Monday, August 31, 2009

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner - Chapter Four

Chapter Four

And most impressive it was.

The stone walls were covered with weapons, from simple wooden spears and bows to highly polished swords and ornate jewel-encrusted daggers. There were broadaxes far too large for anyone possessed of merely human strength to wield, and a series of maces and morningstars, each covered with larger and crueler spikes than the last.

The floor was taken up by stone tables, daises, and columns upon which rested a variety of non-military objects: a tiny golden skull which glowed with a soft, gentle yellow light; an Egyptian scarab carved from jade, but which nevertheless moved, scratching away at the inner surface of the glass globe which imprisoned it; a stereopticon constructed entirely of what appeared to be spider silk, a stack of picture cards next to it, displaying what looked like Tarot images; and on and on. There were no placards, no labels to name the objects, but after nearly thirty years of tending the Collection, I doubted Devona needed any.

The Collection communicated an almost tangible sensation of antiquity, and for the first time I had an inkling of what it truly meant to be immortal.

“I’m surprised everything’s out in the open like this,” I said.

“They’re protected by wardspells placed by Lord Galm himself.”

“I don’t much know about magic, but as I understand, certain spells have to be renewed from time to time.” Like the preservative spells which, up until that point anyway, had kept me from crumbling into a pile of rotten hamburger. “Maybe some of these, specifically the one protecting the Dawnstone, are due for a recharge.”

She shook her head. “My job is to oversee the Collection, which means that I primarily monitor the wardspells. Lord Galm saw to it that I was taught just enough spellcraft to check the wards, but not enough to actually tamper with them. The wardspells Lord Galm employs are powerful and intricate. It takes me over six hours to check them all. And the first thing I did when I realized the Dawnstone was missing was examine the ward which protected it. The spell was intact and not due to be recharged by Lord Galm for some time.”

“Is it possible for someone with enough magical know-how to circumvent the wardspell?”

Devona thought about that for a minute.

“I suppose, but it’s highly unlikely. Another Darklord might be able to do it, but then a Darklord could never enter the Cathedral without Lord Galm knowing.”

It was my turn to think. “How about any of the visitors from Earth? Do any of them possess enough power and skill?”

“There are some who are almost as ancient as my father, and certainly as cunning,” she admitted. “But Father keeps a very close eye on them when they’re in Nekropolis.”

“Might he have brought one of them up here to show off his Collection and – ”

“No,” she interrupted. “Father is a private man, and not given to bragging.”

“I see. It strikes me as odd that someone – ” I couldn’t bring myself to call Lord Galm a man – “who is so secretive and possessive about his Collection should entrust its care to another, no matter how worthy of that trust she might be.”

“Father is very, very old, and his mind . . .” She paused. “After millennia of existence, time doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to you and me. Not only would the constant examination of the wardspells waste hours which he could be spending on more important matters, quite frankly, months, perhaps years, might go by before he remembered to check the wards.”

“So you got your job because your dad has a lousy memory.”

She smiled ruefully. “Something like that.”

I nodded. It was looking more and more like Lord Galm – despite Devona’s assurance that he would never do so – had removed the Dawnstone for reasons of his own, reasons he had elected not to share with the guardian of his Collection. But I decided to continue my examination of the room anyway. After all, that’s what she was paying me for.

“Show me where the Dawnstone was.”

Devona led me through the maze of clutter that was Lord Galm’s Collection until we came to a narrow stone column with nothing on it.

“It was here. Don’t get closer than a foot or so,” she warned. “The wardspell’s still active.”

“And we don’t want to alert Lord Galm that we’re here. Right.” I stood as close as I could and took a look at the spot where the Dawnstone had rested. I didn’t know what I thought I might see, but then I never do; that’s why you look.

At first glance there appeared to be nothing special about the flat surface of the column. Just smooth gray stone, no cracks, no sign of age. The column might have been chiseled yesterday for all I could tell. Part of the wardspell’s protective qualities?

Another thing about being dead: my patience has increased. When I was alive, I would’ve given the column a quick look or two, and then moved on. But now I scanned each inch thoroughly, and then I did it again. It was on my second pass over the column that I saw, in what from my vantage was the far righthand corner, a couple tiny specks of white powder.

I smiled. Score one for the dead man.

I pointed the specks out to Devona. “Know any vampires with dandruff?”

She ignored the joke and instead leaned forward and looked closely at the white grains.

After a bit, she straightened and said, “I have no idea what that is. Do you?”

“Maybe,” I said, declining to elaborate. “There’s no way we can reach it, is there? Not without setting off the wardspell’s alarm.”

She nodded.

“Figures. Well, if there are two specks, maybe there’s more.” I asked Devona to stand back, and then got down on my hands and knees – my zombie joints creaking in protest and did my best impersonation of a bloodhound, crawling slowly across the floor, face only inches above the stone and searched. I had the patience, the ability to hyper-focus my attention, and I didn’t breathe, so I didn’t have to worry about accidentally blowing any specks away before I could find them.

It took some time, but I located five more grains, all of which I collected with a pair of tweezers and slipped into a small white envelope. I never was a Boy Scout, but I know enough to be prepared all the same. And the gods of evidence collection were in a beneficent mood that day, for I also stumbled across a hair.

I gripped it in my tweezers, stood, and showed it to Devona. It wasn’t especially long, but longer than mine (which doesn’t grow anymore; another of the few fringe benefits being a zombie: no trips to the barber). It was difficult to tell the color in the greenish light of the torch, but it appeared to be –

“Red,” Devona pronounced.

“I think you’re right. Lord Galm’s?”

“He has brown hair; and his is much longer than this.”

“Well, it’s not yours. That is, unless you’re not a natural blonde.”

She smiled. “As half Bloodborn, I suppose I qualify as an unnatural blonde. But no, I don’t color my hair.”

I took another envelope out of my jacket and carefully placed the hair within. I didn’t bother to seal it – no saliva – and tucked the envelope and tweezers away in a pocket.

“Know anyone with red hair who might somehow gain access?”

“Well . . . There’s Varma, I suppose. But I don’t see how he could possibly get in here.”

“Who’s Varma?”

“One of Lord Galm’s bloodchildren – a human that’s been fully transformed. He’s one of Father’s favorites, though why, I don’t know. He’s an irresponsible hedonist.”

“That’s a fine way to talk about your own brother.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew they were the wrong thing to say: Devona’s jaw tensed and her eyes flashed. Literally.

“He’s not my brother!” she snapped. It might have been my imagination, but her canines seemed longer, sharper. “In Bloodborn terms, we’re considered the equivalent of cousins. Distant cousins at that.”

I held up my hands in what I hoped was a placating gesture. “Okay. I’m not here to untangle the roots of your family tree. I’m here to help you find out what happened to the Dawnstone.”

She glared at me for a moment longer, and then, with a sigh, relaxed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that half humans like me are looked down upon by the fully Bloodborn. To put it mildly. I’m not sure Father would ever have given me my position if I hadn’t displayed a talent for magic. It’s one of the few advantages of being half human: we tend to possess more aptitude for magic and psychic feats than the fully Bloodborn.”

I understood then why her position and its attendant duties meant so much to her. It was a way for her to feel important, to be something more than just a mere half breed in the eyes of the fully Bloodborn – and most significantly, in the eyes of her father.

I understood how she felt, at least a little. I was a zombie – not human anymore, not even alive. I’d seen the looks of disgust, heard the jokes and taunts, especially when my latest batch of preservative spells started to wear off and I didn’t look my best. I knew what it was like to feel less than everyone around you.
If she couldn’t get the Dawnstone back, she’d consider herself a failure to the Bloodborn, to her father, and especially to herself.

I was determined to do my best to see that didn’t happen, whether I kept my body from crumbling to dust or not.

“I didn’t mean to snap at you like that,” Devona said.

“Forget it. We’ve all got something that pushes our hot button.”

“What about you?”

“With me, it’s flies who mistake me for a nursery. Now let’s go see if we can find
Varma. I’ve got a few questions to ask him."

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