The Curse of the Reapers
957 AD – The Throne Chamber of the Emperor Turpin
Curved damp stone walls encased the inner court of the Emperor Turpin. Those unadorned walls seemed too close, almost suffocating. The gray mould clinging to the stones soaked up the dancing torchlight, reluctantly sharing glimmers of it with the rest of the room. The emperor, a small man with snowy white hair clipped close, sat silently on his gargantuan throne. His eyes were closed, his forehead smooth and unworried. A naïve girl might almost believe that the emperor dozed casually. Spero, the newest addition to the inner court, the emperor's new Seer, wasn't naïve or a child, and she wasn't fooled by the harmless facade. She tugged at the crimson, diaphanous robes she had been issued three days earlier and tried to disappear into the shadow cast by the emperor's throne. Seers who stayed out of sight and out of mind were more likely to survive this court. Spero was terrified of making a mistake. She was scarcely fifteen, and just pretty enough to get noticed if she wasn't careful.
The last Seer got herself noticed. She caused quite a stir, and now she was dead. According to the rumours, Turpin had killed her himself. He hadn't even bothered to open his eyes, cursing her to death as though it were an afterthought. Well, Spero wasn't going out that way if she could help it. If she didn't make any useful prophesies for long enough, maybe they would just replace her?
The touch of his cool thin hand almost caused Spero to scream. She'd been so focused on disappearing into the shadows, on being invisible that she stopped watching the dragon in the room. The emperor had come alive during her distraction and he had taken notice of his new pet. Spero made herself breathe a regular slow rhythm, and her heart slowed enough for her to risk looking at Emperor Turpin. His eyes, a pair of slick black orbs, were waiting for her brown eyes to find them. Spero tried to look away, to focus on the man's hawk-like nose or his sallow grey cheeks, but she was caught.
The emperor was speaking to her, asking a question, but Spero couldn't understand the words rolling over her ears. She was slipping into a different trap than the emperor's eyes, a familiar trap, the cool nothingness that heralded a prophecy. Some seers didn't get the privilege of hearing their own predictions, but Spero had never had that problem. Unfortunately, she'd never been able to stop a prophecy once it started either. Her voice was coming clearly now, sonorous and low in the self-important tone that the spirits of destiny insisted upon when doling out their hints at fate.
Turpin, emperor of the world, shall rule his kingdom, until the coming of the seven.
They will be born of a mortal line, non-magic by ancestry, but powerful and wise.
Both man and woman, they will embody the pinnacles of spirit in mortal humanity.
At the time of changes, pubescence, they will be chosen, seven strong always and forever.
Should one fall, another will be chosen to take their place from this day forward.
Only together can the seven end Turpin's rein.
Together they will be drawn, impotent, and empty.
Until love unites them, the seven will toil without light.
Until love unites them, Turpin shall rule.
And Spero was in control of herself again. Her mouth, her voice, were hers to command, but it was too late to undo the damage that had been done. She'd just prophesied the end of Turpin's rein, the emperor who had ruled the world as his own kingdom for half a millennia. You didn't have to be a seer to know how quickly Turpin was likely to kill the messenger bearing such doom. Spero closed her eyes and waited for her inevitable death.
"Interesting," Turpin muttered. "A real seer with a useful prophecy, refreshing. You present me with a problem though, little Spero. How to thwart fate as the old hag seems to have turned on me."
Spero opened her eyes again, hopeful that maybe she wasn't going to die tonight. The emperor's voice, now that she'd had a chance to really hear it, was smooth, almost youthful in its melodic tones. "I don't know how to thwart fate, my Emperor. I don't even know why she burdens me with her whisperings."
"Little Spero, so young. I know how to thwart fate. Every day of my life I thumb my nose at her and her friend death. You could help me; shed your blood for me tonight, the blood of my seer to thwart my new destiny. My new seer could be my seer for always."
Turpin's hand was moving now, stroking his Spero's shiny black hair, her smooth copper child-smooth skin. "Your seer, for always?" Spero whispered. She was falling again, not into another prophesy. She was falling into the Emperor's black eyes, warm tunnels where his voice was like the wind and his hands were smooth spikes of pleasure on her skin. This man couldn't be the ancient emperor she had been so afraid of. This could not be the Terrible Turpin she'd dreaded so. "I will help you in any way I can, Emperor."
Turpin's smile grew, and he kissed the child seer he had just enthralled. "Drink from the elixir of life, and join me, little Spero."
1985 AD – The Misty Forest South of London 12:30 AM
"Go! Go! Go! Go!"
The night's silence was shattered, as two witches, a blonde and a redhead, came crashing through the undergrowth. They piled headlong onto an extra-large flying carpet hovering at the ready for their escape. James waited at the control weave just long enough to be sure the ladies were safely aboard, then he was steering them up above the trees. James could hear whatever was chasing the girls grinding its way forward through the forest. He could see the ancient hardwoods flying from side to side now that he was gaining altitude.
"What the heck did you girls rile up back there?" James asked. Goosebumps were rising on his arms at the thought of whatever was tossing around the oaks getting a hand on Lily or any of his soldiers.
Tina laughed and brandished a paper-wrapped sphere victoriously. "Does it matter what we riled up? We got the goods, Commander. I told you I was the woman for this mission, Sir," Tina shouted to be heard over the rushing wind.
"Right," Lily muttered, picking brambles out of her red mane. With an annoyed gesture she indicated that Tina should stop waving around the valuable artifact they'd just risked their lives to steal. James didn't notice, of course. He was concentrating on flying them out of danger. "It was a Rock Golem, nasty creature," Lily said. She didn't add that they might have made it in and out without waking the cranky creature if Tina had been able to keep her mouth shut for more than five seconds at a time. That was a conversation she could have with the girl when they weren't in front of James, her commander.
The Misty Forest was beautiful and seemingly endless from their vantage point skimming just above the tops of the trees. The forest was ancient, a haven for all the magical creatures indigenous to the British Isles. Incongruous as it seemed, London was surrounded by the forest on all sides. Without the magic of the current regime protecting its boundaries the city would be consumed by the forest. Lily couldn't see any lights or other sign that they were approaching the Rebel's encampment, but she could tell by the stars and the amount of time they'd been flying, they were getting close to home.
The adrenaline seemed to have faded and Tina wasn't making herself quite so noisome when they made their approach to the barracks where she'd be taking her leave. "I'll take that," Lily said. She relieved Tina of the artifact they were nearly crushed trying to retrieve. The mission had actually taken them more than seven days scouting in the field, and Lily just wanted to pick up the kids and get home. With the third wheel gone, Lily tucked their artifact safely away and snuggled closer to James, her courageous rebel commander. There was light on the horizon, dawn already? It wasn't time for dawn. "James, what is that light?"
"I don't know," James replied. It was a golden glow, like a fire burning out of control in the forest. Except that a fire there would have engulfed the safe zone and the children's nanny service, so it couldn't be a fire. "It can't be." James inched his hand over to the speed control weave, accelerating the carpet to and beyond its safety limits. The glow just turned into a flickering shooting light, and an audible roar could be hear even over the wind. They were headed for a wall of flame. A lightning strike or a rampaging dragon could set off a blaze in the Misty Forest. It was a risk the rebels had learned to anticipate and mitigate. There was no reason to panic.
"The babies," Lily barely whispered. There was a reason the children were left with central nursery. It was safe twenty-four-hour coverage. Someone would have been awake and alert and the children would be safe. They had to be. "Where do they send the children when there's an emergency? HQ? They'll be at HQ right?"
"We're going to find them," James said. The carpet was just hovering now. He had had to stop advancing. It was too dangerous to head over the flames in the carpet. He wasn't going to risk Lily, racing into an inferno, when the children were safely away with their carers. "I'm going to back us up to headquarters. There are crews working on putting out the fire there." Teams of rebels on brooms swooped around the conflagration casting barrier spells, water spells, anything to keep the flames from burning toward the rest of the rebel encampment. "Everything looks like it's under control. Hold on now. I'm going to see how fast this rug will go."
A young man with thin flyaway brown hair shuffled his feet nervously as he waited under the tangled branches of the Misty Forest. Smoke was in the air, acrid and eye-watering. Not that he could really complain, having set the fire himself not two hours earlier. Overly conscious of his overbite and weak chin, he instinctively jutted his jaw out and twitched his nose in a maneuver that was almost rodent-like.
Turning the young man nodded quickly. "Yes, who is it there?"
Out of the shadows, a woman appeared. The intricate gold encircling her forearms over slinky black robes marked her position as one of the ancients, one of Turpin's inner sect of followers. She was beautiful and exotic, like an Egyptian princess. Peter was jutting and twitching with his face reflexively, completely unaware of the verminous expression he was projecting. "You are Ocascia, the woman I have been exchanging owls with?"
"Yes Peter, we have been corresponding. Do you have my package?" Ocascia said.
"Of course, all here, but first, do you have my payment?" Peter asked.
Ocascia looked up from under her painted eyelids and drew her lips together in a carefully calculated pout. "You want your money?" With a lazy laugh she tossed a black bag of gold to the rat-faced boy. It landed at his feet with a heavy thud. While Peter scrambled through the sack, verifying its contents, Ocascia scanned the area for her package, the goods as it were. It took a moment but she could just see the outline of the cage Peter had disillusioned for safe keeping. She couldn't see the children within, but judging from the quiet, he had rendered them unconscious for their trip. "Thoughtful of you, Peter, to get everything ready for travel." Ocascia levitated the cage with a flick of her wand, and she took a calculated step toward Peter. From his vantage point on the ground, her flimsy robe with its many slits would leave little to the imagination. She wanted rat-boy to get a good look, enjoy the experience. With a bit of luck they could do business again. "They've all got Muggle heritage, confirmed, correct?"
It was several beats before Peter could tear his eyes from the view to nod an answer to Ocascia's question. "You'll write again, if I can be of any more help?"
"Of course Peter, we're going to be fast friends."
The lobby of headquarters was packed to overflowing with displaced rebels. The western safe zone had been completely evacuated and the people were making do in the closest thing to a shelter the rebels had. She didn't blame the crush of humanity around her for coming in out of the cold. Lily just wished there was room to pace properly. James told her to stay put while he used his clearance to locate their children, but the waiting was driving her mad. All she wanted was to see her babies, Harry and his little sister Isobel. She just wanted to hold them and know that they were safely out of danger. What was taking James so long?
Then he was back squeezing his way toward her. James wasn't smiling or projecting the relief Lily needed to see from him now. Damn it, he wasn't allowed to be terrified. "What is it? They're okay."
"I don't know," James said. "It's crazy in here. Maybe Constantine, that was the kid who was on duty tonight, maybe he just hasn't managed to check in yet. There were a dozen children in that nursery station and he has to have his hands full keeping up with them."
"We should head out and look for them. What if they're lost? How old is this Constantine anyway? Is he old enough to do the job?" Lily started shoving her way through the crowd toward the doors, not even waiting to see if James would follow. There were brooms outside, hundreds of them, all with owners huddled around inside. Lily snatched one that looked fast without consideration for the theft. She wasn't going to keep the thing, but she had to get to her children.
Before she could take flight, a tight-flying formation of the firefighters they'd seen earlier swooped in from above. James locked a hand on her shoulder and stepped forward in front of her, to greet the leader of the firefighters. He was a commander and they would report to the first officer they came to. "Did everyone get out? Is the blaze under control yet?"
"The blaze is out, sir," the soot-covered man said. He shot James a sloppy salute. "One team stayed behind to make sure nothing was missed, and we've come to tell most of the people in there that they have homes to return to. As for anyone getting hurt, we did find one casualty so far. My rookie performed the ID spell. We just had a bit of bone to go from. Where we found him, the flames got so hot, there wasn't much left. Allison, what was the ID?"
"Constantine Kertz, sir," Allison replied quickly. "The one ID was strong but I suspect there were other remains nearby. We just didn't have enough left from the other potential casualties for an ID spell to give us anything."
Lily wasn't gifted with divination skills, but she was a logical girl, Muggle-born and practical. She didn't hear the rest of Allison's report, because her mind took a leap of logic that she couldn't face, a leap of logic that couldn't be. She remembered the flames, the heat and the smell. God, she could still smell it in the air, the fire that killed...her babies. It had been burning them, killing them while she'd been working, fiddling with her hair, snuggling close to her husband. Lily hardly recognized the scream pouring out of her throat, echoing through her chest and brain, resonating with the madness tearing through her mind.
James didn't have a chance to react to the news that Constantine, the man who was supposed to see to their children's safety, had perished. A terrible keen like a dying animal erupted from Lily. She started to fold up right there, to collapse, and when he tried to catch her she fought against him, punching wildly, weeping uncontrollably. "It's not true, Lily. They're fine. They're fine." James lied wildly, not believing the words falling from his lips. James managed to lock his arms around Lilly, pinning her arms down, and after a moment she fainted limply in his arms. James sank onto the steps of HQ, cradling his wife against his chest, still unable to deal with the news of his children's likely death. "She's just scared. Constantine was the nursery worker who was supposed to be watching our children, our missing children." A few moments ago, missing had been a scary word with a lot potential meanings, but it felt like a dirge now, a death song, an ending.
James didn't dare unlock his grip on Lily to swipe at the tears that had started leaking from his eyes. "I have to find the children, Harry and Isobel, five and two. They were at nursery station 5, twenty-four hour care. It's the safest place to leave your children. You leave them there because it's SAFE." James wasn't aware that he had begun to rock Lily back and forth. "Can you help me?"
"Yes sir," the head firefighter said. He was looking at them with so much pity. "Me and my team will head back. We'll comb the area until we find something, one way or another, Commander."