A stunned silence settled over the library in the wake of the malevolent yellow mist that was only broken when the sword of the unfortunate guard eventually slipped from his lifeless grasp and clattered to the floor. It was followed by a resounding thud as the body itself slumped to the floor, as though finally conceding that there was no longer any point in remaining upright. It was only then that the door was flung open and the Captain burst into the room, demanding to know, “Is everything alright? I thought I heard a cry.”
We were saved from the necessity of an immediate reply as the Captain proceeded to stumble over the body of the dead guard. He gazed down at the swollen, disfigured corpse with an expression that travelled in steady, distinct phases from annoyance to curiosity to outraged horror. “Pascal!” he cried, straightening up and drawing his sword. “What the…?”
His evident thirst for vengeance swiftly foundered on the lack of any readily identifiable target for his anger. As the Captain’s eyes passed from one blank, bewildered figure to another the furious glower on his face fell away to a puzzled frown. By the time they came to rest on the usually authoritative figure of the chief steward they had assumed an aspect of pure wonder. “Master Ferdinand?” he said uncertainly.
For a moment or two even the steward seemed to be lost for words. “It just came out of the wall,” he eventually stuttered. “Completely out of nowhere.”
“What came out of the wall?” asked the Captain. “Tell me, who did this to Pascal?”
“Smoke,” was all Master Ferdinand could reply.
“Smoke?” repeated the Captain doubtfully.
“Just… smoke,” said Master Ferdinand.
The steward gazed distractedly for a moment at the pleasant pastoral scene from whence the smoke had appeared and disappeared. Then suddenly he seemed to snap back to attention, turning towards the Captain once more with the old commanding gaze.
“You must clear everyone out of the Chateau at once mon Capitaine,” he ordered briskly. “Leave enough men to guard the castle gates and stand a full watch throughout the Chateau. Everyone else must be sent down into the village. It is not safe here.”
The Captain nodded sharply, responding automatically to the familiar tone of command. “But what of Le Comte and La Comtesse?” he asked. “They are due back in a few hours.”
“Send a man down to the southern crossroads to head off their party,” responded Master Ferdinand. “They must not return to the Chateau until I give word. If necessary they can spend the night at the hunting lodge at Merveux.”
“But what do I tell them?” asked the Captain. “They will not divert without good reason.”
Master Ferdinand shrugged impatiently. “Tell them there has been a fire. Tell them the cesspit has overflowed. Tell them we have an outbreak of boils amongst the kitchen staff. I don’t care what you tell them as long as you keep them away.”
The Captain nodded once more and turned to leave. He paused just a moment before the doorway, his nagging curiosity clearly wrestling with his sense of duty. But duty soon won out and, with a last perplexed glance at the unhappy corpse at his feet, he marched purposefully out of the room. His strident voice could be heard issuing a stream of orders as he disappeared away down the corridor.
Nothing could be heard but a tumult of distant footsteps and a clamour of far off voices as we stood, nervously awaiting Master Ferdinand’s next pronouncement. But Master Ferdinand had become distracted, staring thoughtfully at the tapestry on the wall. Guillaume, sensing an opportunity, began to back hesitantly towards the door. “Well, as you seem to have things well in hand here Master Ferdinand,” he gingerly piped up, “it’s probably best if I get out of your way. My most gracious thanks, as ever, for your hospitality.”
He managed about three paces before a thunderous exclamation boomed after him. “Guillaume of Tours!” roared Master Ferdinand.
Guillaume came to a sheepish halt. “But I only thought…” he began.
“Forget it,” growled Master Ferdinand. “No-one in this room,” – he swung his ferocious gaze around to include Michael and I – “is going anywhere until we find out just what kind of monster it is you have unleashed upon this Chateau and, more importantly, how we put a stop to it.”
“That’s all the hunting gear we have in the Chateau,” said the guard with a deferential bow, dropping an armful of weapons and clothing on top of a large pile already assembled in the middle of the library.
“Very good,” said Master Ferdinand, dismissing the guard with a distracted wave.
“You don’t really suppose any of this is going to work, do you?” asked Guillaume, dubiously picking his way through the collection. He pulled out a large net and peered at us pointedly through the wide mesh.
“We must stand ready with whatever means we have available to us,” replied Master Ferdinand, staring distractedly at the tapestry on the wall once again. “Though what we really need is a better idea of just exactly what we’re dealing with.” He turned back towards the table. “Anything?”
The question was directed at Michael who was peering with a puzzled frown at a grubby scrap of paper. In the wake of the murderous attack by the mysterious smoke it had been decided that the need to check through Antonio’s notes now outweighed fear of any possible contagion and it was Michael who had drawn the short straw. He shook his head sadly in response to Master Ferdinand’s query. “It’s all pretty illegible really,” he said, gingerly holding the paper up to the light in an effort to try and get a better view. “I can just about make out something here that looks like ‘vol. gold, ref. Dubois’. And then underneath there’s something that looks like ‘spark, question mark, principle of – is that auric? – ignition’. Does that mean anything to you?” he asked Guillaume, putting the paper down and carefully wiping his hands on the edge of the table.
“Utter nonsense if you ask me,” replied Guillaume dismissively. “Though…” he hesitated. “Well, I suppose Dubois could be a reference to Dubois’ Miscellany. It’s possible Le Comte has a copy somewhere.”
“Hang on a minute, that rings a bell,” I said, going over to the shelves. I ran my finger along the row of heavy books I’d been gazing at earlier. “Yes, here it is – Dubois’ Miscellany.” I pulled out a large, leather-bound tome and carried it over to the table.
“I don’t see what possible relevance it can have here,” said Guillaume as I leafed through the brittle but beautifully scribed pages. “It’s really nothing but a collection of old myths and fables. There’s nothing in it whatsoever of any intellectual merit.”
“Volatile gold – there is a passage here,” I said excitedly, coming across a lavishly illuminated heading.
“What does it say?” demanded Master Ferdinand impatiently.
“Volatile gold,” I read aloud, “was the name given to a spectacular entertainment devised for King Midras of Babylon by the ingenious magician Balthazar of Tyre in the second century before the birth of our Lord. The formula calculated by the said Balthazar was sufficient to transform a single ounce of pure gold into a magnificent aerial cascade of the precious metal. The display was performed at the wedding feast of King Midras’ eldest daughter to Prince Solomon of Thebes. The title ‘volatile gold’ was said to have been bestowed upon the formula due to the fact that under any other than the most precise atmospheric conditions the material proves almost impossible to handle. After the death of the esteemed Balthazar several worthy magicians are said to have attempted to recreate the recipe but all ended in catastrophic failure, including one notorious attempt that devastated the entire household of the King of Al-Habib. Any trace of the recipe itself has long since been lost in the mists of time though some tell of a copy that was stolen from the house of Midras and smuggled to Europe by the wandering Jew, Ephraim of Khirbet, early in the sixth century.”
I looked up with a bemused smile. “So that’s what you were selling to Le Comte?” I said to Guillaume. “The recipe to some ancient fireworks display.”
Guillaume continued to stare over my shoulder with a perplexed frown for a few seconds before backing away with an irritated shake of his head. “I told you it was all nonsense,” he snapped.
“It’s hard to see what exactly it has to do with a murderous smoke anyway,” mused Michael.
Master Ferdinand made a low growling sound of acknowledgement and turned his distracted gaze back to the tapestry on the wall.
A moment later the Captain marched stoutly in through the door. “All the guards are now posted, every area of the Chateau is covered,” he announced with an air of satisfaction. “Alphonse has been despatched to intercept Le Comte. What now Master Ferdinand?”
Master Ferdinand slowly and reluctantly dragged his gaze away from the tapestry. “Now, I suppose, we wait.”
“For what exactly?” asked the Captain uncertainly.
“For that… thing to return,” replied Master Ferdinand.
“That’s if it does return,” said Michael lightly.
“Oh, it will return,” said Master Ferdinand grimly. “It has a taste for blood now.”
“You don’t know that,” insisted Guillaume. “It may be miles from here by now. Perhaps what we really need to do is split up and head out across the countryside to see if it has been spotted anywhere else.” He glanced wistfully at the doorway but didn’t dare to make another move in that direction.
Master Ferdinand gazed moodily at the spot where the unfortunate Pascal had met his demise and shook his head firmly. “No, it’s still in this Chateau somewhere, I can feel it. All we can do is stay put and wait for the next unprovoked attack.”
Guillaume shuddered. The Captain, by way of contrast, stood tall and laid a hand on the hilt of his sword to show he was not cowed by the prospect of battle with a nefarious mist. Michael sighed and gazed down upon Antonio’s indecipherable notes once more.
“You know, I’m not so sure it made an unprovoked attack,” I mused aloud, eventually breaking the silence that followed.
“You suppose that was its way of showing affection, do you?” retorted Guillaume sarcastically.
“No, what I mean is that I don’t think you can call the attack unprovoked,” I said. “It was the guard who drew his sword and struck first.”
There was a pause whilst this idea was considered. “But what of Antonio?” said Master Ferdinand. “He must have been attacked by the same creature and he never carried a weapon upon his person.”
“He might have panicked and struck out with whatever was to hand,” I suggested.
“But if the attacks are purely incidental then what does the smoke want with us?” asked Master Ferdinand, looking all around the room in search of an answer.
There was another pause, more general consideration.
“If it didn’t sound so ridiculous, I’d say it was in search of something,” said Michael thoughtfully.
Master Ferdinand thought this over and seemed not to consider the suggestion ridiculous at all. “In search of what?” he asked.
As we all reflected on this question I could have sworn I saw Guillaume instinctively draw his leather bag a little closer to him as though the idea had suddenly occurred to him that the malevolent smoke might be after his silver.
“Well, whatever it wants…” began Master Ferdinand.
The sentence trailed away, ending with Master Ferdinand sniffing the air suspiciously. The sniffing was gradually taken up one by one by the rest of us in the library, each raising our nostrils with a nervous twitch. There was no doubt about it. That strange sour tang hung once more about the atmosphere. Master Ferdinand, Michael, Guillaume and myself all automatically turned our eyes to the tapestry on the wall.
We were still staring intently in that direction when a cry of, “Mon Dieu!” from the Captain drew our attention across to the other side of the room. There, in front of a different tapestry, the strange yellowish smoke was gathered, obscuring another neatly stitched rural scene. It hovered there in a thick cloud for a few moments before suddenly swooping down and whirling across the room.
The smoke flew in a long jaundiced trail directly towards the point where it had despatched the guard, swirled briefly around the spot where the body had lain and then flew off around the room with an apparent determination to resume its earlier search.
I could feel the Captain, standing alongside me, twitch anxiously but he restrained himself, joining the rest of us in watching open-mouthed as the smoke swirled across the tables, swooping through and around the jumble of jars and equipment. Before long the smoke came upon a frozen Guillaume. It hovered there momentarily, seemed about to move on once more, but instead turned back and circled the cloaked figure curiously. The expression on Guillaume’s face ratcheted up from anxiety to horror as the smoke continued to circle until finally he exploded in a squeal of terror.
This cry seemed to sting the Captain into action. Unable to control himself any further he reached for his sword with a deep-throated yell.
“No!” I cried, reaching out and grabbing the Captain’s hand just as the smoke turned and swirled towards us. It rose up in front of us but then stopped, hovering menacingly. The Captain and I stood frozen, both our hands clasped around the half-drawn sword, mesmerised in the gaze of the gently swaying smoke.
For a moment nobody seemed capable of moving but then Guillaume, freed for an instant from the immediate attentions of the smoke, let out another yelp of terror and bolted for the door. Before anyone else could react he had darted out of the exit and went sprinting off down the corridor as fast as he could. The smoke hesitated for just a moment longer before it suddenly swept away out of the door in pursuit of the fleeing alchemist.
To be continued…