It began with the sound of footsteps. They were sharp, outlined in dazzling clarity by the sleek texture of the granite floor, and approached in a gradual crescendo of professional poise. When their owner appeared around the flawless angle of the corridor, it was with all the dramatic flourish of a stage magician, his coattails flapping carelessly behind him until he came once again to a stop, this time in front of a small man who nodded at the sight of him, and snapped closed a golden watch.
"Not a second too soon," muttered the smaller, "and still far too late." He stared up at the other man's face, noting with vague interest the way his reflection shimmered in the tint of the sunglasses. Sunglasses indoors -- but then again, the Urthars had their methods. "You're sure?" he asked, abruptly, and turned jerkily around to stare down the lighted length of the hall. In the glare of the fluorescent bars, he seemed far older than he was, and the lines were deep in his face.
The man seemed to understand. His mouth twitched in what could've been a smirk, and his left hand gestured casually at a briefcase held in his right. "The sooner I get past you, the sooner it'll be over," he said. They were alone in the hall, and his voice echoed faintly as it slipped across the stones. "Now, which way is it heading?"
"Impossible to know now," said the shorter man in a whisper. "It moves."
"Right. But where was it last?" Despite his efforts to the contrary, a seam of cruelness was evident through the taller man's voice, born not of tendency, but of unease. Propping his briefcase on a nearby cabinet, he clicked open the silver clasps and drew forth an impressive revolver, etched with silver gilt that shone even brighter than the steel. "Too many doors in this place," he said, seemingly to himself, and behind his dark glasses his eyes were darting between them all, noting the subtle differences in the grain, the knobs, the coloring the wood.
"Such is the business."
The Urthar focused on a mahogany portal, frowning at the way the knots seemed to make a face halfway down the length of the door. "Edmund, isn't it?"
"Good. I'll tell you what, Edmund -- tell your master that the matter will be cleared up shortly, and see yourself out, you hear? Grab a coffee or something, come back tomorrow."
Edmund blinked. His eyelids were slightly puffy from a lack of sleep, and there were tracks of red in the whites of his eyes. "I cannot depart until you finish," he said, matter-of-factly. "I am bidden."
"Fine." The Urthar loaded his weapon with fluid grace, finishing with a flourish. He started down the hall, then looked back, as an afterthought. "If you hear anything at all," he said, "do yourself a favor and hide. It's quicker than you know."
This received a humorless laugh. "Oh, I know," said Edmund, with a dry cough, quickly hidden. "We had measures of our own, before we called your lot. If you find a head, bring it back for us. The master has need of them."
But if the Urthar had heard this, he gave no notice. His gait was swift down the length of the pristine white halls, and his eyes scanned quickly from door to door, unsure of what he was looking for, but looking all the same.
"A head!" called Edmund after him, but before long the sleek black coat of the Urthar, so oddly contrasting the coloration of the walls around him, had vanished around the next corner, and the sound of his footsteps faded away. For a moment the man paused at his post. Then, with a shrug, he clicked the Urthar's briefcase gently closed, and departed the other way. There were duties to attend to, and the night would indeed be long.
And at that moment, the hireling paused at an intersection of doors. Such was the term, but it might as well have been a dead end, for he dared not risk opening a single one of the unassuming rectangles of wood and iron. They seemed to leer at him, even as he turned, and when he could no longer see them he fancied that they were laughing at him, and grew inexplicably annoyed. He hated the place. He hated the Legacy that owned it, and the people who, like little gears, moved forward the progress of its machinations. But this was not new.
What was new was that unease which had blossomed as he spoke to the little man with the vulture eyes, which still had not quite disappeared. He picked up speed, more to forget his worries than out of genuine haste, and there was a single moment of pleasure as he realized he no longer made any noise as he swept along the halls. Then it was gone, masked again by the dread. He paused again, letting the fabrics billow around him like a cloak in the wind. There was a disturbance in the silence, a note to the persistent hum of nothingness in a nonexistent wind. There was no day in the cellars of the Legacy, and there was no night, but all the same he became suddenly aware of an oppressive darkness. The adjective humored him; for were not the Urthars one with the night, as much its servants as the moths and creeping beasts? He muttered a few verses from the Chapter under his breath as he resumed his step, this time as a cautious walk. He held the gun loosely at his side, careless to the point that it drooped from the tips of his fingers, swaying dangerously in the currents of his movement. And then his hand clenched in terror, and a shot fired at wild into the blank granite of the floor. For there had been a movement down the hall, a blur of black and spotted gold. Terror followed by alarm, then self-hatred. He'd hunted the Arakind before. But now . . . no. Today was different. He was no hunter of man, nor some simpering minion of the Legacy. He was an Urthar, and graced with senses beyond the simple description of words. Something was off.
Taking careful measure of his weapon, he stowed it safely on his belt, and drew forth a throwing knife of jagged proportions. It had taken him years to master its unique geometry, to make it follow the curves of the air as naturally as a bird in flight, and with this familiarity as a salve to his nerves, he took off down the passage once more, mouth curling with a posture of wild bloodshed that was almost true. He forced through his mind a menagerie of insincere panoramas, full of glorious violence and the whirl of practiced movements which had felled monsters, men, and worse. An Urthar of the Ancient Dark, chosen Blade of the twilit gods! He would strike down the manic terror, bring back the glory inherent to the race of --
A noise enveloped the entirety of the hall, a roar of titanic proportions, so fierce as to shatter entirely the lights of the ceiling above the Urthar, and all those along the passage in which he stood. He came to another stop, his courage fleeing in the face of this unexpected complication. He faltered, but in a moment he had regained his footing. Throwing the sunglasses aside, he allowed his eyes to pierce the veil of darkness, to see, in the hazy distance, a pair of gold and maddened eyes. He sucked in a breath, resisting the urge to throw the knife. In the cellars of the Legacy, distance was a construct. The thing could be ten miles away, or ten feet. He elected to hold it before him, assuming a defensive stance.
"Come no closer," he said, harshly, and began a slow advance. His steps were slow and loud in the darkness, magnified in his ears and rivaled only in the sudden ringing horror of the mounting silence around him. And then the truth of the matter struck him like a hammer to the skull.
There were only two eyes. An Arakind had seven at the least, arranged equally around the beaks of its flank. His heart hardened at once. The fools had lied. To him. Which raised the question -- what exactly was he facing? The eyes stared at him. They'd not blinked yet, hadn't even moved. He became aware, though, of a heavy and ragged breathing, separate from his own and savage in its intonations. He drew back his hand, judged the throw, and released the knife with a grimace. The hall had warped around him, but the estimate would do. He was, however, utterly unprepared for the sudden motion of his prey, which came not directly for him, but away to the right, so that his knife sailed disappointingly past, into the cavernous void of a doorway. Running up to it, he pulled the thing hastily closed. He dared not pursue it, though he regretted that it would be lost. He pulled out his gun once more, loading a fresh casing in place of the one he had fired. It was still close, and he followed the stench of its hide through the maze of the cellars.
As he ran, he counted. The headwind whipped cruelly through his hair and clothes, and from the pacing of his prey he knew it to be a quadruped, its appendages ending in claws that scrabbled against the stone when it turned. He pursued, and became suddenly aware that it had stopped. He rounded the corner at speed, and stared at another intersection of doors. The thing had paused, and lifted what might have been a hand to one of the knobs. In the stark fluorescent lights, the Urthar raised his revolver at the figure of a wolf, its paws ending in fingers arched with muscle and segmented bone. His mind drew the conclusion at speed, and balked. No Arakind at all. But the truth of the matter didn't ease his disbelief.
He fired three times, and though the werewolf twisted with impossible agility, the Urthar was blessed with the sound, between the thudding of steel on wood and rock, of a single squelching hit, which drove his quarry to its knees. That done, he approached it with caution, gun raised and ready. And as he walked, he spoke in a cautious tone, wavering at the edges despite his best efforts.
"You're supposed to be dead."
"You're not as good a shot as you make yourself," came the response, in a voice of contemptuous scorn.
"That's not what I mean. You know that's not what I mean. Your kind"- he gestured with his weapon -"the Legacy killed you all. And we helped them, centuries and centuries ago."
"And now you find me," growled the wolf, "rotting in the dungeons of my murderers." When it smiled, its teeth were too many to easily count, and of nauseating sharpness. "I killed three of them down here, in their home. I would've killed more. Didn't think one of your kind would disapprove."
"The Legacy killed all the werewolves," muttered the Urthar, in a distracted undertone. If he'd heard the words of his bleeding captives, he gave no sign. "They were better at it than we were, to tell the truth. So why..."
The werewolf looked at him carefully. "They're worse shots than you are, if that helps."
This earned a scowl. "I was at Hills' End when the heralds swept through the valley keeps of the Four -- trust me when I say they aren't." Then he looked around again, as if lost in a fog. His eyes were grey and dead, and the werewolf noted them with interest. No vivid blue there -- no dreamy cloud of laughing youth in the face of a dead eternity. He laughed again, startling the Urthar, who raised his gun hesitatingly.
"What are you doing?"
"Fuck Twilight," sneered the werewolf.
"I said"-- then he stopped, the pupils of his yellow eyes shrinking in concentration. "That's odd," it said, carefully.
"I'm not asking again. What the hell are you going on about?"
The Urthar turned reflexively, without thinking, and in a twist of irony it was this that ended his life. His attacker was unused to the geometry of the dagger he had thrown -- it stumbled through the air like a child's first paper airplane, and would've struck harmlessly at the Urthar's shoulder, hilt-up. Instead, it stuck in the upper section of his left back, pointing down.
For a moment he stood there, unsure of the sudden burst of pain, and he gave a long look at the teeth of the werewolf at his feet, before collapsing. There was the sound of a gunshot, which skipped halfheartedly about the walls before falling with a clatter to the floor.
And then there were footsteps, loud in the silence.
The werewolf looked up, disinterested. His wound was already clotting, and it got very shakily to its feet, head cocked curiously to one side. The Urthar left no corpse -- already, fine grey ashes coated the windless floor of the hall. He squinted down the bright light of the place, his eyes darting to and fro along its width.
"Are you there, or not?" he growled, seemingly into the air.
"Both, I suppose," said Edmund, with a smile. And then he shrugged off the coat of wires he was wearing, leaving it to spark and subside on the ground. He stooped down, picking up the knife from the pile of empty clothes. Brushing it off, he said, "curious little thing. Pretty, though: you've got to give it that, at least." And he pocketed it, and tapped the place once or twice in a thoroughly conceited fashion. Then he looked at the werewolf, whose eyes were wild but uncertain. "Are you going to kill me?" After a beat, "you could, you know. Just like that. But I know what you're thinking. 'And then what?' I'll tell you. You'll be stuck down here, and you'll either starve, or you'll try opening one of these doors." He gestured expansively. "I need not tell you which fate is worse."
"If there's an 'or' in there, I suggest you reach it quickly." The werewolf looked at the ashes of the Urthar, looking lost. "He was doing his job, wasn't he? A job you set him to."
"True. And I am doing my job. I can take you home, you know."
It looked up. "We killed your kind where I come from. All you stuck up little bastards. We burned your little castles and left the Urthars in the sun." He kicked the pile of clothes with something that was almost disdain. "This one remembered it differently." A low growl escaped its throat, a sound born of fear and menace. "Where am I?"
"The wrong place," said Edmund, simply. "Don't look like that, this is just as embarrassing for us as it is for you. Well, me, anyway. I don't think you'll have left the others intact?"
The werewolf grunted.
"Did you save the heads, at least? No? Ah, well. Here, hold this."
It looked at the thing in its hands. There were blinking lights all around it, and it was trimmed in Amorian gold. "What is this?"
"Your ticket home."
"And I trust you why?"
"Because both of us want you back where you belong. That button on the side -- press it when you're ready. The other configurations have been set in advance."
"I still don't see why you killed him."
"We lied to him, you see. Said you were some ghastly thing with too many mouths, something of that sort."
Edmund frowned. "If the vampires knew what these doors were for -- what they were really for -- they would not leave a single one of us alive. Luckily for you, intelligence is not the forte of your kind," he added, and his expression shifted quickly into a grin.
The werewolf scowled. "They're other worlds, aren't they? All of them."
"None of them. But you're closer than you know. Close, far, all the same, really." He patted the wolf on the shoulder in a familiar sort of way. "And now we are parted. Do try not to lose your way this time around. Next time I don't intend on being generous." And the werewolf, hesitating, pressed the button.
There was a growl, a flash of blue light, a sound of whistling meadowlarks in field far away, and it was done.
Edmund looked again at the remains of the Urthar. His smile wasn't cruel, exactly, but there was a twist of disillusioned irony in the dry old lines of his face. "Eight hundred years old, and for what?"
There was no answer. At length he drew himself away, and he cast his gaze up and down the empty corridor in which he stood. It would be empty for quite some time, now, since all the others were gone. But the work lived on, and he decided that he had dawdled far too long.
This time he would be careful. He selected a door of sleek oak and clouded glass, behind which, if carefully inspected, a mist of thick yellow could be seen. He opened the door to empty darkness, and stepped through once more to the chasm beyond.