“Riin? Can you hear me, Riin?”
Of course the girl’s answer was distorted by the gag in her sensual mouth. Providence had more than once witnessed victims biting their tongues off during the throws of the Inviting. And just like with the girl he had left with the one who had called upon the Mountains, her screams would be sufficient to alarm third parties.
He had kept her in trance for the better part of the last eighteen hours, time Providence had needed to improvise proper conditions. Crucial details he had to recreate from memory, for his personal notes had been stolen in the wake of the maisonette incident and used against the cause shortly after. Latest rumours had proven true: The Covey, sent to incinerate the used up remains of the one who had called upon the Sea, had been attacked by a woman in all black. Without doubt this had been the very same who had disturbed the original Inviting in the most vile manner. Almost wishfully he thought millennia back to the prehistoric splendours of the First Mankind, when the most sacred of rites had been performed in the open and the streams of human sacrifices were never-ending.
The match made its distinctive hissing sound when struck, and he waited for the sulphur to burn up before he lit the herbs. Almost immediately a strong aroma emerged from the tea cup substituting for a ritual bowl. Beside him Riin moaned in reaction to the intoxicating flavour. A person of lesser self-command and moral standards would have taken advantage of her helpless state. But forcing oneself on a woman, regardless of the circumstances, was a disgusting act. And soon enough he would walk other planes, where ecstasy and agony became transcendent and indistinguishable.
But for that Providence needed to re-establish contact, manoeuvre himself back into position to perform a new Inviting. The task ahead would devour the girl, as it would take its toll on him. At least he had the means, both worldly and spiritually, to protect himself to some degree. The hand-long bronze needle travelled easily through his flesh until the crude ornament at its end rested firmly against the right of his groin. A second needle seated itself into his left side, piercing muscles and intestines on its way. Providence repeated the process trice more at various parts of his body, the physical pain a sheer side note to him.
“Riin. Be not afeared. Something wonderful will happen.”
The man seated himself in the lotus position before the bed. A last time he checked the bronze seals pinned to his body, then his mind fell into a chant too old for men to comprehend.
(Not a Date!)
Sibyl scrutinised her image in the dressing man-high old-fashioned looking glass. To be honest, she had involuntarily chosen what looked like a civil version of her preferred livery; a dark, thin polo neck under a grey pinstripe waistcoat with matching trousers and sensibly heeled ankle boots.
A bit overdressed, mayhap?
She flipped through her colourless collection for something to ease her look. Finally she surrendered to her closet and took a light, form fitting autumn coat. It was adorned with fake cuff buttons playfully lined half the way up the forearms. Not too demure, yet not too girly.
Finished with sprucing herself up and only adding a pair of grey kid cloves she left her room and started a short search for her direct superior in person of the one Balogh László to give notice of departure. Sibyl found the Hungarian in the library, where he was comparing passages from Suydam’s journal with those on withered pages of equally withered books. The library had always been that, a reading room or lounge for waiting bank customers in those dark days before automatic bank note counting machines and digital money transfer. However, it was highly unlikely for the library’s collection back then to be of such abhorrent origin as it was now. From ceiling high shelves lurked the knowledge of eras predating the human existence on this planet by millennia (although the real highlights were stowed away in the Doktor’s office). If one were to search for, say, a detailed map of Leng, they would find it here. Fancy Francois-Honore Balfour, Ludwig Prinn or Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt? Tomes upon tomes of arcane literature were at the dear reader’s disposal. Sibyl herself had studied many of them with morbid fascination – and others with downright repulsion.
“Mm-hmm, have fun, gorgeous,” László replied without looking up.
Against better judgement, Sibyl stepped closer to check in on his progress so far.
“How is it going?”
László worked his neck muscles.
“Suydam has clearly written it for himself. A torrent of references, sourceless quotes and abbreviations, all of which disturbing to read. The Doktor has got some theories, but is reluctant to share them.”
“Share with whom?”
“With me, with anyone. With Sawatzki, too, for reasons I do not know yet tend to support.”
The box with Suydan’s possessions stood on the heavy oak table before him, and Sibyl threw a glance in it.
Just one glance, then I’m out of here…
First was his wallet. It was empty save for a twenty euro note and some change. No foreign currency, although it had been claimed that Suydan had come from New England. No passport, no driver’s license, no isikutunnistus (which was also given to a foreigner working in Estonia). No other case or portfolio for documents.
“I yet have to identify the original text these passages originate from.”
Sibyl lent over to have a closer look at the pages.
“Top right on the shelf, behind the roll ladder.”
“Nobody likes bookworms. You do know that, don’t you?”
She chuckled. Her list of compulsory reading handed down by the Doktor had been extensive, to say the least. He himself might even capable of telling the exact page for every quote. Which made her thinking: Why hadn’t he told László about Suydam’s sources? Or hadn’t the Hungarian asked him in the first place?
“Hadn’t you planed something for tonight.”
“Just a second…”
There were Suydam’s pocket watch, a straight razor and other items she had inspected after they had been obtained five nights ago. To her it felt like five weeks, the watch at the roof top a mere memory, all faded and off-colour.
“For some seconds his face and balding head lost their contrast in the image intensifier…”
“Where is the—?”
She began to rummage through the box’s content in earnest.
“Where is it?”
“What?” asked László, slightly bemused. Sibyl just kept digging. “Never mind,” he added, “just tell me when you feel up to it.”
“There is no lighter. No cigarettes, either.”
“There must be. He lit his spliff with it.”
The Hungarian groaned.
“Was it by any chance bright and shiny?”
Sibyl emerged from the box with an expression of aghast disbelief.
“They kept it?!”
Those bloody ghouls are worse than magpies!
“I’ll take care of it. You go to your date.”
“It’s not a date.” She checked her watch. “And I’ll be fashionably late to it.”
“Then why are you still here, lass?! Make haste!”
Reaching the door, Sibyl turned back to László.
“You see to it that Gollum coughs up his precious. Who knows what else he has embezzled!”
“Yes, yes. Go, girl!”
Any longer, and László would have physically kicked her out – and would have been right about it. What was wrong with her that she couldn’t let go for just some hours? Sibyl opened the door of the side entry and stepped out into the cool night. She could not remember the last time she had left Vilms & Järvi unarmed.
“Vanemuise Harf” could be described best as the Estonian version of an Irish pub; a cosy little maze with nooks and crannies that offered the widest choice of whiskeys in town and five beers on tap. It was very popular amongst young and old and the ideal place for a casual get-together. A clock tower chimed the hour as Sibyl arrived. Yet something was holding her back, making her stop on the other side of the street. It grew considerably darker around her as clouds shoved themselves in front of the waning moon.
Those terrible clouds…
The tavern was set in the ground floor of a very massive, rambling house in one of the town’s oldest parts. Actually it was even a bit lower than the ground level, with a couple of worn steps leading down to the door, over which a mock of the eponymous harp of Vanemuine hung on creaking chains. Warm rays were radiating out of small leaded lights, painting golden patterns on bluish-wet cobblestones. Muffled chatting, laughter and music were reaching over to her.
Sibyl looked down the foggy street. Some self-loathing part of her continued to tell her to just leave.
And go wither?
Luckily, she discovered Andrus through one of the windows. He was clearly looking out for her, albeit in the wrong direction. When he finally saw her, he flinched as if he had been stabbed, then his face began to glow. He waved at her, and his lips moved, but the words remained unintelligible. He disappeared, only to come out of the door a moment later. He jogged over to her, radiant.
“Good evening to you, bloofer lady!”
“I’m so glad you could make it,” he admitted with genuine relieve.
“We should stop meeting at night; people start talking.”
Sibyl granted him a polite smile, and Andrus made an inviting gesture.
“Let’s get in, shall we? It’s getting quite nippy, and the table I have conquered won’t last for long alone.”
They crossed the street together, and he made sure to hold the door open for her. “Vanemuise Harf” was far more crowded than it had appeared to be from the outside. Sibyl had trouble following Andrus, for the trail he blazed through the customers was almost immediately closed again. As they finally reached the tiny niche with his tiny table under the tiny window, he helped her out of her coat, only to turn away again.
“I better get our drinks myself. We won’t get hold on a bar maid tonight.”
Whilst Andrus was on his way, Sibyl couldn’t help but marvel again at how well-attended the pub was. It had to be weekend. She had indeed lost all track of time during the last days!
“‘Cuse me! ‘Cuse me! Coming through!”
Andrus came back with a large glass of beer in each hand, manoeuvring through between the chatting and laughing people.
That can only go well…
He finally reached save haven with the beers swapping over, yet managed to keep spillage to a minimum.
“Here we go!”
“Are you even eighteen already?”
“Let’s just say ‘yes’. Terviseks!”
They clinked glasses, and Andrus helped himself to a healthy draught. Sibyl, however, hesitated.
“You don’t drink?”
“No, no, I’m game.”
She took a careful sip from the strong, top-fermented beer. It had been a while since she had drunk beer.
“So what about school?”
“Tomorrow is no school.”
I just figured that out by myself, thank you.
“But you are in your final year, aren’t you?”
“I’m asking because we’ve always met in school nights before,” she stated whilst nursing her pint.
“Have you never skived school?”
“Not a single day.”
“Teacher’s pet,” Andrus teased her.
“For your information: I indeed was a very good and teachable pupil,” she lectured him with played indignation.
“Sooo,” Andrus mused, “if tomorrow were to be a school day for you, would you have come here, nonetheless?”
“Absolutely. I’m in the mood to celebrate.”
Andrus failed to grasp the bitter undercurrent, but it wasn’t aimed at him anyway.
“Maybe it’s my birthday today.”
“And if it were?”
“I would bake you a birthday cake. I can make great birthday cakes!”
“Really? You would do that for me? With candles?”
“No candles, sorry. They always melt in the oven.”
Sibyl couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s not the same without candles. But I’d give you points for creativity, if a rather infantile kind. I thought a young, mature gentleman had requested the pleasure of my company.”
“Very well, milady. Let us celebrate like two young, reasonably mature and in your case good-looking persons.”
Sibyl’s sips became a bit braver.
“‘Celebrate’ may be the wrong word. I just need to cool down after some recent trouble in my recent relationship.”
“I just wanted to give her a good night kiss in front of my door; suddenly she freaked, called me names and ran off.”
“Yes. Lesbian relationships can become somewhat intense, you know.”
Normally she would sooner have bitten her tongue off than merely formulating terms such as “lesbian”, not to mention goofing around with them. But the boy’s light-heartedness was intoxicating.
And the alcohol isn’t unblamable, either…
“You were together with another girl?”
A smile played at the corners of her mouth as the raised her glass for another draught.
“You blokes are all the same!”
“There is nothing wrong with two girls being tender to each other. I am very tolerant on that matter!”
“Yes. Yes, me, too…”
Andrus turned more serious.
“But you do have trouble with your folks, right?”
“You… want to share it? You don’t have to, you know.”
Sibyl looked out of the window as though the words she was searching for lay outside in the ever-deepening darkness. Yet she saw only her own reflexion.
“When I was fourteen, my godfather became my guardian.”
Andrus sensitively didn’t investigate the details.
“Although not my legal custodian anymore, he’s still in charge of me in some way. He’s… it’s quite difficult to live up to his expectations lately.”
“The man that took your gun from me?”
“No, that wasn’t him.”
Andrus uttered a sound of relief.
Don’t get your hopes up too soon.
Something was haunting her, he could tell. Her attire might be more conventional, the surrounding more casual; yet still she bore that air of gloom. There was another word for it, Andrus had read it once and kept it in the murkier regions of his own mind ever since. Megrim. And it had more to it than her melancholic character trait. She was desperate to come to terms with something, yet her environment seemed to fail in supporting her in that matter. Her allusions even gave reason to believe that said environment was responsible for her hardship in the first place.
Sibyl really felt the stout’s alcohol now. Her mind became light, the laughter and music around her more distant yet more engulfing at the same time. She had to be more careful with that stuff! Andrus, who was showing a much better stamina than her, had emptied his glass long before her.
“No, I’m fine!”
“Lightweight,” he teased her, making her chuckle. So far, the evening had succeeded in lightening her mood.
“I just process alcohol more efficiently,” Sibyl clarified with fake seriousness. “Have you got any further plans for later tonight?”
“Why would I?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I take it your present at the graveyard hasn’t been an isolated event.”
“Nah, I’ve got better things to do at night now.”
“Dreaming of you.”
She gave him a sharp glance.
“Just make sure to keep your hands above the blanket during your dreams.”
“That was uncalled for!”
“I’ll make it up to you. Fancy a walk?”
The air was even cooler now, the contrasts cut by moonlight even harder. Sibyl staggered a bit on the damp cobblestones, squealed and grabbed Andrus’ shoulder – only to pull her hand back with awkward speed. Luckily, her escort helped her out of her embarrassment.
“Thanks to my keen understanding of bodily reactions to alcohol I am entitled to tell that you are drunk – from one beer.”
“I’m not drunk! Maybe a little tipsy. Just give me some minutes in the fresh air.”
On a tiny square, surrounded by timber-framed houses and skew doorways, she stopped him.
“You know this place?” She nodded towards the old draw well in the centre.
“The wishing well? Of course.”
“Have you got a coin?”
He handed her a two euro coin.
“Bit of a show-off, aren’t we?” she teased.
“It’s a big wish.”
“And a handkerchief, too?”
Slightly irritated he gave her a hanky as well.
Sibyl wrapped it around the coin and finished with a simple knot.
“What’s that for?” Andrus enquired, his curiosity fully piqued.
“You will see… in time.”
The well’s pit was covered by a heavy iron grate bolted to the encircling stone wall. But …
She stuffed the enwrapped coin through between them, holding the hanky by one last corner.
“Make your wish!”
Let go, and the white cloth disappeared into the blackness of the well.
They strolled further into the sleeping quarter. Around them the buildings became more splendid, yet lost the welcoming charms the pub’s architecture had offered.
“You are not by any chance planning on dragging me in a dark alley to suck out my blood?”
“What are you taking me for? I’ve got style.” She stepped in his way, causing him to stop. “I’m dragging you in there.”
Sibyl nodded over her shoulder. He followed with his gaze to the building across the next junction; an ostentatious edifice, whose Jugendstil façade had been light-heartedly enriched with neobarock elements.
“The old bath house?”
“Hasn’t it been closed because some pillars had collapsed?”
Sibyl smiled knowingly.
“I make sure no harm befalls you.”
“But just in case, you don’t mind me to memorise some escape routes, do you?”
“We have already established that you can’t outrun me.”
“I’m at your mercy then?”
“Don’t pretend you’re not intrigued by it.”
They wandered over to the impressive entrance doors with their wrought-iron gratings. Disencouragingly enough, a chain was wrapped around the metal bars. Andrus pointed at the purposeful-looking padlock.
“I bet we’re not the first who had to turn around on these steps.”
“Oh, ye of little faith…”
From the pocket of her coat Sibyl produced a huge bunch of keys. First the padlock clicked, then the bolts of the elaborated door lock slid back. Finally one heavy door wing creaked open, requiring a good deal of Andrus’ strength.
Sibyl let the keys glide back into her pocket.
The eclectic medley of architecture continued inside the vast building. High windows allowed enough moonlight to stream in to see without any lamps. It revealed a flight of stairs rising up to the counters, wide enough for a dozen men to walk abreast. Left and right the steps were framed by dried-out miniature waterfalls. Soon the monochrome splendour of the entrance area opened up to a very broad corridor with lurking doorways to both sides. Andrus reckoned them to be leading to the changing rooms. They walked further into the building, maybe the first visitors in decades. Dust had settled on the marble floor in thick sediments, and the air carried a stale odour.
The corridor ended in a terrace of some sort, overlooking the lavish pool area. Andrus stepped forth to the virtuously wrought handrail.
“With outdoor shoes only up to here.”
“We’ve got to go through the changing rooms to get down there.”
“We can definitely do that. Or…”
He swung a leg over the handrail. Sibyl sighted in defeat.
“Oh. Great. Climbing.”
Andrus brought his other leg over the barrier and jumped down. His feet’s impact on the tiled floor echoed in the vast hall. Above him Sibyl straddled the handrail with stiff moves.
“You do know that this is my best coat?”
She climbed fully over.
“Are you still sore from the other night?”
Instead of answering she made a hissing sound to shoo him away for a clean leap.
“No, let me give you a hand.”
She jumped, and he caught her at her waist, easing her fall. Immediately it dawned on Andrus that this might have been inappropriate, and he set the girl on her feet. Sibyl, however, granted him a both relieving and rewarding smile.
“And people say chivalry is dead.”
Five pillars, all intact, surrounded the circular main pool, carrying the ceiling and its great glass dome. Had the moonlight streamed into the entrance area like silent rivulets, it was now flooding the bath house as a silvery torrent.
“Back then, this must have been the bee’s knees,” Andrus mused whilst strolling around. He was amazed how well preserved the place was.
His hand glided across one of the big bronze fishes which in former times had spit water into the various smaller pools. The main pool, in contrast, would have been fed by the never-ending content of amphorae. Nymphs, frozen in ecstatic dance, carried them in front of every pillar.
The gilded writing above another hallway grabbed his attention.
“I presume chances for taking a sauna bath together are slim.”
Sibyl chuckled from somewhere in the shadows.
“If you find a room still working, you might be lucky.”
“Where are you?”
He took some steps towards her voice.
Sibyl emerged from the darkness and pulled him towards an alcove. Andrus could vaguely discern the black rectangle of a doorway.
“Where does it lead to?”
She stifled a groan as she hunched down to search through the duskiness beneath a stone bench.
“Quite dark down there…”
“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding.”
“What are you—”
“Found it!” she declared as she surfaced again. What Sibyl had found was an old lamp, and when she shook it, the splashing of petroleum could be heard. She struck a match on the stone bench and brought it to the wick. It took some time and another match, but then a strangely cold light came to life that made Andrus wonder what was actually being burnt in there.
Sibyl raised the lamp. Now Andrus was able to see what lay beyond the doorway with its fanciful cordon: stairs spiralling down. Not too much of a surprise, given Sibyl’s clue.
“What’s in the basement? Let me guess: your crypt!”
“That well never runs dry, does it?”
“No offence, but you are making it quite easy tonight.”
She shifted the flickering lamp from her right hand to her left, the site where the spiral case would offer more room, and unhooked the cordon.
And into the stairwell Sibyl disappeared.
“Hey, whoa! Wait for me!”
Even in this area not meant for public the hedonistic theme was omnipresent. A single mosaic spread itself across walls and ceiling, following the stairs without break. Sadly there was little chance to examine it more closely. The aura of light emanating from Sibyl’s hand was small of radius and luminance, and nothing but darkness waited beyond. They had passed a first landing, leading to what had seemed to be a boiler room. But the girl had pushed on deeper and deeper, always clockwise. Andrus could not even tell how long they were climbing down the stairwell, but he began to feel a bit light-headed from the constant turning. As they descended, he observed the continuing wall picture with growing unease. Had it shown fishes and mermaids, ocean turtles and shells at first, its motifs became more and more twisted. He hadn’t given thought when he had seen a particularly ugly fish, not unlike a placoderm, amidst the arabesque coral décor. Then strange serpents replaced the common sea dwellers, their winding bodies reaching out to the ceiling. Around them the once bright-blue tiles symbolising water took ever darker shades as misshapen squids wielded their far too many tentacles in the eldritch light. They made way for creatures Andrus could not assign to any real phyla, which in turn were followed by forms he couldn’t even surely describe as creatures at all. They were but bizarre entities, grotesque leviathans from beyond the natural realm.
It was a cistern, but how far into the abysmal blackness the dried-out reservoir reached Andrus could not tell. All the worryingly tiny flame allowed was a mere glimpse at a time. Sturdy columns of pre-mediævel origin, scarred by abhorrent age, revealed themselves as Sibyl and he passed by, only to fade away behind them. Andrus couldn’t put finger on it, but something had subtly changed in the atmosphere. In the mood. It had been in silence that the two of them had descended the spiral case, but this strange shifting had already started with them entering the bath house. As if Sibyl had somewhat snapped back into the mindset he had encountered at the cemetery and the train yard.
“Don’t wander off, Andrus.”
Carrying the cave-like ceiling, the pillars seemed to be symmetrically aligned. But with Sibyl stepping from one row to the next and dragging him with her, he soon lost orientation none the less. Like the woods from a twisted fairy tale to scare children this place granted the eye no landmarks – until, in the dark ahead, Andrus saw a pale fog of light. As they closed in, their lamp’s own glow swallowed it up, yet in return made the ground around them sparkle. The washed-out stone was littered with coins. Scattered around at first, they quickly covered the ground, then piled up to a tiny hill.
Andrus hunkered down and took a random one. A 10 senti coin from 1931. He let it drop and looked up. Above him, running straight through the town’s bed for ten or fifteen metres, ended the shaft of the wishing well. Moonlight cut into it in an angle and projected the grate pattern on well’s wall. Faint spectres got caught in the surreal treasure before them.
“We can’t be that far!”
His sense of direction might be messed up; but still there couldn’t be more than hundred metres between them and the bottom of the spiral stairs.
Sibyl aimed her lamp at something white on the ground, and his gaze followed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me…!”
She picked the handkerchief up and unwrapped it. Andrus chuckled in disbelieve as the two euro coin appeared.
“The well is at least half a kilometre away. How can we be standing underneath it?”
“Ever heard of non-Euclidean geometry? Angles that have characteristics of both acute and obtuse ones? Straight lines between two points that are longer than curved connections, concepts like that?”
She returned the hanky to him.
“And the coin?”
Sibyl flipped it away.
“If I gave it back, your wish wouldn’t come true.”
The dried-out cistern had only been a part of a far more extensive system, a labyrinthine network of canals and barrages. They had left the reservoir through an archway so low that Andrus could touch the vaulting by stretching his arm. Every so often the tunnel would open into larger chambers, vestibules or intersections. Once they entered a vast cylindrical junction room with a bottomless pit in its middle. On several levels passageways entered and left, and gargoyle-faced drains spilled water into some underground aqueduct far below. From the domed ceiling rusty pipes of enormous girth reached down into the central chasm. With uncanny sureness Sibyl marched through the fine veils of spray towards an archway on the far side. It was secured by a grilled gate, which called the girl’s omnipotent key ring back into action.
“To keep trespassers away…,” she explained matter-of-factly.
“Just for my own clarity: Are we trespassers, too? After all, you’ve got all the keys.”
“That’s an interesting question, coming from somebody who routinely roams cemeteries and train yards. We are not trespassing, though – because we are still sitting inside ‘Vanemuise Harf’.”
“These gates are mainly for safety reasons. People became lost in the tunnels or blew themselves up.”
“Some areas are still full of rotten ammunition from the time when the city was besieged by the Russians. Rounds, hand grenades, even Teller mines – you name it.”
Andrus tried not to imagine what effect an anti-tank mine detonation would have down here. If not collapsing immediately, the tunnels would carry the blast for kilometres.
The architecture’s appearance had become mediævel once again, and several times they had to duck their heads beneath traversing steel beams. At one point he noticed an industrial-aged copper tube emerging recklessly from the mouth of a gothic spouter.
“What is all this? Why is this place so mixed up?”
“These are the city’s fundaments.” Sibyl was about to lean against the wall, then decided otherwise to protect her attire from undue harm. “The modern city – twelfth-century-modern, that is – was built upon the oldest of these structures. As time went on, and constructions reached deeper into the ground again, they sort of merged with the original elements.”
She nodded into the crepuscule, where a concrete corner had driven itself through the vaulting like the edge of a giant sword.
“For example: Over there may be the fringe of a bunker complex from the war, pushing into the cistern tunnels.”
“You are making that up as you go along, right?”
Sibyl looked at him with slight amusement, her eyes strangely agleam in the unearthly light.
“What do they teach you kids at school these days?!”
“That there was an outpost erected by the Teutonic Knights near the river which turned into a settlement and eventually developed into a fortified town. Nobody ever said anything about thousand years old fundaments.”
“Huh,” she replied, and said no more.
Coffee! He needed coffee! Aarne the Armourer needed hot, strong, black coffee to function. Especially when László the Slave Driver had come up with special requests for his USP, such as a different barrel weight including a Picatinny rail. Said rail would allow tactical accessories to be attached, which in turn would compromise the pistol’s balance – hence the custom barrel weight.
He had Mihkel released into the weekend a couple of hours ago. Not that the boy was utterly useless when it came to the finer points of gunsmithing, but some work had to be done by himself. Work that needed a certain amount of experience, a bellyful of strong, hot, black experience…
Aarne grabbed his empty thermos from the work bench and set forth to the kitchen.
The abstruse archway ended in the least confidence-building manner: Its ceiling had crushed down. A congealed cascade of boulders, rocks and rubble made an untimely end to their advance.
“Does that happen a lot around here?”
“Occasionally.” Sibyl didn’t show any signs of concern. “Do you remember the sinkhole near the market two years ago?”
Apparently his ignorance encouraged her to go into further details.
“That was caused by an instable tunnel much closer to the surface. They had to prop two historical buildings up. This, on the other hand, is just a minor cave-in; old and long since set.”
“That’s very comforting. What now?”
“Look out for missing blocks in the wall to the right.”
They backtracked their way for a couple of metres, and indeed found a small jagged breakthrough into another part of this labyrinth. The connection was far from being properly executed, though. Sporting a breakneck slope and not nearly being high enough to walk upright, it had an adventurous appeal to it.
“Well,” Sibyl intonated meekly, “my informant spoke of a by-pass tunnel.”
“‘By-pass warren’ would have been the more fitting term. I never thought it would be me saying it, but don’t you consider this a wee bit reckless?”
He could tell Sibyl was torn between calling it a night and pushing forwards. She leant into the breakthrough, lamp held far ahead of her, trying to reconnoitre the next few metres without actually entering.
“And all in my best coat,” she sighted.
Andrus looked over her shoulder.
“I take it there’s more to our underground field trip than showing me the public water supply, so now I’m curious.”
He didn’t wait for her to answer.
“But as a gentleman I am morally obligated to go in first.”
The weird dreams had exhausted her. Not those weird dreams they had been; just the kind that one was haunted by in the lighter layers of slumber between awareness and sleep, when impressions trickle into the mind from the waking world without reaching the consciousness.
Varna was sitting upright in her bed, red hair spread over her shoulders. She had dreamt about some nonsense, surfaced almost to the point of waking up, only to dive into the meaningless absurdity again. Maybe she had too many things running through her head. Grau’s stonewalling with regard to much needed adaptions of ceremonial and protocol was surely one of them. Rites that had taken hours in former times were rushed through within minutes under his aegis.
“Rest assured, my dear Countess, that those traditions are well kept in this House,” he had declared to dispel her doubts right before the Immolation.
She was sure of that, indeed. The Doktor sported bureaucratic qualities in keeping the ashes, but in fuelling the flame he failed utterly. His second, that insufferable Hungarian, showed no indoctrination whatsoever. Only under a paper-shuffler like Grau he had been able to rank up so far. And that much vaunted brat had yet to proof her value with other actions than allowing her weapon to be seized by some punk. To top it off, Grau had forborn from banning any further contact. Very likely the little tart was getting cosy with that boy right now instead of silencing him.
Varna filled a glass with water from the carafe on the bedside table. It tasted stale.
That little princess! (She had picked that term up somewhere, and it fitted perfectly.) Sibyl’s rebellious streak and general lack of manners might be attributed to her infantile ignorance. But her disrespect, crowned by the physical assault on Varna the other night, was uncondonable. It wasn’t so much the sole fact that the brat had turned her down – Varna had been drunk, and both might have been emotionally agitated in their own ways from the night’s events. It had been the spite of the rejection that had antagonised her. Rejection was the one thing she was hell-bent to not take anymore. She had been rejected and ridiculed and assaulted too many times in her life, be it for her visions, her sexual orientation or even the colour of her hair. Down to the present day she suspected everybody that crossed her way to call her names behind her back: Tomato head, match stick, Agent Orange.
And the all-time classic: nõid.
Varna got up with a sigh and fished for her dressing gown. She wouldn’t find any sleep tonight.
A curved stone gallery overpeered the vast space opening before them. This wasn’t the cistern system anymore. The girl was really taking him on the scenic route. To have all this under his feet and not know it until tonight!
“I missed out big time.”
“Tell me about it,” Sibyl replied somewhat absent-minded.
They had to climb down a half-collapsed wooden structure whose decomposing parts had become home to strange fluorescent mushrooms.
“At least you brought the right shoes, Lara,” mocked Andrus whilst he was giving her a hand.
“Just make sure you’ve got a good grip, smart-arse.”
They took a short rest in an aisle of ancient pillars.
“Can I try out the echo?”
“Spoilsport.” He tilted his head far back, absorbing the hall’s dimensions. “I still can’t believe it.”
“It has a surreal touch to it,” Sibyl assented.
However, Andrus found himself under the impression that her awe was somewhat curbed.
“Have you been here before?”
“And not so personally?”
“I know my way around. You are in very good hands. Although I hadn’t pictured this place so…”
“Actually, I was looking for something like ‘arduous’, but yes, we better keep hold on that lamp. Next time I’ll bring my torch – and dress differently.”
“Will you lend it to me for a second, though?”
She handed him the light, which felt comfortably heavy in his hand. Still plenty of fuel left. The bluish flame allowed him a closer look at the pillars holding the weight of the city. Their bases were raw, just undressed stone. The shafts, in contrast, showed artistic effort, their surfaces carved with helical designs. Andrus chuckled. Although their little adventure had started as urban exploring of some sort, he now felt like a caver having found traces of prehistoric life. Which in turn triggered his healthy sense of imminent danger (he really needed to tone down his horror flick consume).
“Are we alone?”
“No ghouls down there?”
“Not here. They are afeared of these parts.”
She took the lamp back from him.
“Good. Because I don’t want— Wait a minute! What do you mean with ‘afeared of these parts’?”
“C’mon, this way.”
He hurried behind her, eager to stay within the aura of light.
“What are they afraid of here, specifically?”
He sighed as Sibyl gave him another “glowing eyes in the dark” look as an answer.
“Yes. I don’t have to know.”
Their steps returned as sharp echoes from the depths of this cryptic hall. Maybe it was just like that. A crypt. Last rest of those from a past forgotten. Weren’t they said to rise from their tombs when disturbed in their eternal sleep?
The crypt owned a distinctive ground plan, not unlike the shape a biconvex lens. To Andrus this only added to the impression of an arcane concept behind this place; hidden patterns instead of plain rectangular geometry. As the walls were closing in from both sides, they guided Sibyl and him towards the end of the hall. A few steps led down to an elaborated iron door. At least he thought of it as iron at first. The door was two-winged, with its heavy segments covered in repulsive ornaments. The surface had a strange way of reflecting the light that made Andrus doubt at his initial presumption. Was this even crafted from metal at all? The strangest connotations were coming to his mind: ebony, petrified tar, obsidian. Not that he’d ever seen obsidian, but he wouldn’t put an obsidian door past this place. For all he knew this thing could be made of chitin.
The door squealed in its hinges, testifying to its age. Andrus pushed the wings fully open and immediately sensed the movement of air behind them. If he wasn’t mistaken this indicated a connection to the upper world. The draught created an almost inaudible sound, particularly eerie in these deep halls. The organ of a thrawn subterranean cathedral.
It wasn’t lost on Andrus that their way would lead them down again.
He had long since lost count of all the weapons that had travelled through his hands for the little private army Doktor Grau had established to protect whatever this place made so valuable for his cause. Aarne had never developed a deeper interest in the cultish aspects or the weird ceremonies inside the vault. Or why a bunch of alleged anthropologists needed such an amount of firepower. He was just a bloke from the second row. All he cared for was metal. Not necessarily guns. Working with the material, turning and milling it, came close to a passion for him. Even if this passion meant long hours on a Saturday night.
Whilst the coffee was brewing the Armourer helped himself to some of the stew that was simmering peacefully in a huge pot. Some time later the guards on duty would see to its disappearence. He had almost finished his impromptu meal when Aarne sensed he wasn’t alone anymore. He turned around, and Grau’s mysterious guest stood in the kitchen door, wearing little more than a silken dressing gown.
She initially seemed wavering whether to come in or leave, eyeing him over sceptically. Aarne just stuck to an inviting smile. Upon noticing that her chemise was visible, she closed her dressing gown tighter with evident indignation. The Countess was about to turn, but then gave a surrendering sigh, as if tired by her own attitude. She entered and opened one of the big stainless steel refrigerators.
“Where can I find some milk?”
He directed her to the one containing the requested drink.
“And a clean glass?”
“Just over here, Countess.”
He retrieved one from a cupboard and handed it to her.
“Thank you.” She nodded towards his soup plate. “Gathering strength for the night?”
“Just a scarce collation before I go back to my work. May I offer you a bowl?”
“I do not supper this late. But pray continue your meal.”
To say that the redhead woman’s presence was making him feel uneasy was a proper understatement. And so, eager to avoid awkward silence, he elaborated on the culinary aspects a bit longer.
“It’s a recipe from Härra Balogh’s home town.”
She rolled her eyes.
The armourer managed a polite smile, not having the slightest idea how else to reply. She took a draught of milk before settling for a more conversational tone.
“Härra Balogh has got quite a certain influence on the Doktor, it seems.”
“As far as I understand he is his closest adviser. They go way back.”
Come to think of it, he actually knew very little about the Hungarian.
“I see. And what’s the story with that young thing? His protégé?”
Aarne suddenly felt the very strong urge to watch his next words – something not happening to him too often. Once in a while Balogh would handpick one of his Askirtay to ready them for ambitious missions. Originally they had been a sweeney of some sort, messing up the business of rivalling Houses, whereas the standard Askirtay would stay back to protect the home base (he even thought to remember that the term “Askirtay” was a reference to this very duty). Now they acted solitarily, more like dark agents. Cloak and dagger stuff. Aarne was uncertain of the Countess’ status and whether she was supposed to know of such things.
“She is… nice,” the Armourer stated diplomatically, immediately wondering if he, with a bit of an effort, could sound even more like an imbecile.
The countess only smiled slyly as she brought the glass back to her lips.
“Why, of course she is.”
This wasn’t a staircase as such, but a passageway with numerous landings between descending flights of stairs. And it was even older than the crypt. Large parts of the walls and ceiling as well as the steps had been hewn out of the living stone. And almost every vertical surface was covered with parts of a crude bas-relief. Andrus craned his neck. In the wickedly flickering light the forms and sceneries came to life. Men in ancient armour, spears and shields in their hands, bent their knees to unnameable beings emerging from either the sea or sky – or from both. Andrus’ initial déjà vu turned into recalling earlier locations.
“Are these the same—”
The light faded. He hurried to catch up with his pathfinder, almost slipping on the treacherous steps.
“Wait! Don’t always rush away!”
“Don’t fall back then.”
“Normally the gentleman goes first down the stairs, in case the lady loses her footing.”
“I promise to watch my steps.”
The chances for Sibyl to lose her footing were numbered, though, as the passageway was levelling out. Each landing became longer and was followed by a lesser number of stairs, until the two visitors were descending no more. And for the last time of their journey they discovered a new region of this subterraneous kingdom.
Somewhere in the darkness water dripped into a black pond. The rhythmic sound was the only hint that time hadn’t come to a total standstill within the cavern around them. The walls, as far as Andrus was able to tell, were raw and untouched, save for niches with stony fire pits in them. When they had illuminated this place the last time he could not say. So it was down to the girl’s lamp yet again to allow him glimpses of an untold world, of the silent gathering amidst the cave.
Five standing stones described a circle around a sixth one. The central menhir was larger than the others, almost three metres in height and with easily twenty tons of weight. They all threw sharp shadows as Sibyl stepped into their ring. More than ever the tiny bluish light in her hand was a twisted will-o’-the-wisp. The surreal overtone wasn’t lost on Andrus, as was the location’s importance. The weird water system, the crypt, the catacomb-like passage – they all had been but waypoints. It was those stones Sibyl had been heading for the whole time.
“They are called ‘Gorging Stones’,” she interrupted his thoughts.
“Hazard a guess.”
In brought daylight her allusion would have been good for a titillating thrill, those enjoyable chills up one’s spine. Down here, things were different. He inspected the outer stones first. They showed the same helical carvings as the pillars back in the crypt.
Raw. Tribal. Primordial.
“Who erected them?”
“Perhaps the Aestii, perhaps the Saarlased – nobody knows.”
Andrus turned his attention towards the central stone. Not only was it larger than its acolytes, it was also significantly darker in colour. The mineral it was made of was alien and utterly indeterminable.
Maybe that was obsidian?
He reached out to run his fingers across the ornamented surface and pulled his hand away with a squeal. The stone was cold to a degree that Andrus first thought to have burnt his hand.
“It doesn’t warm up, nor does it cool its surrounding down. There’s no condensation on it either, not to mention ice,” Sibyl lectured him.
“A little warning would have been nice!”
“Now you’ve learnt not to paw everything you see.”
“That’s rich, coming from somebody that does close-combat stuff with graveyard abominations.”
Sibyl raised her free hand.
Andrus pulled a face and eyed the monolith once more, this time careful not to touch it.
“How did they even move such a humdinger?”
Sibyl raised her hand again with playful smugness.
“Yes, apart from wearing gloves, smarty-pants.”
“All I know is that it was brought here during the last ice age.”
“Like a glacial erratic?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Nobody can say how it was brought here. Nor whence it came in the first place. It isn’t even certain how and where the stone had been worked, for it is far harder than any material used for tools during that age.” She brought the light closer. “Most likely it was found this way. The carvings on the other stones are only imitations.”
Andrus tore himself away from the carvings. They owned hypnotic qualities, and no mistake, but bore no resemblance with the symbols on Sibyl’s weapon – a fact that left him both disappointed and relieved at the same time. Yet there could be no doubt that this site was of major significance to his guide.
“I take it your Gorging Stones’ astronomical functions are rather limited, so this isn’t an Estonian Stonehenge.”
“It served as the meeting point of a Cabal. In days of yore its members gathered here to sacrifice prisoners captured by blessed warriors during their raids. Hence the name.”
Andrus uttered a disapproving sound.
“To each their own.”
Only Riin’s tranquil breaths was disturbing the silence, but in his mind the chanting turned into a cacophony of voices, deafening him as he reached out to where those of his kin were not supposed to journey. Farther and farther he delved into the cosmic chaos behind the thin veil that separated this plane from the things beyond. And there it was: First a mere fen fire, the Great One’s presence quickly grew into a flaming beacon of madness, burning in a colour unbearable to the human eye and soul. Providence willed himself forwards unto this forbidden realm, dragging Riin behind him. But something was slowing him down, holding him back – a disturbance, caused by not one but two other entities. He tried to circumnavigate their meddling existence, but his mind slipped. The beautiful, horrid beacon began to tumble and to whirl, and too late Providence perceived that he was the one whirling.
The shock of being thrown back almost manifested in a cardiac arrest. Red-faced he gasped for air, eyes frenzied from distraction. Before him Riin screamed endlessly.
“If you excuse me, Countess, I’ve got to return to my duties,” Aarne announced politely and put his soup plate in the nearest sink.
“Sure you have. I enjoyed our little chat very much.”
The Armourer had come to think a bit differently about it. Quite frankly he felt catechised. That redhead aristocrat had asked him at least half a dozen innocent-sounding questions, each and every one capable of gathering sensible information. Aarne had evaded them to his best abilities, but apparently the things he did not say were as revealing for his nocturnal interlocutor as the ones he offered.
He couldn’t tell what he noticed first when turning around, the dripping sound or the puddle of milk at Sawatzki’s feet. Originally he had been bent to avoid eye contact with this strange woman, but now he looked up nonetheless. The countess was holding her tilted glass to her face, yet utterly failed to drink its content. Instead the white liquid was running down her chin and raining onto the tiled floor. For a moment she stood perfectly still, eyes rolled back so far her irides weren’t visibly anymore. But before the Armourer could so much as make a step towards her she slumped to the ground in a horrible fit. Cramps racked her body, and her spasmodic limps were cut again and again by the shards of the now shattered glass. Underneath her the white puddle of milk became stained with blood.
Sibyl waved her hand in a declining gesture as he pulled a small flask from his pocket.
“No thanks, I’ve had enough.”
“Just try it. It isn’t alcoholic.”
She gave Andrus a sceptical look.
“What is it then?”
She accepted the offered flask and took a tiny sip.
“Is that tea?”
“Rosehip. Good against stiffness, I told you.”
Her expression changed from bewilderment to amusement.
“And you are an expert of alternative medicine because…?”
“A friend of mine studies medicine, with naturopathy as an elective. I’ve got my fair share of playing guinea pig.”
Apparently Sibyl had decided to trust him, for she drank again. Andrus doubt that the tea would have any effect on her. Bringing it had been mostly of symbolic value, a proof of him showing interest in her small and not so small sorrows.
She handed the empty flask back to him.
“What are you going to refill it with?”
“Depends on the occasion I’ll put it to good use next, so I reckon—”
He stopped in the middle of the sentence. A small rivulet of blood had appeared under Sibyl’s right nostril.
“What is it?”
“You’ve got some…,” Andrus began and pulled his spare handkerchief free.
Sibyl brought one gloved hand up to her face and reached out to the kerchief with the other. None of both actions she completed. Like a marionette having its strings cut the girl collapsed onto the stone floor.
The chasm-like valley opened up, revealing a ground covered with twisted stone arcs and needles, each formation higher than any structure build by man. Yet they were overshadowed, ridiculed and utterly annihilated by the monolithic city that rose against the insane sky. Faster and faster Sibyl’s mind rushed towards this place of madness. She was petrified in horror, certain that she would be smitten by the Cyclopean architecture. Endless was her horizontal drop, buildings of blasphemous dimensions now filling her distorted field of vision. A whisper rose from this artificial pandemonium. Not a whisper. A scream. A scream, infinitely loud from an infinite distance. This was the place wither the Countess took her victims! Like the girl from the maisonette. The girl she, Sibyl, had abducted.
Sawatzki, you monster! What have you done?! What have you made me do?!
That had backfired badly. Providence had never experienced so savage a psychic recoil. For that witch Sawatzki he had prepared himself, if far too poorly as it had turned out. But the additional echo from the other source had caught him utterly off his guard. With an ugly guttural sound behind her otiose gag Riin stopped screaming. As Providence rose to check on her, she lied on the bed in a catatonic state, eyes wide open, saliva running across one cheek. Somebody was knocking at the door. He ignored it and gathered his belongings with unsure moves. Here was nothing else to do. The girl had become useless, and his head felt as though it were close to exploding. He had to seek shelter before his headache evolved into a raving migraine.
The knocking continued, even increased in its urgency.
“Sir, this is the concierge, is everything in order?” a voice from the other side of the door demanded in accented English.
Providence took a last look around the room. Looked at Riin’s tasteful clothes that he had carefully folded and placed into a chair, fully knowing she would never wear them again. At the woman on the bed, staring at nothing as her mind was frozen in untold horrors. Things had got out of his hands, and no mistake.
“If we may bother you to open the door, so we can allay the other guests’ worries.”
“Mr Providence? I must insist. Otherwise I see myself forced to inform the police.”
Little knew the concierge that no one was left capable of answering him.
She almost panicked from disorientation as she opened her eyes again. Then distorted echoes from her nightmarish vision reached out to her, and Sibyl felt her consciousness slipping away again. With great effort she fought herself into a sitting position.
Andrus was kneeling next to her. The expression on his face was varying from utter worry to utter relief. He helped her lean against one of the outer Standing Stones.
“Don’t get up too quickly. You passed out for a minute.”
Sibyl groaned, then her eyes flew open. Her hand raced to where her sidearm used to be.
Where’s my gun?!
It took her some petrifying moments to remember it securely stowed away inside the armoury. She hadn’t taken it with her. She was together with that boy Andrus. At the Gorging Stones. Sibyl now remembered their adventurous descent to this place. And she remembered the monolithic city.
She only stared into the darkness. She had heard him, but her mind was still too occupied figuring out what was going on. The sensation of spatial and temporal disruption still was overwhelming.
So many layers…
“Sibyl. We’ve got to go.”
“Just give me a moment.”
“We’ve got to bring you somewhere warm. I think you’re in shock.”
She turned to him, now with a more awake look in her eyes. Maybe that’s it. She’d hit her head and got a mild concussion. The explanation felt wrong on several levels, but at least it would keep her going. Her body hurt from slumping onto the stony ground, and her lip was split, too. There was no further injury at her head, though.
“Okay. Help me up.”
He did, steadying her with, and Sibyl found that she was able to stay and walk, if with a certain insecurity.
“Yes. You can take your hand off my bum now.”
Andrus chuckled and picked up the lamp. Luckily it had survived the fall. He examined her in the cold light.
“Your coat is… besmirched.”
Sibyl looked down on herself and groaned. The expensive cloth bore blood stains, dirt and wet patches from the occasional puddles on the ground. She didn’t dare imagine how the backside looked like, but concentrating on those petty material inconveniences helped her regaining her grip on reality.
“I liked your other one better anyway,” condoled Andrus. “Especially in combination with those spanky leather trousers.”
“Do you now, you little pervert?”
“My guilty pleasure.” He raised the lamp in a wide arc. “Well, which way?”
She gave him a surprised glance.
“The one we came is out of question,” he stated. “But there is another way. A quicker one, I reckon. I felt the draught earlier on.”
He’s no fool.
Sibyl pointed to the cave’s far end. There they would find a tunnel leading back to the surface. The route wasn’t necessarily shorter but indeed quicker in that it provided a direct connection without any Tomb-Raider-esque interludes. For several reasons she had chosen not to travel that path for their journey to the Gorging Stones – but that had been before Sibyl having her coat ruined by Stygian dreamscapes.
“You cannot walk me home.”
“I expected that much.”
They were sitting on the pedestal of an equestrian statue, for Sibyl had given up all precaution regarding her attire. Around them the night had changed since they had left “Vanemuise Harf”, now bearing the other-worldliness of the small hours.
“You feeling better?”
“Yes. I was just a bit under the weather, nothing serious.”
“Serious enough. I wouldn’t have been able to trace my way back and get help. But then again, that’s the whole idea, wasn’t it? Not being able to find that place again on my own?”
Sibyl shuffled uncomfortably.
“I confess I believed it to be a welcomed side effect. Another thing I messed up. However, the main purpose of dragging you through the maze was to show you what lies beneath your regular surrounding.”
“Consider it an attempt to synchronise our world views, for lack of a better phrase.”
“So I take it your folks have sanctioned this little endeavour.”
For some moments they sat side by side in silence. But as Andrus spoke again Sibyl’s mouth went dry.
“Who is Sawatzki, apart from a monster?”
Crap! I was talking in my sleep, if one can call it that.
“Please, please forget it! Forget everything you heard, I implore you! If anybody finds out I told you that name, we are in the deepest of troubles.”
“Sure,” he stammered, clearly spooked by the vehemence of her reaction. “Sure. Don’t worry, you can trust me.”
Having overcome the initial scare, Sibyl managed to continue in a more serene tone.
“I know. How could I not trust the heroic young gentleman who stayed by my side through my time of distress?”
“Boy, was I heroic! I shook you and slapped your cheek to wake you up. Even promised you the birthday cake with candles.”
Sibyl could not but smile.
“It would have been three months too late anyway.”
“Of course that wasn’t the first time a girl got weak knees in my presence.”
She rolled her eyes in mock annoyance and let herself carefully glide off the pedestal.
“Time to go.”
Andrus hurried to jump off as well. She turned to him and suddenly found herself confronted with the most difficult choice of late.
She had no idea how to part from him. With a handshake? A hug? A good-night kiss? What was appropriate, what awkward? Already Sibyl felt the urge to dismiss the boy with a simple “head ööd”-wish. It was that fatal habit of withdrawing herself from people as some protective mechanism which was lurking again. Why she needed protection from Andrus she knew not.
“Thank you, Sibyl.”
He had totally caught her off guard.
“For synchronising our world views, for lack of a better phrase. Or, having found one, for sharing your world with me.”