Monday, November 22, 2010

TTU: The NICHE, Chapter Four

Here it is, the final chapter of The NICHE. Only one more final chapter to go in True Tales! Hopefully it will all begin to make sense!
True Tales from University: The New International Club for Historical Enlightenment


Nothing else happened that night, and it was club night the next evening. We rehearsed for the Court Tournament as usual. It was almost ready. We were going to show it to the public that very same weekend.
Ivan and I walked home, laughing over a great tumble I had taken. I had slipped and fallen in the choreographed fight. I had never won the tournament in any of the practices, but I desperately wanted to. I was hoping to maybe win this weekend, during the actual show. As we walked and talked, our defences were lowered, much lower than when we had first met, but last night had made us a little bit suspicious.
But none of last night, not even hearing Adrianna’s name, prepared us for what we saw when we got home.
The door was swinging open, busted off its hinges. We hadn’t used the silver chain in a while, so that had been no protection.
Inside were four corpses, lying higgledy-piggledy across the room. One look at their black hoodies and shaved heads revealed they were last night’s killers.
But the most striking thing was the message written in their blood on the wall.
I’m not finished with you, Andrew Harcourt! If you thought you had gotten away from me, you are very much mistaken. Love, Adrianna.
PS. Thanks for all the valuable information. I wouldn’t bother searching anymore. Use the rest of your little life to do something fun, because it’ll be over very soon.
Ivan, only slightly disturbed, snapped into action, after letting a few Russian words escape his lips – curses, no doubt. I stood, dumbstruck, only half taking in what he said, and heard the voice of Julie coming loud through his phone.
‘Julie! Julie, it’s Ivan.’
‘Oh, hi Ivan. I suppose you heard about the breakouts then?’
‘Not until now,’ Ivan replied with remarkable calmness. ‘Not until I found the four escapees lying dead in my apartment.’
‘Holy... Mother of God. I’ll be right there. Don’t move, Ivan. But make sure you’re protected.’
The phone clicked off at the other end. Ivan grabbed my wrist and charged into his room. He ripped through his wardrobe until he found two silver chainmail vests for us. We put those on, and then armed ourselves with silver stakes.
‘Shit,’ was the first thing I managed to say. ‘Ivan... we have to check my room...’
‘Just... trust me...’
We edged cautiously across the bloody scene of the living room, and regarded the doorless portal to my room. The door was on the far side of my room now, lying broken in half with the mark of a powerful fist in its centre. We peeked around the walls and slipped in to the tiny room.
‘It’s gone,’ I said, not with surprise, but with finality. I had known it as soon as I read her message.
‘What is?’
‘Our research on the key. She’s taken it. She knows about the key as well, and now she seems to think she’s close to finding it.’
‘Hello?’ The female voice coming from the living room alerted us. We stared at each other wild-eyed and, holding our stakes before us, strode out into the living room. We relaxed slightly when we saw it was only Amber. She looked very confused, but more by the headache she was evidently experiencing than the sight of four dead bodies. She was holding her forehead, which was the usual sign that Patrick the ghost was telling her something. Her eyes were narrowed and she looked a bit like a newborn puppy, weak, sightless.
‘Amber, you shouldn’t be here,’ Ivan said sternly, but I could sense the worry in his voice.
‘Patrick told me something terrible was happening at your apartment. I wasn’t sure... I had to come...’
I grabbed Amber’s arms and got close to her face. ‘Amber,’ I started angrily, ‘Tell Patrick that the vampire is hunting the key now. She thinks she knows where it is. Patrick has to tell us where the key is and what it is we are looking for, or else our mission will fail completely.’
Amber looked dazed for a moment, then upset. ‘He won’t tell me,’ she said, on the verge of tears. ‘He said he’ll keep an eye out and warn us if she’s getting close, but he can’t risk revealing it to us just yet. “To give the people of Earth immortality,” he says, “would make their destructiveness and arrogance echo throughout the whole universe.” He just won’t tell me...’
I hugged Amber gently, and soon Julie and her officers walked through the door. ‘Shit,’ the detective whispered under her breath. ‘Damn vampire. We would have upped the security on their cells, but we were certain they were too unimportant for her.’
‘They were,’ I said observantly. ‘She only broke them out to be dramatic. She only broke them out to kill them so it would get to us.’
Julie nodded slowly. ‘Yes, that’s an accurate assessment. Guys, I’m going to need you to come with me. We’ll go grab a coffee somewhere and I need to get the basic timeline off you. Best you go change and put those vests under your real clothes.’
She nodded to her officers, and they started to canvas the scene. Julie escorted Amber out into the hall. Ivan and I went back to my room, which was closest, dumped our backpacks, and changed so that our vests were under our jumpers. Then we joined the two women out in the hall.
We went down to a nearby bar and cafe. The two women got coffees while Ivan and I, to steady ourselves, had something a bit stronger. Julie asked us all sorts of questions, and we told her what we knew.
‘Was anything taken from the apartment?’ she finally asked, towards the end.
‘Yes,’ I sighed. ‘A box full of old research papers.’
‘Your study?’ she asked, confused.
‘No.’ Then I realised who I was talking to. I could tell Julie about the key, after all, less than twenty four hours ago I was asking her if she knew anything about it. ‘It was all research about the key. The key that I asked you about last night. This vampire, Adrianna, is after the key as well.’
Julie looked grim. ‘I was hoping the key wouldn’t fall into anyone’s hands at all...’ she said softly.
I jumped on her words. ‘You know what it is?!’ I cried out.
She hushed me. ‘Yes, Andrew. I spoke this morning, as I promised you, to the associate I mentioned. Before that I knew nothing of this key. But my very knowledgeable associate knew about it. Yes, I can tell you, this key does have something to do with us androids.’
‘Is it what keeps you alive forever?’
‘No. It was created by us.’
I was really confused, and very tired, and kind of drunk by that stage. ‘Wait, but... but how can you guys be immortal if you created the key to immortality?’
She shook her head. ‘You’re getting this all wrong. The key isn’t the key itself.’
‘Yes, I thought as much. It’s a key to something else?’
‘It’s a key to a machine,’ she said, looking as if she didn’t want to say any of this at all. But we were in far too deep, and needed to know. ‘If Adrianna finds the key, she won’t be immortal. Even if she finds the machine, she still won’t gain immortality. But it will be bad if she does find it.... So you need to stop her from finding it.’
My fists balled up. ‘That’s not fair. If you created it, why don’t you stop her?’
‘I have a job to do, Andrew. I can’t blow my cover. You’re perfectly willing to accept my existence as an android. A lot of your kind wouldn’t feel the same. And what’s more, I don’t have the time to search for it.’
I was about to retort angrily, but then it hit me. ‘Wait... what? You mean you don’t know where it is?’
She looked a little bit awkward as she answered, ‘That’s right. You see, it was created together with some of our kind and some of your kind. Androids put the key for the machine in charge of a human engineer who lived and worked at this university. But, just before he was going to unveil its existence to the whole world, he had a religious revelation. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but he decided that God didn’t want humans to be immortal. So he hid the key. Generations of researchers have been working on finding it, and have narrowed the location down to this university. ‘
My head was spinning with the revelations. One rather great one sprung to mind now. ‘Wait... but the engineer lived in 1901... are you telling me that androids existed in 1901?!’
Ivan and Amber were both very curious now too. I was fairly sure the three of us were all on the same level of understanding. But Julie was withholding information from us. ‘Yes, Andrew. Androids existed then. I can’t tell you anymore than that. You already know too much for a human being.’
She stood and checked her phone. ‘You can go back to your apartment whenever you like. Please, don’t call me unless it is crime related. If I get a single call from you pestering me for more information, I will call off the alliance between my department and your little club. You’ll have to call in your own favours, and I can see your cover being quite easily blown that way. But I’ll tell you one last thing. When you get the key... if you get the key, find the student with blonde and green hair. She will give you further instructions. If you fail to retrieve the key, and Adrianna gets it, call me. That’s when things will get serious.’
‘Why don’t you get your android buddies to help us?!’ I cried, a little too loud.
‘Will you shut up!’ she snapped. She came close to me and hissed, ‘The key is a top secret matter even among my kind. We can’t afford lots of androids knowing about this as well as lots of humans. The fact that it has gotten this far and this ridiculous, and that a vampire is about to find it... I just wish I could have strangled the guys who thought this was a good idea a century ago. Good night!’
She stalked out of the bar, leaving the three of us to dwell on our thoughts. I was still really angry. ‘It’s not fair! Her people got us into this mess! Why do we have to stop Adrianna from getting the key?’
Ivan crossed his arms tightly. ‘Andrew, it’s our duty. Besides. Think of it this way. You’re not hunting the key, all right? You’re hunting Adrianna. That was your main mission from the very beginning, yes?’
I was about to argue with him, and I glared at his calm, icy blue eyes. But then I relented. ‘Yeah. Yeah, that was what I always wanted to do. But if I find this key, I’m not just going to let the androids take it off me. I want to know everything about it. Why was it made? What does it do? Why is it so dangerous?’
Amber nodded slowly, and patted me on the arm. ‘I’ll try and help you, Andrew. I’m chipping away at Patrick’s resolve.’
This only made me a little more mad, at this invisible Patrick person. ‘Damn him! Why does he think he’s so much better than us? We can handle the key! I’m not going to use it for evil! He needs to have more faith in humanity. I’m guessing he was human once?’
Amber gave me a knowing look, and calmly said, ‘Exactly. He was human once. But now he’s a ghost. So perhaps he’s a little jealous of us living, who are on the brink of eternal life?’
I wanted to retort, but I supposed she was right. From what she had told me of Patrick, he was an invisible ghost, only heard by Amber and a few others with a gift for hearing the dead. He couldn’t leave the university grounds, the place where he died. Like us, it was his chosen duty to protect the university. But unlike us, he couldn’t quit. He couldn’t leave. It must have been very lonely for him.
Still. That wasn’t right. He was withholding the most valuable information of all from us.
I prayed in bed that night, for the first time in a very long time. The silver chain was wrapped around the apartment again. The blood had been washed off the wall. I was in my chainmail, with my stake sheathed at my side. Perhaps it seems surprising to you we could sleep there. But we would never let Adrianna deter us.
I prayed to God that we would find that key first. Perhaps, in better circumstances, I would have asked him if I could be an immortal man. But right now, just living a mortal life was infinitely better than death by that vampire... or worse, living in a world with vampires that were truly immortal and completely invulnerable to anything we might have to use against them.

Friday passed by tensely. Gone was the worrying thought of the tournament on the weekend. There was nothing I could do about that.
The NICHE still, all good little students, attended their classes. But we met early Friday morning to talk about the next, urgent mission. Amber supplied us with maps of the university grounds. Over breakfast in the quad we all highlighted our maps, outlining any buildings that were pre-1901, or any other significant landmarks that were around at that time. If the engineer had hidden it on the grounds, it was surely a place of some significance, so that he could remember where it was. Or not? Perhaps he had buried it in some random place in the hopes that it would never be found again? That terrible thought weighed on our minds. For now, our only options were to search the significant places. There was no way in hell we could get away with digging up the manicured lawns of the university.
There were not many places for us to search in the end, which made it easier. Most of the art around the university was recent, so that discounted them as landmarks. The portion with the clock tower and other old buildings, including one fortified wall from before the university existed, were the most promising sites of interest. In between classes, I met up with various different members of the NICHE, and we scoured the old parts of the university. We searched the fortified wall for any loose stones. We stood in the centre of the clock tower, walked to the very top, our eyes always on the walls and the beautiful tiles below, looking for anything slightly out of place. But our search revealed nothing. We may have missed the key. It could have been in any number of old buildings that had been demolished over the last century to modernise the university. One last ditch effort was made to scour the old villas being used by various different arts departments. But it was useless. Even if the key was in one of those, it could have been in a lecturer’s office, and there was no way we could get away with searching in one of those.
That night we all met briefly over dinner. Places were crossed off the list. We looked at it from another angle now. Amber assigned herself the homework of finding out where the Engineering faculty had been in 1901, or if there had even been one – had it been part of Science, instead? More thorough searches were slated for Sunday. Why not Saturday? Because that was the day of the Tournament. All of us were a little concerned that maybe we should cancel the tournament and continue the urgent search. But in the end it was decided we couldn’t disappoint the members of the Re-enactments Club. We couldn’t just make those decisions for them, as if we were some all important clique.
We could have continued the search that night, but that was decided against. Last night’s break-in at the apartment had scared the entire NICHE. Night was Adrianna’s domain. Besides, if we didn’t sleep tonight, tomorrow’s show would be ruined.
So we all went to our respective homes and got a good night’s sleep.
That night I dreamed of a passage from the engineer’s cryptic diary.
“An angel came to visit me some time ago. She told me we were not ready. She turned me – she should not have needed to, but she did – to the good book. After much reflection, I realised, we as a species are not quite ready to ascend that golden stairway. God did not mean for us to find this key, I believe. I am quite resigned to the fact.
What I learned today has put the last nail in the coffin, as it were. The monarch, half a world away, has passed. It had been my dream to present the key to Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself. But now that she has found eternal life in heaven, I can no longer fulfil this dream, and indeed I believe it is a sign that I was never meant to. We were never meant to.
And so I gave the monarch the farewell I wished I could have given her. I’m sure she smiled upon me for doing so. And she who protected the Empire can protect my secret for the rest of eternity, until the hand of God himself reaches down and takes it from her.”

The next day started off extremely rainy. The whole sky was gray. My cell phone was going wild, beeping and buzzing incessantly with texts from others in the Re-enactment Club. Is it still on? Are we still in the park? Oh man, I hope it isn’t cancelled, I’ve been practicing so hard! Can you wake Ivan up please, he isn’t responding to my texts.
I shuffled out of bed and found Ivan sitting in trackpants, his hair loose down his back, staring out at the rainy city sky. I sighed. ‘Sucks, huh?’
He turned around slowly. ‘Yeah. I turned my phone off.’
I reached into my pocket and did the same. It seemed like the most Zen thing to do. ‘Any news?’
He shook his head. ‘I called Amber earlier. She said she was working away steadily to break Patrick’s defences, but he’s been keeping this secret a long time and it will take some effort. But he hasn’t sensed Adrianna near the key.’
‘Good,’ I sighed. I remembered the engineer’s diary and my strange dream last night, and felt a pang of anger. How dare Adrianna steal those things from us. I had felt as if I had been getting to know the engineer, but I couldn’t search through his recorded thoughts anymore. It made me very mad.
The first person to come to the apartment was Dave. ‘What the hell, guys! Why’d you turn your cell phones off? I’ve been trying to check if you guys are still alive or what.’ Dave became the centre of communications then. He text everyone telling them to meet in the quad in the afternoon regardless of weather. We might just have to put the display on indoors, no matter how inconvenient that was.
But the sky began to clear around lunchtime, and the sun was steadily drying the wet grass. Later, we headed past the park. People were out there, sunning themselves and enjoying the break from the bad weather of the morning. The park was a very important place for some people, especially people who lived in the central city and didn’t get much nature. It was nice and busy, so we’d be able to put the display on. The only issue was the grass. It was still quite wet, and that would be bad for fighting in. We decided to give it a few hours, and instead of starting the tournament right away, members of the Historical Re-enactments Club went around the park in small groups acting in their medieval personae, trying to get people interested.
I took part in a small scene. Ivan and I walked across the park to each other, and then started circling each other.
‘So!’ he cried out, raising his visor and drawing his sword. ‘The cowardly Baron Arturo dares to show his face? Draw, sir! You shall not present arms before the Queen this afternoon.’
A few eyes were drawn then to the statue we were standing beside, and it was with some irony I realised who it was. Ivan had been talking about Queen Rhiannon, the club member. But we were arguing beside the statue of Queen Victoria in the park. I pushed this observation to the back of my head and immersed myself back in the scene. ‘Sir Wolfram of Bohemia, are you not? I have heard tell of your nefarious exploits! Draw, sir, and fall upon my mighty sword. You shall not see the Queen this day, nor fight for her favour. I’m saving you the embarrassment of losing to me in front of everyone at the tournament.’
‘Son of a weasel! Fight me, if you dare!’
There were several cries of alarm as our swords met with a loud clang. That was good. We wanted it to seem at least a little real to people. While we talked, they might laugh at our bad acting and dialogue. But when the swords came out, that was the real show. Perfectly performing our rehearsed fight like a dance, we wowed the crowds.
Choreographed though it was, the end was not. The fight-like dances were always left open ended so that only fate could decide who would win the fight. We always tried our best in the end, to see who would come out on top. Usually, it wasn’t me.
And today was no exception. After our rehearsed steps were disposed with, Ivan soon had me on my knees, his sword point at my Adam’s apple. The crowd clapped enthusiastically, and Ivan bowed. ‘Thank you, good people. I invite you to the Queen’s Tournament, soon to take place at the rotunda. There you will see me once again thoroughly defeat this whippersnapper in armed combat. When the trumpet sounds, won’t you join us in the Queen’s presence?’
He bowed again, the crowd clapped, and he helped me to my feet. I bowed too, and we set off together to set up another scene. But by the rotunda, Dave started his fanfare on the trumpet. Ivan and I increased our pace towards the central area. Many of the park patrons gathered around the circle in which the knights, male and female, were lined up, facing the rotunda. Queen Rhiannon was sitting regally on a throne. Nicola, her hand-maiden, was beside her. Various other members of the club, those who weren’t fighting today, were gathered behind the Queen’s throne to watch the exhibition. Only Dave was standing alone, as the trumpeter and the crier for today.
‘Good gentle folk,’ he began, greeting the audience first, ‘knights from far and wide, nobles of the court, and her majesty the Queen. Today we shall determine who the greatest knight in the realm is. The victor shall win the Queen’s favour and the most excellent blade Excelsior.’ Two members of the club came forward, carrying and showing to the crowd the beautiful club blade. It belonged to the club as a whole, but the tournament was held once every year to determine who could take possession of the blade for the following year. It was fine, long, shining, silver-plated, and decorated with the finest decoration down the blade. Its edges were, naturally, dulled, for use in exhibition fights.
Rhiannon stepped down, regally, in her Queen persona. She waved to the crowd slowly, to the amusement of the gathered people. Then she walked down the line of knights, perusing us. To my surprise, she stopped at me. She faced me with a little smirk, and drew a gold medallion from a pouch at her waist. ‘I name the Baron Arturo my favourite to win today’s Tournament. May God smile down on you this day, Baron.’
I was amazed. This was totally unexpected. She had never picked me as a favourite before, and I was the least likely to succeed. I knew this, and everyone down the line knew this. Some of them were sniggering, some of them were shocked or jealous, and some of them no doubt understood that Rhiannon was doing this to encourage me. I had never won any of these fights before, but being her favourite was, in a small way, a victory in itself. I quickly regained composure and bowed lowly. ‘Your Majesty, you do me too much honour. I only hope I might fight well for you today.’
‘I hope you will,’ Rhiannon responded. She gave me another unqueenly smirk then resumed her regal attitude, heading back to her throne.
‘The schedule of competitions has been drawn. The first to fight shall be Erica Ericsdottir, Terror of the North, against The Shadow of the East. Competitors, take your places.’
So it was Jane and Ashley up first. Jane was dressed in her Viking persona, while Ashley was dressed not in her ninja blacks, but in a kimono. Their fight lasted a long time. They were both NICHE members, which meant they were tough as nails. But they were good showmen too, and knew that if they lasted too long the crowd would get bored. Jane was eventually defeated, willingly it seemed, the point of Ashley’s katana at her neck. The first fight was over.
The sun kept me warm while I waited impatiently for my first fight. There were several different Club members to get through in this competition, most of them dressed in medieval European knight personae, some in other international fighting costumes. I soon found myself brought up against the Spaniard, a member of the Club who was not a member of the NICHE. Though I had received far more training than he, I still doubted my success.
But the result surprised me. The Spaniard was slow, telegraphing every move he would make a long time before he made it. After the choreographed beginning, I managed to barrage him with fast strokes, until he tripped and fell, raising his hands in defeat.
‘Congratulations, Baron Arturo,’ Dave said loudly, clasping my hand. ‘You progress to the next rounds.’
It was tense, waiting for my second fight. In the second round, it would be me, Ivan, Ashley, and a few non-NICHE members. The sun sank down to the horizon, and some of the watchers drifted off. But others stayed, suitably captivated by our display. Some of the Club members went around with trays of authentic medieval snacks during the break between, offering them for free to the people who stayed for the long run. The tournament was taking a very long time. The lampposts around the park gradually flickered on in quick succession.
The evening drew on, the sun’s light fading, torches being lit as we carried on. Ivan and Ashley faced each other. Ivan won. I faced another non-NICHE person. I won. In the third round, most of the watchers had dispersed, but we carried on. We had to determine who won the sword this year. Ivan and I were placed against the last two challengers, the remaining non-NICHE members. We both won. I realised, gravely, what that meant.
I was going to fight Ivan. I was going to lose to Ivan.
It was time for the final round. Dave made one more glorious fanfare as Ivan and I stood before the rotunda and Rhiannon. Then Dave spoke again to us. The night was cool, the sweat on our brows from our last battles was freezing. ‘Brave knights. You have done well to come this far. Whomsoever wins the following battle win’s the Queen’s favour and the prize of the blade Excelsior for the following year. Are you ready?’
‘Aye!’ Ivan and I cried at the same time. We looked over at each other with a friendly rival’s glare. Our lips were smirking. God, I was terrified.
We backed off from each other and prepared for the battle. I had only gotten this far because I had been facing non-NICHE people. Now I was up against Ivan, one of the founding members of the NICHE. But I was the crowd favourite, because I was the underdog. The Queen’s gold medallion sparkled on my chest. Beneath my silk and brocade shirt the silver chainmail chilled my body.
‘Baron Arturo! How fateful it is that it should be you I fight tonight!’
‘Fie on your fate! Fall upon my sword, Sir Wolfram!’
Our pleasantries aside, we fell towards each other, our swords meeting with a resounding clang. The crowd was already clapping and cheering. Ivan was gritting his teeth. My breath was coming fast but I was holding my own! I could beat him!
We came to the end of our choreographed piece and the real fight began. Our swords locked. He leaned heavily on me. I almost tripped. Then I summoned strength up from some unknown reservoir, and pushed back. Our swords broke away and he backed off, circling me again. I came at him with a barrage of hits. He backed up and circled around quickly. Angry, eager to win, I spun around, and my sword very nearly hit Amber in the neck.

Holding her head, Amber had wondered onto the battlefield to bring the news. My sword dropped out of my hand as I saw her and registered her. Stepping over it, I grabbed her by the shoulders to steady her.
‘Amber, what is it?’ I cried out. Ivan was at my side too, no longer Sir Wolfram.
‘She’s here,’ Amber said in a haze. ‘Adrianna. Patrick’s told me. It’s Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria holds the key.’
Queen Victoria. The statue! The very statue that we had fought in front of earlier today! It had been in the park since 1897. She had died in 1901, and the engineer gave her the key!
Ivan made the connection as soon as I had, and called out to the other NICHE members, ‘Its Adrianna! To arms!’ The Re-enactment Club members were totally confused, but the NICHE members had no time to explain, or even the desire to do so. Those in the rotunda erupted forth, arming themselves. Even the Queen herself rushed off her throne, and she and Nicola ran after Ivan towards the far off bronze figure dimly lit by the park’s lampposts.
Unable to move, I stared. Underneath the dark bronze statue a person clad in red stood, reaching up. Adrianna. I had to stop her. The whole NICHE, except for the paralysed Amber, was already miles ahead of me. I began to run.
Then I realised I had dropped my weapon. Did I have my silver dagger on me? No. That was stupid. I had left it behind in the apartment, thinking I would be back before sundown. Then I saw Excelsior. It was plated in real silver. Right there, lying in its open case. I grabbed it up, disobeying all convention.
I ran for the distant statue, miles behind the others. Ivan reached her first. I saw her reach out and throw him far, far away. He had cut her with his weapon, but it wasn’t silver. He hadn’t a hope in the world. The others were thinking without strategy, which was rare for us. Instead they kept running, individually, at Adrianna, not grouping up in defensive formations. Though they cut her and stabbed her, their weapons were not silver, and therefore not affective. One by one they were thrown from her. And then, when there was only me left, she jumped onto Victoria’s podium. Wrenching the Monarch’s bronze hands open, she prised the key out of the fingers it had laid in for over a century.
I looked around. None of the NICHE were moving. Dead? I hoped not. Perhaps just unconscious. I hoped so.
‘Andrew,’ she hissed with glee. ‘So glad you could make it. I needed a snack.’
Faster than I could move she was behind me, and locked my arms. I couldn’t even wave Excelsior at her. It was stuck before me, angled down to the ground. I tried to cut at her legs, but she lifted me up and carried me so, so fast. The land blurred past me.
Quicker than I knew it, we were in a dark part of the park, behind buildings, trapped between three walls.
‘Finally, Andrew, I have you in my arms again,’ she crooned, stroking my neck. I was paralysed, against my will. She was hypnotising me somehow. It was the same as those times I thought I was dreaming. There was some power she had. Perhaps she gave off something similar to pheromones. All I could do was think. I couldn’t move. I was dead meat. ‘Wasn’t it good, Andrew? I satisfied you, you satisfied me. We could have been good together. I might have even made you immortal. You and I could have lived forever, and sought out the key together. But now, unfortunately, you must die.’
She bit into my neck. Her hands each clawed at me, the left one stretching my head out, the right one ripping, fingers like claws, my beautiful white and blue silk and brocade shirt. She supped from my neck, and the shining material of my collar was stained with the wasted blood that she lost in her haste. My life seemed to be fading, drifting from my reach.
What had been the purpose of all this? What was I supposed to do?
It was like magic. In my drugged stupor I could only watch in awe as her claw ripped my shirt open. My shoulder was exposed. My silver shoulder. Summing up energy, from where I did not know and still, to this day, do not know, I thrust my shoulder up to meet her face.
She shrieked and fell back flat on her back. I turned around, looking at her. It could have been the death of me, the way I stood looking at her with her burning, raw cheek. She was totally, for the moment, taken up with her wound. She could have easily gotten up and killed me. But just as she looked at me, realising the danger, I was finally able to move.
I thrust downwards with Excelsior, down into her heart.
She howled straight up at my face as I looked down at her, leaning heavily on the sword, close to fainting. Before my eyes she began to burn, then bleed, then blacken and shriven right before me. A short-lived spurt of blood erupted from her lips, but there was not enough of it, and the little geyser of blood ran dry. Her brown hair flared red and disintegrated. The sword leaned only on the ground now.
In my daze, I reflected on how luckily it was that the dulled Excelsior had managed to penetrate her body.
My blood spilled from my neck, hitting the ground, just narrowly missing the ashes of the vampire. I collapsed to the ground. Before I blacked out, I reached for the cylinder that Adrianna had dropped as she died.
It was black at the ends, and glass or something see-through in the middle. A dark green liquid sloshed around in the container.
Then it was gone.

I woke in the hospital. No one was with me. As, over the minutes, the memories of the fight returned to me, I began to fear that all my friends were not here because they were dead.
My screams and howls alerted the nurses. One came into my room, running on her squeaky white canvas shoes. ‘What’s wrong? Are you in pain?’
I calmed down, but tears were trickling down my cheeks. ‘They’re dead, aren’t they?’
‘Dead? Who?’
‘My friends. Ivan, Dave, Rhiannon –‘
The nurse looked at me strangely. ‘I think there was a guy called Ivan in here before. Russian guy? White-blonde hair?’
Breathing heavily, I sighed a sigh of relief. ‘Oh... oh good. Ivan’s alive. Where is he?’
‘He was by your side, along with a bunch of your other friends, for quite a while. They came in every day, only they started coming less lately because of exams and things like that...’
‘Exams?’ I repeated weakly. I thought hard. Exams had been a couple of weeks away when the Tournament was on. So that meant that I had been out for a long time.
‘Was I in a coma?’
The nurse nodded slowly. ‘You lost a lot of blood, and there was a very bad toxin in your system. The police detective who brought you in said you were drugged by your attacker.’
‘I’m so lucky to be alive,’ I reflected.
‘Yes. Yes you are.’
The nurse checked on my vitals and then left me. I lay in bed, resting, and thinking. I had no answers from her. I wasn’t sure if Adrianna was dead, really. But my still being alive probably meant she was dead. And as for the key, which I had finally found, where was it? Hopefully with Excelsior, kept safe by the NICHE.
That afternoon Ivan finally returned. It had felt like I had waited forever for him to turn up. ‘Thank God,’ he said, and gave me a big hug. I wouldn’t have let any other mate do so, but it was appropriate, I guess, given the fact that I’d almost died.
‘The key?’
He grinned. ‘Rightfully yours.’
I shook my head. ‘But we didn’t finish our fight.’
‘We’ve all decided it is yours to wield, after your brave battle.’
I looked down, feeling warm and grateful. ‘Gee, thanks.’ I looked up again. ‘What did the Re-enactors think of the NICHE attacking some random woman?’
He laughed out loud. ‘That was a difficult one. But Amber solved it for us. She told them all that Adrianna was wanted by the police in connection with the death of Katerina. None of them really had anything to do with Katerina’s life or death, so they were easily fooled. They still know nothing of the NICHE.’
I smiled and nodded slowly. ‘Awesome. So, what now?’
‘For now, Andy, you stay here and get better. Then, when you are better, you come back, we have a party, and by special arrangement, your lecturers are going to test you individually on the exams and projects you’ve missed.’ I gulped. I wasn’t an A+ student, and I wasn’t too confident after missing the end of the semester, but it was better than missing out on my exams altogether and failing the semester. ‘And then, next semester, you will take the key, and you will find the girl with the green hair.’
I nodded. It was a good plan. But Ivan’s plans were always good.


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