Prague, five days ago
16 04 1905
The entire Prague was drowning. The rain was restlessly pouring down on the city, turning gravel into mud, dislodging cobblestones that counted hundreds of years behind them, and cascading down the streets in the shape of rapid streams. The waste water system in the city had seen better times, so there were puddles everywhere. City residents were traipsing around them and were cautious not to walk across – they were afraid to get water in their galoshes, and even more so to plunge down to their waist.
The elders of Prague watched the extraordinarily high waters of the Vltava River with their eyes out on stalks, and the city heads were engrossed in urgent discussions on what should be saved first if the flood became as severe as the one that devastated Prague fifteen years ago. Only the golems guarding the city gate did not mind the rain at all. The giants had their impassive eyes laid on the horizon, and only when retiring from their post, they were subjected to the hardship of pulling their feet out of the gooey mass of dirt.
A black steam carriage with no signs of identification and thoroughly shut curtains was rolling along the cobble-stoned streets of Prague, splashing water all over and making the few passers-by lean against the building walls. An occasional bystander would curse angrily at the carriage but the driver, who had his head concealed under a leather helmet, was oblivious to everything. Focused, he kept adjusting the pressure in the steam boiler and watched the road ahead through the goggles that covered more than half of his face; he was steering the wheel mindfully, trying to avoid deep potholes and would occasionally sound his horn to a silly dog or a pedestrian electing to cross the road at the wrong time.
A passenger in the carriage was a youngish lean and tall man with a sharp nose, like a stork’s beak. He was slouching on his seat, with his unusually long legs stretched out to make himself as comfortable as possible. He was Count Konrad von Wittgenstein, the Grand Master of the Prague Vitamancer Lodge and the master of the golems, and also, according to some mean but cautious tongue wagging, a bit of a necromancer. The man had his eyes closed, he was listening to the patter of raindrops against the carriage roof and thinking hard whether or not he was doing the right thing.
A long time ago lodges of vitamancers were a part of alchemists’ guilds. The legendary 16th century magician, Faust, the prophet of the Middle Ages, Nostradamus, and even the Rabbi of Prague, Liva ben Becalelis, were creators of homunculi - miniature fully formed humans, and believed that alchemy had the power to breathe life into them. In the eyes of their contemporaries, these men were freaks, who lived alone, balancing on the brink of madness. Golems were also viewed with disapproval once.
Those times were long gone but the experience of the vitamancers was not forgotten somewhere in the dark corner of a cupboard. After their separation from the alchemists and with the generous boost from the Rothschilds’ funds following the creation of the Alliance, the new vitamancers became an immensely powerful organisation. They had their lodges in all free cities of the Alliance and in all major European cities too, but their greatest influence and authority was felt in Prague - their native cradle. Here the Vitamancer Lodge was de facto ruler of the city.
Since the Middle Ages vitamancers were not only beating their brains out about breathing life into their creations, but also about instilling in them the ability to think and make independent decisions.
Following the creation of the Alliance with its free cities, vitamancers became extremely important very quickly. With the magic gas Promethelium in its disposition, the Alliance was doing everything possible to make the mechanics’ creations automatons (the same artificial mechanisms that had been once created by God of metalwork Hephaestus) alive, bionic, thinking – that is, to give them even more extraordinary, veritably breathtaking, abilities. They could become soldiers determining the outcome of a battle, workers inciting another industrial revolution, explorers not frightened of cold, darkness or hunger. Hence vitamancers rolled their sleeves up and embarked on their work pursuits with even more enthusiasm – creating and experimenting, at times breaking the law, at times distancing themselves from their human nature, but always firmly believing that it would make the world their oyster.
However, for some unknown reasons the success never came too close, and the failed experiments and howling in savage voices monsters were locked deep down in the Prague Vitamancers’ cellars. The Grand Master of the Lodge found it hard to admit that vitamancers had come to a dead-end.Count Konrad von Wittgenstein gave a wary laugh. Who could have thought that a breakthrough would occur right under their noses, in the very heart of the Lodge? Here, in Prague.
Five years ago, at a festive ball to mark the beginning of a New Year and a new century, he, then just an ordinary member of the Prague Vitamancer Lodge, accidentally met a young girl by the name of Mila, accompanied by a few little toys – automatons. They could think! They could behave any way they liked! It was so incredible that it knocked the Count off his feet. When he had finally come back to his senses, he relayed it all to the Grand Master who started acting with no delay.
Luring the girl into a trap with the help of some ridiculous promises seemed as easy as pie. But it later emerged that the girl was far from being an airhead. Vitamancers were thrown off balance and in their confused state started making mistakes.
Count furrowed his eyebrows - these were some unpleasant memories. The mistakes were grave and not to be forgiven. Firstly, the vitamancers that were pursuing the girl, tried unsuccessfully to kidnap her in Prague, where the girl managed to escape together with her two guardians who, as they found out later, were two of the Alliance’s first-rate scientists.
A year later they found her in Constantinople and tried to snatch her from the carnival in Sultan’s Palace and yet again their efforts proved futile. Still a year later she was spotted in Varna but the vitamancers’ actions bore no fruit there either. The vitamancers’ agents started a fire which made no sense whatsoever, but killed the alchemist Basanavicius’ wife, causing the Lodge to acquire a deadly enemy. And now again – another pointless fire in the church near Krakow.
As members of the Vitamancer Lodge still had not laid their hands on the girl, their patience wore thin.
The Grand Master had to step down. Actually, he went missing and would never be found. When Konrad von Wittgenstein took over his predecessor’s chair, still warm from its last occupant, he felt incredulous about the imbecility of the man who did the job before him. And people say that only the most intelligent people can become vitamancers.
Coercion spawns coercion, action causes reaction. Count von Wittgenstein was able to read between the lines and had an ability to see through the most subtle of things, therefore he promptly concluded that the girl must be under some sort of protection.
Someone had blanketed her in an impassable protective shield which guarded her against any coercion. Nothing is incidental. The Grand Master had no doubts that professional killers could competently corner the girl in a cul-de-sac but then a lightning would strike, the earth would open its mouth, a dirigible would crash or something else would happen and the girl would flee.
On the other hand, for the first time in many hundreds of years the vitamancers saw the light at the other end of the tunnel, and discovered the door that separated them from their dream. So Konrad von Wittgenstein swore to himself that he would find a way to get their hands on the girl. Even if he had to employ the methods that other members of the Lodge are not very keen on. Even if he had to call for assistance of his deadly enemies.
The carriage stopped. The driver did not rush to open the door, he stayed on the box seat as he had been instructed to do. Count smoothed down his plain black gown the lower part of which was embellished with the embroidery of orange streamers of flame, put on his hood that both concealed his face and protected him from the rain, and got out of the carriage. He couldn’t have wished for better weather – it seemed that the rain had not only washed out the streets but also the passers-by and the curious faces in the windows.
Konrad frowned and pressed his nose with two fingers. The area that he stood in was a far cry from being the best in Prague and no-one could have possibly dreamt of sewage here – slops, the contents of chamber pots and rain water had all joined in a fast stream which was pouring down the street. The houses were not numbered but von Wittgenstein had the address clearly explained to him: it was between the butcher’s and a green house with boarded up windows.
The Master strode across the puddles (his long legs came in very handy here). Next to the arch he noticed a wooden plate bearing an inscription Seamstress’ service. Sewing, mending, embroidering. He smiled a gloomy smile, walked through the arch and into a large yard. Here he was met by a gang of famished and dripping cats – there were tabby cats, black cats, patchy coloured cats and even those who had once sported the golden locks. The cats meowed in unison welcoming the stranger. A thought crossed Konrad von Wittgenstein’s mind that the surrounding windows would soon be looming with faces of snoops, but the houses that encircled the yard on three sides remained silent. And the cats only meowed once, then all got packed in one pile and followed the intruder, who was thoroughly examining the house facades, with their eyes.
Count inched towards one of the doors, or rather a black hole, and found himself in a hallway. The odour here was not much better than outside, the rotten stairs squeaked and the openings in the walls on the first floor, that had once contained windows, were bricked up. When climbing up, he had no choice but to grope the walls for support. A drifter, coming across this place unawares, would have thought him insane – who on earth would go to have their clothes made or mended, or tried on, in a place like this? But Count knew what he was doing.
As planned, the Grand Master climbed to the second floor, pulled his hood over the eyes and gave a slight push to one of the doors. It was not locked. As soon as the man came in, he was overwhelmed by a great urge to leave, as the most disgusting sweet stench inside coiled around like a snake threatening to suffocate; had he been outside, he could have run away, but here he was trapped. Count broke out in sweat.
Suddenly a light flashed and something moved in the corner.
Count stared at a pile of rags.
„Look who the cat has brought on his tail,” a hoarse senile voice sounded from underneath the rags. „An unexpected guest, I’d say!”
The Grand Master blinked and his eyes got used to the light coming from a large Crystal ball standing on the ground next to the bed. Yellowish tentacles of smoke came out of it as if from an incense stick, and started advancing towards Konrad von Wittgenstein.
„Vitamancer?” the voice croaked again. „Say something, vitamancer. How do you like my barrier, eh?”
A wrinkled hand slithered from under the rags and landed on top of the ball. It started to shine even brighter and the smoke acquired a tangible shape. The Grand Master felt a lump in his throat.
There was no point in concealing himself any longer. The count chucked back his hood.
The creature at the end of the room took a deep breath and sat in her bed.
„Well well the Grand Master himself?” she sneered. „I can’t believe my eyes.”
The Master stared at the scraggy old woman with sunken cheeks and loose grey mousy hair. Her eyes reflected the light of the ball which made them look yellow and resemble the eyes of a cat. A few empty square and green Absinthe bottles were lying next to the bed. The room was half empty. Apart from the bed, there was also a small table, a chair and a sewing machine with a pair of rusty scissors placed on top of it.
The old hag has never worked as a seamstress. She would have never told crinoline and crêpe de chine apart, and the ladies would have been scared stiff just by the thought of this creature’s touch when they were trying a dress on. Despite everything, the whole of Prague – from noblewomen and affluent merchants to despicable disgraced drunkards – were flocking to the old hag’s place.
The Black Seamstress was an ingenuous fortune teller. And she hated the vitamancers who in the Middle Ages drowned her associates in rivers and burned them on bonfires, called them frauds and false prophets or, in other words, witches.
With time the persecuted oracles perfected their skills and it wasn’t only the secrets of fortune telling that they would pass onto other generations, it was also the magical incantations which allowed them to build barriers, protecting them from the undesirables. The vitamancers knew about this and none of them would have ever dared to stop by an oracle, and even more so – to ask her for help. But this was the only option that the Grand Master now had.
„I haven’t done anything wicked, I haven’t broken any rules,” hissed the old lady, ogling the intruder. „Get out of here, Grand Master. And get your whole gang out unless you want to see what my barrier is capable of.”
Count stretched out his arms.
„I came alone,” he mumbled and a split second later growled from the touch of some invisible hands clasping at his throat.
„Oh it is fine then,” said the old lady in a calm voice and the invisible hands immediately retreated.
A thought crossed the Master’s mind that the ball was reacting to the old woman’s voice.
„You want to hear your fortune?” she asked, then rummaged through her rags and got out a bottle that was half full. She threw her head back and took a large gulp.
The Grand Master gritted his teeth but kept quiet, the ball flashing hesitantly. The old woman gave a loud burp, placed the bottle on the ground and pointed her finger at the visitor.
„And what am I getting in return? The green sky, the rain of ale? I don’t need anything, thank you very much,” she went quiet. „If you came here alone, Grand Master, alone you should leave,” she added in a completely changed voice. It wasn’t hoarse or croaking, but clear and ringing. „I am the last of the oracles and I won’t be easy pickings for you. Do leave, and never come back.”
The glowing of the ball became sharper again but the Master was not going to give up just like that.
„Take the gold and tell me the truth,” he uttered the incantation dating back to the beginning of the world. He said it slowly but full of confidence.
The old woman hunched as if she had been cracked with a whip and reached out for the bottle.
„You are shrewd, Grand Master,” she said. „You could have threatened me. Or taken me to your dungeons. You could have done many things. But you are shrewd, so you did not do any of them’.” She tilted her head and the bottle back and the green gooey liquid came trickling down her chin. It was some strange Absinthe. The old hag thrust her trembling pointer at the intruder again. „Fine, Konrad von Wittgenstein, I will take your gold and tell you the truth.”