For Laurelei, the unique smell of an alchemist's shop was an immediately appealing fragrance. A thousand different herbs, minerals and chemicals all mingled together with the bubbling of a multitude of concoctions. She stepped into the cramped shop with Rolf at her back and a list of ingredients in hand. The two story building was darkly lit and piled with shelves upon shelves of little wooden boxes, jars of this or that, open tomes filled with hastily scrawled notes and a plethora of potted plants dangling from the ceiling.
Behind a small shop counter at the end of the room, stood a man of middling years. His back was turned to the customers as he fiddled with an array of vials and little chests of mixed ingredients. He mumbled unintelligibly before turning to face them with a smile. He wore small rectangular spectacles over blue eyes and his jaw was streaked with blond stubble. He smoothed a hand through his hair and adjusted his vest. "Greetings. Haven't seen a customer quite so regal in months. Got a bad dose you need a poultice for? I apologize in advance, the stuff we bogtrotters brew may be a bit rough on the taste buds, but it'll do the trick."
Laurelei was busy admiring the shelves of alchemical concoctions she'd only ever read about. The man's question went right over her head until a little shove from Rolf snapped her to attention. "Oh! Ahem, apologies but your shop is just brimming with... Science," she said in a half dream state. Regaining her composure, she stepped up to the counter, perched on her toes and produced a small note from her sleeve.
The alchemist peered at the little piece of paper, adjusting his glasses and mumbling to himself. "Witchberry, Bloodvine, stygian thistle, bleach bark, elder-root..." he trailed off as he named off a dozen or so more strange herbs that Rolf had never heard of. The shopkeeper smile and tucked the note into his vest. "Shopping for Dr.Foerster then? Not sure when he hired such a dotey little assistant and you look a touch overdressed for the job."
"Assistant!" Laurelei said, her hand cupped over her mouth in order to avoid saying anything uncouth. "Hardly. I am a," Laurelei paused as her mind conjured a suitably believable deception. "I am a fellow academic. I am on a scholarly journey and upon meeting Dr.Foerster I believed it prudent to investigate his experiments."
"I see," said the alchemist, calmly stroking his stubble. "So, my fellow academic, who might this big fella be?"
"This is my bodyguard of no consequence. Not to be impolite, but I would prefer if you didn't ask any more questions as I am something of a private person. Do you have the requested items in stock, or not?"
He smiled and let out a sharp whistle. "Katherine love! Bring out the Stitcher's usual order," he said toward the ceiling.
"Right away darling," a feminine voice called back. In a few brief moments, a woman descended a set of creaky wooden stairs at the back of the room. She was tall, almost as tall as her husband, and had long, ginger-red hair that hung to her back in thick curls. She was dressed in men's breeches and a ruffled white blouse over a dark roll-neck sweater. She wore leather gloves over her hands, leaving not but the freckled skin on her face visible. In her hand she carried a plain satchel filled with jingling jars.
"Here we are Miles dear," she said to the man at the counter. As soon as she was within arm's reach, Miles pulled her in and planted a kiss on her lips.
"You there boyo!" he said, pointing to Rolf. "Is my wife not the loveliest woman you've ever seen?"
"Uhhh... That's kind of-" Rolf stammered before being abruptly cut off.
"Oi no, forget I asked. If the answer was no I don't think my heart could take it."
Katherine shook her head while handing the satchel over to Rolf. "Don't mind my husband, he does this to every new face he comes across."
"It is a legitimate query," Miles added.
Katherine's eyes drifted away from Rolf and toward his companion. When she caught sight of Laurelei, she donned a skeptical glance and whispered something in her husband's ear.
"No, not at all," he said flatly. "Just a researcher, nothing to worry about."
"Well then, have a fine evening," said Katherine.
Outside the confines of the alchemist's shop, Rolf and Laurelei stepped into the crisp, chilly night air. Vaulkin was not so different than Ulfenmoor where Rolf grew up and thoughts of home drifted in and out of his mind during the daily walks he'd taken in the town. Laurelei was not quite so burdened by distractions and her attention was drawn to the surprisingly lively night. Lamps around the city were flickering to life and their warm light poured out of windows and doors that stood ajar. Odd, unexpected visitors had carved out a presence in the time since Laurelei and Rolf had entered the shop.
The fluttering of a long red cloak stood out in the corner of her vision and she turned to spot an ebon-clad soldier wrapped in the crimson garment. The unique decoration of the plates and the unmistakable shape of the helmet sent Laurelei ducking for cover behind Rolf's leg.
"Whoa, what's goin' on Laurel?"
She pressed herself as tight to Rolf as she could and looked up at him with a steely gaze. "Look left and it should be abundantly clear!" she said in a hushed, hissing voice. "That is a royal soldier of Agares, a member of my father's personal army."
"The hell are they doing here?" Rolf asked as he got down to a knee.
"I would presume they're looking for us. It was only a matter of time before they managed to locate our trail after our encounter with Gutterwink." The princess took in a long breath and looked Rolf in the eyes. "We need to leave right now. Maybe we've enough time to return to the mansion and collect our things but we can't stay here any longer."
"What? No, we're not going anywhere!"
"Rolf, you must understand the situation we're in. If we stay here we run the risk of undoing everything we've accomplished so far."
"We'll hide out in Dr.Foerster's place for now. I'm not going anywhere while there's still a chance he could make me human again."
"Rolf, don't do this. If they find us they'll kill..." her voice trailed off into silence and she stared at the ground. "I will not risk losing my only friend!"
Rolf got to his feet, stuffed his hands in the pockets of his coat and stared up at the white moon as it peeked through a sheet of inky black clouds. "C'mon, let's get out of the streets," he said after a long pause.
Navigating around the edge of town, the pair quietly manoeuvered their way back to Foerster's manor. Neither Rolf nor Laurelei said anything to one another.
Later that evening, the doctor reclined in his study while lazily flipping through the pages in an old book. In but a few moments, the gentle clatter of footsteps caught his attention.
"Lady Vanalay?" he asked as Laurelei appeared in the threshold and looked none too pleased. "Is there something you need?"
She stepped into the room and crossed her arms over her chest. "Dr.Foerster, I have come to inform you that you must cease your experiments immediately."
"I'm sorry?" he said in a stumbling voice. "Cease my experiments, no, certainly not. I know that you've been waiting very patiently over these last several days but I promise, I can demonstrate my progress by tomorrow evening."
"Tomorrow will be too late," she replied. "So long as we stay here, Rolf's life is in grave danger. However, he will not leave so long as he still believes you can give him his human life back. You cannot, I know that you cannot because it is not possible."
"Lady Vanalay, I assure you-,"
"I am assured of nothing. You will tell Rolf the truth and that you are ending your experiments. We will leave and things will not have to become unpleasant." Her eyes narrowed to a glare centered straight on the doctor. "For any of us. Do I make myself clear?"
Foerster sighed deeply, shoulders slumping as he eased back into his chair. Then, a little smile appeared on his face and the flickering flames of the hearth glinted in his spectacles. "Surely you can be reasoned with my lady? We are both intelligent people, we can come to a compromise of some sort?"
"There will be no compromise on this matter." Laurelei's voice remained calm and steady throughout, that ingrained sense of superiority never abating for even a moment. "Your experiments are dangerous and threaten the lives of more people than you ever knew existed. I tolerated this facade only so long as I needed to and I will not allow it to proceed any further."
"It's a shame really that you're letting petty jealousy impede academic progress."
Laurelei's fangs clenched together and her mouth formed a most perturbed expression. "Jealous? Of you?" she said, half in shock. "You must be truly delusional to think so highly of yourself."
"It's true though, isn't it? You're jealous that you can't save him and I can. You wanted to be the one that solved the unsolvable, that discovered a way to bring the dead back alive and as human as ever. Academic jealousy is truly an unflattering trait, my lady."
Her face scrunched up, cheek twitching and hands balling into small, shaking fists. "Shut up," she said curtly.
"You're angry that you cannot undo your mistake. After all, you did kill him didn't you? It's funny in a strange sort of way that you, a vampire would question the righteousness of my work. Humans die ever day to satisfy the hunger and cruelty of your people but you try to maintain a moral high ground? We lowly humans are just food to you."
Her whole body grew tense and she appeared to be building toward an earth shaking tantrum and then, all at once it disappeared. She looked down at her shoes, fingers laced together and eyelids slowly falling shut. "Not anymore," she said, her voice nary a whisper.
"Charlotte," the doctor asked. "Where is your spell-book?"
"My book?" Her eyes snapped toward her vacant hip where the large tome usually rested. "It's in my quarters. I don't carry it with me when there's no..." her voice grew quiet and gaze trailed toward the doctor's smiling face, "threat."
Suddenly he lunged from his chair, more agile than his gangly form would imply. With a bony fist he struck her across the face and knocked her to the ground. She'd never been struck before and her head buzzed with shock and the terrible sting around the left side of her face. She let out a loud cry and hoped desperately that Rolf or Nigel had heard her. She tried to call out again but found her voice muffled by the doctor's hand clasped over her mouth. She tried to struggle free, pummeling him uselessly with her fists and kicking wildly. The doctor quickly jammed his knee into her belly and pinned her to the floor, knocking the wind out of her and putting a swift end to her escape attempt.
For the first time in her life, Laurelei found herself lamenting her vampirism. Despite all its advantages, she would still be stuck with this weak, child-like body for the next several decades at the very least.
While keeping her safely restrained, Foerster's hand rifled around in his coat pocket and drew out an old rag. He clasped both hands over her face and pressed the rag into her mouth and nose.
She kicked and fussed for another minute or so, all the vigour in her body draining rapidly until she lay in an almost motionless haze on the ground. Her head lolled to the side and she found her limbs numb. The rest became a rattled mess of colours, shapes and sounds. Her addled brain did everything it could to piece them together and create something even vaguely coherent. Never had she felt quite so stupid as she did right now. All her studies and education did her little good now, she was utterly useless.
"Wake up," said the cool and snide voice of the doctor as he splashed her in the face with a jug of stale water.
She sputtered to consciousness, heart thudding in her chest and her eyes darting around. Panic quickly faded and gave way to a look of utter contempt, locked straight on the sneering face of Dr.Foerster. Her meticulously combed curls hung in a wet mess, clung to the shoulders of her dress and encircled a deep blue-black mark over her eye.
"Where!?" she gasped, desperately reaching for her senses. "Where is Rolf? Rolf, Nigel, where are they!?"
"Nigel is being kept busy with a feast and a few good casks of wine. He'll be out of the way for the proceedings. And Rolf? He was sent a summons and should be arriving in just a few minutes."
Laurelei grit her fangs together but in spite of a potent mixture of fear and fury, curiosity got the better of her and she turned her attention to her surroundings. She found herself in a new room, made of solid stone and filled with alien technology. Brimming with mass arrays of glassware and mysterious concoctions, the room bore the distinctly earthy scent of the grave. She was positioned with her back against the wall and spotted a door on the opposite side of the wide chamber, guarded by the hulking abomination that the doctor referred to as his beloved. To Laurelei's right stood a massive stone tablet, twice as tall as a grown man and painted edge to edge with an unfinished, circular sigil.
Before the tablet stood a rectangular stone pallet where the sheet covered body of a boy lay motionless. He looked maybe a year or two younger than Laurelei's own physical age. A dozen tubes penetrated the child's skin and a variety of incisions had been made all along the flesh and stitched back together. The tubes trailed in several mechanical devices. Pumps, wheels and tall coils surging with plasma.
In a feat of sheer willpower, Laurelei managed to look even more disgusted than she had before. "You are an idiot." Her voice was weak and frail but slowly reshaping into its natural tone.
"Am I?" the doctor asked while producing a long scalpel and poising it over Laurelei's throat. He crouched down next to her, arms resting on his knees and his head gesturing toward the child on the slab. "That boy there, he died two months prior. Now, biologically speaking, he lives. Just like the others you've seen around my manor. Given some more time he could walk, talk and be a valuable asset to society again. He could return to his grieving family and bring them joy again. All he needs now is his soul."
"You are exactly as stupid as I thought you were. The sigils, the need for a sorceress such as myself? You intend to have me pull his spirit from the other side, don't you?"
"Perceptive," Foerster said and adopted an ear to ear grin. "His body is functioning again as any living beings would. All damaged organs have been replaced and preserved. All we need now is to open a gate and his essence will be drawn back to his physical form. With his soul and his living body back together, he will truly live again! I have mastered death, I only need you to finish my work."
She pushed herself off the ground and used the wall for balance. On her feet once again, Laurelei stood eye to eye with Foerster. "You have no idea what you play with. Truly your meagre mind cannot grasp the risks involved," said Laurelei. "Do you know how many people have died in this world? How many billions of people have lived and died throughout the history of existence? You expect me to be able to locate a single, solitary soul? Were I to finish this sigil and open a gate, do you even know where it would lead to?"
The doctor's eye twitched in annoyance. "Silence. Stop stalling child and finish the damn sigil."
Laurelei ignored him. "Because I haven't the foggiest idea. You cannot just open a path to the other side. There are so many worlds filled with things beyond our comprehension. You wish me to tap into planes home to beings so bizarre and alien that just bearing witness to them, just standing in their presence would break your mind and leave you a slobbering husk of a man."
"You should make yourself more aware of the dagger pointed at your throat, child."
Her eyes fixated on the point of the blade and then back to the doctor's face. "No, I don't think I shall," she said. "You're no genius but you do have something resembling a brain in that skull of yours. You should know that I've already surmised that that dagger is not a threat to me. You need me doctor. If you kill me then you've lost. Then of course there is the slow and violent death you will suffer at Rolf's hands when he walks in to find me skewered on your knife and you with no hostage." Of course Laurelei was well aware that her own death would result in Rolf's as well, but the doctor needn't be privy to that information.
"Rolf is no threat so long as my beloved guards that door and there are other sigilists in this world. If you continue to prove yourself useless to me then I will not hesitate to do away with you."
"Even so, obeying your orders holds the distinct possibility that I'd die regardless, along with a great many more of my people. Do what you will, but I won't be supplementing your frankly sloppy work."
Foerster's grimace was gradually replaced by a cruel smile. "Threat of death is not my only tool for coercion." His free hand shot forth and clutched a fistful of her hair, yanking hard and eliciting a sharp scream from the girl. The doctor pressed the tip of his dagger into her nose, not breaking the skin but slowly exerting more and more pressure. "I could carve this off. Or perhaps take out an eye? My dear's been needing some lovely new features and yours would do nicely."
Laurelei jammed her eyes shut and bit down on her lip. Her muscles tightened and she held her breath for as long as the steel of the knife remained in contact with her skin. She wanted to scream in protest and beg him not to, but she wouldn't dare let him know that he'd struck a nerve.
"Would you like that?" he asked, fingers drumming on the hilt of his blade. "Do you want me to mutilate you. Leave you a scarred, sightless thing. You're always so well groomed and never a hair out of place. So much time and effort you must pour into your appearance." The doctor's words were laced with equal quantities of malice and laughter. "You must derive such joy when others dote on you, tell you how pretty you are. To have it all torturously ripped away from you, never able to hear their praise without knowing it to be only pity and lies? I can scarcely imagine how that might feel."
Before the doctor could deliver on his threats, the door creaked open. "What the hell are you doing!?" Rolf's voice echoed into the room and drew an over the shoulder glance from Foerster. Rolf stood alone in the doorway, unarmed and without his usual travel gear. His face was locked in a look of shock, eyes wide and mouth agape.
"Rolf, finally you've arrived," the doctor said in a low voice, his back toward the door. He rose up to his full height and turned with a flourish of his arms, dragging a whimpering Laurelei by the hair. He grinned ear to ear and twirled his scalpel between his fingers. "I'm preparing for the grand experiment, the culmination of years of work. Miss Vanalay was disinterested so I opted for persuasive measures. It's going quite well."
Rolf's eyes narrowed and his face became a mask of fury. "Foerster!" he roared. "Take your hands off of her now!"
"I can't do that. She forced my hand you see. Our hand, if you ever hope to become human again."
Rolf stood in place for a long moment, watching Laurelei, watching the fear flash across her face and the dark black mark around her eye. "You hurt her! She's just a little kid and..."
"And she's my friend." Rolf marched toward the steps but felt a huge hand clasp his shoulder. Without so much as an instant of hesitation he whirled around and delivered a wild right hook into the face of Foerster's monster.
"No!" Foerster screamed.
The blow knocked the creature back. It attempted to retaliate with a punch of its own but Rolf sidestepped and hammered the thing's ribs with a pair of rib crunching underhand strikes. It wailed and dropped to its knees in a chorus of shrieking protests from the doctor.
"No! No, no, no, no! Stop now, right now Rolf!" With a yank of her hair, he pulled Laurelei in close and pressed his scalpel to the soft flesh of her throat. "Do not hit her! Strike my beloved one more time and I will slit this little whore's throat!"
Rolf stood over the creature as it cowered from him, covering its face and moaning loudly. His arm was raised and poised to rain down more blows. He deliberated and slowly lowered his hand. Seething between his teeth and rolling his shoulders, he locked eyes with the doctor. "What the hell do you want from me?"
"Don't move, don't resist. To both of you, so long as you do what I say, the other lives."
Laurelei looked at Rolf, took a breath and nodded. He returned the gesture and the both stood in silent apprehension for several moments.
In time, the creature lumbered back up to its feet and locked its huge hands around Rolf's shoulders.
He grit his teeth but did as directed.
It forced him to the ground, driving face first into the hard stone floor and pinning him their with one hand. With the other hand it reached into its belt and drew out a long, jagged dagger. It was nearly the size of a shortsword but fit snugly as a knife in the massive hands of the monstrous thing. It pressed the point of the weapon into Rolf's back, just over his heart.
"Now," said the doctor. With a hard shove he released Laurelei, nearly knocking her to the ground in the process. "Complete the sigil or I signal my darling to skewer his heart and put a much more permanent end to his life."
Laurelei stood completely still, unmoving and unblinking. Her gaze drifted between Rolf and the half-finished sigil on the wall. "I... I can't," she said in a breathless voice. "Why? Why are you doing this to me?"
Foerster shook his head, still grinning like a jester. "No more questions. Do it or he dies first, quickly. Then you do next, slowly." The doctor fished in his coat pocket and withdrew a small brush and a vial of ink. He forced the tools into Laurelei's hands, his smile standing in direct contrast to her despondent, emotionless expression. "And don't even think about creating some other sigil. I know what it's supposed to look like, I'll be able to tell if try to trick me."
Quietly, Laurelei moved toward the great stone slab, swallowed hard and started to paint in numerous symbols and patterns. Characters in ancient languages wrapped around the interior of the circle, underlined by a second circle. Constellations of stars and planets scored across the symbol, sweeping, arching, weaving lines in impossibly intricate patterns. Her paintbrush glided over the stone and left streaks of black in its wake until the whole stone face with one huge array of delicate of arcane runes.
"I'm sorry," said Laurelei. "I'm so very, very sorry." After several long minutes, with one last stroke of her brush, Laurelei filled in the final element of the circle. In that moment, the circle illuminated with a pale blue light.
The air grew heavy and Laurelei could feel her breath being pulled from her lungs. In a blinding flash there appeared a wide, luminescent portal, hovering over the surface of the sigil. From within that formless, shapeless, whorling tear in reality there came a chilling sound, a thousand shrieks in a thousand different voices, all fighting to be the loudest. The sounds undulated and ripped into her ears, forced their way into her mind where they warped and twisted her senses.
"Huhhh!" Laurelei screamed and clasped her hands over her ears but it did no good. No mortal flesh could resist the terrible wail of the beyond. With eyes watering she dashed to the other side of the room and to Rolf's side.
Foerster rose up with his arms in the air and his body quivering with joy. "It's happening! It's actually happening!"
All the glassware, the beakers, the flasks and the jars in the room shattered and poured countless unknown substances onto the floor. Tremors traveled through the walls and the whole manor began to rumble at its foundations.
To Foerster's glee, the body on the slab twitched, only slightly. At first only the fingers moved but then they scraped at the stone. One of the legs kicked and the jaw fell open and the infinite wailing intensified.
"Yes! Return to your body wayward soul! Come back and live again!" Foerster howled.
The boy gasped loudly and all the equipments surrounding it was thrown against the walls by some invisible force, shattering into useless, scattered remains. The boy's body sat up with a jolt, back as stiff as a board. Glassy eyed, rolled into the back of its head it stared straight at Laurelei. Then it smiled.