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TITLE: Winter on a Watch Glass
GENRE: dark fantasy
WORD COUNT: 88,267
SUMMARY: An apothecary only wanted to settle a father's debt. But payback is not so easy in a town ruled by madness and treason.
June 7, 1815
When Greta pulled off her blindfold, she realized that the mingling scents of camphor and smoked meat filling her nose emanated from a severed hand. The hand of glory, dipped in pale green wax and mounted on a squat pewter base glittered with fingertip flames at the center of the room.
“This way, Miss Silber.”
Someone jabbed at her from behind and she stumbled one step forward, over a thick line of salt on a worn stone floor. Where was she? All that Mr. Wechsler had told her was that his employer, the Margrave of Baden, required her presence in a ceremony if she wanted to start repaying her father's debts.
“Stay, right here.” Wechsler, a thin dour man in a black coat, took the blindfold from her hands and gave her a rheumy stare as if that would intimidate her into place. Greta only glared back. Wechsler shook his head and walked over to a dark shadow hunched over on the floor, drawing the marks on the stone with grains of salt.
It was then that Greta noticed that she was not alone. An old woman in a rich, fur-lined pelisse sat in a straight-backed chair next to the table that contained the hand and other odd implements. Behind her stood a boy—perhaps fourteen or fifteen—attempting to cover a yawn with the back of his hand. The salt markings on the floor made a circle enclosing the people in the room. Beyond the circle, she could only see the inky blackness of the room punctuated by shades of dark gray which she assumed were outlines of the furnishings. Whether she was in a tower room or an underground dungeon, it was impossible to tell.
The dark figure to whom Wechsler had been speaking with finally rose from his crouched position and moved toward the table. The weak light from the hand of glory caught at his facial features, throwing them in almost demonic relief. But Greta recognized him. He had been one of her father's customers at the apothecary. Or rather one of her customers, really, since he always dropped by on her shift. She hadn't wanted to do business with him—his demeanor, although polite, made her want to run—but she hadn't the choice. They had needed the money. And with her father gone and debts piling up, she had no choice now either.
“You brought the girl?” The man's voice curled around her, velvet and cold.
Wechsler gave a sigh. “Yes, my lord. Although I have no idea what use she will be.”
“Of course not. You're not the one doing this ritual, are you?” Wechsler looked affronted with his implication, but the dark figure ignored the man's spluttering. Then he turned to her, his eyes black. “Miss Silber. I am glad you are here. I'm afraid we are in need of your services.”
“It's not like I have another option, do I, Mr. Schmidt?” she said. “I was given to understand that if I did not attend this ceremony, the Margrave would not forgive my father's debts.”
Wechsler's spluttering turned into a hasty cough which obscured whatever that he was about to blurt out. Despite his sleepy state, the boy smirked. The only indication that the old woman noticed was a flicker of an eyelid.
Schmidt only raised an eyebrow. “Did Wechsler never tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
The thin man nervously cleared his throat. “Actually, Miss Silber, he is the Margrave.”
Greta fisted her hands in her skirts. “Did my father already know you were the Margrave? Why come into our shop under the pretense that you were some sort of Mr. Schmidt, a visiting pharmacist from the south? Or did he not know, my lord?”
“Not everyone knows of my presence in Heiligenberg and I would like to keep it that way.” Briefly, he turned away from her to drop his half empty pouch of salt onto the table. “In the meantime, stay within the circle.”
Wechsler frowned. “You don't ask the Margrave 'why'.”
“The circle is for your protection,” the Margrave replied as he positioned the items on the table. A knife with a golden hilt, a silver bowl, a pewter bell with a worn wooden handle, and a small opaque vial. “I will be performing a summoning. I am fairly certain that it will be a specific one, but you can't be too sure about these kinds of things. Sometimes, things you don't want will take advantage of the opportunities that you've provided.”
Greta had heard rumors about the current Margrave of Baden. Not much of it was good. “You're a necromancer.”
“I prefer to be called a post-life facilitator.”
“That's still a necromancer,” the boy spoke up.
“Hush, Franz,” the old woman said, reaching up to pat his elbow. “The Margrave needs to concentrate.”
Franz hunched his shoulders and huffed.
The Margrave finally turned back to look at the boy and the old woman. “There is no one else in the house?”
The old woman shook her head. “The servants were given the night off. Josef, Hanna, and Lena are out tonight visiting Hanna's sister. They should not be back until much later.”
“Good.” The Margrave beckoned toward Greta to come closer. “Stand by the table. I will need you soon when I activate this circle and start the summoning.”
Reluctantly, she stepped towards the table. When she looked down, she could see the faint reflection of her face and the candlelight in the water still rippling in the bowl. As she was examining the scrolling on the knife's hilt, the Margrave had stepped away to consecrate the four cardinal directions of the circle. For a moment, Greta thought that the salt on the floor glowed when he made a quick motion with his hands, but it was quick, making her think that she might be seeing things.
“Miss Silber, give me your palm.”
At her question, Wechsler at the other side of the table, hissed between his teeth in annoyance.
The Margrave seemed to ignore the noise. “The summoning requires a sacrifice.”
“I can't be the...ow!” Before she had a chance to protest, he had grasped her wrist and flicked the blade of the knife across her palm, opening her skin. Blood oozed out as he cut his own palm.
“Hold your hand over the bowl like this.” He put his hand over the bowl, palm downward. She did the same and watched as a drop of blood from each of their hands fell into the water almost simultaneously. He whispered something that she didn't quite catch and the water turned black and opaque. When he took his hand away from the bowl, she did like-wise. But without a bandage in sight, Greta held up her palm and watched her blood pool and slowly clot.
The Margrave stepped close to the edge of the circle. In a voice that seemed to reverberate in the room, he uttered a few strange words that sounded like a mixture of Latin and Arabic. Something from beyond the circle groaned. The blackness in the corners of the room shifted.
The old woman gasped and almost stood up had the boy not held her down by her shoulders. “Albert? Albert? Is that you?” she called out.
“Shh, Grandma. Didn't you tell me that we had to be quiet so that the Margrave could work?”
The Margrave did not appear to have heard the exchange. Instead, he watched the room outside the circle intently. “Is this Albert Ritter to whom I am speaking?”
“Yes.” The answer from the corner of the room sounded like a man's voice, but there was a hollow quality to it that made the hairs on the back of Greta's neck prickle.
“It's Albert,” the old woman whispered.
“Albert Ritter, when and where you were born?”
“January fourth. 1737. In Munich.”
“Is that correct, Mrs. Ritter?”
The old woman nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course it's correct. Besides, it sounds just like him.”
“Some spirits can imitate others voices,” the Margrave said without looking back at her. “We cannot depend on that to verify identity.”
“Oh. All right.”
“Ask him something that only he and you would know.”
She sighed. “Albert, tell me, what did you say to me right after we were married?”
There was a pause in the darkness and Greta found herself flexing her fingers. What if the spirit beyond the circle answered incorrectly? Would the Margrave then banish the spirit?
“I told you that I was pleased with the transaction.”
Greta frowned at the strange answer, but Mrs. Ritter seemed very relieved. “Yes, yes that's it,” the spirit's widow replied. “My lord, that is indeed Albert.”
“Very well, then. Albert Ritter, who was your supplier from the east?”
There was a rustle in the room as if someone was pacing along the stone floor. “I had many suppliers.”
“Can you name them?”
“I did not bother with these details.”
“Do you know who will have this information?”
The rustling stopped. The air just outside the salt circle wavered, but when Greta blinked, the mirage was gone.
Startled by the expletive, Greta glanced back at the Margrave. He stood stiffly, unhappy with the spirit's answer. His hands had curled into fists.
“I am sorry,” Albert Ritter's shade finally replied. The spirit's voice sounded more hollow and thready. “I must go now.”
“Albert!” The old woman had finally wrestled out of her grandson's grip and had stood up from her chair. But she made no move toward the border of the circle.
“When it's your time, Sophie. I will see you.” The air rippled again and the lights on the hand of glory flickered once, indicating that the spirit had finally left.
The old woman slumped back into her chair to pull out a handkerchief to dab her eyes. Franz's fingers tightened on his grandmother's frail shoulders as he bent his head to whisper reassurance in her ears.
The Margrave strode toward the table in quick, angry steps. “This is intolerable.”
“My lord,” began Wechsler, “The ghost of Mrs. Ritter's husband answered you...”
“The answer is no use to us,” his employer replied as he stared down at the objects on the table. “Albert Ritter's solicitor is as dead as he is.”
“Since everything is already set up, can't we just summon the solicitor as well?”
The Margrave answered, but Greta was not listening at this point. Instead, her attention was riveted to the darkness outside the protective circle. She was sure that Albert Ritter's shade had gone back to the other world with his last words, but something else was out there. It was as if some sort of pressure was coming down to bear upon the shield the Margrave had cast with the circle. And it smelled faintly like the smoldering coals on a hearth.
Greta remembered a bit of folklore she had heard about the hand of glory. The left hand of a criminal, made into a candle, had the ability when lit to open doorways. Sometimes, things you don't want will take advantage of the opportunities that you've provided. The Margrave's previous words echoed in her head and she found herself straining to catch any movement beyond the circle.
There were footsteps and voices—from outside of the room. The presence that had taken advantage of Albert Ritter's departure seemed to pause, as if it too sensed the others.
“Grandma! Grandma! Where are you?”
“Lena! Come back here at once. You know your grandmother is probably already asleep. You need to go to bed right now.”
“No, Mama. I think Grandma is over here.”
At that moment, the Margrave forcibly pulled himself away from his argument with his employee and stepped towards the border of the circle. “Don't come in here!” he bellowed.
The door to the darkened room burst open, spilling in light from beyond. The presence lurking just beyond the circle hissed in delight and Greta felt sweat breaking upon her brow as if she had suddenly stepped into a blacksmith's forge.
“No, Lena, go back!” cried Franz.
“Franz, Grandma, what are you doing here?”
“Don't cross the threshold!” The Margrave shouted. But he was too late.
A small girl child in a white jacket embroidered with silver tripped into the room like a coin tossed into a dark well. “Grandma?”
“Lena!” The girls' mother stood at the doorway, transfixed at the scene and let out a scream.
With the extra light from the doorway, Greta could now make out the presence closing in—a vaguely humanoid shape as tall as the ceiling with a void-like maw that sucked in any light that reached it. The creature stretched out with a spindly limb toward the child.
Greta moved, throwing her body through the invisible barrier that the Margrave had erected and scattering the salt, leaving behind gritty white trails along the floor.
Her arm loped around the child's waist just as the creature's limb reached them. The darkness touched her sleeve and she smelled burning fabric.
“Foolish woman, you'll get us all killed!”
Someone, a human someone, grabbed her free hand and yanked her back inside the broken circle. The child came with her, but as she tumbled to the floor, the girl burst out of her hold to run to her grandmother and brother. Dazed, she looked up and saw the Margrave standing at the circle border with the knife held toward the creature in his uninjured hand. Greta looked down at her own hands, thinking numbly that not all the blood smeared against her cut palm was her own.
“Go back from where you came from,” the Margrave commanded.
The creature seemed to laugh at his words and with its arms, moved toward him.
The Margrave uttered another command, in a different language, just as the creature loomed over him like a shroud. At the same moment, Greta felt something sharp tugging at the gash in her hand, digging through the wound to grab something in her chest. She noticed the Margrave's eyes widen as if he too felt the pain, before her own vision flickered to nothing.