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The Brotherhood of The Black Rats

By Kevin Pearl All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Prologue| Penelope Prism and The Charming Chalice

The reflections in the glass were ethereal and ghost-like. They looked down on the twinkling world below like invisible guardians, willing any one of the nine million denizens of the busy city to look up and see the lurching spire of old stone and even older magic that was Belvedere Castle.

It towered over the city skyline from its hilltop in Central Park, a relic from the old world; hidden from the new. This was not the Belvedere Castle known to the early morning joggers who trekked through Sheep’s Meadow after sunrise. Nor was it the Belvedere Castle sought out by tourists for that picture perfect view of snow-covered fields in winter or the simple shady spot where the children of the Upper West Side played hide & seek during the summer. That Belvedere Castle was a shack.

This was the real Belvedere Castle; home to the Belvedere Court of New York City and the Secret College of Wizardly Scholarship. It was visible only to those who knew where to look and accessible to even fewer still. For centuries it has stood in the twilight of the realms, between fairy and man, shadow and light, waking and dreams; where the seven noble families of the old ways hold court and the Laws of Magic are upheld.

Far below its tallest towers, the city that never sleeps shines on like a glittering sheet of paper held captive by its own anxiety. A young man’s likeness watches the electric world of Manhattan with envy as the ebb and flow of light and color swirls on like thousands of dancing fairies in a moonless sky. The shadows of Belvedere Castle are more like a prison to him now than when he had first arrived at the start of the school’s semester all those weeks ago. In protest, Preston Pennyworth hawked a loogie over the ledge of an open window, just to watch it fall like snot-filled rain on the earth below.

“You’re disgusting,” stated Penelope Prism.

“I’m bored,” Preston retorted.

“Well,” said Penelope, “need I remind you that it’s your fault we’re all in here this evening, if you hadn’t—“

“—What?” interrupted Peter Pile, raising his head from the book he’d been mulling over. “Saved the school from the evil schemes of Professors Crook Nose, Horse Face, and Wart Hands, by cleverly cheating on their cursed examines only to expose their diabolical plot against Belvedere Court.”

“No,” replied Penelope. “If you hadn’t been such an ass at the ceremony today we’d be receiving Hero’s honors right now, instead of extra spell work.”

The arguments continued on for a while. Students of the Secret College prided themselves on observing the Laws of Magic at all times, the faculty even more so. So when word got out that a trio of tenured professors was abusing the school’s examination system in a desperate attempt to revive the fallen Lord Archon, last of The Vampire Kings, naturally, a scandal followed.

At the center of it all was the prophecy of the Three P’s. When the prophecy was written nearly a century before its eventual fulfillment, none of the divination experts at the time would have guessed its chief proprietors to be three college freshman from the Bronx. Yet in the end, it had been Preston, Penelope, and Peter who were responsible for the demise of the witches Crook Nose, Horse Face, and Wart Hands, or as the prophecy named them, “The Hags of Astoria.”

“You know if it wasn’t for me, neither of you would have gotten past that first exam in the first place,” stated Penelope, unaware of the newly arrived presence entering the office behind her.

“Oh, will you give it up already, we’re not going to be Heroes, okay. There’s always …” Peter let his voice trail off at the sight of Dean Archibald Elderberry behind Penelope.

“On the contrary,” said the Dean, revealing his presence to the others. “…Each of you has earned the title of ‘Hero’ after what you’ve endured this week,” he stated with a voice as clear as the bubbling Mana Draft he held in his hands.

“Dean Elderberry!” cried Penelope in surprise. “I didn’t…”

“Nonsense!” said the Dean. “You meant exactly what you said, and every word of it was right.”

“Really?” asked a Puzzled Preston.

“Oh yes, all three of you are an honor to your families,” answered the professor.

“That’s nice of you to say, sir,” said Pete, stepping forward.

“It was not easy for you to do what you did, and for that I wanted to thank you personally, and I also wanted to apologize as I will to all students enrolled at the Secret College this year. My own shortcomings put you all in danger.”

“Ah, come on, Professor don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Preston.

“That is nice of you to say, Mr. Pennyworth.”

“Why did you give us detention?” asked Penelope.

The old wizard smiled at her question, then turned to his desk, where an iron paperweight fashioned in the shape of an eagle perched over a small mountain of paperwork. “Because I wanted to reinforce one of the guiding principles of magic, my dear...” said Elderberry, turning the eagle statue counter-clockwise to reveal a hidden lift disguised within the large circular Carpet at the center of the room. “…Nothing is ever what it seems,” said the Wizard, stepping onto the circle before motioning for the students to do the same.

“Oh, and The Hall of Heroes is only ever open after hours,” he added with a smile.

Each of the three students gazed wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the revelation before them.

“You mean, we’re…” said Peter stumbling over his words as he eagerly stepped on to the dais alongside Penelope and Preston.

“You’re all cordially invited to join the ranks of the Secret College’s most fraternal, and mind you, secret, society… now shall we make our way downstairs?”

As the carpet wove its way around the corridors of Belvedere Castle, the four caught glimpses of the grand magnificence it held within. In the blink of an eye, the Throne Room passed before them, where the Queen Witch sat in council with her court on matters of the mortal realm. Then came the castle’s famous portrait gallery, where the doorways to fanciful worlds beyond counting hung like the great works of art that they were. In the library, they spied a few of their own eager classmates eagerly burning the midnight oil over ancient texts and the long lost teachings of the great wizards before them.

Down they went, passing the foyer and the kitchen and even the legendary wine cellar and its many rows of Mana-infused wines. They reached the basement, and then even the sub-basement, and continued further still. The deeper they traveled, the more earthly the world became, down among the foundations of the castle, where roots intertwined with stone among a backdrop of soil and dirt. Then faint light appeared below their feet, growing into a warm glow that quickly began to consume them.

“Ah, here we are,” said Elderberry, as the carpet slowed to a halt in the center of what looked to each of them like the common room of a rustic hunting lodge more commonly found upstate. “The Hall of Heroes…”

No sooner did the carpet touch down than did a wave of applause rise up to meet them. The four found themselves surrounded by men and women dressed to the nines for the occasion, as they stepped off the carpet to join the gathering.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Heroes and Heroines, may I present Messrs. Preston Pennyworth, Peter Pile, and the lovely Miss. Penelope Prism,” began Dean Elderberry in addressing the assembly. Again a chorus of cheers rose up around them, only to subside as the old wizard continued his speech. “…Seekers of Truth, Fulfillers of Prophecy and the latest additions to The Hall of Heroes!” exclaimed Elderberry.

“Dad!” shouted Peter recognizing his father among the well-dressed men in the assembly.

The boy’s revelation earned a laugh from the crowd. Elderberry motioned for them to join the gathered. “Let us take a moment to refill our glasses before we toast our newest members, shall we?” he said, before making his way to the bar across the cozy room.

Peter stepped forward to join his Dad, a large rotund man who welcomed his first born son among the group of his associates with a hearty chuckle that reverberated across the cozy underground hall. Preston and Penelope were left to the whims of the groups eager peers. Preston was besieged at once. His own role in the recent affair far outshone the others, so much so that Penelope was able to slink away towards the corner, honestly happy for the reprieve.

Never being one for the spotlight, the young girl followed in the wake of her instructor, making her own way to the bar and a Mana-infused cocktail of her own. Prism was not a known name among the magical elite of New York City. For her own part, Penelope had stumbled into the whimsical world of the unseen court quite by accident. Her own fate had changed after getting a taste of the coveted elixir known as Mana, replacing her Mundane sightless vision with the ability to see the hidden wonders of the world of magic. She would never again see the world as she had as a child of the Mundane. Now she was special. However, her heritage made her, in the eyes of the privileged heirs around her, a Gutter Mage.

Naturally, Penelope detested the term, for Gutter Mages were more commonly thought of as thieves in the larger world of the Belvedere Court. Their very existence was at times in direct violation of the Laws of Magic. The true power of the Belvedere Court lived in the Secret Spells of its houses, and when one of these spells was revealed, it became referred to as Gutter Magic, as unimpressive as a parlor trick or minor illusion. Thus, those who practiced it were called Gutter Mages.

Penelope had set out on her own course though. When she had first discovered the world of magic and the Belvedere Court, she set herself apart from the Gutter Mage Guilds by seeking an education at the Secret College, the pinnacle of magical education founded by the first American wizards and housed in Belvedere Castle itself. For a year, she had excelled in every subject she applied herself to, working harder and smarter than her often-entitled classmates did in an attempt to earn her place among them. All that changed with the prophecy.

Now as she looked about the room, once again finding herself amidst a mass of wealthy witches born into the world she so haphazardly fell into, she couldn’t help but let her gaze wonder along the walls of the hall and the portraits of bygone heroes that hung upon them. Some were known amongst even the most innocent of the Mundane thanks to popular stories and songs, while others were celebrated only within the wizarding world and it’s denizens.

She spied Jack The Welshman, first of his name, who also was known as Giant Slayer after having both climbed a mythical beanstalk to the once grand kingdom in the clouds and playing an important role in the battle that followed. A more recent addition, Jerry Kotter, hung just above her, also known as The Boy Who Played With Shadows. His famous scar-faced glare looked down upon the room from where he sat upon the lost throne of a thousand blades.

“So there we were pinned down under the George Washington Bridge with barely a half-flask of Mana between us. Our Alchemist disintegrated before our very eyes,” said a man little more ten years her senior in regaling his own heroic triumphs to a group of his fellow heroes. “Luckily the poor fool had enough sense to drop his wand before he went, so I picked it up…had gripped so damn tight that my knuckles turned white…and then I caught the leader of those blood sucking bastards with a solar spell right between the eyes!” The climax of his speech was met with hearty applause and the clatter of clinging glass as those around him patted him on the shoulder in a show of solidarity.

Many a hero had come out of The Vampire Wars. Peter’s own father had been one of them. It had been just over a decade since the King Wizard had died defending the mortal realm on the banks of the Hudson River as he led his forces against a tide of the pale-skinned terrors known more commonly as Vampires.

Penelope had always been fascinated with that period of Wizarding History as she had only just missed it growing up in the Mundane. Everyone she knew had lost somebody in what had come to be referred to as the “darkest shadow of a generation.”

She returned her attention to the murals along the wall. Next to the portrait of The Boy Who Played With Shadows hung a rather regal painting of the brothers and sisters Lewiston, the famous Mundane siblings who stumbled through a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art one summer in the mid nineteen-forties, only to become the rulers of a whimsical world of talking animals upon defeating the Dread-lord Frostbite in a battle that was still sung about today.

“Ahem!” coughed a voice from behind Penelope. The young girl turned to find it belonging to a grey-haired old witch dressed more for a funeral than a celebration. “Fancy seeing yourself up there do you?” asked the witch. “All in due time, sweetie all in due time.”

“I was just admiring the history,” replied Penelope.

“Of what… our old boys club here?” asked the witch as she took a step closer to the girl.

“I had noticed a significant lack of witches among the ranks,” admitted Penelope.

“Ah yes,” said the witch. “There was a time when membership to our little hollow was quite exclusive. Then came The Vampire Wars and every son of a witch to ever lift a wand felt himself due admission into the hall.”

“The Vampire Wars…” stated Penelope, “were a dark time or so I’m told. I was only a little girl when they outlawed the dark arts. I understand it was quite a mess.”

“The conflict of an age,” replied the witch. “But neither my age or yours. I pity your generation, dear. The Fae have turned their backs on us, and even as we stand here speaking, more sacred magic is flowing into the gutter for any half-wit lucky enough to get his lips wet on Mana.”

“You mean The Gutter Mages?” asked Penelope. But before the old witch couldanswer, their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of an old wizard.

“Sister!” cried the old wizard. His withered features outdated even Dean Elderberry in appearance. Penelope took him for possibly the oldest person in the room, which was saying something considering the number of greybeards and pointy hats counted among the gathered. “Sister!” he said again in a wispy voice as he nearly stumbled into the witch he had been looking for.

“Oh what is it now, Charlie?” asked the old witch turning away from Penelope.

“Have you seen my scepter?” asked the crooning wizard. “You know, the one the Beaver King gifted me for my birthday last year…”

“You mean the one you’ve been using as a cane now that your legs have gone as twisted as your wits?” replied the witch. “No, brother, I have not.”

“A pity,” said the old wizard, yet before he could utter so much as another senile word, Elderberry appeared on the podium just behind them.

“Do you know what we used to call them back in my day?” asked the witch of Penelope as she pointed with her forehead into the direction of the wizards throwing back shot glasses of strange glowing liquids while cheering each other on.

“Uh…Sorcerers?” replied Penelope, unsure of her answer.

“No…” stated the witch. “Drunks…lousy, stinking drunks. The only difference is now there’s much more magic and much more money to be had from all this silly nonsense.”

Penelope found herself in agreement with the old witch as Elderberry cleared his throat at the podium behind where she stood toward the center of the hall. “Attention,” stated the professor as he called the room to order. “Colleagues, may I have your attention please. The moment has arrived.”

It was then that Penelope noticed the wall behind him for the very first time. A large circular disc was carved in the shape of a lion’s face with its golden mane cast in bronze while its other features gleamed in nickel and rhinestone. At first glance, one might take it for yet another overly ornate decoration among the shrine of heroic artifacts gathered over the years, yet upon closer inspection, it became all too clear that the face was in fact the door to a heavily secured vault.

“Would our newest members please step forward,” asked Elderberry.

Penelope joined Preston and Peter at the head of the gathering. She made it a point of standing between the both of them, earning a subtle wink from the old witch she had been speaking with a moment prior.

“All around you is the history of our order,” said Elderberry, motioning the circle of paintings that hung above their heads, “The great Heroes look down on all of us tonight,” he continued, placing his attention to the paintings once more. “The Pendragon Order of the Round, our noble predecessors from the old country, The First Jack, The famous Lewiston Siblings, The Boy Who Played With Shadows, the list goes on and on…but it starts right here,” Elderberry said, as he let his words hang in the air and motioned to the portrait hanging just above him and the vault.

It was older than the rest and depicted a knight draped in a tunic with a lion’s head upon it, standing before a wall of thorny vines. In one hand he held a sword, and in the other, a chalice.

“Prince Charming The First,” said Elderberry, “…who, armed with but the most basic yet powerful of magics, True Love, vanquished the evil Fae Sorceress to win the hand of the fair Briar Rose.”

“Sleeping Beauty,” Penelope heard Preston mutter under his breath.

“Now the line of Charming’s has long since passed,” said Elderberry, staring squarely down at the three youth’s in front of him. “Yet their treasures remain with us here still. The Fabled Charming Chalice, the first cup to ever bear liquid Mana among them, and tonight, when we raise our glasses to you, you raise it as one and drink deep of Mana like never before.”

When his speech ended, six individual wizards as separate in age and appearance as anyone else in the room stepped forward with their wands in hand. As one, they waved them in a simple circular clockwise motion, and the mouth of the metal lion grew wide as though it meant to consume the old wizard in front of it. When only the mane remained, it turned counter-clockwise, expelling an aura of invisible energy as the contents of the vault gleamed in the darkness.

Waving his own wand into the abyss before him, Elderberry ignited the room in golden flames to reveal the treasures of a thousand heroes to all those present. It was the first time Penelope recalled ever seeing Preston and Peter at a loss for words.

The Vault was bigger than the hall itself. Its contents were worth more than the entire holdings of The Belvedere Court and half the magical families of Manhattan put together. The fire light reflected its great gold rays of wealth and prosperity.

“Come,” said the old wizard beckoning them forward. “And don’t forget to bring your drinks.”

The trio followed in his footsteps as the old professor crossed the threshold into the shining treasure room.

“Wait,” said the elder wizard, as his eyeline followed the trail, starting with the towering suits of golden armor and Gilded Unicorn Horns, past the mountains of Atlantiain Gold Coins and Midas-forged weaponry, and finally to a simple alter of marble where a chalice should have been, but wasn’t.

A brace of gasps soon washed over the assembly as they too saw what was missing. The chorus seemed to rise with each passing second.

“What is it, Professor?” asked Penelope.

“The Chalice!” exclaimed Elderberry in disbelief. “…It’s gone.”

The chorus of gasps soon turned into a tremor of murmurs and accusations, and even one spirited cry of “Who in the hell took my scepter!?” as the situation unfolded. Yet not one of the heroic elite of the Belvedere Court had enough common sense to look down at their feet; and the six nimble black rats scurrying about them toward the exit, one of which was holding a tiny golden goblet in its tail.

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