5th of Prairial, Year 120 of the Graalon Revolution
I was late for a film premiere at Le Téâtre Pégase and a block away in an alembic cab, when the doors to that grand hall burst open. Ladies and gentlemen in eveningwear spilled forth, running for dear life. A man in a rumpled tailcoat dashed in front of us, forcing my driver to brake hard. I barely braced myself in time against the jolt as we screeched to a stop centimetres away from the hapless fellow.
“Goddesses!” The driver blared his horn at the man, who scampered off with the other patrons fleeing the cinema. “Which flicker’s this, Professor?”
“The Lioness in Summer,” I told him.
What had gone wrong inside? Tonight’s premiere was supposed to be the final but finest of Chimère’s trilogy of silent colour films. Katarin Bertho’s invitation had said this film was a pulse-pounding adaptation of the legend of Queen Aliénor and her conniving daughters, but I had not expected this level of terror. I checked my fob-watch: only a half-hour into the presentation. What could have panicked them so?
I climbed out of the cab with walking stick in hand, braving the chaos. I offered the driver a crisp twenty-graal note, more than double his hiring fee. “My good man, bring the police, post-haste! And if Sergeant Carmouche is on duty, tell him Tremaine Voss sent you.”
The driver saluted me with the folded bill. “Certainly, Professor!” He engaged the engine and sped off, leaving behind a cloud of alchemical stink.
The marquee, backlit by magnesian flame-jars, billeted three new silent flickers:
CHIMÈRE STUDIOS PRESENTS
IN BRILLIANT COLOURS
A GOAT IN VALHALLA – 3 PRAIRIAL 8 PM
SERPENT OF THE NILE – 4 PRL. 8 PM
THE LIONESS IN SUMMER – 5 PRL. 8 PM
Each film was based on a creature that comprised the mythical chimera: a clever marketing ploy by Katarin for her studio’s first productions in full-colour. This night should have been a triumph, yet this disastrous turn of events could bring ruin to her company.
I donned my new spectacles and looked for Katarin among the terror-stricken crowd, but there was no sight of her. If only I had found the accursed things earlier, I might have arrived at the ciné on time and helped stem this panic. I headed for the building, praying that no one had been trampled in the commotion, least of all my friend.
The opulent cinema foyer was empty but for two people descending the grand staircase. The exquisite woman was Laure Harbin, a starlet who had captivated audiences last year as Helen of Troy, and was the star of these new colour films. The older man helping her was Bernard Marec, a Chimère designer in his early sixties, whose waxed moustache had a life of its own. We had worked together before on one of Katarin’s earlier films on Aigyptian alchemy.
“Wrong way, Voss!” Marec shouted.
“What happened? Where’s Madame Bertho?”
Marec wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Madame’s tending to the others in the gallery. She’s not bleeding from the eyes, Goddesses be praised.”
Bleeding eyes? “Show me, Marec.”
“No! Forgive me, Voss, but my eyes are my life. May Lady Fortune protect you.” He escorted the dazed Harbin towards the exit. For a man with arthritis, he moved with alarming speed.
I dashed upstairs and flung open the doors to the auditorium gallery. I shielded my eyes, not knowing what to expect. “Katarin!”
“Tremaine? Here!” Her voice was straight ahead.
I decided I had to look if I were to help her. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could discern unmoving shapes that might have been people in scattered seats, thickest near the balcony’s edge. But instead of music from the pneumatic harmonium, all I could hear was the sound of clicking gears from the projection booth.
On the silver screen, a larger-than-life Laure Harbin garbed in gay medieval costume was admiring her own reflection in a hall of mirrors. This new colour technology showcased aspects of her beauty that black-and-white could never have captured, like the startling shades of her reddish-blonde hair. She caressed her own lips, oblivious to the golden lioness darting across the room behind her.
An orange-against-black intertitle explained the scene:
The Ruby Knight’s kiss still haunts
Princess Sabelline, as do his odes
to her beauty. So enrapt is she with
their scheme to steal her mother’s throne,
she does not see Queen Aliénor in
the skin of her Lionheart curse.
How in the world could such a lovely scene as this have caused a stampede?
Katarin was near the balcony rail.
I walked down the aisle, passing frozen spectators whose eyes were riveted to the screen and weeping blood. I shuddered at the thought that the affliction might strike me as well.
Katarin was tending to two unmoving figures in the front row. I recognised the Mayor immediately by his bold muttonchops, and beside him, the actor Franchot Aucoin, whose lecherous exploits were as legendary off-screen as on. Both men were bleeding as though their eyes had been gouged out and pressed back in.
“I’ve sent for the police,” I said, in part to calm her and in part to distract myself from that horrific thought. “We’ll find a way to help everyone here.”
“Should we move them, Tremaine?”
“Best that we don’t.” I checked the Mayor’s pulse: faint, like his breathing. A new tear of blood rolled down his cheek. “Are you suffering any symptoms?”
She daubed the Mayor’s forehead with a handkerchief. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I admire your selflessness, Katarin, but the more we know, the faster we might find a cure.” I glanced down at the Stalls level. Again, a scattering of paralysed spectators.
Katarin thought. “Two nights ago, when A Goat in Valhalla premiered, I felt as though I was the one being watched. Tonight it was the same unease but stronger, and I’m having difficulty breathing.”
I had only just returned to Ys late last night, and had missed the previous two screenings. “Yesterday evening as well?”
Katarin shook her head. “I was here to introduce Serpent of the Nile, but Laure and I left to discuss her next role over dinner.”
I stroked my chin. “Was the Mayor present for all three films? And Aucoin?”
“They were. Aucoin loves watching himself on-screen, but I never understood that particular allure, personally.” Her eyes widened. “You mean, if you watch all three films....”
I nodded. “We have the beginnings of a diagnosis. But it could also be the theatre or a saboteur.” Four months ago, the breakthrough in colour film alchemy renewed the rivalry between Chimère and their overseas counterpart, Mandragora Studios. It wouldn’t be the first bout of sabotage instigated by Mandragora. “Did you have the same projectionist for all three galas?”
“Philippe? But he’s such a sweet boy! I can’t see him as a saboteur.”
I laid a hand on her shoulder gently. “It’s only a theory. Stay here with the Mayor, and shout if you need me.” She expected courage and confidence from me given my past exploits, and I would let her see what she needed, my pounding heart not withstanding.
I exited the auditorium and knocked on the booth door. No answer. As a precaution, I drew the cane sword hidden in my walking stick, then slowly opened the door.
A young man lay on the floor beside the clockwork projector, unmoving in the flickering shadows. I produced a foxfire-amber for a source of steady light and knelt to examine him.
There was an unnatural pallor to his skin, and his wide eyes were caked with dried blood.
The boy was dead.
No one should die so young. “May you find peace with Aeternitas,” I whispered, and gently closed his eyes.
The door creaked open.
I stood and quickened into an en garde position, ready for anything. But I needn’t have: the strapping policeman who entered was my friend and past pupil, Sergeant Georges Carmouche. Though he still had the same moustache, his hair—which I had once compared to a mop of straw—had been cropped short, and a holstered palmcannon replaced the sabre normally on his belt.
“Carmouche, you’ve no idea how pleased I am to see you!” I sheathed my sword.
“When I heard it was you, Professor, I reckoned you had the situation well in hand.”
“Not in time to prevent this young man’s death.”
“Poor lad.” Carmouche checked Philippe for himself. “I’d like to move the victims, but I won’t if you think they might suffer as a result.”
“Your caution’s wise, Carmouche—one wrong move and I suspect they might all die. If the film caused the curse, would terminating the projection help them or do more harm?”
Carmouche considered the problem. “Wouldn’t the projectionist see a film more than once, to adjust focus and the like? It could be similar to a poison, and this man died from exposure to a higher dose.”
“Well-reasoned, Carmouche!” I had been helping him hone his skills at deductive reasoning before I left on sabbatical from the museum, and was glad to see our lessons had borne fruit. “Off it is.”
I held my breath and tapped a pin on the projector with my cane’s lion-head pommel. The reels clicked to a halt. Harbin’s still image stayed on the screen until I shuttered the magnesian flame-chamber, plunging the auditorium briefly into darkness before officers produced their own foxfire-ambers for spot illumination.
We rejoined Katarin. “There’s no easy way to tell you this....” I broke the news of Philippe’s death and held her as she wept.
She and I had met a few years ago during the infamous Sphinx of Ys affair, becoming friends thereafter. When she left acting to manage Chimère Studios she hired me as a consultant, on account of my doctorate in Aigyptian archaeology and magic. I cared about her deeply, but we lived very different lives. I was a widower with a son about the same age as she, and she was a rising star trying to escape her troubled past. I had vowed I would never ask for more than her friendship, but in moments like these, I almost regretted my decision.
Carmouche shouted instructions to his men, who began unfolding stretchers for the victims. A team entered the booth to deal with Philippe’s body.
I gave Katarin my handkerchief and went to examine the Mayor and Aucoin again. They were growing colder to the touch. “You must keep them warm,” I told the men, though I did not know if my advice would save the afflicted.
Katarin helped the officers with the Mayor and was about to leave the theatre with them, but Carmouche held her back. “Madame Bertho, I must insist you remain here at Le Pégase. There are questions only you can answer.”
Katarin grudgingly agreed.
I said nothing. I did not like Carmouche turning his attention to Katarin, but he was right. She likely had the clues we needed to solve this mystery. Blame would fall on her if all these men died. As her friend, I had to defend her reputation.
One of the officers came up to Carmouche. “Any other instructions, Inspector?”
I raised an eyebrow. Inspector?
“See to the theatre lights, please, Sergeant Joncour,” said Carmouche.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d been promoted, dear boy?” I shook his hand. “Congratulations!”
Carmouche smiled. “It happened only two days ago. Thank you for all your help.”
“I wish we had time to properly celebrate, Inspector, but there remains much to piece together if we are to help those who fell ill.”
A few steps away, Katarin all but slumped into a theatre seat, most unlike the vibrant woman she was. I had never seen her so weak before, but then she had viewed two of the films.
Oh, Katarin! “We’ll stop this, I promise,” I told her.
Please, I thought, let my words be truth.
Crawling on my hands and knees, I studied the ornate hieroglyphs adorning the leg of a balcony seat, the same design on all the chairs. I could translate most of the inscriptions except for the shadowed cartouche near the base.
“More light, please, Carmouche,” I said.
Carmouche knelt and held the foxfire-amber closer.
I pushed my spectacles higher on my nose. The indecipherable lines resolved into sharp symbols under the added magical illumination. “Perfect. Thank you.” I pushed to my feet. “It’s an ancient incantation from the Tartessos Papyrus, but a benevolent one meant to cure digestive pains.”
Katarin, who was watching from an adjacent row, frowned. “Then the theatre’s not at fault?” She considered her auditorium again, from the marble atlantes supporting the balcony to the dome of golden alchemical symbols. We had examined them all, but nothing among them carried markings that might cast a curse.
“That’s my conclusion, yes.” I steadied myself with a hand on a chair back and reclaimed my walking stick and my amber. “Your designers should have consulted me. I give quite a bone-chilling lecture on the dangers of copying magical symbols haphazardly, or so my students tell me.” I had faced enough ancient ghosts and curses to know first hand.
“I would have, if you hadn’t been in Lyonesse. What about a saboteur?”
“It remains a possibility.”
“But the shape of a missing fossil can be deduced by the pieces we already have,” Carmouche said, quoting what I had taught him. “The projectionist’s death strongly suggests that the films are at fault.”
I smiled, remembering the nights at the museum when Carmouche would help me reconstruct archaeosphinx skeletons while I explained how archaeological methods could be applied to detection.
“But our actors turned in the best performances of their careers,” Katarin said. “The locales were breathtaking and the footage dazzling. When we screened a few scenes for our investors, oh, how they wept, cheered, and laughed! I beg you, Inspector, investigate the possibility of sabotage by Mandragora Studios.”
“Do you have any proof, Madame?” Carmouche asked.
“No, but Mandragora released their own colour film a month ago: The Thirteenth Labour of Heracles. Everyone could tell they rushed it out. My sources tell me they dread Chimère trumping them again.”
“Katarin, I understand your reluctance to blame the movies, but Carmouche is right: Philippe’s death points toward the films. Maybe arcane symbols are embedded in the footage.
“Or spirits from beyond were captured on film. It’s happened once before. When I was young, I sailed with the preternaturalist Henry Kitto to the Distant Orient in search of mer-lion fossils.” I thought back to an incident during those golden days on black sand beaches and evenings of bonfires and shadow-plays. “Professor Kitto accidentally captured two phantom tigers in a photograph, which brought the expedition a slew of bad luck. It took months to figure out what had happened and freed the trapped spirits.”
Carmouche snapped his fingers. “Wait! Sometimes a quizzing glass will magnify details the eye overlooked,” he said, quoting another of my teachings.
“You want to go over the theatre with a magnifying glass?” I asked.
“No. We overlooked the lens,” Carmouche said. “All three films were projected through the same lens.”
I understood. Camera lenses were ground from crystal, a natural receptacle for containing and concentrating magical energies. I ran through the scenario: “Suppose a saboteur etched a mystical symbol on the lens. When the symbol gets projected onto the screen might curse everyone watching! But wouldn’t people see it?”
“Not necessarily,” Katarin said. “Flaws in the glass don’t always show up when light passes through a lens. Some distortions are subtle enough to escape notice.”
Carmouche nodded. “No one would realise the faint variations in light on screen were actually a curse.”
We hurried to the projection booth and examined the main crystal lens. Alas, it was flawless. The projector hadn’t been tampered with, as far as we could tell.
Carmouche started rewinding the film reel. “What if we watched these flickers elsewhere, using a different projector? If the curse begins to affect us....”
“...then we can rule out both the theatre and this lens as the culprits,” I said, finishing his thought. “May we use the screening room at your studio, Katarin?”
“We don’t know all the risks,” Katarin protested. “What if you’re paralysed like the others?”
“Paralysis should happen only if I watch all three films. Didn’t you watch only two? Two should be enough to establish any hidden patterns. If necessary, Carmouche can watch the final film to confirm.”
“It’s too dangerous.” She held out her pale hands. “It eats at my strength even now.”
I clasped her right hand in mine. “Which is why I must do this for you, Katarin.”
Carmouche’s new alembic carriage spewed sweeter fumes than the cab I arrived in. We sped up the Promenade, heading away from the Seawall towards the docklands where the studio was. Katarin, in the front with Carmouche, gripped her seat with both hands, whereas I sat in the back with Sergeant Joncour, deep in thought.
“Madame, who worked on all three films?” Carmouche asked.
“Cast or crew?”
“With three tight production schedules, we had to deploy all our staff evenly amongst all three films,” Katarin said. “Only two cast members were involved in all three: Laure Harbin and Franchot Aucoin.”
“Is that everyone?”
Katarin’s cheeks pinkened. “And myself, Inspector...I had a cameo in each. But I’d hardly curse my own productions, would I?”
“Maybe not intentionally,” Carmouche said. We turned west onto Old Ramp Road, heading for sea-level. “Madame, you seem eager to blame Mandragora, which makes me wonder if you’re deflecting attention away from your own employees. Is there, perhaps, something you aren’t telling us?”
“By Lady Truth, Katarin, lives are at stake,” I begged.
At last, she answered us. “Early in the filming of Serpent of the Nile, Laure’s costume came apart during the seduction scene, and the camera caught her accidental exposure on film. The assistant blamed Bernard Marec for taking liberties with practicality in his wild designs. I gave her carte blanche to fix the costume, which she did, and we reshot the scene. However, we discovered later that the embarrassing footage had mysteriously disappeared.”
“Franchot Aucoin?” Carmouche guessed.
Katarin nodded. “Aucoin stole the clip. I only found out last night when poor Laure burst out in tears at dinner. Aucoin’s been using the footage to have his way with her for months. If she refused, he would ruin her career.”
“That scoundrel!” I cried.
Carmouche sighed. “She should have come to the police.”
“And risk a scandal? Not Laure!” Katarin insisted. “I comforted her and told her to keep a brave face, while I look for a way to get that footage back.”
The carillons around the city sounded the Hour of Tranquillitas as our horseless carriage crested the slope.
“Could Miss Harbin be taking matters into her own hands, to hurt Aucoin?” I suggested. “What if she avoided the second movie on purpose, using you as her alibi?”
Katarin shook her head. “Harm so many others, just to strike back at one man? I don’t believe it.”
“Who’s Bernard Marec?” Carmouche asked.
“Our foremost designer, who’s been with the company since it started,” Katarin replied. “I put him in charge of all aspects of design for Serpent of the Nile.”
It meshed with my memories of Marec, who struck me as a creative man who loved his work. When I worked with Marec on the set for the Aigyptian alchemy film, at Katarin’s request, he often pushed for flashy, anachronistic designs while I aimed for historical authenticity. We’d joke as we fought over the research materials in the museum library, him teasing me about my lame leg and I him about his crippling arthritis.
We pulled up to the gates of Chimère Studios and exited the horseless. I mentioned my encounter with him and Miss Harbin at Le Pégase. “Maybe he’s working with Harbin?”
“But Marec was only involved in one film,” Katarin said. “What would be his motive?”
“We can speculate endlessly about motives, but the answers will come from the films themselves,” Carmouche said. “Sergeant Joncour, take the horseless and post guards around Aucoin. Then find Bernard Marec and Laure Harbin. I’ll have questions for them both when we’re done here.”
Joncour drove away.
Katarin led us to the screening room at Chimère, a thirty-seat theatre split by a narrow aisle, with a state-of-the-art clockwork projector hulking at the far end. Carmouche gave me a hand mounting the first reel, A Goat in Valhalla.
“Ever see a film in colour before, Tremaine?” Katarin asked.
“Not beyond what I saw at Le Pégase.” Although Mandragora’s Thirteenth Labour had been released in Lyonesse, between my work on the Leolithic Wonders exhibit and my guest lectures on archoleon extinction, I had no time to indulge in the ciné as I once had.
“Then be astonished or terrorized, but above all, be careful,” she said.
“Shout if you need us,” Carmouche added.
“And call me if she worsens, Carmouche.” I took off my tailcoat and draped it around Katarin’s shoulders.
“Don’t forget these.” Katarin took my spectacles from the coat’s inner pocket and carefully fit the pair onto my face before she closed the door.
The lights dimmed, shrouding the room in deepening shadow.
Had I chosen the right course of action? Or would I doom myself by watching these films?
I took a deep breath, gave the wind-up key one final turn, and pulled a pin, setting the reels a-spin.
The studio’s production logo projected onto the screen: a chimera mascot rearing into a rampant dexter stance. But instead of familiar gray-tones, the chimera’s fur rippled gold, its goat and lion tongues flashed pink between its teeth, and the scales of the viper tail glistened jungle-green. I gripped my seat in awe as the beast-heads mimicked roar, bleat, and hiss—all in frustrating silence. If only the alchemists could master sound!
A Goat in Valhalla starred Franchot Aucoin in his most famous role as ‘The Goat’, a licentious Hyperborean skald. Aucoin was a genius at physical comedy, proving Chimère’s strategy of capitalising on the successes of A Goat at the World Tree and A Goat Among Giants was sound: Aucoin would bring in legions of fans in this infamous role.
I watched the bawdy comedy play out. The Goat’s slapstick pursuit of the Valkyries was inspired, and the clever script even made colours crucial to the plot. But I couldn’t relax and simply enjoy the flicker, and searched each scene for runes and spirits.
Something was sapping my vitality, bit by bit, but it was so subtle that anyone not expecting it would dismiss it as tiredness from sitting still too long. I couldn’t think of any spells or charms to counter it, and that worried me.
In the second act, the Goat arrived at a Silver Door covered with runes, but the shots never lingered long enough for me to decipher them. I made a note to ask Katarin if I could examine the props.
Laure Harbin appeared in the next scene, in the role of the youngest Valkyrie. Though I was struck by how well colour brought out her true beauty, now that I knew about her and Aucoin it was difficult to watch them interact on screen.
Katarin made her cameo as another Valkyrie after the final battle. In a touching scene where she collected the soul of the Goat’s faithful companion, she convinced me she belonged in front of the camera. But I could not oust from my mind the fact that a Valkyrie was the spirit of a slain warrior, and that Katarin played on-screen one of the dead.
I called Katarin and Carmouche back to hear my analysis. “No ghosts in the film that I could see, but I’d like to examine any props with runes on them.”
Katarin nodded. “Everything’s kept in Warehouse Three. Would you like to rest before we continue, Tremaine?”
“No. I won’t let this curse get the best of me.”
“I’ll stay for this film and keep you company,” Carmouche said. “Two sets of eyes are better than one.”
Katarin left the room while Carmouche and I prepared the next reel: Serpent of the Nile.
“Just between you and me, Professor, do you think Madame Bertho resents Laure Harbin for taking her place in the limelight?” Carmouche asked quietly.
“Carmouche! She wouldn’t.”
“I have to consider every possibility. Maybe she doesn’t consciously wish Miss Harbin harm, but her repressed envy might be fuel for the curse.”
“Let’s eliminate all other possibilities first,” I said.
The chimera mascot sequence again began the film, and it was Carmouche’s turn to be amazed by the brilliant colours. “Astounding!”
Laure Harbin played the lead in Serpent of the Nile, and her performance as the vengeful daughter of a murdered Aigyptian pharaoh captivated me from the start. Aucoin played a minor role as a jolly slave, providing comic relief in this otherwise sombre tragedy. Unlike the previous film, they never appeared in the same scene.
As the film played, my slight discomfort welled into a nameless dread; my body ached as though a year of my life had been ripped through my skin. I gasped for air, fearful that I had condemned myself to an early death.
Halfway through, when Harbin danced for the usurper’s son in a most revealing costume, my cheeks flushed. I tried to focus on the hieroglyphs and sphinx statues in the background instead. During the bathing scene, Katarin appeared briefly as one of the handmaidens. But tantalizing glimpses aside, I was still on the hunt for the source of the curse, as was Carmouche. I didn’t expect to find Hyperborean runes in a flicker set in Aigypt, but films were rarely perfect recreations of a specific time period.
Even though the film ended on a powerful note, I was relieved it was over. Carmouche weathered the film better than I did, though he kept rubbing his left shoulder as though it was sore.
Katarin returned. “Anything?”
“A few anachronisms here and there, and two hieroglyphs I’d like to revisit, but none of the same runes from the first film,” I said. “Though I must say, Katarin, there were gross historical inaccuracies with Miss Harbin’s costume.”
“Ah, but no one will forget how well she wore it,” Katarin said, a tinge of envy in her voice. Was Carmouche right? “It’ll immortalize her...if anyone ever sees the film again.”
“Only The Lioness in Summer left.” Carmouche stroked his moustache. “Whatever it is, it should be in the first half-hour, to trigger the panic.”
I nodded. “It certainly narrows down where we look next.”
Then, the answer hit me like a one-tonne golem. One thing did appear in all three films...or more precisely, before them. I’d grown so used to it at the ciné that I forgot all about it.
“The studio mascot!” I struggled to my feet. “You filmed a new opening with a new chimera, didn’t you, Katarin?”
“We had to...the old sequence was in black-and-white, and the animated clay model simply couldn’t convey realistic colours.” Her eyes widened. “Goddesses, Bernard Marec was responsible for it!”
“How did he do it?” I asked.
“Taxidermy, with hidden gears inside, I think.”
Marec had built the studio mascot using animals that were once alive. The thought sent shivers through my body.
“Necromancy. It’s three animal corpses stitched together to mimic a beast of magic. There’s power in that.” I took a deep breath. “The chimera cursed the opening sequence, which is why it took effect so early in the third movie.”
Katarin understood. “That’s why the pre-screened scenes weren’t dangerous—the mascot clip was spliced in later! And Philippe would’ve seen that chimera more than anyone else. Framing, focusing, threading the film—”
“Maybe the chimera’s bleeding us.” I thought about the victims’ bloody eyes. “Ever hear of shadow-plays? Silk screen, puppets and their shadows? They’re a form of entertainment as popular in the Orient as films, but older and more ritualistic, involving prayers and offerings of food to the spirit. The first shadow cast in a shadow-play was always that of the World Tree, blessing the performance to come, and the same image closed the show.”
“But instead of a World Tree blessing, the chimera cursed the films?” Carmouche asked.
“Exactly. The longer you watch a cursed film, the more lifeforce you lose. Philippe would have taken many wounds after seeing the chimera many times but not ‘bled’ to death until the third film was well underway.”
“Then we must destroy that chimera to break the curse,” Carmouche concluded.
I grabbed my walking stick. “Take us to it, Katarin.”
I’d been to the studios on numerous occasions but had never seen inside Warehouse Three, a hulking gray building at the far end of the lot. It took longer than usual to walk there, with Katarin and I still suffering from a twice-viewed curse. Strangely, my lethargy was slowly fading while Katarin remained weak.
As Katarin unlocked the door, I took my foxfire-in-amber out of its cherrywood box and mentioned my returning strength.
“Same for me. What do you think it means?” Carmouche asked.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “We may have overlooked something.”
The warehouse was dark but for a glimmer of light near the other end. I held my foxfire-amber high, illuminating the rows of movie props. I recognised a few iconic set pieces in the shadows: a two-storey Tarot card depicting Ankou, the personification of Death in Graalon myth; the massive Bronze Gong of Shangdu; and the colossal clockwork griffin, star of a series where it terrorised the Great Undrowned Cities of the World.
“The light’s from Marec’s workshop,” Katarin whispered. “That’s where he keeps the chimera.”
Carmouche drew his palmcannon. “Go back to your office and lock the door, Madame.”
“No.” Katarin was adamant. “My company, my responsibility.”
“Then stay well behind us,” Carmouche said. He and I led the way deeper into the warehouse, with Katarin a distance behind us. The row we walked down held props from Lioness in Summer: a rack of spears and mirrors from the Hall of Mirrors scene, arrayed facing each other. The mirrors magnified the light from the amber, creating the illusion of infinite corridors as we passed.
At the four-way juncture, we turned right and then left onto the adjacent row. An open work area, illuminated by a gem-dish of foxfire-ambers on a cluttered table, lay at the end of the row of obelisks and sarcophagi. Bernard Marec stood behind the table clutching a glassy object in his left hand. When he saw us, he raised his free hand and flicked his wrist.
The shelves to our left came crashing down on us. Carmouche pushed me forward in the nick of time, but I hit the ground hard, and the foxfire-in-amber skittered out of my hand. I glanced back: Carmouche was half-buried under the avalanche of boxes. Luckily, Katarin had been far enough behind us that the shelf missed her.
Then I saw the chimera.
The beast stood in the adjacent row, its lowered goat’s horns undoubtedly what toppled the shelves. The lion’s head clicked its jaws open in an odd staccato motion while the serpent’s tail stayed motionless.
“Katarin, run!” I shouted.
She turned to flee, but the chimera darted behind her with the speed of a live lion, barring her way. When it stopped moving, it remained as still as taxidermic art.
Without turning, I called to Marec. “Are you going to kill us?”
“No one was supposed to die!” The chimera trembled in time with his shaking voice. “I only meant to steal enough life to give me back my strength. My body’s breaking down, Voss. This arthritis, these failing eyes—I won’t become a prisoner of my own body.”
So that was it: he stole strength from others to stave off his illnesses! That explained his speed at Le Pégase.
I turned towards him. “But you took too much. People are hurt, and a young man’s dead.”
Would he kill us now to keep his stolen life energy? Yes, if he were desperate enough. But if the same power animated the chimera like a puppet, then the puppeteer might need to see us to attack with it.
“What of you, Tremaine?” Marec said. “Wouldn’t you want to feel young again, and walk as though you’d never injured that leg? I can teach you how.”
Oh, to be able to run again! How the thought tempted me. But the cost to my humanity would be too great.
“How’d you do it?” I asked. “A spell from a book in my museum?”
“Exactly. I needed a way of drawing enough lifeforce all at once from the audience, so I made a taxidermic chimera and used stop-motion photography to simulate its life and motion. The viewer’s eye interprets the fast-moving frames and thinks the dead model’s alive, their energy in fact willing it to life.”
“Clever, making the audience unwitting participants in their own doom.”
I finally recognized the crystalline object in his hand: a polished lens. But if it wasn’t the projector’s lens...it must belong to the camera that had filmed the chimera.
“That’s why you were at the theatre, wasn’t it? The chimera’s physically too far from Le Pégase, but you could capture the audience’s life energy if you were there with that lens.”
“You have it,” Marec admitted. “I etched the spell on the lens I used to shoot the stop-motion.”
The chimera model owed the illusion of motion to the ensorcelled lens, so any lifeforce torn from the audience would flood into the crystal. That explained why Carmouche and I had regained our strength soon after the screening room viewing; the crystal lens wasn’t physically close enough to trap our life energy.
“You had to come back for the chimera, didn’t you? It’s a linked set, the lens and the model. Brilliant.”
“They say that photography’s the art of stealing souls, but my art has stolen years of—”
As he was gloating, I reached out with my walking stick, hooked back my foxfire-in-amber with the lion’s head and scooped it up, hiding its light. The area around me turned pitch black. I could still see Marec but hoped he had lost sight of Katarin and me.
Under cover of darkness, I moved and crouched, trying to ignore the pain that flared in my leg. I managed just in time: the chimera crashed into the spot that I had vacated.
Marec beckoned the chimera back towards him with a gesture, and as it padded past me, its fur brushed against my hand.
Marec grabbed a glowing amber from the gem-dish and made its viper’s mouth bite it. He sent the puppet back towards me, now bearing its own light source.
Time to run. Marec would have to move to keep both the chimera and I in line of sight. I uncovered the amber to light my escape and hobbled at top speed into the next aisle, fighting the ache in my leg—
—and came to a dead stop when I entered the corridor of mirrors.
Photography was the art of stealing souls, Marec had said. But I knew my anthropology well enough to know the superstition came from a similar taboo against mirrors. A mirror was said to trap a creature’s soul as reflection within itself.
I turned and saw Marec coming down the shadowed aisle, sending the puppet chimera after me. The reflection of the great beast filled the expanse of the mirror next to me.
With as much strength as I could muster, I smashed the mirror with the pommel of my walking stick moments before the beast reached me. As the mirror shards fell, the force animating the chimera peeled from its frame like a glove. The lifeless puppet skid to a halt at my feet.
“How...?” Marec rushed towards the fallen chimera but didn’t see a rune-carved spear extending at ankle height from under a shelf. He tripped, and the crystal lens flew from his hand, smashing to pieces against the floor. “No!”
I stepped over the inert chimera, drew the blade from its cane sheath, and put Marec at the point of my sword. He grew wizened before my eyes.
“Mirrors steal souls as well, Marec. It’s said that if a mirror breaks while you’re reflected in it, it damages your soul. You imbued your chimera with stolen lifeforce, a pale imitation of a soul at best.” I ground fragments of the life-stealing lens under the heel of my shoe.
Katarin and a bruised Inspector Carmouche emerged from the adjacent aisle.
“Well done, Professor,” Carmouche said. “Bernard Marec, you’re under arrest for murder and several counts of attempted murder.” He grabbed a length of rope from a prop shelf and tied Marec’s hands.
I once thought Marec had a decent man. It might have been a façade, I supposed, but I sincerely believed he had not strayed until the spectre of death changed him. For the sake of his soul, I hoped he remembered who he was, and who he could still be.
Katarin touched my face with a hand, her touch warming my cheek. “My strength seems already to be returning. Will the others recover as well?”
“In time, Katarin.” I turned my head, my lips grazing her fingers. It was all I dared. “In time.”