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Chapter 1: Preparations for Attack
Prioress Lizaveta sat at ease in her most private sanctum, deep within the bowels of Rendale Priory, scanning the grey-garbed figures assembled around her.
The room was sealed: the Prioress had placed a potent spell of warding upon it, since she did not want uninvited ears to overhear the night's proceedings. Candles lit the scene in flickering, orange light, sending shadows flitting mothlike across the flagstone floor. Twenty nuns sat, cross-legged, in a semicircle around Lizaveta's marble throne.
Lizaveta smiled at the Anointed Score, assembled in their entirety for the first time in over a generation.
She knew that, high above her, innocent Sisters bustled through their allotted tasks, blissfully unaware of her machinations and political games, and this gave her considerable pleasure. Despite the sense of fear the Prioress instilled in even the most insignificant Novice, she knew she was regarded as the well-spring of rectitude and holiness within her Order.
Hundreds of righteous, religious women waited for her least command, quite ignorant of the complete disregard in which she and the Score held the sworn vows of the lesser nuns. Fifty years before, Lizaveta had attained the high rank of Prioress' Handmaiden, and she had wasted little time in despatching her foolish, benign predecessor and taking her place.
Before long, Lizaveta had identified the Geomantically-skilled members of her flock, and a long series of illnesses and tragic "accidents" served to allow her to fill the ranks of the blessed Score with powerful witches whose views coincided with her own. She knew that every one of these nuns wasambitious and egotistical, prepared to kill her as soon as the chance presented itself; however, Lizaveta was always on her guard. Each member of her inner coterie knew she was shadowed by at least one eager acolyte, waiting to take her place at the least open sign of treachery. These hand-picked, ambitious girls, numbering thirty-five, formed Lizaveta's second line of defence.
Each woman before her had been selected, not only for her ruthlessness, but also for the least sign of Geomantic power. Each had been trained in the use of her inner magic, but always at a lower level than that of her Prioress. Lizaveta had no intention of raising a witch capable of mounting any serious challenge to her.
"Sisters," she intoned, leaning back in her gold-and-mahogany throne and scanning the eager eyes arrayed before her. "A great threat lies before us."
As ever, the women stood in silence, none daring to interrupt her. Each knew the depth of her wrath only too well, and was unwilling to risk angering her.
"The younger Afelnor has come into his full power, and he is coming to avenge his grandfather. I am to be his target, but I know he will be catholic in his rage; harbour no dreams that he will spare any of you. Should he be allowed to vent his anger upon us, this Priory may well lie in ruins by the time he is finished. At this time, he is leaving Yoren, having destroyed the Mansion House there, and he will be making his way here as I speak.
"I had hoped that the Mansion would have posed more of an obstacle for the boy, but it was not to be."
A hard-faced woman of riper years raised a hand.
"Sister Arissa, you may speak."
"Reverend Mother, he is just a boy, and he must contend with Brianston and Merrydeath Road long before he reaches us. Is he really such a threat?"
Lizaveta laughed; a dry, hacking sound. "You are right, Sister. He is only a male, and a young one at that; nonetheless, I have taken a particular fancy to this immature youth, and I would like to have him under my control. He and his party may be too wary to take the direct route and, even if they do, the trials of Brianston and Merrydeath Road may not stop them. If Afelnor survives, and I almost hope he does, I wish to be sure that we have the proper reception for him when he arrives here."
Lizaveta noted a quizzical expression on the nun's face. "Sister Arissa," she said, "do you have something to add to the discussion?"
"Yes, Reverend Mother. This ... creature is a Guild Mage. If he survives and you keep him here, the Guild will surely take an undesirable interest in our activities. That might pose a greater threat to us than this Afelnor ever could. You controlled his grandfather, Loras, easily enough; why not ensorcel his pup in the same manner, before he ever reaches us?"
Lizaveta considered her reply for a few moments. She felt angered by Arissa's impertinence, but she did not want to admit to weakness even to an inferior. She knew she had only been able to control Loras Afelnor's actions with the aid of a mighty enchantment, and only then by turning an existing emotion: Loras' pity for the dying Prelate of his House. His grandson seemed to be forewarned, and he was unlikely to be swayed from his righteous vengeance. She had only managed to defeat Afelnor's unsuspecting friend, Dalquist, through the timely intervention of the dead Sister Madeleine. She had met both mages, and she knew Grimm was already far more powerful than the older Questor would ever be.
She locked Arissa's grey eyes with a fierce stare. "I just wish to see Afelnor's expression when he falls to his knees, defeated, and acknowledges me as his mistress," she growled, her gaze challenging the nun to call her a liar. "I have no need to justify my actions to you, Sister; remember that."
"Your pardon, Reverend Mother!" Arissa dropped her eyes in the modest manner expected of every nun in the Order; even a member of the Score. "My first concern was for our beloved Order."
"I understand that, dear Sister. I understood your motives only too well."
Lizaveta turned to the expectant nuns, whose eyes were all lowered. "Does anybody else seek to question me? No? Good; we will begin.
"I have called you here tonight because I wish to cast a Great Spell; not on Grimm Afelnor, but on one close to him. In a flagrant breach of Guild protocol, he has taken a lover, some bedraggled beggar from the town of Griven. I understand that she has the makings of a witch, and I feel she belongs more properly here in Rendale, with her true sisters, rather than in some distant tower."
The Prioress felt an emotional upsurge from her audience; the Sisters now understood her intent well.
Lizaveta smiled. "She may not concur with our aims, at first, of course, but she will learn the errors of her ways, long before her paramour reaches our gates. She will be here, waiting to greet him when he does. I wish to cast a Great Spell of Summoning, so that this girl may begin to learn the bounteous ... advantages of religious discipline, long before that time.
"Judan, most favoured one." She turned to a pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman. "I choose you to research the spell, to allocate our various roles, and to ascertain the most propitious time for its casting. I would ask you to tell us any preconditions of which you are aware."
"I thank you for your favour, Reverend Mother, from the bottom of my heart," Judan breathed, maintaining her modest, lowered gaze.
But for the nun's severe habit and wimple, she might have been taken for a docile schoolmistress or archivist, but Lizaveta knew Judan as a competent and diligent researcher who would leave no stone unturned in her quest for perfection. The austere woman was also a ruthless and efficient killer when necessary, but quite devoid of ambition. This made her an ideal member of the Score; the Prioress wished she had access to more witches of this calibre.
In a sing-song contralto, Judan began to recite a series of factors which might affect the intended spell, consulting a battered, well-thumbed almanac as she did so.
She sounds like a teacher handing out assignments to a class, the Prioress thought, but she knew well the woman's accuracy and efficiency.
"In four days, the new moon will rise, and the Red Eye will be in the fourth house," the nun intoned, "the sign of the Ram. This is a good omen for the spell, and I estimate that the optimal time for the culmination of the magic will be close to eighteen minutes to midnight. I will be able to give a more precise estimate when I have consulted my librams and auguries.
"We will need attributes of Levity; the feathers of a swallow should suffice. It is not required, but a few pounds of spider-silk, spun into a gossamer net over the hall, would help the signatures. We will need incense of sanctified wormwood, philosophical essence of cedar and hermetic lavender. At least eleven pounds of powdered lodestone are required. This must be ground finer than the most costly pomade, and allowed to rest for two days under the Sigil of Eratu, with the dark light of pitchblende shining upon it at an angle of between forty-three and forty-seven degrees during the hours of darkness. It must be contained in a parabolic bowl of philosophical gold, and the rays of the sun must be shone onto this at a constant angle of eleven degrees during the day. Only mirrors of hermeneutic asem, at least ninety-seven percent pure, may be used to achieve this, and even a trifling error of over half a degree may thwart our purpose."
Judan licked her right thumb and selected another page. "Three pounds of bees' eyes, removed with a sanctified obsidian blade in the presence of a constant chant of Quelling, will be advantageous; they should be prepared no later than five hours before the spell is cast. A freshly-prepared Stone of Monan, prepared from condensed frog-sputum, is essential. One of seven ounces should suffice, and it must be no more than two days old when we begin the ceremony.
"For the insectoid signatures, I imagine we have adequate quantities of dried flies' hearts, butterfly brains and mosquito blood, so I won't dwell any further on that." Judan swept a stray brown lock under her wimple. "But I will add that we must all adhere to a strict diet of bats' hearts and boiled sea-grass until the spell is cast. I also recommend that we all apply an enema of ginger and capsicum each night until that time, and that we take care to observe the strict Rites of Inner Purity. I imagine that will be harder for some of us than for others, but I will monitor all of you for compliance until the day.
"There will, of course, be further conditions to be followed when I have had time to compile more detailed notes, but I will tell you of those as soon as I am able."
Lizaveta scanned the lowered faces of her flock; some were serene and untroubled, while others bore expressions of consternation. She knew that most of these pampered Sisters had never taken part in a Great Spell in their lives, but she was pleased to see that they all appeared to be resigned to the ordeal to which Judan had condemned them.
Still, she thought, it would not hurt to reinforce the message.
"I trust that you have taken our beloved Sister's words to heart," she said, her tone severe. "You may all take it that I regard Sister Judan as your Superior in all regards until this spell is complete, responsible only to me. Should she report that any of you is dilatory or lazy, the transgressor may expect to face my wrath--and I am sure you all know the consequences of exciting my anger."
"Yes, Reverend Mother. Thank you for guiding us. Your will is ours."
The Sisters' response was a rote one, drilled into the rawest Novice from her earliest days in the Order, but Lizaveta felt the sincerity in the chorused words. Each of the Score felt determined to do her best for her Superior. Nonetheless, this spell was important to the Prioress, and she felt that a little reinforcement might not go amiss.
"I would just add one corollary to what I have said, dear Sisters: I am well aware of your normal games of precedence and favouritism. Normally, I am happy to condone a little ambition, if it is well-intended. However, this privilege is henceforth suspended until the magic is successfully cast.
"For the purposes of this spell, you will all act as if you were the humblest of Supplicants, beseeching the Order's charity. Should I learn that any of you is seeking to do down one of her Sisters, there will be no Judicial Hearing; you will be condemned to a long, painful, lingering death, and you will be replaced by one of your guardian Novices. You will rue the days on which you and I were born. Do I make myself quite clear?"
"Quite clear, Reverend Mother!"
"Good. Under Sister Judan's wise guidance, let us proceed. From this moment, all of us will maintain Strict Observance. I do mean 'all', since I do not exempt myself from the strictures of this most important spell."
At first, Drexelica had resented and feared her nightly visits from Shakkar. When she had arrived at Crar, she had found the towering, fang-toothed demon terrifying. Only much later had she realised that the titanic monster's intentions were quite honourable; what she had once interpreted as ravening hunger for her flesh, she now recognised as concern for her well-being. In the absence of Grimm Afelnor, the demon had been detailed to look after her, and she had to admit she could think of no better protector than the dour Shakkar. She knew her underworld guardian would die before he would let her down.
"Just checking, Lady Baroness," the grey, winged monster said, as he always did.
"Thank you, Shakkar. Goodnight," she said, resisting the impulse to kiss the impassive demon on the cheek. She could not have reached it, in any case.
"Goodnight, Lady Drexelica," the demon rumbled. "I hope you sleep well." As silent as the passage of the moon, Shakkar slid out of the room and closed the door.
Drex knew the huge demon was never able to enjoy the mortal surcease of sleep, and she therefore found his familiar, nightly words even more comforting. She would have preferred that Grimm were present to safeguard the domicile, but she accepted that this was not always possible.
Drex understood, even if she did not appreciate, that Grimm had a vocation to fulfil. Despite the opulent conditions in which he lived, her lover was not a free man; in fact, he was more a slave than she would have been if the Questor chosen to condemn her to the Grivense authorities for her attempted theft of his purse.
Drex stood before the tall mirror in the room she had shared with Grimm during their all-too-brief liaison. She still thought of herself as a grubby beggar, a penniless waif, but she could no longer deny that she was a beautiful woman. She did not suffer from an excess of vanity, but she admired the way her gold-flecked locks cascaded over her shoulders in a fulsome wave. Her green satin robe hinted at her feminine curves in an artful manner, without making her look like a common street-woman.
For the first time in her life, she was able to appreciate her Aunt Dalan's advice on the proper application of cosmetics and clothes: "Accentuate your features, but don't flaunt them. Subtlety, girl; hint at it, don't hand it over."
After spending so many years in dire poverty, now Drex had the means to follow her long-dead aunt's advice. Grimm had not forced a choice of clothes upon her; he still had an adolescent boy's ignorance in such matters, and she felt grateful that he acknowledged the fact.
She revelled in her sumptuous, self-chosen wardrobe, but a part of her still warned her that she might be returned to penury in the space of a heartbeat; she did not care to dwell on her elegant, reflected image for too long.
Despite her lover's absence, Drexelica took a leisurely toilette, enjoying the silky feel of the costly balms and perfumed essences on her softening skin. Already, she felt she was leaving the squalor and deprivation of the slums of Griven behind her, and she felt safe and content.
Grimm would come back to her, she felt sure, and, with a demon and an army to protect her, what could go wrong? She would wait for her man, no matter how long it might take.
What can go wrong? The thought reverberated in her head and would not go away, like an annoying moth in the night, scurrying around a candle-flame.
She finished her nightly ritual and went to her large, lonely bed. For several hours, she tossed and turned before she found sleep, but it was not the blessed relief she sought when it came to her. Something felt awry, but her dream-self could not focus upon it. Vague, disturbing images and feelings tainted her as she slept, and taunted her. As if only moments had passed, she awoke, soaked in perspiration, to the early morning rays of sun that shone through the window.
She chided herself for her foolishness, knowing she was safe and secure within the well-protected city of Crar, but she could not pin down the cause of her anxiety; perhaps it was the knowledge of the danger her young lover might be facing.
Whatever the cause of her worries, one thought was ever-present in her mind: Come back soon, Grimm!