by Tony Pi
The Ides of Quintile, in the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Edmund V of Lyonesse
I might have enjoyed my jackalope terrine more had Hector Mason not been sitting at the same table. From the moment he arrived, our gazes had locked in battle like two caged cockatrices fighting over morsels of angle-worm. Mason and I had first come to blows decades ago over our differing paleontological theories, and our rivalry only escalated as we continued to compete for the same prizes.
And now, we warred over the Medal of Lyonesse.
If I had my druthers, I would have barred Mason from the banquet, but Lady Yolanda Pencaville had insisted on inviting the scoundrel in the name of good sportsmanship.
“What harm, Tremaine?” she had asked last evening. “I have great faith that your Leolithic Wonders will trump all other exhibits at the Grand Exhibition.”
For fear of offending our good patroness, I conceded. After all, what would be more astounding than dining on venison inside a concrete manticore? Granted, we supped only in the bottom half of the statue, but the feast among the models of titanic beasts ought to be the talk of Carlyon high society for months to come.
Still, it galled me to see Mason seated beneath the manticore’s tail at the far end, bantering with my guests. For all I knew, he had been responsible for our recent setbacks, such as the bout of food poisoning among our golemists last week. With only three days until the official opening, we could not risk sabotage.
The guests at the table quieted as Lady Pencaville stood. “Ladies and gentlemen, before we enjoy the next delectable course, I’d like to thank the two men who have made this evening possible. Professor Tremaine Voss, Chief Curator of Aigyptian Magic at le Musée d’Ys, and his son Ellery, sculptor extraordinaire.”
I gave a brief nod at my introduction, as did El.
Lady Pencaville swept her hand in an arc to encompass the other dioramas in the Eastern Dome. “The regal Griffin. The feral Mer-Lion. The enigmatic Gynosphinx. The dire Manticore. The world knew only their bones for ten thousand years, but thanks to father and son, these noble beasts of the Leolithic Age live again. Thank you, Professor Voss, for taking your sabbatical here in Carlyon, and you, Ellery, for turning your father’s research into vivid works of art.”
The guests began to applaud…all except the damnable Mason.
My rival removed his monocle and polished it with a monogrammed kerchief. “As I predicted, Voss got the details on the archoleons wrong.”
“Oh? Do enlighten us, Professor Mason,” said Lady Pencaville.
Mason gestured at the mer-lion diorama. “The ichthyoleon’s lateral finbones cannot possibly support the creature’s weight out of water, and he’s failed to account for cartilage between the vertebrae, which would render the true beast more massive than this caricature.”
I jabbed the tip of my walking stick at the same statue. “The forefins are as robust as walrus flippers, and a sleek musculature solves the mass problem,” I countered.
“A blubberless ichthyleon is as implausible as your manticore!” Mason roared. “The word might come from a linguistic corruption of man-tiger, but that doesn’t mean the beast has stripes!”
“Lower your voices, gentlemen,” my son said, shaking his head. “This is no place to fight your feud.”
“You’re right, El. Tonight’s a celebration of unveiled secrets, and I’ve revealed mine.” I swung the lion’s head on my walking stick to point at Hector Mason. “Time to show yours.”
Mason and his Hespereian alchemists had been working on a secret project in the Western Dome. Curious passers-by in Meliodas Park could hear the noise of construction in the Dome, but not see beyond the tall, black curtains covering the dome windows. Guards patrolled the area day and night, ensuring that no one but Mason’s crew knew what transpired inside.
“Oui, Professeur Mason, I’d be willing to document your exhibit on film,” said Jules Laroux to my right. My friend from Chimère Studios tilted his head towards the pancake-shaped handcrank cinetoscope resting on a tripod nearby, the one he affectionately called his crêpe.
Mason shook his head. “I’ve already hired cinetographers from Mandragora Studios,” he said. “As for my exhibit, I promise it will astound the world, but my technicians must make further adjustments to the pneumatics–”
“Empty words,” I said. I pointed to the top half of the manticore statue on a trolley at the edge of the desert diorama. “My manticore’s not fully assembled, and yet everyone here recognises its majesty.”
“Majesty?” Mason laughed. “This is the Grand Exposition of The Works of Magic of All Nations, Voss. Where’s the true magic in your statues, hm?”
He was baiting me. He knew I could only support my case to the others by invoking his award-winning theory. “That they walked the Earth at all, that’s the magic! The ancient chimeras thrived on magic, but it also caused their extinction,” I said. “I believe it was a pedantic braggart who theorised a basilisk plague slew the archoleons, transmuting their flesh to sand and leaving only petrified bones.”
“Mason’s Basiliskine Theory of Leolithic Extinctions,” he added, a smug smile on his face. “I won the Rungholt Prize in Paleontology with that.”
I stage-whispered to the crowd. “As I said, a pedantic braggart.” Laroux and a few others laughed. “After the banquet, perhaps you could sate everyone’s curiosity by giving us a glimpse of your project?” I said. “With Lady Pencaville’s permission, of course.”
Lady Pencaville smiled. “Indeed. I’d very much appreciate an after-dinner tour, Professor Mason.”
The guests, likewise taken by my idea, clamoured for Mason to show his contributions to the Grand Expo. At first, Mason turned beet-red under the barrage of pleas, but slowly, the spirit of competition overtook him. He smirked and called out to the Hespereian alchemist across from me. “What do you say, Fowler? Shall we show them a true manticore?”
Manticore? Had Mason duplicated our efforts with his own model? Perhaps he had assembled a complete skeleton, or a pride’s worth from his digs in the Mespotaim. Still, I was baffled: neither would garnish the kind of accolades that he was anticipating.
Fowler mulled over Mason’s question before answering. “Why not? Frankly, Hector, I’m anxious to see if my money’s been put to good use.”
Mason bared his teeth in a predatory grin. “Then allow me to escort Lady Pencaville to the venue myself.”
Lady Pencaville smiled. “We are agreed.”
Ellery shuffled behind me, close enough for me to choke on the scent of cigars on his suit. “You ought to know better than to taunt the lion, Tas,” he muttered in my ear, using the local vernacular for Father.
“He insulted our work, and I won’t stand for it,” I said, handing him a flute of sparkling wine. “Whatever Mason has planned, I’m certain it pales in comparison to our Leolithic Wonders.”
If only I believed my own words.
I found myself picking at my deviled peryton egg with a fork, having no idea when the waiter had set the dish before me. Thoughts of Mason’s manticore project distracted me more that I cared to admit.
“Clearly you despise this man, but why? What sparked your feud?” Laroux asked. He and I had struck up a friendship a few years ago when I was a consultant for Chimère on the film L’Enigme du Sphinx, so when I asked the studio if they’d be interested in filming a truth-reel about the Grand Expo, they leapt on the opportunity and sent Laroux.
“Would you believe, an egg?” I said, cutting a piece from the hors d’oeuvre with a fork-tine. “You see, a chimerical beast takes on qualities of the creatures that comprise it. For example, the peryton that laid this egg is a cross between an eagle and a deer, giving peryton meat the flavour of venison. Likewise, the Hespereian jackalope is both jackrabbit and antelope. While Mason and I are both experts on winged archoleons, he insists that they are viviparous whereas I argue such creatures are oviparous.”
Laroux’s blank look told me that I had lost him.
I tried again. “Winged archoleons — griffins, hieracosphinxes and the like — are part-lion, part-bird. Mason thinks that archoleons give live birth like their lion counterparts, but I firmly believe they’re egg-layers like birds. It was a hotly debated topic back in those days, and still is in some paleontological circles today.”
Laroux nodded. “What else?”
“A long time ago, the University of Carlyon favoured me over Mason for the archaeological chair, even though he had won the Rungholt Prize. More recently we battled for the curatorship at le Musée d’Ys, and I emerged as the victor. In retaliation, he sabotaged my grant application to the Regal Society for the Encouragement of Magic, snatching the funds for his antediluvian dig in the Mespotaim.”
“Ah. A feud like Chimère versus Mandragora.” Laroux turned to address the alchemist across from us. “By the way, Monsieur Fowler, might you and Professeur Mason reconsider the filming rights?”
Fowler, who just popped the remainder of his peryton egg into his mouth, waved his fork back and forth in the negative. “Can’t and won’t. This is a Hespereian project so I’ll work exclusively with Mandragora Studios. All footage is theirs,” he said, unaware that minute specks of albumen sprayed from his mouth as he spoke.
“That’s what he thinks. Swine.” Laroux spoke in Graalonnais, confident that Fowler wouldn’t understand a word.
“What are you up to, Laroux?” I asked.
“You have your feud, I have mine. After dinner, go on ahead without me. The crêpe’s surprisingly portable. One way or another, I’ll capture footage for Chimère.”
I resolved to push aside my worries and savour the next course, the medallion of yale with truffled potato purée, wild mushrooms and red wine. It was followed by a generous serving of carpaccio of dahu with juniper and cracked pepper, with a side of roast vegetable lamb of Tartair, but I ate sparingly. After all, I had to leave room for the traditional Lyonessian mincemeat pie.
Dessert and a snifter of brandy later, the guests were eager to abandon the manticore dinner and see Mason’s mysterious spectacle. As Mason insisted, he led the way out with Lady Pencaville on his arm, much to the chagrin of Ellery. A few guests traded whispers and chuckles. I could well guess at the source of their amusement: they thought my son played more paramour than sycophant to a woman easily twice his age. I thought the same when I first saw him chauffeuring the widow in her alembic horseless carriage.
While the waiters cleared the table, I walked with Laroux to his crêpe. Ellery joined us anon, producing a cigar and snipping off the end with a cutter. “Why do I think this will be a frightful disaster?” he said, leaning down to strike an elemental match against the sole of his shoe.
Laroux growled. “By the spirit of Death, no flames!” He grabbed his cinetoscope and tripod unit and hoisted them onto his shoulder as though they were weightless. “À bientôt, Voss,” he said, and stalked off.
“Touchy fellow.” Ellery touched the match-flame to his cigar.
I choked on a whiff of tobacco. “Must you, El?”
“It calms me,” he said, puffing away.
We trailed behind the other guests, leaving the Eastern Dome last. Mason lead the gaggle of connoisseurs through the Amber Palace, a marvel of glass, wood and amber completed mere days ago in time for the inaugural Grand Expo. The incandescent glow of foxfires in golden amber, embedded in strategic places amidst the panels of glass, lit our way.
The Grand Exposition was part of a larger plan initiated by His Majesty King Edmund to showcase Lyonessian strengths in preternatural history and magic to the world. As it was right beside the world-renowned University of Carlyon, Meliodas Park had been chosen as the site of the Grand Expo. The King extended invitations to mages and scholars from diverse countries, including but not limited to experts in Hespereian alchemy, Exodian golemcraft, Shangdun silk magic, and Graalonnais herbary.
Lady Pencaville had a fathomless fascination with leonine monsters of that bygone age. She plied her fortunes towards the securement of the vast Eastern Dome to stage the Leolithic Wonders. To Mason’s credit, he must have rightly impressed his Hespereian investors with his project as well, if they saw fit to purchase the rights to the Western Dome.
The other exhibitors had to be content with space within the Amber Palace proper. As we walked through the vaulted hall, the crowd slowed as we passed a row of alembic engines on display, from a model of the earliest horseless carriage to the top-of-the-line Ravenser’Odd Double Mercury. Ellery paused to wipe a greasy handprint off the carriage’s otherwise gleaming bonnet. “What do you think Mason has?” he asked.
“Given the alchemists’ interest, perhaps manticore homunculi?” I suggested. “Imagine a score of little creatures rampaging through a scale model of Carlyon like in some of Mandragora’s flickers. Or–” I caught Ellery staring at Mason and Lady Pencaville strolling past the druidic greenhouse ahead. “–or you’re not hearing a word I say.” I sighed. “Look, El. I was disappointed that you hadn’t defended yourself earlier.”
Ellery tapped the ash from the tip of his cigar onto the marble floor and ground the ash beneath his heel. “Do you mean my choice of manticore colouration, or something else?” he asked.
We continued to walk. “That, and how you’ve been turning a deaf ear to the gossip about you and Lady Pencaville. I wish you’d dispel some of those rumours.”
“Let them say what they will,” Ellery said. “An artist must acknowledge that people interpret his work however they wish. Thus, I must accept their interpretations of my chivalry towards Lady Yolanda.” We passed by two Shangdun silkmasters at their exhibit, one fussing over a cloudloom while the other kept watch over a glass bell as tall as a man. White butterflies fluttered gracefully from twig to twig inside the contraption.
“Chivalry or foolery?” I asked. “You look like a doting fool! If your intention towards her is pure, by the goddesses, distance yourself.”
Ellery shook his head. “If I won’t change who I am to please you, Tas, then I won’t censor my deeds to conform to the perceived norm, if such a thing is even desirable.”
I sighed. “As you will.” For all my worry over his well-being, he was his own man now, not the wide-eyed lad who once came along on my digs. There was nothing else to be said.
We reached the far end of the Palace. At the head of the parade, Mason had relinquished Lady Pencaville’s arm and was explaining the situation to his guards outside the Western Dome.
Ellery spied his opportunity. “Pardon me, Tas. I best accompany Lady Yolanda whilst Mason presents his exhibit.” He pushed through the crowd to rejoin his patroness.
I looked to the heavens, dark through the glass above. “I tried, Lowenna, I tried. If only our boy had taken more after you.”
I was the last to enter the Western Dome through the glass doors and beyond the black linen curtains. What I saw inside struck me dumb.
While Mason’s dome was identical to ours structurally, I never anticipated the ring-like structure inside. Solid stone walls rose from the floor to a height of six metres, with waist-high parapets along the inner edge but only a rope railing trimming the outer rim. Several stairs gave the crowd access to the top, where Mason was already directing the guests to spread out. People gasped when they looked down beyond the parapet, which made me all the more curious about what Mason hid on the other side.
I hurried to the tail-end of the shortest line, also the slowest because Ellery was assisting Lady Pencaville up the steep stairs. I pushed past Mister and Missus Fowler and others with words of apology, begged pardon to my son and Lady Pencaville, and squeezed by to climb the flight of stairs beyond them.
At the top of the wall, when I saw what Mason had done, my jaw dropped.
My rival had built a bloody colosseum.
The pit inside went deeper than ground level, adding five meters to the interior depth. A trench at the base of the walls created an island of earth in the middle. A lone entrance had been built into the western wall, its drawbridge currently lowered to form a bridge. But what intrigued me most were the strange pneumatic apparatus in the centre of the isle, and the huge covered object that lay beneath its nozzles. The device, with its bellows and thin, snaking tubes, called to mind the image of a hydra squirming to escape a bagpipe. A bespectacled assistant was making adjustments to the piping.
My heart raced. Surely the lump beneath that sheet was Mason’s manticore, but what was it, exactly?
Ellery and Lady Pencaville reached the top of the stairs at last. “Professor Voss, you could learn some manners from your son,” Lady Pencaville said.
“My apologies, ma’am,” I said, but she paid me no mind. Like all the others, the view below had beguiled her.
Four handcrank cinetoscopes perched atop the battlements at each cardinal point, but only the northern one was manned and already filming. Mason walked around to a console atop the battlement directly above the drawbridge and addressed his captive audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the most spectacular demonstration of magic you will see in your lifetime. Brightsmith, if you please?”
Young Brightsmith pulled the sheet away, revealing a great dessicated husk curled in a fetal position. Though its flesh had shrunk tight over its bones, the leonid shape was unmistakable, its size dwarfing that of any modern lions. A monstrous scorpion tail on the creature’s rump lay shriveled and coiled, but that made it no less menacing.
Despite myself, I gasped.
Mason had found a perfect, mummified manticore, damn him.
Shouts of amazement spread amongst the spectators, forcing Mason to raise his voice to be heard. “I’m proud to present unveil the star of the Hespereian Dome, the Queen of the Lost Age!”
Ellery studied the manticore mummy’s tufts of sandy fur. “So it isn’t tiger-striped after all…or at least the desert species isn’t. What’s he planning, Tas, an archoleon autopsy?”
“No.” My stomach churned. I grabbed Ellery by the arm. “Stay close to the stairs with Lady Pencaville and be ready to run.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because Mason’s built this colosseum to keep a living manticore,” I said. I handed him my walking stick. “Smash the dome windows when you reach bottom; that’s the fastest way out. Then find a safe hiding place.”
“That ancient thing’s still alive? Impossible,” Lady Pencaville said.
“Let’s find out.” I hobbled towards Mason atop the north wall. “Where did you find it, Mason?” I called out.
“In a collapsed cave in the Mespotaim, not far from An-Nadira,” Mason said. “The dry desert heat did a miraculous job preserving her.”
“You plan to revive it, don’t you?” I asked, moving closer.
“That’s far enough, Voss,” said Mason. Two guards crested the stairs between Mason and me. “Detain him, lads.”
They moved swiftly to block my way, resting their hands on the handle of their palmcannons and daring me to advance.
Grudgingly, I stopped. “How’s resurrection even possible?”
“It takes only dedicated research to unearth the most wondrous magics.” Mason took a notebook from an inner pocket of his dinner jacket and flipped it open, laying it on the console. “Two thousand years ago, the Old Ilium Empire sent an army to conquer the Mespotaim. However, when they laid siege against the frontier city of An-Nadira, they were woefully unprepared against the defenses of its clever citizens.”
I remembered reading something about the Siege of An-Nadira, though I could not recall the details. Something about poisons?
Mason continued. “The An-Nadirans turned the dangerous fauna and flora of the desert into weapons against their would-be conquerors. One such weapon was the scorpion jar. They would fill clay pots with deadly scorpions and catapult them towards the invading army. When the jars shattered on impact, the angry scorpions would swarm the soldiers and sting them to death. Weapons like those allowed the An-Nadirans to successfully repulse the siege.”
Mason might have taken liberties with his descriptions, but he certainly held the audience captive with wild imagery.
“How did the An-Nadirans handle the scorpions safely, you ask?” Mason said. “Scorpions are creatures of venom and abide by the magic of poisons. The An-Nadiran magi would sprinkle a particular poison on the scorpions, causing them to shrivel and enter a state of deep, magical sleep. Whilst they are dormant, the scorpions present no danger. Once the scorpion jar was filled, the magi would awaken the scorpions with a dusting of a second poison, counteracting the first. Before the swarm fully awakened, they would seal the jars and load their catapults.”
All eyes focused on the mummy’s scorpion tail.
Mason posed for the southern cinetoscope, now manned and filming. “The manticore, part-scorpion and part-lion, is likewise susceptible to the same poisons that affect its scorpion half. Through happenstance or design, poison had mummified this particular manticore before she could contract the basilisk plague. Thus did she survive the past ten thousand years, perfectly preserved in an arid cavern. And now I will revive her!”
Like the secretive alchemists he served, Mason hadn’t named the exact poisons involved, but they were likely scrawled in the notebook before him.
“How sure are you that you have an undamaged mummy, or that it would live again?” I asked, but even as I spoke the words, the grin on his face told me the answer. The Hespereians threw their money at Mason’s project because he had already given them a convincing demonstration. “Goddesses, you’ve done it before.”
“Certainly,” Mason gloated. “I can bring the manticore in and out of torpor as I please. Brightsmith, it’s time.”
The crowd quieted, with only the cranking of the cinetographers echoing through the dome. The cinetoscopes fixed on Brightsmith as he bowed, crossed the drawbridge, and wheeled it closed.
Mason read from his notebook and fiddled with the controls on the panel. The nozzles on the bagpipe-tree hissed and began to spray a fine mist over the mummy.
As the poison mist moistened the parched skin of the manticore, its scorpion tail twitched. The dessicated husk shuddered again and again, growing fuller with each wave until the fits became steady breathing.
The spectators gasped in horror or wonder, or perhaps both — it mattered not. Mason’s manticore had trumped our Leolithic Wonders in their imaginations.
The manticore stretched and unfurled its scorpion tail slowly, the segments clicking with each motion until the tremoring barbed tip settled into a downward angle.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” Mason asked, smiling for the cinetoscopes.
“What does she eat?” asked Lady Pencaville, backing away slightly from the edge.
The creature raised its head to drink in the moisture. As the mist restored its face, I could see echoes of human features in its otherwise leonine shape, such as its small ears in line with its eyes instead of higher on the skull. The creature opened its mouth and lapped the air with its tongue, baring its long canines.
“Without doubt, it’s a carnivore,” I said, utterly amazed. When you worked with fossils for so long, you imagined what they would look like fleshed, but this! Even I had to admit Mason’s living sphinx was truly magical.
Brightsmith reached the top of the wall and stood at his master’s side.
The manticore’s eyes cracked open. Mist returned a glimmer to its eyes as it shook its body to air its dry fur. The rejuvenating magic had returned the beast to a size twice the length and height of an Aigyptian lion. Now that it had nearly returned to full life, I confirmed Mason’s assessment of its sex: the distinctive dark ruff to its jawline might confuse a casual observer into thinking it was a male’s mane, but in fact the creature was anatomically female. She began prowling around the isle, and whilst in motion her furred forepaws resembled the pincer-shaped pedipalps of a scorpion.
The audience couldn’t hold their tongues anymore. Words of astonishment and doubt volleyed back and forth as they chattered. The noise drew the attention of the manticore, who craned her neck and sniffed the air. A rasp escaped her throat.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is true magic,” Mason said, beaming.
The manticore inhaled another lungful of the poison mist. Invigorated, she growled and darted from one edge of the artificial island to the next, staring at the spectators with hunger in its eyes.
“It can’t get out, can it?” Missus Fowler asked, shouting at Mason.
Mason glanced up. “There’s no need to be alarmed, Missus Fowler. It can’t escape the compound. But if you are frightened, I will put it back to sleep.” He twisted a knob on the console, and the sprays of mist below dwindled.
A puzzled look flashed over Mason’s face. He leaned and whispered in Brightsmith’s ear, then turned his attention to the console again, spinning another knob. Nothing seemed to happen. “Just a moment,” Mason said. He and Brightsmith hovered over their console, exchanging hushed words.
The hackles on my neck began to rise.
Mason wiped a bead of sweat from the tip of his nose and knelt out of sight, presumably to examine the underside of the console.
The manticore circled the isle until she was opposite the drawbridge, raced across the ground with awkward strides, and leapt for the top of the wall.
Missus Fowler shrieked, as did three other ladies and a faint-hearted gentleman.
The manticore missed the edge by a metre, hit the wall and slid, slowing her descent only by catching the wood of the drawbridge with her claws. She came to a stop in the dusty trench.
“Goddesses, that’s too close for comfort!” Missus Fowler shouted, tugging at her husband’s sleeve. “Let’s go, Ian.”
“Sound advice,” I said, and turned towards El and Lady Pencaville. “For your own safety, ma’am, please leave with Ellery!”
The manticore climbed out of the dry moat, shook herself and padded through the mist to position herself for another run. Although the bagpipe-tree finally stopped misting, the beast licked the last droplets caught on her furred paws. The segments on her scorpion tail clicked again, and she roared.
Mason cursed and stood. “Merely a minor malfunction. Please stay calm. She cannot scale a wall this high.” He looked down at his monster.
Six of the guests were already on their way down the stairs when the manticore tried another leap straight at Mason. Mason deigned not to flinch. As before, her forepaws tagged the wall a meter short–
–but her scorpion tail lashed over her head at the apex of her leap, driving down and piercing the console. Splinters of the exploding panel flew like knives through the air, slicing Mason and Brightsmith. Brightsmith lost his balance and fell backward out of sight. His scream was cut short by a sickening thud that told us his fate. Although Mason kept his balance, he cried out and covered his eyes, blood seeping through his fingers.
Incredibly, the manticore dangled head down against the wall, with only her scorpion tail holding her in place.
The crowd panicked. Some ladies kicked off their shoes and ran, while others stumbled and broke their heels. People pushed and shoved to descend the stairs ahead of the others, sending Fowler tumbling off the wall, while his wife saved herself only by hanging onto the rope railing for dear life. Only a few true gentlemen stayed back to help her while the majority raced to save their own hides.
The manticore used the extraordinary strength in that tail to right herself so that she could gain purchase on the battlement and hoist herself onto the top of the wall. She flicked her tail, freeing it.
Aghast, the guards drew their handcannons but hesitated to fire. I looked for Ellery and Lady Pencaville amid the chaos, and finally saw them braced against a parapet at the top of a flight of stairs. El cast his still smoking cigar to his feet and lifted Lady Pencaville into his arms, my walking stick safe in the Lady’s grasp. “Tas, I’m not leaving without you!” El cried.
“You’ll have to,” I replied. “I have to stop her, and the key lies with Mason!”
“Don’t be a hero,” he begged.
I turned away, wordless.
Still blinded, Mason stumbled away from the console, groping for the battlements to guide his step. The manticore followed him, her teeth bared and her scorpion tail poised and ready to strike. If she had wanted Mason dead, he would be. But like a cat, she was toying with her food. “Guards! Earn your keep and help me!” he cried.
“Mason, tell me what the poisons are,” I shouted.
He ignored me.
The braver of the guards advanced past a cinetographer, his palmcannon raised. The cinetographer swiveled his unit to lense the scene as the guard hollered, “Goddesses protect me!” He charged the monster, firing shots as he ran.
The manticore flinched as the leadshots grazed her. She swung around and surged forth, skewering her attacker with her barbed tail before he could fire again. His palmcannon clattered to the stones and tumbling off the wall.
The monster began to feed.
“Hells, keep your money,” said the other guard. He scrambled for the nearest stairs, convincing the cinetographer to rethink his safety and follow the fleeing man.
“Please, Hector,” I pleaded.
Below, the sound of shattering glass rang out. Good — Ellery and Her Ladyship escaped.
“This isn’t how I want to be remembered.” Mason pulled his hands from his bloody eyes. “Goddesses, I can’t see!”
“Help me help you, Hector. We can stop her together. The poisons, please!”
The manticore stopped feeding and focused on Mason again, her fangs dripping with blood. She snarled and advanced.
“White hellebore to wake her–” said Mason, but that was all he could manage. The manticore leapt upon him and tore out his throat before he could speak another word.
Unable to watch the monster feast on Mason, I looked for his notebook instead, catching sight of it dangling off the edge of the parapet near the shattered console. The missing ingredient was in there. All I had to do was to grab that book.
I fell to my hands and knees, ignoring the pain from the old injury in my left leg. The latent pain was trivial compared to what the monster could inflict. I crawled as quietly as I could towards the notebook, hoping the manticore’s feasting would distract her from noticing me.
No such luck. I advanced within three metres of the book before the manticore scented me. She turned and pawed toward me, her muzzle drenched in blood.
For a brief moment I considered throwing myself from these heights, but I was never one for suicide. I steeled myself to face her fangs, her claws, her sting.
The sound of footfalls on stone accompanied the stink of camphor and cigar smoke behind me. My heart froze. “No, El!” I twisted around.
It wasn’t my son.
With the stub of Ellery’s cigar clamped between his teeth, Laroux raced up and tossed a reel of cinetographic film clattering to the stones behind me. A strip of film had unwound from the reel, its flimsy end held tight in Laroux’s hand.
The manticore was close; I felt or imagined her breath on the back of my neck.
Laroux plucked the smouldering cigar stub from his mouth and touched it to the strip of film he held, letting go as soon as the volatile material ignited. He grabbed me by my shirt and dragged me away as flames licked up the length of the alchemical film.
A sudden burst of intense heat hit my back. The beast howled in pain as Laroux threw me over his shoulder and raced for the stairs.
The fire ate the reel of alchemical film in front of the manticore, giving life to a hungry blaze. Her tinder-dry fur caught a-fire and burned her. She roared and thrashed in an attempt to smother the tormenting flames.
However, she wasn’t the only thing on fire. I watched in horror as Mason’s notebook was consumed in the conflagration.
I lost sight of the manticore as Laroux dashed down the stairs two steps with each stride. “Filmstock and open flame usually spell disaster, Professeur,” Laroux said. “But at the right time, in the right place….”
Of course. Laroux was the one behind the southern cinetoscope. “How’d you slip in?”
“Glass-cutter, naturellement,” he confessed in between breaths. “Tools of the truth-reelist trade. Once in, I blended with the crowd.” We reached the bottom. “Where to, Professeur?”
The roar from above told me we were far from safe. “The fire only made it mad,” I said. “We can hide, or find magic to stop her before anyone else gets killed.”
“Mason must have the other poison somewhere,” Laroux suggested. “We could lure it back into the pit.”
“With no idea what to look for? No. Get us outside.”
Laroux pushed past the black curtains and carried me outside the Dome through one of the broken windows. “Where next?”
“The University of Carlyon Library, at the edge of the park,” I said. “Scholarship awakened her, scholarship will bury her. As Mason said, it takes dedicated research to unearth the right magic, and by Goddesses, you’ll see dedication tonight!”
We reached the front steps of the library just as the manticore crashed through the curtains and windows of the Western Dome. She had extinguished the flames on her, picked up our scent, and raced towards us.
Laroux put me down and tried the doors. “Locked.”
“I have the key.” Laroux kept watch while I rummaged through my pocket. I was a night-owl, and access to the university library after-hours was a perquisite I enjoyed years ago when I held my archaeological chair here. I had negotiated the same arrangement during my sabbatical.
“She’s coming fast,” Laroux warned.
I unlocked the doors and hurried inside the library with Laroux, shutting and locking them just before the manticore rammed into them. Another slam, and another. In time, she would break through.
I wasn’t the only one who worked best at night. Two people — a student and a lecturer — poked their heads out of the side rooms to investigate the racket.
“What’s going on?” asked the student.
“Deadline!” I shouted. “I need research support now, if you want to live.”
My glare convinced them I was dead serious. I herded them through the halls to the Near Orient section at the rear of the library, a round reading room with stained glass windows. Twelve bookcases stood arrayed in a radial pattern, laden with copious volumes of manuscripts and tomes.
The thunder of the manticore’s assault on the front library doors continued to echo through the halls.
“Pull all books written in Graalonnais on spagyric or herbal alchemy, the Ilium Empire, and the Mespotaim,” I said to the two recruits. I limped to the table and slid into a seat. “Laroux, look through them and tell me if you see any references to scorpions, An-Nadira, or white hellebore.”
“Why in Graalonnais?” Laroux asked, joining me.
“Two reasons,” I said as I flipped through the pages. “I can translate from primary sources if given time, but we haven’t that that luxury. Fortunately, Graalon scholars did the most work on the An-Nadira region, and translated many of the texts from the original into Graalonnais, and I can read that as fluently as you. With luck, we’ll find the information in one of these volumes.”
The crashing sounds stopped.
“Do we have time for this?” Laroux asked.
“Keep reading,” I said, sliding book after book aside. None of the volumes so far had anything to do with the Siege of An-Nadira. Where had Mason found the reference to the poisons?
The library was silent but for the sound of us shuffling tomes and riffling through books.
“Here!” Laroux said, thrusting a dusty volume in front of me. It was a translated Mespotaim herbary opened to a page with an illustration of a plant bearing many small blossoms. “Ellébore blanc.”
I read the passage on white hellebore. The author mentioned an old An-Nadiran legend that claimed belladone could send scorpions into a magical torpor, but Ellébore blanc could reverse the enchantment.
“We need belladonna,” I said, standing up. “It’s rare in Lyonesse, but–”
“The greenhouse back at the Amber Palace?” Laroux suggested.
“My thoughts exactly.”
“Will we need much poison? That thing’s huge!” Laroux said. He moved to a window and tried to open it.
“Even a little should be enough to trigger the magic, although the more we have, the faster it will work,” I said, more hopeful than sure. “The trick’s getting back there alive, and administering the poison.” I turned to the others. “Thank you, gentlemen. I’d suggest retreating to the basement stacks. I doubt the manticore can make it down those narrow stairs.”
“Our pleasure,” the lecturer said. “Remember us in your next paper, Professor Voss.”
From outside came the sound of honks, and I could swear I heard my name. I turned to ask Laroux what he saw, but before I could, the stained glass window shattered.
The manticore landed inside the reading room, shaking off shards of coloured glass. Her flesh and fur had been badly burnt, and she bore many fresh cuts, but the creature did not to care. She faced me and roared, her tail rising into position to strike, but bookcases began to fall and crash into each other, knocking the one closest to the monster onto her before she could act. Stunned, the manticore missed me with her sting, punching through a wooden chair instead. I gave a shout of thanks to the pair who set the domino effect in motion. The lecturer gave a quick salute before he raced after the student for the sanctuary of the lower stacks.
Only when they had gone did I realise I had neglected to ask their names. If I lived through the night, I would seek them out again.
I hurried to the window where I had expected to leap down onto the grass with Laroux, but was startled to see him climbing into the back seat of a Ravenser’Odd Double Mercury. Ellery sat in the driver’s seat, with a fretful Lady Pencaville beside him. “I said I wasn’t leaving without you, Tas,” Ellery said.
“And I insisted we give you a ride,” Lady Pencaville added. “You were kind to think of my safety earlier, Professor, and I could only do the same in return.”
Laroux took the book from me and helped me down. I sunk into the cushions and found my trusty walking stick close at hand. It felt good to have it with me again. “How’d you find us?”
“We played the odds, Tas,” Ellery said, opening the infusion valve to start the alchemical reactions in the twin alembic engines. The horseless carriage dashed forward, moments before the manticore leapt out of the broken window and chased after us.
“To the greenhouse!” I shouted.
At first, the manticore was mere metres behind the vehicle, still intent on taking revenge on Laroux and me, but the impressive acceleration of the Double Mercury allowed us to put some distance between us, crossing the distance between park and palace in less than a minute. On my instructions, Ellery drove the Mercury up the marble steps, ramming through the glass while the rest of us guarded our heads against falling shards. Ellery brought the horseless to a halt a metre short of smashing into the druidic greenhouse.
Laroux and I scrambled out of the horseless. “Rendezvous at the Eastern Dome,” I said, and wasted no time entering the greenhouse after Laroux. The screech of wheels told me they had gone, while the distant roar heralded the manticore’s imminent arrival.
The greenhouse contained a wide variety of rare and exotic plants, some labeled, some not. I tossed a pair of gardener’s gloves to Laroux and donned a pair myself. Laroux had the herbary open to the belladonna page, looking for a match to the illustration. I had no need for it; I had memorised the specifics already. “There must be a secure section for poisonous plants,” I said.
“Here!” Laroux searched a cordoned section on the eastern edge of the greenhouse. “Is this belladone?”
It was a waist-high plant with a purplish stem and dull leaves that indeed matched the picture in the herbary. “Count on a cinetographer’s sharp eyes,” I said, and knelt to pull the belladonna out of its pot with care. “The roots are the most poisonous.”
“How do we get her to eat it?” Laroux asked.
“Wrap it in venison? No, we’ll take a page from the Elsinorian comedy,” I said. I twisted the lion’s head on my walking stick and pulled out the concealed cane-sword, discarding the sheath. “The poisoned blade.”
“Will that be enough?” Laroux asked as I anointed the edges of my weapon with the belladonna root.
The manticore came into view behind a pane of glass next to us.
“It’ll have to be.” I jabbed the root with the tip of the sword, cast the belladonna aside and backed away.
The manticore stabbed and shattered the greenhouse glass with her scorpion tail, narrowly missing Laroux’s leg as he dove under a table.
Bright lights shone behind the manticore, accompanied by chugging of alembic engines. The monster’s ears picked up the noise, and she angled her head towards the commotion. Four driverless carriages barreled down the length of the eastern wing towards us reeking of alchemy, their headlights burning bright with magnesian flames. Ellery and Lady Pencaville must have activated the exhibition models!
The manticore flinched and turned away from the light.
I grinned. Ellery remembered a lesson I taught him on those desert digs. If scorpions avoid bright light, then so too might manticores.
The first of the carriages struck the manticore, who hissed and attacked the vehicle through squinted eyes. She shouldered the Double Mercury aside, sending it skidding across the marble tiles. The creature stepped backwards toward us to avoid the next vehicle, a smaller Regulus engine. She had forgotten Laroux and I in the face of the new threat against her.
I took the golden opportunity to lunge forward with my good leg with as much momentum as I could muster, driving the sword deep into the manticore’s flank.
The last thing I remembered was the manticore’s flailing tail striking me, sending me flying. My head hit something hard, and everything went black.
My head throbbed with pain. However, the breeze across my face and the scent of roses coaxed me to open my eyes.
Lady Pencaville smiled and folded her windfan. “Good of you to rejoin us, Professor.”
“Lady Pencaville.” I turned my head with some difficulty. I was lying in a mess of broken glass and flattened shrubbery, all that remained of the druidic greenhouse. Police officers sorted through the wreckage, but I couldn’t see my son or my friend. “Where’s El? And Laroux?”
“They’re safe. Ellery’s in the Leolithic Wonders, explaining the manticore attack to the Chief of Police. Laroux went with several officers to the Western Dome to retrieve the footage he filmed as evidence.”
“Why’s El in the Leolithic Wonders?”
“That’s where the monster fell,” Lady Pencaville explained. “After you hit your head against a pedestal, Laroux knew he had to distract the manticore to save you. He commandeered a horseless and led her towards the Eastern Dome, where we hid while she stalked us. Fortunately, Ellery’s statuary confused her. Your poisoned sword was having an effect, albeit slowly. She became lethargic, her flesh shrinking over her bones. By the time the police officers arrived, she had become mummified once more.”
“I must see for myself, ma’am.”
“Of course.” Lady Pencaville helped me stand and asked an officer to support me on our walk down to the Leolithic Wonders. “Thank you for saving us, Professor.”
“No, ma’am, if you and El hadn’t come back for us, all our efforts would have been for naught. Thank you.”
“Please, call me Yolanda. You’re blessed to have a son who matches you in courage.”
There remained one question I had for her. “Do you love him, Yolanda?”
“El is a fine and mannered young man,” she replied. “We share a love of art, and that is bond enough.”
I nodded slowly.
Laroux’s voice rang out from behind us. “Professeur!” He caught up and showed us the film magazine clenched in his hands. “This will be my best truth-reel yet.”
“Congratulations, Jules,” I said, slapping him on the back. “You certainly earned it.”
“Indeed,” Jules said. “Alas, the police would like to see the footage immediately, and so I must bring this film to the studio at once. I will return, mon ami.” He gave a speedy salute and raced back the way he came.
In the Eastern Dome, Ellery and three officers stood in the desert diorama beside the half-shell and what remained of our banquet. The dessicated body of Mason’s manticore lay in the dust in front of them. El waved excitedly when he saw us enter. “Tas!”
“My boy.” Lady Ellery and I joined them and looked over the creature together.
“I’m in part to blame for these deaths,” I confessed to the Chief of Police. “If I hadn’t goaded Mason into showing us the manticore, they might still be alive.”
“You mustn’t think that, Professor,” said Lady Pencaville. “Mason’s pride blinded him to fact that his calculations and his equipment were flawed. It was hubris for him to think he could keep such a monster caged.”
“What do you recommend we do with the corpse, Professor?” the Chief asked.
“Corpse? No, she’s anything but that.” Though she had been burned, cut, battered and stabbed, and dwindled to almost nothing but skin over bones, the mummified manticore lost none of her menace. “She straddles the divide between life and death, belonging to neither.”
“Then we must destroy it,” the Chief said.
“Must we?” Ellery said. “She’s truly Queen of a Lost Age, as Professor Mason called her, and the last of her kind. Do we have the right to rob the world of such a wonder?”
“No, son, but neither are we ready to welcome her. One day, perhaps men greater than you or I will find a place where she may roam free. Until then…” I clasped Ellery’s shoulder and gestured at Ellery’s concrete manticore. “…let us place her within your sculpture and make your manticore her secret sarcophagus. Let the world think her lost.”
Dr. Tony Pi holds a PhD in Linguistics and works as an administrator at the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. He was a past winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, a finalist in the 2008 Prix Aurora Awards for his novelette “Metamorphoses in Amber” (issue 24 of Abyss & Apex), and a finalist for the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The character of Professor Voss first appeared in “Sphinx!” in AGES OF WONDER (DAW, 2009).
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish