Mike and Rich play tourist, sort of. No one has killed anyone . . . yet. It is the afternoon following the last excerpt, and a cold front is moving in.
“Done. Don’t like the air. Storm coming,” Rich declared. He hurried past his mage and into the shelter of the courtyard. The smokers had moved with the wind. Mike hid a smile. His dad still sometimes smoked a pipe, but only in the backyard or in his home office. The mage followed the mongoose back into the castle proper. “I am pretty, oh so pretty,” Rich warbled, posing under a statue of a weasel holding a heraldic shield. “Let’s go see the chapel. It’s open.”
“Sure.” Mike scooped him up and they went past one of the spiral stone stairs, then walked slowly through the public side of the castle. A few safety lights burned, casting darker shadows than night alone. “It’s tornado resistant at least.”
“Reeeeelaaaaaax,” Rich commanded, whiskers twitching, claws dug into the discreet cut-resistant fabric on Mike’s shoulders. “What could possibly go—”
The large hand over his muzzle silenced the Words Of Doom. Snickers emerged instead. All sound and motion ceased as they rounded the corner and beheld the Czechs and Consul Houser filing into the St. Michael chapel, along with Marija Kaminska, one of the Polish delegates. Mr. Benes, the castle manager, spoke, and Mike heard Ms. Pullman translating for Consul Houser. Mike tuned out the voices, listening instead with magic, sort of. He drew a tiny bit of power from his Familiar, just in case, and bowed as he entered the well-lit space. Nothing reacted. That was good. Perhaps.
The deconsecrated chapel dated to the building of the castle. Traces of the original paintings remained. St. Michael, wings spread, smiled a tranquil smile as he stabbed a heavy spear into a faded and chipped dragon. Bits of the plaster had fallen away, but the images remained in very good condition for frescoes from the 1300s. Especially frescoes in this part of Europe. “As you can see,” Ms. Pullman said for Mr. Benes. “It is traditional to have St. Michael in military chapels, or when there are concerns about demons and other forces of evil.”
Or when building over pagan ruins, or on a high place, Mike recited. The 767th had lessons about which saints were where, and why, and what that could tell a magic worker. Mike gave his patron saint a small salute, then turned to the stranger images. “No, a left-handed figure is out of place, unless it is Judas,” Mr. Benes explained, pointing to the much-faded painting in question. “And Judas would have red hair. This is a female centaur of some kind, or perhaps an overpainting of a horse and rider, although special imaging of the wall does not show that.”
The figure faced left, bow drawn, aiming at something. That looks more like a crossbow, sort of. The background appeared sort of blue-green, as if the person stood in the forest. She aimed at a man, although he’d faded even more. Mike peered over the others’ heads, then shrugged a little. He’d never heard of such in a chapel, unless the figure was a demon in a depiction of fallen sinners in Hell. Which did not fit the image, as best anyone could tell. A second painting of St. Michael, this time weighing souls, stood with his back to the archer. The saints processed on the other side of the chapel, including St. Andrew and the rest of the apostles. The Annunciation appeared on the south-west wall, another slight oddity. Since the chapel wasn’t aligned due east-west, having the start of the story toward the west didn’t really upset liturgical “flow.” Much.
“We are over the pit and the seal proper,” Mr. Benes said through Ms. Pullman, answering Capt. Sluka’s question. “The upper seal is there, in the center of the floor, below the peak of the ceiling.” Mike glanced up at the simple gothic arches overhead, then down at the brick floor. The square area of well-worn stone might have had words or images on it, but six hundred years of feet and brooms had effaced them. “No, there is a larger seal below us, a true stone.”
Rich shivered. Mike put a comforting hand on him, touching the rough, warm fur. “Don’t like that. Need to see it if we can, don’t like it. Don’t like deconsecration.”
Ms. Pullman frowned and turned toward them. “You have a question?”
“No, ma’am. Rich observed that the paintings remained in excellent condition, given that the chapel was deconsecrated and endured so many years of abandonment.”
She translated for Mr. Benes, and probably the listening Czechs as well. The manager nodded, but did not reply. Instead, he gestured for them to leave. Mike stepped out the door, since he was closest to the door, and cleared the way for the others. As required by the church, nothing aside from roof sat above the chapel. The spiral stairs led up to an adjacent tower and chamber to the side of the upper ceiling, and down to . . . something. The Czechs talked quietly, and Ms. Pullman spoke with Mr. Houser, then Mr. Benes. The manager gestured his agreement, and the group began walking toward a larger staircase. Mike and Rich followed.
They went down. Stone became wood. “This is a wine cellar and occasionally barracks,” Mr. Benes stated. A set of dim lights came on with a thunk as he turned on a heavy metal switch. Stone floor gave way to dirt and gravel, or so it looked. “This does open to the courtyard, yes, via those stairs,” he gestured to a set of wooden steps with twisted wood hand-rails straight out of an illustration of “primitive medieval woodwork.” They did look sturdy, however. Mike approved. He crouched and set Rich on the floor. The mongoose darted into the shadows and came back twice as fast. No one seemed to notice, aside from Capt. Sluka and Marija Kaminska. Kaminska followed Rich with her eyes, and eased closer to them, but said nothing.
“The actual wine cellar is that way,” Benes told them. “It appears that some larger casks were stored here, along with water barrels. Traces of a cistern have been found, or so archaeologists think, in the forecourt outside the main entry gate. We have a well now, if piped in water ever fails.”
Mr. Houser listened to the translation and made an intrigued sound. Mike echoed him, since officially he didn’t speak much Czech.
Ondra Adamcik, the lead mediator, had been studying the ceiling and walls. “We are not below the chapel, are we?”
“No, sir. We are below the vestry and the private chamber, at the opposite end of the castle from the representative rooms.” Mr. Benes gestured to a deeper, darker passageway off to the left. “The chamber with the portal is that way.” He turned on a few more lights and allowed the Czechs to lead the way. Mike, Sluka, and Kaminska all held back, allowing their superiors to go first. Mr. Benes turned to Mike and pointed up. “Ihre Kopf – niedrigen Decken.” Mind your head, sir, low ceiling.
“Danke Ihnen.” Thank you, sir. Mike stayed low as he followed the ladies. Rich’s tail fluffed and he hissed so quietly that only his mage noticed it. Perhaps. Tik-Tik slithered around the edges of the dimly lit chamber, only the tip of his tail visible in the red-washed shadows. He returned, chittered, then fell silent. Kaminska eased even closer, staying near the door as best she could. Whiffs of abyssal magic burned his senses, nothing strong but . . . Mike eased to the side and held his fingers almost against the gritty sandstones. Traces have soaked in. The stone’s porus to magic. That explains way too much. St. Michael be with us. St. Anthony stand beside us and defend us from demons, St. George strengthen us. Tik-Tik kept one paw on Mike’s boot. Mike bent down and lifted the mongoose onto his shoulder.
“Do not like this, Defender. Look at the seal stone,” Tik-Tik hissed into his ear. Mike, still ducking, eased forward to where the others peered at a flat stone, like a grave marker, and a carefully fenced-off circular well. The well bugged him, but the stone made his hair stand on end. “Near the terp’s shoes.”
What? Mike pretended to be as fascinated with the faint carvings as the others were. The dim light kept him from recognizing the pattern marked into the pale grey slab, but he had a few ideas. At the edge, near where Ms. Pullman stood, he saw marks on the floor, scrapes of stone on stone, oddly deep footprints in the raked dirt. As if someone had tried moving the thing. Did he dare risk it? Mike lowered his shield the tiniest fraction of a bit, shifting his vision as he did. A hint of black, like the thinnest of lines, lurked along that edge of the stone. The pattern shimmered, still unreadable. He eased around to the other side of the stone. No black. A miasma of tainted magic filled the room as if fog had moved in. Mike shifted back to seeing normal life and strengthened his shields once more. A malign awareness shifted, then subsided.
Mr. Benes pointed to the knee-high slab. “Several hundred pounds, as you can imagine. No one has moved it since the 1930s, when local stories claim that the SS shifted it away from the crack it covers. They put it back, if they moved it.” He sounded less than persuaded. “The well is what leads to hell, supposedly. The ghost that comes in sits there,” he waved at a black iron chair or throne at the end of the room, on the other side of the well.
After Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mr. Houser chuckled. “What castle doesn’t have a ghost? Isn’t it Czesky Krumlov that has a white lady?” He turned and looked to Mike, eyebrows raised.
“Ah,” he hesitated, as if searching his memory. “Yes, sir, that’s one of the best known. The White Lady of Rozembirk, or Rosenberg, I think?” His Czech counterpart, Capt. Sluka, gave him a hard look. Did I get it wrong? Or does she not like me playing dumb GI? All of the above probably.
Mr. Benes slipped one hand in the patch pocket on his jacket. He spoke, drawing the others’ attention again. Mike eased back to the door, one hand on Tik-Tik. The Familiar vibrated. Mr. Benes described the black hooded spirit, then a few ghosts and haunts that had been reported in or around the castle. Once Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mike crept out the doorway, around the edges of the cellar room, and back up the stairs.
Not until he’d put the bulk of the Houska Castle between himself and the portal did Mike relax. He set Rich down once more. The mongoose walked with slow dignity out the gate, then dove for the bushes. Thunder grumbled somewhere, echoing off the world around them. A faint flash to the north and west, purple white. Mike crossed himself. “St. Michael archangel, defend us in battle against the wickedness and snares of the devil,” he whispered. He’d finish the prayer once they got back to their room. A gust of cold wind brought drops of rain.
“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”
“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.
(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved