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“Now, this looks somewhat more hospitable,” Lord Rhadid observed upon passing through the door. There was a brief scrum behind him as those assembled clustered together to peek through, followed by a somewhat more exuberant one as everybody eagerly piled into the aperture. The gnomes wormed nimbly through the legs of the taller folk, which mostly consisted of the pushy Imperial soldiers, with Admestus and Eric still bringing up the rear.
The reason for the fervor was that past the doorway, they were back indoors, in architecture that made sense. It was a most impressive layout, in fact.
They emerged on a third-floor balcony which wrapped the entire way around a cathedral-sized chamber entirely lined with bookshelves. Before them yawned the great open space of Diristaan’s library itself, encircled by another balcony on its second level. The walls on all three floors were fully covered by laden shelves; even the banister between them and the drop ahead was a waist-high row of shelves packed with books. Directly in front of them, hovering unsupported above the center of the open space, was a chandelier which put off brilliant golden light. It was unconnected to the ceiling, a floating crystalline orb which glowed like a miniature sun, constrained by bands of rune-marked iron and slowly orbited by irregular chunks of crystal that caught and refracted its light, casting shifting patterns along the bookshelves.
“At last,” Eric breathed after an awed pause. “The library. The sanctum sanctorum! The very beating heart of Manor Dire. To think that I should live to see this…”
“Also, solid ground, with walls an’ everything,” Steinway added. “Not ta downplay the significance o’ this but I’m pretty excited about that part.”
“Sanctorum?” muttered one of Roscoe’s soldiers. “What language is that, even?”
“Truly a grand edifice,” said Lord Rhadid, “and a priceless experience for each of us to have the honor of observing it. Not that I doubt you, comrades, but please do remember the house’s rules and refrain from creating a disturbance, here. Many of these books are rumored to be unique and irreplaceable; a careless act could deprive the world of a treasure beyond reckoning.”
“As his Lordship says,” Lt. Roscoe added to her soldiers, turning her back on Rhadid. “Best behavior, men. I want a maximum of zero damage and antagonism inflicted upon the Manor so long as we’re trusted enough to be allowed in here. I’ll have to rely on you to display our good intentions through actions, since I didn’t grow up with an elocution tutor and am not prepared to extravagantly suck up.”
“Y’know, I’m starting to feel a real kinship with you, Jane,” Admestus said cheerily. “In that it’s really kinda unbelievable that nobody’s shot either of us yet.”
“Give it a week,” Sassafrass suggested.
“Professor,” said Rhadid, turning to Eric. He then paused, and tried again. “Professor Ahlstrom!”
“What?” Eric demanded, wrenching his attention away from a study of the floating chandelier, then blanched and swallowed heavily. “Oh! Oh, my humble apologies, my lord, I was—”
“A forgivable lapse, under the circumstances,” Rhadid assured him with a slight smile. “No harm done. I shall be glad to let you explore the inner chambers at your leisure; in fact, you are undoubtedly the best possible guide for our new associates, here. But first, can you direct us to the alchemy laboratory?”
“Oh, well,” Eric waffled, peering around with wide eyes. “It’s not as if I’ve seen the blueprints! Forgive me, m’lord, but not many have come to this central chamber and emerged, and of those who related their story, none bothered with specific directions. It was implied in multiple accounts that the library itself is a focal nexus of sorts. All of Diristaan’s personal chambers should connect to it directly. We shall simply have to explore these balconies and the various doorways that branch off them. I, ah, presume an alchemy lab will be immediately recognizable when it is found.”
“To me, it will be!” Admestus crowed. “C’mon, slowpokes, let’s meander!”
“Actually I should note that it would be advisable not to become too greedy for knowledge,” Eric cautioned. “Our group came here specifically for the lab and were allowed admittance to this area, so that should be permissible. Likewise for any of you who sought a particular goal; being granted access is tantamount to permission. The Manor will tend to punish any overly ambitious use of its facilities. This is the hardest thing of all for an academic like myself, but do endeavor to restrain your curiosity.”
“Aye, well, we ain’t lookin’ ta plumb the secrets o’ the universe,” said Billie, who had clambered up onto the lower bookcases to look down at the floor three stories below. “I reckon our more general sorta curiosity about the place won’t ruffle the ol’ girl’s feathers.”
“What,” Roscoe asked Rhadid, “exactly do you want with Diristaan’s alchemy set?”
“It is rumored that the Archmage possessed a tincture which could transform jumped-up serving girls who pried into their betters’ affairs into pumpkins,” he replied with a bland smile. “I find I have an imminent use for such a substance. Come along, Admestus.”
“Hey!” she barked as he strode past her. “I’m not finished with—”
“Easy now, lass,” Woodsworth cautioned. “Remember the rules o’ this silly contest. Best behavior, aye?”
“…thank you for the reminder,” she said grudgingly, still fondling her battlestaff and glaring at Rhadid’s retreating back. “Especially since we’re apparently in competition.”
“Aye, an you aren’t winnin’ it so far,” Billie said brightly. “Lookit us, bein’ good neighbors to one an’ all! C’mon, lads, let’s ‘ave us a gander at the surroundings. Care ta come with, Professor?”
“I’m afraid I may not be very good company; there is just so much to demand my attention!”
“No worries, it’s not like we’re after the Manor’s secrets in ‘ere. Followin’ the expert seems like the optimal route for sightseein’.”
“Orders, LT?” the sergeant prompted after both groups had retreated in different directions, leaving the soldiers alone. “Should we follow them?”
“That Daraspian snot is up to something,” Roscoe said softly. “Even more than most nobles, any Daraspian is always up to something. I don’t know what someone like that could possibly want from Manor Dire’s secret lab, but it’s not going to be anything good. Riker, Talvedegh, follow him at a distance and see if you can suss out his intentions. The rest of you, stick with me. We’ll try to stay within sight of the balcony’s edge so you two can find us at need. Move out, people.”
Their goal was on the second floor. Multiple doors branched off from the library on every level; Rhadid and Admestus poked their heads into those they passed in the search for the old Archmage’s alchemy lab. Along the rim of the third level they found a little reading room, the door to the observatory, and a dungeon-like chamber lined with complicated-looking equipment that was probably Diristaan’s enchanting laboratory—all treasures that would turn the heads of many of the world’s most powerful seekers of magic and knowledge, but the two men now on the hunt passed them by with barely a glance. Likewise the room they discovered which was piled almost waist-deep in gold coins, gems, and miscellaneous bits of precious metalwork.
“Well, that has ‘trap’ written just all over it,” Rafe observed, carefully easing the door back shut. “Y’know, I didn’t actually think anybody stored treasure that way. Wouldn’t you want some kind of organizational system so you can actually find things?”
“If one is maintaining an actual treasury, yes,” replied Rhadid. “That arrangement appeals to those who hoard riches for the simple pleasure of owning them. In other words, fools and dragons, of which Diristaan was neither. You are correct, that was a clear snare for the greedy. Come, Admestus, time waits for no one.”
They descended a spiraling staircase attached to one corner of the balcony and there, by luck or the Manor’s aim, found the alchemy lab behind the first door they encountered.
“Oh, baby,” Admestus crooned, running back and forth along a row of tables laden with equipment, gently touching everything he saw. “Oh, yeah. Aw, man, I have always wanted one of these!”
“Focus, please,” Rhadid ordered. He planted himself in the center of the room, away from the equipment tables, shelves of books and scrolls, and glass-fronted cabinets full of reagents which looked as fresh as the day they had been stored five hundred years ago. “We came here for a reason. With what you’ll be paid for this work you can build your own lab just as replete.”
“Rafe never loses focus—oh, my gods, he has a copy of Vanimax’s Miscellany!” Admestus dashed across the room to seize a huge volume with a bejeweled cover.
“Rafe!” Rhadid barked.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not all fun and games,” the alchemist replied, setting aside the Miscellany and opening another tome. “I gotta consult the books first thing, here. Not only is this one of the few places the potion you want can actually be brewed, Diristaan was one of the few who had the recipe on file. Handy, that! Between you and me I don’t fancy jotting down the formula and then tottering off to the Deep Wild to set up a field lab. Nah, Manor Dire should be plenty abstract enough for us to bend the rules a bit…”
Rhadid was studying a large portrait hanging opposite the door, depicting a bearded man whose long black hair was shot through with a few almost cosmetic streaks of silver. Archmage Diristaan in this picture looked barely past middle age, and gazed down upon his alchemy lab with a severe expression.
“My thanks for the use of your facilities, sir,” Rhadid said aloud, bowing in the direction of the portrait. “It is an honor as well as a great help. Admestus, you are the specialist, but if there is anything I can do to materially facilitate this process, say so.”
“Yeah, gets a bit maddening just standin’ around watching, eh?” Rafe said, looking up at him with a grin. “Actually, if you wanna help, you can start setting up the bottle. To bring any of this brew out of the house and have it still work it’ll have to be contained in a specially created vial made of the inherent substance of Manor Dire. Luckily I procured us a suitable bit of glass.”
He reached into one of the pouches on his belt and pulled out what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary shot glass, setting it down beside the open book through which he was presently leafing.
Rhadid narrowed his eyes nearly to slits. “Is that… Of course, the glass the servant offered. Rafe, you were warned to take nothing from the house!”
“First,” Admestus said distractedly, his focus on the book, “that’s a bit of glass, not a lootable treasure. Second, I didn’t take it, it was offered freely. Third, I haven’t removed it from the house. And when we do, it’ll be in a wholly different form, one intended for the purpose. I do know what I’m doing, y’Lordship. Over there in the corner, that big jobby on the stone base with what looks like a still on top? That’s an arcane bottle forge—vintage, but you gotta figure ol’ Diristaan didn’t keep equipment around that didn’t do exactly what it was supposed to. Set the glass on that copper plate there so it can be warming up, and I’ll finish forming the vial out of it while the potion’s bubbling here in a bit.”
Rhadid hesitated, studying him, which Admestus appeared not to notice with his nose buried in Diristaan’s old alchemy recipes. He was doubtless not accustomed to being ordered about by his own employees, but he had offered, and the entire point of this expedition had been to get Admestus Rafe into this lab to do what needed to be done. Without comment, he picked up the glass and carried it over to the device indicated.
“Ha-HAH!” Rafe crowed suddenly, straightening up and jabbing his finger at the currently open page.
“You have it?” Rhadid whirled back to him, finally betraying eagerness.
“Oh, we are in business,” the alchemist said avidly. He cracked his knuckles and began rolling his sleeves up.
“And it will work? You are certain this is the potion we discussed?”
“Relax, Lord Bossman, I am all over this. We got one of the world’s greatest laboratories here, and I, let us not forget, am the Rafe himself! Let me loose in this joint and I will plug a stopper in death. Let’s get cookin’!”
They had not troubled to close the laboratory door. Just outside it, two Imperial soldiers eased back from the opening and exchanged a look and a nod. Then one took up a position out of sight next to the doorway while the other set off at a trot to find Lieutenant Roscoe.
The gnomes seemed to find Eric at least as interesting as the house, or at any rate, more entertaining. Billie offered some color commentary as the four of them trailed along in the dwarf’s wake, but for the most part they simply oohed and aahed on cue while he gushed about interesting features and watched with smiling amusement as he lost himself to the excitement of each new discovery.
“It is! It actually is!” the professor exclaimed, actually rushing back and forth in front of the object in question, which they had discovered in a long chamber which seemed to run behind one entire wall of the first floor, lined with an eclectic variety of objects either free-standing, attached to the walls, or displayed behind glass. Between a taxidermied creature that resembled a five-foot-tall bird with fangs and little clawed fingers emerging from the joint of its stubby wings and a suit of battle-scarred silver Avenic armor stood a nondescript, battered-looking cabinet on four legs. There was nothing atop it, suggesting that the thing itself was the display; it looked quite out of place in this hall of exotic trophies, but had agitated Eric more than anything else they had encountered.
“All right, no need ta keep us in suspense,” Billie prompted while he gently ran his thick hands over the edges of the cabinet. “What’ve ye found, then?”
“It’s a Vernis Vault,” Eric breathed. “Surely you’ve heard of them?”
“Aye, that I ‘ave,” Billie said, studying the cabinet with a newfound respect. “Blimey, that’s an ‘ell of a thing an’ no mistake. Though I guess it’s only sense that ol’ Diristaan’d have one a’ these squirreled away.”
“That’s just it!” the dwarf exclaimed. “There is no recorded indication that he did! You must understand, such connections are of the greatest importance in historical accounts. By linking great figures to the important events in which they were involved, the other personages of import they encountered, the rare treasures they possessed… Why, it is from this web of connections that history is made. Especially in periods from which the remaining accounts are fragmentary, and about people like Diristaan who resisted having their lives documented. But Diristaan, owning a Vernis Vault! I can say without boasting that I am among the foremost experts on this house and there has never been any written indication that one of the Vaults might be here! Why, this throws into question entire…”
He trailed off, taking a step back from the Vault and gazing at it in wonder. Then, following a pause, Eric knelt and reached for its latch.
“Hey, now,” Billie warned. “’ave a care, Professor. I realize yer excited but best not t’be pickin’ up things in the obvious treasure chamber. Especially the ones locked away.”
“Oh, good heavens, I know that,” Eric said absently, resting his hand on the latch. “The last thing I plan to do is try to remove anything. But…don’t you want to know?”
“Aye, I’m rather curious at that,” Woodsworth agreed. “What was so important to a chap like Diristaan that ‘e’d want a limitless supply of it, eh?”
Eric drew in a deep breath, making is barrel chest swell further, and as the gnomes all crowded around him to look, finally lifted the latch and swung the door open.
The Vault was empty.
“Of course,” the dwarf said solemnly after a moment’s silent staring. “Of course. What do you get the man who has everything? For someone like the Archmage…”
“Heh, it’s a bit of a letdown, though, innit?” Billie chuckled. “An’ ‘ere I half expected t’find the old boy kept his candy stash in it.”
“All those gadgets o’ yours ‘ave finally gone and irradiated yer brain,” Sassafrass accused, rolling her eyes. “Nobody would put candy in a Vernis Vault.”
“Some people just can’t take a joke,” Billie said to Eric as he gently shut the door again.
“I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not in a very joking mood,” he rumbled. “All of this is the very fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one I had never truly hoped to see realized, and each new thing I find is—”
He broke off, having straightened to find that the top of the Vault was no longer empty. Resting upon it, now, was a book.
Even more than the Vault, it looked like something that had no business in a trophy collection. The leather cover was scratched and ragged, its title simply scrawled in ink across a piece of thick vellum stitched to the cover in cruel defiance of every best practice in book-binding. The pages were uneven to the point that several seemed on the verge of falling out.
A light came on. There was a lantern hanging directly above the Vault, which they had not noted as it was dark when they’d come in. Now, a flame flickered to life within it, revealing an inner arrangement of mirrors and shaped shutters that caused it to shine a beam of light straight downward onto the bedraggled old book.
“Now that’s bait, that is,” Steinway said sagely.
“’ere now, what’s that henscratch?” Billie asked, pointing to the cover.
“It’s…Tanglic,” Eric whispered. “That is hand-written…”
“Well, obviously,” she snorted.
“It’s handwriting I know well,” he continued. “Few enough examples survive, but I have pored over them all for countless hours… That is Diristaan’s hand.”
They stared at the book in silence.
“Right,” said Steinway at last. “Bait. Who’s fer backin’ quietly away an—”
“Ah, ah, ah!” Billie held up a finger. “We are guests in here, remember? If th’very master o’ the house wants to tell us somethin’, I’m not gonna be the uncouth arse who turns a shoulder to ‘im. Professor, what’s that say, then?”
“It’s the title, I presume. It says The Book of Fates.”
“Bait,” Steinway insisted. “Ashner’s gloves, Billie—”
“You hush,” she ordered. “Honestly, man, pull yerself together. It ain’t even that yer wrong, that’s just advice fer another circumstance. This ain’t the Crawl an’ we’re not after loot; why the ‘ell would the ol’ boy wanna up an’ drop us down a spike pit when we’re bein’ such well-behaved guests? Professor, you’ve got the longest arms, care t’do the honors?”
Eric reached for the book, then hesitated. “If… I don’t disagree with you, Billie, but your friend also makes a good—”
“Oy vey,” Billie exclaimed. She had to leap upon and cling to the front of the Vault to reach across and flip the book’s cover open, but executed this maneuver without a hint of difficulty.
There was nothing written in the Book of Fates. The moment it was open, blue light surged up from its pages, as if its covers bound between them the view into some oracular pool. Accompanying the light came a voice—not from the book, but from the very air around them. It boomed through the room, through the halls and the library outside, resonating throughout the Manor. The voice of a man just beginning to grow scratchy with age, but still resonant and powerful, and now shimmering with an echoing quality as if to emphasize that it was not a sound made by a living throat.
“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…”
“You’re certain that’s what he said?” Roscoe demanded. “A stopper in death?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier reporting replied. “Riker and I both thought you’d want to know. He’s still there on guard.”
“Sounds too poetic to qualify as intelligence, LT,” her sergeant said in a skeptical tone. “Not to mention that alchemist obviously has multiple screws loose.”
“Yeah, agreed,” she murmured. “Still. An actual potion of immortality? That would be worth risking Manor Dire. If that actually is what Daraspian’s after, we don’t have cause to get on his case about it, though. There’s no law against trying to extend your lifespan.”
The entire squad jumped and spun to cover their surroundings with staves and wands when a voice suddenly thundered out of the very air and walls all around them. High above, the golden chandelier pulsed in time with its words.
“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man…who was born a hundred years too early. Later would come an era in which his fathomless hunger for power and prestige would be counted the greatest of virtues, but in his own time, it marked him a villain. Not least because he rose from the ranks of the darkest House of an Empire—a scion of what had once been a great legacy, now reduced to banditry and usury to scrape out a living. But this is not the tale of the fall of House Daraspian.
“Though born into wealth and privilege beyond the dreams of most men, from his earliest youth he stewed in resentment over his lot. Resentment at everything he felt owed, and yet denied. At the mages and witches of his day, gifted with a power of which he lacked the merest spark. At the greater Houses, with their storied histories and seemingly endless treasuries which his own family could only envy. At the elder members of his very House, for possessing rank above his own through no achievement save having, by pure coincidence, lived longer. At the woman upon the Silver Throne, for inheriting absolute rule and wielding it as a flail against the privileges of his own class. At the elves, for possessing by accident of biology the one thing he lacked, through which he could ultimately upend all the injustices he saw as having been piled upon him: endless time.
“Resentment filled him as if it were his very blood—but because he was an ambitious young man, he did not let it consume him, but turned it to fuel. While his relatives schemed and scuffled for dregs of power and handfuls of money, he devoted himself to study and training…and planning. Over time, he assembled a masterwork of strategy which would never be considered, much less taken seriously, by any of his peers, for the sheer scope of its ambition. The ambitious young man, you see, was content with nothing less than absolute dominion—over magic, over an Empire, over the world, over life itself. And so he laid his plans and began to put them into effect. Plans to suborn the powers of magic and those who wielded them to his own will. Plans to reduce those of his own House who would not bow to him. Plans to bring low the other Houses. Plans to topple an Empress, or her heirs, from a Throne. All these things he planned, and began to pursue. But the one thing he lacked was time. For a man can achieve all these things, with care and thoroughness, but not within the space of a man’s life.
“The last and most important thing the ambitious young man needed was freedom—from the passage of time, and from the consequences of failure. A solution to death itself, assurance that he would have the endless years needed to enact all his plans, and survive the assaults that would be thrown against him in response to them.
“This assurance he sought in my house, among my tools. The privilege he earned through guile, ambition, bloodshed, betrayal, and martial skill, all traits I respect. I choose not to deny him—nor to aid him against his first challenges. To me, this is but a story that livens the tedium of endless existence, and gives shape to the choices I will make. And I shall decide them based upon the outcome of this confrontation. This day, Rhadid Daraspian takes a fateful step into the future, which will lead either to his swift unmaking, or to his utter dominion.
“That is the secret. In the Book of Fates, there are only possibilities. It is not fate until it has happened. What will happen now? You who are guests in my home… Amuse me.”
The silence which followed was somehow louder than the voice had been.
It was finally broken by a click and then the low whine of arcane enchantment at work as Lt. Roscoe primed her battlestaff.
“But treason, now,” she said in a tone as satisfied as it was grim. “That, there’s a law against. Fall in.”
The finished potion was innocuous in appearance, compared to many of Rafe’s more exotic brews: simply a thick liquid of a deep, inky purple, without bubbles, steam, or anything to suggest it was a particularly aggressive affront against all laws of mortality and nature. It fit neatly in the thin glass vial produced by the bottle forge out of the Manor’s proffered shot glass. Admestus had held it aloft in reverence when the voice started booming through the chamber, preparatory to handing it over to the man who had commissioned it, and paid for this moment in both gold and blood.
By the time Diristaan’s recitation had ended, the alchemist had discreetly plugged a lead stopper into the vial. His patron, despite his earlier eagerness, had not reached out to take the potion, falling still as he listened to the story spelled out.
Then Rhadid turned to face the portrait, which was smiling at him. A moment ago it had not been.
“Now what petty satisfaction could you possibly have gained from that, old man?”