Chapter Thirteen–The Seal of Kesh

Ellea sat on the floor contemplating her options.  It would be easier, she thought, if Morly Chauncellor would stop trying to lift her spirits by saying inane things.

“I’m sure Varden’s on his way to rescue us right now,” Morly said.  “This lot will give him no trouble.  My big brother is—”  He broke off as the door opened.  A person in a long black robe entered, wearing a nearly featureless mask.

Morly scrambled up to stand between the man and Ellea.  He was sweet, really, but Ellea preferred boys with lighter hair and magic shields of the Ancients in one hand.

Ellea and MorlyThe man removed the mask, revealing an unfortunatly foolish-looking face.  It was Pumphrey’s.

“You’re the man with the silly moustache!” Morly exclaimed.

Ellea rose and stood beside Morly, considering the annoyed visage of the small man before them.  “You aren’t a fake at all, are you?” she asked.  “You’re something else.”

Pumphrey spoke with a soft but somehow frightening voice that didn’t seem to belong to him. “Something older than the world.”

“Something about to be very sorry you kidnapped us,” Ellea said.

“Do you think you can stop me, child?”  The man—the whatever it was—smiled.

“I think my parents can.  And will.”

Ellea shouted with all the considerable strength of her mind.

*  *  *  *  *

In the tunnel, Djaren clapped both hands to his head and nearly fell back off the ledge and into the water.  Anna, closest, caught him.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  Varden, seeing the opportunity at the same time Kara did, grabbed both their wrists and took the pistols as Kara yelled and Tam tried to get at Varden without knocking Jon or anyone else into the water.

“Put the seal in my pocket and step away!” Varden ordered.  “Do it right now.  Time is running out!  Give me the seal.”

“Ellea is in trouble,” Djaren said, wincing.  “She’s with Pumphrey, and Morly is there, too.”

“How do you know?” Varden frowned at him.  “What are you talking about?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Djaren said.  “My head is going to ache for weeks.”

“I’m going to Pumphrey’s house then,” Varden said.  “And if they aren’t there, I will really make your head ache.  Anna, put the seal of Kesh in my pocket.  Now.”

Anna, faced with both pistols, clenched her fists but reached into her pocket to remove the seal and put it into Varden’s coat.  “If you’re going to face Pumphrey and find the little ones, we’re going with you,” she said.

“Do as you like, just don’t try to stop me.  I’ll shoot this time, I will.”  He glared round at all of them, but his eyes rested longest on Anna.  “I thought you were a lady.”

“We were both deceived then,” she said.  “I took you for a gentleman.”

Varden made them all step back while he climbed the ladder first.  He pushed the grating back over top as well, but Tam cleared that out of the way in just a few moments.

They caught up with Varden at the second cross street.

“Lost?” asked Kara.

“Don’t take it to Pumphrey.”  Djaren made another try at talking sense.  “You don’t know what he is, what he can do with that—”

“Shut up!  You go your own way if you’re going!” Varden said.

Kara nodded them to an adjacent alley, and the children dodged into it.

“He’ll go for his horse at the hotel,” Tam said.  “But our horses are right around the corner.  We can ride two to a horse and maybe beat him there.”

Kara could see how the numbers fell out.  It suited her, really.  It was best to be well out of here.  “Right then,” she said. “I’m off.  Enjoy the depredations and all, but I have a train to catch.”

“You’re leaving?” Jon asked, eyes wide.

“You should,” Djaren said, suddenly quite serious.  “It could get very bad here if he takes that thing where he’s taking it.  Get out as far and fast as you can.”

“Right,” said Kara, fighting a sudden urge to argue.  He was agreeing with her.  That wasn’t right.  He had one of her hands clasped in both of his, and a disturbing look on his annoyingly pretty face.  There was wet hair in his eyes.  “Go on then and stop him, if you like,” she said, shaking his hand off.  He let her go.  This annoyed her too.

And with that they left.  She heard them find their horses, and didn’t wait.  She began striding toward, not the train station, but her stash point.  It was on the way to the station anyway.  She had money, and a spectacle case, to pick up before the world ended.  She always knew when it was right to run.  She’d passed several running points already, and this was an obvious opening.  Swearing furiously now, she wiped sewer water from her eyes.  Yes, an obvious opening, that you just missed. If there was a world next summer, if there were Blackfeathers next summer, she wondered where they would be.  Far away from her, she guessed.

*  *  *  *  *

Anna urged her horse along with a word and a set of quick pats.  It wasn’t at its fastest, carrying both her and Djaren, but it was keeping pace with Tam and Jon’s bay.

“I don’t see him,” Tam called over his shoulder.  “Is he ahead of us, or behind, do you think?”

“His horse won’t be feeling friendly toward him after the last gallop he put it through.  We’ll come in ahead if we hurry,” Anna said.  The horse wasn’t the only thing feeling less than friendly toward Varden right now.  Thoughtless, arrogant, idiot . . . Anna shook her head, and paid closer attention to where she was riding.  Calling Varden names, however well-deserved, wasn’t going to solve anything.

Djaren said nothing.  He’d said nothing the whole way.  Dangerous situations didn’t usually put a damper on him like this.  Anna wondered what was weighing on him more, Kara haring off so breezily, or having lost a pistol to Varden twice over.  “Are you all right?” she asked softly.  “You were knocked about earlier, weren’t you?”  When there was no immediate answer, Anna laid a hand on the thin shoulder in front on her.

Djaren turned then, and looked up at her.  His face was very serious.  “It’s not me,” he said. “It’s Ellea.  She hasn’t sent a word since the scream.  I think she can’t, or she would have.”

If Ellea’s kidnappers had thought to knock her out, they were either blindly lucky, or they knew, somehow, what she was could do.  But there was no point sharing that thought with Djaren.  “I’m sure she’s not hurt,” Anna said, instead.  “They need her for ransom, after all.”

They reined up in the street right behind the Mendiheim observatory and tied the horses to a hitching post.  While Tam was still settling the horses down, Anna and Djaren rushed round to scout out the Derdrien. All the lower windows of the strange house were dark, but the top story with its glass-roofed ballroom was a beacon of bright gaslight that flickered green, then gold, as they watched.

“Something’s happening up there,” Djaren said, taking off his spectacles to see the farther distance better.

Anna studied the streets around them with a quick glance.  “I don’t see any sign of Varden yet.  We made good time.”

“So, when he gets here we stop him, right?”  Tam asked, catching them up, and laying a hand firmly on Jon’s shoulder, as if the ghosts in the house might try to snatch him even from here.

Jon looked where Djaren was looking and raised his hand.  Light flickered brightly in his palm when it faced the Derdrien, the delicate filigree of silver markings spinning out into concentric rings of forgotten symbols.  “This wants to help them,” Jon said, looking up at his brother.

“We can help by not letting a demon artifact get up there,” Anna said.  Tam shot her a grateful look, and she made herself return him a quick smile, even though she felt like weeping, instead.  “Right. Djaren?  Are you listening?”

“Of course.  You’re quite right.” Djaren looked from Jon’s hand to some unidentified shadows rushing about against lit glass.  “We should get closer, though.”

Was he having an unnecessarily heroic Blackfeather moment, or was this just normal Djaren fascination with anything out of the ordinary?  Anna gave him a look.

Djaren looked away from the flickering glass roof, and met her eyes.  “Varden will charge right up the front and run in, so that’s where we need to be to stop him.”

Good.  The practical, collected Djaren she needed right now had won out over the absently awestruck scientist.

“Let’s all go together, then.”  Anna led them in a dash across the street to the front gate.  Tam gave it a good, firm rattle, and Djaren snaked his thin arm through the metalwork to try and open from the inside but they were both confounded by the lock.

“And now’s when having Kara might have been really handy,” Djaren sighed.

“There’s a hole in the alley gate.  Um, a door, really,” Jon announced.

Tam came over to look at it.  “I went through here before.  But this bit is new.”

Djaren and Anna came over to investigate as well.  There was a lovely copper gate set into the older ironwork.  It had pretty scrollwork with vines, feathers, and stars, and it stood open.  Halfway down the wall of the alley Anna could see the even less likely addition of an open copper archway.

“That wasn’t there either,” Tam said.  “But this house does odd things.”

“The house didn’t do that.”  Djaren grinned.  “Mother and Uncle Eabrey must be inside.”

There was the sound of loud hoofbeats, and the children spun to see Varden ride straight up across the nearest intersection.  He reined up nearly too late at the gate, as they rushed to block it.

“Wait!” Anna cried.  She wasn’t sure what she ought to do.  Help Tam try to grab him?  Only if he didn’t go for his pistol.  Words had worked with Varden once, but she doubted he would listen to her now.  She tried anyway. “Varden, stop.  There’s already a rescue going on.  Don’t give Pumphrey anything, please.”

Varden snarled at them, jumped down from his exhausted horse, and—predictably—pulled his pistol from his pocket.  “You are not going to stop me,” he declared.  “I hardly trust any rescue that your hare brained family of yokels has arranged.  I’m here to see that my brother comes to no harm.”

“He’ll be fine enough if Lady Hellin is on the job,” Tam said.  “She’s a good strong lady that takes no nonsense from no one.”

“Please don’t go in,” Jon added.

Anna looked to Djaren for support, but Djaren was staring up again at the roof.  Something suddenly slammed into a glass pane from inside, creating a cracked aureole of glass around a spreading red stain.  There was a high, unearthly howl.

Varden stared, and then dashed for the locked gates.

“It won’t do any good,” Anna began, but the gates opened easily for Varden, and he was up the stairs to the door with the rest of them chasing after.  The front doors opened even as he reached for the handle, and nearly shut on Tam, last in after him.

“Stop!” Djaren yelled.  “Don’t you see it’s pulling you in?”

It had, Anna realized, quite successfully pulled all of them in now.

Varden paid no attention.  “Pumphrey!” he shouted, throwing open the doors to what Anna knew was the séance room.  As Anna, Djaren, Jon, and Tam tumbled in after him, Anna saw that they were not in the séance room at all.

They stood just at the edge of a raised platform of ancient tablets from the ziggurat temple of Narmos, with a great glass roof overhead, on the topmost story of the Derdrein house.

Professor Eabrey and Lady Hellin stood on a landing overlooking the room, the one from which Anna had first seen this place.  The Professor was reading from an open book, in a language that sounded like Shandorian Ancient.  The room had changed a great deal in the space of an evening.  The covers had been pulled off all the old tablets, and new stone, sections of brass plate, and riveted steel laid in the gaps between them.  The hieroglyphs from the ancient tablets continued onto the new, in paint rather than chiseled stone, so that unbroken patterns covered the floor, making the giant symbol that Varden had remarked on with such excitement earlier—a circle with opposing moons, or bull’s horns.  The room had become an odd mix of temple and factory, lit both by gas light and by open flame braziers that must have dated from the same time as the hieroglyph stones, but with all the crumbled bits replaced by brass piping and iron rivets.

Pumphrey himself, dramatically clad in long robes of a red so dark they were nearly black, stood among about two dozen of his followers.  On a balcony across the room, an unconscious Ellea and Morly lay dangerously close to the edge, with a Pumphrite collapsed on the iron stair that led up to them.  Another two Pumphrites lay not far away, looking as though they might have fallen from the balcony earlier.  Hellin held one hand outstretched, watching a dozen copper spindles hovering in the air, each over the head of a Pumphrite.  “Mother has a way with copper,” Djaren had once said.  Anna had seen Lady Hellin lift pennies from the ground without bending, but this was quite another thing.  She revised her thought about what might have happened to those fallen Pumphrites.

There was no time to stare, because nearly everyone in the room turned to look at the intruders.  Pumphrey’s face cracked in the strangest, most unpleasant smile Anna had ever seen.  “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.  “You have brought the Master to me,”

“No!” Lady Hellin screamed.  The copper spindles changed, melted like mercury into little globes, spinning like a constellation through the air toward them.

Varden, seeing Morly, had advanced into the room.  “I’m here for my brother!”

“And what are you prepared to do,” Pumphrey asked, in a dangerous voice, “to save him?”

“Varden, stop!” Anna pleaded.

“Anything it takes,” Varden said, lifting his pistol.

Pumphrey raised his arms, not in surrender but in supplication to the room at large.  “I call all to witness his consent.”

A dark liquid flowed swiftly over the stone, climbing from the carved channels and running like a liquid serpent over the painted lines on the new stones, then back into older tracks, all converging where Varden stood, at the center of the great symbol.

“Oh, no,” Djaren breathed.

Varden looked like he was sleepwalking.  He drew the seal of Kesh from his pocket and held it out in his hand, as the little rivers converged on him, disappearing under his shoes.  He twitched, shivered, then threw his head back with a great surprised inhalation of breath.

The light from Jon’s hand blazed like a star.   Light reflected off every surface and pane of glass, but seemed to fade where it touched Varden.  Varden moved oddly, raising his hands before his face and considering first them, then the seal.  He turned and surveyed the room.  Anna gasped.  His eyes had turned pitch black.  Hellin’s copper blades flurried uselessly over Varden’s head, crackling and hissing as they struck some invisible barrier.  Varden laughed, and his voice was all wrong.

Djaren looked up at his mother.  “I am so sorry,” he said.

Kesh and Varden

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