The ruined church had been swept clean of dust and cobwebs but still smelled faintly of earth and mildew. The altar was bare. There was a stack of wooden pews in the knave. I heard the door shut with a thud. I heard the clicks of the lock. I knew that if I turned, the door behind me would look nothing like the one I’d just stepped through. I was also sure that this was an interrogation chamber and that the only way out of that place was with the Master Key, that without it, the door behind me led nowhere—to a pile of rubble, perhaps—and that if I was left there, I would be trapped. We had used several such locations in the war. I was sad that even after so much death and sacrifice, such rooms still somehow served a purpose.
The man seated across from me was near 40. His inquisitive expression seemed chiseled into his face, as if he never dropped it. His suit was nice but inexpensive. His shoes were machine-made and plain. His hair was short and neat and just beginning to gray at the temples. He was American. I could tell instantly.
“Glammer paper,” I said.
He nodded. “Old school, but effective. How’d you see through it?”
“Practice. You all don’t put nearly as much effort into perishable glammers. Not like the one you’re wearing.”
“What makes you think I have a glammer?”
He lifted his back.
“In my experience,” I explained, “men with your apparently athletic physique don’t slouch—not any more than a famous model or actress will sit biting her fingernails.”
“Bad habit, I’m afraid.” He stood and fixed his jacket. “My name is James Thaddeus Morgan. I believe you and I share some common acquaintances.”
It was quaint of him not to say their names, as if anyone there wasn’t privy to the truth.
I looked around. Besides the woman and the two men who brought me, there were two more guards at the back, each wearing the same dark maroon hunting jackets. There was no sign of an alternative exit. In fact, the place looked sealed, almost as if a much larger structure, a castle perhaps, had collapsed over the chapel, leaving it a dark and silent tomb. The rim of stone just above the columns was carved with a kind of interlocking flourish that was once popular along the silk road, a mix of Turkish, Arabic, and Russian influences. I made a note of it.
“Where’s Beltran?” I asked.
“My team and I have been tasked with handling this matter directly, outside the usual channels. I believe the concern was that due to your prior relationship with Master Yeĉg, he might lack the appropriate . . . objectivity in this case.”
I lifted my cuffed hands. “And you truly expect to keep this from him?”
“Not at all. As head of our security services, Master Yeĉg will of course be made fully aware of my team’s investigations. In time.”
Mr. Morgan was telling me he wasn’t simply an agent. He was Chief Executor of the Bureau.
“Until then,” he continued, “I have been given the appropriate operational authority.” He smiled. “He’s very protective of you, isn’t he? Kept your relationship secret for years. And keeping secrets from our mutual acquaintances, that’s not easy. Any other man would’ve been condemned for it. But then, that’s why they wanted him. To keep their secrets. I suppose that makes you the jewel of his résumé.”
I didn’t respond. I’d learned through careful experience that every response reveals something, even simple ignorance. Often, gathering that someone doesn’t know something is more useful than gathering that they do.
“How’d he hide you from the Eye?” Morgan asked.
“What do you want?”
“Please.” He motioned. “Sit down.”
I looked at the chair. I sat, hands still cuffed.
“Can I at least know your first name?” he asked.
“Mila,” I lied.
He studied me for a long moment with a hint of a smirk on his face. “It’s amazing, really. You get to see lots of incredible things with this job, of course, but I’ve never met an actual, real immortal before. Word is, it was a curse. But that can’t be right, can it? Is immortality a curse?”
“That’s a young man’s question.”
“Well, I can’t help that. We all don’t get to be two-hundred-and-some years old. When were you born? 1780? Earlier?”
I leaned back in my seat.
“Alright,” he conceded. “Near as we can tell, you were born up north, on the broad plain between Germany and Russia, closer to the Russian side, which means your homeland’s been conquered and lost and reconquered so many times, there aren’t many records left. We only have the family name, Milanova, along with indications that your father was a Russian noble.”
“Mr. Morgan, I’m nothing if not patient. I’ve had lots of time to practice. Whereas you are hardly the first man to have me in a chair like this. How do you expect this interview will end? With the two of us chums? With me coyly revealing bits of my past so you can dig up some kind of leverage on my ex-husband—or whatever it is you’re after? Why don’t you just ask whatever it is you’re here to ask so that I can go back to my garden?”
“Fair enough. It’s simple really. I’d like to hear everything you know about this man.”
He slid a picture between us. It was a surreptitious surveillance photo—black and white, not very clear. The branch of a tree blocked part of the man’s face, but he was very clearly young, not out of his early 20s, I guessed. He was also very skinny, and his head was completely bald. That seemed significant for some reason, but just then I couldn’t say why.
“Well, good,” I said. “Then this should be over quickly because I’ve never seen that—” I stopped. I remembered something then, something so distant it had taken some time to bubble to the surface of my thoughts through the 150 years of memories that had been piled on top.
You won’t want to. You’ll want to go back to your garden.
Mr. Morgan produced another surveillance photo, taken in the same surreptitious manner, this time of the bald man and I together.
I didn’t flinch. “And where was this supposedly taken?”
“Leipzig,” he said.
“Ah, I’ve never been to Leipzig.”
Technically, I had, but that was nearly 200 years earlier.
“It’s a beautiful city. I can recommend a couple wonderful restaurants if you’d like. For the next time.”
“I’ve never been to Leipzig,” I repeated. “And I’ve never seen this man.” I slid the photo back with cuffed hands.
“Then how do you explain the photo?”
“Your skill with glammer paper has already been established. Well done, Mr. Morgan. I see the image clearly. I also do not trust it for a second. Perhaps if you’d taken more care with the papers for the police, I wouldn’t have known better. May I go now?”
He was unperturbed. “Why’d you settle in that place? What’s it called? Little Village?”
“I wanted to be alone.”
“But why Romania?”
“It has a certain charm.”
“Do you speak Romanian?”
“No. But I picked up some Hungarian, and it’s passably common. And some of the old-timers speak my native tongue. Why am I still here?”
“But you don’t live in the Hungarian sector. Must be difficult.”
“Not if one is looking to be alone.”
“Ever been up to the quarry?”
“The area where you live is famous for mining.”
“I thought it was mostly coal.”
“There’s an abandoned quarry in the hills to the south. Ever wander up that way?”
I paused. “Why do you ask?”
“Just answer the question, please.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“But you were aware there was a quarry up there?”
“One of the villagers might have mentioned it. I hear there are also quite a few werewolves. It is Transylvania after all.”
He smiled. “And here I thought most of them had given up the country for city life. Easier pickings.”
“There are bears. I know that. They wander down into the village sometimes, especially in the fall. Did you know that under Ceaușescu, no one was allowed to hunt them but the dictator himself? Do you suppose he was compensating for something?”
“So, just to be clear, your story is that you moved out to the wilds of Romania, to that specific village, just so you could admire the view? Take some walks? Make cuckoo clocks?”
“It seemed a noble occupation for a woman with an abundance of time.”
“And an absurdist sense of humor,” he added. “I’ve seen pictures. Carvings based on the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. And the Kama Sutra. How does that play with the villagers?”
“I’m an old woman, Mr. Morgan, whether I look it or not, and I have an old woman’s peculiar habits.”
“I see. They said you’d be a cool customer.”
“Our mutual acquaintances.” He smiled at me. “Can I get you something to drink? A glass of water?”
“If they are so worried about me, why not simply use the Eye to check up on me?”
“The Eye was forged when the population of the largest empire on the planet was that of a small city. As you might expect, with a world full of problems and more people in it than ever before, the Eye is in high demand. We try to rule folks out the old-fashioned way, if we can, before we add them to an already long list. Besides . . .”
Here it came.
“Much like our old adversaries, you have a penchant for avoiding the Eye.” He watched my reaction.
“Are you suggesting I’m a double agent?”
“I’m suggesting you lived with the seekers of the dark for the better part of eighteen months. One can learn a lot in that time. We don’t know very much about their art, or their science. Who knows what you were exposed to? What you saw?”
I glanced again at the photo. I’m sure there wasn’t an ounce of recognition in my face. Still, something about it bothered me. I leaned closer. When I looked up, Morgan was smiling. I looked at the photo again. My jaw set.
Morgan waved his hand and a pair of guards set a large wooden box on the table between us. He seemed very proud of it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Mr. Morgan stood over the box. “A peculiarity of our trade,” he said as he unlatched it. “A Charios Mask.”
“Good. You’ve heard of it.” He raised the heavy lid.
“Just rumors. I was a mere field agent, remember? I left the torture to others.”
“We picked up the idea from our adversaries. Their method was a little more . . . brutal. They used needles.”
“I know.” I had witnessed it.
Morgan set the mask on the table between us. Facing away from me, it looked rather like a four-armed octopus made of brown leather, tentacles spread in anticipation of the hug it wanted to give me. About the head.
“We use an iron bar instead.”
“So I see.”
The Charios Mask, pronounced with a hard ch-, was named after the Greek enchanter who’d invented it, a minor bureaucrat charged with the catalog, storage, and occasional destruction of items confiscated in combat. Morgan was right about the original. It was less a mask than a headdress, and it used a menagerie of long needles which pressed in at points around the skull and face. They were thin enough that they did only minor damage upon entry. I’m told the terror was due less to the pain—although that as well—than to the feeling of so many foreign objects burrowing through your face, your identity, toward your brain, the very source of self.
Instead of needles, The Masters’ version used a fat iron bar which protruded from both sides of the mask. The shorter arm went between the wearer’s teeth. It was at least partially symbolic, I was sure—propping open your speech organ so as to elicit the release of the truth. The bar’s longer arm extended forward from the face. The whole thing shot back into the throat, like a plunger, with each uttered lie.
I looked at it. The incongruity between the heavy iron bar and the leather straps, which were padded on the inside so as not to cause too much discomfort, was laughable.
“It’s a little more dangerous than prior methods,” Morgan went on, “but also considerably more effective. What is it they used in your day? Truth potions, right? And aura mapping. Those old color projection charts, like mood rings. Damned hard to interpret.”
“In my day?”
“During the war.”
“I wasn’t aware that was ‘my day.’ I would’ve put ‘my day’ much earlier.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a real hero. The woman who smuggled the book. And against orders, if I understand it right. That’s real initiative. You’re one for the history books. Did you look at it? I mean, you were alone with it for what? Two days before you turned it over? Three? Did you sneak a peek at those forbidden pages?”
I didn’t answer.
“I would’ve. I doubt I could’ve stopped myself, honestly. To actually see the words of the dark gods.” He turned his head once, like that had to be the darndest thing.
“Good thing you’ve never faced the temptation, then,” I said flatly. I looked at the mask. “So. Let’s get on with it.”
“You’d consent to it? You’d consent to the procedure?”
His question suggested it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, that he was unwilling to force it on me. That further suggested the young Mr. Morgan—young to me, at least—was wary of doing anything that might send my ex-husband, a war-druid of some renown, into a fury.
No one did fury quite like Beltran.
“Of course I consent,” I said. “I told you. I’ve never seen that young man before. The sooner I prove it, the sooner this is over, and the sooner I can get back to my garden.”
“Well . . .” James Thaddeus Morgan seemed very pleased. I couldn’t tell if it was with himself or me. He nodded to the woman in the beret, who was waiting behind me, and the two of them carefully lifted the mask.
“Open your mouth, please,” she ordered. She was Russian—probably insurance in case I pretended not to understand English.
I did as I was told and they placed the rounded end of the fat iron bar on my tongue. It was cold. I tried to keep my teeth from touching it, but it was fat, which meant I had to open wide. Soon my muscles grew tired and I had to relax. The sensation of resting teeth on metal is not pleasant. It made the muscles in my back contract. And of course one’s saliva runs. I tried to swallow and tasted metal.
“Oo iih he?” I mumbled, nodding to the photo.
Morgan and his associate affixed the leather straps to the back of my head. One went under the ears and latched around the base of the neck. The other went over the ears and latched at the apex of the skull. With the bar between my teeth, it would be extremely difficult—painful, even—to slide the mask off in any direction. It would have to be unlatched, which was impossible as long as my hands were cuffed.
I both heard and felt the lower strap snap into place. Morgan let go and moved around to look me in the eye.
“I’m going to ask you a test question now. Do you understand?”
He walked back around to his seat. “Is your family name Milanova?”
“Yeth.” Making an S sound was impossible.
He organized his papers for a moment and took out a pen.
“We realize it’s difficult to speak while wearing the mask, so we’ll do our best to keep to yes-and-no questions. Fair enough?”
I nodded again.
“Please give verbal answers.”
He set the photo in front of me.
“Are you ready?”
I nodded a third time.
He pointed. “Have you ever seen this man before?”
“No,” I mumbled through the bar.
He looked to me like he expected me to be writhing in pain. But I wasn’t. In fact, I felt exactly the same as when I arrived, albeit slightly more annoyed.
“Have you had any contact with him?”
He waited. Again, nothing happened.
“Have you had any contact with strangers? Anyone at all?”
“E’er in my lif?” I mumbled.
“In the last three months,” he said, somewhat perturbed.
“No. I old ooo, I wan oo be alone.”
He looked to the bar. It didn’t move. He looked to the woman behind me. “Well?” he demanded.
The woman paused. “I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know? What does that mean?”
“I’ve . . . never seen this before.”
“Is it working?”
She paused again. “I think so.”
“Is she charmed?”
“The bar is lode iron with a selenium core. After it penetrates the mouth, it should defeat all charms.”
“A binding then?”
“But she’s giving answers, sir.”
Morgan didn’t like that.
“’Erhaps you’d have more lugg wih ‘omethin from my day,” I suggested sarcastically.
“Restrict yourself to answering questions, please,” he barked.
Morgan got up to confer with his colleague. I heard them whispering. I felt them tug on the apparatus, which moved my head back and forth. Then he stepped to where he could see my face.
“Have you the ability to cast darkness?”
“Thad isn’d the line of ques’ioning we agre—”
“Do you have the ability to cast darkness?” He slammed his hand on the table.
The bar didn’t move.
“Did you read the Necronomicon?”
I paused, and the bar twitched. He saw it.
“Have you read the Necronomicon?” he repeated.
The bar rammed into my throat and I choked. I stood and stumbled and my chair fell back. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I understood then why it was so effective. The inability to breathe sends your body into an involuntary frenzy. It’s an innate biological reflex and nearly impossible to control, even with training—which is why torture seems effective: the torturer always wins. But if one is being waterboarded, one might legitimately come to doubt whether one’s torturers would truly stop at the truth. One couldn’t even be sure whether the truth would be recognized if it came, especially if it were fantastical or unexpected. Speaking truthfully, then, is never a guarantee that torture will stop, especially versus some judicious mix of truth and lie. And that, of course, is exactly why torture has been unreliable since the dawn of history. Even in the very best of circumstances, it is a game of charades.
But the Charios Mask was different—thanks to one deceptively simple twist. The mask was not under the control of the torturer but the tortured. One’s means of release was always at hand. You simply had to speak the truth, as you understood it, and the bar would retract. While you did not, you suffocated.
And I would have suffocated, if not for the good Inspector Dragoș, who had gone to the trouble of bringing a female officer with him every time he detained me for no other reason than that he didn’t consider it proper for a man, even a policeman, to touch a woman in a familiar way—at least, not until she was convicted of a crime. And yet, in the detention room, he had frisked me vigorously and in front of others. It was a cover. While everyone watched him feel my breasts, he slipped the key to his handcuffs into my palm.
I stood from the table, gagging, and pushed my chair back. My hands were already free. I pulled both latches and dragged the Charios Mask from my face, bending over involuntarily as the iron bar came out, trailing mucus and saliva. I threw it on the ground and coughed and coughed.
“This interview”—I coughed again and swallowed—”is over.”
I strode to the door, hand over my mouth. It felt like I had a bruise at the back of my throat, and my eyes were watering heavily.
“Where are you going?” Morgan asked with a mix of annoyance and humor.
I think he was still trying to figure out how I had gotten out of the handcuffs. I suspect I was far from the first to have been dragged to that secret place and that there were powerful dispels cast upon it, perhaps even wards hidden in the walls that prevented all but the most potent magic—far more potent than anything I could muster—and he was struggling to comprehend what spell I had used. I wasn’t going to tell him he had too much faith in magic, in glammer paper and secret doors, and not enough in ordinary people.
“Home,” I answered. My voice cracked on the word and I cleared my throat and wiped my eyes. “Unless you’re going to detain me without cause.”
“We have cause.” He motioned to the mask, which lay like a dead octopus on the floor.
“You can’t be serious.”
“That was decades ago,” I objected, “before you were even born. I think if I was going to act against The Masters, I would have done so by now, don’t you?”
“Dunno. Perhaps you’re just as patient as you say.”
“A sleeper agent in a sleepy little village in the middle of nowhere?”
“For what purpose?”
“That’s what we’re here to figure out.”
“Then arrest me. Of course, then you will have to file charges. I expect my ex-husband might have something to say about that. Although, I’d be more worried about what he’ll do once he realizes his own people are acting without his knowledge or consent. You think the other Masters will support you in a direct challenge to one of their own? I worked with them for decades. They’ll make all kinds of promises to you in secret, Mr. Morgan, but when it all comes out, they won’t take a single risk that jeopardizes their position.”
“Oh, I agree. But I doubt it’ll come to that. You keep calling him your ex-husband, though. My understanding is that the two of you were never formally married. That was how he got around having to disclose your relationship.”
“Why don’t you ask him about that? Ask the great Master Yeĉg if he thinks having a piece of paper with our names on it would’ve made any difference.”
I stood by the door, but no one moved to open it for me, so I waited in silence. The bit with the Charios mask wasn’t enough for them to arrest me. It could be admitted as evidence in a tribunal magique, but since magical devices can be corrupted by magic, they would need confirmation, a second independent line of evidence, to secure a conviction. Of course, that assumed they were following the laws and traditions. Exceptions were rare, especially outside of wartime. But they’d been known to happen.
Morgan bent to the ground and retrieved the “photo” of me and the bald man, which had fallen when I jumped to my feet. He held it up. He produced a Zippo from his pocket, lit it with a flick of his wrist, and held the photo over the flame. I watched it burn a typical orange. There was no flicker of blue-green. It wasn’t glammer paper. It was a real photo. Of me and a man I had never met. That triggered something, a fragment of a memory. A hotel hallway. A room key in my hand. A door opened and there he was. I couldn’t picture him clearly, but my sense was that he had been waiting for me and that we had business. But I couldn’t remember. Whatever that fragment had been attached to was gone.
The guards fixed the tables and chairs and Mr. Morgan took his seat and motioned for me to the same.
“In case it’s not clear from the evidence,” he said, “it would appear your memory has been tampered with. I would think you of all people would want to find out how, why, and by whom.”
He organized his papers while I shuffled over and sat down. The room now smelled of lighter fluid and smoke, and I coughed.
“But even if you don’t, between the photo surveillance and your answer to the Charios test, we have enough for an arrest, whereupon more exacting measures can be legally used to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt whether or not you laid eyes on forbidden arcana.” He paused. “We both know those measures are not pleasant. We both know what they will reveal. We both know that your ex-husband will not be able to circumvent the ancient rites against so serious a crime. And given your prior record, going back well over a century, we both know where you will go.” He produced another photo, a color photo, taken recently by the look of it. It was the heavy front gate of the second-to-last place on earth I ever wanted to be again. Everthorn.
We sat together in silence. I knew exactly what he wanted.
I sighed. My shoulders dropped.
“What’s the mission?” I whispered.
“That’s better.” He sat back. “It’s simple really. Your bald friend is quite possibly the most dangerous man in the world. And you’re going to help us eliminate him.”
Excerpt from my epic occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, available here.
cover image by Ozumii Wizard