The Vintner residence was serene this early summer evening. Xarina and Rosario had washed and stored all of the dishes while Radagast retired to his study to ponder some documents. The girls had returned to their rooms after a quick run around the neighborhood and a hot shower (for Rosario, at least—Xarina still insisted on bathing herself in typical cat-fashion most days). Radagast had questioned the wisdom of allowing Xarina to take her evening constitutional in jaguar form, but Rosario had assured him that no one was likely to object—most people wouldn’t think twice about a young woman running around the block with a big furry companion, she said, and would most likely think the werecat was merely a large dog. To assuage the old wizard’s concerns, Xarina had hesitantly acquiesced in allowing Radagast to place a subtle veil on a collar she could wear while running that would blur the perceptions of any passers-by who might otherwise take an interest.
The low drone of a radio piping pop music filtered down from the girls’ rooms into the parlor of the estate, but Radagast paid it no mind—he’d become accustomed to far worse clamor when Nick lived here, what with all that Fnord nonsense upon which he’d been so fixated. The wizard busied himelf about his study, pausing momentarily to admire the souvenirs he’d collected over the centuries. On an oaken table to the left of his desk lay a collection of ritual athames from the British Isles, their shine protected by an anti-tarnishing charm carved into the table’s surface.
Across the room, glass cabinets inscribed with protective wards held other wonders: Egyptian scarabs of varying designs and materials; belt buckles that once belonged to decorated Mandarin warriors; a collection of Roman coins which remained in shockingly good condition considering their age; a book of shadows procured from a lost sect of Italian bruja; a set of handcarved stakes and Romanian crucifixes left over from the war with the Black Court; and a small silken pouch of dirt he’d kept from when his business with the Council took him to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. An old scar on his midsection, wide and deep, began to itch; absentmindedly, he reached beneath his robe to scratch at the tough, knotted flesh. He seemed to have forgotten how he got the scar, and it bothered him only occasionally.
He’d lost his brightest apprentice at Belzec, and this soil, mingled with her blood, was all that remained of her. With each passing day, it got harder and harder to remember her smile, her voice, as if time itself had taken another piece of his memory as payment for letting him draw breath at a new dawn. For just a moment, though, staring at that silk bag, he could remember Aislinn’s face. Tearing up at this remembrance, Radagast made the sign of the Rays of Awen above the pouch, kissed the amulet around his neck, then dusted off the glass curio cabinets and tottered over to his bookshelves.
With a heave and a wheeze, he pulled a heavy volume off the shelf and brushed a thin layer of dust from the cover. It was a treatise by Merlin Arthur Langtree on the legal peculiarities of the Unseelie Accords—a document with which Radagast had once been intimately familiar, but hadn’t had need to study in any detail in quite a few years.
That had changed drastically in the last 24 hours. Rae Lawrence was determined to become a signatory to the Accords, a decision from which Radagast had hoped to dissuade the young practitioner. But Rae’s determination was iron-set, and Vintner couldn’t find it in his heart to deny her request for his aid, especially knowing her motivation. I’ve done some foolish things myself in order to protect those too weak to protect themselves, he thought. And here I go again. Can’t teach an old magus new charms.
Hours passed as Radagast pored over the text, considering his options. He was loathe to advise Rae to ally directly with a fey court in order to gain a sponsorship, for fear of her changeling charges meeting the very fate they sought to escape. Seeking a favor from any of the vampire courts wasn’t advisable, either… not even the White Court, especially given the ardent interest House Raith’s emissary had expressed toward Rae.
The sun had long since set, and though night’s darkness had settled across Charleston, the sweltering summer temperatures had not abated. Radagast didn’t mind the warmth, much preferring it to the chill of winter, all things considered—cold made his joints ache and slowed his blood flow, an unavoidable inconvenience of his advancing years. But the humidity and heat made him drowsy, and before he knew it, he’d passed out with his face buried in Langtree’s words.
And then he dreamed.
A figure draped in dark purple, almost black, robes strode toward Radagast from the darkness. The features of his face were familiar, even friendly, but his eyes bespoke a dangerous malice. His neatly trimmed black beard, tinted with subtle streaks of gray, brushed up against a talisman hanging from a silver chain around his neck: an inverted pentagram carved from serpentine and circumscribed in lustrous obsidian. In his left hand, he clutched a staff of gold topped with a ruby prism.
“You are not real,” Radagast said to the vision.
“Reality is subjective, old friend,” said the dark man. “Anything is possible in a dream.”
“I killed you.”
“You buried me,” the man said with corrective emphasis. “There is a difference. Perhaps your mind is too weak to recall it when you are awake just yet, but in your dreams you can see clearly again. Soon your conscious mind will begin to remember.”
“I could never forget the harm you visited upon me, Illuviel. I will carry that scar upon my heart to my dying day. So speak whatever foul desire you harbor and let us be done with this farce. When I awake, you will be but a memory again.”
The dark man’s eyes glittered from an unseen light in the dreamscape. “Your new protege needs a sponsor. Our people could provide that. For a price, of course.”
“Oh, I’m sure you could. But Rae Lawrence’s soul is not on the table. Nor that of her charges.”
“You might change your mind about that soon. In any event, I don’t want that weakling’s soul… or yours. I only want your magic—for a time. War is coming, Vintner. And though the most vicious battles rage elsewhere in this wretched world, Charleston will not be spared. Let us put aside our differences and assist one another. Our enemies are soon to become your enemies, if they haven’t already. What furthers your goals furthers ours… for the immediate future, at any rate.”
“I could never put aside the enmity which exists between us, Illuviel. You killed my niece. My only living blood relative save for her son, and my brightest student… you took her from me, devil. Aislinn will never again draw breath, never again know the touch of a loved one, never teach her own apprentice. I shall never forgive you for that. Whatever hell Nicholas sent you to, you deserve every torment it holds.”
“I do not ask for anyone’s forgiveness, wizard, least of all yours. Only your good sense. You cannot win this battle. Not without me.” The dark man gazed into the distance, as if peering beyond the veil of dreams into other realities, seeking other minds to inhabit. “Where is the wayward child, incidentally? It has been so long since I visited the boy. A pity your bloodline’s talents never manifested in him. He might have been more… pliable than his mother was.” He smiled, an expression that seemed preternaturally sinister.
“Nicholas is forever beyond your reach, Illuviel. Michael’s aegis protects him from your foul influence. My grandnephew will never become a wizard, ‘tis true, but he has made me quite proud nonetheless. Though he wielded that blade for but a day, he has served mankind well. He is marked by the sword of Hope, eternally protected by its forger’s grace as thanks for his service.”
Illuviel’s smile disappeared. “Ah, yes, Roland’s accursed saber. I understand it has made its way to Russia now. Wielded by one of our alumni, as it were. I wonder how long it will be before he returns to us? Once we sink our fangs into our prey, we never truly let go of it. Of course, you of all people realize that, I’m sure.”
Radagast stepped toward the dark man, raising his walking stick and drawing the sign of the Rays before him. “Return to your banishment, Illuviel. I proved my authority over you long ago. By my command, return to whatever sulfurous pit you crawled out of, and never return here again.”
The dark man closed his eyes. As he did so, another pair opened higher on his forehead—eyes that burned orange. Between them, a sigil of green fire burned into his alabaster flesh, forming the shape of the inverted pentagram. Dark wings tipped in midnight-blue feathers unfolded behind the unwanted visitor.
“As you wish, Radagast. But one day, you will beg for my aid. And when that time comes, my price will be much, much steeper. Mark well what I have said, wizard.”
The dark man disappeared in a gout of smoke and hellfire.
The study had cooled somewhat; Radagast looked over at the grandfather clock by the curio cabinet. 3:00 in the morning. His neck and back ached from sleeping hunched over the desk and book. Yawning and scratching once again at his scarred belly, he closed the volume and returned it to the shelf.
As he passed the curio cabinet, making the sign of the Rays before the sacred bag of soil once more, Radagast thought he remembered dreaming something just moments previously, but could not for the life of him remember what. Shrugging and balancing himself on his cane, the old wizard closed the door to the study and locked it.
The wan moonlight entering the empty room from the window illuminated little in the study, save for a single silver coin that glimmered within the cabinet.