Shadows In Darknes

Shadows In Darkness is the second book in the series with Dynamic Skull.
Bert now has an assistant who isn't quite normal...

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3. Councils Meet

     Olaf Shudder had never been in this room before.  It was the same concrete-grey drabness as every other room in the S.A.M, but this one had a big table in its centre, shaped like a toad.  It probably wasn’t supposed to look like a toad, it was probably supposed to resemble something grand and inspirational, but in Shudder’s view it succeeded only in resembling a grand and inspirational toad, and that’s where he left the matter.

     He sat on an uncomfortable chair to the right of Patrick Tipstaff, the high priest.  To Tipstaff’s left sat Reverie Birch, her slender frame draped in the same crimson robes they all wore, her face hidden by her black veil.  They must have looked a sight.  High Priest Tipstaff, looking like he should be wearing a tuxedo, flanked by a scarred man and a veiled woman.  Shudder wondered if any of the other councils around the world looked half as odd as they did.  He doubted it.

     Right now, he was sitting across from representatives of two of those councils, and they both looked perfectly normal, if perfectly solemn.  Shudder wasn’t even listening to what was being said.  Small talk was not his forte.  He’d had a boxer for a mother and a tailor for a father – what did he know of the small talk of politicians and bureaucrats?  He waited impatiently for them to get to the point of their visit, and when they finally reached it, he wasn’t at all surprised.

     ‘You’ve been having problems with your sorcerers, we hear,’ said High Priest Quentin Strut of the Sorcerers Academy of Ealing.

     Like most High Priests, with the obvious exception of Tipstaff, he was grey-haired and lined and old.  Still immensely powerful though, and somewhat humourless.

     ‘I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed,’ said Tipstaff. ‘Our Mages are still doing fine.’

     Strut’s eyebrows rose slightly.  He was a good actor.  ‘Oh!  In which case, I apologise.  It’s just that we’ve had reports of disturbances in practically every corner of the country.  Are you saying these reports are inaccurate?’

     ‘I’m not saying that at all.’ Tipstaff said. ‘But the problems are not our sorcerers.’

     Strut nodded. ‘Ah yes, I’ve heard that too.  Veronica Shadows has been causing some mayhem here, yes?  Dreadful, dreadful business.  If you need any help—‘

     ‘Thank you, but no,’ said Tipstaff. ‘We have it under control.’

     ‘Are you quite sure?  I don’t mean to condescend, High Priest Tipstaff, but I have a lot more experience running Sorcerers Academies than you do, and there is no shame in accepting assistance when it is offered.’

     ‘Thank you for clarifying.’ Tipstaff said

     The man beside Strut cleared his throat politely.  He was young and American, Shudder knew that much. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, things may not be so simple.  The purpose of a Sorcerers Academy is to oversee the magical communities and to protect the mortals from knowing the truth.  If one Sorcerers Academy fails in its obligations, the success of all of the others will amount to naught.  To use a horribly overused phrase, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.’

     Birch stirred, ‘And are you saying we are this weak link?’

     ‘Oh heavens, no,’ the man said. ‘All I’m saying is that this Sorcerers Academy has had more than its fair share of Crises to deal with.  Given the pressure you’ve been under, even the strongest link will strain.’

     ‘So you are saying we’re the weakest link,’ said Tipstaff. ‘I’m sorry, who are you again?’

     ‘Baron Silicome,’ the man said. ‘I’m a junior administrator for Grand Mage Renato Tolowami.’

     ‘And why are you here?’

     ‘Silicome’s here to help,’ said Strut. ‘You know the Ohioan council; they always think they’re far too busy to take care of things personally.  But what he says is true.  It’s not something we like to talk about, but the fact is that Mill Hill has been the source of a great deal of anxiety around the world.  It’s in our best interests, of course, to make sure you’re strong enough to withstand anything that comes your way.’

     ‘We don’t need to be propped up.’ said Tipstaff

     Silicome shook his head. ‘I assure you, that’s not what we’re saying. But if everything that has happened here in the last ten years had happened somewhere else, say, Germany, would you be confident in their ability to handle it alone?  Or would you feel the need to lend some support?’

     Tipstaff said nothing.

     ‘The other Sorcerers Academies are worried.’ Strut said. ‘They want reassurances that you are prepared and capable.  And so I am among three that were elected to—‘

     ‘They chose you?’ Shudder said. ‘What?’

     ‘Tipstaff was frowning. ‘They elected you?  When?  In what forum?’

     ‘It was a private meeting.’ Strut said, ‘Where we all came together to voice our concerns.’

     ‘Without inviting us.’

     ‘We didn’t want it to seem like an attack.  We wanted to voice our opinions, not intimidate you.  During the meeting, the decision was taken to approach you with our concerns.  Grand Mage Renato Tolowami of the Ohioan Sorcerers Academy, Dedrich Wahrheit of the Sorcerers Academy of Berlin and I were elected, and it was decided that I should come here, representing the interests of the Council Infinite—‘

     Tipstaff laughed. ‘That’s what you’re calling yourselves?  Council Infinite?  Well that isn’t intimidating at all, is it, Olaf?’

     ‘Sounds positively cuddly,’ Shudder responded. ‘So here you are, as the spokesman for the Council Infinite, to tell us what, exactly?

     ‘We’re not here to tell you anything,’ said Silicome. ‘We’re just here to offer our help should it transpire that you need it.  As High Priest Strut was saying, the other councils need reassuring.’

     ‘That’s no problem.’ Tipstaff said. ‘Go back and reassure them that everything is fine.’

     Strut smiled sadly. ‘If only it were that easy.  Patrick, we have been tasked with verifying, for an absolute fact, that you and your Sorcerers Academy are ready for whatever happens next.  And I have to say, this business with what happened to Christophe Nocturnal does not boost our confidence in you.  I gather Bert killed Efram Xebeck and his team in less than a second yesterday night.  Xebeck wasn’t even on Veronica Shadows’ side.  We fear, and again we mean no disrespect, that your relative inexperience shows through at times like these.’

     Tipstaff nodded. ‘But I’m still not entirely sure what purpose the Council Infinite actually serves.  You want reassurances, but don’t appear satisfied when we give them.  What more do you want?’

     ‘We need to verify your competence for ourselves.’

     Tipstaff looked at Shudder. ‘What does that sound like to you?

     ‘Sounds like they want to watch over us and tell us what to do, which makes no sense, because as everyone knows, each Sorcerers Academy is its own watchdog, answerable only to itself.’

     ‘Times have changed,’ said Strut. ‘We can’t take the chances we used to take.’

     ‘Before you protest,’ said Silicome. ‘Let me ask you a question.  If you didn’t have Bert, and Erskine, before the murder, on your side, would we even be alive to have this conversation?’

     ‘Mage Mensoray and former Mage Rock work and worked with their full support of this Sorcerers Academy and its other mages.’ Tipstaff said quietly. ‘It’s a team effort.’

     ‘You support them, but they do the work.’ Silicome said. ‘And they’re not always going to be around, or they’ll not be quick enough.  They’ll make a mistake.  They’ll slip up.  And when they do…’ Silicome trailed off and Strut carried on.

     ‘Administrator Silicome’s point is merely that you can’t put the security of the world on the shoulders of two people.  Sooner or later, it’s going to crush them.  We’re simply offering you support, Patrick.  If we feel that your Sorcerers Academy is strong enough, then that’s when we will report back and the matter will be forgotten.’

     ‘And if you don’t feel that we’re strong enough?’ Birch asked

     ‘Then we’ll help you, we’ll supply you with Rippers and Hollow Men, with sorcerers, you should need them.  There is also, I suppose, an option of sharing responsibility.’

     Shudder fixed him with a look. ‘Meaning you’d take over.’

     ‘No, of course not.  We’re here to help, for god’s sake.  We don’t have an ulterior motive.’

     ‘And if we don’t want you here?’

     Strut looked hurt.

     ‘I’m afraid we’d have to insist,’ said Silicome. ‘And I mean no disrespect when I say this, but the Council Infinite has been granted certain powers of veto and authority that I’m sure we can discuss at greater length another time.’

     ‘Certain powers,’ said Birch. ‘That were not agreed upon by us.’

     ‘This is true,’ Silicome admitted. ‘If you want to deny us access, that is your right.  However, such a move could cut you off from the rest of the world.  You’d be isolated.  Alone.  With no-one to call for help should you need it.’

     ‘That sounds like a threat to me, Mr Silicome.’

     ‘I apologise.  I only meant to stress the seriousness of the situation with Veronica Shadows.’

     I think we’re beginning to grasp it.’ said Tipstaff. ‘We’ll need to discuss your…proposal before giving an answer.’

     ‘Of course,’ Strut said, and both men got to their feet. ‘We have sorcerers and Hollow Men standing by, ready to help in a purely supportive capacity, but we can only keep them in place for seven days.  After this day next week, our offer of assistance must be withdrawn.’

     ‘And then?’ asked Shudder

     ‘And then we’ll have to take more decisive measures.’

     Strut and Silicome bowed slightly and walked out of the room.

     ‘So not only do we have a threat,’ Shudder said when they were gone. ‘Now we have a deadline too.’

     Tipstaff sank back in his chair. ‘This is going to be trouble.’

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