Chapter 1: "The Inheritance"
Kyli Madison's first look at her uncle's house wasn't very prepossessing. Like most Motavian houses, it was single-story, made of brick covered in dull yellow-white plaster. Being the home of a wealthy man, it was large and sprawling, but it showed signs of disrepair and neglect even from the outside.
"Not much, is it?" asked Arah, her companion. Arah was a native Motavian, short, broad-shouldered, and blue-furred, with a beaklike mouth, tufted ears, and wide red eyes. The two girls had been friends for a dozen years, so it was only natural that when Kyli received a surprise inheritance, Arah would keep her company on the trip to Kadary to see and perhaps sell the house.
"Too much, if you ask me," remarked the sullen-faced cart driver. "Been quiet these past five months; oughter stay that way." It was the most the girls had heard out of the close-mouthed man during the one-hour drive. He handed down their traveling cases, then turned the cart and was quickly headed back up the track without so much as a goodbye. The girls looked at each other grimly.
"This is starting to feel like one of your grandfather's ghost stories," Kyli decided. "The old, decaying mansion, the standoffish locals dropping dark hints, the innocent maidens about to walk into the jaws of danger..."
Arah placed a paw against Kyli's forehead.
"You've definitely been out in the sun too long," she decided.
"Oh, I know this is the twentieth century AW, but it's still creepy."
"Well, it's not like you want to keep the place, right?"
"True," Kyli sighed, then looked for a ray of hope. "Maybe it's nicer on the inside?"
Her hopes, unfortunately, did not come true. Though the house was lavishly furnished, with valuable antiques in many rooms, there was a thick layer of dust covering everything. Metal fittings were tarnished and rusted, and the air was musty and close.
"This is a shame," Arah said, inspecting some of the furnishings. "This was once a very beautiful home."
"I wonder why no one took care of it. Uncle's advocate wrote that I'd inherited my uncle's house and possessions, so why didn't he also hire a caretaker? The estate looks rich enough to pay for it."
The tip of Arah's beak dipped in the Motavian equivalent of a frown.
"I hate to say this, but if the carter and the people we met in the village are any example, it's possible that no one would take the job."
"Well, if we're going to stay here tonight, we'd better find ourselves a broom and dustcloth and get to work. I'm glad we thought to pick up some food in the village before coming out here. Want to take a look around and see what we're up against?"
Kyli and Arah found cleaning tools in a servants' pantry adjoining the kitchen, and within a couple of hours had gotten one bedroom and the food preparation and storage areas cleaned up.
"I'm just glad the well still works," Kyli decided, washing her hands.
Arah nibbled on a thorn apple.
"True; at least the house seems solid enough, just neglected. You know, you'll be set for life if you can sell all this."
"The library alone must be worth a fortune. Did you see how many books there are?" The printing press was a recent invention, and libraries packed with dozens of books were still a rarity. One whole wall of Kyli's late uncle's study was covered with nothing but bookshelves, the works all valuable hand-copied editions.
"What kind of man was your uncle, anyway? How did he make all his money?"
Kyli reached for a loaf of bread and began cutting slices for sandwiches.
"I'm not really sure. Mom never talked much about him. Dad actually said more; Douglas Arkingham was never on his list of favorite people, but I did get the impression that Uncle was a self-made man."
Arah tapped her furred fingers on the table.
"That might explain it. A number of self-made men are those robber baron types. Maybe your uncle lied or cheated and the locals have held it against him ever since."
"Could be," Kyli agreed, but she found that she couldn't shake off the horror-story imagery that gripped her mind. Thinking about Arkingham made her uncomfortable; it played a delicate frisson of fear through her mind, though she didn't know why. Probably it was just the effect of the atmosphere, the abandoned house, the wary locals, and the estrangement between her uncle and the rest of the family, their cumulative influence being quite disturbing.
They ate in relative silence; Arah wasn't prone to chatter and Kyli didn't feel much like talking. Nervous energy, though, she had in abundance, and so she went back to cleaning once she was done taking Arah's advice and starting with the library. The girls soon had the overstuffed sand worm leather chairs and the dark wood desk gleaming. Arah started dusting the small sculptures and bric-a-brac set out on the mantel, while Kyli turned her attention to the books. One by one she took them down from each shelf, dusted out the shelf and covers alike, and replaced the books.
It was when she reached the third shelf that she made the discovery. When she pulled out a dull-looking chemistry text, there was the spine of another book behind it.
"Arah, come here a second, will you?"
"What is it?"
"A hidden shelf!"
The girls excitedly stripped the rest of the shelf, finding that a recess had been built right into the wall behind the bookcase, about two feet wide. A panel could be lowered to conceal it, but the panel was not in place.
"I'd never have seen it, otherwise," Kyli admitted.
"So what was hidden?" Arah asked.
"Let's see." Kyli pulled out the first book and looked at the title page. "The History of Sorcery Cults in Motavia Following the Great Collapse by Antonio Mason. That sounds either creepy or dull or both." She handed it to Arah and took out the next one. It was named Corruption in Darkness, a translation of Guraasejpaa^ojar ^AameeTvaa, which was even creepier. Then there was Esper Magic and Technique, A Comparative Study, the Menobe Writings, and a slim volume entitled Ritual Spells in Sorcery which had apparently been authored by Douglas Arkingham himself.
The last item was the oddest, though. It was a thick tome, bound in leather of a texture Kyli had never felt before. Its fittings were metal, gleaming silvery without a hint of tarnish, and inset in the cover was an unusual rune of the same metal, its shape a combination of angles and curves that beckoned the eye to follow its outline. It gave Kyli the eerie feeling that she could stare at it for hours and not master its true speech. The title was scribed on the first page: The Testament of Xayn.
For some reason, this book unnerved Kyli more than all the others, despite their eerie titles; with a shudder, she thrust it back onto the shelf. Arah helped to replace the others.
"All right," the Motavian said, "now I agree with you. This is creepy. Those books look rare, some of them like first-edition manuscripts, and I've heard of the Menobe Writings. Grandfather once told a story about how the elders of Tonoe burned it and exiled the one who was trying to buy the book."
"I thought the last one was the nastiest. Did you see that sigil on the front? For a second, I didn't think I'd be able to look away! And what was that book by Uncle doing in there? Did he study that...black magic? I thought magic was just an old fable." At least, she thought, it explained the estrangement between her uncle and the rest of his family.
"All I know is, getting to sleep tonight isn't going to be easy."
She was right, but even so getting to sleep was still easier than what came next. The sigil from the Testament's cover burned redly in Kyli's dreams, dreams in which a myriad of colors undulated amidst waves of blackness like an ever-shifting aurora. She would stare at the shifting, changing forms, certain that there was some pattern there, that if only she could decipher it the key to secrets long untold would be in her hands. The knowledge of the forgotten and the unknowable beckoned, and Kyli felt herself torn between the urge to learn more and a terrible, soul-wrenching desire to flee. She awoke trembling and frightened.
The morning was bright and sunny, though, and a filling breakfast made things seem pleasant and normal again. Kyli's dream was, if not forgotten, at least pushed out of her mind. She'd decided to sell Arkingham's collection of creepy-but-valuable books, and with that decision she and Arah had proceeded with the examination and inventory of his legacy. The house itself would fetch a good price, though probably from an out-of-towner. Then it would be back to Zema for Kyli and a return to normal life with her future financially secure.
The chiming doorbell, though, cut into her self-assurance with a razor's edge. Both girls went down to answer it; though neither put it into words, they didn't want to be alone with whatever would happen next.
There was no monster waiting for them in the late-morning sun, though, only a brown-haired man wearing a simple but elegantly-cut shirt and pants.
"Ms. Madison?" he addressed Kyli.
"Yes. Who are you?" she asked bluntly, the atmosphere of the house making her waspish.
"Artur Waycroft," he replied.
"Oh, you're my uncle's advocate, the one who wrote to me about the inheritance in the first place. Would you like to come in?" It was nice to see a friendly face from a Kadarite for a change.
"No; as much as I'd like to, I'm afraid that I have a great deal to do. I only came to make sure my secretary had given you the right keys when you stopped by the office yesterday, and to deliver this." He extended an envelope to her. "I'd have left this with the keys when I was out yesterday afternoon, but your uncle's instructions were to see it placed directly in your hands."
Kyli took the envelope; it was thick and sealed with wax. An irregular shape bulged from inside.
"Not at all; Arkingham was a friend as well as a client. The best daika player in all of Kadary, too."
Arah's ears twitched at the mention of the ancient Motavian game of chance and strategy.
"Did you say you were a daika player? Perhaps we can have a game one of these evenings. Not many Parmanians know the game.
"I'd enjoy that, Ms—?"
"Thank you. Yes, I'd enjoy that very much. I suppose," he said with a slightly wistful expression, as if he wanted to accept Arah's offer right then and there, "that I really do need to be going. Good day to you both."
"Good day to you," Kyli wished him in return. Once Waycroft had gone, she broke the seal on the envelope and took out its contents.
"What is it?"
"Well, there's a letter, and then there's this."
Kyli held out a medallion on a slender gold chain. Inscribed on the medallion was a strange rune which she'd never seen before.
"How odd. Does the letter explain it?"
"I don't know. Let's see." She unfolded it and began to read.
I write these words knowing that death will soon take me. Disease is a terrible enemy, and one which cannot be overcome by wit or technique, and I am afraid I waited too long before seeking medical aid. So, die I must, and my work must fall to my heir. I have chosen you, for you are young and your mind may still be open to new possibilities.
Your mother chided me often for what she saw as a morbid fascination with the occult, but there are truths which will not pass by merely because one is ignorant of them. Xayn was put down for daring to reveal that truth—look to his wisdom! The Guraasejpaa^ojar ^AameeTvaa is incomplete—a pox on translators who seek to "protect" their audience—but there is more than enough in Menobe to suffice! Set your feet on the path and you may yet endure the coming darkness.
Your loving uncle,
Kyli shuddered. What did Arkingham mean, "truths that will not pass by?" What was the "coming darkness"? She read it over again, the letter from a dead man urging her to consult the strange and disquieting books he'd left behind. Was it merely the ravings of a madman, or was there truly something to it, some secret he'd learned through his study of forbidden knowledge?
"There really are only two choices," Arah said. Until then, Kyli hadn't even realized she'd been speaking aloud. "Either you throw the letter away and forget about it, or you open up those nasty books and find out what Arkingham meant." She shivered. "As for me, I'd take the first choice."
Kyli held up the pendant, wondering if the rune meant anything. It hadn't been mentioned in the letter.
"I don't know, Arah. My uncle wanted me to do this. It's why he left me this house. Don't I at least owe him the courtesy of looking?"
"Not if what he wants you to do is wrong."
Kyli looked at the letter again. Her uncle sounded so desperate in it, scared for her. Maybe he had been crazy. Whatever he was afraid of, he'd learned it in his study of the occult, a dubious source at best, but what if there was something to it?
Shouldn't she at least find out what it was? Forbidden things weren't necessarily evil; some were taboo out of fear and ignorance. Many Motavians and Parmanians despised each other's races, and yet look at herself and Arah. Perhaps fear of the occult was like racial prejudice, an artificial taboo founded on negative emotions instead of facts.
"I need to know, Arah," Kyli whispered. "I need to know what this legacy really is."