The welcoming party was an odd one. A single, smiling woman waited in front of a grandiose, sky-high pair of double doors. It looked like the entrance of a medieval fortress. The building itself seemed to be carved out of the rock with sharp, jagged edges clawing across smooth stone walls like scales. High windows lined it at all sides, thin and looking almost like gaps in the stone that held stained glass hidden a few inches from the surface. Runes and ancient looking architecture carved into the stone, criss-crossing it in patterns that looked both random and calculatedly breathtaking.
It was a mystical place, not meant to be seen by the eyes of outsiders.
The woman waved enthusiastically as they approached, bright violet hair swinging back and fourth behind her, like the bell in a grandfather clock. “Hello to you all! Welcome!” she shouted several times as they approached.
She looked rather young, around twenty-five maybe. Her face was rounded and alight, eyes opened wide and staring in a way that was almost repugnant.
She clasped her hands in from of her chest and grinned at them all, sharp canines glinting for a second before the twist of her glossy lips covered them in a smooth curve.
“Alright, fresh-blood, you are free for the next half a hour.” she chipped and put her hands on her hips, like a child trying to be taken seriously “Now, I suggest you go to your rooms and make yourselves comfortable rather than mingle, for there will be time for that as well. On your way into the foyer, you will receive a key. Please keep in mind that it opens many doors.”
She nodded to herself, apparently satisfied with her performance, and waved at them again.
The door behind her creaked open, minutely, but she was gone before the sliver of light had a chance to touch her fair skin. Within the fold of their group, their guide sighed warily. He half turned towards them, so some people were facing him and others were not, and said, plainly.
“Good night to you all.”
Then, with an echo of a sigh, he was gone as well.
The walk through the coiling passages inside the Mansion was a rather disorienting affair. Several times, Drina had had to retrace her steps to keep herself from getting lost. She’d wandered around for a good fifteen minutes before finding her room.
It was an en-suite, really. Beyond the entrance and a small sitting room, with a small kitchen separated by a low wall to the side. The door beyond the first revealed a large bedroom with a queen size bed, tree dressers and a work-table. Three, unevenly edged windows spread like cracks against the far wall, which was painted a soft blue. The bathroom door was in the corner.
Drina deposited her things on the bed after a quick glance around and took only the things she thought she’d really need – her jacket, the lighter she hid in it, a compass, and a few charms the residence of Ghumno had gifted her. Oh, and the key she’d been given. What use was finding the right door if one couldn’t unlock it?
Was this a test? Drina didn’t know.
The Witch hunt was supposed to last three days in total. Drina had to wonder who the hell gave it such a weird name. Though, in a sense, it was rather apt.
During the next three days Magical corporations, schools, influential households and political fractions would watch – audience, judge and jury – as twelve new Magicians were tested to their limits. Drina felt like a show-pony.
Spirits, didn’t these people have lives? Well, of course they did! They spent them using others for their own cause!
Drina contemplated throwing sprinkles in their eyes before each test, just so they wouldn’t see it. Then again, that would have been seen as an attack on politically immune people who could probably burn down your house and the authorities wouldn’t even squeak. Drina was not delusional and she was not foolhardy – she still had too much to lose.
The Witch hunt, in any case, would determine her future for the time being. As far as Drina gathered, Magicians were a dying breed. She’d never really thought about it much, but back at the Ghumno there were less than thirty patrons – and that was including all those sods that came from all over the country once a month. Maybe even those odd-balls that lived in the most obscured, most isolated places and acted like the rest of the world didn’t exist.
Drina had met a couple of those, too.
Most of them didn’t even have enough magic power to lift a feather. Constantine, despite his influence, could barely manage to lift a book on the best of days – the thin, yellow-paged one you get in woman’s magazines. Irena couldn’t even do that. She lifted needles. Though that was potentially terrifying too, since she could lift at least two dozen at once and was very accurate and very fast in aiming them in a certain directions. Teodora had been able to lift bloody Dorotea – Spirits, what was she going to do with that kid?
The rest of the lot stuck to potions and herbal remedies, which – Drina had to admit – was a complex science of its own. A few of them knew some tricks, an odd spell or two or how to make a magic-infused charm – both fashionable, useful and requiring more precision than actual hocus pocus.
Drina herself was only capable of a light-show and a wiggling shadow. It wasn’t much, but Drina had never been big or physically strong or good with her hands, so she settled for being quick of thought and quick of foot and using every advantage on disposal.
Drina could only levitate herself for about ten minutes without falling flat on her arse. She could only throw sparkles into people’s eyes and confuse them with dancing light. She could let her shadow lash out like a hissing kitty-cat.
Drina did not know a single spell. Drina did not know how to make a single charm. Drina did not know how to make a healing balm or a potion of Magic-induced plant.
Drina was afraid.
A soft curse was uttered by cold lips. It was heated, fiery, burning in a way his heart had never been. Rage clawed against his insides, against his skin, threatening to break pale marble and rearrange it into something hideous.
He hid it well, more from necessity than anything else. Necessity, however, had become habit long ago – thus it took almost no effort to reign in his temper, his wish for destruction and warmth. It had become a need long before he realized how permanent the charade really was.
Still, a flame was a flame – even if it was merely a spark. It blinked into existence between a rock and a hard place, when two twigs were rubbed together too hard and too fast, or when a lighter burned its flickering stroke of bright orange onto a candle or a flammable thing.
The Mansion was cold, a tomb in its own right, and the doors he could choose from were many. The room he’d been given had been marked, however lopsidedly, and hadn’t been that hard to find for a person who spent his whole life lost.
Finding the destination designated to him was another story. There were no hints. There had been no discernible wordplay, besides the words mingle and right. “Now, I suggest you go to your rooms and make yourselves comfortable rather than mingle, for there will be time for that as well. On your way into the foyer, you will receive a key. Please keep in mind that it opens many doors.”
It was a game and, obviously, the game-maker wasn’t playing fair. Orazio smirked, who cared about fairness anyway?
Mingle, the female offspring had said. The verb could have been directed at either the act of mixing with the Vampire populace of the Mansion, or the group of intruders intermediately. Which, as far as Orazio gathered, meant do it by yourself.
Oh, he’d called himself Orazio again. It was so hard not to fall into the temptation of old habits, like hate loathing greed destruction empty empty empty and other things he detested to name while they sprang to mind and heart nonetheless.
Heart. How he loathed that word, how he despised it. So sweet to the ear, sweeter still in its plural form. Still, words were but empty vessels waiting to be filled.
Why couldn’t the bloody Vampires just say something outright for once?! Bloody bastards! Why were Humans so difficult, even in death – no, wait, especially in death?! Live Humans were bad enough – with their shit poetry and ridiculous metaphors. Vampires were even worse, in their dazed state of content or mindless bloodlust – either they thought themselves smart, spoke in riddles, than forgot it along with themselves... or they were rabbit dogs. Either way, there was a hundred percent chance of you understanding squat.
Vampirichs, bloody hybrids, were the worst thought – simply because they both wanted to help you, wanted to uphold the rules of the societies they belonged to and didn’t know how to do shit. He didn’t know what made that particular breed so unreasonable, the Vampire part or the Human one?
Orazio pointedly ignored his own allegiance to Humans. He hadn’t been born as one of them, he hadn’t been born at all. He was the Spirit of a babe that had withered away in a womb and taken its mother with it. He’d caused death before he’d even become an official part of creation. Seriously, universe, your rules were shit!
Orazio could not contemplate such things – they drove him mad! He was no Human and he was no Demon either, despite the fact the latter had taken him and thought him sanity. He’d been just a Navi before, neither a Demon nor a Ghost, but a dribbling tot of a monstrosity.
They’d taken him in as a pet. The Demon children had wanted to see if they could train him – if he was intelligent enough to be trained – to tame him – for they were a race and a society and they ruled themselves as they should – perhaps even to make him theirs. They had, in a way. For a while he did not understand love or affections or all the other things his unknown mother had taken to her grave – he understood his life was in the hands of these beings and that, while they felt benevolent, he would be safe.
Safety had been the first whisper of sanity in his mind. Welcoming voices and foreign words were next, guiding him towards a stable mind.
Demons were Demons, and the world could spit in their faces in prejudice for all Orazio cared. He’d tear their throats out in turn – because Demons were Demons and they did not sully their aesthetic arses with insults and blood that was of such a foolhardy creature. Why had they taken him in? Orazio would forever wonder. Did they still wait for the return of their not-so-loyal, runaway dog? Why did they let in a stray into their clean homes, unchanged and unblemished by Human anarchy for centuries.
Demons were mischievous creatures, notoriously proud of the things they were and jealous of the things they weren’t.
He was doing this for them, in a way. Unrest was brewing in the East – spreading from the far Youkai region, of all places – and Demons, in their usual way, couldn’t care less. Orazio didn’t get the logic, for Demons were very attached to what they considered theirs – to the point of obsession, sometimes. Could you lose the ability to care, if your heart was overflowing with that much emotion?
He was not fool enough to say this way completely for his... patrons – a good word as any. Rather, he was doing it for himself. Always for himself. For who else was there in the world?
However, as the society he had once lived in fell into ruin so, too, would his life cave in despair. He would be doomed – he’d been domed from the start – and the instinct to survive was stronger than the contemplation of life and the depression weighting down on his anger.
He turned a corner and almost ran into a giant ball of flamboyant robes. He skidded round it and under a purple velvet curtain before the big, fat Vampire could even register his presence. Vampires, always stuck in their own worlds. Orazio snorted.
Fate had a very strange, very cruel sense of humour.
It wasn’t right at all.
Right – as in morally right or physically right? If it were a clue, it would be to go to the right side of the Mansion. The question was, right of what? The entrance, the rooms? No, not the rooms. They were scattered in the South Wing, yet parted by floors and passages all the same. The entrance, then? It had been unlocked and welcoming, when they arrived. He’d needed no key there.
“On your way into the foyer, you will receive a key.”
He was too preoccupied to reprimand himself on his second slip up – in the matter of minutes, no less – as his current task was yet unfinished. What was right and what was left was determined by a person’s location in space. It changed with one’s position. Thus, which way was right of the foyer?
Uh! He’d cross that bridge when he got to it. Perhaps there was a clue in the damn foyer? He’d tear it apart to find it, if needed – even if unnecessary. Elder Demons, he needed to destroy something. Destruction created within him a sense of content, as if violence and profanity and the suffering of others could reduce his own, could fill him in a way that resembled happiness. Happiness... he hadn’t thought of happiness in a while...
It only made him bitterer, more frustrated for his lack of understanding of it... He’d understood it, once upon a time, Orazio knew he had...
Orazio. That damn name! Sometimes he wanted to tear himself up! It wasn’t his! The name! The deeds! The person!
Just loathsome pretense that lacked the hate it should have entitled. What had possessed him to fall in love with a Human, anyway? It had been a cold then, love, a steady cold that had dampened the senses to dull disinterest and a steady stream of days both empty and infinitely full to someone who had gone from nothing to something as abruptly as a lighting crack.
He wanted to be Orazio again, after all.
But Humanity was short-lived, twisted not by a Demon’s claw but by their own hearts. Again, that familiar flare of loathing hate anger that he beat down with as much force as he could muster. He was beyond such things. A Demon low in rank and respect he might be, but proud bearer of the race nonetheless.
Humanity was overrated, anyway.
A curious mind observed a curious world. Eyes, doe-like, watched unfamiliar people walk about him in unfamiliar ways. He was intrigued, but too polite to ask. Most ignored him, anyway, and he did not wish to intrude on their... day-dreaming, would be the most accurate word.
He wondered what they dreamed about, these unfamiliar faces with their unfamiliar thoughts clouding in their eyes. They were like fogged glass, he noticed, idly. They wore flamboyant robes that reached to the ground and dragged across the stainless floor, like a rainbow-waterfall merging with a monotonous-sea. He wonders if these people were gay. The thought had crossed his mind on several occasions, since most of these Vampires seemed to be wearing the flag of the LGBT movement like a fashion statement.
Leon wondered if bright colours were a thing here and wondered why they should be. He was not particularly interested in the answer, but it was something to contemplate when his head was void of all other thought. He couldn’t start a conversation with any of these people, because he didn’t know them and it would feel like... intruding, even if a single Vampire would walk by, they seemed completely absorbed in their own selves.
Then there were others who observed, like him – only their eyes were wolfish and hungry, bloodshot as though they hadn’t slept in weeks.
Leon smiled at them as he walked by and didn’t look back. A hand clasped his shoulder, then, pushed him forward. “You shouldn’t make eye contact with them, idiot.” a voice hissed from behind, worry and anger combined into one.
Leon smiled, apparently for no reason. He supposed, then, that he fit right in with the rest of the lot in the hallway, sans his fuming shadow. The Vampires, despite clouded eyes and obvious love of bright colours, seemed as though they were not all there.
Leon wonders if Vampires did drugs... did blood count as a drug? He wondered, also, if he should ask someone for directions. The Vampire girl never said they couldn’t ask for directions. Just as he was about to approach a friendly-enough looking group of would-be young adults, a hand, feather-light, ghosted across his shoulder again. It’s a barely-there sensation, soft and cold and kind of chilly – though to Leon it was more of a comfort than an uneasy prickle.
Leon turned to Noel as the arm left its place all too quickly, as if the contact burned the flesh – but Leon smiled at his twin anyway. His brother didn’t smile back, or smirk, or do anything else but unconsciously let some of the tense muscles of his face relax. Noel pointed to an abject hallway, leading to the North-West. Leon looked at the other's hand before looking at where it pointed, grinning. “You want me to go that way?” he whispered.
His brother raised an eyebrow in exasperation, but said nothing. He rarely spoke when they were in public, since he thought of it as an inconvenience. Leon wished he’d talk more, every day and all the time, since Leon himself couldn’t always keep a steady stream of one-sided conversation. Leon didn’t mind the silence, exactly, but there was a certain expectation that hung in the air and he tried to rectify it with words upon words of every-day life events Noel had witnessed first-hand.
His brother didn’t mind. Though he did not speak much, the silences seemed to bother him more than they did Leon.
They turned right, then left, then in a full-circle up a flight of stairs to the left again. Leon had long given up hope of finding his way here, and let his shadow lead him. His brother was beside him, and while he was Leon knew nothing could harm him. Together, they were indestructible. That was what he’d always told his brother, so the other wouldn’t look so sad.
“Hey, Noel,” he whispered, just for the sake of saying something “do you remember how to get back to our room, because I really don’t...”
There was a sigh that Leon knew, instinctively, hid a smile. “You’re absolutely hopeless.” His mirror-image whispered, as sharp as Leon was mellow.
Leon smiled to himself as they passed another cluster of Undead people and wondered what the bright colours were meant to hide.