There was something infinitely familiar with wandering unfamiliar paths. There’s a strange kind of silence that hung in the air, heavy despite the forcefully frivolous atmosphere. Drina had never liked either parties or pretenses or both as one in the same. She’d never been apt at telling how people around her felt, not exactly. She didn’t like thinking about what it would be like in their shoes. She already had a ton of problems of her own, why burden oneself with someone else’s?
Still, P&P went hand in hand. Drina knew the feeling of discontent and all things unhappy – it was easy for her to spot it in others. She spotted the wigs and the lack of exposed skin on the few creatures that passed her by. She noticed the excess make-up on both men and women alike, on child and elder, like a fickle beauty trying to cement itself on a face cracking with age.
The air was deceptively light, considering the fact they were underground, and was filled with the alluring smell of strong perfume and fresh rain. It had an earthy tang to it as well, as some base component – there was something else too, something that chafed against the other smells and made them more pronounced.
Drina could hazard a guess as to what it was.
She refused to name it. Naming something meant you were familiar with it, that you allowed it to exist in your world. Drina had never called any of her friends by their real names, only by insults and nicknames. Magic was her craft and she was fond of speaking in pronouns, which was confusing to everyone but her.
She didn’t want them to understand, anyway.
She didn’t understand it herself.
Drina stood before a door, now. She didn’t know if it was the right door or if it lead down a path she wasn’t meant to go down. Whatever. Dumb Vampires should know better than to give such a broad task.
A key that opened many doors, they’d said. They never said any door was either right or wrong. Many doors, many possibilities, many paths to choose from.
Drina guessed this one was as good as any. She guessed, also, that her shadow wouldn’t have fallen across it so easily, so fearlessly, if the thing itself felt threatened by what waited beyond. Her shadow always fell before her, always draped the space in front of each of her steps like some sort of discoloured yellow-brick road.
Well, here was an obstacle – now, to tackle it or to move around it?
Drina smiled, with cold eyes and mocking twist of lip, and pushed the door open with a bout of arrogance that was just as flamboyant as the Vampires’ choice of clothing.
Twelve heads rolled her way, necks arching in various positions from their various perches on a multitude of shoulders. Drina looked at them all, meet each and every one of them in a fleeting sweep of her bright gaze and shut the door behind her.
The door opened in front of her.
“Miss Angel?” a familiar, cylinder-wearing head poked out.
Drina stared at him “Yes?”
There was a half a heart-beat of silence, perceptible only because her heart was hammering in her chest, before the blood-sucker inclined his head. The move made his orange-tinted glasses fall down his long, crooked nose.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” her guide asked.
“If I am invited.” Drina swallowed, suddenly feeling lax and tired, like she could finally relax from a long journey – even though the notion was as deceptive as the bright colours of the immortals’ tomb.
“You have come our way,” the Vampire told her “thus our paths have crossed. Here there is a place to rest one’s feet, so sit with us if you will.”
Drina was unfamiliar with this sort of formality. It was either a traditional greeting she was unfamiliar with or round-about Vampire dribble.
“Why not?” Drina conceded with a shrug as she walked past her host. He looked mildly surprised for a fracture of a second, but it seemed unimportant and neither paid it much mind.
The eleven remaining entities in the room watched her curiously. Drina recognized some of them. Beside their Vampire guide, Drina spotted the would-be poet, Zabat, one of the war-sisters of Slovenia, the seasoned boy, the fisherman's beloved and the gypsy girl.
Drina was saddened by Enitan's absence. The motherly Judge was nowhere to be seen, either. She noticed, also, that one of the war-girls was missing, too. The vivid red walked without its stocky shadow. The right-and-wrong-person was absent as well, neither was the-boy-who-listened was not there – obviously, he hadn't listened well enough. Oh, and the Lion.
Six in total. Six problems less to worry about. Five to go.
The door, one at the far end of the room – which Drina could have sworn had not been there a moment before – opened to reveal another piece of their little puzzle.
“Sorry I’m late,” the boy said, rubbing his arm as though he were cold. Despite the sheepish gesture, he didn’t look very affected. “What did I miss?”
...okay, six to go still.
Besides her guide, who now stood in the heart of the unknown, were six other individuals. A woman framed by two younger men that looked plain compared to the explosion of multiple rainbows outside in the hallways. The woman herself, the one in the middle, drank wine languidly in her half-seated, half-draped position on the sofa – as though the others in the room did not exist or mind her rude posturing, as if daring them to comment on it.
Her guide stood a little behind that plush-pink sofa, a bit to the side and out of the way, so the woman had to throw her head back to get a glance at him when she wanted to address him face-to-face. Drina wondered if her guide looked any less strange when looked at up-side-down.
The Strange Vampire looked at the new-comer now and said “The clock is striking twelve. The day is up, as is the opportunity of solving this task for all those who did not make it to this point in space.”
“I thought there was no wrong path.” Drina muttered. The Vampires heard without her meaning to be loud. They looked at her, eyebrows raised and bright, clouded irises glinting in expectation. “You said a key opens many doors, you never said whether what lies behind that door was good or ill in any sense or situation you had planned.” Drina swallowed, the saliva in her throat almost had a copper tang to it.
She waited now, for them to start laughing at her stupidity. She didn’t know if she was right or wrong or something else and disliked finding out even more.
“Aren’t you cheeky?” an airy voice drifted in the stale atmosphere. Drina let her eyes languidly slide towards the source of the noise. It was a man, dressed in green silks and snuggled in white furs. He too, had draped himself over a sofa – this one a tangerine, gentle peach. His facile features were almost frighteningly sharp, like the edges of a dagger, and it gave accent to his wolfish grin that made it look exaggeratedly unreal. A Cheshire grin by a would-be Cheshire Cat.
„What determines the right choice of door?” the Fisherman’s Beloved questioned, breaking the trance this man had bewitched the young Magician with. Drina blinked. For how long had she stood there and stared? More than a dozen seconds, she felt only now that it was over.
“Self-assurance.” said the uncaring woman.
“Luck.” said her Guide.
“A suspicious mind.” said the Cheshire-man.
“Perhaps all of the above.” Another man added, in his red visage and gray-green eyes. Those eyes were inviting, like an invitation for a walk through a forest that you would easily lose yourself in.
The hunting trophy he sat on, a giant stuffed snake, moved to a height that a Human could only dream of reaching. The Man of Red slid down his scales like a child down a slide, without spilling a single drop of red wine in the process. Those hands, Drina felt, were ones nothing could slip past.
“You choose.” The Snake-thing hissed, fork tongue twisting around the words in an enchanting way. Then there was silence and the craning of both necks and imaginations, of comprehension and wide eyes.
The Snake-like creature regarded them all. Its eyes were a yellowish colour, almost like topaz, but much colder than the stone itself. Reptilian. The scaled face looked as though it was sculpted of stone, of a hundred different rock-hard pieces all needled together in an intricate mosaic of russets.
„Am I heard by all present? Am I seen?” it asked, words slanting as though formed in waves of hissing breath “Do you believe in what is presented to you? Yes. No. Ah, that’s the question. Do you believe? Do you believe me? I am called Zhu Zhang, a name that resides with the people of the Chinese Humanity. You, one of the native beings of this world – today you will meet a being older than your lifetimes summed into one, yet still but a son of this earth. I am a Naga, as the communities called India had dubbed our kind. I am here to pay witness to this pin-point in time, to your decisions in the space of days. I am not here to judge, or spy, nor intervene in these affairs. I am Naga, you are Human. There are barriers between us that we can build upon, cross, pillage or accept – like the skin of two palms clasped together.”
It was a spell. It must have been, for what else could bewitch a person so? What word was strong enough to quell fear, even if soft-spoken and well-meaning? What was this...?
The woman on the pink sofa clasped her hands to get their attention.
„I will not say be quiet, nor will I say please to any of you. You, fledglings – that's what you are. Merely fledglings without much knowledge or experience. You are not trained, nor taught, nor well-versed in this art – you are rough talent, dirt that can be shaped or trampled over equally. Your lives have come to a crossroads, here, and not one of the many paths you may take is marked clearly. I will not tell you which one is right or wrong, which one pays off more and which will be the one that you stumble down. I will not tell you this, but others will.”
She paused in her monologue, then, as if a single breathe could make up for the sum of words spoken just then. She looked to the side, raised her hand to the red-clad man in a gesture that seemed to both bacon him forward and point to him.
“Master Barnabas, here, for example, will be your greatest achievement if you wish for an academic career – or one in diplomacy. There are other schools out there, as well as organizations, firms, countries that wish to embrace you and never let you go. People come here to see potential, to pluck it like blooming flowers, to dig a hole in their own garden to bury that flower in. I am the one who will put you on display, who knows all and sees all. I am Lady Aveolem and your future rest solely on how much you annoy me.”
There was dead silence all around, until the Cheshire-man burst into a Cheshire-laugh. It was a high-pitched sound, long and drawn out like a kind of fluctuating yawl. It ended as suddenly as it began, with a cough that shook the already thin frame a final time. The man lurched to his feet with a burst of boisterous energy, old bones and rumpled skin wrapped in graceful, seemingly weightless form of aging fresh and fur that moved. “Hello, everyone~! Well, everyone who I do not yet know and have not yet greeted because, really, how can you say hello to a person you don’t know? Oh, that rhymes! Don’t love it when things rhyme? I love riddles that rhyme! You know why? They sound so childish adults can’t think of a way to solve them. I’ll tell you one now and the one who answers me, I will give a piece of advice. A trick, actually, a trick or key, if you so wish, to a kind of freedom rarely seen on these rocky continents. Do you know what I am? Do you care? Does it matter? I’ll tell you straight, n-o-p-e. You think that? Walk out the door, because we’re all a bit odd in here – and we’re all a bit odd out there.”
The old man swished this way and that as he spoke, as if unable to keep still. The silky garments he wore hung from his frame leisurely, as if caressed by some gentle breeze, while the furs twisted round and round on their own. Drina counted four, seven, nine tails.
The would-be-man grinned. “Thus, my riddle is as such: What is here, everywhere and nowhere at all? What is the thing that you can break without ever holding? Oh, and by the way, does anyone know if a Mr Aoi is in the house? Because if there is, I want to meet him.”
The woman on the pink sofa sighed dramatically, eyebrows raised and lips parted in amused exasperation.
“Alright, people, you know why you’re here.” she said, with a well-placed dose of irony “The seven of you are to be put on display for the Magical Community of the Human Peoples. You will continue to be tested tomorrow, in front of watchful eyes of both your teachers”–she said the word as though it was something funny and bitter on her tongue–“and the audience of your fellow racists– I mean races.”
She sighed, as though this was all too tedious for her taste and began to twirl a long lock of black hair between pale fingers “You will report to the underground cavern beneath this Mansion, at seven o’clock, and will be drafted on your second test there.”
She smiled then, more out of amused carelessness than an actual sign of encouragement and said to them, as if it were a ground announcement to the naive masses.
“Until sundown tomorrow – drink, party, live and enjoy it while it lasts.”
The cavernous room was filled with the shrillest of sounds, a distorted harmony of fluctuating laughter and the chime of wine glasses and cutlery. Drina was neither hungry nor thirsty, nor did she really want to mingle with the other occupants of this place. It felt almost like the first day of school, when you stepped into a wolf’s den and forced yourself to fit in with the pack.
It felt like a prison.
Silently, almost like that strange daze of this place had infected her as well, she wandered towards the large, unevenly circular windows at the far wall.
Outside the rain had stopped falling. Droplets condensed on the glass, distorted, transparent borders against black, obvious ones. It was a web, a crack in a colourful stain. It was a crack in the stone, boarded up with jagged glass and metal bars. The world outside looked... wrong. A dreary landscape, painted gray-blue-green and with evergreen trees standing tall and black like grave-stones. But no, the colours weren’t black or gray, blue or green but rose-tinted, highlighted yellow and orange.
Why try to cover up such sadness? Drina didn’t get it. Some things were beautiful as they were, some were not. Why force something into a new form, something that did not come naturally to it? Unwillingly, her eyes found the hazy reflection within the glass. It looked trapped, there, hidden behind the swirling metal and clouded glass before a world whose true colours could not be perceived.
Was this Sibin's own existence?
A second shadow swirled into view beside her, like smoke gathering around a cloud. “If you want to run away, I do hope you know how to fly.”
Drina tensed, a bow string ready to be let loose, and said “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing much. Merely that there’s a terrace and that if you decide to try to jump down from it I won’t pull you back.” the man said, plainly, as if discussing the weather. Drina could not discern his features, but he seemed red in the broken, miscellaneous light.
Drina snorted and turned to meet the lackadaisical gaze of her unwelcome companion. “How very kind of you.” she told him. He smiled – politely, in pretense.
“There are many kinds of kindness.” the red-man said. His name was Ruadh Barnabas, though that was not a real name but a title. The Barnabas family, Drina had heard – because who hadn’t? – was an infamous family from the UK. It was, in fact, one of the only traditionally magical clans of that Island.
Magical territories had not been correlated with the political division of countries in the past. Land was divided by tradition. Tradition by the people’s needs and believes. People by the many brands in life and the brands, themselves, by the techniques and types of practice they stood behind.
Every “Magical Country” had a family that governed it. Barnabas was a synonym for the whole of the British Isles, as well as the Irish ones. It was a large area to look after, one where Magical-immigrants from all over brought new lifestyles to a new place. Its large population, its internationalism and mix of many, many types of Magic... it was a living time-bomb.
The Barnabas family, themselves, were in a state of decline. Well, not the family, exactly, since there was only one Barnabas still alive.
Drina spared a glance to the Vampires occupying the room, drinking and singing merrily, like life was nothing but a fairy-tail and they were living the dream.
“Lead the way.” she told the High Magician. It was a nice title, if you weren’t short. If you were, you were the butt of the joke. Fortunately enough, Ruadh Barnabas towered over Drina Serdar with a height advantage of over three heads. He nodded, graciously, his face neutrally pleasant, and made a hand motion for her to follow without actually looking back at her.
Ruadh moved gracefully, as though he wasn’t really there, as if – if you looked too long or too hard, or didn’t look at all, you wouldn’t have seen him at all. He was a living Ghost among the living Dead, a Human among Vampires. At least, Drina didn’t pin him as a Vampire. She didn’t know his real name, after all, and maybe one of those frequent assassination attempts had finally succeeded – she wouldn’t know, most of the gossip was old news by the time she got to the Ghumno after school.
Still, she was pretty sure the man had been around for about five decades even though he didn’t look a day over thirty. Flawless skin, a placid face and expensive cloths – an elegant doll with a mass of blood-red hair, both deep and vivid in colour. He seemed... creepy, careless in a way that spoke of amused, fleeting interest and a mind with no heart.
Drina followed him obligingly, for what else was she to do? She didn’t know what would come of their meeting, what he wanted from her but she knew, past the adrenaline already rushing through her system and the oxygen rushing to her brain, that she could neither fight or flee.
Ruadh was basically royalty. Well, not really, Queen Elizabeth the II surely would have rectified that if she knew, but close enough. Who cared about what normal people thought anyway?
This man acted like he was King of the World, Drina could tell from their brief acquaintance – perhaps he was. Her brain stilled. Afolayan. Damn it, Afolayan! Drina realized that that was what the Afolayan family, Enitan’s family, was as well. What kind of cretin was she? Ife Afolayan, she’d read the name in one of Constantine’s books! Spirits, she’d insulted a freaking Prince! Oh, she was so dead. She was so dead.
If Ruadh didn’t kill her first, that is. Ruadh, Roy, Clancy, Adam, Flanagan, Rufus. All the nicknames he’d earned in life hinted at nothing more than his out-side appearance, making him seem, to Drina, like a very distant person. Perhaps it was just because the guy was light-of-foot and walked as briskly as a person used to being followed in step, without complaint or a good smack to the head.
Yup, definite aristocracy. Why couldn’t Ruadh be more like Enitan? Despite their extremely short acquaintance, it was hard to be indifferent to something so new and... friendly. Drina had been looking forward to seeing Enitan here, actually –maybe because of his amicable company, which she could never herself, of her own initiative, achieve. Maybe he was just too good of a distraction, too positive a distraction, to let him slip her by.
They reached the terrace fairy quickly. Ruadh threw the door open with hardly a care, the wind and other strange sounds reverberated across the mountains, drowning out and enhancing every anomaly. The wooden, oddly-shaped door, thinned and curved like a tear stretching into the eternity of unforgiving rock, swung listless and unhinged.
The Human King of the West turned to her as he threw his body back, onto the railings’ in an informal posture. His balance was off, body leaning a bit too far back and seated not on his arse but just above his knees, loose cloths falling over the edge like an omen. His hands did not touch the things around him, settling either on his chin or the pocket of his robes.
Finally, he said “Spy on Grandharve for me, little girl.“
Drina froze. What. The. Fuck?
“What? You're not serious... you're not serious.“ Her brain seemed to have shut down on her, despite the words that fell from her numb lips. Her jaw was threatening to fall wide open and hit the balcony floor. “Why do you think I can even do that? How... You took me from a room full of some of the most powerful people in the world! You think this will go unnoticed?“
There was a certain note of hysteria at the end, higher and more pronounced than the usual cold shoulder and silence, or the heated words and anger. Frustration. Exasperation. Misunderstanding. All infinitely familiar, all infinitely tiring.
“That was the point, actually.” Ruadh shrugged, as if it wasn’t important – but it was. One did not go about secretive business without actually being secretive. Ruadh did not seemed inclined to explain, but did so anyway with a long-suffering sigh and a careless flick of the wrist.
“Not one of them knows what, exactly, is being said here.” he conveyed “For all they know, we could be discussing the Mariana Trench and Snow-White and the Nut-Cracker.”–Drina laughed so suddenly it came out as a bark. Ruadh didn’t seem to appreciate the interruption–“They’ll make assumptions and with a few would-be-clues I’ll shape them into something that works in the favour of yours truly.”
Drina felt like slapping someone silly – preferably someone with annoyingly red hair and without diplomatic immunity. She settled for a pair of clenched fists and a mumbled “Spirits, why can’t anyone speak normally in this building?” instead.
“It’s part of the atmosphere, I believe. Can’t have a mystery if you don’t have anyone to wonder at it.” Ruadh answered as if it was the most mundane part of the conversation and, given the talk they just had, it probably was.
“What do you want, then?” both his voice and the look on his on mostly-impassive face told Drina that the King thought she was an idiot. Damn that pompous bastard.
“I already told you.” said Ruadh, his voice becoming more of a drawl and his accent stronger and more twisted, almost like a serpentine flick of the tongue.
Drina, used to playing the fool and not knowing any better, pressed on. “But what do you hope to get from this endeavour?” She hated how her voice came out, all soft surprised and a demur farce that was too forced to hide away her thoughts.
Ruadh, at least, seemed amused by her efforts. “Everything you tell me and you will, I assure you, tell me everything.” He stressed the word as if Drina could not comprehend its meaning. “That is my price for solving your problems. I will give only one thing, one precious thing and you will give me everything in return.”
It was a grim promise spoken by a cold man, someone who didn’t give a damn about the world he could so easily throw into chaos with merely a word. There was a reason they called him The Fourth Duke’s Incarnation.
Drina felt a thrill of fear run through her soul – did
he know of Vid’s letter...? Did he actually know about whatever tragedy was
planned...? Was that where he'd assumed a connection between the Grandharve and...
Ruadh looked at her for the first time since they spoke, held her gaze with a steel pool the colour of rotten olives and said, in a voice almost soft “Use it wisely.”
“Why would I?” was the immediate, rebellious response.
He blew her off with a wave of the hand that shifted its course and descended into a pocket of his robe, pulled out a smart phone and tapped at it while saying, almost like an afterthought “Oh, you naive brat – you’ll kiss the ground I walk on after this.”
Everything this man said sounded uncaring, though it was asked with both purpose and a frigid kind of vigour.
“After what?!” she shouted in frustration, anger, helplessness . She hated him, this Red-Duke of England. Him and all the things he refused to touch with his pale hands. “And how the hell do you know I won’t just tell you to fuck off! I know nothing about politics and I hate–”
“Serdar.” Ruadh said, stern and devoid of any real emotion, and shoved the mobile into the crook of her neck so fast she almost dropped it. Instinctively, her shoulder shot up to trap the faintly-buzzing device.
A voice called to her, muffled by the skin and cotton that sheltered it. It was rather warm, unpleasantly so, and Drina moved to remove the device without dislodging it from its precarious perch.
The voice sounded like thunder from clear skies.
“Hello?“ Drina froze. “Hello, is anyone there?“
She just stood there. Drina just stood there, somewhere on the banks of Neverland within a Vampire Nest and in the Company of the Red version of the Wizard of Oz and... and... broke.
“Brother?“ it was too small to be called a proper sound and for a moment, Drina wondered if she'd actually managed to utter the word or if its echo had surfaced from the depths of her thoughts, chopped up and ear-grating like a bad cassette recording.
There was silence on the other end. The thought struck Drina that she was dreaming. This couldn't be real. However, the pain in her chest and the voice in her head – it was too painful to be surreal. Thus, slowly and dazedly, she came to her next line of inquiry: if this wasn't a dream, had she gone crazy?
“...you're impossible.“ A voice told her over the buzz of the phone, a mechanic echo to the cacophony in her head – snatched away.
She reacted too late, reached out just as all means and opportunity slipped from her grasp – stolen by the very man who'd gifted her with it.
„Hey, give that back to me!“ she shrieked. Stumbling after it in a blind desperation, she hit an elbow. Bypassing it she jumped up and cursed her height as she came down, empty handed and already ready to part with the earth once more.
The aristocrat merely raised an eyebrow at her and tilted his head a few degrees down, condescendingly placating “It's not yours, child.“
It was the simplest of facts, the most benign and unimportant – and it burst her bubble of now, now, now into a swirling mess of then and could have been and finally in another life.
Ruadh pocketed his phone in a fold Drina was not in the right state of mind to memorize. The man didn't look at her directly, more as a side-long, passive observation. “Now, are you open for further dealings?“ he asked her, in a way that a judge would ask the jury for the final verdict.
Drina nodded, dumb to the world.
Ruadh returned the gesture curtly, with more understanding than Drina was capable of comprehending right now. “Good.“ he told her, to break the trance she'd fallen into “Now that I have your undivided loyalty, I have to know how much use you'll be to me.“
She wasn't surprised by this, she was too shocked, too overloaded, to care about something that seemed so trivial now.
“What kind of proof do you need?“ Drina questioned in turn.
There was a pause, a silence that somehow seemed reverent, before Ruadh's voice broke the illusion “The names of a perfect quantity, delivered to me before the final test begins.“
Drina nodded, not quite understanding what that meant, and asked “What do I get in return?“
“A one-way ticket to your brother's home, of course.“ Ruadh assured her, as if it were something you could buy at a corner-store at half-price.
“You're not cheap.“ she commented, without thought, and didn't even realize her mistake. This man now held her life in his hands – her brother, her key. The one who would make her lonely little world all better.
Ruadh's half-lidded eyes seemed more tired now, the shadows there more pronounced. “Believe me, you're not either.“
He lurched, then, over the railings and back onto the balcony, beside the catatonic girl and towards the tear-like door.
“See you after curtain call.“
The wind beat against his frame mercilessly, as it did on Drina's as well – only, Drina was a statue and Ruadh, himself, seemed to be made a straw.
“What if I told you I had something much more valuable?”
She felt more than heard him stop. She swallowed.
“A... friend of mine sent me a letter... saying that a massacre will take place here in the next three days. Someone will sabotage the practical part of the test, though who and how I don’t know."
“And what is the name of this friend?” the man asked, without missing a beat. It was like the news didn’t even affect him in the slightest, like he was so cold he was untouchable.
Please burn this letter after you read this, for my life could very well hinge on its existence.
Drina swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I can’t say.”
She breathed hard, each sigh clouding in the mountain air, and dared not look back.
She heard Ruadh snort “Then you’ve already proven your loyalty.”
There was something ironic in that expression.
Drina did not understand the words he'd said to her or what they meant – or even what they mean to her. Everything was so jumbled and confusing in her head. There was no coherent thought, no concrete desire, just a feeling of wanting to be filled.
She turned, dazedly, in a kind of clumsy pirouette, to follow the puppet-master.
It felt like walking through a dream.