Below the city, below the crumbling structure that had once been Tower Elilith, memories never faded. Memories never died. And as a figure in long robes, moving stiffly, swept along the under-city street, unrecognisable beneath his deep cowl, he knew that the memories would never be forgiven.
His own daughter had done this. He was still reeling from the confrontation, each breath feeling like fire in his chest. But he realised he was proud, too; proud that the girl that had come in off the street so many years ago had learned well from him, learned the art of fighting, and the ability to winning so well.
He tapped on a door, an almost inconsequential door that looked the same as any of the other thousands of doors up and down the street. The cobbles below his feet felt oddly uneven, though, and he knew from countless years standing in this very spot where to stand so the uncomfortable patches did not dig into his feet.
A watch-flap scraped back, a password softly murmured, and the timber door swung slowly open, revealing a dark passageway, with another robed and cowled figure, holding a lamp high above their heads, well above the lintel of the door frame in the evidently quite high corridor behind the stone façade.
They moved in slow procession along the dark corridor, following the pool of pale blue-white light from the lamp, the old man’s laboured breathing and scraping footsteps a strong counterpoint to the sharp clacks of the tall, muscular man, the definition clear through the formless robes.
At a door at the end of the corridor, a sequence of coded raps of a discreetly small brass knocker had another cowled attendant opening the door, and this time, a staircase descended down, down, below the present ground level of the city and into the catacomb level, to the old street level, thousands of years past. The old man hobbled past what were windows, once, covered with huge timber sheet panels to keep the pressure of the dirt on the other side from exploding out, and destroying the truly ancient place.
At the bottom of the long spiral staircase, they stopped, turned, and proceeded along another corridor; this one was lit by a sequence of warmly glowing wood-burning lamps, ingenious mechanisms in place to pipe in fresh air and fuel, and pipe out the smoky exhaust, still in perfect condition after three thousand years.
At last, they reached a much more ornate door, almost like the doors to the royal audience chamber, and yet the intricacy and beauty of the carvings were betrayed by the blood-spatters coating it thickly. The old man smiled, a vile twist of his thin lips as he walked through the portal, remembering when he, as a young man, was required to slit his own forearm, and let a tiny dribble of blood flow down onto the door as part of the Initiation. How far they had come, together…
“Grand Master,” said a surprised female voice, youthful and suggestive. “It has been long since we saw you last.”
“It has indeed, my child,” the old man – the Grand Master – said, waiting for the doors to close behind him, the two muscular men outside more than enough protection for his mind, before he dropped his cowl and cloak, eliciting a wordless cry of shock at the state of his beaten and battered body.
“Grand Master, what happened to you?”
“I was attacked, by the Child of Change herself. She lives in the Palace now, the evil in her glowing like a black sun.”
“Shall I send for the medics, my lord?”
“Yes, I think that would be a rather good idea, my child. And send for the Council of Masters. Have them meet this evening; I have some interesting ideas, but I require a day or so to think them over.”
“As you wish, my lord,” said the serving-girl, bowing, and darting backwards through a secret passageway beside the fireplace in the long room.
He took in his surroundings again, seeing his home through fresh eyes. The long, low teak table running down the centre of the room looked clean and crisp, comparatively few papers scattered along it, and a pint-mug, showing that there had been people here only a short while ago, sitting on the range of cushions scattered around the room. At the end farthest from him, a tall, proud fireplace stood, soot-blackened from countless years of use, the carbon black staining the thick heart-stone, some of the only such stone in the city which was showing age.
He settled down on his usual couch on one side of the room, beside which stood a pile of scrolls and papers, evidently correspondence he had missed while he staked out his wife’s apartment.
Yet, down here, he had no wife. He had mistresses and lovers, yes, and the serving girl, though she did not know it, was his daughter – of that, he was certain. But in a position of power as his, he knew he needed a selection of aces to keep up his sleeve, and this was one of them, to be pulled out in an emergency.
He lazily made his way through the pile of papers, putting a few aside that he would have to look at in more detail at a later time, but noting the number of them, he surmised that the Council of Masters had been dealing with such things as the day-to-day running of the organisation.
He was proud of how he had shaped this group.
When he was young, he remembered this room as one filled with drunken carousing, fights often erupting, often bloody, often violent, often fatal. He put a stop to that when he was elevated to the Council of Masters, and through charm, blackmail, bribery, and a whole range of other tricks he had down pat by this late juncture in his life, he had taken control of what was once just Elilith, and moulded it in his own image, turning it into a parody – no, he thought, a homage – to the Noble Houses of Kihedra.
And now they stood so close to taking the Queens from the city for ever.
There was a quiet knock at the door, and the Grand Master looked up, to see a medic standing in the doorway.
“Ah, Mealune, come in,” he said, noting the stability in his breath – it had stopped rasping and rattling.
“Grand Master, it is an honour to serve.” The young man knelt, kissing the ring that the Grand Master bore on his forefinger – a sun-gem set in a stylised pentagon of heartstone, slightly warm and much heavier than it looked.
“It is good to hear you reaffirm your promises, Journeyman-Medic Mealune, but perhaps you could attend to my injuries?” The meaningful tone in his voice was woven through with an amused overtone, as the older man fought to keep a smile forming .
“Certainly, Grand Master,” Mealune said, bowing, and pulling a few small Devices from the satchel he carried with him everywhere.
The Devices were an interesting discovery, made as they first explored the catacombs under the city, finding relics from the Founding, boxes and devices that no-one could possibly fathom. These particular ones were smaller, and were from a set which had been found to heal injuries – knowledge from only a few years’ quiet experimentation by the Master-Medic, claiming only a few hundred lives.
A quiet, ululating cry filled the chamber, and the Grand Master jerked upright, ignoring the sudden bolt of pain flashing through his ribs. The serving-girl darted back out of the passageway behind the staircase, quickly circuiting the table. “There has been a breach, Grand Master. A squadron of Lancemen has entered the First Antechamber.”
He cursed, realising that he had so carefully left a trail leading straight here, as neatly as if he had painted a trail of glowing arrows behind him.
“Do they know what this place is yet?”
“No, Great Master, but we have observed them trying to break in to the Second Antechamber. If they breach the Pyramid Stairs, we cannot hold them.”
He nodded, thinking, although he knew his decision already.
“As you command, Grand Master,” she said, bowing, a cruel glint lighting her eyes as she darted away, and once again, he was reminded just how much that this daughter was like him… so much more so than those twins, the pitiful wimps they were. He expectorated into the small spittoon beside his lounge.
“This may tingle slightly,” came the quiet voice of Mealune, placing one of the small devices on his chest, hearing it bite in with thousands of tiny hooks, and watching it begin to glow. A second device followed, just over his shoulder; a third one bit in on the side of his neck; the fourth was placed carefully just above the line of his hips. The collected blue glow emitted by each box filled the room, and the Grand Master only distantly perceived Mealuna placing protective goggles over his face – another relic, found near these Devices. The Devices began to start, making him groggy and slightly disoriented, and he opted instead to surrender to the impending sense of tiredness, letting his eyelids close slowly in their frame, a lined, worn face, beginning once again to show his age.
The first thing he noticed was the incredible sense of refreshment he felt.
He opened his eyes, to see the room darkened, and dozing on one of the low chairs around the depressed long table, facing towards him, was Mealune. He flexed, and all the Devices fell away with a pop; he gathered them up and put them down on the couch beside him, glancing at the clock on the wall as he stood.
The muted numerals showed it was late… very late. He wrinkled his brow, then yawned and stretched, luxuriating in the darkness.
“Good evening, Grand Master,” said a voice, and he turned to see the serving-girl slipping from the door behind the fireplace. “The Council of Masters is waiting in the antechamber for you to regain consciousness. Shall I send them in?”
“Not yet, my child,” he murmured. “Let me send out the medic first.” He paused, thinking. “What state are the Lancemen who came to attack this afternoon in?”
“They are all chained in separate cells, Grand Master. They have not yet regained consciousness.”
“Excellent. In that case, notify the Council and prepare this chamber.”
“As you command, Grand Master, so do I obey.” She bowed, deeply, then disappeared back behind the fireplace, and moments later, the fire began to smoke and crackle again, and the crystal candelabra on the ceiling brightened, illuminating the room with a soft yellow-gold glow.
The journeyman stirred, and asked drowsily, “Feeling better, my lord?”
“Much better, Mealune. But now, I must ask you to vacate the chamber; the Council is about to meet. I’m sure Minderra can accommodate you,” he said, accentuating the name, and watching the Journeyman redden.
“I… uh, certainly, my lord,” he stammered, getting to his feet jerkily, and making his way to the couch to gather up the boxes sitting there, and throw them haphazardly into the satchel that was still slung around his shoulders, before darting out.
He chuckled, smiling at how easy it was to play two people together – and what good father would not do so for their own son?
The doors swung open again, revealing the tall, robed figures of the Council of Masters, their deep cowls hiding their expressions.
“Grand Master,” they intoned, bowing as one.
“Please, Masters, sit,” the Grand Master said, gesturing to the lines of seats around the long table. “We have lots to do; we are at a crucial crossroads of events and we must move quickly if we wish to hold any control over events. I have a plan of action but it must be finalised before tomorrow if we are to proceed with it.”
The anonymous group of people were already dropping their long robes, revealing insignias of the Noble Houses, revealing press badges, revealing their identities as the traitors, the two-timers, the people who wanted to destroy the city. As they sat, they barely acknowledged one another, pulling rank, even as they were all of the same rank in this room.
The Grand Master pulled a few leaves from the pile of paper in the middle of the table, and began to speak.
“We must summon the Whisperers…”