Miscellaneous Stories

A Night To Remember

The clock struck midnight, and Lord Vandres was nowhere to be found.

His lady was considerably vexed, and glad that her elaborate mask hid that fact from her guests. It simply would not do to give any indication that she did not have everything firmly in hand, and that the festivities were not going exactly as she had planned. Lady Ellen Vandres‘s parties were famous, and rightfully so. But now there seemed to be… a hitch. The traditional Midnight Menuet was about to begin, and it was customary for the host and hostess to lead the dance. But Lord Vandres was nowhere to be found.

"Jefferson!", her Ladyship hissed at the butler. "Where in Rhalic’s name is my husband?"

"I regret to say that I do not know, my lady", the domestic replied decorously. "Last I saw him, he was, ahem, enjoying the musical performance of that untidy young person in the Green Room."

Lady Vandres sniffed indignantly. "I’m sure he was." Tomyn Vandres was completely tone-deaf, but of course that wouldn’t keep him from ogling the singer. She dismissed the butler with a curt nod, and Jefferson withdrew discreetly, glad to be out of the immediate range of his mistress’s displeasure.

"My dear Ellen, what a wonderful party!" A voluminous woman came sailing towards Lady Vandres like a fully rigged galleon and pecked a dainty kiss on Ellen‘s cheek. Her pink gown was covered in every conceivable kind of lace, ruffles and embroidery, making her look like an oversized birthday cake. This impression was reinforced by her elaborate coiffure which had masses of curls piled atop her head (about half of them false, at least), kept in place with strings of pearls and decorated with pink feathers. The ensemble was completed by a golden mask studded with pink and white gems, behind which two sharp little eyes darted to and fro, eager to take everything in and not miss a detail.

Lady Vandres steeled herself and smiled graciously, unconsciously smoothing the skirts of her own tastefully understated gown. "Thank you, Rita, how kind of you. But say, have you seen Tomyn? The musicians are getting ready and I can’t seem to find him."

"I dare say he was enthralled by your special guest", her friend replied with a girlish giggle that was entirely unbecoming of her age and stature. "I declare, I don’t know how you do it. How in the world did you manage to engage her for tonight?"

"Oh, the usual…" Lady Vandres waved a hand dismissively, expertly hiding her gratification at her friend’s evident jealousy. "Tomyn knows someone who knows someone who said we absolutely had to have her for our ball, and you know how it goes. Of course we normally prefer more refined entertainment, but she does seem to be popular with the guests."

While talking, the two women had drifted towards the Green Room from where soft music was wafting. Through the open door a sizeable crowd could be seen thronging around the small stage that had been set up at the back of the room. The stage’s sole occupant was a young woman with a lute who seemed completely oblivious of the masked nobles around her as her fingers danced over the strings.

Lady Vandres noted again with displeasure that the singer apparently hadn’t even bothered to groom herself for the occasion. Her red hair hung around her head in an untidy mass of curls, with a single white strand standing out at her forehead. Her costume was a harlequin’s motley in black and white, looking rather frayed and worn, although a closer look revealed that this effect had been quite artistically contrived by the hands of a skilled tailor - the fabric was of good quality and by no means as threadbare as it seemed at first glance. Unlike the nobles who had tried to outdo each other with ornate masks of gold and precious stones, the singer wore a plain white mask that covered the upper half of her face and was stained with red spots like little drops of blood.

As the two women entered the room, the singer finished her song and bowed to the thunderous applause of her audience. "Another song, Miss Lohse!" one of the younger noblemen demanded enthusiastically, but she shook her head with a smile.

"Not right now, friends - I was told to take a break around midnight since you’re all supposed to go off and dance like good little puppets." Instead of being properly outraged at the impertinence, the audience laughed. Lady Vandres shook her head in disapproval. "But afterwards", Lohse continued as she set down her lute, "afterwards I just might be persuaded to sing some more, if you ask really nicely." Her smile widened into a broad grin as she waved both hands towards the exit. "Now shoo! Enjoy the party, I’ll see you all after the dance."

The crowd obediently turned towards the door, chattering among themselves and obviously excited about the performance. As Lady Vandres scanned them for a sign of her husband, she suddenly felt a chill, like a cold draft on the back of her neck. Turning around she thought she saw a quick movement somewhere behind her, but before she could make out what it was, it was gone. Shivering slightly, she dismissed it and returned her attention to the more immediate problem of her missing husband.

Much to her surprise Tomyn was not among the crowd leaving the room. This was starting to get embarrassing, and Ellen Vandres hated being embarrassed. In the main room the musicians were getting ready, and everyone was waiting for the host and hostess to start the dance. There was no helping it, the Midnight Menuet would have to happen without his Lordship. Lady Vandres silently promised herself that this matter would be discussed in private later, after the guests had left. At length. If her husband had deigned to make an appearance by then.

"My dear lady, you must pardon my manners!" A tall lizard in flowing gold robes accosted her, bowing deeply. "Midnight already, and I haven’t yet had the chance to properly thank you for the invitation. You must think me frightfully rude!"

"Oh, Lord Semchet, but everyone knows that you are the perfect gentleman and wouldn‘t know how to be rude even if you tried", Lady Vandres replied graciously and held out her hand.

He bowed over it and kissed it with perfect courtesy. "I try, my lady, I try. But to neglect one’s hostess is simply unpardonable. How can I make up for this breach of etiquette?"

Lady Vandres decided to seize the chance. Unlike her husband, Lord Semchet was an excellent dancer, so if things weren’t going as planned, she might at least take the opportunity to get through the menuet without having her toes stepped on. "As a matter of fact, there is something you could do", she said, lowering her voice a little. "My husband seems to have wandered off and forgotten the time, so I find myself without a partner for the menuet…"

"Say no more, my lady", Semchet interrupted her and made her an elaborate reverence. "It would be my honour to lead the dance with you, and I shall do my best to avoid embarrassing you with my poor skills." He courteously offered his arm to her. She took it, and they marched off towards the ballroom at a stately pace.

Lohse took a deep draught from her mug and let out a contented sigh. The wine was watered down, but a good vintage, and she needed to remain sober for the next set anyway. The nobles had at first been a bit more stiff than her usual crowds, but had loosened up quickly enough and by the end of the third song she had them eating out of her hand. And speaking of eating - time to go and find some food while the lords and ladies were dancing. The night was far from over, and so was her job.

As she hopped off the stage she became aware of a lone figure watching her from the doorway. Like everyone else the woman - Lohse had to assume it was a woman, judging from her robes - wore ornate finery, but unlike most other guests her costume covered her completely. She wore a long, heavy robe of midnight blue and silver brocade, matching gloves, a hood, and a full mask that covered her entire face. As Lohse took a step towards her, the stranger abruptly turned and quickly glided away. When Lohse reached the door a moment later, the robed figure was nowhere to be seen.

Lohse, who was very much used to eccentric behaviour, shrugged and went to find the buffet. On her way she passed the ballroom where the menuet was finally underway, with Lord Semchet and Lady Vandres decorously in the lead. Lohse watched them for a moment, unable to understand how anyone could call the boring procession a dance. There was much walking, bowing and curtseying, turning here and there at a measured pace, and overall no one seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot. Well, with the possible exception of Lady Vandres, whose previously pinched mouth was curved into something resembling a smile.

"I don’t get these people", Lohse muttered.

"You and me both, lady", a raspy voice said next to her ear. Lohse looked around. She was used to voices talking to her out of nowhere, but this hadn’t sounded like one of those who were currently inhabiting her head. They had actually been rather quiet tonight, although she knew from experience that this might change at the drop of a hat.

"In here", the voice said helpfully, and for the first time Lohse noticed the ornate golden cage on its stand in the hallway. It held a brightly coloured bird that looked at her with glittering black eyes. "A weird bunch, and trust me, you haven’t seen half of it."

"I’m sure I haven’t", she replied politely.

The bird blinked slowly. "Don’t tell me you really understand what I’m saying?"

Lohse grinned. "Sure do."

"Amazing", the bird said drily. "Normally when I try talking to them, the best I can hope for is, ‘Oh, does Polly want a cracker?’ I have no idea who this Polly person is, but it’s getting pretty old, I can tell you. I hate crackers."

"I shall refrain from mentioning crackers or anyone named Polly", Lohse promised solemnly. "Do you get a lot of this?" She motioned negligently towards the ballroom.

The bird briefly lifted his wings, which Lohse took to be the avian equivalent of a shrug. "Too much for my liking and the master’s, not enough for the mistress. She enjoys this kind of thing, Divine knows why. Although I have to say, these events aren’t usually as creepy as this one."

"Creepy?" Lohse was confused. "Those people are weird, sure, but creepy?"

"Not them", the bird said with a disdainful jerk of his beak in the direction of the ballroom. "The other one." Seeing that the dimwitted human on the other side of the bars still didn’t get it, he sighed. "The one who doesn’t belong here. Most of the flightless ones look the same to me, but she’s different. Even the mistress’s pug noticed, poor critter, and his nose all dulled by the perfume the mistress always sprays on him. Mark my words, something is going to happen before the night is over. If it hasn’t happened already", he finished darkly.

Lohse had an idea whom the bird might be referring to, but before she could further pursue the matter, she became aware of agitated whispering somewhere behind her.

"I am not going down there", a male voice declared flatly.

"Really, Ben, don’t be such a chicken", a female voice retorted. "I need to get back to the kitchen before Cook misses me, or I’d go myself."

"Then tell Jefferson. Or the mistress."

"Are you mad?", the woman hissed. "The mistress will have our hides if we make a scene in front of her guests. And the master will have our hides if he really just snuck down there for some peace and quiet."

Lohse’s curiosity got the better of her and she turned to see who was talking. Two servants were standing together in a shadowy corner, casting furtive glances towards the ballroom. Lohse sauntered towards them. "What seems to be the problem?", she inquired amicably.

The servants started and gave her a guilty look. "Um, nothing, miss", Ben mumbled. "You enjoy the party, there’s nothing at all to worry about."

"I’m just the entertainment, not a guest", Lohse informed him. "No need to get nervous."

The two servants exchanged a quick glance, then the woman spoke. "It’s about the master", she said hesitantly. "He should be in the ballroom with the mistress right now, but I saw him heading towards the wine cellar earlier." She hesitated. "He looked… off."

Lohse frowned."Off?"

"You know... not right. He walked weird, like one of those puppets I saw in a show once. And his eyes were all glazed over, like."

We are not getting involved in this, right?, a voice demanded in Lohse’s mind. This is none of our business. And it sounds creepy.

...says the dead woman in my head, Lohse thought back sarcastically. We know all about creepy, don’t we, Iva?

I say it sounds intriguing, a second, male, voice stated. Let’s go have a look. What dangers could possibly lurk in a wine cellar?

A strange attitude for a man who was killed by his own curiosity, Iva remarked waspishly. One would think that might have taught you something.

I sacrificed myself for the greater good, the male voice replied indignantly. For what greater good is there than the advancement of knowledge?

Oh yes, Magnus the Great, I’m sure everyone remembers you and your wonderful inventions these days, Iva shot back.

Just like they remember Iva the amazing artist and her immortal paintings, Magnus retorted maliciously. "She was but a landscape painter…"

Oh, stop bickering, Lohse cut them short before Magnus could recite the rest of the poem. Of course we’ll go have a look.

"Terribly sorry and all that", the maid said hurriedly, oblivious to the argument going on in Lohse’s head, "but I really need to run back to the kitchen. If you’re going down there, miss, best of luck to you." She bobbed a nervous little curtsey and scurried away before Lohse could say anything.

"Well", Ben said somewhat helplessly, looking after her. "Guess it’s down to you and me, miss. I can show you the way to the cellar, if you like?" He gave her a hopeful look, clearly expecting her to heroically take the lead and tell him she’d brave the depths of the cellar without him.

Lohse gave him a cheerful smile that evidently did nothing to relieve his anxiety. "All right, let’s go."

The servant swallowed audibly and made his way down the corridor towards a stout oak door. He unlocked and opened it, then peered down the stairs beyond. "There’s a light down there. Guess his Lordship is still here – but why would he lock the door behind him?"

"Why don’t we go down and ask him?" Lohse suggested, putting an ever so slight emphasis on "we".

Ben sighed and carefully set his foot down on the first step, like he was afraid it might bite him. Lohse immediately followed to block the door behind him, just in case he decided to turn tail after all. There was indeed an oil lamp burning at the foot of the stairs, but other than that there was no sign that anyone but them was around.

They cautiously made their way down the short flight of stairs. At the bottom, Lohse stopped and looked around, feeling vaguely disappointed. She wasn’t exactly sure what she had expected, but certainly nothing so… normal.

The wine cellar consisted mainly of one large room, with some shelves full of bottles and deep darkness beyond them. Everything looked neat and tidy, if somewhat dusty. A chair sat next to a small table at the foot of the stairs, and on the table was the oil lamp whose light they had seen from above. A quick inspection revealed the lamp to be more than half full, but its dim light didn’t reach past the first couple of bottle racks.

Lohse took a couple of steps forward, then glanced back at her companion who seemed unwilling to move away from the stairs. "Exactly what were you so scared of?" she asked. "There’s nothing here."

"I…" The servant frowned. "I don’t know", he admitted slowly. "It just seemed like a really bad idea to come down here. Weird, if you think about it, I’ve fetched bottles from the cellar countless times and never seen anything worse than a mouse."

Lohse nodded thoughtfully and reached for the lamp. "Let’s see if the mice have something to tell us."

Very funny, Iva remarked sarcastically. Mark my words, this will end badly. And Magnus will be killed by curiosity for the second time.

Nonsense, Magnus said cheerfully. What could possibly happen to us? If our host dies, we’ll find a new one. Er… after a proper period of mourning, of course.

Lohse chose not to dignify him with a response. Instead, she raised her lamp and peered ahead. Behind her she could hear Ben shuffling nervously, but he didn’t bolt. Yet.

Slowly she walked towards the first row of bottle racks. Everything was quiet, the sounds from the party above didn’t reach through the thick stone. Nothing moved between the rows of shelves, the air was completely still and slightly musty. The bottles of wine shimmered dimly in the lamplight, their gleam dulled by a thin layer of dust. The light of the lamp now reached to the back of the room where the shelves gave way to several large barrels, black shapes sitting in a slightly less inky darkness.

Suddenly Ben stopped. "There’s something here", he whispered.

Lohse raised an eyebrow and turned to face him. The servant was pale, wide eyes darting to and fro. Then she sensed it too - an ever so slight chill, passing over her face like a misty spiderweb. The hair at the back of her neck stood up.

"That’s it, I’m getting out of here", Ben declared, and before she could stop him he ran up the stairs and yanked at the door.

The door didn’t budge.

Panicking, he tugged at the handle, and when it still didn’t move he started to hammer frantically against the thick wood. Nothing happened.

"Keep it together", Lohse snapped at him. "You’ve got the key, don’t you?"

"The key, yes", he babbled and began rummaging in his pockets until he found it. He inserted it into the lock with trembling hands, then groaned. "It’s stuck!" He desperately rattled at the key, but it stubbornly refused to turn in the lock.

Lohse sighed wearily. "Stop that, you’ll break it." To be perfectly honest with herself, she had to admit that she was really getting worried. If the door had simply been locked by some ignorant oaf upstairs who wasn’t aware that anyone was in the cellar, unlocking it shouldn’t have been a problem. That the key didn’t work was a bad sign, but it wouldn’t help if she started panicking too. Someone needed to keep their wits about them, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that Ben wasn’t that someone. At least he heeded her and finally let go of the key. He slid to the floor where he sat in a perfect little heap of misery, burying his face in his hands.

"Chin up", Lohse said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. "At least we won’t go thirsty. This isn’t some abandoned old ruin, there are people living upstairs. Sooner or later they’ll want their wine and someone will come."

When no reply came, she added, "I’m going to explore a bit while there’s still oil left in the lamp. Perhaps I’ll find his Lordship."

Ben jumped to his feet. "I’m not staying here in the dark all by myself! I’m coming with you."

"Good boy", she murmured and patted his shoulder. "Let’s go."

She couldn’t help but wonder why Lord Vandres, if he was indeed down here, hadn’t come forward already - they had certainly made enough noise to announce their presence, and the cellar couldn’t be that large. As if in response to that thought, another breath of chilly air brushed her cheek, making her shiver. The oil lamp’s flame flickered slightly.

She slowly walked past the bottle racks, Ben close at her heels. Ahead, the back wall of the cellar appeared in the gloom. A sturdy iron-bound door was set into it.

"What’s behind that door?" Lohse asked.

"The vault", the servant replied. "Where his Lordship keeps his valuables. It’s always locked, and he has the only key."

"Does he now", Lohse said and approached the door.

Stop! Iva screeched in her head. Don’t go in there!

Oh, do shut up. Magnus sounded annoyed. It’s probably locked anyway, but at least give it a try.

"I say, it’s pretty chilly down here, isn’t it?" Ben rubbed his arms for warmth. "I mean, yes, it’s a cellar, but I don’t remember it being this cold."

"Mh-hm." Lohse nodded absentmindedly as she studied the door. The handle was covered in frost, thinly, but perceptibly. She slid her hand back into her sleeve and gingerly grabbed the handle, using the sleeve as protection against the frosty metal.

The door opened.

A gust of cold wind extinguished the oil lamp. Behind her, she heard Ben gasping, but it didn’t become fully dark. An eerie blue light shone through the open door, as icy as the wind.

Lohse stepped into the room, and at once her eyes were arrested by its contents. The blue light was coming from nowhere and everywhere; the very air seemed to glow, and nothing cast any shadows. The light was reflected by a hundred shiny surfaces - a pile of gold coins on a table, a gem-encrusted mask mounted on the wall, a silver mirror with a beautiful lacework frame, and more riches befitting a king’s treasury, some carefully arranged, others strewn about seemingly haphazardly. Four large, iron-bound chests stood against one wall, tightly closed and secured with heavy padlocks. A display case contained various pieces of jewellery, although the tinted light made it hard to guess exactly what kinds of precious stones they were made of. And right next to it, on a carved wooden stand, stood an antique lute whose polished, intricately inlaid body shimmered like satin. Lohse stopped in her tracks and stared.

Will you look at that, Magnus commented sourly in her head. And to think that he haggled like a fishwife over your pay… he could easily have afforded twice what he finally agreed to!

"Is that… his Lordship?" Ben asked, trying to catch a glimpse of the vault without actually stepping inside.

Lohse tore her eyes away from the lute and finally noticed the dark shape lying on the ground. It looked human, it wore an elaborate costume, and it didn’t move.

Lohse knelt down next to the figure. "It’s him all right. Out cold, but alive from what I can see." She reached out a hand to remove Lord Vandres’s mask, and started. The face beneath the mask was contorted in horror, as if frozen in a nightmare.

"He is alive. For now."

Lohse’s head jerked up as the woman stepped out of the shadows. She wore heavy robes of midnight blue brocade and a silver mask that covered her entire face. Lohse recognised her at once - the strange woman she had briefly seen earlier, and who had vanished so quickly.

Lohse shot a glance at Ben, but the servant just stared at the stranger, apparently at a loss for words. She rose to her feet and looked at the woman. "I think this is where I ask who you are and what you have done with his Lordship", she said casually. "I wouldn’t normally mind so much, but he hasn’t paid me yet."

"Indeed", the stranger said softly. "There is much he has to pay for." She slightly shook her head as if to clear it, then added, "To answer your question, you may call me Anastasia. As for what I have done with him", she prodded the prone figure with her foot, "let’s just say I am making him understand."

"He doesn’t seem to be understanding a whole lot right now", Lohse said drily. "And frankly, neither do I. What’s going on here?"

"He killed my daughter", Anastasia said hollowly. "She was eight years old, and he killed her with his greed."

"Oookay", Lohse said slowly. "I see. Well, actually, no, I don’t. Why don’t you just give me the whole story? Start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop. And you might begin by taking off that mask."

Anastasia pondered for a moment. Then she slowly reached up and removed her hood and mask, revealing the naked skull underneath.

There was a soft groan and a thud behind Lohse. Turning around she saw Ben sprawled on the ground, mercifully unconscious. Poor boy, Magnus commented drily. The truth was too much for him, it seems.

Lohse swallowed hard. Ghosts in her head were one thing, but meeting a real, solid undead in a spooky cellar was a new experience even for her. With an effort she pulled herself together. "All right", she said, trying to make her voice sound normal, and almost succeeding. "You were about to tell me your story."

Anastasia gave her a long look, then nodded. "I had a daughter, Lissa. A lovely little girl of eight years, blond curls, blue eyes, and the sweetest temper you can imagine. After my husband’s death, she was my world."

The undead paused again and looked at Lohse. "She was like you."

Lohse raised an eyebrow. "I’m neither blond nor particularly sweet-tempered, so you mean…"

"A host", Anastasia finished bitterly.

She knows about us? Iva asked in alarm. Do you think she can hear us, too?

Maybe you’d better shut up, just in case she can, hm? Magnus replied smugly.

If Anastasia had indeed caught the exchange, she gave no sign of it. "There have been a few in my family", she continued. "Not every generation had one, but occasionally a child would be born who had ‘invisible friends’ who were very real. And sometimes one of those ‘friends’ would prove to be... not benign. My grandmother’s brother was seven when he jumped off a cliff because the voice in his head told him he could fly."

"Guess I got lucky", Lohse murmured. "Mine so far have been annoying more often than not, but I haven’t yet had one that tried to kill me." Neither Iva nor Magnus chose to comment on that.

"When Lissa showed signs that she had inherited the affliction, I gave her an old family heirloom", the skeleton continued. "It was a pendant, a charm to keep the spirits at bay." She pointed at the display case. "This pendant."

Lohse looked at the pendant. It was a beautifully crafted silver ornament on a simple chain, an intricately wrought knot set with tiny moonstones. The chain was worn and the silver had darkened with age.

"Pretty", Lohse said. "So how did it end up here?"

"This man stole it." Anastasia nudged the still rigid Lord Vandres with her foot. "He came to our farm one day and saw my daughter wearing it. He claimed it was part of a set he had been collecting, and offered to buy it. I refused, of course. So he stole it. I don’t know how he managed it, but he left a bag of gold coins on the table in exchange. Gold coins!" She was shaking with rage. "As if gold could repel the spirits."

Lohse studied the pendant thoughtfully. "And your daughter?"

"She died two weeks later", Anastasia said hollowly. "It was a hot summer day, she went swimming in the mill pond. She knew not to go in too far, I had always told her to be careful, and she always was. But this time… she went all the way to the centre of the pond. The spirits must have prodded her on. And she drowned."

"I’m sorry", Lohse said quietly. "How long ago was that?"

"I… don’t know. Time has been meaningless since Lissa died. I think it may have been a year or two, I’ve been up and down Rivellon looking for the pendant."

A groan behind them announced Ben’s return to the waking world. "That’s impossible", he said groggily. "His Lordship rarely leaves Verdistis, and I know for a fact that he hasn’t been out of the city for the last five years. He certainly wasn’t traipsing around the country looking for collectibles."

Lohse frowned. "What do you remember from back when it happened? People, places, notable events?"

Anastasia shook her head. "We lived in a small village, nothing really notable ever happened there. The most remarkable thing was a visit from a travelling bard, a young woman who stayed at the tavern for a few days. She sang and played her harp in the evenings, it was quite the attraction. Lissa was very much taken with her, she would listen for hours on end, and she quickly picked up a favourite song, one the bard had written herself."

She started humming a tune, and Lohse recognised it instantly. "That is ‘Roses still bloom’, by Carolyne Turlough", she said. "One of her early works, before she became famous."

"Famous?" Anastasia seemed confused. "She wasn’t famous, she was just a travelling singer."

Lohse shook her head."Lady, Carolyne Turlough was one of the greatest bards who ever lived. Her skills with the harp are still legendary to this day." She paused for a moment. "Also, Carolyne died about 120 years ago."

"You have the wrong man", Ben said, looking at the undead woman in wonder. "However this pendant got here, his Lordship can’t have stolen it from you."

Anastasia looked crestfallen, despite her lack of facial expression. "How is that possible?" she asked desperately. "How could it have been that long?"

She looked down at the prone figure at her feet and made a gesture with her hand. Lord Vandres instantly relaxed, then suddenly curled up and started coughing and gasping. Ben rushed to his side and patted his back. "There, your Lordship, it’s fine. You’re all right, nothing to worry about."

Lord Vandres opened his eyes and looked around in bewilderment. "Where am I? Why was I drowning?"

"You weren’t", Anastasia said. "It was all in your head. I wanted you to really understand what my child experienced during her last moments."

The nobleman, who had been about to get to his feet, stared at the skeleton and slowly sank back to the ground. "What is going on here?" he managed weakly.

"This lady has a grievance, but it turned out that it is not with you", Lohse explained. "Whether one of your ancestors wronged her or whether it was someone else altogether we’ll probably never know." She quickly explained what Anastasia had told her, and Lord Vandres’ eyes grew bigger and bigger as he listened.

"That’s horrible", he said at last. "My sincere condolences, my lady, I had no idea. I can assure you that I know nothing about this. The items you see here were part of my inheritance, most of them were collected by my grandfather and his father." He got up and went to the display case that held the pendant.

"If this was stolen from you, then it has no right being here, collection or not." He removed the pendant and held it out to her. "Please, accept your property back with my deepest apologies. I know it can’t bring back your child, but perhaps it will give you some peace of mind."

Anastasia slowly reached out and took the pendant from him. She looked at it for a long time before slipping the chain around her neck. "A hundred and twenty years", she said, still unable to grasp the enormity of the revelation.

"Yes", Lohse said gently. "Lissa has been waiting for you in the Hall of Echoes for a long time now. Don’t you think you should go to her?"

"Yes. Yes, I should." The undead looked around, then her eyeless gaze rested on Lohse. "Farewell. And thank you." With this she turned and slowly walked to the door. Just as she reached it, she flickered slightly, then she was gone. An ornate, midnight blue robe fell to the ground, empty.

Lord Vandres and his servant stared at the discarded garment. "That was… something", his Lordship said finally. "And I think I owe you, young lady. Probably quite a bit more than the payment we originally agreed on." He looked around, then took the antique lute from its stand and held it out to her. "It will probably need to be tuned, but I would be honoured if you would accept this token of my gratitude."

Lohse’s eyes widened as she reverently took the instrument from him and ran her fingers across the strings. "That’s very generous", she said.

"Not nearly as generous as pulling me from that nightmare." He sighed. "And speaking of nightmares, I suppose I should return upstairs and explain my absence to my wife." Ben winced slightly and nodded sympathetically.

As they left the vault, Magnus remarked, You know that that pendant was about as magical as your left foot, right?

I didn’t, Lohse replied silently, but I suspected it. I’ve never heard of a charm that could keep people out of my head.

She believed in it, though. Iva sounded unusually subdued.

Yes, Lohse thought. And sometimes that is all that matters.