Last update: November 21st, 2017: Added third chapter
Table of contents
1- The Cave-Chamber
Chapter one, The Cave-Chamber
There was a crash; the ground trembled as clods of earth and stone fell from the ceiling of the chamber. Dust rose in the air, unsettled for the first time in centuries. There was another bang; more of the chamber disintegrated around her. Ixchel ran full force towards the pit at the center of the room, dodging missiles from the shattering ceiling that came dangerously close. The din of falling rocks continued, making the ground tremor and shake. Ixchel lost her footing as the floor ab.ruptly fractured beneath her.
"Fine mess you've gotten into love," called a voice from the upper level of the room. "You know, we really must stop meeting in these unpleasant circumstances."
Ixchel glanced up to the heavy stone balcony that ran along the chamber's perimeter. "Not the time Cade!" The pit was quickly filling up with dirt and earth; if she was going to get the artifact, she'd have to be quicker than the falling rubble. "What are you doing here, anyways?" she called out, while running towards the pit again.
A large stone landed on a stretch of the upper level, causing it to fracture. Cade bolted out of the way as the balcony splintered, forcing tiny shards into the air. "Oh, you know. Looking for this, finding that... Haven't seen a blue urn by chance, have you?" Another rock fell, causing part of the balcony to b.reak away. The impact shook the upper level violently, throwing Cade to the ground.
Ixchel pressed herself against a wall as deb.ris fell around her. "You okay?" she called up.
Cade groaned, pushing himself up from the balcony floor. He pressed his palm to his forehead as dizziness nearly overcame him. Pulling his hand away, he found it wet with blood. "Ask me again when we get out of here," he replied. Leaning up against the railing for support, he stood. "But really, have you spotted a big blue urn? The lore says it should be hidden in one of the walls or something."
Ixchel waited for a clod of loose rubble to fall in front of her before scrambling to the center of the chamber. She slid to her knees in front of the pit, and began frenziedly digging. Flinging lumps of dirt over her shoulder, she cried "No, I haven't. And you're on your own... I'm a bit busy down here!"
Cade carefully made his way around a corner of the upper level. "S'all right, I'll just have to keep a look out." Just as he said this, the chamber tremored and the wall on the far end of the balcony began to crumble to dust. Inching closer, he could see that some of the wall-rubble was plaster rather than rock. "Nevermind love, this looks promising."
He dashed to where the plaster lay on the balcony floor as Ixchel continued to dig. Dirt was falling faster by the minute, but still she was able to make progress. She was muddy and cut, but there was a small dent forming in the deb.ris, and her goal had to be nearly with in her grasp.
Cade, meanwhile, had arived at the source of the plaster. In the wall was a small hole, about the size of a large fist, which Cade could just barely put his hand through. It was hollow inside, proving that there was indeed some niche hidden behind it. The chamber shook violently again, and the upper level groaned and trembled. Thick cracks were forming on the balcony's floor, and lengths everywhere were begining to crash down. Frantically, Cade began pulling at the plaster opening, b.reaking heavy chunks off. Not five feet away, part of the balcony fell. The opening was hardly larger, but he had managed to pry enough away to put his arm in. Groping blindly, he happened upon a long and narrow object and pulled it out.
Down on the ground, Ixchel's fingers at last b.rushed up against something cool and hard. Yes, she thought, finally! The Golden Narwhal Horn! She dug around it with all her might, holding tight to the artifact, and pulled. It came free, and Ixchel b.rushed the thick caking of grime off the shockingly large form... only to find that it was the wrong artifact. She gazed uncomprehendingly at the thing in her hands until a piece of the railing above fell in an avalanche of rubble that rolled far to close to her. She held her hands up to protect her face from the the tiny stones that flew throught the air, and yelped upward "We have to get out of here! This cave isn't going to last much longer."
Cade tucked the object into his clothes. "Couldn't agree with you more," he replied, glancing about for a safe route down. Deb.ris continued to fall and the balcony to b.reak, throwing dust into the air. It was hard to b.reath and even harder to see-- Coughing, Cade made his way as quick as he could to the pile of rubble that had nearly crushed Ixchel not a moment before. It was only a few feet below the upper level, and angled down like a steep ramp. The floor beneath him suddenly began to give way, forcing him to run for it. The last of the balcony collapsed just as he began clamoring down the rubble.
"Come on!" Ixchel yelled in worried frustration. The ground shuttered once more, causing the rubble pile to shift. "Just jump, you're close enough to the ground!" she shrieked.
Cade nodded and lept to the chamber's floor. Ixchel grabed him by the arm, pulling him towards the room's exit. They ran, scarcely avoiding still-falling deb.ris, and finally dashed out into the sunlight. Behind them, the cave passage that led to the chamber was slowly being closed up as the last of the room collapsed.
Cade leaned back against the side of the mountainous cave's mouth, exausted. "Here," Ixchel said, walking passed him and shoving the artifact she had found into his chest. "You owe me a new dress for this. The one I've got on is ruined from retriving that damn thing. And by the way, it's more of a vase."
He smiled at the carved, dark blue crystal in his hands. "The Urn of Egeria. Thanks." He paused, thinking. "Say, you don't have any water, do you?"
Ixchel walked down the mountain path. "I left my supplies down here, hold on..." Returning she threw a skin filled with water at his feet. "You know, that cut on your forehead looks bad," she added, "you really ougth to do something about it."
"Already on it," Cade replied. He picked up the skin and let some of the water dribble into the vase. Then, he turned it over his head and let it pour onto the wound. When the water dripped away the gash was gone, as if it had never been there.
Ixchel huffed disappointedly, "Damn. I should have kept that."
Cade pulled the object he had found out where she could see. "How about a trade then?" he asked.
She gasped and pulled the sparkeling object out of Cade's hands. "The Golden Narwhal Horn! Where ever did you find this?" The answer dawned on her, and she continued. "Oh, the lore must have had it backwards. The Horn was in the wall and the Vase--"
"Urn," Cade corrected.
"It's a vase, Cade. Urns have lids-- was in the pit."
Cade shrugged and began walking down the path. "So are we even on the dress?"
"Oh no," Ixchel replied, following after him, "you're still buying me a new one."
Chapter two, Maayan
The sun was setting as the pair made their way down the mountain, casting shimmering shadows onto the path and painting the sky a myriad of b.rilliant colors. Not far down the trail was where Ixchel had left her pack of supplies, which she grabbed from the ground as they passed. They walked in silence and made good time getting down from the mountain to the rolling meadows below.
As they approched a lone patch of sparse trees, Ixchel slowed. "Cade," she said timidly, "I think you should go. You know, before Maayan sees you."
"I don't care what he says to me, the bastard. We can help eachother whenever we damn well please," he scoffed irritably, folding his arms across his chest.
Ixchel shrugged. "Its just that we work for different cabinet, and he's a stickler for the rules. I'm sure its nothing personal."
The pair neared a tree further away from the others in the coppice. Tied to it by a heavy jade chain was an angery, struggling man who glared furiously as they approched. Ixchel stopped a few feet away from him, looking timid and reprochful. "Hi Maayan," she said softly.
"You'll get written up for this," he replied to her, and glancing at Cade he growled "and for the scum."
"'Nothing personal' my ass..." Cade mumbled.
Maayan continued. "It's my job to keep you in line. How do you think this reflects on me? You do nothing but b.reak rules, fraternize with rivals... But this," he nodded to the jade chain, "this is a new low."
"How'd you get that on him, anyways?" Cade asked. "Jade dampens all magical abilities. You couldn't tie him up without touching it; you'd be weakened too."
Ixchel smiled mischievously and unfastened her intricate copper and turuoise earrings, which she threw to the ground at Maayan's feet. Instantly the chain disappeared, having never truly been there. "Don't forget Maayan," she said, "if it weren't for my rule bending you wouldn't be here."
Maayan cauiously stepped away from the tree, expecting further tricks. "You b.reak, not bend."
He was correct. But Ixchel was right about one thing-- if not for her, he wouldn't exist. Ixchel had b.roken nearly every directive and order she had ever been given in the process, but it was his reason for being. She was constantly told she wasn't good enough, wasn't strong enough, that she was too disobedient to achive anything with the abilities she had been born with. Undesurvingly born with, some had said. Magic was only granted to a select few, and she was lucky enough to be one of them.
At her father's funeral Ixchel had been approached by a middle aged Frenchman. He was a stranger, someone a traveling performer like her father would have never known. The gentleman told her that she interested him, and that he was in the business of interesting things. He gave her the earrings and told her to picture what she wanted most. Within moments her father stood beside her, as real looking as the stranger himself. Tears running down her face, she tried to touch him, only to have his ghostly image fade into smoke. The Frenchman told her that she had a special ability, one that he could help her use, and whisked her away to La Rochelle.
The Order of the Gilded Rose was a powerful cabinet filled with colorful characters, and Ixchel expected to fit right in. But try though she did, she never got recognition for the things she accomplished. Something was always wrong-- sometimes it was her attitued, others her methodology... The curious objects she found were always damaged or weak and worthless compared to the other collectors' recoveries. As years passed those that had been her fellow new comers found themselves moving up the hierarchy while Ixchel remained in training, forever paired with a handler.
The most biting blow had come when a woman who had been recruited shortly after Ixchel was given an the highest honor a collector could receive: the opertunity to create a curiosity spirit. Perrine had been Ixchel's friend back when they both began working for the Order, but time and rank had drifted them apart. Now considered to be one of the most talented collectors in the cabinte, she-- and not Ixchel, who had worked just as hard-- was allowed to attempt something only those with the greatest skill could accomplish.
Many of the Order members had gathered around to watch as the High Chancellor, the very man who had recrutied Ixchel, presented Perrine with a small b.rass oil lamp. It had been recovered just days before from the Holy Land by a group of highly trained collectors, one of whom hadn't returned. The tarnished lamp had been deep in another cabinet's territory, and their members had fought viciously to keep it.
It was with reverence that the High Chancellor addressed Perrine and the crowd that had gathered around them. "Our fallen b.rother sacrificed himself so that you might take this artifact. This curiosity is a Traveller, and would allow you to use its powers to transport to other places, slip between worlds. This is a valuable treasure on its own, but today you, Perrine Herriot, are to make more of it. Focus your energy not into utilizing its powers but into drawing its magic out."
He handed her the b.rass lamp. It was barely the size of her palm, and was covered in swirling etchings of flowers, vines, and leaves. At the tip of one end a pale blue stone was embeded, which glittered in the light and cast a dazzling pattern of reflections on the crowd. Perrine sank down to her knees in front of the High Chancellor, eyes closed. The onlookers could feel the shift in the air, static like, as she began useing her abilities. AIt grew, not gradualy but quickly, and Perrine began to shake. A few of the non magic users, the cabinet keepers, swooned or fainted from all the energy in the room their bodies couldn't utilize. Ixchel glanced up to where her handler had been standing in the balcony; he too was a cabinet keeper, and the energy levels must have become too high for him, since he was no where to be seen.
Half an hour, an hour, two-- they all passed, tense and silent, as Perrine continued her attempt. Convulsing violently, she suddenly collapsed to the floor. The lamp fell from her hands, bouncing off the tiles and rolling a few feet away. The air returned to normal in an instant, the power having slipped away without further input. The High Chancellor called for a medic, and Ixchel's handler returned to tend to Perrine.
Shaking his head, the High Chancellor picked the lamp up off the floor. "Shame," Ixchel heard him mutter, "I really did think she could have done it." He turned to a beautiful and slender woman, her hair b.right as if lit by a flame, whose dark skin was set aglow by markings like tendrils of burning embers. He handed her the oil lamp casually, as if unconcerned. "Evadne, return this to its proper place. And be sure Caldwell sends me the new list of candidates; I'd like to visit some of them personaly, per usual."
She nodded and walked away without a word. The High Chancellor slipped through the dispersing crowd with ease, calm and imperially as he always was. Ixchel nervously glanced to her handler, kneeling beside the withering Perrine. He was far too busy to notice her, and with a rapidly beating heart she turned to follow Evandne. If she could catch back up with her, she would know where the artifact was being stored. With it, perhaps she could finally prove her worth...
There! Evadne, the High Chancellor's personal curiosity spirit, stood next to a row of shelves, gingerly puting the curiosity inconspicuously behind a collection of other curious objects. Ixchel shrank back into a dark hallway as she walked past, eyeing her with jealousy. Soon, she thought. Satisfied that she was unwatched, Ixchel retrived the oil lamp and rushed back to her private quarters.
The sun had sunk low and the room was dark as Ixchel began. She sat on the dusty floor, the b.rass lamp cupped in her hands, and allowed herself to channel her energy to the artifact and then out into the room. Her power filled the space gently, like a subtle b.reeze; she let the magic flow like a leisurly moving stream, not a crashing torrent as Perrine had done. As time passed slowly like grains of sand slipping through an hour glass, she began to feel the drain. But even more strongly she could sense that the spirit had almost come into being. She felt it all around her, tying itsself to her life force, nearly completed. With a final burst of energy Maayan stood before her, his darkly tanned skin patterned in patches with the etched design of the b.rass lamp, eyes the same teal-blue as the stone. But he wasn't perfect; his face was covered with scars. The last thing she remembered before fainting was thinking Oh well, at least I did it.
She had been punished for it, but in the end it was decided she should be allowed to keep Maayan-- one set of eyes clearly wasn't enough to keep her in line. Maayan had done his duty to watch her every move ever since. He was even more of a martinet than her handler, and would never let even the littlest things slide. So yes, she would be written up for shenanigans with the illusion magic and for helping Cade.
Maayan was still eyeing the tree as if he expected to be tied to it again at any moment. Ixchel laughed quietly and he shot her a warning look. "I'm sorry Maayan, I really am. It's just that you can get a bit... overzealous sometimes."
"Understatement of the century, love," Cade scoffed. Maayan turned to confront him but Ixchel held him back. Cade shrugged, smiling deviously. "Well, at any rate I'd best be off. Aina worries you know," he nodded to Ixchel, "I'll be seeing you."
As he left, Maayan sighed. "I could feel it, you know, feel it every time something hit or scratched you. Do you have any idea what that's like, feeling that you're in danger and not being able to do anything about it? I had no idea waht was going on up there and had no way of helping you. What if you hadn't returned?"
"I know, I know... But I'm fine Maayan, you had nothing to worry about. Come on, let's get back to the Order." She grabbed his arm, and in an instant they vanished from the coppice.
Chapter three, Aina
The mildly curvy woman sat gingerly on the edge of the bar stool, jitter and startled by every sudden movement and noise. Aina didn't like being left alone like this, but Cade had insisted. "Things could get ugly this time love," he had told her, "The lore said the place is boobytrapped. I don't know what I'm getting into."
She understood. He absolutely adored her, and it would crush him if anything happened to her. Cade cared more for her than her tether did, in all honesty. To be fair, the man who created her was begining to grow older-- a fact that greatly upset Cade, as it meant her own life would be coming to a close in the next decade or so-- and couldn't get out as much anymore. But then again, he had never been particularly interested in her when he was younger either.
Cade, on the other hand, had latched on to her almost immediately. She had been assigned to him at his induction, so he really hadn't had much say in the matter, but he charished her as if he had hand-chosen her himself. he saw her as a sister and confidant, someone he could always trust no matter what and who always seemed to understand him. She neverpushed him around the way his superiors did, and he loved her dearly for it.
He strove to make her happy and safe always. However, today his attempts weren't working too well. A glass shattered somewhere behind her and she jumped, rapidly glancing about the tavern for its source, like a jitery young bird. As he timidly tried to settle back down, a tall, sleazy, well-built man rose from his seat with a greasy smile on his face and sauntered slowly over to where she sat. "aren't you somethin' special?" he asked, grabbing her chin between his calloused fingers and turning her face towards him.
Aina flinched, tearing her head out of his grip with one delicate movement. She didn't like the man, she wanted him to go away. She didn't like being outside the Cabinet unless she was with Cade. She didn't like being alone in this strange world she was not a part of, gawking eyes following her every move, engrossed by her flesh. She wanted to be back home, where she was always treated fairly, like a person and not an oddity or a piece of meat.
The man's face turned angery as she tried to move away. "Now who do you think you are, little miss? Somebody fancy, too good for me? You're here same as me girl, you'd best learn your place!" He grasped her hard around the waist before she had time to get away, and tried to pull her onto his lap.
Her arms were pinned and she couldn't move them, couldn't beat the man with her fists untill he let go. Aina squirmed and yelled, but the other tavern goers just laughed and cheered the man on. They did nothing to help her, and she had no way of escaping the man's thick, slimy arms. Getting a firmer grip on her body he forced her onto him and began feeling around under her skirt, between her legs. In his distraction she tried to pull free and slid off his lap, but was unable to get out of his grip. The man howled in rage and pushed her to the floor. "Oh, now you're gettin' it good," he snarled demonically. He raised his arm to hit her as she lay screaming on the floor.
"Ay, you!" a voice called from the threshold. He was there in a flash, grabbing the man by the collar. "Get off her!" he snarled, roughly yanking him away and knocking him hard into a nearby table. He extended his hand to Aina an helped her up. "You all right?"
She flung her arms around Cade's neck in relief. "I'm fine."
Disoriented, the man began stumbling to his feet. Cade glanced his way wearily; he didn't think he could pull somehing like that off twice. "Shall we get out of here love?"
Aina began walking towards the man, who had still barely struggled to his knees. "Just one thing I want to do first...
The passersby nonchalantly moved out of the way as Cade and Aina suddenly appeared in the center of the hallway. "You'd think after all these years love, that you'd be better at aiming."
Aina dropped his arm and began to walk past him. "Sorry. At least we're in the right building."
Cade smiled and rushed to ctach up with her. "Still, it's-- ah-- a bit of a walk from here to Miss Royceton's department, don't you think?"
Aina shrugged. A stroll accross the building isn't so bad. Your life could be much worse. You could be dead. Or like that dasterdly man back off-world is right now, after all."
Cade paled at the suggestion. "Just... Just promise me you'll never do that to me. Or in front of me. I swear, you can just feel it by watching..."
Aina laughed softly as she pushed open a door at the end of the hall. Dept. of Visitation. "Oh, you men. So sensitive."
"Especially down there," Cade mumbled, still looking clammy, as they passed through a small room. It was drab and mostly empty, filled with more desks than uninterested looking people. As they neared another door, a startled clerk was drawn out of his languor and sprand to his feet in front of them.
"Oh! Only our own members through there I'm afraid," he stammered. "The Open wing is the other door--" Cade b.rushed a patch of his red hair away, revealing a small silver earring embossed with the Cabinet's crest. The underworked clerk moved aside, opening the door for them. "My apologied sir. Not many of our own enter from here. How exactly did you find your way to this side?"
Cade nodded to the satchel Aina had thrown over her shoulders, where the urn was safely stowed. "Making a delivery. My lady here put us in the wrong wing."They walked through the doorway, into another hall.
"So," Aina chimed as they walked past door after door, "what happened in the cave?"
"Mmh? Oh, Ixchel was there. She came in after I did, must've set something off..."
Aina looked startled. "Oh my, I hope she's alright!"
Cade shrugged as they rounded a corner. "You know how she is, somehow never gets a scratch on her. Me? I end up with a bloody head wound, while the worst she could complain about was a mucked-up dress."
"Poor girl," Cade gave her a look of bewildered irritation, "And poor you, of course. It wasn't her lovely pastel dress, was it?"
"No. And I'm fine, thank you for asking." They entered a tall stone archway. Dept. of Internal Affairs. "Speaking of which, you don't mind sneaking over to La Rochelle, do you love? Milady Aquino requires a new dress, and I'm supposed to pay for it."
Aina laughed. "And you are not inclined to spend time in a lady's dress store?"
"Yes, yes, exactly. I mean no. It's just..." Frustrated, Cade sighed. Aina continued to look expectantly at him with a knowing smile, and he rushed to change the subject. "You know, I haven't seen Lemoine in a while. Have you heard anything?"
Lemoine Norman was the collector who had first discovered Cade. He was a talented thief, often sent on assignments where artifacts had to be taken by force. Aina shook her head, adding "He's always so busy; it's hard to keep up."
The exited the room into a stairwell and fell silent. Reaching the next landing, Cade said "I've been thinking about spending the summer back in Wales-- to go see my old colleges, old friends..."
"Well, no actually. I think I've gotten over that." They came to the next floor up. Residences and Offices.
A familiar face appeared from one of the apartments. Aina was quick to wave him over. "Oh, Ravid! Hello! Come walk with us!"
The damask curiosity spirit fell into step beside them. "Had a long day's work, have we?" he asked, taking Aina's arm.
"Oh, yes. We've been out-world for weeks," she replied.
"You must be absolutely drained! I'll escort you to your quarters," he turned to address Cade, "if that's alright with you?"
Cade nodded. "Of course. Aina, if you feel up to it later, would you mind sending me home? I'd rather not spend the night."
"Oh, sure," she handed over the satchel with the urn, "I'm not too tired, and I love going to Glasgow."
"Glasgow?" Ravid questioned, "Don't tell me you commute all the way from Glasgow?"
"Yes, I do. Having Aina helps. I like to be as far away from my work as I can when I'm at home." He turned to leave. "Have a good evening Aina."
Aina smiled and walked arm in arm with Ravid as Cade turned the corner into another wing. He walked b.riskly to a large set of dark oak doors and knocked. Dept. of Acquisitions.
A bold looking woman opened the doors, her mouse-b.rown hair done up in a daring bun. "Cade. What b.rings you to my door?"
"Working alone this evening, Hadley?"
She allowed him to step inside. "Yes. You'd hardly know I was the head of the department."
He walked over to a table and placed the satchel on top. Hadley came to stand beside him as he pulled it open with a flair. "All yours, Miss Royceton."
Hadley lifted the urn out of the satchel and raised it to the light. "Perfect. I'll have this looked over first thing."
Cade began walking slowly back out the door. "If that's all, Madame...?"
"Oh, wait," she called after him, "You need to report to Assignments. Mr. Howland needs to see you immediately. He said to send for you as soon as you returned."
He nodded gentlemanly to Hadley and backed out the doors. "Alright. See you around, milady."
Chapter four, Assignments
Maayan and Ixchel appeared suddenly in the office of Ab.raham Fleming, Chief Curator for the Order's La Rochelle headquarters. "Oh god," he finiched, nearly nocking his glasses off, "how may times do I need to tell you to stop doing that!"
Ixchel sauntered over to his worktable, the Golden Narwhal Horn in hand. "But Bram, why have Maayan drop me off outside your door when we can just appear here?"
"Privacy. Dignity. Respect. A lot of other things I know you don't care about," he grumbled.
"Do you want this or not?" she asked, placing the horn on an examination mat.
"I most certianly do," he said, pulling up a chair and moving a magnifying glass carefuly over the object. "No scratches, no chips. Good, good... Hmm, a bit dusty. What is this powder that's covering it?"
She came to stand behind him. "Ground up rock, I think; the walls crumbled easily."
"Are you sure? It feels too fine, more like plaster. And what's this?" He grabbed a pair of tweezers off the worktable and extracted a thin strand tangled along the tip. "A red hair?"
Leaning against the wall, Maayan crossed his arms and shot Ixchel a glare. "How did his hair end up on your artifact?"
Bram raised an eyeb.row. "'His'?"
"Not the time, Maayan," Ixchel snapped.
Bram cleared his throat uncomfortably, setting the tweezers aside. "Well then... That's... I don't want to know. I'll just do the enchantment inspection and then you can go." Out of a velvet box he carefully withdrew a small, thin sheet of clear crystal, carefully etched with spindly swirls. He hovered it scarcely above the surface of the horn, moving it slowly across its length. The etchings began to turn vivid colors as they passed over the curious object.
"Its always so beautiful," Ixchel sighed.
"That's why I've never let the management commission a spirit from it. I like to do this magic myself." Bram gently placed the enchanted crystal back in its box. "I know why they want one though. The crystal is so delicate, and this type of helper is so rare..." He tied a numbered tag onto the curiosity and stood. "Well, it all looks to be in order. The crystal reacted, so its is a curious object--not another decoy. The color was mostly sapphire, so its a physical enchanter. Probably with water-related abilities, but we won't know for sure until we give it a whirl."
Ixchel nodded. "Okay."
He squeezed her shoulder lightly. "You did a good job this time. I'll send up word."
She nodded, turning to leave with Maayan in tow. "Thanks Bram."
"Wait," Bram called after them, "there's a new assignment ready to be claimed. The orders just came down before you got here. There's a lot of talk about this one; it might be your chance."
Cade stood outside the pompous office of Kent Howland, head of the Department of Assignments. Howland had all the ferociousness of a pampered house cat, but a meeting directly with him wasn't a good sign. Normally assignment orders were delivered by memos, be they physical paper or magical in nature. If a case was of particular importance one of the lower-level staff might want to talk face to face. But a meeting with Howland... that ment trouble.
Had he done something wrong during his last few cases? Was he being disciplined? Cade ran over the details in his mind, unable to find a flaw. It just couldn't be about a new assignment. If it was important enough for Howland to see to it personally, he wouldn't be the one to get it. He wasn't that high up the ranks.
The door cracked open slowly, as Howland let him inside at last. Cade was a bundle of nerves as he stepped inside the nearly-dark office. Perhaps it was a social visit? Howland liked to show off, and Cade had been to a number of his gatherings. But glancing around the room, Cade only saw one other figure. Hardly enough for one of Howland's lively affiars.
Lively... Howland was always lively. Why haddn't he said a word, why was he acting so subdued? There was a cold knot in the pit of Cade's stomach. Something must be very wrong, he mused. And he probably wasn't going to like it.
Howland gestured for Cade to sit down across from him. On Cade's right sat a dark haired woman dressed in midnight blue. Everything about her was sleek and shadowy, both blending into the darkness and standing out with erotic allure.
Cade had never seen her before. She didn't belong. To be invited into Howland's office she would have to work in the Edinburgh facility or be a very high ranking official from elsewhere. Cade would recognize her if she was either, he was sure of it. So who was she?
Ixchel rushed up the stairs, a thin wad of papers clutched in her hand. She hadn't hardly looked at the pending work order Bram had given her; if it was really as newsworthy as he had said, she hadn't a moment to waste. It was late, but that didn't mean some other hopeful hadn't seen the assignment and claimed it first.
Ixchel flung herself down in front of one of the claims desks, teetering on the edge of the hard-upholstered chair. The startled clerk on the other side had nearly been asleep, and the young woman jolted with a start.
Anxiously Ixchel spread the work order in front of her, smoothing the many creases from her death-grip down with her thumb. "This assignment just came in tonight," she told the clerk b.reathlessly, "I'd like to claim it."
"The tired clerk nodded. "Credentials, please?"
Ixchel fished around in her small leather bag for her records. She never took sensitive paperwork out on assignment, but Maayan had smartly vanished to retrive them for her. He had appeared with them just as she was running up the first flight of stairs. "Here's my personal details," she said, handing a few folded slips of paper across the desk, "and these are my work listings."
The clerk looked over the documents with a tired eye. "'Looks to be in order," she said, stifling a yawn. The young woman reached for the wrinkled work order and read through the details. She suddenly looked much more awake. "Do... do you know what this is?"
"It hasn't been claimed already, has it?" Ixchel asked fearfully.
The young clerk bolted out of her chair. "No, no... I... I need to speak with my supervisor, excuse me," she stammered, backing away quickly into another room.
"I have many things to tell you," Howland droned, starring only vaugely in Cade's direction. He seemed lifeless, only part aware of Cade's presence. Cade had never seen him like this before.
"Are you alright, Mr. Howland sir? You don't look well," Cade asked slowly, fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat.
"I'm fine," he replied, still with misty vagueness. "I'd like to discuss your future."
"What about?" he questioned wearily.
Howland shuffled a loose collection of papers towards him. "This artifact has been lost for many centuries. It is imperative it becomes ours."
Cade riffled through the stack of yellowing parchment. "Mr. Howland, if this is about an assignment--"
Howland continued as if he hadn't heard. "It has been decided that you will be responsible for the recovery. Any resources you need will be provided."
"Sir, I don't understand..." Cade turned to look at the mysterious woman. She was drinking it all in with obvious pleasure. A seductively coy, dark smile was on her lips as she watched him squirm.
Howland gestured to the woman. "You'll be working with the Lady from now on. New arrangments will be made for the curiosity spirit you have been paired with--"
Cade jolted up. "What? You can't reassign me! I... I won't do it! I won't find this thing for you, not without Aina--"
"You'll do as you're told," Howland roared with sudden rage. But his eyes were still blank, glassy, distant. Cade felt his blood run cold.
Cade ran his fingers through his hair with desparation. He felt near tears. "Please sir, please don't do this."
"You'll start immediately."
"Who even is she?" Cade screeched suddenly, motioning to the strange woman. "I've never seen her before. She doesn't fit. I won't work with someone I don't know!"
"The Lady's identity is of no consequence," he replied coldly, blank and automatic.
Cade sank back down into his chair, beaten and devastated.
Ixchel sat alone in the empty room. She was begining to feel fretful, as the clerk had been gone a long time. At first she had heard muffled, frenzied conversation through the heavy oak doors of the Chief of Assignments' office, but now it was silent.
"It gets quite lonely at night, wouldn't you say?"
Ixchel turned to find the High Chancellor standing behind her. "Chancellor Gagnon," she cried, surprised and flustered, "I didn't hear you come up."
"Quite alright." He paused, lifting the work order off the desk and glancing over it. "I asked to be notified as soon as a claim for this assignment came in," he sat down on the corner of the desk, "I was quite surprised to hear it was placed by you."
"You know me Chancellor, always the go-getter."
"Always the trouble maker," he corrected. "This is quite the important errand, Miss Aquino. And you haven't turned out to be all I hoped for."
Her face suddenly felt hot, and she struggled not to lash out in retaliation. "I can handle it, Chancellor, if you'd just let me prove myself."
He stood back up and walked to one of the many windows, gazing outside. "there's another Cabinet looking for this artifact. We wouldn't be on the hunt if they weren't after it. Its too dangerous; no one should have that."
The woman uncoiled herself gracefully from her seat and stood behind Howland, her elegant hand resting firmly on his shoulder. "We expect results with in the month," she purred, her voice colored by the faintest hint of an exotic accent. She was a Spaniard then, like Ixchel. "This is of paramount importance, you understand."
"I don't like this," Cade glowered.
The mysterious Lady gave him a cool, dangerous glance. "You don't have to like it."
Cade flipped through the pages he had been given more closely. Acheron's Amb.rosia. The descriptions of the object were vauge, at best. It wasn't clear what it was or what it could do. Despite his displeasure, Cade couldn't help but be intregued. Then he paused, unsure he had read correctly. "What is this about the object being destroyed? It... was purposeful?"
"What does it do?" Ixchel asked, coming to stand beside him.
The High Chancellor didn't turn. "No one knows exactly. The details have been lost to the sands of time, and for good reason." He sighed and placed a hand against the glass. Ixchel had never seen him more human. "We war and scurmmage over these curiosities. We battle for them, give our lives if we must. Do you know the one thing we have all agreed on for all these long centuries?"
Ixchel shook her head slowly. "No, Chancellor."
"This. That this should never be found. Not again, at any rate."
Ixchel walked numbly back to the desk. She looked at the work order more closely for the first time. Amb.rosia of Acheron, the header read.
"Fearful fools did that, centuries ago." She gave Howland a light nudge. He walked to his personal liquor cabinet at the far side of the room and began silently pouring drinks. The Spanish Lady walked back towards Cade with Tempting grace. "Fools from all four of the cabinets of the day. Seekers, Order, Eventiders, Coterie... They all pooled their abilities to shatter it. But power like that can't be destroyed."
She was so close that Cdae could feel her b.reathing. "I don't know about this. Why me?" She leaned against Howland's desk suggestively. "Why not you? You want something you can't have, don't you? This artifact can get it."
His heart suddenly started racing. He felt temptation flicker, but was quick to put it out. "I'm not interested in that, and I'm not interested in you."
Ixchel turned back to the High Chancellor with sudden determiniation. "I want to do this. I can do this."
The High Chancellor moved away from the window, looking weary and worn. "The stakes are grave. If you fail, we're all at risk. This is your last chance."
"Then you're letting me take this assignment?"
He nodded. "If you really can find the Amb.rosia there will be rewards. But if you can't there will be consequences."
Ixchel bit her lip thoughtfully. "You really think this curiosity is so important, even without knowing what it does?"
The High Chancellor looked her dead in the eye. "Yes."
Cade tried to rush out of the room but Howland quickly held him back, forcing him into his seat once more and shoving a drink in his hand with a blank, dead smile.
Hwoland turned to offer the Spanish Lady a dainty glass. She accepted with great satisfaction and waved him away to a corner of the room. "You're a fighter, I like that. Now if only you would stop fighting me and put those energies to the crisis at hand. I've had my eye on you for awhile; you could make a valuable ally, if you would only let yourself."
"Yeah well, I can't help feel I'd be making a deal with the devil, love," he snarled.
"That's the spirit," she cooed. "You're getting some of your usual gall back. You must be getting more comfortable with me, then?"
He glared. "Absolutely not."
She laughed deviously. "I'm truly begining to like you."
Cade huffed angerly. "Fine."
"Fine what?" she asked with feigned innocence.
"I'll do it," he grumbmbled with irascibility.
She walked to his side and placed her hand on his forearm. "I'm glad you finally came around."
"I didn't have much of a choice, did I?"
They both sat back down at the desk, Ixchel leaning forward eagerly. "So where do I start Chancellor? What do you know about the artifact?"
The High Chancellor shook his head somberly. "Only as much as any other man. The Amb.rosia was found not long after the split between the Seekers and the Coterie, which divided us into the four main cabinets of today. The Eventide Society had recovered it from the wilds of Siberia, or perhaps a bit more east, in northern China."
She gnawed on her lower lip. "So why did they call it the 'Amb.rosia of Acheron' if it wasn't found anywhere near Greece?"
"That I do not know," he shrugged.
The Spanish Lady smiled the first genuine smile Cade had seen of her. It was unsettling, but it was genuine. "No. No, indeed you didn't"
Cade turned his attention back to the documents in front of him. "What does this do? It doesn't say anywhere."
The mysterious woman sat back down in her chair, body twisted elegantly towards Cade. "Its all in the name, dearheart. Eternal woe, immortal life. The treasures it will grant will be greater than imagination."
Cade struggled to control himself. He didn't like having to work with her in the first place, and now she was spouting riddles. He felt like screaming at her. "That hardly answers my question."
She twirled the liquid in her glass with a graceful flick. "The Grecian underworld was told to have five rivers, repriesnting different attributes: Forgetting, Hate, Fire, Lamentation, and Woe. The Acheron was the river of woe, traversed by the ferryman of the dead. Charon always demanded payment for his services; those who did not pay were left stranded on a desolate shore, powerless." She paused, staring straight ahead into the inky darkness of the room. "And in Greek mythos, Amb.rosia was the dish served by the goddess Hebe to those of Olympus, alowing them their divine lifespans. It was the ultimate gift."
"You're begining to sound like an Eventider," Cade scoffed. "I suppose next you'll be telling me this artifact was sent down from the heavens to rain torment upon the wicked?"
She leaned back into her chair. "And who's to say that it wasn't?"
"There has to be more than that," she begged. "What happened to it after it was found?"
The High Chancellor thumbed through the pages of the work order. "It should be in here, somewhere. You did read this, correct Miss Aquino?"
Ixchel blushed, casting her eyes down. "I skimmed."
The high Chancellor sighed frustratedly. "I'm regretting allowing you to take this assignment already. Ah, here it is." He handed a single sheet from the work order to her.
She read through the sheet carefully. "It changed hands multiple times... hundreds of lives lost each time it was captured by a new cabinet... all four agreed it was too dangerous..." she looked back up at the High Chancellor inquisitively, "and they put it outworld?"
The High Chancellor nodded. "In pieces."
Something about her statment troubled him. "What do you mean by that?" Cade asked cautiously.
She stood again, turning to face where Howland stood vacantly and nearly motionless. "I mean that there are terrible people in this world. People who play god. I want to play god right back." She ab.ruptly slammed her glass down on the desk behind her. "No more. Its time all of you suffer too."
Cade felt his blood run cold. His heart was pounding, but he remained frozen. "What?"
Ixchel flung the sheet back onto the desk with a sigh of frustration. "Are you sure this is even possible? Hell, are you sure this is even advisable?"
"Would you prefer some other cabinet to aquire this artifact? One with unknown motives that might use it against us?" the High Chancellor scoffed.
Ixchel fidgeted with one of her earrings. "But sir, should we have something so dangerous, even if it is to protect ourselves? Won't the other Cabinets see our actions just as hostile?"
"I'd rather have the danger I know than the one I don't," he glowered bitterly.
The Spanish Lady seemed flustered for the first time. "I'm sorry?"
Cade stood, shakily. "You said 'all of you.' Who is 'you'?"
She glared at him coldly. "I'd suggest you drop it," she walked towards him, "but since I know you won't..."
"But sir," she argued, "why not just hide it again? I'll find the pieces, and then take them somewhere else, somewhere no one would think to look."
The High Chancellor leaned fprward. "And you would trust yourself to this secret, Miss Aquino? You would never be tempted to go back, or share the location with anyone else?"
"Yes," she replied confidently.
The air felt different. Cade suddenly became lightheaded and nauseous, as if he might faint. He tried to move back but couldn't turn his thoughts into action. Everything felt foggy; he collapsed to the floor, black haze obscuring his vision. "You... You're doing this to me, aren't you?" he sputtered, barely maintaining consciousness.
She lifted a delicate silver necklace out from under her collar so that he could see it. "Psychic enhancer. Very useful."
"Perhaps that's a compromise I can live with," he gazed at her fiercely, "but if even the slightest thing goes wrong, it is completly on you. You'll find we French can be b.rutal when it comes to punishment. This is the most serious matter our Cabinet has faced in centuries. There can be no second chances."
Ixchel grimmaced. "That's... good to know. But I assure you Chancellor, I'll put my all into this recovery, sir."
Cade clawed at the floor, trying to crawl away as she came nearer. "Howland... You're attacking him too..."
"Clever boy. Yes, I needed a way in."
"Don't hide the artifact until I order you to. I have to make my mind up on the matter."Ixchel gasped. "But you'll consider it?"
She Spanish Lady knelt down beside him, fingering the silver necklace with one hand. Cade groaned weakly, and she qently stroked his hair with mock concern. "You poor soul. This isn't even the worst I can do."
The High Chancellor nodded. "Good luck, Miss Aquino."
She placed her hand against the back of Cade's shoulder. He screamed.
Chapter five, Bitter Meetings