Chapter III: Sapling Sacrifices, The Magnus Certatio & Frangipani


Ver Sacrum Books - Riker Rouge - Serial Fiction

BOOK I – A PRELUDE TO A RACE
PROLOGUE12345


In the world of Riker Rouge there is reality, the dusk-lands, the secret places, and how each slowly blends into one another. The Vitandi, a secretive group of arcane researchers, want to bring back their beloved and cursed event the Magnus Certatio: A race of such massive proportions that not only is victory and wealth promised to the participants, but the enlightenment and freedom of the soul. One arcane collector, Octavius Obediah the Second, is asked to help plan the perfect race route to help the Vitandi to their ultimate goal… something many souls failed and died for two centuries ago. What comes from that invitation is a spiraling story of eccentric characters, dark events and adventure.


I

“What is it?”

“It’s a rune… the symbol for sacred protection.”

“That seems out of place for her.”

“It does.”

A young woman’s body lay lifeless in a bed of moss. She looked quite peaceful, as if death had come over her like a soft breeze that wrapped its arms around her soul and gently carried it away to those better places beyond. What it left behind was a pale body that was coming out of that brief time of after death stiffness and now growing soft. In a few days quite a bit of the woman’s flesh would gently fall away into the moss bed beneath it. Strangely there was an absence of insect life on the surface of her dead skin.

There was a rune on the dead woman’s forehead. The rune sat in the middle of a woven flower headdress. The same type of flowers were woven around the woman’s neck, wrists and ankles. She lay naked and in the place where her thighs came together there was a patch of moss with smaller flowers within it giving the woman a more intimate decoration. Above this a very ancient symbol had been delicately branded into the skin below her navel.

A man and woman stood on either side of her body. They offered the woman a respectful distance. Neither individual moved to touch the body or disturb the death bed it lay upon. The woman in the pair pointed to the branded symbol.

“Is the symbol for the Meliae? A tree cult?”

The man shook his head slowly, letting his eyes wander over the vast and abandoned area. There was nothing but undisturbed nature in all directions with just this one natural clearing in the middle of it.

“Not Meliae. They’re not quite old enough. This comes from the old tribes.” he whispered as if he was afraid of having the woods around them hear. He pointed to the place where the woman’s thighs came together. “Where we to take an intrusive look I’m sure we’d find a tree seed placed inside her.” His eyes looked from the woods to his companion to see if the suggestion would upset her.

The woman said nothing. She was nodding her head slowly as a look of sadness and understanding came over her features. She was starting the process of sensing the scene.

“She volunteered herself to her people and was probably excited to be chosen.”

She knelt down next to the body, some of the sadness leaving her features. She looked on with nothing but peaceful understanding.

“I bet her heart was near to bursting as they prepared her. They washed her in mother’s milk and probably had her drink a good honey mead to sooth her nerves as they wove the flower wreathes for her body. She probably blushed a little when they brought her the more intimate seed. By the time they walked her out to this spot and laid her down in the moss she was all smiles and beautiful feelings; a fine combination of drunkenness, youthful spirituality, and perhaps a promise of strength for her people. When they gave her the final cup of poison, she took it without hesitation and laid back peacefully into her eternal bed.”

The woman slowly laid herself down along side of the moss bed and looked into the darkening sky above. It was a fine place to look at the stars. It was a beautiful view to leave the living world with.

“She looked into the sky and saw how incredible and vast the heavens are and as the poison started to come over her she was filled with the absolute joy of knowing she was going to die and be reborn as something strong and eternal.” The woman let her head fall to the side so she could look at the dead woman beside her. “They choose her to be their next sacred tree. She will always be within her people’s mythology. Can you imagine? Dying to become the birth cradle of something so new, so natural, and having everyone believe your soul is within it?”

The man felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t always sure how to address his companion’s moments of wondering.

“Is this what you think or what you can see?” he asked tentatively.

The woman’s dreamy face came back to the present moment as she sat up and got back to her feet. She lightly swatted the loose dirt from her clothes.

“What I see and what I can feel. This is a sacred place Dore. We should move on before any of her people come back to check on her. The worst thing we can do is taint this place and ruin this young woman’s sacrifice. I don’t want to do that. She’s going to make a fine tree one day.”

Dore, the man in the pair, remained along side the woman’s body for a few more minutes to quickly sketch what he was witnessing. He especially wanted to make note of the symbol branded into the skin; that would be most important. The rune placed on the woman’s head was probably more to ward off some of the Nordic people in the region who could possibly stumble across the body. It would warn them to leave her alone.

Test, the woman, was already starting to walk away. Her head was in a dreamy place where her empathetic talents for lingering emotions was continuing to walk her through the ritual that had taken place there. She’d need a few minutes to let the feelings calm down and slowly fade away before her head would be right again. This was usually how long her companion Dore needed to take his pieces from the scene.

About an hour later the pair were quietly walking and finally coming back to the old road they’d followed to get to the spot. Their automobile was sitting in the shadows by the side of the road. Test never thought about it, but it was always in the back of Dore’s mind when they wandered into such places that he was happy to find the auto waiting for them when they returned. He only allowed himself to feel safe again when the worn leather was under his legs and the glass windows were offering a transparent shield between him and the world outside.

The pair drove in silence for awhile until a passing steam-locomotive caused them to stop. Dore took the opportunity to get out of the car and pull his pipe out. He didn’t like to drive and smoke, nor did he want to trap his companion in an enclosed space where the corrupted air would fuss with her senses; especially after such a find.

Test moved from the auto as well and walked towards the passing machine. It was a cargo locomotive moving supplies. There were no passenger cars on it. She looked lost to her thoughts as she watched it pass. When she looked back at her companion her face looked disturbed.

“Something the matter Test?” he asked between puffs of his pipe.

Test’s head nodded slowly. She was wearing one of her strange faces and that was the only way Dore could describe it. It was a mixture of dreaminess and utter seriousness; something her face displayed easily.

The woman was at the start of her twenties and while her face looked younger than her years, her eyes had a deep, ancient quality about them. Dore always thought if Test had lived a past life it would have been as a Greek Sibyl: A creature that was wise and mysterious and as alluring as she was frightening. This is how Dore often felt around his companion.

“Care to share?” he gently nudged her.

“Not here.” she said simply. She moved back towards the auto. “It might hear.”

Dore put his pipe out and joined the woman in the auto. They sat in silence for ten minutes until the locomotive had passed and was well out of sight. Only then did Test look at her companion and say the strangest thing.

“The locomotives are migrating.”

It, like so many of the things the woman spoke of, didn’t make immediate sense nor was there a guarantee it would ever make sense. Some people looked at the world through a simple color wheel, where Test looked at the world through a kaleidoscope of unknown colors and textures that pretended to be colors. She could sense things few others could and she knew a great many truths that she accepted as facts without questioning them no matter how strange they may be. Dore did his best to try and translate and understand the truths and facts that Test offered him.

“You think the locomotive paths are starting to follow a changing course?”

Test shook her head. “No. They’re migrating… like big foul coal eating snakes. Some place they’re all meeting up for a type of season man never knew before the invention of them. I can’t explain it any better. Making them move through the dusk-lands is changing them… making them more rebellious. I’m sure someone will eventually start noticing them disappearing. I just worry about the few passenger trains that feel the pull. They’ll take their passengers with them and I don’t think a place of irritable migrating locomotives is anywhere a person wants to be.”

Dore listened but had no thoughtful reply to her statement. His head moved up and down slowly so his companion knew he was listening but the conversation ended where Test finished it. After all they’d seen that night Dore was not prepared to figure out the riddle of the migrating locomotives.

A few hours later and a good many miles put between them and the place they’d come from, Dore and Test found a bed and breakfast that offered a beautiful hand painted sign saying weary travelers were welcome at any hour. They secured a room and were happy to be out of the night.

When Dore returned from the communal bathroom Test was already in the bed fast asleep. He moved over to the bed and gently let his fingers run over that especially soft place where her sun kissed forehead turned into an unruly line of pale gold hair. Her breathing was heavy and every now and then her eyes flicked this way and that beneath her closed eyelids. He knew that somewhere deep down in the waters of sleep she was dreaming of being that dead young woman in the last few hours of her life. She was finishing the experience by playing it out moment to moment so within the dreaming it would become more than just a feeling to her; it would become a memory.

Dore, ever the gentleman (sometimes to the displeasure of his back) took an extra quilt from the end of the bed and moved over to a reasonably comfortable looking overstuffed chair that had a matching foot stool. He sank into the chair and propped his feet up and with the quilt over him he wasn’t too uncomfortable. Sleep came over him quickly and he happily slipped into a place free of dreams and thought.

The man would stir only for a moment in the middle of the early hours with a thought so pressing that it should wake him. As he tried to blink the sleep away and hold onto the thought it slowly disappeared. His last thought, before sleep reclaimed him, was: They are migrating. Something is happening. Then the darkness pulled him back in and all thoughts fled.

II

It was an exciting day and Octavius felt as though each of his actions were taking place somewhere outside of consciousness. It was like he was following himself around the world just a few feet from behind. In this way everything he did seemed exaggerated and worth studying intently.

He watched himself carefully work the shaped material at his neck into a tidy little bow tie. He watched his hands as they moved to and from the sink with comb in the left hand as he attempted to get the right shape to his sometimes unforgiving dark hair. His right hand was just all a flutter and failed attempts to correct the left one. Never had he found his first moments of grooming so pleasant and perhaps meaningful.

The collector continued to watch himself and make notes about his own behaviors and mannerisms. There was a dream-like quality to all of this that made the events of the day more surreal, but all the more wonderful for it. This strange quirk was offering him a good start. He needed a good start to keep his confidence in check. Quite suddenly he was feeling very overwhelmed with what was to come.

There had been many restless nights after he sent a telegram to the Baron confirming his interest in the proposition offered to him. Plenty of nights he’d been plagued by dreams of his father telling him he was a fool even though he knew his father would never say such a thing where the Vitandi was concerned. When his dreams were not weighing on his conscious, his maid Stella had taken to chastising him for his rash decisions as of late, though this was the only decision she found rash. For a man who seldom second guessed himself it was all a bit much.

Octavius had said nothing to Stella about when his first meeting with the representative of the Vitandi was taking place nor had he said where. He was growing quite weary with her mother-like scolding of him and decided it best to make sure she wasn’t there when the meeting took place. So he sent both Stella and Mr Olophant on short vacations. The maid offered some resistance to being sent away but once Octavius booked passage for her back to her native Friesland for two weeks she quickly changed her tune. Mr Olophant was so removed from anything happening to the living members of the household he’d simply shrugged and given his employer a brief tutorial on how to work his ghost catching bucket trap in the basement.

After getting his regular staff out of the way, Octavius hired temporary help to come in and give his entire property a thorough cleaning. Or, to be more frank, a proper cleansing. It had been a good ten years since Stella went from dedicated housekeeper to an old woman in a maid’s uniform who liked to flutter about with her feather duster in hand while ignoring all the dust around her.

Within a day the temporary help had gone through and given his old mansion the proper cleaning it had needed for far too long. There was even a newly relocated builder in the area who had yet to be spoiled with rumors and tall tales of the strange estate that belonged to the Obediah clan. Octavius put that young lad to work fixing holes on the roof and the stained ceiling inside. He also paid him twice his asked for rate hoping this little greasing of the palms might keep him resistant to those tall tales.

The house was now open and freshly aired out. Each room had fresh floral pieces to give everything the smell of a spring garden. The many bookshelves were dusted and all of the exhibition cabinets had their wood oiled and their glass windows cleaned. It felt like being taken back to the house of his father’s. A place where a man of his wealth would never let his sentimental nature keep him from having proper help and a proper home.

Now the big day had come. Soon he would meet the Baron’s mistress from the Vitandi.

Octavius, still caught up in that weird sensation of seeing things outside of himself, eyed the back of his head as he finished with his hair and then the illusion was shattered. Whatever trick of his brain had been at play it had sadly given up. He was once again back behind his own eyes staring at his reflection and feeling all the tension that was growing inside his head.

As Octavius looked at his reflection he had a brief moment of vanity where he wondered at what point exactly he’d started to grow older. It wasn’t his father’s face staring back at him, but there were definite allusions to it. Most prominent was the worry line across his forehead that never settled down anymore, even when his face was relaxed. By the time his father passed he had a similar line so deeply set into the space over his eyes it almost looked like it had been carved into the flesh there. It gave him a quality of constant intense thought or contemplation.

“It is not beauty or the strength of physical character that dictates how the world sees us my boy.” Octavius whispered to his reflection. “It is a well made suit, a well timed laugh, and a charm that could stir life in the dead. This is what makes the world bend to your needs. This is what you’ve inherited from me in spades. Never forget it, especially in times of apprehension.” These were his father’s words and he was able to repeat them in a near identical timber. This was a time of apprehension. Octavius said these words over and over a few more times like a chant to chase away the worry.

The collector stepped from his private rooms and moved to his library. There was still an air of the Baron in the room even though it had been weeks since the man had been there to seduce Octavius. It was like a physical stink had been cast off from him and it left a ghost in the room that brought attention to itself via the nostrils.

The roof was no longer leaking and the stains in the floor and ceiling had been dealt with. Octavius counted them as small victories even though the Baron’s presence still lingered.

There was a small rap on the door before a very attractive young maid entered the room. She was barely of age and on loan to him from a friend’s house as a favor. As far as servants went she was quiet, polite and could easily disappear into the background of any scene until needed. Octavius had noticed this at his friend’s house where the young woman’s mother and older sister also worked. He’d thought of her when he decided to bring in temporary help for the day. She was like a pretty vase: Proper and alluring on the outside and quite empty and thoughtless on the inside. This was not meant as a slight against her. One could never underestimate the power of thoughtlessness when you had people always hovering at the corners and potentially hearing things they shouldn’t hear. The thoughtless seldom found a need to spy in such cases or at least pretended well enough and kept their gossip to themselves. His own maid would be hanging on every word if not offering her own input every so often.

“Excuse me sir.” she began in her little song bird voice. “Your guests have arrived. I’ve shown them to the display room and served them tea. I told them, as requested, that you were finishing up with business matters and will join them shortly.”

Octavius nodded and motioned the girl away.

It wasn’t his usual habit to keep anyone waiting. He hated it when it was done to him and often it curbed his view of the parties involved. He saw it as a juvenile tactic to gain control of a situation. In this particular instance he was setting that belief aside and using it. He had a certain impression he wanted to make and at the heart of that impression was the suggestion that he was doing them a favor by seeing them in his home and offering his services, not the other way around. This was very much the case, but he knew the reputation of this group and they would quickly try to turn things around in their favor.

It took every bit of self restraint to wait ten minutes before slowly leaving his library to join his guests. As he walked he did his best to remove the fear from his features and put on his best showman face. He tried to make the mask of his father become all that anyone would see from him.

His last lingering concern was who exactly was this liaison the Baron called his mistress? The true identity of this individual would greatly influence how he acted and therefore how events played out.

The Vitandi were a tightly guarded group but this did not keep some individual personalities and reputations from making their way into the outside world. From those individuals he was familiar with he hoped for certain personalities more than others. Much of his rehearsed and intended conversation was based upon his hope of being introduced to those he preferred. So it was with great disappointment when he entered his display room and saw his waiting guest.

A bulky woman stood at a small, antique Japanese table at the heart of the room, holding her tea cup in hand and surveying the brewed liquid inside. She dismissively set the tea cup down on the expensive table with little regard to table’s delicately carved surface.

Octavius knew this woman’s reputation well and he didn’t like it. Seeing her in the flesh, without having seen any photograph or illustration of her previously, she looked exactly as he’d pictured in his mind.

There was a natural shape to the woman’s features that made her face always look slightly displeased. She looked upon the world with a dowdy appearance that even her expensive and overly decorated clothes could not improve upon. The only thing that might make her appearance seem less harsh and judgmental was a smile, yet she possessed a mouth that found very little to smile about. She was, in so few words, the absolute last person Octavius wanted to see for this first meeting. Insulting his selection of tea would be the very least of her jabs.

Quickly Octavius attempted to gain control of his reaction so that as she looked up from her discarded tea cup she would not see his look of distress. The horrible woman quickly let him know there was no mask he could wear to hide his true opinion of her.

“Ah Mr Obediah, not the person you were hoping to see, that much is obvious. I should worry less about who you would prefer to be here and more about properly treating the person who is taking the time to actually come here. A few minutes longer and I would have left. It is very rude to keep anyone waiting when you have established an appointment time.”

The woman, with the uncommon name of Ms Parka Driad, waved her hand and made a dismissive face as though she didn’t expect such courtesies from him. Everything about her, even down to the very heavy sound of her breathing, was off-putting.

Octavius had a corner of the room he’d planned to take this meeting and had a cozy set-up already arranged, but the foul woman found a solitary chair to her preference and sat down without any courtesies to her host. The collector stiffly snapped a finger and requested his temporary butler to move a chair for him so that he might sit across from the woman as he addressed her.

As Octavius took a seat he allowed his displeasure and annoyance with the woman to bully up his confidence. Rudeness was something his father could not abide by and he’d grown to adopt that feeling as well.

Everything about Ms Driad was rude. She was in his house coming to ask for his research and his private things. She could be as horrible as she wanted, at the end of the day she was still coming to him with her hand out. This needed to be clear.

“I apologize for my delay but in my line of work there are times when one thing has to be attended to at the momentary expense of another. I’m afraid sometimes necessity trumps courtesy no matter the guest.” he replied stiffly.

“May I ask what was so important?” Ms Driad shot back. She was staring at him coldly and doing her best to intimidate him. She was probably the Vitandi’s star player for this type of confrontational interaction.

“No you may not.” he said curtly.

Octavius realized he was pleased with the horrible woman being there. There was no longer any hint of worry in him. There was nothing but the strong man his father had raised and one of the most well respected men in his field. He was not prepared to let this woman take the lead, especially as she sat among one of the finest private collections of unusual things that she was there to arbitrate for.

The collector narrowed his eyes at the crude woman. “Now, before we continue I want to be perfectly plain about this meeting. It was your group that reached out to me via a very obtuse and obnoxious man who is neither known for his good manners or strength of character. Had the incredibly grand nature of your proposed event not been so overwhelming in every aspect we wouldn’t be having this meeting at all. So please mind your manners and remember you are in my home and my guest. I don’t respond well to the petty tactics of a woman such as yourself Ms Driad.”

Octavius’ hand shot up like a weapon and caused the woman to wince for an unguarded moment. He drew his fingers in, leaving one out that he dramatically pointed towards the table in the room and the temporary butler rushed forward and picked up the discarded tea cup. He whisked it over to the woman’s chair and offered it back to her. Octavius quietly stared her down until she had no choice but to take the tea cup back in hand.

There was a change in the woman’s expression. It was but a shadow crossing her dull sun of a face but it was a noticeable shadow nonetheless. She did her best to try and regain control of the situation but it was apparent she realized her error. “And what type of woman am I Mr Obediah?” she asked stiffly, daring him to be honest with her and therefore be rude himself.

“A boorish one.” he replied plainly. “A boorish one with little tact and a complete disregard for respect when a little respect would get you much farther. Now give me your pitch quickly before I have no more time to spare on this meeting. You’ve already soured me quite thoroughly on this subject.”

The brute of a woman looked truly offended and Octavius couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something so rude that gave him that much pleasure. It was what he needed. After the weeks of excitement mingling with him second guessing himself, he needed this short and harsh exchange to remind him of who he was and what he was meant to be in the scheme of these things. He almost wished he’d let his daft maid stay so he could have seen the inadvertent ways she too offended the ole sourpuss.

Ms Driad nodded her head somewhat dumbly and lifted her hand and snapped her fingers. At first Octavius thought she was moving onto a different tactic to control the moment, but she quickly called for the twinnies. He then realized she was not the negotiator here, she was simply the warm-up act to test the man’s resolve.

There were two bodies unseen moving towards the back of the display room. They had been obscured behind a very large reading machine contraption that Octavius kept behind a very secure display. He heard and smelled the first twin before he saw her. The woman’s voice alone stirred goose-flesh on the man’s arms. The alluring scent coming from her went a step farther to make his thoughts soften.

“Oh don’t mind our aunt Parka Mr Obediah, she’s bracing but quite harmless. She does a very grand job of looking after us and making sure we’re in company suitable to our needs and temperament. Consider her an extension of our hands to feel you out.”

The woman’s voice was young and like the softest of silks sliding down a wall of ice. There was something quite graceful and beautiful to her slightly husky voice while still lightly threatening.

Octavius caught himself straining around the many objects in the room to see the woman as she approached.

“And if I’d cow-towed to your aunt?” he asked the voice.

“The conversation would have been over before it ever began.” the woman replied.

She stepped from behind a display and Octavius had to strain to conceal his immediate reaction to the unearthly creature standing there.

The creature, for he found it hard to call her a woman and therefore put her into the mundane category of every woman he’d known before her, was a tall and slender thing. She was almost androgynous with her lack of sharp curves so often forced into a woman’s body with corsets. Her body swelled naturally free of such restraints with just a pleasant hint of a modest womanly anatomy at the bust and the hips. She wore a form fitting rich purple dress that hugged her body like a second skin from the top of her shoulders until is slowly flowed downwards and only began to fan out just before the start of her knees. It brought attention to her flawlessly slight, sloping breasts and how wonderfully flat her stomach was below. The whole effect made her seem very tall and more of an imposing and regal presence. Around her shoulders she wore some type of leather harness that looked to serve no useful purpose but worked well as a decorative piece to give more character to her simple but elegant dress. It suggested something powerful and almost industrial.

It took a moment for Octavius to let his eyes move from that body to her face and when he did he was done in.

The creature’s face was slim and distinctly laid out in sharp angles. Her cheekbones were almost painfully defined and moved up towards cat-like eyes that were outlined in coal liner. Her hair was the deepest shade of black and partially hung in long tendrils that framed her face with severe dark lines. The eyes they framed were a brilliant amber color the man had rarely seen in a human eye before. Her lids were heavy and gave her an ever-bored but intense look. Then her lips… such lips that were neither overly plump over unattractively thin. They were painted in a shade of purple to match her dress. Octavius could honestly say he’d never actually seen a woman use such an unusual color of lip rouge before but it worked well on her. The rest of her hair was tightly pulled into a thick bun on the back of her head, held in place by two long silver sticks that looked as though they could be neatly pulled free and used as weapons.

The creature, despite her slight build, walked with the swagger of a panther. There was something very aggressive and masculine about her movements and it only served to make her more hauntingly beautiful. Octavius found himself sitting there gawking like an idiot.

She moved across the floor and came to stand behind her aunt’s chair. There she rested her slender and perfectly shaped fingers on her aunt’s square shoulders. She was smiling.

“I don’t like weak men and I will not work with one no matter what novelties he possesses or knowledge he claims to have. There are always ways to get around a trivial thing such as possession, so knowing that we might work together and avoid that ugliness is a very good start.”

She leaned over and gave her aunt a quick kiss on the head, which worked wonderfully to distract Octavius from the fact that his collection had just been lightly threatened with theft. The aunt and niece made such a very disturbing juxtaposition next to one another that let the idea quickly slip from his thoughts. “Thank you auntie.” she whispered in the older woman’s ear.

The boorish woman nodded her head stiffly and stood up. She offered her seat to her niece. “You are most welcome my darling.” She looked back at the collector, a deep seething dislike in her stare. “This is Miss Frangipani Driad. We will need another seat for her brother.”

Octavius didn’t hear the request as he was busy musing on what a lovely name that was for a lovely thing. Something moved in the back of the room and he was reminded there was someone else there. The boorish woman had mentioned twins after all. He quickly called to his temporary butler and had another chair moved next to the niece’s.

“Yes, let us not forget about little ole me.” This voice was deep and attractive for a male’s voice and very easily carried with it a suggestion of humor, boredom and elitism if such a thing described were possible to discern from the sound of so few words.

The man that came into view was very much like his twin in that he was extremely handsome, but there was something about him that lacked the same swagger and aggressive nature of his sister. He seemed bored and perhaps itching to do something that might entertain him even if this thing was rude or harmful. There was a distinct air of disregard coming off of him. He’d spent a life rich and pampered and very little gave him a thrill. Octavius knew the type all too well. It was this very type of individual he’d managed to attain so much of his personal collection from.

The male twin came to stand next to his sister. His attire was as well tailored and fitting to his toned body as his sister’s was to hers and like hers there were strange pieces to the outfit that looked as though they should serve a practical purpose but were just for decoration. Whoever styled and sewed for them they had a futuristic eye and knew how to make the pair look uniquely attired. It was easy to imagine neither of these creatures had any desire to dull themselves down in the popular fashions of the day.

“This is my nephew Mr Oleander Driad.” Ms Driad offered.

The aunt looked at the twins and almost in unison they curtly nodded their heads and dismissed their aunt as though she little more than a common servant. She was quickly up and out of the room.

“Everyone calls me Lee.” the male twin replied. “Our mother and her stupid love of flowery names gave us all insipid little titles like that. At least my shrub is poisonous.” The man offered this observation with a smile made of dangerous looking white teeth and a slight shark-like appearance to his jawline. His eyes were the same shade of bright amber as his twin’s.

“Frangipani and Lee, if I may use first names.” Octavius said, trying to find his rhythm again. “It is good to meet you both. I’m sorry about that little scene with your aunt. There are certain types of personalities I prefer not to deal with, no offense meant to her. Am I to understand I will be conducting this meeting with you two?”

Frangipani’s head moved up and down slowly as she smiled. The smile softened her face somewhat and Octavius felt like he could finally take a breath. She crossed her long legs beneath her dress and let her hands come to rest together on her knee.

“Yes, you will. Well mostly you will be dealing with me. My brother acts more as my companion in situations like this and really has nothing useful to add to the conversation except his charm.” she paused and gave her brother a wink. “Please don’t worry about my aunt. She is a harsh and brittle woman and as we use her as a thermometer for first introductions she has grown used to not being too offended by the responses she elicits. As I said, I don’t like dealing with the type of person who would let our dear auntie walk all over them. After all, we stopped letting her do that when we were barely four.” There was a strange look that passed from brother to sister and in unison they laughed softly as if they were privilege to a secret joke. Lee took that opportunity to casually drift back into the rows of displays and leave his sister to her talking.

Octavius nodded his head as he tried to relax. The edge that had gone was now back. It wasn’t that he wasn’t confident around women. Charm was one of his natural gifts. There was just something very strange going on behind the woman’s eyes that was unsettling him a little even as he found her quite enticing. He was finding it hard to get a handle on the sudden gut punch he’d taken to his libido. It had been quite some time since a woman had so instantly affected him. Though the longer he looked upon her the more he felt he needed to be on guard.

He cleared his throat and nodded stupidly again, “Understood. So, why don’t we get straight to the point of the matter and explain this event to me and the thoughts behind it.”

“Of course Mr Obediah.”

Each time she said his formal name the goosebumps raised on his skin anew. He needed to stop that.

“Please, call me Octavius. I prefer first names.”

This won a more gentle smile from the young woman. “Alright, Octavius. I know you are well versed in the history of the Vitandi and what we primarily study there. I know you are also aware of how closed off we’ve been as a collective since nearly the beginning. Perhaps the Baron mentioned that as times continue to change the Vitandi has not always changed with them. While this was alright to some degree internally, we’ve felt a keen change in our reputation in the outside world. It had been a very long time since we’ve done anything to attempt to draw the best minds or the young prospects we once did. Instead the Vitandi has taken to simply training the offspring of their members for decades now. This has become such a habit much of our own group and the world outside has forgotten we even used to seek out the best in their fields. The Vitandi now acts as though it’s a pure blood sort of creation and because of this, like interbred royalty throughout history, we don’t always have the best and brightest seeing to our needs.

“This lack of fresh blood is finally starting to be felt among us as the elders slowly pass into the shadows and we the young of the family must try and find a way to keep things progressing. It’s quite a burden for such a small group. Especially when not everyone is so thrilled with this handing over of the torch. Those of us dedicated to our collective know it is time to replace them with the minds that will appreciate what we can offer. Minds that the collective can benefit from in return.”

The young woman stopped there, taking a moment to collect her thoughts and reevaluate her approach to explaining what the Vitandi wanted to do and ultimately what they wanted of Octavius. She was constantly fine-tuning how she interacted with people according to their way of speaking and slight facial ticks. The collector was on guard. So much so the young woman was having a hard time reading him.

“Mr Obediah… Octavius… can we be honest for a moment?” she smiled, letting her slender hands glide through the air to punctuate her words. “I had a very long and drawn out conversation already rehearsed before I arrived here. You will undoubtedly understand how important this event is to us and therefore how much planning went into what I was to say in this meeting because of how important your role is meant to play. Now that I am here, I find that whole plan to be folly. I want to instead be very direct with you. Can I be direct with you Octavius?”

More than anything he wanted to smile and open his arms up warmly to the woman and exclaim that he would welcome such directness. To mutter some gibberish about how badly he loathed all the fake niceties and pandering in the attempt to sway a person into giving up what was wanted of them. The collector had more sense than that though. The way he was reacting to the woman was most likely exactly what the Vitandi wanted. Frangipani seemed like the type of creature who was more than used to getting her way on just her charms and when they failed he had no doubt she was thoughtful enough to work a person just as easily with her words. Octavius had to throw some water on the dragons she’d created in his stomach and get back to the matters at hand. In that case honesty would be welcomed if that was what the woman really had to offer.

“Of course you can.” he said in a very stiff voice. “You will, however, have to imagine that I believe everything you do here will have been rehearsed. So asking for my compliance in being direct, as you said, sounds no less like a well thought out sell. But please… continue.”

Frangipani smiled, bemused by being called out. “Oh it’s all a scripted drama Octavius. Be sure of that. However, this is my take on the drama that is about to play out. You see the Vitandi wants a great many things from you to make this event as grand as desired. They also want to offer you many things in return to bribe you into getting those things they want. You stand to make out very well in this arrangement. We are indeed looking back to the old days where such an event will help us add to our numbers and we’ll get that fresh blood I remarked upon. And yes everyone hopes this will help bring the Vitandi back into the spotlight and bully up our reputation again. We want our power and influence back. Your own reputation will become a thing of legend I would imagine. However, when all of this fluff and fodder is set aside, you’re not going to like the Vitandi’s true goal.”

“And what is that?”

The smile on the young woman’s face was no longer playful or even beautiful. It was a cruel and calculating thing that gave the only true hint to her actual nature. It was foreshadowing Octavius should have taken better notice of at the time, not that it would have ultimately swayed his decisions in the least.

“After all the big announcements, speeches and other horseshit the mouth pieces of this grand event will offer, the true goal of the Vitandi is to make their way to the doors of Riker Rouge and enter. The very thing our collective failed to do with their very last great race.” Frangipani’s smile widened after this unexpected reveal; all narrow shark teeth gleaming in the light just like her brother’s. “Enter in blessed dark glory and look upon the midnight sun and its mate the black star. We will know the black court and look upon the yellow sign. This is something the secret heart of the Vitandi has always wanted. Something your own family’s research knows a great deal about.”

The room fell silent. Lee was still somewhere not far off inspecting the items kept in the room. He made a soft hissing noise as he heard what his sister had just said. The aunt was hiding outside the door listening in, now trying to keep herself from rushing into the room and fixing what her impulsive niece had just done. You could hear her bulk pressing against the closed door.

Octavius was the most silent of anyone there. He was in fact holding his breath as he tried to calm his heart. Every tick in his body was being firmly held back for fear he’d let a tell show. He just needed enough time to decide if the young woman was trying to be shocking to see his reaction or if she was indeed being honest. There was a horrible sense of dread coming over him as he realized it was the latter.

Finally the collector let out a weary sigh. He’d let the excitement of the Baron’s offer get the better of him and now he was dealing with that consequence. This was no simple race to find new members or new treasures. It was one of the few fool’s quests that was the one constant in his world for centuries. It was also a source of irrational fears he’d spent much of his adult life trying to shake. It was the dark bedtime story his mother often told him as a way to keep him from too blindly running through the world looking under rocks for hidden things with his father.

Carefully he choose his words as he replied. “I want to think you’re just adding to the drama of this whole event Frangipani, but I am fearing you are being quite serious, just as I’m sure the handlers who sent you here are going to be furious with you for being so transparent.”

The young woman’s eyebrows raised as she nodded her head slowly. “Oh they will want to skin me alive when I return to them. There is nothing they can do about it now, however. I think that is for the best. You see, we can waste time trying to lure you, nay, seduce you into taking part in something that ultimately I fear you would take leave of once you found out the truth behind the lie. Or? We can be honest right from the beginning and you can understand our intentions, our plans, and how you can be apart of them. You can decide to remain in your safe little corner of the world with your impressive but small treasures. Or you can remember why you followed in your father’s footsteps all these years and come with us. I can promise you the latter will be far more entertaining, even life changing.”

The young woman leaned forward and slide a hand onto the collector’s knee. Her very touch was cold and hot at the same time and brought a deep redness to his cheeks. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling in the least.

“I’m almost positive your father would have taken us up on the offer without a thought.” she cooed.

Octavius wanted to bat the woman’s hand away and that said a lot considering how attracted he was to her. There was something very wrong about Frangipani Driad. He didn’t like hearing her so easily speak of his father. It made him feel as though she understood all the things he tried to hide from himself.

From somewhere deep within the room the voice of the twin brother broke the tension and briefly pulled the collector away from his sudden repulsion of the woman.

“Just remember my good man, this is only a sinister temptation if you honestly believe there is a Riker Rouge to be found. Supposedly the Vitandi are experts on the subject, even stood before those doors once before. And yet? Even those of us with unrestricted access to our histories only find the occasional urban legend.”

Lee appeared from behind a large glass case containing a series of enchanted tools to which only the collection of cursed shears had yet to be found. His attractiveness was not as intimidating as his sister’s and this was not just because he was a male. He lacked a certain amount of… darkness. He smiled and the dark cloud over the room passed. This was probably why he was sent with his twin. The brother was there to force a little light into his sister’s darkness. He continued.

“After all, there are cities of gold still left undiscovered, an ark… a chalice… the burlap wrapping that was used to suffocate the Bejhaung witch… all in the wind just like the place that hides access to the fabled dark stars and its scary chess pieces.” Lee sounded utterly bored as he offered his wisdom. “Do you really think you and the Vitandi are going to discover it? If you really think about it what is going to happen is a very expensive and overblown race of adventurers and intellectuals is going to take place. Strange things will be found and even stranger places will be seen, to be sure. The secret goal of finding Riker Rouge at the end of that race, however, simply puts a dangerous and romantic spin to it for the chronically bored.”

Lee walked past the couple in their chairs and moved to the display case that lined the far wall. Slowly he drew his hands behind his back as he leaned in to look at the title cards for the items on display behind the glass. He looked back over his shoulder. “And know that my sister is always on the verge of being exceptionally bored. If she finally reaches chronically bored I’m not sure we’ll be able to bring her back over the edge. So humor her.”

Frangipani glared at her twin and Octavius made a mental note to never be on the receiving end of that look. He said nothing though and quite frankly didn’t know what to say. What the woman admitted to was borderline madness; the thing the zealous occultists were known for, though her brother raised valid points.

There was also a third possibility: That this was a well thought out back and forth between the pair to confuse him or make him doubt his first instincts. He didn’t know. He’d never dealt with these types of people in all of his years of dealing. They were too young, too… aggressive and strange.

Octavius cleared his throat. For a moment those harsh eyes of Frangipani snapped back to him and he had to look down. He didn’t have the stomach to be caught eye to eye with this creature while she still looked so annoyed.

This meeting was going nothing like the collector had hoped for. Like his father before him though, Octavius had learned the very profitable art of finding a happy medium. It was time for him to change the tone and mood in the room as well as the direction of the conversation.

He chanced looking up and was glad to see the woman had put her bemused look back on.

“I honestly don’t know what to make of you two.” Octavius said with a sigh. He stood up and moved over to a display case and stared at its contents without seeing them. “I have been looking forward to having an audience with members of the Vitandi since… well since I can remember. You mentioned my father Frangipani? Well my father was always quite obsessed with your collective and growing up listening to the details of that obsession left an impression on me. My father would be so greatly disappointed to know that when the Vitandi finally took tea at his house they sent you two here to represent them. He would have found you distasteful and certainly nothing like the brilliant scholars of the unknown that he pined for.”

Frangipani looked deeply offended by this comment and began to say something but her brother cut her off.

“Finally!” Lee exclaimed. “Finally a man thinks with his brains around my sister and not from his trousers! Couple that with how he responds to our bullish aunt’s intimidation and they were right! This is a very good man for the job.”

Octavius looked over at the young man, offering him a saturnine smile. “I imagine you number among one of those your sister mentioned who’d prefer not to be apart of the group any longer? You seem absolutely devoid of any true intellectual temperament. You’re like a bored college boy playing side-kick to his sister.”

Lee stopped laughing but he was far from offended. “You have me there Mr Obediah. I’m sorry, Octavius, the man who prefers first names. My sister has all the passion, I’m simply content to enjoy the wealth and privilege. But I fear I have over-stepped here and perhaps did my sister a great disservice. This was not my intention. I sometimes get too wrapped up in the enjoyment of being glib.” The young man came away from the display case and took the empty seat next to his sister. “Please, let’s restart this conversation.”

Octavius returned to his chair but he did not take a seat. Instead he stood there with his hands in his pockets looking down on the twins like they were bad school children in need of scolding. This is exactly how he felt. The point of the meeting was to talk about the potential for something massive and yet one spoke of it like a joke and the other a dark fairy tale. He was going to channel his father a bit and educate them. Someone had to show an actual and thoughtful passion for the things being discussed if there was any hope to salvage this meeting.

“Yes, lets. Frangipani? Do you know why the Magnus Certatio ceased to take place?”

The slender woman shook her head slowly. “No one within the collective talks about why it came to an end only that it should be revived. Revived for reasons mentioned and the one I have personally admitted to. As my brother stated, within the collective we have been raised on mostly urban legends as to why the great race ended. It is likely those legends have been embellished through the years.”

Octavius nodded his head thoughtfully. “This should surprise me but it doesn’t. My father always said the legend of the race was kept much more grand and larger than life than the actual facts of it. The facts of the largest of these races was heavily pushed to be forgotten. Now… timing…” his voice trailed off.

Again his thoughts were all over the place. It had been a very long time since he’d let his thoughts dwell on his father’s true obsession or acknowledge it always having been there in the background for Octavius as well. Ever since that night when the Baron showed up in his library he’d thought of nothing else. He had to wonder if his father’s obsession wasn’t coming through in his own actions no matter how he told himself his desires to be among the Vitandi’s libraries was his own. The pair in front of him added a surreal tone to it all.

As he began to speak in the voice of his father he was trying to organize the many thoughts in his head.

“Nearly two centuries ago the last Magnus Certatio took place. At that time no one knew it would be the last one. No one knew what events had taken place during the course of it that caused the leader of the Vitandi to refuse to plan the next one. Two hundred years of tradition simply ended.” Octavius snapped his finger for effect. “Just like that.”

He turned away from the twins and began to slowly walk around his room until he came to a small plaque on the wall. It had a man’s profile crafted in bronze and there was a brief inscription above the head in Latin. Octavius very gently ran his fingers over the words inscribed there.

“This plaque belonged to a very distant relative of my family. My grandfather found it one day when he’d been charged with the task of going through boxes upon boxes he’d inherited from a newly dead third cousin. It had been a rainy day as he was sorting and my father was getting unruly being stuck in the house. So my grandfather upon finding this old thing gave it to Octavius the First and told him he should investigate who this man was and what these unknown words said about him. My father was only eight at the time. It’s the very thing that started him on the course he took through life.

“You see, he found out that this man, also an Obediah from a very distant line of the family, had been apart of that last Magnus Certatio race. He’d never made it to the finish line it was thought. In fact, he was never seen again after being accounted for at the last stop before going onto the final leg of the race. The Vitandi gave his family this plaque to denote their respect of his fierce intellect, quest for knowledge, and passion for all the things the Vitandi believed in. It was small conciliation to a family who lost their only breadwinner. I guess that’s why the plaque also came with a small fortune to help care for his family.”

Octavius moved back to the twins and now that he seemed to have their devoted attention he retook his seat across from them. For the moment they both looked every bit their young age and curious. It was a good start that he could at least spark some curiosity in them.

“I’m going to assume access to rare books is a fairly common thing for both of you. I’m also quite sure that you, my lovely Frangipani, have studied some of the most arcane secrets the Vitandi has in its possession. I’m sure when you researched me you recorded to memory every item within my collection, no matter how big or small. You offered me a small slight by calling them little treasures but you and I both know that there are countless people in my world and yours who would give anything for just one of the items I possess.

“So this is why I feel the need to give you this brief history lesson of my family and your own collective. You see something very huge happened during the course of that last Magnus Certatio and while no one outside of the Vitandi of that era knows what that was, we know it was the biggest race ever to be organized by the Vitandi and the participants were some of the greatest intellects and explorers of that time. We know it was a very dangerous race that traveled a tricky line between the physical world and the metaphysical one. Racers died or went missing. Curses kept safe on the dusk side were brought into the light. It was a dark event that cast shadows for years afterwards. It’s no mystery to me why the Vitandi leader of that era decided to retire the event. It’s also not a mystery to me why this missing man my father never knew in life would spark him to become one of the few people who would finally know what happened during that last race.”

Octavius fell silent as he continued to sort through the things that needed to be said; things said for both the benefit of his guests and himself. There was an answer in there somewhere to the thing troubling him.

The collector nodded his head back towards the plaque on the wall. “The plaque of this other Obediah sparked my father’s imagination and he began the process of researching him. Of course my father knew nothing about how to do this so he first had to learn how to be a researcher. Libraries and museums became second homes to him. His father would have had him an architect like himself, but Octavius the First already knew, as he got to know this other Obediah, that he was going to follow in that man’s footsteps.

“When he went to university he met a professor who would become his mentor. Instead of spending time in the class room he’d be off in some foreign country taking notes for this man and following after him with archaeological equipment. His young life was something incredible.

“Oh the stories my father told about those early days! How could I not follow in his footsteps after hearing such things? And the things he would bring home! As a child I spent more time around that professor of his than I did my own grandfather, that’s how close the two men where. I had the benefit of both men educating me on their craft. The one thing I know better than anything is that no matter what adventure my father was on or what thing he and his mentor were studying, at the end of the day he reserved his last hours to add to his research about this mysterious Obediah and so also his knowledge of the race that apparently ended his life. When it came right down to it that was what really mattered to him.”

Octavius paused, leaning back casually in his chair. He looked at the woman and offered her a very slight smirk. “Do you know why I’d bother telling you all of this?” he asked her.

The sleek, black haired creature shook her head slowly. There was a slight smirk settling on her lips as well.

“No.” she replied in the more seductive tone she’d began their conversation with.

Octavius leaned forward speaking directly to her. The brother might as well have not even been in the room.

“I tell you this because something has been troubling me a little since the Baron approached me. At first I thought it was just the simple fact that I don’t trust a word that comes out of the Baron’s mouth and therefore I’m somewhat reluctant to become involved with something he is apart of. It wasn’t that though. It was the fact that my regular maid Stella kept at me for how stupid I was being even considering being apart of this event. The wonderful dear is older than dirt I’m sure and been apart of this household for long before I was born into it. She does have her great moments of clarity though. She was not chastising me for this because of the Baron or the danger such an event might pose, but because she knew what my father went through with his obsession with the Magnus Certatio.

“You see, there was not one racer whose name my father didn’t know. No route, no found artifact, not one little detail that he didn’t discover. He was so thorough in his research and somehow ridiculously gifted with acquiring the information he wanted that he was probably the only true authority on the event in the world. That goes for the people within the Vitandi as well. The Vitandi sought to cover the event up thereby creating an environment where my father was quite alone in his research. That made him rather unique. It also made him quite the nuisance to some in the Vitandi.

“After all that time and research my father reached out to the Vitandi with one request: Bring back the race. He was willing to chart the race’s course and set the goals and basically do anything the Vitandi required of him. All he wanted was the right to be among the racers.”

“To what end?” Frangipani whispered.

“Can’t you guess?” Octavius replied. “To recreate the very last race, the one that brought an end to the Magnus Certatio altogether. To take up where our lost Obediah left off. He wanted to succeed where the other man had failed and hopefully discover what happened to him in the process. I think he began to feel like that lost relative was somewhere alone in an unnatural place and needed to be free… to find peace. It was an obsession of his that became more pronounced the older he got and the more he was turned down by the Vitandi.”

Octavius asked his temporary butler to bring them some fresh tea as an excuse to take a breath. The twins sat quietly staring at him waiting for him to continue.

It was a funny thing for him to be speaking so candidly to these strangers, as he had not started his day off with any intention of offering the story of his father. As things started to take a wrong turn with these two youths, both so very much the types of individuals he didn’t want to deal with, he had began to think more and more about what his father would have thought of the affair. There would have been no moments of confusion for him. He’d never have let a seductive voice and a pretty face startle him. Stella had told him his father would have never been so foolish as to take part in this thing and that just went to show how well he’d hidden the scope of his obsession from everyone but his son. Not only would his father have taken part in this in a heartbeat, he would have seen it as a way to help heal the Vitandi. By the end of his lifetime he seemed to be privately aware of the state of the collective even if he hadn’t wanted to share that part with his son.

By the end of his life Octavius the First had solved his mysteries and learned a great deal of unsettling things in the process. He’d kept these things to himself though and not shared them with his son. Instead he left Octavius the Second the keys to his private library and a request to not access his private research until the son felt it was the right time. Somehow it felt like that piece of his life was unknowingly entangled with the moment at hand.

“One day someone will seek out the things I know and then it will be up to you to decide if the burden of my life need be passed onto you. Until then enjoy the world I have educated you to move so successfully through. Be weary of any quest that seems too dark and foolhardy. And know that wherever life takes you it is where you were meant to go, whether that be your own path or the one I set for myself and left to you.” These were his father’s last written words to him. Octavius had an overpowering sensation that these words were almost prophetic to the woman and her collective who were now seeking him out.

The butler brought a tray of tea into the room along with a small table he set between the three seats. Octavius pulled himself from his thoughts back to the present as he took a cup of tea.

“There is much I could continue to say in my little history lesson but I guess my desire was only to educate you enough on my past so you can better understand my position here. You see, no one knows any of those things about my father except for me and the few Vitandi elders he dealt with through his life. It helped keep that part of his life a secret, which he thought was very important. He deliberately put red herrings out into the world for those who tried to tempt him into giving up his research and there have been many who want what he knows.

“When the Baron came to me with his proposition he had researched me well enough to know that using my father’s own obsessions to bait me would on the surface offend me while deep down it would be the thing that stirred the passion within me to agree to work with the Vitandi. But the obsession he offered was one of those red herrings so it also told me that he didn’t truly know anything about the Magnus Certatio and its relationship to my father. He was just fishing for the right bait.”

Octavius set his tea down and stood up again. His head was starting to ache under the enormity of what he was slowly realizing. He walked back over to the wall to look upon the bronze profile of a relative he would never know. His actions weren’t meant to be dramatic; he was simply starting to feel overwhelmed.

Frangipani was eerily silent with her movements and Octavius didn’t realize she’d gotten up until her slim fingers were gently moving over his shoulder. She gave his tense muscles a gentle squeeze.

“Please continue Octavius.”

Octavius had little doubt this creature Frangipani was a truly dark individual, but in knowing that the moments where she was soft felt all the better.

“The Baron…” he faltered for a moment as he looked for the right explanation for his suspicions. “The Baron knew how to tempt me but he had the wrong information to do so. Still, it worked because I knew what my father would tell me to do. However, what has struck me as curious is that he said the Vitandi had specific items of mine they wanted to use for their race. They also felt my knowledge of previous races could help me chart the course they were hoping to use for this reinvention of the event.”

He turned around so he could look the young woman in the eyes. “I won’t sell myself short. I’m very good at what I do and I’ve seen and discovered my share of grand things. There are, however, any countless people in my circle of peers who would be far better planning such an event than myself. Many of them are trying to actively put together their own events. The Baron is one of them. Yes, he might be all glitter and extravagance, but he knows how to organize events of this grand scale, but the Vitandi sent him to enlist me to that purpose. And the notes sent to me to look over before this meeting? Not one item on there is something that I found. Though they are the property of the House of Obediah, they are all still my father’s conquests and relate directly to his private research. This leads me to believe someone within the Vitandi is still aware of my father’s obsessive studies and they would like me do what he was never allowed to do. This wouldn’t bother me so much but you say your race has dual intentions.” Octavius shook his head slowly, conflicted. “And you did manage to so subtly slip in a reference to my family’s history with this matter in your sales pitch.”

Frangipani smiled and let her fingers (in a gesture a bit too casual for a first time meeting with a stranger) gently touch the man’s cheek. Again the goosebumps found his skin.

“Is that such a bad thing really? To know we’ve done our research?” she whispered.

Octavius took her hand with gentle but assertive force and removed it from his skin.

“I guess that depends.” he replied.

“On what?”

“Why now? Why not before when my father was alive and well and not only offering but begging for the opportunity? My knowledge is second hand at best. He was the authority.”

The woman smiled at him. That smile… a smile all white and full of shark teeth like before.

Octavius was losing his authority over their meeting again but he didn’t really care. His mind was already made up. It had been made up long before the twins stepped into this room and brought with them their reasons for doubt. He didn’t care though. It was as if he’d already sold his soul at the first offer of doing so. Signing the contract in his blood was now simply a formality. He just needed to know the true reasons behind the offer where he was concerned.

“Why now Frangipani?” he whispered.

“Weren’t you listening?” she cooed. “I told you in the beginning, Riker Rouge. Timing is everything when seeking out the miraculous. An anniversary is fast approaching and we only just found confirmation of this. Perhaps it would have been your father’s honor but the timing was not in his favor. It’s in yours though. I think perhaps you’ve closed yourself off to your father’s full history or else you would know this. The path to Riker Rouge is on the rise. For us it now or never in our lifetime.”

“It doesn’t exist.” Octavius insisted. “It’s a dreamer’s dream. A fairy tale or a lullaby with some very hideous notes.” He shook his head. Was he trying to convince himself or her? Or was the truth that he had honored his father’s wishes and never pursued the final secrets to his research and he didn’t want this fool’s quest to be his father’s secret? “Folly…” he whispered.

The woman would not be swayed. She straightened up and took a few steps back and looked deathly serious. She called for her aunt. The dowdy woman quickly stomped back into the room upon her niece’s command.

“Octavius? Have you ever heard of Professor Vogel?”

Octavius nodded his head. Of course he knew the man; his collection hosted the majority of the strange inventor’s more dangerous or mischievous creations. Vogel was the last person he wanted to come up in a conversation like this.

Frangipani smiled, ignoring the collector’s growing discomfort.

“Professor Vogel is a bit of an enigma. He’s a professor of languages. In his youth he had a bit of a reputation for his gift with deciphering lost or dead languages. At university he taught linguistics and was considered a likable but absent minded man. Because of this his colleagues and students found it amusing when he decided to take up inventing. No one was laughing when they saw the things he invented, the good or the bad. I know you’re keenly aware of this.” She motioned towards the large display holding Vogel’s infamous reading machine for the blind. “So you can appreciate what it means that Vogel has created his own camera. He wanted to create something that captures what needs to be seen. Plain and simple. However, as simple as that sounds his camera is every bit the strange invention. Perhaps more so because as strange as it is it actually does what the man intended for a change. And it has shown us something very interesting. Granted it is but a murmur and where we found it is most likely just an echo to help give us a direction to follow. Yet…”

The woman snapped her delicate fingers at her aunt and pointed towards the bag the aunt carried. “Show him.” she instructed.

The aunt dropped down to one knee and opened up a leather bag she had at her side. From within it she withdrew an object that was wrapped in a linen cloth. She stood, pulling the edges of the cloth back so that the item inside could be seen. It was a glass plate with an image burned into it. The strange photograph was presented to the collector and he felt his heart catch in his chest as he looked at the scene within it.

“Does that look like a fairy tale Octavius the Second?” Frangipani whispered.

III

The house was empty. The temporary help had been given their full wages and sent back to their permanent places of employment. The awful young woman and her evil twin were thankfully long gone, though like the stink the Baron left in his library, the smell of Frangipani’s perfumed skin lingered in the display room. Octavius caught himself drifting in there now and then to remind himself of that scent. He wasn’t sure if it was a pleasant thing or something to torment himself with. It was hard to admit he was as frightened of the young woman as he was attracted to her.

The meeting with the Vitandi representatives did not go as he’d planned or even remotely as he’d hoped. As he had time to sit and contemplate these facts Octavius wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing. There had never been any doubt in his mind he was going to pursue this interaction with the Vitandi. The ghost of his father would have propelled itself through Mr. Olophant’s ghost traps and haunted his son to the end of his days if he’d declined even if his father’s own words had said it would be his choice. There was also the fact that in doing this Octavius the Second finally had the opportunity to propel his reputation past that of Octavius the First. It was a selfish aspiration but still something he was willing to admit to. When one adopted the obsession of another the desire to see that obsession satiated where the other could not came with it.

No, what was weighing heavily on the collector’s mind was the enormity of what he was about to willingly undertake. It was a massive thing and he could already feel how it was starting to press down upon him from all sides. He would only have a week to get this weight under control and show up at the Vitandi’s main house to begin the process of planning a very great race.

Octavius stood outside of his father’s private library. He rarely entered the room and on those few occasions he did it was to go through files pertaining to anything but his father’s main body of research. That room still held an entire place of mystery for the son.

His hand was shaking a little as he reached for the door handle. He brought the door’s key forward and then found himself staggering backwards. There was already half a bottle of whiskey making its way through his liver and he still didn’t feel sufficiently numb enough to go into his father’s library. In a rather cowardly fashion he turned his back on the door and rushed back to his library to finish the rest of the whiskey.

IV

“Be a good little auntie and bring me an iced tea, tall glass, extra ice, with some of that peach liquor the sky pirate brought us.”

Frangipani’s voice was not the soft and seductive thing she used for the collector Obediah. This was her real voice. A voice that was much deeper and far more threatening even when asking for little things like spiked ice tea. Those around her were used to this voice but felt no less dread when listening to her. Her gruff aunt felt the most hassled by it.

“Yes Frangi.” the aunt said and quickly rushed out of the room.

The slender woman made her way through the Vitandi’s main mansion until she came to her series of private rooms. She snapped her fingers as she passed through a set of French double doors and a servant popped out of nowhere at attention. The tiny maid quickly snatched up articles of clothing as Frangipani walked and undressed. When she reached her bedroom she was nude and pulling the silver sticks from the bun at the back of her head. Her very long black hair spilled over her pale form. She looked like a black haired Godiva.

She pulled a silk kimono from her wardrobe and slowly slid it over her arms as her brother came casually waltzing into the room. He set a tall glass of iced tea on the night stand before flopping himself down on his sister’s bed. If there was one gift the young man had it was to be casual and lazy without ever spilling his drink. The whiskey sour in his hand never so much as jumped as he fell into the soft down comforter of the bed.

“Auntie asked me to bring that to you. She’s a little upset at the moment. The elders heard we were back and sent for her immediately.” He sipped from his drink and grinned. “I’m sure she’s absolutely looking forward to explaining your aggressive approach with the collector. I thought things like knowing what his father had been up to and the Vitandi’s secret intentions were need to know?”

Frangipani scoffed at this as she pulled her long hair from her kimono. She moved over to her vanity and took a seat. Her eyes squinted a little as she tried to see herself in the mirror in front of her. The glamour cast on the mirror was growing weak. She snatched her brush and began roughly brushing her hair as she looked back to glare at her brother.

“She should be grateful anyone has any use for her at all.” she barked. “Besides, I was given the council’s full confidence in handling the meeting as I saw fit. Being honest with Mr Obediah was how I saw fit. He’s not a man we’re going fool into giving us what we need. He’s not the Baron; ever ready to do whatever I want with little more than some baby talk on my part and some pampering of his ego. Octavius is someone who will fall in line and do as we want because his father’s obsession has already influenced him to do so.”

Lee shrugged his shoulders and finished off his drink. He set it on the night stand and laid back on the bed, slipping his hands underneath his head.

“I don’t care one way or another. At the end of this whole boring affair I just want what you promised me.”

Frangipani set the hair brush down and stood. She slinked onto the bed and slipped her legs over her brother’s mid section and straddled him. The contact was far too intimate for siblings. To make it more uncomfortable to anyone looking in on the scene, Frangipani leaned over her brother so that her kimono fell open and exposed her slight breasts. She reached for Lee’s hands and pulled them from behind his head and placed them on her chest.

“I keep my promise to you and you keep your promise to me and we will be the avatars in that dark place when this is all over. We’ll see those in the deep and have their power.” She moved her brother’s hands around as she ground her body into his hips. “Real power is the only thing that will break through that jaded skin of yours isn’t it?”

Lee nodded, letting his mouth slip into a smile. He’d long since lost any form of shame this type of interaction with his twin should have brought. “Indeed.” he whispered.

The next moment Frangipani lunged at her brother, grabbing him by the throat and digging her nails into the skin there until she drew blood. Lee choked but he made no move to stop the creature’s abuse. He knew better than to fight back. That too was something he’d long lost the will for.

“You’re hurting.” he wheezed. The slender woman was deceptively strong.

“That’s my intention.” she hissed. “You should have been studying up for today last night but instead I saw you playing up to that whore from the Hollow Society. Neither one of us will get what we’ve been promised if you lose your way now. Keep it in your pants!”

Lee said nothing. On a day to day basis he doubted the things the Vitandi had taught him and the fate they had planned for him and his twin sister. He wanted nothing more than shun everything he’d been raised (or better stated, forced) to believe and run off with his inherited fortune. He wanted to know a woman in the way young men were allowed to know a woman; especially one he hadn’t spent nine months sharing a womb with. He wanted to spend a day where he didn’t wake to dark prayers and soul bruising rituals. The only thing that kept him from fleeing that life was the tiny possibility that what he’d been raised to become might actually come to pass. And what kept him believing it was possible? The absolute belief and conviction of his twin sister.

Frangipani loosened her grip on her brother’s throat as Lee brought his hands to her face and pulled her towards him. He kissed her in the passionate way he would his soulmate. She was probably the closest thing he would ever know of such a thing.

“There is no other as important to me than you my sister. Forgive me for my brief distractions, they aren’t meant as a slight to you or a show of weakness on my part. It was just out of boredom and a desire to see how much of a fool I could make out of her. I thought you liked those games. You used to play them with me.”

The young woman smiled and let her body gently fall to the bed beside the man. Lee rolled to his side so that he could run his hand through his sister’s long hair. Her eyes closed and her body relaxed. A relaxed Frangipani was a happy Frangipani.

“I’ll put the glamour back on your mirror tomorrow after the morning rituals.” he whispered into her ear. “No one as beautiful as you should be denied seeing that beauty.”

His sister nodded her head as she turned away from him, to silently implore Lee to rub her back. He sat up enough to put his hands to the delicate lines of the her back.

“Do you think this collector man really is the key to our goals?”

Frangipani said nothing but nodded her head slowly.

“How can you be so sure? We’re waging nearly everything on him.”

Frangipani’s eyes lazily opened and looked back at her brother. “He is his father’s son. He just needed a little nudging in the right direction. We were able to provide that for him today.”

“If you know his father has all the information we need, why aren’t we simply going in there and taking it? Why allow a variable we can’t control?”

The young woman sighed, only barely tolerating these moments when her brother attempted to play a thoughtful part in Vitandi plans. She let her eyes close again and didn’t answer him immediately. Slowly she brought her hand up to her brother’s cheek and gave him a pet like he was a nervous child.

“My love, I know a lot but I don’t know what Octavius’ father knew. There might come a moment where we have to explore a more aggressive approach which means liberating the collector of his father’s things, but we’ll worry about that after we’ve seen just how helpful and devoted to this task the son is. He has experience we do not.”

Frangipani sat up and reached for her spiked tea. She took several healthy gulps from the glass and let the blissful sensation of the extreme cold mingling with the strong liquor cool her. Slowly the alcohol calmed her further. She reached for her twin and pulled him to her.

“Sweet Lee, today I offered that man the very thing his father never had access to. I know he is where I want him to be. So please try to understand that the Vitandi never throws away a potential resource until we’ve exhausted every last opportunity it has to offer. Octavius Orwell Obediah the Second, the great collector, will help us till the absolute moment he can help us no longer. Then we will take all that is his and soldier over the remains of the House of Obediah. Now…” she pulled Lee close to her lips. “Tell again that I’m beautiful and make me feel it.”