The lady was a troll, no mistaking that. She had features of aristocratic character, finely sculpted like marble, though the fine wrinkles that mapped her face spoke of advanced age. Her hair was all white wisps, a mass of snowy locks artfully curled and beribboned. She wore a gown of crisp blue silk, with lace about the wide-cut neckline and wide, full sleeves. The skirt was very full, and at once I understood the source of those rustling sounds. Not curtains, but a dress. She had walked right up to us, and though we had not seen her, we had heard the motion of her skirts.
At least, I had. What did that mean?
I made her a curtsey, for she was evidently a woman of stature — in the sense of rank, at least, if not height, for she was only a little taller than me. ‘Madam,’ I said, with scrupulous politeness, for her faded blue eyes were fixed upon me with no friendly expression. ‘We trespass, I cannot deny, but it is not our intention to disturb your peace. We come upon an urgent errand.’
No response was made me, but nor did the lady interrupt. She waited, impassive, listening.
So I went on.
‘Is this…’ I began, and paused, blinking away the uncomfortable effects of another flickering surge of shadows and light. ‘Am I gone back in time?’
‘Nay,’ said the lady. ‘Tis beyond the power of magick, that.’
‘Then what is this? Where have I gone? For I am not where I was before, of that I am certain.’
‘You have not moved, I vow, save in time.’
‘But you said—’
‘You are caught between the echoes, and shall here remain until it please me to release you.’
I do not know if I was expected to make any sense out of these impenetrable words, but my comprehension or lack thereof did not seem to trouble my reluctant hostess. For the moment, I abandoned my line of questioning.
‘My name is Cordelia Vesper,’ I said — judging it best to offer my full name, for to a woman who, I strongly suspected, had survived somehow since the fall of Farringale, the old-fashioned formality of “Cordelia” would sound better than the terse modernity of “Ves”. ‘I work for the Society for Magickal Heritage. I came here with two colleagues, as well as Baron Alban, a representative of the current Troll Court. May I know whose acquaintance I have had the unexpected pleasure of making?’ I ended this speech with a winning smile, the kind that invariably puts people at their ease.
She scrutinised me in silence, not softening towards me one whit. ‘You address Baroness Tremayne.’
I curtsied again, a gesture she deigned to acknowledge with a nod of her head. I wondered, briefly, why she had selected me, out of the four of us, for interrogation. Would she not more naturally have chosen Alban? ‘We are here to—’
She spoke abruptly, cutting me off. ‘Long ages have passed, since last came the footsteps of another in these lost halls. How came you here? What arts carried you past our thrice-locked doors?’
‘Keys,’ I said promptly, wishing I had been able to retrieve one of them on our way in. Presumably they were still embedded in the side of Alresford Bridge. ‘Baron Alban secured two from the Court, I know not by what means. Mine was the third, given into my keeping by…’ I hesitated, suddenly much inconvenienced by the House’s lack of an obvious title. ‘By the House in which my Society is based,’ I said, much disliking the awkwardness and imprecision of this designation.
But its effect upon Baroness Tremayne was curiously profound. ‘A House?’ she repeated, laying just such emphasis upon the word as to suggest that she knew precisely what kind of House I was referring to. ‘Say on.’
So I told her about Home, but I had not proceeded much further than to mention its approximate location and date of construction before she stopped me.
‘It is well known to me.’ She looked at me afresh: less with suspicion, more with respect. ‘Your errand? Quickly.’
I did not need to go into great detail about that, either. I had scarcely got into the malaise at South Moors before she began to nod with evident comprehension, her gaze sharpening — and turning alarmed. She knows, I thought, with infinite relief. She recognised the problem, knew what it was. She would know how to help.
Baroness Tremayne listened in silent sorrow through my account of deserted Glenfinnan, and the moment I had finished outlining the turmoil at Baile Monaidh and Darrowdale, she came alive — all action and urgency where before she had been all silent stillness. ‘Something of a hurry, I find it,’ she said, and with a rustle of skirts she turned, and marched away across the hall. I trotted after, followed her into another grand library chamber much like the first, only larger. Jay had already discovered it, I quickly saw, for he was on the other side of the room, intent upon the shelves. He was difficult to see clearly, however, for like the shadows and the light, he flickered strangely in my vision, and moved from place to place in jerky, darting motions most unnatural. He did not appear to see the baroness, or me.
‘Your companion?’ said Baroness Tremayne.
The baroness made no move to approach Jay or to talk to him, in spite of her question. She ignored him entirely, and crossed instead to a shelf in a different part of the room. A quick, deft movement; she reached out, selected a single, slim volume, which she put into my hands; then away she went, quick of step and purposeful. ‘It would be well to hurry, Cordelia Vesper,’ she called over her shoulder to me.
I looked longingly at the book. It was bound in dark leather, quite blank; not a single word was embossed into its aging covers. I hungered to open it then and there, devour its contents immediately, and it cost me every shred of willpower I possessed to tuck it carefully away into my bag, unopened.
Jay had seen something. He was at a far shelf, back turned, reading. Then he was on the other side of the room, near where the baroness had stopped, hand outstretched towards the slim gap in the shelves that had not been there moments before.
Mischief welled up in me, irrepressible, and I succumbed to temptation. As I darted past Jay in the baroness’s wake I trailed my fingers over the back of his neck, a feather-light touch which would certainly make him jump.
I did not pause to observe the effects of my misdemeanour, for the baroness was disappearing back into the hall. I hastened to catch up, forgetting Jay in an instant when I realised that her ladyship was walking straight into the far wall.
Not into it — through it. This was so powerfully reminiscent of what I myself had recently done at Home, courtesy of House, that I was much struck. Were such arts commonly employed, long ago? I needed no further proof of the deleterious effects of time, the way our magick had faded, dimmed. The baroness was mistress of magicks so long forgotten, most of us did not know they existed.
I followed after, approaching the wall with some trepidation. It had swallowed the baroness without trace, but to me it looked as solid as ever.
So it proved to be, for my face met cold, unyielding stone and there I stayed.
‘Baroness?’ I called.
Seconds ticked past, and my trepidation grew. Had she simply left, and abandoned me? I no longer felt that she intended to leave me stranded between the echoes, as she had earlier threatened to do. But since she had not explained what that meant, perhaps she was doing me the undeserved honour of assuming that I knew; that I could manipulate the echoes as she did, and find my own way out. ‘Baroness Tremayne?’ I called again.
Her head appeared through the wall, devoid of neck or body; a disconcerting sight. ‘Follow, child,’ she chided me, and I was too embarrassed by my ignorance to take exception to the term child. In her eyes, I probably was, and more or less deservedly.
‘I cannot,’ I confessed.
Her disembodied head tilted strangely; she was puzzled by me. ‘Strange,’ she commented. Then her arm appeared, reaching for me. I permitted myself to be grabbed. A swift, sharp tug, and the wall melted before me.
I fell through, with a regrettable lack of grace.
On the other side was a spiral staircase winding its way down into some subterranean space. There were no doors or windows set into the walls, just unbroken stone. Baroness Tremayne was already halfway down the stairs.
‘Wait,’ I gasped, hurrying to catch up. ‘Who are you? What are these magicks you perform with such ease? They are forgotten now.’
‘Not forgotten, while the House remains.’
‘But they are not learned, not taught. We know nothing of them, not even at the University.’ Her stride was long for her relatively insignificant height, and I had to work to keep up. The air cooled as we descended, the light dimmed; this place was obviously not intended for use by such folk as I. ‘I do not know what you mean by the echoes.’
‘Spells, rare and strange,’ said the baroness, whisking out of sight around a corner; we had reached the bottom of the stairs. ‘Dark arts, to the minds of some. They were afeared. No university has ever taught our ways.’
‘Our ways?’ I repeated. ‘Who do you mean by that? How are you here? Who are you?’
It did not matter how insistent I was with my questions; they all went equally unanswered. Baroness Tremayne stood motionless at the foot of the stairs, her gaze intent upon something I could not see until I joined her.
Then, all at once, I understood.
We had travelled into the depths of a network of cellars. Low-ceilinged passageways spread before me, intersections branching off into the darkness. The light was so low I could see little but great, craggy blocks of stone stacked into graceless walls, each set with heavy oaken doors held shut with black iron bars. The only light in those cellars was of a faded, sickly character, and its source was no sconce or torch or globe of wisp-light. The light came, somehow, from the floor, and it glimmered and shifted in a way that suggested ceaseless, writhing movement. I did not immediately understand.
I looked closer, stared harder. The floor surged and wriggled in waves of frantic motion, as though it was alive.
Which, effectively, it was.
‘They are… worms?’ I whispered, appalled. ‘Maggots?’
Baroness Tremayne shook her head, her gaze never wavering from the mass of pale, writhing creatures that carpeted the floor and the weird light that clung to their tiny, repulsive forms. ‘Ortherex,’ she said, and the word struck me as vaguely familiar. I had heard it before, somewhere — or more probably, I had read it. ‘Parasites,’ the baroness continued. She bent from the waist, a slow, stately movement, and extracted a single worm from the writhing mass. This she held up for my inspection.
I grabbed a glow-sphere from my bag and activated it with a flick of a finger. A clear, bright white light shone forth, a comfortingly clean radiance compared to the sickly glow of the ortherex. Thus illuminated, I could clearly see its plump, segmented, legless body, its toothless mouth, its covering of fine hairs. It had no eyes. ‘Parasites,’ I echoed, intrigued and disgusted. ‘They feed off a living host?’
The baroness nodded. ‘They prefer my kind, though it is not known why. Inside our soft bodies they lay their eggs. Their young swell and grow, feeding from our heart’s energies and the magicks woven into our blood. Such theft will kill us, and swiftly. Then, forth go the ortherex. Their preferred home thereafter is a deep place, dank and dark. Into the rock they go, to drink up such magicks as they find in our Dells and Enclaves, and to find new hosts.’
I felt sick, for by the baroness’s words I realised that the carpet of ortherex I could see was but the surface of the problem. Into the rock? How far down did that mass of parasites go?
And this was the cellar of the library alone. One building, out of a whole city.
Just how many billions of ortherex were there?