In the morning Klaus receives a text from a restricted caller. It is filled entirely with blanks and equal signs. Klaus pauses and holds it to the mirror. The mirror clouds and cracks. Black blood drips from the broken glass into his sink. The lights begin to flicker and fail. The drain gargles and he is all at once aware that time is temporarily reversing. He can feel his hair growing shorter. He can hear the world’s inevitable decay and rebirth.
‘I understand. I will do what I can,” Klaus texts back.
The sink settles, the lights go back on, and the blood dutifully reverses itself to leave his wall clean. His cellphone smells vaguely of burnt circuitry, but a quick check tells him it remains functional, if with an extra app icon now in the corner: a new game which has just completed its download. Good. He had all of his meetings stored on the calendar -- and he has quite a few this day-- and it would have been a shame to have to reinput those. Klaus glances up and almost sighs. The mirror is still cracked down the center. He will have to have Gilbert order a replacement glass.
His first meeting in at 7 a.m. In the normal way he would not have chosen a time this early, but it’s easier to keep such matters private when they happen on odd hours, and their guests have asked for the utmost secrecy.
“We have already spoken with the Municipal Committee and the Public Health Commission,” says the representative, a young man with a bolt of white through his dark hair. He is, in the public eye, general counsel for a large French beauty conglomerate, The Lapointe Group -- however, Klaus knows that he is also the head of a family of powerful necromancers, known in occult circles for their preservative and medical magic, the Lapointe family. “They are, of course, quite amenable to the agreement.”
They are an interesting retinue. The representative, Hal Lapointe, looks like the typical businessman. His assistant, Marcel Lapointe, dresses similarly-- only a ring of suture marks barely visible under the collar of the assistant’s suit suggests anything of their true profession. The rest of their retinue wear sunglasses indoors and smell strongly of formaldehyde.
Klaus checks his phone. His new app is a word puzzle. It has a very archaic OS which works well enough -- the app is written in seven different languages, including one not pronounceable to the human tongue.
One of the clues is: Bone, blocks, egg.
‘Safe’ writes Klaus, in response, before glancing back up at the proceedings.
“That may be,” says Steven, in his own accented French. It isn’t that he is bad with the language -- he is, in fact, fluent-- but he pronounces some words like their Spanish equivalents. “However, if that were all that was necessary, you would not be speaking with us. It is one thing to open clinics in the city, the general populace would welcome it I’m sure, but you have to admit, some circles would raise an eyebrow…”
“Such as your own?” asked the representative.
Klaus says nothing. He is quite fluent in the language himself, but he is unable to speak it without a noticeable lisp. It suits him to let Steven do the talking, as Klaus sits in a chair behind him. He almost ignored by the necromancer and his colleagues: save for the occasional wary glance when Klaus shifts in his seat. He checks his phone. He dislikes dancing around issues of public safety, and Steven knows this -- in the reflection of the window behind the representative, Klaus catches his eye.
“Such as my own,” agrees Steven, cheerily, “But that’s why you let us find out about your inquiries, isn’t it? You’d hoped to speak with us.”
Klaus relaxes, marginally. Good. This is more to the point.
‘Marrow. Fimbulvetr. Hidden blade,’ is the next clue.
‘Friend,’ types Klaus, rather firmly.
The necromancer smiles. “You are correct. Libra is a name that is not spoken lightly in this city. I am told your people serve as the oversight to its more unusual cases.”
“Every case in this city is unusual,” says Steven, noncommittally.
“Nevertheless,” says the necromancer, “It seems that there are fewer unsavory characters lurking in corners thanks to your actions. It would seem also that there must be more of these unsavory characters than you know what to do with. Your prisons must be filled to capacity.”
“We do manage,” says Steven, with a slight shift, nothing anyone unknowing would consider a danger: the transfer of weight from one foot to the other. He waits for the necromancer to get to his point. Klaus frowns. Steven doesn’t like when others act as though they have uncovered information about Libra. They will be following this lead, later.
The necromancer, seemingly unaware of the warning, shrugs: “Since you are so committed to balance, I should think it would be in your interest to have some of these characters undergo rehabilitation. Our clinics would, of course, welcome such volunteers--”
“For beauticians?” asks Steven, eyebrows raised.
Klaus clicks his tongue at him, silently. The message is clear. He has delivered it before: ‘He is from the old world. Do not play with him too much.’
Steven masks his disappointment with a vague smile.
Fortunately, the representative is young enough he finds it funny. He laughs. He looks at his assistant, who laughs as well, though it takes him a moment longer. “That is an idea,” says Hal Lapointe, “I was thinking more, mm. Product testing.”
Klaus flicks his phone shut.
“No,” he says, in German. “Steven, tell them that that will not work.”
Everyone looks over to him. Steven included. Steven, after a moment, translates.
The representative blinks in surprise. He has, like everyone else in the room, made their assumptions about the man in the corner. He is a professional, however. He nods, he smiles, he exchanges a quick word with his assistant. He is very good at this, much like Steven. “It would be quite beneficial,” he says, to Steven, in French. “These men and women you have detained are not beneficial members of society. Many are not even particularly corporeal.”
“Ah,” says Steven, idly, “You see…”
“No,” says Klaus again. The representative looks back to him. That doesn’t need translating. “Absolutely not. You’re asking me to hand them over for your research experiments and I won’t do it. These men and women may be criminals, but they are still citizens of Hellsalem’s Lot. They are protected by the Staten Island Treaty, which went into force not two years ago. To say nothing of the European Union’s Anti-Oblation Act which I know for a fact has provisions that forbid the use of the condemned for sacrifice, since they are unable to give informed consent.”
The second part, perhaps, needed some translation. Steven looks exasperated as he finishes. His face says it all: ‘Friend, you just made me translate ‘Anti-Oblation Act’ from German to Spanish to French.’
“Ah,” says the representative, who had up until this point, kept his eyes mainly on Steven. Now, he looks to Klaus.“But I should think Hellsalem’s Lot would be an exception in many ways. And surely Libra understands something of exceptions, particularly in the name of public health and safety--”
“The symbol of Libra is a scale,” said Klaus, bristling. “Not a catapult. Steven, tell him this. And also that we are going. This discussion is over. Please enjoy the rest of your stay in this city.”
He bows his head and sweeps out into the hall.
Steven follows not long after. He waits until they are in the elevators and, once the doors are shut, settles next to Klaus and, despite himself, laughs.
“Hm,” says Steven, “That went well.”
“Unbelievable,” mutters Klaus. He leans against the back of the elevator and exhales: “My apologies, Steven. I have made your job more difficult.”
“You’ve made it more interesting, certainly,” says Steven.
“I could not help it. To ask for such a thing, and so brazenly.” Klaus hisses through his teeth. It is not something he does often, and certainly not around company. “As though we would abuse our power over ones who are helpless in it. Old world dictatorial garbage.”
“That’s strong coming from you.”
The elevator rings. They step out into the hall. Klaus’ phone rings. He checks it. His word puzzle has updated. The clue is: ‘a house with four rooms that always bleed.’
‘The human heart,’ texts Klaus. Then he texts Gilbert, to let them know that they are done.
“Steven,” says Klaus, softly, as they wait for the car. “Why did we agree to speak with them?”
“Simple,” says Steven, “They’ll let our people use their clinics and they don’t actually want access to our prisons.”
“They want access to our morgues,” says Steven, “Necromancers, after all. Asking for living subjects was a way of loosening our proverbial pursestrings. And to check our moral boundaries. I think they have their answers on that.”
“Politics,” sighs Klaus, as the car pulls up to the curb.
“Politics,” echoes Steven. “They’ll call us back by noon. I expect they’ll be very apologetic.”
Gilbert greets them. Klaus holds the door for Steven. Together, they head back crosstown, towards the office.
Klaus checks his puzzle again.
‘a fire which burns in blood’
‘The human soul,’ Klaus types back.
“They may have access to the city morgue,” says Klaus, after some consideration, “Provided the remains are identified and they have consent from the next of kin.”
“Next of kin?” Steven’s eyebrow raises. “That might be a bit--”
“In writing,” continues Klaus. “Notarized, if necessary.”
“Ah,” Steven leans back, eyes already distant as he considers the options. “That’ll be a hard sell.”
“I leave it to you,” says Klaus.
It is late morning by the time they return to the office. Chain phases in briefly to hand a package to Steven. Leonardo Watch and Zapp Renfro are playing games on the couch. Leo is there because his presence has been specifically requested. Zapp is there because of Leo -- in part, this is due to Zapp’s long-term assignment to keep Leo safe. More likely, however, it is due to Leo’s gift for keeping Zapp’s attention for more than an hour.
This is not to say that Zapp isn’t capable of diligence, in his way.
“I see how it is,” says Zapp, leaning back in a way that conveniently shoves his foot up against the side of Leo’s head. “So, Shorthairs is finally learning how to play a little dirty.”
“I don’t have to play dirty,” says Leo, ignoring the heel grinding against the side of his face, “You lost that round all on your own. Good going?”
“Go fuck yourself,” says Zapp.
“A-hem,” says Steven, hanging his coat.
Zapp freezes in place. He turns, very slowly.
“I mean, yo bossman,” he says. He yawns. He stretches. He puts his feet on the coffee table.
Then his outline blurs. Zapp has a particular way of expressing his affection for people. Occasionally, that way includes hurling himself bodily at them. Klaus, of course, values Zapp's contributions to the the organization, and so he returns in kind – with a backwards strike to the jaw. He deposits Zapp mindfully against the wall, near the coat hanger.
“Welp.” Leo shuts off his game, rearranging himself on the couch. For a man always in a state of constant alert, he is remarkably good at looking relaxed, watching the world through his eyelashes, an affectation that to the untrained makes him seem at best disinterested and at worst, half asleep. He is neither, just then. He sits forward and knits his hands together. “Mr. Klaus. Mr. Steven. Uh, morning?”
“Good morning,” says Klaus, as Gilbert brings him his watering can. He is late in tending to the office plants. “Have we kept you waiting long?”
“Not really,” says Leo. He doesn't move terribly much, but a slight change in the angle of his chin indicates he has glanced at Zapp, then at Steven, then finally Klaus. Probing and questioning, at the same time. He lifts his hand, almost says something, stops, and instead asks: “Everything okay?”
“Meeting ran a bit long,” says Steven, before Klaus can answer. “Zapp, grab me something from around the corner, would you?” Zapp complies, levering himself up off the floor with only minimal complaint. He has a strong respect for Steven, as indicated by the wide berth he gives him as he leaves the office. When he is gone, Steven tosses the package at Leo. Leo catches it. A motion that is, like everything else about him, deceptively haphazard – but Klaus knows his eyes detected the motion the moment Steven raised his arm. “Young man, you have some assigned reading. Our friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have requested a favor.”
Leo opens a package. Inside is a packet of tracing paper and a book. Leo opens it using back end of a plastic fork. The last time he attempted to open a strange book, it tried to bite him.
“It's...” Leo takes one look at the first sheet and makes a face. The paper is blank. Leo turns bright red and incoherent at the sight of it.
“Oh, good. You can read it,” says Steven.
“What are those two snails doing to each other?! I mean,” Leo breathes in and composes himself, “Mr. Steven, what are those two snails doing to each other?”
“No idea,” says Steven, “You’re first human to see it in over two centuries.”
“But it’s a full spread--”
“It is the work Phinna Bartandalus Sorello,” says Klaus, glancing up from the hanging ivy on the bookshelf. “A celebrated political figure and artist in the Beyond. The work from her corporeal period has been considered little more than a myth, as she erased most of them from existence after an argument with her human host. No one has been able to uncover even a trace of it.”
“Until just this moment,” says Steven. “Congratulations, young man. You’ve just made art history.”
“Yay,” says Leo. He turns another page. His lips twist. He turns another page. “Yay, again...you want me to trace this, why?”
“It is believed she hid a cipher in her work before she chose to remove herself from collective memory and return to the Alterworld,” says Steven. “Who knows what mysteries it could unlock?”
“I think the only mystery is why she thought humans could do that with their limbs,” says Leo, in that particular mixture of good humor and resignation to which he applies himself to the most trying of tasks. He leans onto the arm of his chair, rubbing his temples. “You want me to trace...”
“All of it,” confirms Steven. Leo pages through the sketchbook. He isn't too outwardly perturbed by this, but his eyebrows knit together, just a bit.
“How much of all of it?”
“Every detail,” confirms Steven.
“Every...” Leo frowns. It is clearly a colossal task, but after the initial blanch, Leo seems instilled with a preternatural calm. Small things can make Leo jolt, and yet he has always been oddly easy with accepting the stranger chores Libra asks of him. “Might take a bit.”
“That's fine,” says Steven. “The museum needs them by tomorrow.”
“You don't say.”
“You'll be paid overtime of course.”
“That's fine,” says Leo. “That's not a problem. I don't mind doing it. Just...”
Here, Leo’s face turns slightly in Klaus' direction. Klaus has, by this time, made it to the row of ferns growing by the balcony doors. It's such a minimal motion on Leo's part that most would miss it. Zapp certainly would have. Steven may have, as well. Leo leans back against the couch. He is trying to look relaxed. It is mostly working, though his hands knot a little tighter.
“I'll need to call my other job,” says Leo, distantly. “And maybe some other things. But I mean, if it's really important--”
“Do not stay too late finishing it,” says Klaus. “The museum can wait until the afternoon.”
Steven glances at him questioningly. A look which Klaus chooses, at this time, to ignore.
“Okay,” says Leo, with visible relief. He cracks his knuckles, edges forward on his seat, and turns the book back to the first page. “I’ll see what I can do.”
When Klaus settles at his desk, he discovers his app has updated. He checks it. 'Two crowns and no feet, stabbed through twelve places.'
'King of hearts,' Klaus confirms. Leo is scribbling on the tracing paper. He turns it around periodically, looking alternately determined, confused, and, occasionally, concerned for what he finds.
“Mr. Klaus,” asks Leo, without looking up from his work. His eyelids are lowered, but behind them his eyes rove back and forth at rapid pace. “How are things going with those hybrids?”
Leo is referencing an incident from two weeks ago. They’d taken a walk together in a historic section of Central Park. The purpose had been to meet a pair of Klaus’ old friends who had been picking flowers at his request. In another era this might have been a pleasant experience. If the friends had not been lost, and the park had not attempted to sink them in a dimensional rift. It might have taken them weeks to find their way out, had Leo not worked out the trick to finding the true path. There’d been a lot of meetings with the Parks Department before and after this particular incident. In fact, Klaus had another one of these scheduled for the next day.
The fact Leo’s willing to broach the topic at all is heartening and, Klaus must admit, a bit of a relief.
“Ah, that,” says Klaus, “the seedlings have taken well to the transplant. We have them on an accelerated growth regimen. They are expected to bloom in three days time.”
“So it worked?”
“They must cross pollinate with our local cultivar before we can extract the necessary compounds,” says Klaus. “But considering how well these seedlings took, it should not be too difficult.”
“So it worked,” said Leo.
“Yes,” said Klaus. With many members of Libra, he often finds it an effort not to smile. With Leo, lately, it has been the most difficult. “We could not have done it without you.”
Leo coughs and looks away.
“I don’t know about that,” he mutters, scribbling more hurriedly. “I just got really lost? And now I’m just sitting around. Heh. You all must be pretty busy...”
Leo lets that sentence dangle. It is his particular way, Klaus has learned, of asking and not asking something.
“I do have some time,” says Klaus. It is not untrue. The calendar app in his phone is absolutely packed, but there is, in fact, that one little clear block. The one which has been there since about a week ago...
“Right,” says Leo. His posture is still relaxed, though the hand on his pencil goes a bit tighter. “Mr. Klaus. Do you have any opinions on cupcakes?”
“Cupcakes?” Klaus blinks. There have been organizational potlucks. There have been cafes after missions. He is absolutely aware of the dessert’s general existence, though it is not one that often cross the path of the average professional vampire hunter. Pastries and, strangely, flan tend to be more the order of the day on that career path. “I cannot say I have had many occasions to form an opinion.”
And, despite himself, Leo looks a little amused -- the lines around his perpetually strained eyes soften. “Do you want to form one?”
“I would not object,” says Klaus.
Leo doesn’t say anything else, but Klaus’ phone buzzes about five minutes later with the address to a bakery near Reunion Square. Under it, Klaus finds a message from Steven, as well as another update from his word puzzle. This next clue is particularly disjointed.
'Blood beat waltz with the devil Hubble?'
‘Personal,' types Klaus, a little sternly.
'A string of burning beads,' is the next clue.
'Forgiven,' types Klaus, with a faint smile.
In the afternoon, Steven and Klaus go to a theater midtown for a 2 o’clock matinee to a show which has just opened. A Broadway-Alterworld co-production, one that has received rave reviews in the papers. It is not a trip for leisure. Steven and Klaus file into mezzanine seats that look out over a full and bustling audience. A few minutes later, a suited man with stitch marks around his neck appears in the aisle beside them.
“I do wish you had let us treat you,” says the necromancer’s assistant, to Klaus, this time. Unlike the general counsel, he is a tall, older man who doesn’t smile when he speaks. “We reserved the front row. I had hoped we might sit together. It is the least we would like to do, to make up for our behavior.”
Klaus doesn’t look up.
“We appreciate your sentiment,” says Steven, smoothly enough. “But given this is business it would be inappropriate for us to accept such a thing. American authorities are still pretty strict on anything that that could be construed as a bribe.”
“You are, truly, a man of principle,” says the assistant, looking almost impressed, if a bit put out. “I had not thought it possible to stay in this city and remain so.”
“That why you’ve lost your master?” asks Steven, cutting to the point a bit faster than Klaus wanted to. Still, Klaus allows it. The less he is prompted to speak, the better. He thumbs his phone absently. The word puzzle sends a panicked flurry of new questions ('what is a box with velvet lining?' 'what is the mark on a sealed tomb say?' ‘name on a canopic jar’), but he is unable to answer them just then: they have been asked to close their phones. “I sort of thought he’d want to be the one to get a word in, all things considered.”
“My brother,” says the assistant, a bit tetchy as the announcement's end. “Of course sends his regards, and a dinner invitation afterward. Surely, that would be appropriate?”
Klaus looks up. “That--” he begins.
“Thank you,” says Steven. “I expect we’ll see you at intermission.”
“Yes. I expect we shall,” says the assistant. He vanishes back down the aisles.
When he is gone. Klaus straightens in his seat.
“He is here alone,” says Klaus. He does mean for his voice to rumble so, but I he can’t seem to help it just then.
“You think so?” asks Steven.
“I am sure of it. The Lapointes are an old family. An old French family. They speak on their own behalf in matters like this.”
“They could be welcome to change.”
“They speak on their own behalf,” stresses Klaus, with certainty. This is part of a world Steven does not know. “Or not at all.”
“Hm,” says Steven. “Old world, indeed.”
Around them, the lights begin to dim. Klaus sighs heavily. Of course, the hall would go dark. That is to be expected. That is what any theatergoer should expect.
“I checked the times for this show when it opened,” murmurs Klaus, slipping his phone into his pocket. “It seemed quite interesting to me.”
“I thought you might.”
“I had very little luck,” says Klaus, “Seats have been sold out for the next three months.”
“It got a good review in the Times.”
“And there are no matinee performances today,” says Klaus.
“Isn’t that funny,” says Steven.
Around them, the rest of the audience begin to shiver and stir. One of them coughs -- a deep, rattling sound. A few whisper, a rasping hiss. Then, they rise; standing up one by one in jerky, twisting motions.
“Steven,” murmurs Klaus, as he rolls back his sleeve.
“Mm?” Steven has a foot on the seat in front of him.
“This is a historic building,” says Klaus.
“Right. No water damage,” says Steven, as the hordes of dead close in around them.
In the end, some damage is unavoidable.
The army is stopped and the rogue necromancer is handcuffed by the HLPD. The representative, they find out later, was uptown in his hotel. He had been occupied with a call with his company's partners in France, unaware of any theater plans whatsoever.
“I thought there was sibling rivalry involved,” mused Steven. “But this was a bit extreme.”
“Lapointe was the fourth child of his family. And illegitimate,” says Klaus, quietly. He is crouched in the orchestra pit, folding the hands of one of the broken corpses into a more dignified position for the clean-up crew. It is the least he can do for them. The bodies have summon marks on their wrists. He wonders, briefly, where the necromancer found them – if they were originally from Hellsalem, or someplace far away. It will take many phone calls to find this out. “For him to be the acknowledged heir was considered quite a coup... it seems for some, blood is not enough.”
Klaus has two elder brothers back in Germany. He has not had contact from them in some weeks, a thought which, for a moment, digs into him deeper than the needle in his duster. He has been so distracted of late.
“Blood seems to have been enough for us in this case,” remarks Steven, tapping the heel of his shoe against one of the shattered banisters.
“Steven,” says Klaus.
“...all right, that was bad,” Steven allows. He eases off the banister. “Law's on the scene. I’ll put in a word, but we should probably leave before he has to get a statement from both of us.”
“I want the bodies identified,” says Klaus.
Steven raises his eyebrows at him. But Klaus turns and walks back up the aisles of the damaged theater. He knows Steven will manage.
He also knows that he needs some air.
He also knows, the moment his hand brushed his pocket, that his cellphone is gone.
Klaus leaves the theater. Klaus walks several blocks and turns left. He is being followed. He recognizes the shape, and the general countenance of the thing at his heels. He knows, also, that it will only appear in a place with distinct shadow. He feels it creeping alongside him. He hears the faint buzzing of his unanswered ringtone. Steven is calling. Steven must be wondering where he’s gone. He composes an apology in his head. It is not a new apology. Klaus has taken sudden leaves like this many times in the course their partnership, and he has never able to give an adequate explanation for it.
Klaus stops on the overpass.
“Will this do?” he asks. The creature unsticks itself from the shadow of one of the streetlamps.
“It is adequate,” it says. Its body makes a vague attempt at retaining a human shape, but the edges blur and fizz, struggling against the dead flesh that confines it to this mortal realm. “Thank you, Sir Reinherz.”
It sweeps out one smoldering arm and bows. The necromancer’s summon marks are faded on its wrists. They sizzle, faintly. They are made for a human spirit, not a demon. Lapointe’s elder brother truly had been in a rush. Most necromancers would not have mistakenly called such a being to this side of the gate, even in a mass summoning.
“Sir Koroviev,” says Klaus, bowing his head in kind. Of course, it is only one of dozens of names this creature has gone by in the last few centuries. But he picks one it is fond of, one he knows it chose to use in Russia, in the 1930s. “I must ask. Did Lapointe’s brother truly wish to destroy his reputation? Or was that your influence?”
“As though I have any interest in human politics,” says the creature. “The summoner’s plan was his own. His ambition simply proved useful for my most recent assignment.”
“I see,” says Klaus, “Then it is regrettable that we should meet like this.”
“I think not,” says the creature. It turns up one of it’s black roiling hands. Klaus can see his cellphone, between its ragged fingers. “I could use your assistance. It would seem that you have placed quite a seal on this device.”
It’s actually little more than a normal lock screen and password, but demons are notoriously bad with certain aspects of human technology. Koroviev is an older demon. It has been summoned into this world many times, but its last long contract was decades ago.
“I cannot help you with this,” says Klaus.
“Even for a fellow knight?”
“Even so,” says Klaus.
This answer, it seems, causes a stir with Koroviev. His outline fizzes more violently.
“And what loyalty do you owe the Duchess, that you should be so invested in an Alterworld civil conflict? Your title is only an honorary one. What does it matter to you who rules the realm? What becomes of the Heir you have kept so close to your person?”
“Nothing. Your politics are not mine to meddle with,” says Klaus. “I simply promised I would protect my charge.”
“And I swore to the Duke that I would bring the Heir to him,” says Koroviev. The words among the language of demons is closer to ‘Rising Aspect’ and ‘Setting Aspect’ not ‘Duchess’ and ‘Duke,’ but Koroviev is adapting it for Klaus’ benefit. “You would have a place at court, regardless of who claims it. It would damage my standing greatly to break my contract. I know beings of this world are more flexible in these things.”
“I am not,” says Klaus, simply. “Thank you, however, for your offer. I do not wish to fight you.”
“Then you need not.” Koroviev’s form has begun to resolve itself in this world. The last of the necromancer’s summoning marks crumble. The dark blur around its stolen body hardens into slick black armor. One of these sharp fingers tightens around Klaus’ phone, the nail scraping along the screen. “Release your seal, Sir Reinherz.”
“I cannot,” says Klaus. It is both as a matter of principle and as a matter of logistics. He needs to be holding the phone to unlock it. The screen flickers alive under Koroviev’s touch. Still locked, of course. Klaus can see the alert button in the corner, flashing frantically. He tenses his hand, feeling the tip of his needle ease against the soft flesh of his finger.
But Koroviev’s red eyes follow him, in the shadows of his now visible helm.
“I am not required to bring the Heir back in one piece,” says Koroviev, simply. Koroviev’s body has begun to have real weight. The metal of the overpass railing creaks under its dark iron boots. “Draw a drop of blood into your weapon and I will crush their soul.”
Klaus drops his hand to his side. “Would it not reflect better on your oath to leave them whole?”
“It would do less damage to me than breaking my contract.”
“Reconsider,” says Klaus.
“Release your seal.”
“Sir Koroviev. You are a knight,” says Klaus. He tries to edge forward, a bit, tries to place himself at a more opportune angle, but Koroviev recognizes the movement. It tightens its grip on the phone. The screen cracks in the corner, just a hairline break. “The Duke is putting your expertise to poor use, making you a kidnapper.”
“Your sentiment is appreciated, Sir Reinherz. But wasted. You are bound by your rules, I am bound by mine,” says Koroviev. “Release your seal.”
“Koroviev,” says Klaus. “If there is anything I am able to do for you--”
“I will not ask again,” hisses Koroviev, so sharply Klaus draws his head back. He bites the inside of his cheek. As his teeth are quite sharp, this stings quite a bit. Klaus shuts his eyes and bows his head. The right words come to him, of course. The words he has memorized from the age of six.
“... I see,” says Klaus, tasting blood on his tongue. “Then, forgive me.”
A drop of blood, after all, is all he needs.
The lance dissipates into crumbling flakes, leaving a deep gouge in the side of the overpass. The burnt ashes of the demon’s outline shivers, blown away in the next breeze. Klaus extracts his phone from the remaining pile of soot.
He has 160 unread messages. Most are from the world puzzle. The clues are garbled, with letters out of order. One of earliest, Klaus can read as “the space occupied by a graveyard’ another Klaus can recognize as ‘a cage for bones.” He scrolls to the bottom.
“What is the place where the wretched go for clemency?” the clue asks.
“Sanctuary,” types Klaus.
The next message is almost instant.
“Really?” is all it says.
‘Yes,’ types Klaus, ‘You’re safe.’
Steven pulls up in the car.
“Well,” he says through the window. “Straggler?”
Klaus’ hair has been knocked in a disarray. His glasses are crooked on his nose. He awkwardly rubs at the blood on his lips, though he can already feel the cut on the inside of his cheek beginning to clot.
“It’s been settled,” says Klaus, holding his phone closer to his chest.
“Good,” says Steven, “Lapointe the Younger has turned up. I thought we might like a word with him, before Law and the rest get theirs.”
Hal Lapointe is not as composed as he was that morning when they find him in the station, waiting quietly in a chair not nearly as soft as the ones back at his hotel. The white in his hair is no longer a perfect bolt, and he has left the bottom button of his blazer unfastened, but he straightens his collar as Klaus and Steven stop across from him. He conducts himself with some dignity, though he’s no longer smiling.
“I’ve told the authorities I will answer their questions, of course,” says Lapointe, “As soon as my lawyer arrives. I would like to cooperate in any way I can.”
“That’s charitable of you,” says Steven.
“You think I feel moved to charity, Mr. Starphase?” asks Lapointe, eyebrows raised. “Marcel never hid his disapproval for me, my place in the family, or our plans for expansion, but I had no idea he would be so eager to destroy himself along with my endeavors. It’s distasteful to me that it’s led to such a public airing of our family issues. I’d like it settled as quickly as possible, though I don’t expect you to believe me.”
“Depends on what you tell our friends here at the station,” says Steven.
Lapointe’s eyes flash. “Is that…”
“No, it’s not,” Klaus cuts in, in French. Steven eyes him, but Klaus waves him off. He will handle this one. He speaks very slowly, trying very hard to keep himself from lisping too badly. “He means only that it matters whether or not the police believe the city has a case against you in addition to your brother. Libra does not blackmail.”
The French necromancer eases back, slightly. “Good. I wouldn’t stand for that. No matter how much I do owe you for this inconvenience.”
“We won’t press charges,” says Klaus, though he knows that is only a small comfort for Hal Lapointe -- the summoner’s association will certainly investigate. The historical society, too, for the damage to the theater. “I do have a request, however.”
Lapointe glances up at him. “And that is…?”
“The bodies he raised,” says Klaus, “Did they come from your family’s catacombs?”
Lapointe pinches the bridge of his nose. “They would have to, for a summoning of that scale. Marcel is good, but not that good. If they were unwilling, unfamiliar to us, or ...freshly dead, he would not have managed it so quickly. He would have had to have to cast a mark of subjugation on every single one of them. He’d have blown out his heart, doing that.”
“But that does mean,” says Klaus, “That your family has their names on record.”
“Well, yes. Their names are what makes them easy to summon. Why…?” Lapointe looks confused. Steven has started to laugh. It’s a quiet laugh. He brings it quickly under control, looking away, but his mirth is unmistakable.
“I would like their bodies to be returned to any of their surviving family members,” says Klaus. “Or else given some form of proper burial.”
“That’s…” Lapointe stares. “Truly? That is your request?”
“Mm,” says Klaus.
“But that’s nothing,” says the French necromancer, stumbling, truly, for the first time in the whole trip. “That’s our standard best practices. l’d have done that anyway--”
“In which case,” says Klaus, “It will be interesting to see what your organization does for our city.”
‘What is it, when you show forgiveness to one whom has had none?”
‘Mercy,’ types Klaus.
‘What is it, when you show kindness to one who has not earned it?’
‘Grace,’ types Klaus.
‘And what is it the thing that you show me?’
‘Friendship,’ types Klaus, without any hesitation. Then, out loud, he adds, “I should hope.”
There is a pause. Then:
‘What is that?’ asks the app. The word puzzle has gotten very chatty, in the last hour or so.
‘The bonds between man’ Klaus almost types, but he stops himself, deleting the last word and replacing it with ‘individuals.’ It is a bit more inclusive, he thinks.
The sun has set by the time Klaus makes it Bryant Park for his late-afternoon appointment. He leaves Steven to work out the rest of the details of the Lapointe affair over dinner. It’s just as well Steven is occupied with this. Klaus promised he would go alone as a matter of security.
Despite its proximity to the gates and the Alterworld central station, Bryant Park doesn’t look too different off from how did before the collapse, especially with the holiday lights up. It’s December, and Klaus wears a coat and scarf. Not because he’s especially bothered by the cold -- he never has been, but he has been taught a coat and scarf are proper, and he knows he would stick out even more if he went without them. Even the residents who originally came from the Beyond make this allowance -- the ones who were not born with full wooly coats, at any rate.
There is a fountain in Bryant Park, though on a day this cold, it runs empty, icicles caked to its stone sides. Klaus settles in one of the tables looking out at the frozen fountain. At one of the other tables, a Beyondian student with a pile of textbooks takes one look at him, scoops up his books, and leaves. Klaus is almost entirely alone.
‘What is seeking refuge from the unknown?’
‘Fear,’ types Klaus.
‘Do men fear you?’ asks the app.
Klaus sighs, softly. ‘Some,’ he admits.
‘Do friends fear you?’ asks the app.
“I’d like that not to be the case,” says Klaus, out loud. If the word puzzle has another clue for him, it doesn’t offer it. The air has shifted. The hour has changed. The streetlights turn off one after the other, the ice on the fountain melts and pours down its side. It runs clear, then red, then black.
“Duchess Sorello,” says Klaus. “It is an honor see you again. Congratulations on your victory.”
He chooses his words carefully. For him, it has been approximately fourteen hours. For the entity presently manifesting around him, it has been much longer. The fountain’s basin churns and bubbles. Toads struggle from out of this ichor, squirming and crawling over themselves as they crawl around Klaus’ table. He checks his phone. The hours have begun to move backwards. He tastes the cut in his mouth come open and closed again.
“Your child is safe,” says Klaus. “As I promised.”
The ground shakes beneath him. Klaus holds out his phone. The dead leaves on the ground stir, turn to flakes of skin, from the vague outline of a six-fingered hand, fingers outstretched…
A moment later the leaves fall to the ground. The fountain is frozen. The sun has set. Klaus rubs his temple. There’s a trail of blood on the corner of his mouth. He reaches for a handkerchief, and dabs it away.
Klaus discovers a text from a restricted caller. It’s a series of plus signs and blanks. His phone is hot to touch, but he scrolls down through the wall of dashes. At the very end, he finds a word in English:
‘Thank you,’ it reads.
Klaus’ final appointment is at 7:30 in Reunion Square, close to the Demon Markets: a bakery and cafe on 12th street. He is disheveled and dreadfully late, and he apologizes firmly for both of these things.
“It’s fine?” says Leo, a bit out of breath himself. He’s standing in the door, pressed up against the wall to avoid the cold breeze from outside. “It’s 7:45? I just got here. too. I heard there was a big blowout on the West Side and the subways were kinda full of death. Sorry, didn’t think it’d be that bad.”
“You needn’t apologize,” says Klaus, quite automatically.
“So neither do you,” says Leo, with a crooked smile. Klaus tries not to smile too wide in turn. He might have guessed Leo would make a point like that.
Leo shows him the desserts, a mixed assortment of Beyondian and earth treats, all with their ingredients clearly marked for the benefit of both huma and non-huma patrons. Some of these desserts Klaus recognizes, some of them he doesn’t. In the end he asks for Leo’s advice. Leo pauses for a long moment, then orders a dozen for the table, and some hot chocolate.
“I finished the Mr. Steven’s assignment,” says Leo, rubbing his finger around the edge of his chocolate. “Er, actually, it’s more like they finished themselves. It’s weird, I got to about the tenth page, and they just sort of started filling themselves in. At least, Zapp started giving them really weird looks. Does Alterworld art just...do that?”
"...Ah,” says Klaus. He forgets, for a moment, to breathe. He finds himself worrying over the cut in his mouth. He stops himself, but by then, Leo looks a bit concerned.
“So. I guess I totally broke it.”
Klaus shakes himself out of it.
“No, you didn’t,” says Klaus, quickly. He almost reaches for his phone but stops himself. That would be rude. “It’s simply… mm. The work of Phinna Bartandalus Sorello is said to have been quite unique. She quite liked huma, before the argument with her host. After that, she decided mankind could no longer be trusted with her creations. She declared that the men and women of our world would never beauty of her work, until she could once again see the beauty in them. So the legend goes, at any rate.”
“Wow,” says Leo, “That’s...kind of extreme.”
“Well,” says Klaus, with fondness. He will remember to write a response to the text on his phone. ‘Thank you, Your Grace,’ it will say, in Helltongue. “She was an artist, first and foremost.”
“So that goes for all worlds, huh.” Leo shakes his head. He pulls his camera out of his bag. “I took some pictures of the prints. If you maybe want to have a look. Resolutions going to be kind of weird, but…”
“I would like to see them,” says Klaus, and he’s certain he will. As certain he is that the Duchess has returned to her realm on the other side. “But I’m not here for work.”
Leo turns red and looks down into his drink. “Right.”
“Although,” says Klaus, “If you have any photos of the city…”
Leo looks up. “Eh,” he says, pulling his camera out of his bag. “I might have a few.”
In the end, they are in the cafe until 1 a.m. It is, Klaus decides, time very well spent.