien was an honorable man, and refused to betray his duke, fending off all her advances. In the end, she grew embittered against him and went to her husband with a false tale that Lucien had raped her. Duke Fyodor was well familiar with his wife’s philanderings, and knew her tale was false, but took action against Lucien despite this, for he feared shame more than he respected justice. As a result an innocent man was imprisoned, tried, and executed.”
“How terrible,” I murmured.
“Indeed,” said Vail, “and Duke Fyodor even denied payment to the Toraine family of the earnings which Lucien had made. Most interesting was Lucien’s last statement. He declared that he would have been able to forgive the Duke and his house for all else, save that the man had stooped to denying payment, and thus harming his family. He then uttered a curse upon all the enemies that his family ever had had, and swore and undying oath of vengeance against all such. Duke Fyodor was said to have laughed at the ‘futile threatenings of a condemned man’.
“The tale does not end there. Lucien’s brother Laurier, the selfsame man who reclaimed Lucien’s body and brought it back to Richemulot, was a devoted priest of the High Faith, the ancient church of Mordent. He was an educated man who had traveled as far south as Valachan, and had made an extensive study of dead religions. He had some ability and familiarity with sorcery, though he had never practiced it for evil or gain, and no doubt had some exposure to the burial rites of the far south.
“When he appeared before the Duke and demanded Lucien’s body and the money that was owed, the Duke had him publicly whipped for his insolence. Humiliated and furious over the injustice done to himself, his family, and his younger brother who he had loved, Laurier returned to Richemulot with his brother’s body, and swore vengeance. It’s not clear in the record what happened next, but apparently Laurier dropped out of sight for several weeks. Then the news came that the Fyodor family had been slain in one night of bloody murder, along with all their retainers and guards. The entire family line was ended.
“When this news came to Richemulot, Laurier was wracked with guilt and was never the same. He immersed himself in his religion, seeking forgiveness and absolution from some unnamed crime, which he never received. In the end, he hanged himself.
“It is Constable Ray’s theory – and I concur – that Laurier had learned some awful spell during his journeyings and studies. Something that would allow him to bring his brother back from death. Something that would allow him to exact a terrible vengeance against the Duke. But the price of this terrible pact was more than Laurier could bear. The creature that he resurrected was not his brother as he remembered him, but a monster capable of brutally slaying not only the Duke and his wife, but their children and innocent household retainers. That he later committed suicide shows that his act weighed heavily on his conscience.”
“And what a terrible price!” I said. “To not only lose his brother, but to see his family line end.”
“Oh, the Toraine family did not end,” said Vail. “It was continued by a younger sister, Sabine. Indeed, an interesting sidenote is that the family line continued until thirty years ago, when the sole descendant Samantha Toraine, was married to one of the most powerful nobles in Falkovnia, the former Count Vladimir, and took his name and title. As you may be aware, she was widowed early in the marriage when the Count was struck by a strange malady, and she relocated to Il Aluk in Darkon.”
“Darkon,” I noted.
Vail nodded. “Constable Ray is not certain, but believes she may be somehow connected to the Kargatane. She certainly meets their qualifications: she is both powerful and wealthy, and being one of the most famous social butterflies of that city she also wields a certain kind of power.
“Here is our theory: Lucien Toraine was transformed into an ancient dead by his brother Laurier in some way that had bearing on Lucien’s last vow. He became the avenging killer who hunted down those who had been deemed enemies of his family. How he is woken from his eternal slumber and what controls his motivation are mysteries to us, but we believe that his targets are chosen for him by his descendants, or that they have some measure of control over him.”
“How do we fight him, then?” I asked.
Vail shrugged. “There are many clues in his story that may aid us. Both he and his brother were hanged; perhaps this will translate into an aversion of hangman’s nooses. Both the Toraine and Fyodor houses had crests, perhaps one of them will have some effect against him, though it may be difficult to lay our hands on them. Also, Laurier was a devoted priest of the Church of High Faith. Though it is unlikely that he learned or performed the spell of transformation under that faith, a holy symbol from that church may still have some hold on the creature. Although the Church of High Faith is now a dead religion, it was originally headquartered here in Mordent, so finding a holy symbol shouldn’t prove too difficult. Perhaps,” he added ruefully, “considering the sleight Duke Fyodor offered his family by refusing payment, we may even be able to ‘pay’ Lucien off.
“There are of course the standard weaknesses most ancient dead share, which Van Richten describes in his treatise. Fire and holy water are particularly effective, though the more powerful the ancient dead being is the less effective these items are likely to be. Still, it will be helpful to have them at hand when we trap the creature.”
“You have devised a plan, then?”
“Not my plan, but Ray’s. Though I have every confidence it will work.”
“And what is it?”
“First we must procure those items which will be effective against the creature. Then we must devise a place to ambush him. Constable Ray and I have chosen the Chamberfield Hotel as the perfect place to lure him.”
“Why not here, in this very apartment?” I asked.
Vail shook his head. “We should not place ourselves at such risk. The ambush must be in a place of our choosing. As for this apartment, it will not do. Remember, the creature followed us last night from this place, so it is already familiar with it, from the outside at least. I have already sent Miss Sherington away for the weekend. We are in great danger even now, for who knows but that it waits outside at this very moment?”
The thought sent a shiver through me, and I glanced at the window. That must have been the very reason Alanik Ray had been so quick to draw the curtains last night.
Vail followed my thought. “Yes, you see the danger. If the creature knew Ray was here, he would burst in on us before we had a chance to arm ourselves with effective weaponry, perhaps slaying us all. So we must be very careful.”
“What would you have me do then?” I asked.
“I am sending you to procure some of the more basic items we need. I do not believe the creature will follow you; it did not last night. So you must first secure a room for our ambush at the Chamberfield, then you must pick up some vials of holy water. An ordinary rope as well, and a few torches. Then you may return here, but take care not to carry the items back in plain sight. You understand?”
I nodded. “What of you?”
“I will stay here, for I do not believe that Ray should sleep unguarded. If we both left, the creature would have no fear in entering. If it discovered Ray asleep…”
I nodded my understanding. “Let me shave and get a change,” I said, giving my rumpled clothing a rueful look, “and I will go.”
* * *
It took me less time than I had thought to run Vail’s errands; though it was late midmorning when I set out, I returned sometime after one o’clock.
I had flagged down a passing hansom at random when I exited the apartment, wanting to be away as quickly as possible. I was very worried that the creature’s eyes might be upon me, and more concerned that it might follow and discover my purposes, but to my relief we were underway quickly, and though I scanned the street behind I could see nothing other than the ordinary foot traffic one expects in our little city. There was no carriage following that I could tell, and we were moving quickly enough that no-one afoot could hope to keep up.
So I tried to relax, but still felt a creeping unease. It almost seemed I could smell the sweet flowery odor Constable Ray had spoken of.
My first destination was the Chamberfield Hotel, and it was also my most worrisome task. The Chamberfield is a popular hotel, and it seemed to me that if there was one hole in the plan Vail and Ray had conceived it was the possibility that there might not be any rooms vacant.
So it was with some trepidation that I stepped down from the hansom, giving a quick glance about to see if there were anyone suspicious who might be watching (silly I know, for if the creature had managed to follow me up to that point it was not likely that I would be able to detect him then). The driver, a slender man with dark hair and a friendly face asked if he should wait. I asked him to do so, and entered the hotel.
Fortunately there were several rooms vacant and I quickly paid for one on the second floor, received a key, and left.
My next stop was at Bartleby’s General Goods Store, and it was relatively easy to find both torches (I purchased five) and rope. Though the rope presented an altogether different problem. There were five different kinds on hand, of different thickness and texture, and I had no idea which would serve best. I knew that Vail intended to fashion a hangman’s noose, but I had no idea which rope was most likely to be used for that purpose. In the end I had a short span cut from each of the five and bundled them up in a bag.
“Where next?” asked the driver when I returned.
And it was on to the home of Father Edmund, the priest of Tyr. Vail and I are well acquainted with the good priest and have worked with him on more than one occasion. Though he is getting older in years, he has been tireless in his opposition of the undead, and I was half tempted to invite him to help us battle the evil creature we would soon face. But I remembered Ray’s need for secrecy to preserve his false death, and did not speak. Still, Edmund was kind enough to bless and sanctify several vials of holy water for me. I paid for them and was about to leave when I was struck by a thought.
“Father,” I asked, “do you know where I could lay my hands on a holy symbol of the Church of High Faith?”
He looked surprised at the question. “I don’t believe I know anyone who practices that faith anymore. I suppose they must be around somewhere, but I’m not really certain… Dr. Kaufen might have one in his collection. Yes, he probably would. But if you have need of a holy symbol, I have several of Tyr-“
I thought that it couldn’t hurt so I took the one he offered, thanked him, and departed.
“Interestin’ sort of things you’re collectin’ there, guvner,” drawled the driver in his thick Mordentish accent. “What’s that then? Water?”
“Holy water,” I said.
He looked impressed. “What’s it for, then? Huntin’ vampires?”
“Worse,” I said.
We sped to Dr. Kaufen’s museum after that, and though he wasn’t there his assistant was, a weasel faced little man with a pinched nose (who is a very cheerful and pleasant fellow despite how he looks) and it was the work of a moment to fetch a holy symbol for the Church of the High Faith. I placed it in my pocket and thanked the man.
I headed for home after that, a feeling a bit better having the items that Vail had sent me for but still very uneasy. I found myself constantly scanning the streets looking for anyone suspicious, out of place, or who might be watching me. But of course I saw no one.
I thanked the driver when we arrived, paid the fare and included a tip for his patience, and hurried into the apartment, up the stairs, and into our flat. Vail was pacing near the windows as I entered, but Ray must still have been sleeping, for the door to Vail’s room was closed and he was not present.
“Excellent, Pendleton!” he said when I pulled the various items he had sent me from the bag I had bundled them in. He found particular amusement in my choice of five different types of rope.
“It is the symbolism of the noose which will affect him, Pendleton,” he said with a small smile as he swiftly tied one after another into hangman’s nooses, “not the exact substance of the rope itself. Any rope tied into a noose should serve, though it was as well you bought five different types. It will give us five different nooses, and that may mean five more weapons instead of one.”
He was delighted when he saw that I had procured a holy symbol of the Church of High Faith, but he bade me to keep it when I offered it to him. “It may be our trump card,” he said, “and besides I must leave to attend to some more details. I shall leave you to guard Ray until he wakes, and hopefully I will be back very soon.”
I looked at Vail’s bedroom door. “How long will he sleep, do you think?”
“Constable Ray is an elf,” answered Vail, “and does not require much sleep as a rule. But he has gone without for several days. I should think it unlikely he will wake before dark.”
And with that he fetched his coat and hurried out the door. I set the holy symbol on the end table next to the sofa and walked to the curtain, peeking out through the slit. I could just see the top of Vail’s hat as he emerged below me. Quickly he flagged down a hansom – a different one than I had taken of course – and sped off. As for the other pedestrian traffic, most of those who passed on this side of the street were invisible to me at this angle. As for the other side, there were one or two men who quickly hurried by, their coats held tightly closed and their breath puffing in the cold air, but no one that looked suspicious.
With a sigh I retreated from the window and settled down to wait for Vail’s return. I was restless, though, and had not eaten since midday the day before, so I decided to fetch myself a snack. I rang the bell pull twice before remembering Vail had sent Miss Sherington away for the weekend.
So I went downstairs, passing Miss Sherington’s quarters and making my way into the kitchen.
I am the first to admit that I know almost nothing of cooking, so after fumbling about a bit I managed to locate a few biscuits and made a pot of tea. Placing teapot, saucer, cup and biscuits on a tray I left the kitchen.
But as I opened the kitchen door I was startled to see a young lady standing in our hall, just inside the doorway. She was tall and beautiful, with a fair face, dark eyes and hair, and was dressed in the manner of a lady.
She appeared to be as startled as I was. “Oh!” she said, “my apologies. Mr. Hector Vail?”
“Er… no, miss. I am his associate, Oliver Pendleton.”
“Is he in?”
“I’m afraid not, miss.” She looked so crestfallen that I hastened to reassure her. “I expect him to return very soon. He is engaged in some… work on one of his cases.”
“Oh,” her voice was flat with despair. “May I wait for him? The matter is urgent.”
I was torn; on the one hand, I knew that this was a most inopportune time to entertain a visitor - especially since Constable Ray’s presence was supposed to be secret – but on the other it was not at all unusual for those seeking Vail’s services to turn up at odd hours. “Best if you return later,” I said. “Vail is engaged in pressing work at the moment.”
“I understand,” she said, casting her eyes down in a sad expression. “I am a stranger to you, and it must be an odd thing to hear me ask to enter your house. I would not ask but the matter is so urgent, and I have nowhere else to go. With your permission I shall wait for him on the step.”
I was utterly stricken at the idea that this lovely young lady, who was so obviously in some trouble, would wait out in the cold for Vail’s return. “No, no,” I said as she turned back to the door, “I had not realized that the matter was so pressing, and I should not be a gentleman if I turned away a lady in need. Please, follow me. You may wait in our study, and perhaps tell me something of your troubles.” I felt a twinge of remorse at allowing her in, but justified it with the thought that Vail probably would have done the same. He had said, after all, that Constable Ray would likely sleep through till nightfall, and to my mind Vail would probably return within the hour anyway. I thought it very likely the young woman would see Vail and be sent away long before Constable Ray arose.
I led her up the stairs and into our front room. She followed a few steps behind, but I could detect a slight perfume that was at once intoxicating and sweet, and somehow familiar…
“Please,” I said, setting down the tray I was carrying on the dining table near the window, “make yourself comfortable.”
She nodded and moved towards one of the armchairs, only to recoil at the sight of the hangman’s noose that was draped over the back. “Oh! What an… interesting thing to have lying about.” She took a seat on the sofa instead.
“Actually there are several of them about,” I said apologetically. “They bear on something Vail is working on. May I offer you tea?”
“No, thank you.” She was looking at the holy symbol on the stand beside her. “And does this trinket also concern Mr. Vail’s project?”
I was becoming uncomfortable with her interest. “What is it you came to see Vail for?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away. “I could tell right away that it must be something serious.” Though in truth she did seem less distressed than she had looked at the door.
A small smile touched her lips. “Perhaps it is a related matter, colonel. I believe I saw you earlier today, running a few errands yourself.”
“What?” I asked in confusion. I didn’t remember telling her that I was a colonel.
“This morning. I could have sworn I saw you at the Chamberfield Hotel.”
I felt a chill run up the back of my neck. “No,” I denied. “I have not left the house today.”
She shrugged. “Must have been another man, then. But he did look very like you.” She smiled again. “They say everyone looks like someone, after all. Perhaps you have a twin. But you are certain you were not there.”
She fixed me with a level gaze, cool and composed, that slight superior smile quirking at the corner of her mouth. It seemed to me that the sweet cloying odor of her perfume had magnified, and with a thrill of horror I finally recognized it as the scent of wisteria. Other things came clear to me at that moment. “I very much suspect that he can change his shape and appearance,” Constable Ray had said. Though the woman who sat before me was beautiful, she was tall, nearly as tall as Vail, and in size she was at least as large as a slender man. And Ray had speculated that even though Lucien could change his appearance he could not change his basic size.
“No,” I said, deciding to stall for time, “I was not there.”
She quirked an eyebrow in amusement. “Of course you weren’t. Just as you didn’t visit Bartleby’s General Store. And neither did you stop at a small home on Tanner Street. Nor did you visit the Antiquities Museum on South Street.” She smiled triumphantly.
I had been silently reviewing my options. The room was full of weapons which might be effective against the creature facing me, yet none of them were to hand. The holy water was over on Vail’s desk with the torches, which weren’t lit anyway. There was a lit candle there, but it had only a tiny flame, and seemed an insignificant weapon. The nearest hangman’s noose was on the armchair, and the holy symbol was on the end table beside the woman. There was no hope of reaching either of them in time.
She noted my glance. “You want this, Colonel Pendleton?” she asked mockingly, gesturing at the holy symbol. “Whatever would you do with it, I wonder?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
She laughed. “Come, come, colonel. You know who I am just as I know who you are. There is no need to pretend.”
“How did you follow me?” My eyes seized upon the small porcelain lamp on the table next to my chair. It was kerosene, and lit with a little flame. It seemed a pathetic weapon, yet it was the only thing in reach.
“Follow? Do you not remember? You told me exactly where you were going, and gave directions that I should take you there.”
Suddenly it all made sense. The feeling that I was being watched throughout my morning errands, the smell of wisteria that had been so faint I had thought it my imagination. “The driver,” I said flatly. All the time I had been peering out through the window, scanning the crowded thoroughfares suspiciously, and the creature had been riding in the seat above me. “But how?”
She gave a dismissive shrug. “I merely waited outside your building for either yourself or Mr. Vail to come out. When you did, I drove around the corner and made certain that it was my hansom you took. I had thought to follow either you or Vail to Constable Ray, but I suspected that Ray had somehow made contact with you already. Vail led me on a wild goose chase last night, after all, affording Ray the perfect opportunity to slip by me. But I could not be certain, and dared not act until I was. Your errands, and the weapons you were collecting that were to be used against me, were proof that Ray had made contact.” He glanced at the hangman’s noose. “I admit the rope threw me, but now I see that you have done a little researching into my history. I am impressed. It would not have worked against me, any more than that silly holy item, but I am flattered that you went to the effort.”
I swallowed. My adrenaline was coursing and I was very frightened, but I had slipped into a surreal calm. “What is it you want?”
“Alanik Ray, of course. And you will tell me where he is.”
I forced a defiant smile. “I’ve never heard of him.”
She tsked. “Shame on you, colonel. I would have expected better of you. I should point out that whatever you think of me, I am not truly a monster. Constable Ray is a dead man. He has interfered in matters that he should not have. There is nothing you can do or say to save him. But you can save yourself. Tell me where he is, and you will not be harmed.”
I said nothing.
“Come now, colonel. I see you are brave but not very smart. Perhaps it is noble that you are willing to sacrifice yourself for a stranger, but are you really willing to sacrifice your friend Mr. Vail as well? Tell me where Ray is, and I will spare you both.”
“Is this the same mercy that you showed to the children of Duke Fyodor? His innocent household retainers?”
Sudden rage flashed across her face. “Do not speak that name in my presence!” she said, starting to her feet. “Or speak of things that you know nothing about!”
Her sudden outburst gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for. I seized the lamp beside me and flung it full force into her face. Vail had mentioned mummies were susceptible to fire. It was a slim hope, but perhaps the tiny flame would ignite her when it struck.
It worked better than I could have expected. When it struck it shattered, spraying kerosene all over her, and with a whoosh a sudden blue flame engulfed her.
She staggered one step backwards, limned in a blue light but apparently unharmed. Her form wavered and shifted, and suddenly the image of a young woman fell away, and a young man stood there, a handsome fellow with blond hair and green eyes. He concentrated for a moment and the flame hissed and vanished, leaving no mark that it had ever been.
I had leapt to my feet and was diving for the holy symbol on the end table but he moved more quickly, seizing my arm and wrenching it painfully. His strength was incredible; I was lifted as easily as a child. He flung me backward, and I slammed into the wall near Vail’s desk.
I may have blacked out for a moment, or perhaps it was only the creature’s unearthly speed, but before I could even get fully to my feet he had reached me, seizing my throat with one hand and lifting me off my feet, and slamming me back into the wall.
I grunted with pain, and stars danced at the edges of my vision.
“Now you have angered me, colonel,” the creature said, holding me easily in place with one hand. As I watched, he shook the glove off of his other hand, leaving it bare, and held it up in front of my face threateningly. “Have you ever seen someone who was infected with mummy rot? It is not a pretty sight, colonel. It is a slow and painful way to die. Where is Ray?”
That last was more a shout than a question, and despite myself I flinched and glanced towards Vail’s bedroom door. It was an instinctive motion only, but it was enough to betray me.
He followed my traitorous glance then let me drop to the floor, where I lay gasping for breath. “So, he is under this very roof.”
He stalked to the door and tried the handle, discovering it was locked. With a furious yank, he wrenched the stout oaken door off its hinges and tossed it aside. He took two steps into the room, and just as I was getting to my feet, trying to reach the vials of holy water on the desk, he halted and looked back at me.
“This room is empty!” he said. “Where is Ray?”
“Here, fiend!” cried Ray from near the window. I was amazed to see him there, and as I watched, Vail emerged from the door leading to the stairwell.
For the first time the creature looked uncertain, but with a grunt of rage it sprang forward, baring its teeth in a feral snarl.
Ray stood his ground calmly, waiting until the creature had almost closed upon him before raising a shiny silver plate that was engraved and colored with a coat of arms. I recognized it from the drawings in Vail’s book as the Fyodor coat of arms.
Its effect on the creature was profound. With a shriek of dismay and stumbled backwards, covering its eyes as if it were blinded.
“These are your deeds, Lucien Toraine!” said Ray in a commanding voice. “Look upon them and know the price of your crimes!”
The creature stumbled back into the table, then darted for the door. But Vail was there, holding a similar silver plate. This one was engraved with the coat of arms of the Toraine family. “Here is the family you dishonored and betrayed!” he said, presenting it as forcefully as if it were a weapon. “Gaze upon it and know your shame!”
Again the creature snarled and retreated, again covering its eyes. But it could go no more than a few steps backwards before Ray confronted it again. It was trapped between the two men.
“Pendleton, the holy symbol!” called Vail “Quickly!”
My ribs ached terribly from being thrown into the wall, but nonetheless I darted forward and snatched the symbol from its place at the end table. Just as I got it, the creature found an opening between Vail and Ray, and darted for the door of Vail’s bedroom.
“Stop it, Pendleton!” cried Ray. “We cannot let it escape!”
I threw myself in the creature’s path, holding up the holy symbol in trembling hands. “Here is the religion you abandoned!” I cried, hoping that it would have some effect on him, even though earlier he had claimed it would not.
The effect was more profound than I had expected. For a moment I saw real fear dance in those beautiful green eyes, and it stumbled backwards so quickly it almost fell, almost mewling with terror.
The three of us formed a rough triangle around it, and no matter where it turned it was confronted with some item of its past. It seemed that we had trapped it for the moment, though I did not know what we should do next.
It was Alanik Ray who produced the answer. With his free hand he snatched up one of the hangman’s nooses that Vail had tied earlier. “We must burn it!” he cried.
“I tried earlier,” I said, “but the cursed thing seems immune!”
Vail had also gotten hold of a hangman’s noose. “Then we must weaken it first! Get a rope, Pendleton. We must get them around his neck!”
The creature during all of this was not silent, but rather shouted a continual stream of curses and expletives at us, some in other languages. Its hate was almost palpable, and we had to take care to stay well out of its reach, for it swiped its hands at us continually.
Vail swung the rope he held, trying to lasso the creature’s head with the noose, but the creature contemptuously swept it aside.
Ray tried next, but his aim was off and the noose glanced off the creature’s shoulder.
During both these exchanges the creature had been distracted, its attention focused primarily on Vail and Ray. I used this to snatch up a third hangman’s noose, which was on Vail’s desk, and gave a half hearted swing at the creature’s head, not really expecting to strike my target.
To my surprise the swing was true; the noose landed squarely around the thing’s neck. The creature gave a despairing wail, clutching at the rope with both hands, and I expected it to lift the noose off and cast it away. To my surprise, despite its great strength and the slackness of the noose, it was unable to move it even an inch.
“Now!” cried Ray. “See how it is weakened!”
It was true; the creature’s movements were more sluggish, though it still managed to knock aside Vail’s next cast with his rope. But it was slower, less sure, and Ray was easily able to lasso its head on his next throw.
The thing wailed again, jerking against the hold of the two nooses. I had let go of the end of my rope after casting it, but Ray retained his hold, and used it to jerk the creature off balance.
A moment later and Vail had lassoed it as well. With three nooses on its neck it seemed almost to move in slow motion, though it still pulled mightily against Vail and Ray.
“Now we shall see if it burns!” said Ray. “Pendleton, you are the only one with a free hand! Take the candle!”
I turned my head and saw that he was indicating the candle atop Vail’s desk that I had noted earlier. It was out of reach but together the three of us managed to move the creature closer to the desk. At last I was able to reach back and grasp it.
I hurled it at the creature, half afraid the flame would sputter and die before it even reached it.
The candle hit it in the chest, and tiny flame roared into explosive life, washing over the creature and engulfing it in blazing fire.
It shrieked in horrible pain, and I watched as the skin cracked and blistered, peeling away. The hair was gone in an instant, and the eyes melted and ran down it’s face, which was already blackening.
It convulsed, jerking about and dancing madly, as if seeking to escape the fires that consumed it. Flames shot out of its mouth and ears, and its shrieks melded with that of the roaring fire.
It was over in an instant. The creature was utterly consumed, leaving nothing but greasy black ashes and a pungent stink.
Vail and I stood panting, but Ray went to Vail’s desk and retrieved one of the vials of holy water, then poured it over the ashes.
“For good measure,” he said.
For my part I breathed a sigh of relief and sank down on the sofa, giving a little cry of pain as I sat. I probably had a broken rib or two, but I was glad to escape with so little a price.
* * *
“So, you mean to tell me that Alanik Ray was never in your bedroom at all?” I asked.
Vail shook his head. “I am sorry for the deception, Pendleton, but we needed to lure the creature here. I sent you out this morning knowing it would follow you, and divine your purpose.”
“It was my plan, colonel,” said Ray “and I am to blame for the danger you were put in. Once it realized that we were assembling weapons to use against it, it was only a matter of time before it had to come to us. I just miscalculated how quickly it would act.”
“But where were you then, if not sleeping?”
“I was sleeping,” admitted Ray a little ruefully. “I was down in Miss Sherington’s quarters. I napped there this morning, but I overslept a bit. I awoke when I first heard your struggles with the creature above, and feared I was too late.”
Vail nodded. “I met Ray in the hall, and passed one of the engravings I had had made to him. Together we raced up the stair, apparently just in the nick of time.”
“But where did the engravings come from?” I asked. “Surely you didn’t have time to go and retrieve them from Dr. Kaufen. You weren’t gone long enough.”
“I commissioned their creation earlier this morning,” said Vail, “with the help of Miss Sherington. When I left it was only to meet her at the silver shop two blocks from here. I settled the debt on the engravings and returned straight away.”
I nodded my understanding. “So you sent Miss Sherington out this morning.”
“Yes, it was my thought that the creature would not consider her important enough to trail.”
“Still, Lucien proved unpredictable in one respect,” said Ray. “Neither of us expected he would come so soon, and consequently you were put in greater danger than we intended.”
“Too, I did not expect that you would not have the holy symbol to hand,” said Vail. “Still, the creature is destroyed and we are all none the worse for wear.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said with a pained smile. “You aren’t wrapped in bandages for a broken rib.”
* * *
As I commit these writings to paper I am keenly aware that it will probably be many months and perhaps years before they will ever be published. As far as the rest of the world knows, Alanik Ray is dead. His secret must be kept until he has rooted out and destroyed every nefarious member of that evil Darkon cult, the Kargatane.
We bid him farewell that same evening, after making certain that Lucien’s ashes were safely buried on holy ground. Vail and I offered to put him up for the night, but he thanked us for our courtesy and left anyway, claiming that he had a great task ahead of him and that he was anxious to be about it.
Before he left, he and Vail established a system of coded communication, so that at any time one of them could contact the other. Vail of course offered to help him in his quest in any way that he could, and Constable Ray graciously thanked him and assured us both that he would not hesitate to call on us if the need arose. And then he left.
Someday this unusual account will be published, I have no doubt, for Constable Ray is an extremely capable man, and he will bring this dark conspiracy down. I almost feel a swell of pity for these evil plotters, these Kargatane.
* * *
Author’s Note: The term ‘agony column’ isn’t a fictitious creation; I first stumbled across it in one of the real Sherlock Holmes stories and was struck by how ominous it sounded. It was a slang term that was used in the Victorian era of London for the classified section of the newspapers. I’ve never been to England, so I have no idea whether it’s still in common use or not, but either way it’s a wonderfully gothic and richly evocative term (IMO anyway). :)