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The subduedly ornate and candlelit Grand Hall of Adderwood Manor was both abnormally quiet and unusually empty, for tonight was neither a festive celebration nor a general meeting of high-ranking Addermen. At the front of the hall sat all twelve Arch-Addermen, six to each side of an unoccupied throne. Newest among them, to the confusion and resentment of many, was the portly and relatively good-natured Fenwick Humberton. His position was perhaps not surprising, since the Grand Council of Arch-Addermen were in practice merely an advisory body with no authority other than what the Grand Adderman choose to delegate to them. They served at his pleasure, so a pleasing disposition went a long way to getting and keeping them where they were.

Across from them, only a few of the hundreds of gleaming lacquered chairs held a guest, the most uneasy of which was Seneca Chamberlin. He was a disgraced former Head Adderman, and now held the informal and somewhat honorary title of ‘Elder Adderman’, which was essentially any older or otherwise remarkable Adderman who was not the head of a Chapterhouse. The two strange beings to either side of him shared this rank as well.

To his right was the undead and eerily phosphorescent brain of Whitaker Crowley, suspended in a glass vat of bubbling preternatural fluids, mounted on a wheeled podium powered by psychically-operated clockwork contraptions, and topped with a bowler hat. To his left was Drogo Raubritter; a pallid, slender, and hairless industrialist who shared Seneca’s grandiose and outdated fashion sense of three-pieced suits and top hats. His keen-sighted but unsightly eyes were concealed behind a pair of shaded hexagonal spectacles, whose gaze was currently set upon a tumultuously dark orb perched upon the ebony cane clutched in his silk-gloved hands.

Across the aisle from them, which was still far too close for comfort, were James and Mary Darling. Twins, lovers, and supernatural sociopaths who lured their victims into their own pocket reality to torture, kill, and cannibalize. This was the first time they had appeared at Adderwood Manor without an explicit summons, for the matter of today’s discussion was one of great personal interest to them. It was so important to them that Mary hadn’t had anything to drink since breakfast, something which terrified everyone present. She smoked incessantly with a shaking hand to try to calm her overactive nerves, sweat noticeably dripping down her face despite the chill of the room.

On the floor between the council and the onlookers was the Head of the Harrowick Chapter Ivy Noir, her sister Envy, and her de facto husband Erich Thorne. All were prostrate before the Council, knees and foreheads to the ground with hands bound behind their backs.

The elongated body of the Grand Adderman slithered around them, his crimson cloak trailing behind him like a tail. He clutched a sceptre of Seelie Silver in his spidery fingers, its handle comprised of three intertwining serpents. Its head had once held an ancient and mystical crystal orb, but now it held only its midnight blue shards. Only the Grand Adderman and his inner circle knew for certain how the orb had been shattered, and they were forbidden to speak of it to the rest of their Order. Rumours ran rampant amongst the lower ranks as to how such a powerful and priceless artifact had been ruined, but none likely guessed at the absurd truth.

“These repeated humiliations are beginning to weigh on me,” came the Grand Adderman’s raspy voice out of the near-lightless abyss of his hooded face. “First, Emrys is summoned by Seneca, who promptly loses control of him. Emrys then not only manages to evade capture, but proceeds to start robbing us blind, one by one! One particular theft happened to include one of the Darling Twin’s many corpses. That corpse then waltzed right into Pendragon Manor, despite its alleged technological and thaumaturgical impregnability, lied in wait in the Cuniculi Chamber for Head Adderman Noir, stole her Cuniculi Keys, contaminated the many thousands of pounds of Sigil Sand held within, all before topping off her crime spree by devouring a Sanguine Egregore! Thorne! You claim that the only way Petra Stone could have circumvented your security system the way she did is with administrative access. Have you learned how she accomplished this?”

“No, Grand Adderman,” Erich replied, not daring to move from his position until he was explicitly commanded to do so. “After an extensive internal investigation, we’ve found no evidence of an information breach. All passwords have been reset, new protocols have been implemented, and sensitive information is now more restricted, but without knowing how the breach was originally accomplished, we cannot guarantee it will not happen again.”

“And I assume you’re equally as mystified as to how she managed to overcome the protective wards, as well, Miss Noir?” the Grand Adderman asked.

“Yes, Grand Adderman,” Ivy replied. “I did observe, however, during my brief opportunity, that Petra appears to share Emrys’ ability to remain incorporeal while out of direct light. Her ability to move unseen and undetected through shadows is likely how she was able to avoid setting off both the wards and the security system. The wards protecting Pendragon Manor were also not designed specifically with Emrys or his vassals in mind. Envy and I have devised new wards that we believe should be more effective, but they of course remain untested.”

“Miss Noir, do you realize how valuable Petra Stone would have been to us, dead or alive, in our efforts to bring down Emrys?” the Grand Adderman demanded, stooping down directly in front of her, his icy cold breath beating down on the back of her head.

“Of course I do, Grand Adderman,” she said through chattering, shivering teeth.

“And yet, you let her escape, with your set of Cuniculi keys, no less,” he reminded her, his raspy voice thick with vehemence. “Why?”

“I… I had to make sure Envy was safe, Grand Adderman,” she confessed.

Mary screamed in rage as she bolted up from her chair, tossing her cigarette aside and pulling out her favourite butcher’s knife. She pounced upon Envy, pushing her face down into the floor with one hand as she raised her knife in the other.

“That was my corpse!” she screamed. “I killed her! I should have shat her out by now, but Emrys stole her from us! You big-breasted bimbos had the chance to take her out, and you let her get away! I oughta cut this slut’s heart out and eat it right in front of you, Ivy, so that you won’t have the same excuse to fuck up next time!”

“Mary! Mary, let’s ease up on the death threats and internalized misogyny for a tick and talk about this,” Fenwick suggested as he leapt from his seat and crept towards her as quickly as he dared.

Nobody but James had remained seated after Mary’s outburst, either out of concern for the Noir sisters or their own lives. Even the Grand Adderman had been somewhat taken aback by Mary’s audacity.

Crowley and Raubritter exchanged glances, Crowley nodding down to the small Tesla coil on his podium and then towards Mary. Raubritter nodded, lifting his cane slightly and subtly gesturing towards James. Seneca, however, found himself paralyzed with indecision. As much as he wanted Ivy to suffer for replacing him as Head of the Harrowick Chapter, he was terrified that Mary could just as easily turn her rage on him for his summoning of Emrys.

“Mary, the Council is in agreement that the expertise of Ivy and Envy Noir are critical in our campaign against Emrys,” Fenwick said in the most soothing tone he could manage. Envy was sobbing and quietly pleading for her life, with her sister feeling equally helpless to protect her. Ivy knew that if the Darlings wanted to kill you, you were already as good as dead. “You want your revenge? We need them. It’s as simple as that.”

“You need Ivy! Her sister’s just her little puppy dog and you know it!” Mary claimed.

“We need Ivy’s full and willing cooperation, and that means we need Envy alive and well,” Fenwick countered. “Let her go.”

Mary didn’t respond, nor did she retreat from her position.

“James, for God’s sake, call her off!” Fenwick demanded.

“Sorry Fenny, but I’m afraid Mary only answers to me in matters that fall under my purview as the man of the house,” James said smugly. “When it comes to her choice of prey, she can be surprisingly independently-minded.”

Mary did not release her prey, but neither did she bring her knife down upon her. Her atypical sobriety was almost certainly the only reason Envy was still alive. Ordinarily, Mary did as she pleased with no concern for consequences, but now she was torn. Her blade, already drawn, was begging for the familiar taste of human flesh. But doubt, normally drowned out with alcohol, was gnawing at her. What if the Council was right? What if she did need Ivy to get to Emrys, and that she would be of no use if she was heartbroken over the death of her beloved sister?

What would the Grand Adderman do if Mary cost him a critical asset in his quest to defeat Emrys?

Mary looked up from her prey and into the shadowed face of the Grand Adderman, now looming over her like a cobra about to strike. With his frigid breath wafting into her face, Mary was, for the first time, able to catch a glimpse of his glinting eyes beneath his hood.

What she saw in those eyes filled her with a fear she had not felt since Emrys had broken into their playroom and murdered their pet Voggathaust in front of them.

“Mary, darling, you are interrupting my interrogation,” the Grand Adderman said with a sinister yet lilting tone, pointing the ragged shards of his sceptre towards her. “Return to your seat. Now.”

Lowering her knife, Mary stumbled backwards, suddenly overcome by a need to get out of his reach.

“Yes. Yes, of course, Grand Adderman. My apologies,” she muttered meekly, her shaking now as much out of fear as it was from alcohol withdrawal. She returned to her brother’s side and practically collapsed into his protective embrace, while he glared down the Grand Adderman as he fought to control his rage.

For everyone else in the room, however, the sense of relief was palpable. Even the Grand Adderman let out a sigh, going so far as to give Envy a pitying pat on the head.

“Rise. All of you,” he said as he telekinetically released their bindings before returning to his throne. “And would someone please get Mary a drink!”

“A real drink! None of that high-school wine you pretentious snobs think counts as booze!” she barked at the attendants scurrying off to the galley. Fenwick helped Envy to her knees, fussing over her as Ivy clutched her tightly to her chest and stroked her hair.

“Miss Noir, consider what just happened your penance for letting Petra escape,” the Grand Adderman decreed. “In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that your strategy for using the Sigil Sand to capture Emrys may indeed have been our best chance of besting him. If he didn’t consider it a threat, he wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to sabotage it.”

“If I may interject,” Seneca interjected, regardless of whether or not he may. “I think that the incident with Petra is proof that we are pursuing a fundamentally flawed strategy in our pursuit of Emrys. It’s well past time that we consider diplomacy as a viable alternative. I have maintained relations with the Hedge Witch Samantha Sumner, an individual whom Emrys briefly expressed an affinity for and who would be willing to serve as an intermediary at negotiations. She has a vested interest in avoiding a massive occult conflict between Emrys and ourselves, and frankly, so should we!”

“And has the Hedge Witch actually had any contact with Emrys since your Halloween party?” the Grand Adderman demanded.

“Not as of yet, no. However –”

“Then I’m not interested!” the Grand Adderman said with a wave of his hand. “I want the Sigil Sand beneath Pendragon Hill purged of Emrys’ taint! God knows what havoc that dark magic has already wrought. Crowley! Tell me you can save the Sand!”

“Grand Adderman, there are billions of grains of Sigil Sand in that pit, every one of which has absorbed some non-trivial amount of Emrys’ Miasma,” Crowley replied, his booming monotone voice trumpeting out of a gramophone horn mounted beside his brain vat. “Anything less than a one hundred percent successful purification would result in some taint remaining and inevitably spreading throughout the volume. If you command it, I could attempt to purge the Sand, but I believe that failure would be the most likely outcome. While I realize it would be a costly loss, writing the Sand off is most likely the most pragmatic choice of action.”

***

“Why does no one ever listen to me?” Crowley demanded as he looked out over the pit of corrupted Sigil Sand that he had been charged with salvaging. “I advised against summoning Emrys, and you summoned him anyway! I told the Grand Adderman that I was perfectly capable of being the permanent Head of the Harrowick Chapter, a position he handed over to Ivy Noir instead! Then when she messes up, and we have multiple metric tonnes of miasma-saturated Sigil Sand under Pendragon Hill, does anyone so much as humour my recommendation that we just get rid of it?”

“For what it’s worth, I’m with you this time, Crowley” Seneca agreed as he raked the Sigil Sand smooth. “If Artaxerxes was still with us, it’d be a different story. Even if we still had one of his descendants, it might be worth a try. But without a Crow, I don’t much care for our odds.”

“Have you considered asking Miss Sumner if she might be willing to lend us the services of her familiar?” asked Woodbead, Seneca’s valet and chief manservant, who was still someone out of breath from the exertion of pulling Crowley and his infernal contraption down the spiral set of stairs into the subterranean Cuniculi Chamber.

“There’s no point. Even if he wasn’t a ghost, Elam was technically disowned by his father, and was far less initiated in his bloodline’s secrets than most,” Seneca explained. “Besides, I want Samantha to remain a neutral third party in our little feud with Emrys. Undoing his sabotage would quite firmly put her on our side.”

“I’m trying not to take offence at your lack of confidence in my abilities,” Raubritter remarked dryly. “Artaxerxes Crow is dead and his bloodline erased from the Earth. We are still alive and were all confident enough in our immortality that we felt no need to sire progeny to begin with. Is that not proof enough that our occult abilities surpass those of Crow and his heirs?”

“Artaxerxes made one mistake; selling his soul and the souls of his descendants to Persephone. In all other aspects, his skill and knowledge of the occult were beyond sublime,” Seneca insisted. “We never would have defeated Morgana King or that maleficent multitudinous minion of hers if it hadn’t been for Crow. And what are you going on about him having kids for? I can believe your lack of offspring was a coldly calculated decision to maximize your profits with no need to offset the risk of old age and death, but I simply had no need and little tolerance for the second sex. As for Crowley, he was… oh, to put this delicately…”

“Imponent due to my morbid obesity,” Crowley finished for him. “Seneca, please tell me you had this place ritualistically cleansed and thoroughly sanitized after the incident with the Gorgonian Lions? The last thing we need is alchemically active lizard offal interfering with the purification ritual.”

“Yes, Crowley. Rest assured that all that necessary prep work has been seen too,” Seneca said with a roll of his eyes. “Can we please get on with this, fail, and then head back to Adderwood so that the Grand Adderman can yell at us some more?”

Crowley’s brain nodded up and down in its vat as his pedestal rotated to face the now smooth pit of sand.

“Witches’ Salt is the preferred means to purify Sigil Sand,” he remarked. “All it takes is getting it to resonate at an inverse astral frequency to whatever’s contaminating the Sand and it will dispel any unwanted energies. The problem here is that Emrys’ Miasma is extra-universal in origin, so it doesn’t exactly play by the same set of rules. We do know that Emrys is vulnerable to Chthonic forces, specifically those associated with Persephone, due to her role in forging his chains. I believe that any emanation of Emrys on our plane, including his Miasma, should have the same vulnerability. I have brought three totems carved from Samhain-consecrated Chthonic Salt, ensuring the fullest possible alignment to Persephone’s aura. Woodbead, would you be so kind as to place them evenly around the inner circumference of the pit, making sure that they are partially embedded into the sand itself?”

Woodbead flipped open the small wooden chest that Crowley had them drag down for him, revealing three corvine statues carved from faintly luminescent, stygian blue salt.

“Ah. Seems there are some crows here with us after all,” he quipped.

“Those are ravens, you ornithologically illiterate ignoramus!” Crowley chastised him. “As usual, this ritual takes three occult practitioners to complete the circuit. Ideally, it would be three Witches, but since Seneca is remaining obstinate that Miss Sumner and her Coven do not aid us in this endeavour, the three of us will do in a pinch. We each stand between one of the totems on the outer perimeter of the sand pit, with the sacrifice going in the middle.”

“I beg your pardon; the what now?” Woodbead asked as he finished placing the final totem.

“Not you,” Seneca assured him. “Raubritter, what did you bring?”

Raubritter reached into his jacket and pulled out something wrapped in fine linen. He carefully pulled it back to unveil a well-preserved human heart, one with a puncture wound piercing right through the middle.

“Dare I ask where you got that from?” Woodbead queried, his face paling noticeably despite the poor light.

“You didn’t buy it off the Darlings, did you? Their victims don’t go peacefully and that trauma has a significant impact on the applicability of their organs,” Seneca insisted.

“It’s Petra’s,” Raubritter said as he callously examined the unbeating heart. “When Emrys resurrected her, he wasn’t able to repair the damage that Mary had caused, so he took her to Urhzeigerzinn’s to find her a mechatronic replacement. He rather carelessly left her original heart behind for Uhrzeigerzinn to do with as he pleased. He alchemically preserved it, and my representatives were able to convince him to part with it as reparations for that Adderman he dismembered.”

With a single, casual toss, Raubritter threw the heart into the dead center of the sand pit, glad to get some practical use out of the notoriously impractical organ.

“Dear God,” Seneca muttered. “What makes you so confident it was mere carelessness on Emrys’s part, hmmm? That heart was removed after she was dead but before she was resurrected, so any somatic connection it may have had to Petra has been severed. Emrys knows the sort of things we do with ill-gotten organs, and he knew we’d likely be able to persuade Urhzeigerzinn into handing it over! This is a terrible idea. Emrys wants us to use this heart, mark my words.”

“I’m in full agreement, but the Grand Adderman wants this Sand purified,” Crowley explained. “The Miasma has to go somewhere once we dispel it from the Sand, and since it came from Petra in the first place, her old heart is the best vessel we have at our disposal.”

“And did you tell the Grand Adderman it was Petra’s heart you planned to use?” Seneca demanded.

“I didn’t not tell him,” Crowley replied. “I told him we would use a suitable human heart as a vessel for the Miasma, and he didn’t ask me to expound on that.

“Now, there’s one final monkey wrench that we have to deal with, which is that the Miasma is going to be highly resistant to any attempt to purify it. That’s why, in addition to the ritual, I’m going to attempt some electrothaumic modulation to speed things along.”

His Tesla coil instantly whirred to life, discharging a semi-continuous bolt of lightning between the Sand, the three totems, and the heart.

“Christ, Crowley, is that really necessary? What if you miss and hit one of us?” Seneca demanded.

“Don’t make me miss, and you’ll be fine,” Crowley assured him. “Raubritter, since you’re filling in for Crow, you take the lead.”

“Just to clarify something before you begin,” Woodbead interjected. “The worst thing that can happen here is that it doesn’t work, right?”

The three of them stared at him for a beat, before turning inwards and beginning the ritual.

Ave Thaumaturgica Serpentis. Ave Ophion Orbis Ouroboros. Cum Sal Maleficarum, hanc Terram purgamus Tenebrarum. Cum Fulmine Jupiter Patris, damus Lucem Tenebris. Cum hoc Sacrificali Sanguineo, vincimus Tenebris,” Raubritter chanted as he slowly traced sigils into the sand with the end of his cane. “Hail the Great Magic of the Serpent. Hail Ophion the World Serpent. With Witches’ Salt, we purge this Earth of Darkness. With the Sky Father’s Lightning, we give Light to Darkness. With this Sacrificial Blood, we overcome the Darkness!”

Ave Thaumaturgica Serpentis. Ave Ophion Orbis Ouroboros. Cum Sal Maleficarum, hanc Terram purgamus Tenebrarum. Cum Fulmine Jupiter Patris, damus Lucem Tenebris. Cum hoc Sacrificali Sanguineo, vincimus Tenebris.”

Seneca and Crowley joined in with the chanting now, Seneca drawing sigils with his ceremonial serpentine sabre, and Crowley drawing his with bolts from his Tesla coil. They repeated their chant over and over, and as they did, the totems of Chthonic Salt began to vibrate and glow. Their auras extended outwards from their outstretched wings, forming an enclosed perimeter that began to grow towards the center of the pit. As they encroached along the Sand’s surface, the grains of sand began to glow and vibrate in synchronicity with the totems, and a black miasma began to exude from the surface. It mostly just crept and circulated along the pit’s circumference, with Crowley using his electrothaumic coil to shoot down any wisps that might venture too high or too far.

When the light finally touched the heart, it was the catalyst for some kind of thaumaturgical chain reaction. The heart began to beat, its rhythm resonating with the Sand’s and causing them both to beat faster and harder. More and more of the Miasma was heaved up, circling around the heart in a heavy vortex that occluded everything within it from sight. Only the totems themselves remain visible, and only then as vague points of light in the storm. Inevitably, when every iota of Miasma had been expelled from the Sand, it began to collect inward, the dark cloud shrinking as the ravenously beating heart gulped it down, making it as much a part of itself as its own sinew. When the last puff of Miasma was swallowed, the Sand fell still, the totems went dark, and the three chanting occultists fell silent.

Panting in relief and astonishment, Woodbead stepped back from his hiding spot and whipped out his parathaumameter to begin taking readings.

“You did it. You did it!” he proclaimed. “The Sand’s reading as completely neutral! I’m not picking up a single taint of Emrys’ Miasma. It worked, gentlemen!”

He looked up from his gauge, expecting the others to be excited, celebratory, or at least relieved. But instead, they all continued staring at the sand pit in silent dread.

“It shouldn’t still be beating,” Crowley said.

In the center of the pit remained the heart, and it had not fallen still. The Miasma had transmogrified it into gleaming obsidian, and yet it somehow maintained a strong and steady beat as it rested upon the Sand. The condensed Miasma flowed rapidly in small loops, in and out of every vein and artery, seemingly quite content with its new home.

Crowley glared at Seneca and Raubritter from within his bubbling vat, indicating that one of them should step forward to investigate.

“It’s your heart,” Seneca muttered to Raubritter.

“It’s your pit,” Raubritter muttered back.

Before any decision could be reached, however, the heart began to sink beneath the Sand, possibly burrowing of its own accord.

Now there was no hesitation, Seneca and Raubritter each jumping forward and desperately sifting through the Sand to catch the wayward heart. They dug frantically, soon reaching the bottom of the shallow pit, with no sign of the heart or where it had gone.

The four of them all shared knowing disquieted glances, each too terrified to bother placing blame for the moment. Seneca was the one who finally broke the awkward silence.

“Well, like I said earlier; none of us were ever any good at chasing after women’s hearts.”



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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