By Kim McFarland
It was a cold, clear night. The stars, freed for now from the aurora which often fanned across the sky, cast a thin light over the snow-covered glacier.
Of the landscape, only the sky and the surrounding mountains were visible from within Shambhala's walls; unless one was in the tower one wouldn't see the surrounding landcape. But even though the city was invisible to those outside its walls, separated from the outside world, its inhabitants saw the same sky that others did.
Miyu looked out at the pinpoints of light. The sky looked clean - no clouds, no moon, no northern lights, just tiny, discrete sparks in a field of black. No complications, no mess.
She sighed to herself. She knew that the only reason she didn't like auroras was what had happened with Essobee. Or, more accurately, its aftermath. It wasn't fair, that against all odds the wild magic that had drawn the aurora there caused her to have a child - and then allowed the child to die. Just like that.
She looked away from the window, chiding herself. She would never get over it if she didn't stop thinking about it. In the months since then the pain had shrunk into a dull ache. They said you never completely got over something like this, but you could get on with your life. Which was what she was trying to do.
Since she had recovered she had come back to live with Marius and Morgana. They were quite fond of her. Odd, for the "undead" to have adopted her, but that was what had happened. Never mind that she was an adult; they were centuries older than she was. Whatever - she liked being a member of their household. Strange, though, that they would no longer take her blood when she offered it. She could understand that while she had been pregnant, but why now? The last time she had offered they had seemed embarrassed, even guilty.
She looked back up into the sky. She hadn't been prepared, she hadn't been ready to be a mother, she told herself. And wherever her daughter was, she was in a better place than this world.
Morgana watched the feline out of the corner of her eye. Since her recovery, Miyu had become quiet and pensive, a marked change from her former cheerful, outgoing self. She wasn't withdrawn, not exactly, but she was taciturn. It was as if she was imitating Marius's stoicism to combat her grief.
Morgana had not been a Vampire for very long. She had lived a full life before Marius had changed her, but she had never had any children. It wasn't that she disliked children; she had fond memories of a certain redheaded duckling, even though that child had lived hundreds of years ago. Morgana just wasn't the motherly type. And any family Marius may have had before he became a Vampire had lived and died centuries ago. They had both been looking forward to the addition to the household.
She had to choke back her fury when she thought about it. The baby had had to fight for its life, but it would have lived with their help. But, instead, she had just disappeared. Someone had managed to slip in, as if this was a cowan hospital without even as much as a rent-a-cop. That had caused an uproar; people just couldn't believe that anyone would be that cruel. Ha, she thought sourly, that shows how little they remember about the outside world. They had tried to discover who had taken the child, or at least find Susan's remains, but whoever it was was too good at covering his tracks. Her tracks? Weren't most baby snatchers women? She had heard that somewhere.
They had agreed not to tell Miyu the truth, at least not yet. The feline had been distraught enough over losing her daughter; it would have been cruel to tell her that, by the way, she was taken, and we don't know by who. Perhaps it was cowardly, not telling her the truth. But, Morgana decided, she'd rather be cowardly than cruel.
Miyu had left the window and was now fiddling about in the laboratory. She kept herself busy. If she wasn't practicing magic, she was studying it, or filling her time in some other fashion. She had meant to put things in order in the lab for some time. Not that the place was a mess, but it could stand a going-through for inventory purposes.
All of the major items, such as the Warlock's Wheel, were in good condition. The Wheel was horribly tarnished, though. She didn't know if cleaning it would affect its power. If not, that was another project for later.
There was a shelf full of sealed containers that she couldn't check. Marius used a clever trick to keep herbs and things fresh: he sealed them in containers and then drew the air out. Vacuum-packing by magic. The way they got stuff out again was by translocating it, a technique Miyu had not gained much skill in. It was safe to assume that whatever was in those jars was OK.
The main thing she wanted to sort through was the cabinet against the wall. It was the size of a walk-in closet, and contained loads of tools and doohickeys. The Vampires didn't mind her curiosity, thankfully. If anything, they encouraged it.
At the bottom was a box of blown glass spheres, just the right size to hold in the palm of one's hand, packed in wood shavings. She didn't want to unpack them all; although they were a lot more durable than they looked, she still might damage them. Plus, they'd be a pain to repack. Instead, she cast a perception spell on the contents of the box, searching for sharp edges. The spell revealed none.
On a higher shelf were some more glass spheres. These had already been made into tools. There was the one that she and Essobee had created to signal the level of magic in its immediate vicinity. It was glowing softly now, reporting the steady flow of mana within the city. Another was caged by silver wire, like an air bubble in a water spider's web. It looked like a trap of some sort. A third was just a plain glass sphere, as far as she could see.
She picked it up. When she looked carefully, she could see a faint glow in the magic spectrum that indicated the presence of some kind of enchantment. The inside seemed empty, though. When she looked through it, however, she could see a faint ripple. It was similar to the distortion of looking through moving water, but much subtler. She had to move it about to be sure, but the steady candle flame wavered slightly when she looked through it just right.
"Morgana, what's this?" she asked, walking over to show her the sphere.
"I don't know," the Vampire answered.
"This was on the tool shelf. When you look through it you can see something."
Morgana realized what it was as soon as Miyu put it into her hands. Uneasily she said, "The enchantment on this one is probably useless," but she held it up to look through it anyway.
She did see a faint ripple within the glass. "It's just a flaw in the glass," she said uncertainly as she walked with it to the window. She sighted on the brightest star in the sky and moved the sphere, turning it in her hands to see if the ripple followed the sphere's surface.
The distortion stayed on one side and below the middle of the sphere no matter how she turned it, as if steadied by a gyroscope. She controlled her expression as she telepathically called, Marius, come here!
I'm coming. What is it?
I want you to tell me.
To Miyu she said, "I'm not sure what that is inside the sphere. I've asked Marius to come here to look at it."
"You didn't need to do that. I'm just curious. It'll wait."
"Well, I'm curious too."
When he arrived a few minutes later, Morgana handed him the glass bubble. He recognized it immediately, she could tell by his expression. She said, "Look through it, at a light, as if you were candling an egg. At a star." She pointed to the window.
He walked to the window, then held the sphere to his eye and looked upward. After a moment he began rotating the sphere in his hand.
When he looked back at her, he wore a look of amazement. "It's faint, but there's something there!"
"I know. But it's so weak it's not even giving off any light. What would make it do that?"
He looked at the glass. "Suspended animation would not. A dimming of the life force - but no life could remain this dim for long without dying out entirely. Unless its connection with the seeker had been attenuated by time."
"How much time?" Morgana asked. Careful.
Yes. "I don't know. Years."
"What is that?" Miyu finally interjected.
"It's a seeker sphere," Marius answered. "You've read of them, I'm certain. I thought that it was no longer functioning. It's surprising to find such a weak signal in one."
Don't tell her!
I won't. He hesitated, then said, "I'll need to investigate this. Somebody may have hexed it."
"Who'd do that? That makes no sense."
"I don't know." He paused. "I'm going to try something."
Abruptly he left the house. Maybe he was being rude. He would explain later. For now, he had to follow the signal.
He strode quickly to the gates of Shambhala, and with a gestured command caused them to open. Without consciously thinking about it he cast a spell to keep himself warm. Vampires were not terribly susceptible to cold, but he did not need the distraction now.
Whoever had taken Susan had covered his tracks and found a way to dim her life signal almost to invisibility. He or she was certainly no amateur, and certainly would be alert to magic. So, Marius would "go under the radar" by not cloaking himself, or using any other spells likely to set off any alarms.
The sphere pointed across the magic-dead patch by the city. He skirted it, then followed the pointer in a straight line to the rubble skirting the cliff side of a mountain, where it pointed down into the ground.
Below him was a crust of snow, then a thick layer of ice, and finally the mountain rock. It couldn't be a grave; not if there were any life sign at all in the bubble.
He looked toward the nearest mountain face, just behind a few large chunks of fallen rock. It was a sheer cliff, its edge ground sharp by the glacier. It was decorated by snow that piled up on any projection or irregularity on the rock's surface. There was no vegetation, not in an area this cold.
Something looked odd. The pattern of "shelves" holding snow was regular, following the rock's strata. In one area it was interrupted, however. The rock strata matched, but most of the snow had been knocked off. And, now that he looked down, the ground looked a bit irregular here, as if it had been recently disturbed and then snowed upon.
He examined the rock face curiously. It did not show any magical traces beyond the normal background noise of the area. After a moment he spied a vertical crack running through the strata in a straight line. A moment later he found its parallel several feet away. He looked back over his shoulder at the area of Shambhala. The fallen rocks blocked his view. So. A hidden door. And, when he looked into the seams, he could detect faint traces of magic.
His first impulse was to try to open it. No, he told himself. He was not going to barge in, and he was not going to do anything alone. Not in a situation this delicate.
He walked away from the cliff face, looked back for a few moments to fix the location of the entrance in his mind, then continued back to Shambhala.
When he returned to his home Morgana was waiting for him. "You went out like that?" she exclaimed, seeing the dusting of snow on his coat shoulders and hair.
"I wasn't troubled by the cold," he answered.
"If anybody saw you, they'd be startled. Someone walking around on a glacier without being bundled up is always a sorcerer. Just play along with the mortals, can't you?"
"Of course." She was right. It was one of those things that he just didn't remember. She was always reminding him of things like that.
"What did you find?"
He hesitated. "Would you come with me to the healer's? I need a... reality check, is that it?"
She laughed behind her hand. "Yes, probably."
Anusuya looked up when the Vampires entered. "Yes?"
"I need to confer with you. I do not trust my judgement alone in this case. I don't know what to think," he confessed.
"What is it, then?"
He handed her the glass sphere. "This is the seeker we made for Miyu's daughter," he began.
The healer raised a hand hurriedly, gesturing for him to stop. He did, looking at her curiously. She turned back toward the hallway.
They heard footsteps. Morgana put a hand to her forehead, guessing who it was before she saw her. Morgana had known that Miyu had been working with the healer, arranging and inventorying her lab to thank her for her care some months ago, but why did she have to be here now?
"That's who the seeker is for?" the feline asked in a low voice.
Marius looked at Morgana and the healer. He saw no way out of it. "Yes, Miyu."
She stepped forward. "Why? ... Seekers are for people who are lost, not dead."
Reluctantly he said, "At the time we made this, she was lost."
"That was the seeker I found earlier today?"
Anusuya came to Marius's rescue. "Your daughter, she, she didn't-" she found herself unable to say it. The look of fresh grief on the feline's face stopped her.
Morgana finished, "She didn't die, Miyu. Not the way we told you. She was taken. We tried to find her and get her back. That's what he made the seeker for. But the light in it went out, and we thought..."
"I see," Miyu said. "And now?"
"Now, we don't know what to think," Marius admitted. "Before I came here I went outside and followed it. It led me to what looked like an entrance into the west mountain side."
Miyu sat down. "If it's that dim, what does it mean?" she asked, clearly fighting for control.
"We don't know yet-" Morgana answered.
"She could still be alive? What happened?!"
Nobody wanted to explain that part. Morgana said, "She was taken. We don't know how-"
"You don't know?!" Miyu exclaimed. "What happened to her?!"
The healer forced herself to speak. "I had checked you out, and you held Susan for a while before I put you to sleep again. Everything was normal then. I went to sleep in the chair in the same room as you. When Marius came in and awakened me several hours later he found that she was gone, but her blanket had had an illusion spell cast on it to make it seem like she was still there."
Marius took up the tale. "We tried to find her, Miyu. Whoever it was left barely any trace, and we could not recognize the magical signature. We made this tracker with some fragments of Susan's shell, and followed the signal to a room in Lo Sepa. There, it disappeared."
"It just disappeared?"
"Yes. We thought... I believe you know what we thought."
"And you never told me."
"It was bad enough for you as it was," Morgana said.
"So you spared me the grief," Miyu said, her voice tight. Upset as she was, she knew that they had done what they thought best for her. "But now-" She looked at the sphere. "She might not be dead after all?"
"She might not be, Miyu. We're frankly baffled. We will find out what it means."
"Dang straight we will," Miyu choked out.
"No," the feline said through gritted teeth. "She is my daughter. I'm in on this too!"
"If it's humanly possible, we will get her back for you-"
"You will get her back, with my help." She clenched her fists. "I'm sick of being passive. Everything's being done to me, or for me. I'm not going to lie back any more!"
She needs to. Marius glanced at Morgana.
She's not ready.
Then we'll have to prepare her.
If you were in her place, would you be content to leave it to someone else?
The healer watched as the two Vampires, eyes locked, silently conferred with each other. Miyu waited impatiently. The Vampires finished after a few seconds. Morgana said, "All right. Miyu, the three of us."
The feline let out a breath. "Good."
Anusuya nodded to herself. Now that Miyu knew the truth, she would have to see this through to the end, for better or for worse.
"This is it?"
Miyu's immediate impulse was to cast a spell to reveal the passageway into the mountain, but she knew that any magic they used would alert the inhabitant of their presence, if not actually set off traps. It wasn't like they were going to prowl around unnoticed for long, but they'd take any headstart they could get.
"So, how do we open it?"
"No spells have been cast out here," Morgana commented after a quick scan.
Marius ran an ungloved hand across a seam in the rock. Nothing happened. However, when he ran a finger up the seam on the right, the crack widened. A typical hidden door, following the textbook formula. He had expected the trigger to be harder to find. He grasped the edge and pulled outward, nearly stumbling back when the thick rock door swung open with little resistance.
Morgana and Miyu entered a short tunnel which, judging from the look of the walls, had been melted into the stone. The temperature rose as they moved forward. Behind them, Marius glanced at the door. The slab of rock was balanced on a point, so that anyone who could grip the edge could swing it. Not magic, just good engineering.
The two women stepped out into an open chamber. Water - liquid water; it was warm enough - flowed through a gouge it had carved in the stone floor. All around them translucent onyx stalactites and stalagmites reached toward each other. Some, having attained their goal, formed columns like giant, wasp-waisted candles. The walls were decorated with formations that looked like poured wax. Centered in the domelike roof of the chamber, a softly glowing ball hovered unobtrusively.
It was a harsh contrast when they turned around and saw that the tunnel they had entered through was surrounded by an imprisonment pentagram.
Marius, who had just entered, followed the others' glance and stared at the pentagram too. It had been carefully incised into the rock. Not carved; it looked as if it had been melted into it, the way one might write in wax with a hot stylus. After reading the runes surrounding the shape he said, "This is a demon trap. If one tried to pass through this, it would be snared like an insect in a spider's web."
"Someone is prepared for a demon attack." Miyu shuddered.
The vampires heard the dragging footsteps before Miyu did. They turned toward the tunnel opening at the other end of the chamber. When she saw them looking over, she did as well.
After several moments a figure stepped out of the dimness of the tunnel. It was wearing a long, shabby looking coat, a ripped hat, and old boots. It walked unsteadily, leaning on its walking stick.
When it looked up and saw them, it stopped and stared. "Who are you?" it demanded in a quavering voice.
"We are looking for someone," Marius answered.
The figure - in the light he could see that it was a male duck - tottered forward. It glared at each of the three in turn, then said, "You must leave now. The master didn't send you here. You must leave now."
"Who is your master?" Marius stepped forward.
The duck stepped backward, then raised its walking stick, pointing the hand carved into its top toward Marius. The hand glowed. Flames burst from the hand, but instead of jetting toward the invaders the fire bubbled around the end of the staff, igniting it. "Don't do that," Marius said mildly, lowering his hand.
Shocked, the duck beat the flames out with its hands. The carved hand was ruined, however, and with it whatever enchantment the staff had. The three advanced on him. Again Marius asked, "Who is your master?"
The duck backed up to the edge of the tunnel, desperately holding the staff out in front of himself to block them. Marius took the staff. It tingled in his grasp. "A few minor spells on this, fire and ice," he commented, then dropped it behind himself. "Who is your master?" he repeated a third time, pinning the duck with his gaze.
The duck shuddered and choked, then turned and darted down the tunnel. Its first few steps were clumsy, then it kicked off its boots and sped away. Its coat flapped up. The Vampires, with their excellent night vision, saw that its legs bent the wrong way, and ended in hooves. "A demon!" Morgana exclaimed.
"A minor one, a condemned soul," Marius commented as he followed it with long strides. "It's powerless. If it were not it wouldn't have been so frightened. Its ‘master' has captured it, and keeps it in here with that pentagram around the exit."
So that was why it could beat the flames out with its hands, Miyu thought. Its master must be the kidnapper! What could a demon summoner want with her baby? Oh, gods, no-
Marius gestured again. In the darkness ahead of the demon appeared a glowing, five pointed star. It was not a real trap, just the threat of one. The demon skidded to a halt. Caught between the intruders and a hated pentagram, it glanced nervously about.
"What is your name?" Marius asked.
"I - I have no name," the demon stammered uncertainly.
"Yes, you do," the Vampire corrected. "You are summoned, commanded, and banished by it."
"Who is your master?" the Vampire asked, his voice taking on a threatening tone.
"They will be very disturbed! You must leave!" the demon insisted, cowering.
Morgana silently began gathering power to herself. The demon's eyes widened as it looked sharply at her. As Marius drew in a breath, it gathered its nerve and darted out through the image of the pentagram. Morgana hissed a superfluous curse.
They emerged into another chamber, this one glittering blue-white in the cool light of another glow sphere. This room was carved into the glacier ice, but curiously it was comfortably warm. Marius touched the wall. His hand contacted not ice, but a force shield just above it. No wonder it was warm here - the ice and the chamber's air never met. Thus, the ice would not warm and melt. "Someone has power to spare," he informed them.
"To waste," Morgana said. She resumed gathering magical energy to herself in preparation for a meeting with "the master". Miyu followed her example. Marius hardly needed to; he had as much power as he needed.
At the far end of this ice chamber was another tunnel entrance. After quickly scanning the room for hidden exits, he said, "It went down here."
Looking into it, they saw that it was not an entrance to another tunnel, but a shaft leading straight down. The floor, far below, showed as a small, brightly lit rock chamber. "Levitation spells on," Morgana commented.
She stepped into the shaft, and was surprised to find that even without the levitation spell she was only sinking slowly, not falling. "It's spelled to lower you slowly, like an elevator," she called to them.
Marius nodded. "It would have to be that way, an automatic spell, for that demon to use it."
Each of them descended down the shaft, ready to levitate should the enchantment turn out to be a trap and suddenly drop them. Morgana, the first to reach the bottom, saw a duck looking back at her. It was a little girl, maybe six or seven years old. She wore a long, robelike dress, and her black, curly hair formed an unruly halo around her head. Ignoring the demon, which was urging her to follow it, she stared with wide, incredulous eyes, unable to believe what she was seeing. Morgana started forward and reached out a hand. The demon, looking panicky, grabbed the girl up and darted down a passage.
"Hurry!" Morgana called up the passage. She projected an image of the child into Marius's mind.
Marius used a levitation spell to push against the ceiling of the shaft, forcing himself down faster. Miyu, less skilled, did not manage to figure out how to do that before she reached the bottom.
As soon as she was down Morgana said, "They went this way." They went down a tunnel which was lit by a set of tiny glowing lights, like a string of beads, running down the center of the roof. The demon, who they could see in silhouette at the exit, struck the wall with a short implement. The tunnel began to shake.
All three had the presence of mind to cast spells to support the tunnel immediately around them. However, the passage in front of and behind them caved in, and the lights disappeared.
Miyu created a sphere of light. "I can hold this section open," Morgana told Marius. "You and Miyu get us out."
"Yes." The tunnel rock groaned slightly when he released his spell, but did not threaten to fall in.
Miyu looked at the rubble. "Outward blast?" she asked.
"No. That would use up a lot of energy, and if anyone was on the other side, kill them."
"Good," Miyu growled, her voice low.
She hadn't seen what Morgana had, Marius knew. "No. Translocation. I'll show you." He touched a fallen chunk of stone. When he twisted his wrist slightly, the rock disappeared, and the ones above it tumbled down. "Send them to the surface."
They progressed forward, with Morgana expanding the spell to prevent further collapse. Marius removed the stones much faster that Miyu; he was much better at translocation than she was. After a while she started telekinetically moving smaller rocks to the tunnel behind them instead.
Before long they emerged into another open area. Instead of the caves and tunnels of the previous section, this looked like the interior of a building. The stone was carved into flat walls and ceilings, and the stalactite-stalagmite pairs had been shaped into fluted columns. The walls and floor were enlivened by simple, brightly colored images depicting stylized animals.
"Weird. The magic aura here is really thick," Miyu commented uneasily.
Both of the vampires knew this was an understatement. It was more like walking though a warm fog. More fuel for them, and for "the master."
One of the doors in the side of the passageway was ajar. Miyu looked in. "Hey!"
Morgana looked back. Miyu beckoned to her. Morgana looked in, and saw a room with a small bed and toys on the floor. The walls were painted to resemble a sunlit landscape. It's a child's room.
Miyu stepped in hesitantly. On the bed was an open book. The pages were mostly cartoons, with text below narrating a story. In the margins of the book were small doodles, and sections of text copied in a childish hand. She put the book down again. Resting on the bed were two stuffed animals, one very worn looking. Her hands began to tremble.
They heard scuffling. Marius looked back. It rapidly approached, resolving itself into a rhythmic pattering a moment before the source came into view.
A quadruped skeleton ran into the hall, its bony paws rattling against the stone floor. The two women came back into the hall in response to Marius's mental warning call. The skeleton crouched down, its blank eye sockets staring at them, then sprang forward, its fanged mouth opened in a silent howl. Morgana and Miyu quickly cast spells to destroy animated, undead skeletons.
The creature leapt onto Marius, knocking him back. Standing over him, it gripped his arm and shook its head savagely. With his other hand Marius seized its neck vertebrae and pushed back. Morgana cast a lightning bolt at the creature, burning a hole through its rib cage and knocking off one of its hind limbs at the hip. It released Marius's arm and tried to leap at Morgana, but because of its missing leg it fell short. As it scrambled forward Miyu intercepted it and clubbed it with the upper leg bone it had lost. Two of its vertebrae shattered, revealing the wire along which they were strung. Several more blows destroyed most of its spine. Still it dragged itself forward, reaching for Morgana with its jaws. A final blow shattered its skull. The creature collapsed. Inside its head was a folded piece of paper.
They heard a heavier clattering. A larger skeleton lumbered into view. This one was a polar bear. As the wolf had, the bear charged as soon as it saw them. Marius stepped forward. When it rose up onto its hind legs he pointed at its head and snapped his fingers. A light flared behind its eye sockets. When the skeleton came forward, it hit the ground hard, its own weight shattering the brittle bones.
"Bone golems." Marius said, picking up the scrap of paper out of the fragments of the wolf's head. "Not undead creatures, they are more like robots, animated by the writing inside their heads. Destroy the paper, and the golem returns to its inert state. Quite inventive, to make them out of skeletons."
Miyu took the paper and unfolded it. "‘ATTACK THE VAMPIRES'. That's all it says. And the writing-" she held the paper up so they could see the large, carefully printed words.
"Childlike," Marius said. He followed the path the golems had taken. Their bony feet had left white scuff marks on the floor. A scrabbling warned them of another attack. Marius destroyed this golem - a smaller quadruped, possibly a young wolf or a fox - with a quick gesture, so the lifeless bones came skidding up to them, its eye sockets leaking threads of smoke.
Inside the room were more skeletons, and the little girl, who was frantically writing on a piece of paper. The demon was with her, looking nervous. When she looked up and saw them she yelped, then opened the skull of the nearest skeleton - another wolf - threw the paper in, and shut it again. As the golem rose to its feet Marius pointed at it, and it collapsed in place, its skull smoking.
The girl stared at them, eyes wide and frightened. "Go away!" she yelled, and made a throwing gesture at them. A glow burst from her hand and rushed toward them. They blocked the fireball, which disappeared without a trace of heat. It had only been an illusion to allow the girl and demon time to flee.
Morgana glanced around the room. It was a sorcerer's laboratory, one in which he or she built large things like the golems. Other items about the place - whole animal skins, arcane wooden frameworks in unpleasant shapes, even what looked like stuffed birds of prey - gave the room a decidedly queasy feel. What was a child doing in a place like this?
Miyu asked, "Why was she afraid of us?"
"Besides our breaking and entering?" Marius answered.
"Who would teach a kid to fake a fireball?!"
"The ‘master,' I suppose." Marius took the glass bubble out of his pocket and peered into it. "Follow me."
The next room was another laboratory, or another segment of the same lab. This one looked more like a chemistry workroom, with many shelves of chemicals and whatnot, and equipment-covered tables. On one table a notebook was open, a ballpoint pen resting in the part. The writing was tight and angular, a sharp contrast to the child's large printing. Marius picked up the book and looked closely, examining the handwriting rather than reading it. He had seen this writing before.
Morgana looked about the room, her magic sense open to detect any ambush spells. She could discern nothing, but then this room was so full of magic a clever sorcerer could hide his traps so they would never be seen among the background noise.
Marius, still looking through the globe, went directly toward the door on the opposite side of the room. On the opposite side was a huge, cavelike room, its walls, floor, and roof made of stone. The high ceiling made it look like a cathedral. Along the walls were statues, pentagrams, and painted and incised markings. The floor bore additional carved designs. In the middle of the ceiling was a lighter spot, like a hole in the stone - but, no, it was filled with ice. A skylight? And directly below it, in the middle of the rock floor, was a matching pool of ice.
The demon and the girl were small figures in the shadows at the opposite end. She was shouting something at the demon. When it cowered and shook its head, she turned away with a jerk and ran over to a stand. She took a rod from its base and struck the bell hanging off the stand. It rang with a single clear note.
On the wall behind the bell, a constellation of points glowed. As Miyu and the Vampires gathered their energy, lines linked the starlike points, forming the outline of a standing person. Then the glow abruptly vanished, replaced by a woman.
She was a thin duck, shorter than Morgana. Her wavy white hair, framing her face like a mane, was streaked by one section of black. She was wearing warm traveling clothes, as if she had been hiking in the vicinity of the nearby village. The little girl said something and pointed toward the three intruders. The woman leaned down to hear what she said, then straightened up again.
I've seen her somewhere before! Morgana sent to Marius urgently.
Yes, he replied, and sent her an image of a woman they had seen in the Valley Lodge on the day Miyu's child had disappeared.
The white-haired woman, one hand on the shoulder of the frightened child, took in the scene and then glared at the demon. "You didn't call me back, and let these invanders run amuck. You have failed me."
"I could not help it!" the demon bleated. "I tried to stop them! The man burned my staff! I could not help it!"
"You have failed me, Ogrot, and you know the penalty. Back to Hades!" she hissed, and pointed at the demon. With a scream it exploded into flames. A second later it disappeared like flash paper, not even leaving ashes behind.
In a voice loud enough to carry across the cavernous room, the white-haired woman said, "You just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?" She waved her hand, pulling a pair of sticks out of the air, and threw them. The items sped forward like arrows, with far more force than the woman could have given them without magic.
The objects stopped abruptly before they reached their targets, Marius and Morgana. He plucked them out of the air. "Chopsticks?" He looked at the woman. "You don't believe that legend about Vampires and wooden stakes, do you?"
"Think of it a statement of intent," she replied. She locked eyes with Miyu. Go away. Now. This has nothing to do with you.
Miyu startled. "No!" she shouted, angered by the intrusion into her mind.
"Whatever." The Avian woman gestured at the child, who scooted behind her for protection. Then she raised a hand. A blaze of light appeared above her head. Out of it flaming shapes streaked toward them. They hit against a force shield, and slid down in red-hot lumps of molten rock.
Marius sent to Morgana and Miyu, Shield me, I'll lead the attack. He felt Miyu's agreement and Morgana's twinge of irritation. The woman had the child behind herself, so he could not attack her directly for fear of overshooting his target. Clever.
While the tiny meteors were still shooting out of the blaze, the woman started a second spell This one conjured up strange, featureless, iridescent blobs the size of grapes. Like a swarm of insects, they surrounded Marius, coming as close as the defensive shield would allow, beating against it in an effort to get to him.
"Shoggoths," Miyu said.
"Yes," Marius answered. The creatures were draining the spells' power, growing as they did. He saw her begin casting again. As she quickly sketched shapes and runes in the air, he recognized the spell. A banishment spell, one which could be used against Vampires. Marius quickly jumped ahead of her, startling her by finishing her spell and declaring the banishment.
He and Morgana appeared to flicker. Morgana renewed her shield spell while Miyu blinked, confused.
"Oh, very funny!" The woman shouted. The Vampire had hijacked the spell, finishing it by banishing himself and Morgana to the very spot where they were now standing. Well, let them try to do something clever with her next attack! She had an entire arsenal of spells designed specifically against Vampires, or to which Vampires were especially susceptible. She decided to bypass the kid stuff, fun through it was, and pull out the heavy artillery.
Marius watched her next casting as well as he could through the swarm of shoggoths which were growing and splitting as they fed off his power. If he tried to cast through them, he knew that they would siphon off the strength of the spell, weakening it if they let anything through at all. Suddenly the creatures in front of him dissolved, and the others darted away.
Morgana screamed when she saw Marius fall to his knees. Whatever the woman had cast, it had pierced right through their defense. Miyu rushed over to him and put her hands on his shoulders, letting him use her power. Whispering something, he raised his hands and made a sweeping gesture. All of the shoggoths dropped out of the air and fell to the ground, where they writhed as they shrank and disappeared.
Marius shakily got to his feet. "A magic-destroying spell. You of all people know how dangerous they are," he said as he advanced on her. Thankfully he had been able to redirect it before it killed him. "I believe that spell has left you powerless. You would have been foolish to hold back, as that was clearly intended to be a final attack." She did not reply, but glared at him defiantly. "However, if not-"
Her eyes widened. "No, not again-"
"Yes," he said firmly.
Morgana and Miyu advanced as Marius drained her of her little remaining power. Her form shifted to that of a male duck with long black hair.
"No!" the child yelled. Essobee looked back, then knelt down and held out a hand to her. She ran to him and threw her arms around his shoulders. "Go away!" she yelled over her shoulder at Marius.
Essobee looked at Miyu and the Vampires. "Well. You've beaten me again. Congratulations," he said in a low voice as he held the shaking child.
"Some explanations are in order," Marius said, looking down at him.
"You have a thing for understatement," he replied. "Well? What are you going to do to us?"
"She has a tail!" Miyu gasped, pointing at the girl.
Essobee answered, "Yeah."
Now that Miyu saw her up close, she realized that the girl's hair also hid a pair of cat ears! "WHY?" Miyu demanded, having all at once realized what seemed to be impossible. "What have you done to her? She should be just a baby!"
"She would be, if I'd stuck around." He stroked the child's back. She was still trembling against him.
"You went into a dimensional pocket, then came out years behind yourself, didn't you?" Marius asked.
"That's right," he answered. "Seven years back, so I'd already been in Shambhala for three years. You know what's right overhead?" He pointed upward. "Demon summoning ground. We're nearly under Shambhala itself. Lots of magic to be had, and you people never had a clue. Not since I sucked out most of the magic from that spill - it went down as far as I could search," he pointed at the ice hole in the floor, "and then I shielded this place. All the mana I could want, and you never knew I was here."
"The faint signal, dimmed by time," Morgana murmured to herself. Of course it was dim now; for the girl years had passed.
"Why'd you take her?" Miyu demanded, her hands clenched into fists.
"I wanted her."
"So you just came in and stole her-!"
Marius placed a hand on her shoulder. She brushed it away. "How could you! WHY?!"
You've already scared her enough. Essobee projected, glancing down at the girl. Stop yelling.
Why did you take Susan from me?! Do you know what I went through to have her?
I have an idea. I never expected her to happen, and I bet you didn't either. I sure hope you didn't. Quite a surprise, wasn't she? And I saw what a mess you were after you had her. Well, I'm sorry you went through all that. But I wanted her. And her name is Leilah.
It is not! You stole her!
You can always have another, you know.
Her emotional reaction, transmitted directly from her mind to his, was as emphatic as a slap in the face. Undaunted, he continued, She was weak and sickly. Now she's just fine. I raised her. She's my daughter now. All you are is some deranged woman who wants to take her away.
Miyu wanted to scream, to strike out at Essobee, to cast any spell she could think of to attack him. But now he wasn't even looking at her. He was stroking the hair of the girl, speaking in a low voice to her. When he addressed the others he repeated, "Well, what are you going to do now?"
"I want my daughter back!"
"Is she your property?" Essobee asked, looking directly into her eyes. "Is she a thing that you can just take away? Why don't you ask her what she wants? Or does that figure into it?"
"She's my daughter too!" Miyu choked.
Essobee drew back and looked Leilah in the eye. He wiped her tears out of the feathers on her cheeks and said "Leilah, listen to me. Don't be afraid. These people will not hurt you. I promise."
"But they tried to!"
"That was different. They were arguing with me. But now we've settled things. They don't want to hurt you. They never did. That woman there, the cat, look at her." Leilah did, still clinging to Essobee. "She's your mother. She's not angry at you. She wants you to live with her."
Leilah stared silently Miyu, shaking, knelt down. "Leilah?" she said softly,
He took his arms from around her. "Don't be afraid," he said, stroking her hair. "You can go with them if you want."
"No!" She turned away and clung tightly to him.
Essobee put his arms back around her. To Miyu he said, "You have your answer."
Morgana was quietly restraining herself from dismantling Essobee. Miyu was having a more difficult time. If the child hadn't been there, the feline would have gone right to it, and Morgana would have helped.
Marius spoke. "Essobee. I want to speak with you. Alone."
Go right ahead.
"No." He gestured to the far side of the room.
"Hold on." To Leilah he said, "I'm going to go talk to him for a minute. Stay here, I'll be right back. Okay?"
Leilah nodded reluctantly. He stood, patted her on the head, and walked away with the Vampire. Leilah watched, then startled when she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was the cat again. She backed away and raised her hands.
"Leilah!" Essobee called sharply. She looked over. "Don't do that. The fighting's over."
"Okay," she mumbled unhappily, backing further away from the women.
Essobee and Marius continued to the other side of the room. Essobee muttered so only Marius could hear, "Miyu bothers her, she'll find out that Leilah won't put up with it."
They stopped. Essobee leaned against the wall. Marius said, "If you had planned this, you couldn't have put everyone in a worse position."
"It's a gift I have."
"Why did you take Leilah?"
Essobee noticed that the Vampire referred to her by her current name, not the one Miyu had given her. Interesting. "It almost killed Miyu to have her, didn't it? And it nearly killed Leilah too. Don't bother explaining why; it's obvious. It's a miracle she isn't scrambled eggs."
"Not a miracle. It took a lot of work to keep her alive."
"You're telling me that? I raised her! Anyway, it's obvious that she was an accident. Miyu didn't want her. What did she need with a kid dumped in her lap by some guy she hated? I did everybody a favor by taking Leilah."
Marius shook his head. "You are wrong."
"No, you don't know what you're talking about," Essobee snapped. "A Vampire doesn't understand squat about families! Well, I know all about it. Dump a kid where he isn't wanted, you end up with a miserable, unwanted kid. So I decided I wanted her." He folded his arms and glared up at Marius defiantly.
Again the Vampire shook his head. "If you only knew," he said softly.
"I don't want to know."
"You said that Leilah isn't property, Essobee. Did you mean that when you said it, or were you merely using her as a weapon against Miyu?"
"You pretended to give her a choice, when she had no choice at all. Ask a child to leave the only home and parent, maybe the only person, she knows, for some outsider she has seen attack her father? Of course she would stay with you. She had no choice at all."
Essobee said nothing, just glared at the Vampire over folded arms. Marius continued, "You have raised her apart from any human contact, haven't you. Do you really plan to keep her in a cave for the rest of her life?"
"Why not? It's a good place. I've been carving it out for years. Right under Shambhala and that magic spill, so there's mana to spare. Up until now nobody bothered us," Essobee answered flippantly.
The duck was obstinate. Even though he was close to middle age - as was visible in the lines creasing his face - at times he could be childishly stubborn. "In any case, we will not simply leave you two to your own devices."
"If you try to take her, you'd better be ready to kill me first," Essobee warned. "And set your own affairs in order too."
" I would rather not take you prisoner," the Vampire said, ignoring Essobee's implied threat. "And I do not want to strip you of your powers as I did before. That was a mistake."
"And you see how much good it did," Essobee answered. That was as clever as he could manage; he was taken off guard by Marius's admission.
"You two will come up to Shambhala. For now, this cave will be sealed-"
"Now hold on. Just hold on. Your gripe is with me, so you're taking Leilah prisoner too?!"
"No. You will not be a prisoner." He looked down at the duck standing stiffly with his arms tightly folded. "And I won't strip you of your powers."
"Then what's the catch? Show me the rest of your cards."
"I will require one thing from you. Your birth name."
Essobee's eyes widened. "You've got to be kidding!"
"I assure you, I am not."
"You know my name, you can keep me on a leash! The heck I'm going to give you that kind of power over me!"
"I will not use it against you unless you force me to."
"Sure you won't."
Marius looked at him steadily. "You know me better than that, Essobee."
Essobee looked down. The Vampire was disgustingly moral, Essobee had to admit. He couldn't even break a vow; he was too stiff-backed. Essobee looked back up. "And if I don't?"
"Essobee, why are you still fighting me? You learned quite a lot while you were with us; that much is abundantly clear." He gestured expansively, indicating the huge chamber. "Can't you see that Leilah would benefit as well?"
"You really think that the logical solution is the only one, don't you? And everyone'll happily go along with your plans once you've explained? It doesn't work that way. Look at those two over there," he said, nodding towards Morgana and Miyu. "They would kill me right now if they could."
"You are trying to distract me," the Vampire said. "As you said earlier: what are you going to do? I've showed you my cards. Show me yours."
"Like you've given me a choice," Essobee growled.
"You have always had a choice."
"First, pledge that you won't reveal my name to any person or entity, write it down, or commit it to any other medium."
"Unless I must use it, I agree to those conditions."
That was as good as he was going to get, Essobee knew. Morgan. Morgan McCawber.
"That is your full name?"
"My mother didn't put much effort into it." He shrugged.
Leilah stood away from the two women. They wanted to talk to her and touch her, but they finally got the message and left her alone. She was busy watching the thin, tall Vampire man talk to her Dad. They seemed to take forever. She kept expecting them to start casting spells at each other again, but that didn't happen.
Then they were walking back towards them. Essobee beckoned toward her. She ran to him. As they walked toward Miyu and Morgana, her hand in his, Essobee said in a low voice, "We're both going to leave here. We're going to the city up there." He flicked his eyes in the general direction of Shambala. "Both of us, together."
"We just have to. Don't worry." He stroked her hair, then drew his hand to her shoulder. "These people won't hurt you."
"You say that over and over," Miyu remarked bitterly. "We're not the ones to worry about."
Marius caught her eye and shook his head. The peace he had negotiated was fragile enough without any further hostilities threatening it.
Essobee ignored the comment. "One thing I'd like to make clear before we go anywhere," he said to the cat and the vampires. "Don't try to save me from myself. You're not as subtle as you think. I don't want to be saved, not by any of you! And," he looked at Marius and Morgana in turn, "I'm not interested in being your pet mortal either."
I would rather keep a viper, Morgana stated to Marius.
Simultaneously, Miyu protested to Marius, You're letting him get away with it?!
Do you see a better solution? Taking the child's well-being into consideration? Think carefully before you answer, he warned.
Essobee knew that they were mindspeaking about him, and from the way the two women glared he could tell the general tone of the conversation. They wanted him dead. Well, fine, what else was new. They could hate him all they wanted, but he knew what they could and could not do to him. They had defeated him, but they would not drag him in as a prisoner; he'd walk in of his own accord.
Defiantly he turned away, said "Let's go," to Leilah, and walked towards the passage to the surface, his daughter's hand in his.
Morgana McCawber is copyright © Disney. All other characters are copyright © Kim McFarland. This story is copyright © Kim McFarland. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only, provided no changes are made to the story or this notice.
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