If I announce here that this will be finished by the end of 2015, I’m committed, right? I have no choice, right?
The scariest stories Etienne had ever heard about the notion of an afterlife were absent the trite tropes of fire and lava and demons with forked tails. What terrified him more was the idea that instead of an inconceivable nightmare of ceaseless torture, there was simply nothing. An utter, hopeless void, without form and without end, in which there were no ears to hear the futile cries of the condemned. He didn’t think that he and Nightingale had descended deep enough to touch that dread abyss, but they might as well have. The universe seemed to vanish beyond the threshold of the lift doors, and out there was pitch, empty and silent. Yet it was not an utter void. A faint wind whistled across it, carrying on its back the frigid, oily scent of varnished metal. There was something in the black, something manmade. Etienne hazarded a step forward. His boot heel clicked on smooth granite, and an echoing clap answered from miles in the distance.
He looked to the witch.
Light raced from Nightingale’s open palm out over the vast darkness of sub-level six, touching every corner and giving mercifully finite form to its still immense span. The floor was tiled over by human hands, but the ceiling, rising a good hundred feet above their heads, bore the natural ragged contours of a great cave hollow, a pocket scraped out eons ago from the interior of the world and left undisturbed until the Bureau discovered it. They had wasted no time in putting this secret to use. Rows and columns of thin steel girders forged into stacked shelving units reached out across the floor like an endless field of somber, imposing obelisks. Each was taller than most buildings, the highest levels attainable only by bird. What they held was what Etienne had expected. And far more.
Weapons. Staggering, uncountable quantities of weapons. Made of the magic-vanquishing silvered metal that birthed fear in witches even as powerful as the one who walked alongside him. There were the swords and the arrows and the daggers, of course, but as Etienne and Nightingale delved deeper into the aisles between towering stacks, they happened upon variants and other peculiar instruments crafted from an imagination far more perverse, edging on ice-blooded genius. Collars with inward-facing blades, whips with razors tied at the end of each flail, coffin-sized cages lined with spikes, high stools with pyramid-shaped seats angled to a probing point. Etienne could not fathom the purpose of half of them, other than inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain. These were the sorts of things that went on in those many rooms with the locked doors in the building above. Etienne could feel the heat emanating from Nightingale’s body as she seethed at the sight. Had he the stomach to eat anything in the last day or so, it would have been pooling in chunks on the floor in front of him by now.
They had reached the beating, rotted, remorseless heart of the Bureau Centrale, and it was larger and more chambered and tentacled than he, than anyone, could have envisioned.
“There is enough here to supply three countries’ worth of armies,” Etienne declared, amplified by cold reverb. In the approximately eighteen minutes left to them before the arrival of the Armée Royale, their greatest efforts to eliminate this stockpile would amount to a mere scratch to the toe of a giant. Indeed, he realized then he had vastly underestimated the scale of the Bureau’s plans for the witches of the world. “They’re not going to stop at the border.”
“There are plenty of other nations that would welcome the help,” Nightingale said. “We’re standing on the brink of a genocide. Of all witches, everywhere.”
Invisible weight pressed down on their shoulders.
Etienne reached into the nearest shelf and extracted an elegant rapier from the rack. Its hilt was bedecked with spiraling rings inlaid with clear jewels. Nightingale inched back from the weapon while Etienne stepped clear and took a few swings. The blade was light, but it cut the air with a firmness that belied its weight. A certain element of precise craftsmanship had gone into its creation, not a trait he would have associated necessarily with the function-over-form design sensibilities of the loud, loutish Commissionaire Meservey. Serge’s sole direction would have been to hurry up and forge it already so he could begin killing things with it. Rather, this spoke of patience, and of a refined sense of taste, even snobbery. “I don’t understand how they could make so many,” Etienne said. “How many witches would it take to create all this?”
“Hundreds,” said Nightingale. “Thousands, maybe.”
“Where are they, then?”
Nightingale had no answer for him. Instead they moved on to the next row, both growing somewhat inured to the cringing disgust that festered further at the glimpse of every new shelf bulging with spell-formed instruments of death. Etienne was ever conscious of the seconds ticking away on his pocket watch. He paused to give the occasional thought to Le Taureau and his small band of men fighting the Bureau’s soldiers, high over their heads. He and Nightingale needed to act soon.
“Etienne,” she said abruptly. He had not noticed she had wandered away. He found her waiting at the edge of the last row, staring off into the crags of bedrock that formed the southern wall of the hollow. A small antechamber had been gouged from the stone – small being a relative term, as it was roughly the size of a house – and inside, instead of steel trestles clutching weapons, were wooden racks lovingly cradling dozens of bottles, each prized selection with its own slightly tilted and protected niche.
Hell had its own wine cellar.
Etienne swallowed a nervous laugh before daring to peruse the preferences of the damned. “Roucel pinot grise ‘23,” he read off, his eyes widening at each new discovery. “White Pear Hipolytte. Lamadere Bin 38. Cru Breauxdon. Château Montpicher. And is that…” He removed a rose-tinted glass bottle from its perch and thumbed dust from the label. “Cygne Reine Première réserve. Dear dieux. This is based on a harvest from over five hundred years ago. There are only two bottles of this known to exist.” Etienne found it difficult to suppress a degree of giddiness; perhaps it was a trace of his old, more frivolous self bubbling up. “These are the rarest vintages in the world. This is perhaps the greatest single collection of wine I’ve ever seen.”
Nightingale offered him folded arms. “Lovely. What is it doing here?”
“One never knows when one might be entertaining esteemed company,” said a new voice.
At the midpoint of the entire hollow, the columns of weapon stacks were separated by a much wider aisle, and planted in the very center of that aisle was, of all things, a long formal dining table fashioned of dark, lacquered teak. Service was set for three in silver and porcelain, and high-backed, viridescent velour-draped chairs waited at each place. A dozen tapered wicks set in silver candlesticks cast a surrounding sphere of amber radiance. Attending at the head of the table, clad comfortably in a closed collar, almond-hued buttonless dinner jacket, was a man Etienne had not seen in years, yet so indelibly etched into memory were his features that recognition was instant, if stupefying. There were more lines on his face now, and time had collected all stubborn color from his hair and left it a pale and thinning gray. He had that same relaxed posture and indifferent grin, though, reminding those who met him that he still did not give a damn about anything, and would remain utterly imperturbable regardless of whether he was greeting a new recruit or slashing an innocent witch’s throat.
“You will join me, won’t you, Etienne?” Noeme called out. “If you’d like to try that Cygne, I have the other bottle open here. It’s been breathing for almost a day. Just about ready to serve.”
Etienne returned his bottle to its nook. He read loud protest in Nightingale’s eyes. He tried to deliver quiet confidence with his own, and he led them to the table, his far less convinced gut twisting inside out as they walked a deliberate pace. Flashes of his first meeting with Noeme burst across his mind: the starving girl pleading with Etienne as he consumed a sumptuous meal in front of her, Noeme killing her without breaking conversation. In an organization renowned for its ruthlessness, Girard Noeme was the paragon; a man who could murder as easily as he drew breath, whose mannered etiquette veiled a total absence of empathy.
Traits Etienne knew he had once regarded with gushing admiration.
Having Nightingale’s magic at his side now offered him no comfort as they approached the table. Etienne’s fingers trembled. He closed them into fists.
“Mademoiselle Nightingale,” Noeme said, affecting a deep, ritually respectful bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you at long last.”
Nightingale did not return the greeting. She had seen Etienne’s memories. She was aware of what kind of man this was.
“And you, Etienne,” Noeme added. “Mon gars, you have never failed to impress me. Please, be seated, both of you.” Neither moved. “Ah.” Noeme removed a watch from his breast pocket. It was identical to Etienne’s own. “Yes, you’re concerned about the Armée. They are still sixteen minutes away. I require no more than five minutes of your time, then you may do as you will, and you will still have a comfortable window to escape. Presuming, of course, that you have come here to kill me.”
Etienne did not reply. Noeme shrugged. “No matter. If that is your decision, then you will at least allow me to depart this world with its most glorious flavor saturating my lips. Please.”
He gestured at the empty chairs again. Etienne lowered himself into the one to Noeme’s left, never taking his eyes from the elder man. He nodded to Nightingale to do the same. He could taste her revulsion on the cold metal air. The candles offered light but not a hint of warmth.
Noeme smiled. He lifted an open rose-tinted bottle and inhaled from its neck. “There it is,” he said. “Numerous, subtle changes in the bouquet inform the studied drinker that the wine is ready to be poured. Do you know, Etienne, Nightingale, that this vintage has a special significance to us?” They did not answer, so he circled the table and filled their glasses. “The Cygnet Queen is the spiritual mother to the Bureau. The only witch to ever sit the throne of this great country, and the impetus for our founding. When her husband King Auguste discovered her sorceries, he had her favorite wine poisoned: the Première réserve from their private vineyards. For a time afterwards no one dared taste this beautiful concoction for fear they had acquired one of the infamous tainted bottles. In truth only one of them ever was tampered with, but that didn’t stop the braggards of the day drinking it and boasting that they were immune. Surviving a glass of Cygne became a test of a man’s character. The idea being that a man would be strong enough to endure what surely would kill a witch.”
Noeme returned to his seat, seized his glass by the stem and turned it slowly between his fingers, letting candlelight refract through the crystal and the rich blood red. Etienne speculated on the man’s thoughts – what must it be to know you had arrived at your final few minutes of life? “I will tell you all you wish to know, provided you share this drink with me,” Noeme said. He detected immediately the lack of enthusiasm on the part of his listeners. “Mon gars, I am not so foolish to think I gain anything by tricking you at this point. The mademoiselle may watch for anything amiss and take appropriate action, if that sets your worries at ease. Don’t tell me you don’t want at least a sip of a five hundred year-old wine. In this last hour, let us test our character together.”
“You have none worth testing,” Nightingale snapped. She was a model of restrained anger, her emotions swelling into waves of power pooling at her fingertips, sparking to be unleashed.
Noeme’s grin fell from his face as swiftly as if he had dropped it. “Cherie, I have commanded a massive organization dedicated to protecting this country for over thirty years. From enemies who could fling me aside like a broken doll with a snap of their fingers, but whom instead I have made quiver in mortal terror at the very mention of my organization’s name. I have forced your kind into the shadows and under the rocks, into a small, very dark place where sleep does not come. If you cannot acknowledge the sheer force of will and the absolute, unwavering commitment required to achieve that, then perhaps you do not understand the nature of character.”
“You are the leader of the Bureau Centrale,” Etienne announced plainly.
Noeme laughed. “The trio upstairs are interesting diversions, though, are they not? Most days they truly believe they are the Directeurs. No, the Bureau’s power has always been in manipulating thoughts and creating perceptions, you know this. Convincing a vastly superior force that they should surrender to us has been our most successful manipulation of all. We are closer now to a complete victory than we have ever been.” Giddiness swarmed him at the thought. Etienne could see Nightingale’s knucklebones tense under the skin of her fingers clutching the arm of her chair.
“A victory won with weapons made by magic,” Etienne said. “Using the very power that the Bureau claims to abhor and guard against. While you watch in plain sight, from the cover of the role of a lowly sous-adjoint directeur. I do admit it’s clever. Dénégation plausible and all that.”
“We all answer to someone in the end,” Noeme said with a smirk. “I’d like to share something with you both. You’ll find this most interesting, you especially, mademoiselle. If there is a theme to be found in my life, such as it is, it is the pursuit of understanding. Our world as we experience it is a construction of chaos and confusion. Random misfortune, cruel fate, see it as you will, it speaks of a profound failure, even refusal of men to comprehend what drives existence. And yet if you study nature the truth is revealed to you in the smallest details. Growth and decay, predator versus prey, there is a definite, deliberate purpose hiding inside the anarchy. All goes forth to achieve balance. The weak feed the strong, but even the strong can and must be cut down from time to time to maintain balance. The forest will grow wild and then burn to ash. Conquerors will slaughter a primitive tribe and then be decimated by invisible disease. The world always finds a way.”
Noeme rested his head against the back of the chair, but as he went on, he leaned further and further forward, his stare more intense. “When I was young and I learned of magic for the first time I was terrified, of course, but I was also fascinated, by the notion that one gender, and not the other, could possess such dramatic powers. This whole concept seemed antithetical to the idea of balance. It was infuriating in its contradictions. My intellect could not accept it, I struggled for years to rationalize it. I read any literature I could on the subject. Folklore, scientific papers, hundreds of years’ worth of writings from the world over, trying to answer the question. But I could not. There always seemed to be some mysterious element missing from the equation, preventing it from balancing out. Madness clutched at me in my inability to understand.” He was hunched over the table now, the flickering of the flames throwing cavorting shadows over his face.
“Now, take our Cygne Reine here,” he said. “Raise the glass, slowly, taste with your nose first, then your lips. Let it pirouette over your tongue, let every precious note have its moment. Currant and chocolate. Plum, lavender, cedar and smoke. Notice how they dance, syncopated, both together and apart, each taking his assigned part on the stage? Contrasts and contradictions united masterfully in a greater whole. Held in perfect balance. Yet what is this without the hand of man, without his ingenuity, his patience, his determination? Old grapes left to rot under a careless sun on a forgotten vine five hundred summers ago. The more I grew to appreciate wine, the more I recognized what that missing element was. The more I knew that in order to achieve a perfect understanding of the world, I must be that hand that forces it back into balance, regardless of process, regardless of cost. I must tame –” — he pounded the table with his fist — “– this wild, unwanted force that calls itself magic.”
Nightingale interrupted. “Murder it, you mean.”
In the space of an eye blink Noeme abandoned any lingering pretence of bonhomie. “You have not the slightest conception of the higher purpose that calls me,” he said to her. “And please, where is your sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have died across the centuries at the fleeting whims of witches engorged on the delusions that unmerited power has brought them? If you are looking for remorse from me before my execution, pray do not waste our time. I do not mourn the souls I have ordered to their deaths, nor the methods I have used, any more than I do the bad grapes that are thrown away long before they reach the vats.” He took a long sip.
“That’s who my mother was to you,” Etienne said. “A bad grape.”
The rim of the glass still at his lips, Noeme broke his rhythm. He let the wine slide back into the bowl, and he set it down. “You always were the smartest one, mon gars. I knew you would uncover the truth given time. Are you sure you will not try the Cygne? It may be your only opportunity.”
Etienne pushed words through clenched teeth. “You killed her.”
“Every so often I find a prospect that I deem worthy of my personal interest,” Noeme said. He still had not mentioned Etienne’s accusation. “You were so lost, so filled with misdirected anger, and yet you showed more promise than anyone I had ever seen. Your insight was gifted, your potential limitless. The hatred in your heart was ripe and seething. I wanted to put you on the path and guide you. Mentor you, even if it had to be from a distance. I must say, Etienne, you exceeded so many of my expectations. You were the greatest Commissionaire the Bureau ever had.” He pivoted to Nightingale. “Before you condemn me, would you like to know how many bad grapes your partner here has ordered squashed?”
“If I had known about my mother,” Etienne said, “I never would have joined you.”
“Yes you would,” Noeme fired back. “With even greater relish. How better to punish the parents who abandoned you than by destroying everything they represented? You were searching for something to replace them, and the Bureau filled that void. I became more of a father to you than the wastrel who drunkenly spilled worthless seed into your beautiful mother’s belly. I honed your talents and taught you to use them against our enemies, to turn the hate into a cause. I gave your life clarity and purpose. Eventually, all this would have been yours to carry on in my place. The Directeurs were not lying about that, by the way. Your reward for apprehending Nightingale was to be promoted to succeed me. To finish the glorious work I would bequeath you, and to establish a legacy of honor and achievement that would consign the failed life of Reynand de Navarre to faded memory.” Scorn painted itself across his face. “Instead, you surrendered to a whore’s magic and base lust and chose Reynand’s path of disgrace. You can’t imagine my heartbreak at seeing you here like this. Mon gars. I had such hope. It’s enough to make any father want to weep.”
“Whatever his faults, my father had more honor than either of us,” Etienne said bluntly. “You and I are both murderers, and that depraved legacy ends now. And it’s been more than five minutes.”
Noeme opened his watch. “So it has.”
“You’re going to answer for everything you’ve done. But first you’re going to tell us how you made these weapons.”
The corner of Noeme’s mouth turned up. “Are you sure you want to know the answer to that?”
Etienne sneered back. “Were you to show me a room full of chained little girls making swords under constant lash I doubt it could sink my opinion of you any further.”
A bemused “hmm,” was Noeme’s only response. He finished his wine, rose from his chair and strolled calmly away from the table into the shadows, without any hint that the others were meant to follow him. Etienne leaped to his feet. “Noeme!” he called out. The leader, commandant suprême, président of the Bureau Centrale, whatever his true title was, did not acknowledge him. “Nightingale,” Etienne said, nodding in the direction of the departed Noeme. He looked back, expecting to see a flurry of purple energy hurtle out into the darkness and snare the man by his ankles, per Nightingale’s usual talents. He waited.
Nightingale was still sitting in the chair. She had not touched the wine, or anything else on the table. The witch’s eyes were panic. Her arms tensed and tensed again as though old bones were trying to force their way out of a skin that had become a cage. “What’s wrong?” Etienne asked.
“I… I can’t move,” she whispered.
A torrent of energy did burst from the darkness, but it was directed at Nightingale herself. Vicious golden lightning stabbed at her with thousands of probing fingers, splitting the air with a crackle as they forked and carved into her flesh. She screamed. The twisting light yanked her from her seat and hoisted her high into the air. It coiled itself around her in bands, cooling and solidifying into manacles, collar and chains of silvered metal – all too real this time. Nightingale’s cries fell silent and struggling limbs went limp as pain overwhelmed her. Invisible strings suspended her above the dining table like a macabre chandelier. The chains ceased their loud rattles as she stopped twitching.
Etienne was at once terrified and struck dumb at seeing the formidable Nightingale overcome so completely and so quickly. What power could have possibly defeated her?
The clicking of thin boot heels on tile announced the source of that power. A woman emerged from the shadows, gold sparks winking out at the long-nailed fingertips of an outstretched hand still aimed at Nightingale. Her hair was a long, azure-tinted bright silver, shaved on the left side, the remainder swept entirely to the right. Where the hair had been scalped away, a series of jagged and deep ruby scars snaked around her ear and onto her cheek. Her eyes were an eerie ice white, and they smoldered with a strange mist. She was dressed neck to ankle in fitted black that looked as though it had been slashed repeatedly with a razor. Beneath corpse-pale skin pulsed coursing rivers of golden light; raw energy enclosed in a barely adequate physical container. Glowing eyes gazed up at her handiwork, at Nightingale held helpless, and her bloodless lips curled in an emotionless smile. The dark sorceress turned her attentions to Etienne, tilting her head, regarding him with as much interest as she might show a particularly noteworthy slab of pavement. She turned on her heel and sauntered away.
Etienne crumpled to his knees. His whole body began to shake. He clutched at his arms to hold himself together. It couldn’t be. Yet it was. As frightening as the sorceress’ appearance was, as mangled as it had become, he still knew that face.
It was as ingrained in his soul as the pomegranate scent of her hair.
“Maman,” he whimpered. The name fell away from his lips, dissipating into cold air. The transformed Elyssia de Navarre, standing a few feet away, gave no indication that she heard him.
“No, I did not kill your mother,” said Girard Noeme in smug defiance. “I unleashed her true potential. Just as I did her son. Mon gars.” He placed a hand on Elyssia’s shoulder and grinned. “Ma belle. Isn’t this a lovely family reunion.”
* * *