Berninski. Present Day.
“So,” Meredith prompted Tyler on the dark steps. “Your brilliant plan?”
Tyler was quiet for a few seconds. At last, he said, “I need to see a vampire.”
Meredith wondered if Tyler had lost his mind. Either that, or his brilliant plan really sucked, pardon the pun. “Did you have a particular vampire in mind?” she asked sarcastically. “Or would any old vampire do?”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of her,” Tyler answered slowly. “She actually lives right here in Berninski. Her name is Belinda Walkowski.”
“Aunt Belinda?” Meredith said in surprise.
It was Tyler’s turn to look surprised. “Did you just say Aunt Belinda?”
Belinda Walkowski lived in Fool’s Tower, a tall, imposing edifice of grey stone that looked as if it had been lifted right out of medieval Europe and dropped dab smack on the outskirts of Berninski near the warehouse district. Though not as ancient as it appeared (it was only about four hundred years old), Fool’s Tower was among Berninski’s oldest manmade structures and boasted a colourful history to match its age – like its namesake, the famous Narrenturm of Vienna, it had once housed lunatics.
These days, Fool’s Tower was a popular tourist attraction, renowned not only for its eerie past and architecture but also its current eerie inhabitant, the vampire professor Belinda Walkowski. Originally an eminent human professor of magic, she attained supernatural status some thirty years ago, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a hungry vampire whilst in Estonia to deliver a paper on magic cultism in pre-Columbian Mexico. Unfortunate, that is, for the vampire. Belinda Walkowski wasn’t someone you messed with, even as a mere mortal. She survived the encounter. The vampire did not.
These days, Professor Walkowski kept mostly to Fool’s Tower where, thanks to her newfound immortality and its resultant fame, she had successfully wangled herself a permanent on-field residency where she spent her days conducting research in her catacomb labs and giving once-a-week off-campus night classes, limited to only seven per class, with a mile-long, carefully-vetted waiting list that often provoked fistfights among the usually mild-mannered magic majors at the University of Berninski. She rarely left Fool’s Tower, except for the rare high-security trip abroad to deliver her latest paper – or to go late-night shopping with Meredith, with whom she was acquainted through her association with the late Professor Ben Schoxaneur. Or, as Meredith called him, Uncle Ben.
“I’m pretty sure they had a crush on each other,” Meredith confided to Tyler on their way to Fool’s Tower. “But they were either too shy or too academic to do anything about it. Who knows, maybe something might have happened if he hadn’t died so suddenly.”
Fool’s Tower was closed to visitors after sunset, but Meredith pounded hard on the heavy black door and rang the old-fashioned brass bell repeatedly before stepping back to light a cigarette. She had barely taken her first puff when the door swung open to reveal the wide, bland face of an enormous man who looked somewhat like a cross between Igor and Lurch, a likeness which was further enhanced by his voluminous, blood-stained butcher’s apron.
The man regarded Tyler and Meredith with an expression that conveyed equal parts resignation and disapproval.
“’Evening, Walter,” Meredith said cheerfully as she exuded a cloud of smoke into the dusky air. “I assume Aunt Belinda is on the premises?”
Walter looked with strong disapproval on her cigarette.
“Oh, come on, Walt,” Meredith protested. “You took too long to answer the door. You’re not telling me the smoke’s going to bother the ghosts, are you?”
Walter did not tell, merely looked.
Meredith sighed. “Oh, all right.” She dropped the cigarette and grounded it out with her heel. Walter turned, and Meredith and Tyler followed him into Fool’s Tower.
Tyler didn’t mind admitting he was pretty excited at getting a personal tour of Fool’s Tower. Legend had it the tower was haunted, not just by the ghosts of bygone madmen, but also the magicians who had been incarcerated within its walls, though there were opposing views as to whether the magicians had been unlucky political prisoners or really had gone insane. It would be interesting, he thought, to have a look at the fortifications of Fool’s Tower if it really had been capable of holding magicians alive. The tower would no doubt have to have some magical reinforcements for that to have been possible, but what kind and how?
Belinda’s personal chambers were located three floors belowground, deep within catacombs that were originally natural caves converted by the tower planners into stone dungeons. The halls were damp and dark, compounding the eerie atmosphere of the site, but the vampiress’s main laboratory was warm and brightly lit and filled with books, computers, machinery, and a vast collection of rare and intriguing magical artefacts. Tyler immediately picked out one of Cathakiss’s original grimoires, an ancient Egyptian death scroll preserved in a glass case, a collection of oracle bones, and – most rare indeed – an ancient Bonpo shaman’s skull. The room was vast and possessed seven doors, two of which stood open onto what must be the vampiress’s living quarters. The other four were constructed of brass, metal, wood and iron, and each were shuttered tight with charms and wards. Tyler was intrigued by the strength of the spells sealing each door – what did they hold? The only one he could tell so far by looking through a small window in the brass door was what seemed to be a wet lab. He could just make out enormous dark shapes floating through heavy clouds of wet chemicals. What were they?
A dry voice spoke from behind, interrupting his thoughts. “I thought I smelt Wild One. But I also smelt magic, and that’s an odd combination. You had better damn well control yourself if you’re about to bring magicians into my lab space, Meredith Schoxauner.”
“I thought I’d bring a little excitement into your immortal life,” Meredith answered tartly as she kissed the professor on both cheeks. “You’re up early, Aunt Belinda.”
“Never went to bed, my dear, never went to bed. I was up all day hammering out the final touches on my latest paper. The Royal Society of Occult Anthropologists wants me to deliver the paper in person at the Lucerne Convention, but all bets are off on that. Those trips are such a hassle, what with having to schedule the appropriate night flights and pre-plan my meals, working out all the niggly security precautions and so on. I’m thinking, screw this and let’s just deliver the paper via video link. After all, we are the modern generation.”
“I say go to the conference,” Meredith said. “Get out of your dungeon. Live a little. Or do I mean un-live a little?” She grinned.
“You’re such a smartass.” Belinda rolled her eyes. “Aren’t you making my un-life dangerous enough as it is by bringing your fool Wildness and a magician into close contact with my computers and rare specimens at the same time?”
She turned to face Tyler, and the vampire and the magician surveyed each other with unconcealed interest. Belinda Walkowski was about average height, with the smooth, pale pallor of her supernatural kind and blonde curls tucked haphazardly into the collar of her black satin wasp-waisted jacket. She wore clear horn-rimmed glasses, a habit she still affected though she now possessed perfect vision. Intelligent blue eyes glittered at Tyler from behind the glass. “If I’m not mistaken, you must be the Berhansen boy. So you finally found your way to Berninski! Been waiting to see how long it would take you to break your mama’s spells, especially after your little tornado stunt.”
Meredith looked up sharply from an exquisite floating model of the Milky Way created of precious stones and magnets. “Tornado?”
“Meredith, don’t you ever read the papers?” Belinda clucked her tongue. “It was all over the news. The Kirkbride tornado?”
Meredith turned on Tyler with astonishment. “That was you?”
Tyler gave a nervous shrug. “Things got a little out of hand,” he admitted. “But I soon had it under control.”
“The Berhansens did a great cover-up job,” Belinda said. “Freak of nature and all that. Meteorologists who don’t know any better getting all excited. But I know magic when I see it, even on TV. And, of course, you got us magi scholars all het up too. To create something out of nothing, by sheer force of magical will, let alone a tornado … people are calling you the next Galhardo.”
“The next Galhardo?” Meredith repeated in disbelief.
Belinda gave her a cool look. “Really, Meredith, I’d expect you, of all people, to take a better interest in the goings-on of the magic world. I’ve always told you, know thy enemy.”
“Oh, I know my enemy, all right,” Meredith muttered, giving Tyler a sidelong look. “A whole lot better than anyone would expect.”
Tyler actually blushed. She found it kind of endearing.
“I’ve always wondered,” Belinda said conversationally to Tyler, “whether Wild Ones were created as a sort of safeguard against magicians and their powers of manipulation. Ben thought the same too, you know. Meredith’s uncle. He specialised in Wild Ones, a fortunate thing for Meredith.”
How so? Tyler wondered. Before he could inquire further, Belinda rubbed her hands and said, “But we must eat! I assume you two are staying for dinner?”
Dinner consisted of rare steaks, with Chianti for Tyler and Meredith, and warm cow’s blood for Belinda. Walter served the trio in a sparse little dining chamber off Belinda’s lab which the vampiress confessed she rarely used. “Turning vampire has its conveniences, like not having to take time out to eat or sleep. All I need is a flask of fresh blood and I’m good to go. I can’t tell you how much more work I’ve managed to accomplish since my metamorphosis.”
“All the more reason why you should go to Lucerne,” Meredith said. “You need a break.” She grinned. “You need to get a life.”
Tyler groaned at the pun.
Belinda rolled her eyes at Meredith. “The study of magic is incredibly time-consuming, my dear. Much too time-consuming for me to ‘get a life,’ as you so crudely put it. And it’s even more so when you’re studying it for practical purposes.” The vampiress turned to Tyler. “I hope you’ve been attending to your studies, boy.”
“They’ve been terribly neglected in the last ten years or so,” Tyler admitted. “It’s been a real rush trying to catch up.”
“I heard practical magi studies are a real pain in the ass,” Meredith commented.
“They are,” Tyler and Belinda said in unison.
“Magic,” Belinda said, waving her fork in the air, “at its core, is nothing more than manipulation, the manipulation of the world and its laws. But to manipulate the world, you must first understand just what the world is. It’s like science. If you wish to manipulate genetics, you must first study molecular biology, learn everything you can about DNA and genomes. You must have a good grasp of physics, of chemistry, even computer science in these days. And the same goes for magic.
“Take Tyler, for example.” She nodded at him. “I assume you spent a good deal of time researching wind factors and weather patterns, aeromancy and the intricacy of weather spells and the like, before you attempted your tornado.”
Tyler nodded. “I spent almost six months doing a crash course on atmospheric sciences. Even looked up a couple of air sprites in Kirkbride.”
Belinda frowned. “You sought out elementals? Was that wise? They are not known to be kind to mortals, nor do they relinquish their secrets easily.”
Tyler’s face took on a cagey look. “Well, I had to be really persuasive.”
Meredith’s mind was on a different track. “Six months of study just to produce one tornado? Jeez, and I thought high school was bad enough.” Another thought occurred to her. “Hey, why don’t we hear about faeries studying like that, if they’re so powerful?”
“That’s a good question,” Belinda said, “and one which opens up the age-old debate on the differences between human and non-human magic. The faeries’ particular brand of magic very conveniently takes care of those dreary details of spell-casting for them – and the same goes for other non-human magical creatures. Take the elementals and the demons, which are able to wield their powers with instinctive ease, great powers which, thankfully, are limited in one way or another. A water sprite, for instance, may have illimitable talents when it comes to liquids, but can do nothing with fire. Shadow demons have unlimited strength and power in the darkness, but these are abilities that wither away in the daylight. There are boundaries; they just work in different ways.”
Tyler joined in. “It’s the reverse with magicians. Though the practicalities of human magic require greater effort and hardship on the part of the magician, our magic tends to encompass a far wider range of possibilities than with the elementals or demons. It’s jokingly referred to as the Adam and Eve curse.”
Belinda nodded. “Though the first magicians were highly gifted, it took a great deal of trial and error before they figured how best to utilise their powers. I shudder to think of the magical chaos that must have occurred in those days.”
Meredith shuddered too. She wondered if there had been any Wild Ones in those first days and what such enchanted chaos would have done to them, the very creatures that embodied chaos.
“But they were geniuses.” Tyler’s eyes sparkled. “It’s been ages since we’ve had magicians of such originality and power like John de Lioncourt and Monique the Enchantress, magicians who really pushed the envelope, who actually got out there and did magic for the sake of performing magic, to learn about magic, about the world, about themselves! They didn’t just stick to inventing safe gimmicky spells based on what would be the best money-spinner or the least risk for insurance purposes. It’s high time we had magicians like the old ones again.”
Belinda gave Tyler a look Meredith didn’t quite understand. “Indeed. And perhaps you might be the first of the new originals, young Tyler. That tornado of yours was quite the envelope-pushing act. You certainly sent a wave through the magic world, the likes of which have not been seen for centuries now.”
Tyler blushed for the second time that evening. Meredith raised an eyebrow, intrigued. For the first time, she found herself wondering just what the magicians’ world was like inside that exclusive bubble, and exactly how Tyler fitted in there. She tried to remember all she’d ever learnt of magic, of what Uncle Ben and Belinda often tried to teach her, usually to no avail. “The foundations of human magic are knowledge and power,” she said slowly.
Belinda nodded. “Knowledge, just like we said, about the world and its laws. And power, to be able to enforce your will upon the manipulation of those laws, in order to bring your spell to fruition. A most elusive power, and strictly hereditary. Magic is in the blood. Genetics, you know. The magi historian, Alicia Markham, has traced the bloodlines of many well-known magician families, including yours, Tyler, and has concluded that magicians are most likely the descendants of a collection of once closely-related ancestral tribes, not much unlike the common ancestry of the Jewish people and their twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, Alicia has written a number of extraordinary and most interesting papers that have drawn similarities between the culture of the Jews and that of magician families, and which, as a mark of her brilliance, have sparked the most heated criticism and debate.”
Tyler nodded. “I was pretty young then, but I remember the furore that occurred when she first published. Mother was furious because Aunt Sylvia had actually spoken to Dr Markham and given her all sorts of information about the family line. Meerkha used to say that Aunt Sylvia would tell you anything as long as you gave her enough champagne, but Aunt Sylvia herself always maintained that magicians shouldn’t try to distance themselves so much from the rest of the populace. The magical snob factor, she used to call it.”
Walter removed their plates and brought dessert – dark chocolate pudding with a drizzle of raspberry coulisse accompanied by a sweet, tawny port for Tyler and Meredith, sherry with a dash of blood for Belinda.
Belinda sat back and lit a cigar. “Smoking,” she remarked, “is a vice I can now enjoy without having to worry about the consequences. You, on the other hand, Meredith, should really quit those cigarettes. Don’t deny it now – I can smell them on you. You may be a Wild One, but you’re still mortal enough. And no one has ever heard of an old Wild One, not even your uncle Ben in all his research. You ought to be careful.”
Meredith shrugged. “You only live once.”
“A typical foolhardy Wild One response. I could hardly expect less.”
“Wild Ones are hard to keep track of,” Tyler ventured. “Perhaps that’s why no one’s ever seen an old one.”
“It could be,” Belinda said without a trace of conviction, “and it could be that they all live fast and die young. Kind of like that now-defunct theory about lab rats with a higher metabolism popping off ahead of their more sluggish counterparts.”
“So it’s not really a case of survival of the fittest?” Meredith quipped. “Darwin would be disappointed.”
Tyler frowned. He and Meredith had never discussed this, but it was true, the common assumption that Wild Ones die young, mostly because sightings of an aged Wild One were so rare as to be a non-occurrence. Like baby pigeons. Was it true then that Wild Ones die young? And if so, how young? And why? He was about to query Belinda further on the subject when the vampiress turned to him.
“Same with you, magician. You may have your lineage to back you up, not to mention your inherent genius – and mind you, I know magical genius when I see it” – both Tyler and Meredith started at this – “but you must remember that you too are human. Mortal. By all means, take risks, but ensure you take the right precautions too. The old magicians were cunning, careful, wily creatures, and that was how they survived for as long as they did. Remember that. And remember, just because you’re carrying a vampire curse doesn’t mean you’re necessarily vampire-immortal.”
Meredith narrowed her eyes. “Do you think he might have some strain of vampire immortality, thanks to his blood-curse?”
“Who knows?” Belinda shrugged. “Blood-curses are so few and far in between, and so difficult to achieve, no one can ever guarantee what effect such a curse may have on its victim. We know so little about vampires, for it is so difficult to capture live specimens for study, almost as impossible as it would be to capture and experiment upon a Wild One. I have conducted some self-experimentation in the interest of research myself, but have yet to yield any real results in regards to this mysterious magic which keeps the un-dead alive.”
Meredith was puzzled. “Is it magic then that keeps vampires immortal?”
“Not exactly, not like the magic of humans and faeries. And yet we vampires are clearly affected in some supernatural manner.” Belinda leaned forward, her eyes glittering. “Don’t you see, our very state of being alone is a clear manipulation of life and death. An intelligent magician who understands something of this might be able to marry this vampire-magic, or science, or whatever you choose to call it, with a spell of his or her own to produce a similar result. However, blood-curses are very dangerous. We do not understand enough of the way vampires work so we cannot predict what effect the magic will have on a victim. They might turn into a monster, some Frankenstein hybrid of a vampire, or simply die.”
Meredith frowned. This was the kind of magic Charlotte Berhansen had been willing to inflict on her son to keep him away from her. She wondered if the woman truly understood what it was she had done and what had driven her to such desperate means. Was the threat of a Wild One so terrible that she would be willing to risk all possible consequences of a blood-curse as outlined by Belinda?
She glanced across the table at Tyler, who was frowning as well. He took a deep breath and pushed his half-eaten pudding away. “Is there any way to cure a blood-curse?”
Belinda hesitated. “No,” she said at last. “There is none, I’m afraid, for while we may be able to lift the human-magic part of the enchantment, we do not know enough to circumvent the vampire-magic. If, one day, we do find a way to cure a vampire, we might be able to reverse a blood-curse too. But that might just be nigh impossible. Dr Stanley Higgins – have you heard of him? He is a pioneer in his field of study on supernatural beasts, and it is his belief that there can never be a cure for vampires, for if you were to cause a vampire to revert to their natural human state, why, the natural human state for them would be death. And that might just be the same for one who is blood-cursed. The vampire anthropologist Letitia Kaminsky agrees with Dr Higgins, and I’m afraid, unless our combined research yields further results, I’m inclined to do the same.” She looked from Tyler to Meredith. “I’m sorry.”
Tyler exhaled. “That’s okay,” he said. “I’ve kind of suspected it all along.”
Meredith reached under the table and took his hand. He squeezed back, but neither of them looked at each other.
Yet another dead end, Meredith thought. Yet another reason why this romance between a magician and a Wild One was doomed.
With her free hand, she picked up her glass of port and downed it in one disappointed gulp.
“He was a good man,” Belinda said.
Tyler glanced up from his perusal of Cathakiss’s grimoire. He and Belinda were alone in her labs, discussing magic. Meredith had decided she’d had enough of the close magical atmosphere and had left them shortly after dinner to go “ghost-hunting” through the tower with Walter.
“Ben Schoxaneur,” Belinda clarified. “Meredith’s uncle. He was a colleague of mine, a professor of magic who specialised in Wild Ones. His wasn’t a popular field, and as a result, he wasn’t as well-known as other magi scholars or received as many grants for his fieldwork. If it was known that he had a Wild One niece, or if he had managed to finish his research, the grants would have come flowing in.”
“He did experiments on Meredith?” Tyler said, not sure how he felt about that.
“Mainly observation. Meredith was a willing participant, but there’s just something about Wild Ones which repulses being experimented upon, willing or no. Perhaps it’s some kind of self-preservation instinct.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, though. Ben never pushed her, or harmed her. He loved her dearly and he never put his research ahead of her. I don’t suppose you know of her history, of when we first realised she was a Wild One?”
“No,” Tyler said, putting down the now-forgotten grimoire. “I always assumed it was a home birth or something, which might explain why InterPara never knew to register her.” Wild Ones were always identified at birth, the Wildness asserting itself almost at once.
Belinda shook her head. “She was born in a public hospital, and even if it were a home birth, the midwife would have had her registered. No, Meredith was a perfectly normal child for the first five years of her life. No one ever suspected what she was. The manifestation occurred at the Schoxaneurs’ summer house, miles out in the countryside near Murphy’s Woods. It was an informal Schoxaneur family reunion – just Meredith, her parents, and Ben. Meredith and her parents were on the back porch when it happened. Ben was out the front, on the phone to me, as it were. We were discussing the discovery of real magical elements in magic realism art and, as I remember, were getting to quite an exciting point in our discussion when it happened.
“An explosion.” Belinda spoke matter-of-factly. “The Wildness just exploded out of her. All that energy. It took out the back half of the house. Her mother was killed instantly; her father just barely alive. He begged Ben with his dying breath to protect Meredith. Ben had barely enough time to cobble things together to simulate a gas explosion before the police arrived. I’d called emergency, not realising what had happened. Thankfully, the house was far enough from civilisation that no one registered that burst of Wildness. Can you imagine what would have happened had the manifestation occurred in town? There was no way Ben would’ve been able to keep it a secret from InterPara.”
“Did you ever find out why her Wildness manifested itself the way it did?”
“No. It’s a complete mystery. Ben and I often thought it was because Meredith had so successfully subdued the Wildness for the first five years of her life. Can you imagine? A Wild One babe able to control the Wildness to the point where no one ever suspected it, not even herself? It seems quite impossible, but there you have it. Or perhaps there was another reason, a reason why the Wildness was bound for so long within her. It might also explain why hers is an unusually strong Wildness, and so is her control, her ability to cultivate some minor ties and bonds. Wild Ones, as a rule, do not have anchors. But Meredith is different. She may keep coming and going through the world, but she always comes back to Berninski. To us.”
Tyler shot Belinda a look, unsure of what to make of the almost-proprietary note which had crept into the woman’s voice. He wondered if this possessiveness was the result of the obvious familial bond between Meredith and Belinda, or the woman’s keen professional interest in such an unusual Wild One. Or was there something else?
Ignoring Tyler’s assessing gaze, Belinda leaned over a sleek black computer and clicked on an icon. An image popped up on the screen. “There she is.”
Tyler smiled at the picture of a little girl with long dark hair peering out at the camera from behind the legs of a tall bespectacled man. “Is that Meredith?”
“When she was six, yes. And that’s Ben with her.”
“What’s that behind them?”
Belinda laughed. “Meredith’s playhouses.”
“What, did she have an entire village of them or something?”
“It was Ben’s idea. To keep the Wildness down. He taught Meredith to build those little houses, everything from the foundations to the rooftops. They filled his backyard with those houses. It was a good job he had a massive yard. It kept her busy, you know, and kept her mind off her parents. She was just a kid, but she knew what had happened.” Belinda spoke matter-of-factly. “She’s never stopped blaming herself.”
Tyler frowned, but Belinda was clicking on. “That’s the pool Ben commissioned for the backyard after they took down the playhouses. We trained her to swim in that pool. She was so good, she could have been Olympic material. Of course, that wasn’t possible. For one thing, it wouldn’t have been fair to her rivals, what with her Wild energy. And we would have run the risk of the world discovering what she was. Coaches kept trying to recruit her in high school, it was a helluva job telling them no, I tell you that. Running and swimming, that was what she did every single day of her life, morning and night, just to keep the Wildness down. Ben had this theory that perhaps Wild Ones could be inducted into society so long as they found some way of channelling away that energy of theirs, and so long as they stayed amongst ordinary humans, well away from magic of any kind. It seemed to work for almost eighteen years. No one would have mistaken Meredith for anything more than human, if a little more reckless and impulsive than most.”
“What happened to him?” Tyler asked. “Ben?”
“Died of a heart attack a couple of years back. His heart had always been weak, but he would never let me change him. I was rather furious with him for that. It would have been – easier – for all of us.” Belinda thought for a few moments. “It was after Ben’s death that Meredith began to wander further afield, disappearing for longer periods at a time. Finally, she came to me one night to say she was leaving for good. Said she was afraid, that the Wildness was growing stronger, more restive. She was afraid she might hurt someone the way she’d hurt her parents. And so she left, to wander as all Wild Ones do. And, of course, almost right away –” Belinda looked Tyler squarely in the eye. “She met you.”
Go on to: Chapter Sixteen
Go back to: Chapter Fourteen
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.