House of Cthulhu
The Woman on the Roof
The considerable height above ground, combined with the first harbingers of autumn storms, made this rooftop not a nice place to be. The woman in black pulled her heavy leather coat tighter around her body, shielding herself from coldness, wind and night. She leant forwards again to get a clear view through the telescopic sight of her precision rifle, with her body and weapon still in the relative protection of the weathered cistern wall. Thanks to the additionally fitted night vision device, she was able to witness the action taking place inside the candle-lit luxury flat across several streets. Its resident had not bothered to inhibit the view through the continuous window front by anything else than switching the lights off.
Welcome to the 21st century, fucker…!
There was a special reason as to why Sibyl was freezing her fine derrière off on the rooftop of this old Neo-Gothic building. It was the only one in the nearer area with a roof lying higher than the flat no 1103 of the Jägala Tower.
Well, that explained the place. The reason was standing yonder, behind four centimetres of heat insulating, sound absorbing glass.
During a questioning of a member of a feuding House (the kind of questioning Sibyl did not want to have knowledge about and had no taste for) it was revealed that one C. Howard Suydam was about to hit town to perform an exceptionally vile act against nature.
Howard Suydam. Like the one in 1103. World is small.
Suydam, a foreign person probably washed ashore from the brackish waters of New England, had rented the two times fifty square metres maisonette one month ago. And tonight, he was not alone.
Like Sibyl, the girl was in her early twenties and of lithesome physique. Unlike Sibyl, she was completely nude. Well, she had been completely nude; that had been before Suydam shoved some kind of S&M gag into her mouth, secured it in the nape of her neck and under her chin and laced her fair-haired head tightly into a leather hood. Much to Sibyl’s deprecation and disgust, the girl neither objected nor showed any other form of reluctance.
If someone were trying all that bondage stuff out on me, I would so not keep still!
Suydam, naked from the waist up, stood in front of his victim-to-be, using white rope to bind her hands in an elaborated way. Loops around the wrists, loops between them, checking the tension, then more looping, creating a classic cinch.
Sibyl groaned disdainfully. The last thing she had been spending the last four hours on top of this building for was playing voyeur on bizarre sexual practices.
She leant back from the scope and studied the city’s brooding art déco skyline. Neither Tallinn nor Tartu offered this particular architecture. This city had often been described as the Paris of the Baltic states – by people who never had been to Paris.
Reluctantly she turned her attention back to her target. Her mind added details the lenses on her DSR 1 rifle could not deliver. How the candles along the back wall, perhaps beeswax, perhaps just paraffin, filled the somewhat cool air with faint flavours, while their flickering only were underlining the absence of any other light. Perhaps he had turned up the volume on his Yamaha hi-fi system. A little bit louder than normal, but not to a level his neighbours would complain. Just loud enough to drown out the screams of a gagged woman. Something tasteful, “Kind of Blue” mayhap.
Sibyl was aching to take that pervert out then and there, but restrained herself, would wait until the girl was properly secured. After half an autumn night on a house roof, Sibyl did not have the patience to deal with a hysteric lass who had experienced her sort-of lover’s head exploding. Better have her in a position where she couldn’t cut a caper.
Said position turned out to be a rigid semi-suspension, with the girl’s expertly bound hands winched up towards the upper floor’s gallery, bearing most of her weight. Only the very tip-toes were still reaching the expensive carpet, making her prance en pointe.
Suydam stepped aside, admiring his work, then turned to the window front. For some seconds his face and balding head lost their contrast in the image intensifier as he lit a hand-rolled cigarette. Sibyl somehow doubted that it was tobacco smoke he inhaled.
For long moments he just stood motionless, letting his mind react to the drug.
The angle was bad, the girl could be hit. Sibyl waited.
Finally, Howard Suydam stepped back into the middle of his living room. He seated himself in the lotus position in front of the girl who was by now trembling in discomfort. Yet Suydam seemed to have lost any carnal interest in the helpless body before him. Between drags on his spliff, the man recited arcane phrases (Sibyl didn’t need to hear that – she knew whither things were heading).
As the more perceptive of hypothetic spectators had realised by now, C. Howard Suydam was no run-of-the-mill fornicator. That fair girl dangling so tantalisingly on her rope was supposed to be sacrificed to an unspeakable entity.
We cannot have that, can we?
Most people had a wrong picture of this avocation: There were no blokes in black cowls chanting “Hail Satanas” around an upside-down pentagram painted on the ground. Things were a little more… serious.
Sensing things starting to get serious indeed, Sibyl readied herself, taking aim through the scope. Three hundred and fifty metres – even with the weaker sub-sonic ammunition and considerable wind speed no problem.
On the white carpet, Suydam started to tense up as his mind reached out beyond the protective hull of what humankind misconstrued as reality, bending time and distance to its master’s will.
On the roof, the dark-haired woman leaned into the butt of her rifle. Sibyl exhaled halfway, then held her breath. Her index finger moved from the frame and found the trigger. Pulled. When the recoil punished her shoulder, the Lapua projectile already had travelled across the street canyons, stricken through the soundproof window glass, ripped through Suydam’s head and buried itself into a large ferroconcrete pillar.
Sibyl flipped the lens covers shut.
She had hidden the DSR 1 under her long coat (“my shotgun cloak”), with scope, night vision device and tactical suppressor stowed away in an inconspicuous shoulder bag. Standing in front of the maisonette’s door now, she strapped her rifle onto her back for more mobility. The bag she leant against the corridor wall. The door was closed and most likely locked from the inside, but Sibyl had been fitted with a secretly achieved spare key the day before. She drew her sidearm, hesitated for a moment, then unlocked and opened the door.
Only after ascertaining that indeed no one else was there, Sibyl holstered her pistol and turned her attention to the girl on the rope. The desperate noises from under the hood and behind the gag might be resulting from her cramping feet and calves, from the burning in her shoulders. Or they could have been caused by the long silence after a bundle of muffled sounds. Sounds of different materials being destroyed. The sensation of something hot and wet hitting her outstretched body.
Sibyl released the tension on the rope, and the girl fell to her knees, then tilted onto her side. Quickly the woman in black loosened the bonds and rubbed the blood back into the girl’s hands. The blonde tried to clasp her saviour, but Sibyl kept her wrists seized. Being this close, she could see even in the dark how severe the hood was. Its only openings, except the one for the neck, were nose holes. It had been tightened by means of the laces in the back until the captive’s face was moulded into the leather as a featureless mask. Even the straps of her cruel gag were pressing through the material.
“I know, I know; you just want this nightmare to be over.”
In a sudden move, she twisted the girl’s right arm behind her back and slipped a set of handcuffs from under her coat.
Well, what a shit of a day, honey…
With the girl secured again, her betrayer turned to Suydam. She already had verified his death – the whole right front of his head was missing – and was in no mood to come too close to his cadaver. Instead, Sibyl reached across and picked the still smouldering joint up. She dragged on it and held the smoke in her mouth, careful not to inhale. Her sole experience with marijuana dated back when she had been in puberty. One lungful, and she had vomited all over Kristjan’s lap. Kristjan had been the cutest boy at school. And Kristjan had not looked at her at all afterwards.
Gone. All gone.
The girl had not stopped writhing, but Sibyl grabbed the hood’s lacing to hold her head steady. Carefully, almost gently, she blew the smoke into the girl’s nostrils.
“Shh, shh!” she solaced.
Sibyl had given her the intoxicating breath slowly enough not to cause coughing. The girl indeed calmed down somewhat, and she also showed no tokens of imminent regurgitation. Leaving her cowering on the carpet, Sibyl hunkered before the large pillar to the right. She pulled a blade from the leg of her right boot. It was long and narrow, almost a little bayonet. With it she poked in the crater torn by the Lapua until the deformed projectile dropped into her hand. She squeezed the piece of metal into the tight pocket of her leather trousers, to its corresponding cartridge.
Next she examined the glass front looking to the east. One of the room-high panes showed the telltale cobwebs of cracks, but was still held together by some kind of film between the glass layers. Sibyl ran her gloved hand over the hole in breast height. One might ask why she had killed Suydam from the distance, only to enter his place nevertheless. The answer was as simple as disturbing: The mind of a medium such powerful was never fully connected to this world anymore. He would have sensed her presence in some monstrous way.
Even without being a medium, Sibyl was eventually the one who sensed a presence behind her, and her system reacted with the unintentional, yet familiar feeling of disgust. She did not turn around, sparing herself the sight.
“What are your biddings, mistress…?”
The voice was like soil from a shallow grave; a humid, guttural squeal no human being was capable of.
“Take the girl away and clean this mess up.”
“As ye wish, mistress.”
In the window’s broken surface Sibyl watched the shadowy reflexions of two ghouls seizing the hooded female. The girl, stiff with dread at first, shrieked under their chill touch.
The lead ghoul, still standing behind Sibyl with the rest of its brigade, spoke again. Primal greed was drowning its un-voice.
“And yon corpse, mistress?” it asked in an obscene intonation.
Sibyl felt her bile rising.
“It shall not be found.”
The woman in black had a sickeningly clear idea of how this task would be approached. The misshapen creatures would feed on the lych.
Sibyl left Howard Suydam’s maisonette with the sound of the first bones being crushed and their marrow sucked out.
She took the lift. Her myrmidons were galumphing down the stairways right now, as discretely as it was possible for semi-braindead tomb-dwellers. They would, unseen by the night-blind residents of this city, drag their burden through catacombs and sewers and air raid shelters – right into the forecourt of Hell itself.
In a Dark Place
Monolithic in its non-geological meaning might be an adequate term to describe this kind of architecture. The bank building Vilms & Järvi had not been used by a financial institution for decades, and still it ruled the central boulevard with its dark splendour. An obscure stronghold in line with the Museum of Fine Arts, the opera and the older library of the Polütehnikum.
The founder member’s names (“Croesus & Mammon”) were still emblazoned high above the impressive front doors, but a brass plate at the centre column informed that this building now gave shelter to the Anthropological Society of Estonia.
Sibyl had used a side entrance, yet she headed to the monumental counter hall. In the insufficient lighting she could barely make out the domed ceiling. The counters, each of them a marmoreal behemoth with own flight of stairs, were placed at the far wall, opposite to the main doors. The farthest left one was illuminated.
Sibyl crossed the hall, towards counter No. I, trying to ignore the smirking man sitting behind it as long as possible.
“Who might that be? Workin’ late, princess?”
Sibyl managed a polite smile.
It’s his hair. Curled reddish hair seems to make me aggressive.
But it was more likely her aversion for the well-fed man resulted from his inexhaustible pool of cheap chat-up lines. They could just as well serve as his trademark as his huge stainless steel thermos flask, which was constantly keeping him on a healthy caffeine level.
She produced the rifle from under her coat and laid it on the counter, together with the shoulder bag. He reached for them. Sibyl drew her HK sidearm and placed it onto the polished surface as well: a USP Match, the consecrated weapon of a Nightbringer. The blued slide’s left side, where usually manufacturer, model designation and calibre were engraved, showed some kind of ancient cuneiform. Sibyl was capable of reading it – pronouncing it was a horse of a different colour.
Behind his casemate, the armourer droned while ticking lines in his large general ledger off.
“One DSR, three rounds, cartridge and bullet of a forth.”
“Suppressor, scope and night vision for aforesaid.”
“One 9mm; two magazines á eighteen rounds, one single round, previously chambered.”
Sibyl had chosen the Parabellum rather than the .40 S&W or the .45. In hands as slender as hers and a weapon this well-balanced, the less on recoil did wonders to precision. Furthermore, the 9mm-calibre offered the best adjustment between penetration depth, magazine capacity and the size of the permanent wound cavity being created.
With her disarming completed, she turned towards the guarded door leading to the erstwhile office wing.
“Oi!” the armourer barked, “your penknife, too!”
I’ll show you “Oi”, fatso!
Stroppy, she stomped against the counter. Keeping her foot pressed against the stone, she pulled her blade from its sheath inside the boot and skittered it across the marble. Not willing to give him the opportunity for some smug remark, she rushed to the door.
Deep below the marmoreal hall, the revolting sounds came closer. In the high octagonal chamber, the two Askirtay – Guardians of the House – levelled their cocked sub-machine guns. Behind them, the portcullis had been lowered and locked to protect the entrance to the bank’s foundation. The men did not expect any problems, but one never knows. In front of them, the half-round maw of the tunnel intensified the atonal grunts. The tunnel owned no separate walls and ceiling, it was just a continuous bricked arch, creating its very own kind of weird echo.
The darkness started to move, seemed to waver, then gave way to two abominations. Running in a ducked, hobbled fashion, they had carried the struggling girl all the way from the Jägala Tower. The ghouls stopped in the octagon’s centre, her hostage was dropped to the flagstones not too gently. The tainted creatures remained beside her, heavily panting, unwilling or unable to articulate themselves.
From the stair in front of the entrance, one Askirtay took a bucket. It was the bucket he had brought; he, and not his comrade, for they had flipped a coin about it, and he had lost. The man was holding his breath against the sweetish smell as he threw chunks of abattoir waste to the ghouls. The esurient creatures pounced on to their reward, starting to feed on it immediately (ghouls appeared to have a taste for week-old animal by-products).
The portcullis moved up with a rattling noise. The guardians left, one leading the distressed girl with a harsh grip (they would have to clean her up some – ghoul shortcuts were a little bit on the dirty side), the other lugging the still half-full bucket. Behind them, the entrance was closed again.
Her watch showed two of the clock. Sibyl threw a discrete glance at it while waiting in Grau’s office. Originally, it had been the office of the bank director (“Vilms or Järvi?”), and it was huge. Between the lounge suite they were sitting in and the oak desk were ten metres of nothing but parquet. Well, there would have been nothing but parquet if the whole room weren’t stuffed with books and obscure relicts testifying Grau’s obsessive search for forbidden knowledge.
“Suydam is believed to have seen the Court of Azathoth,” the ostensibly middle-aged man with the strangely youthful eyes continued their conversation. “He must have been far beyond the business of mere worshipping the Elder Gods or anyone else.”
“Then what was he up to? They shipped his arse all the way over from Boston.”
Albert Grau took a draught of his tea (Sibyl had politely declined).
“We will know once these ghouls have arrived with his stuff.”
“Foul creatures they are,” she mumbled.
“Wait until they form a union…”
Even without further details on this matter Sibyl dared say that this night had seen a victory of her House. Not that she was overly proud of herself. Not in the light of what would happen later on. Yet it had been imperative to prevent the Followers of the Elder Gods to perform their occult ritual. This world might be but a secondary theatre of war, an aggregation of rock and iron orbiting a mean sun. Insignificant and inconsiderable – if not for one aspect: the depths of this tiny planet’s ocean enwombed the lair of Cthulhu, First of the Great Old Ones. And just like the Great Old Ones had warred the Elders, just like the Outer Gods had warred them, their human votaries battled and campaigned.
Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth – entities so strange that the very idea of their existence would appear lunatic. Outer Gods, dark deities hiding within the shadows of time and space. The five remaining Houses worshipping the Outer Gods and the Great Old Ones stood against the High Houses of the Elder Gods in bitter enmity. It was a secret war, fought in silence, where a single bullet could cause more harm than an entire regiment. Like tonight, when it sabotaged weeks, mayhap months of planning by the adversary. And as a welcome side effect, it would assure the position of Sibyl’s kin, for the Houses were also struggling for ascendancy among themselves. For long times, the House of Azathoth had claimed leadership, deifying the highest of the Outer Gods – the personification of radioactivity, a raging nightmare within the souls of its disciples. Yet more and more the House of the Great Cthulhu with its squadron of elite Askirtay – the Nightbringers – was reaching for predominance.
“The ritual you have described: a powerful medium alone with the sacrificial offering…”
Grau looked over to one of the many book shelves. As he noticed that Sibyl became uncomfortable by his silence, he continued: “Was he sitting close enough to touch her?”
“No. There were at least one and a half metres between them.”
The grey-haired man nodded absentmindedly.
He is remembering something.
Sibyl reckoned that Grau had seen more in his life than an average man could even dream of. Not that the length of his life was fully comparable to that of an average man. Often she had admired the sepia toned pictures on the wall behind his desk. Especially the one above the globe. It showed Grau as a young man with several others, posing in some sort of base camp amidst the antarctic ice. All of them were wearing thick parkas made of seal fur. Vintage tents and all kinds of equipment were visible, including a massive, partly assembled aeroplane. The photograph was not dated, but Sibyl once had bothered to thumb through the Torval Aircraft Almanac. The plane in the background was a Dornier Do-J Großhöhenflugzeug, circa 1930.
Grau put the empty tea cup back on the table.
“We should get into gears, our guest will be arriving any minute.”
He rose, and so did Sibyl. She took her coat from the chair she had tossed it over together with the empty shoulder holster.
“No, leave it, my dear. It would be a bit out of place. Besides, there is no reason our guest shouldn’t see who you are.”
Sibyl was dressed in a Vestis, the classic upper garment for a female Nightbringer (“we stick to tradition in that point”). It was a high-collared, tight-fitting kid leather waistcoat with lacings at its sides. The rather soft material granted protection against light cut and thrust weapons without hampering her mobility. Underneath she was wearing her trusty long sleeved thermo shirt, which had done a good job on the rooftop earlier this night.
A knock on the door.
A servant girl appeared in the door.
“Härra Doktor, Countess Sawatzki has arrived.”
The counter hall lay as dark and gloomy as before, but was now showing activities at the main entrance. One of the high double doors had been opened, and a small number of staff was bustling about. Crossing the hall at Grau’s side, Sibyl saw a convoy of three cars outside. It was the one in the middle that caught her attention, an exaggerated Jaguar sports car. A servant was just squeezing himself behind the wheel to drive it into the bank’s basement garage (originally meant for armoured cars). The black Jag’s owner, however, was led into the hall. In the artificial twilight Sibyl made out the form of a tall female in expensive, fitted coat and skirt.
I wonder how she had managed to get out of that car in a halfway ladylike fashion.
The woman smiled and strode towards them, her long red hear waving, the high heels of her D’Orsays staccatoing on the marble. She raised her tightly gloved hand, and Grau greeted her by kissing it. Being unsure of how to behave, Sibyl stayed aside whilst host and guest were exchanging phrases. She was surprised of the woman’s age: The Countess was young, maybe even younger than herself. Sibyl had expected some old witch.
Well, we got us a young witch…
“Countess Sawatzki, may I introduce our – I daresay – fledgling to you: Sibyl.”
“Then this must be your youngster Nightbringer!” Sawatzki gazed at Sibyl with brilliant eyes, actually speaking with her dark, rich voice to her, not to Grau. “The one whom we owe the pleasing events of the last hours.”
Sibyl briefly indicated a curtsey: “Countess.”
How farcical is that?! We might have been in the same kindergarten group!
“A room is ready for you, Countess. You might want to rest before we begin.”
“Oh no, my dear Doktor! You have suffered enough from my requirements. Am I correct that our lady Nightbringer will attend us?”
“Indeed. This is now part of her duties.”
That last line was meant for me.
On several occasions Sibyl had tried to talk herself out of this particular duty. But Grau’s decision was unmoveable (“we stick to tradition in that point, too”). Tonight she was to witness the immolation for the first time. And her uneasiness about it was not exactly lessened by meeting the person who would be in charge.
Albert Grau, all gentleman, lent the Countess a helping hand on the long, descending flight of stairs. Slightly lacking enthusiasm, Sibyl walked behind them down into the foundation of Vilms & Järvi.
The High Priestess
Two persons were already present in the dim vault when Sawatzki, Sibyl and the Doktor entered through the massive round door. The first was one of Sawatzki’s personal guards whom introducing to Sibyl no one bothered. He had obviously prepared the room for the things to come. The second was Balogh László, a Nightbringer (as a Hungarian, his surname came first, so he was härra Balogh). He greeted the Countess in a respectful, yet swift manner. To Sibyl he said nothing, but pressed her shoulder encouragingly. With Sibyl and László, all Nightbringers currently in town were attending. It should be pointed out here that the House of Cthulhu was not limited to the very building of Vilms & Järvi, nor to this looming city. Countess Sawatzki, for example, had just travelled over two hundred kilometres and had never left the realm of the Great One doing so.
On the redhead’s signal the group formed a loose half-circle, backs to the walls. Sibyl had manoeuvred herself next to the rawboned Hungarian for some moral support. Sawatzki stripped her short coat off, revealing an elaborated corset-like top with red embroidery, not unlike the carvings on Sibyl’s Vestis (except for the colour, of course). Her nameless guard took the coat to a corner and placed it neatly onto the sole furniture in the room. From this table he returned with a small brass bowl in his hands. Thin, strong-smelling smoke rose from the receptacle – somewhat was smouldering in it like in a little brazier.
The Countess leaned over and inhaled deeply, even fanning the fumes with her hand. Soon the vault was filled up with the distinctive aroma of burning herbals, and it took only some moments for Sibyl to feel dizzy.
Luckily the guard took the bowl away, but Sibyl’s relieve was short-lived: Two Askirtay in ceremonial armour entered, with the nude girl from the maisonette between them. Her terrible hood had been removed, but no one had worried to free her from the gag. Like most people, Sibyl had never really reflected on how tormenting a solid gag could be. Staring at the black sphere shining from saliva (“I thought these things were always red”), she realised that the poor girl had been strictly gagged for more than three hours.
Her jaws must be ablaze!
Beyond that, the straps holding the large rubber ball behind her teeth had cut deeply into the lips, pulling them back and distorting her once pretty face. Needless to say that the miserable girl was still in handcuffs.
Sawatzki, who had walked the half circle, brought her mouth close to Sibyl’s ear.
“Do you like what you see?”
“Don’t let my outfit misguide you, Countess. I’m far too vanilla for this.”
The dark voice chuckled, then was gone.
As the naked girl was dragged to the centre, she searched for any hints of pity in the attenders’ faces. When she looked at Sibyl, the young Nightbringer lowered her eyes.
The Countess beckoned the Askirtay to retreat, and the girl made a weak run for it. But Sawatzki only had to seize the ring piercing her victim’s left nipple to force her onto her knees.
Why does that silly goose carry hoops through her tits anyway?
In her salad days Sibyl once had set forth to have her belly button pierced, but after seeing the needle she had decided her navel to be sexy enough.
With divaesque attitude Sawatzki began to recite an ancient incantation. On precisely defined points she paused to have the participants answer in equally arcane phrases. Sibyl murmured half-heartedly along with them. One last time the Countess called upon the Old One, then fell silent. Sibyl shuffled her feet nervously beside László.
Sawatzki grabbed the betrayed girl’s head with both hands, her own face suddenly of a blank expression.
Although never witnessing it before, Sibyl knew the theory: This was nothing else than a hardcore version of the “Beholding”, the initiative ordeal, in which the novice gained a glimpse of the true, horrid nature of the universe. There it would be just enough to turn believing into knowing, whereas the pitiful girl to the Countess’ feet was to be given a deeper insight. Still only a grain of sand, yet enough to annihilate her unprepared mind.
The corners of Sawatzki’s mouth began to twitch. Her lids flew open and revealed eyes rolled back into their sockets until only white was visible. Her victim gave a muffled screech, then trembled under an invisible attack on her sanity.
The doomed human being renewed her outcry, then bit into the gag. Her teeth sank deep into rubber material, jaw muscles trembling and protruding. Her whole body began to shudder in spasms, as if she were having an epileptic seizure. Blood appeared first from her nose and then from her ear canals.
Was so far morbid fascination part of her emotions, Sibyl was now fighting the acrid taste that rose into her pharynx. Before her, the girl’s face was disfigured into a mask of utter dread, a soundless scream escaped her throat, then her skin became waxen, and her eyes finally gazed over.
Sibyl turned away and regurgitated behind László.
One could ask why the Greats should acknowledge the offering of a single sacrifice, for they had used to feast on whole words. All these entities, the Great Old Ones as well as the Outer Gods and the Elder Gods, were sleeping since ages in the darkest corners of the cosmos, dreaming of their bygone power. Nevertheless, worshipping them secured their immanent presence and furthermore gained substantial benefits. A strong stomach, though, was none of these.
Sibyl kept her gaze averted when the Askirtay removed the lifeless body. In the vault’s centre the Countess, now with a complexion pale even for a redhead, struggled to overcome her disorientation and mental distress. After all, she had experienced the very same vision as her victim. She sipped from the glass her personal guard passed. It appeared to be water, but restored her condition surprisingly quickly.
Since the Countess made no attempt, Grau rose to speak:
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
“Cthulhu fhtagn!” the attenders answered him.
The immolation was over.
Needless to say that Sibyl was the first one who left the strongroom. However, after some steps she felt lightheaded again and had to lean against the impressive vault door. When Sawatzki strode passed her, the Countess’ gloved hand caressed Sibyl’s collarbone in an incidentally, almost unwittingly manner. As swift as this touch was, it caused a cold fire to run down the Nightbringer’s spine.
Loyal to the House
Balogh László considered the old counting room his own. Here he used to brief his fellow Nightbringers, and here he stowed his equipment. Everything except of his weapons, for they lay in the armoury – House policy. Only Askirtay on watch were allowed to bear arms within the building. After the ceremony one of them had informed him about the delivery, and the gaunt Hungarian had sent for Sibyl.
When the black-haired girl entered, he was already scrabbling about in Suydam’s personal belongings, expelling blue fume. Sibyl reckoned that the greatest benefit László gained from following the Great Olds was risklessly smoking two packs a day. At least he was sensible enough to put his cigarette out when she arrived.
“Good morning, gorgeous,” the tall, middle-aged man greeted.
Sibyl still looked somewhat off-colour, and the menthol flavour was evident around here. She had brushed her teeth very thoroughly – after retching some more, that was.
She shrugged her shoulders, unwilling to go into details.
“It is safe to say that the Doktor wasn’t amused by my performance in the vault?”
“I told him you couldn’t tolerate the herbals.”
“It was how that girl—”
“She was doomed already. Touched from beyond.”
“Hmm,” she only uttered, then turned her attention demonstratively to the items on the long, waist-height table. “Suydam’s stuff?”
“Your subcontractors left it at the gate.”
“Mine?” Sibyl bristled. “Surely not. That ghoul folk is all your business.”
“But the leader is always so eager to serve you. Tibór, I mean.”
“You gave it a name?! That’s sick!”
With a knowing smile László chose a leather-bound notebook. Its worn surface sported fresh, uneven imprints.
“Are these from teeth?”
“Well, some of the items had suffered during the transport,” he informed.
“They tried to eat it!”
“You have to be lenient towards them,” he bantered her. Noticing her sour face from the corners of his eyes, he decided to top it off: “I especially fancy that one wearing the mummified crow as a hat.”
Sibyl groaned. It was no big secret that she hated ghouls with every fibre of her being, no matter how useful for the House some of them were, or how funny their hats might be.
The tall Hungarian opened the book at a random page and went through the lines in silence.
“Hey, me too!” Sibyl whined.
László read aloud:
“‘I think I saw the inner city at the two magnetic poles. I shall go to those poles when the earth is cleared off, if I can’t break through with the Dho-Hna formula when I commit it.’ ”
“Now I am really thinking I’ve done the world a favour by taking that wacko out.”
“I reckon that our good Doktor knows what Suydam was talking about.” The male Nightbringer flipped through the pages. “Last entry: ‘I am pleased with my hosts’ choice. Indeed my body shall be found in yonder mortuary the night after the Inviting.’ ”
“I don’t think so…”
“However,” László closed the notebook, “it may be of interest to see who will appear in said mortuary to hold wake.”
He put the book aside to show it to Grau later, then went through the rest of Suydam’s belongings. A wallet, a pocket watch, keys, some more documents of lesser importance.
Sibyl leant forwards, rested her underarms on the table and her chin on her underarms.
“That Countess – don’t you think she is a bit… weird? Not the ritual part. I can imagine how terribly it tells on her. I mean: weird towards me.”
He did not turn his haggard face away from the papers he was studying.
“Did you see her car?”
“During a closer observation, my dear, you will notice that it is right-hand drive.”
He managed to keep his grave expression: “This feature is welcomed by the Countess insofar as she likes to drive on the wrong side of the road.”
“Huh?” Sibyl furrowed her brows, then her eyes grew wide with shocked understanding. “Oh, that’s— ! How gross! You mean, she…”
“She may deify the Outers and Old Ones, but in her spare time she worships Sappho.”
“Yes, I cannot find words to express my revulsion…”
Sibyl frowned at him. She couldn’t see anything comical about it. Men might be basking in the myth of latent lesbian tendencies inherent in all females. But as far as she was concerned, the thought of same-sex intercourse made her almost physically sick.
Do they use the term “homophobic” on women? I hope so…!
The girl pushed herself up and away from the table. It was time to call it a night. If László and the Doktor concocted something about the mortuary, she would certainly be the first – third – to know.
“It is now half past three – I better get some sleep.”
“Do so, little one. You are still not looking too good.”
Sibyl was about to leave, but hesitated and turned to him again.
“Thanks for backing me up.”
“Thanks for puking down my trousers.”
Halfway to her room Sibyl stopped in the dim corridor.
My coat. Damn!
She turned and jogged up the staircases to the top floor. Surely Grau was still in his office, waiting for László’s report. On this opportunity she would also find out whether the Doktor was still a little bit cross with her.
Sibyl was about to knock at his office when she heard voices inside. She almost jumped back as the door opened and Sawatzki appeared in the frame. Grau, who stood behind her and had opened the door for the Countess, looked at his protégé in mild surprise.
“I left my coat…”
He disappeared to catch it, and for the first time Sibyl was confronted with the young Countess alone. The redhead seemed particularly amused by Sibyl’s initial reaction.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Uh…well, you haven’t.”
Oh dear, that was quick at repartee.
Mercifully, Grau reappeared with her coat and holster. Sibyl took them, thanked him and wished a good night to both. However, the Countess was not going to let her off that easily.
“It has been long since I was here the last time, Doktor Grau. Maybe preili Sibyl can guide me to my room?”
“Certainly, Countess. Sibyl, would you please escort our guest to her quarters.”
The guest quarters lay one storage below, and never had the way to them felt so long. The two young women did not talk, but Sibyl felt the redhead’s strange eyes burning on her. Sawatzki seemed a bit tipsy, presumably she and the Doktor had celebrate their reunion with some little cordials.
“Perhaps I should not say that,” the Countess suddenly spoke, “but Doktor Grau is full of praise about you.”
Sibyl wasn’t exactly delighted to be topic of their late night talk. Especially not since she had a suspicion as to who had the conversation turned on her.
“I am but one of many serving the House.”
“So am I,” came the redhead’s reply. “What is the name of your family?”
She told her.
“An honourable family,” the Countess knew. “Loyal to the House for centuries.”
Sibyl opened the door to Sawatzki’s room and stepped back, indicating that she had attended her duty.
“I am sure that you will find everything to your complete satisfaction. Good night, Countess.”
“Preili Sibyl, I almost forgot to give you something back…”
Smirking, she raised her hand to the girl in black. Dangling from her index finger was the set of handcuffs. Sibyl’s face turned fire-engine red. With a quick move she snatched the nickel bonds and stuffed them into her holster.
Sawatzki came closer, and Sibyl noticed the distinctive smell of absinthe. She had to raise her head to keep eye contact, for the redhead was considerably taller than her.
“We should really go to bed – (‘Not good!’) – to our beds, Countess.”
Something sparkled in Sawatzki’s clear eyes the very moment before she pushed forwards in an attempt to kiss the girl. Disgusted, Sibyl recoiled from her, and the Countess seized her flanks. With astonishing quickness Sibyl freed herself, grabbed Sawatzki’s right wrist and twisted her arm straight up. The pain racing up her shoulder forced Sawatzki to bend over.
“How dare you, wench…!” she screeched. “Let go!”
In this position she saw Sibyl reaching down with her free hand. She touched her boot leg, but realised that whatever she was seeking wasn’t there. So she just clutched the red mane of her captive and pulled her head back sharply.
“You better not try that stunt again! I’m none of your depraved bedwarmers.”
Sibyl pushed her away. Sawatzki steadied herself at the wall, rubbing her sore shoulder.
“Playing hard-to-get, huh?!”
Sibyl replied something under her breath as she grabbed her coat from where she had dropped it, and marched down the corridor.
The Countess staggered into her room and slammed the door shut. Until this attack she had been just playfully intrigued by Sibyl, but now that frigid bitch was in for it.
She would hear the wench scream under her touch – if not from pleasure, then from pain.
Too bad her blade was locked away; it would have come in handy. Of course Sibyl had not intended to injure the redhead, yet a honed edge had such a distinctive way to underline one’s standpoint. The situation might have got out of control, but at least the fire cunt would keep off her now.
For the first time in twenty-two demanding hours Sibyl closed her eyes for sleep. Secretly she feared dreaming about the immolation, but the dream that made her wake up screaming was of different nature. She would not remember its content, but the feeling of nameless horror would stay with her long after.