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§8 The Vault

      I blame the wine, Jean. I mean, there is a lot of blame to go around I suppose. Wilfred, myself, An, even Andrews – we all had a piece of that madness. But looking back, I am going to cast the whole thing at the feet of Chateau Margaux.
       Yeah, the 2009. What a year.
       You can ask him, Jean, but I doubt he is going to come through, even for you. And good luck finding his stash. When your body consists of a thousand rooms, all of them shifting their relative location each night – well hiding stuff is not exactly a challenge.
       An and I, together with Andrews and Wilfred, were relaxing later that evening in what he calls the “John Dee Suite” but it should have been called the Oak Lounge, if you ask me. Oak chairs, oak chests, sewn oak panels on the walls, an oak writing table, a giant four poster canopied bed, made of, you guessed it, oak. All ancient, ornately carved. Probably should have been curated, really. But what’s the point of roped off furniture?
We were reclining on two Victorian fainting couches, firmly padded with ivory leaf patterned upholstery. Watchers hustled in and out, bringing them in full and taking them out empty. They would have probably drawn a line against fanning us or peeling some grapes. At least I hope they would. To be honest, I was afraid to bring it up, even as a joke.
      An swore softly, then looked up from her phone, removing the still-lit stub of a cigar from her mouth, “Oct-avian! It’s that time again. Please?” she said, with a half-smile I pretty much only saw in these moments.
       I reached into my pocket and tossed her my own phone. “Now you can send yourself as many lives as you like,” I said.
       Yeah, Candy Crash or something. I was surprised how good the wifi was inside Wilfred, really. Setting up the routers must have taken some real ingenuity given the shifting layout.
       I leaned back and grabbed another langoustine canape from the, wait for it, oak side table, relaxing. It was nice to be spoiled. Especially on someone else’s dime.
       “So Wilfred, is this really the best room in the house? Or do have one that you are holding back in reserve, in case things between you and Andrews, you know, escalate,” An said, without looking up.
       In my head, that large pondering voice, sounding slightly uncomfortable.
       “Oh no, Anisette, I would never hold out for, uh. Ah. Well…” he started, presumably talking to us simultaneously. “For lodgings, this is the nicest I think. What do you think, Leticia?”
       “Nice enough, I guess. I like the smell, the old wood,” said Andrews, using my mouth. She was fully co-piloting my body in order to get the most out of this decadent little soiree. 
       “Good! Good! I am happy it pleases you,” he boomed. “Would everyone like more wine?”
       I hesitated, as did An. This would be like the third bottle of the stuff. Four people, in some sense, but only three drinkers, with a mere two livers. On the other hand, did it really matter if I had a hangover when I got debriefed tomorrow? It was going to be a headache regardless.
      “I will just have them bring it, you don’t have to finish it,” said Wilfred, after we didn’t respond. 
       Easy, Jean, easy! No need to stand. It was Wilfred who proposed this crime, not me. I am sure he would never do the like again, now that Frenchman is in charge.
       “So you said that this was the best “lodgings”, Wilfred. What about the best, period?” asked Andrews. 
       “Oh, it is hard to say, Leticia. A matter of taste. This may well be the nicest room to some, especially lovers of magical history. The desk of John Dee! Others might admire different ones. I am sure Octavian, for example, prefers the Library. I remember when he was little, the books stacked higher than his head, eyes aflame. Some might prefer the Grand Meeting Hall, with its vaulted ceilings, the crystal chandeliers,” said Wilfred.
       “What about you, Wilfred?” I asked. “Which is your favorite?”
       “Oh, that is easy Octavian. My favorite room is the Vault. It is a pity so few ever get to see it,” said Wilfred wistfully.
       The Vault. I am sure you have spent plenty an hour in there, my friend. But at the time, at least, I had never even heard of it.
       “The Vault! Is that where you keep your treasure, big guy? I thought hoards were only for dragons,” said An.
       “No the doubloons, the diamonds, the bearer bonds and so forth all of that I keep in the Treasury, Anisette. It is not that pretty unless you like piles. Although there are a few very clever oak chests. But the Vault hold Enigma’s treasures, not mine,” he replied.
       “What do you mean, Enigma’s treasures?” I asked.
       “Artifacts, Octavian. Magical artifacts. The ones that no one knows how to use. Or, you know, the ones that people are too scared to use. That sort of thing. But it is not the items and their mystic seals that I love. It is the floors. The purest marble. The domed ceiling. And the lighting, now that it is all subdued and modern. Not to sound my own horn too much, but it is very beautiful,” said Wilfred.
      “Oh, that sounds amazing, Wilfred!” said An, with Bordeaux fueled enthusiasm.
       “It is. I must say, it really is the best room in the house. But so few are allowed inside. Just the Council. A few of the lead Researchers, one or two others,” said Wilfred.
       It all would have stopped there, I think. But…
       “I would like to see it, Wilfred, if that’s all right,” said Andrews.
       I admit, I was surprised. She was asking him to break what sounded like a pretty serious rule. Later, she claimed that it was just the wine, and maybe curiosity. But I wonder if it was something else now. 
       “I don’t know, Leticia. They are not my secrets to reveal, not really,” said Wilfred uncertainly.
       “We don’t actually have to go inside, big guy. Just take us to the door, and we can admire it from there,” said An.
       “Well, I suppose that would not strictly be against the rules, but…” he wavered.
       “Just a quick glimpse before An and I turn in, Wilfred,” I said. Now I was curious. And not just aesthetically.
       Referencing alone-time with Andrews did the trick, as I thought it might.
       “You will not be disappointed, good friends. You will not be disappointed!” he said, clearly fired up.
       And with that, we wobbled to our feet and out into the corridor, our glasses still in hand.
       “Right here. Yes. Now turn around, yes completely, and left. Left again. Yes, you have guessed it! Down the ladder. Right again,” Wilfred said, or something similar, leading us farther and farther from the John Dee Suite. 
       Finally, we arrived at those arched double doors, which were covered from top to bottom in symbols I did not recognize. You’ve seen them -- those things have to be at least 15’ tall. Displaying a surprising flair for theatre, Wilfred opened them right as we hit the threshold.
       “Behold!” he said.
       It was pretty alright. Even Andrews was struck by it. There was an almost moonlight quality to the lighting. And the air. The air was charged with magic. But we weren’t the first ones to admire it that night. 
       “Who the hell is that?” asked An.
       Alongside the left wall, a shrouded figure was kneeling beside one of the display cases, a staff held in both hands over her head. She was clothed from head to toe in white linen robes. A silver veil completely obscured her face, so long it spilled to the ground in front of where she was crouched.
       “Is someone in there?” said Wilfred, confused. “You would not play a joke on your old friend Wilfred, just to go inside, would you?”
       Suddenly there was a crash, the staff smashing into the display case. An explosion of light, then this weird atonal music which seemed to come from everywhere, tinkling like glass.
       We stood in the doorway, reeling, stunned by the blast.
       When I finally recovered, I saw her there, walking towards us slowly. In one hand, she still held the staff, but the other one held something new. It was a knife, its blade was shadow though, not steel, flickering unsteadily in her hands. She seemed to be concentrating hard on something, and the veil sent off thick ripples of grey light as she walked.
       “Of all the luck,” she said when she reached us a moment later. She shook her head, presumably in frustration. Her face was still completely obscured by the opaque veil that hung almost to her knees. But it had stopped shimmering when she caught sight of us.
       Suddenly, there was a hideous creaking, and the floors began to shake. 
       “You! I see you now thief! But how will you escape me? I am the roof, the walls, even the floor at your feet!” said Wilfred. But not in our head this time. It was the voice of the house itself, a voice of creaks and groans, of wood whispering and floors settling. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as he spoke. 
       Around her feet the marble seemed to pool until they both were encased in stone.
       She sighed.
       “No hope for it, I guess,” she said. Then dropping the staff, she plunged the shadow knife right into the floor with both hands.
       Wilfred let terrible scream, both in and out of our heads. It went on and on, that scream, coupled with the sound of splintering wood, and falling beams. Bits of plaster struck us falling from the ceiling.
       And then the lights went out.

Part 9. "Stuck"