Third part to my short story The School of Necromancy. It follows on from this part.
It can be found in full here.
The Grandmaster is the head of the School of Necromancy, and until you are taking a degree you will probably never see him up close and personal, and even then perhaps not, unless you are of exceptional merit or simply lucky. You can, however, observe him from afar addressing assemblies in the Great Hall, chairing dinners and welcoming each new year. On one wall here is a huge portrait of him: mysterious, cold and elegant, and his personage reflects that. Only absolute fools do not regard him with the utmost respect.
Meet him and you will be forgiven for thinking him a vampire. Rumours get around, too, and first years are often led to believe that he is one. Some impressionable students take to drinking blood and even sharpening their teeth in order to draw his attention. I’ve tasted one of his red drinks. Cranberry juice. I poisoned it anyway, and he drank it: no effects. I saw him looking at me with a small smile on his face . . . I’d never thought much of my chances, but I think I’d have let him down if I hadn’t at least tried. No doubt he’s survived hundreds of assassination attempts without even a scar.
Vampire? Not quite, but the truth isn’t far off. He definitely has vampiric blood, I think perhaps on his mother’s side. You see, these days it’s never a matter of ‘is he a vampire or isn’t he’, more a matter of percentage. I have spoken at length with the Master of Vampire Studies, Edwin Cowl, and he is definite that no pure bloods exist anymore in Britain. There were a couple of them, perhaps, a decade ago, visiting London from their home somewhere in Northern Europe, but they were swallowed up and snuffed out like that city does to so many strange folk.
The modern world does not suit their ancient ways. They are an endangered species. I would not be surprised to learn that there were no true vampires in Europe anymore, merely their diluted descendants. Master Cowl told me that there are a few inbreeding vampire families in the backwoods of southern USA, keeping hidden, a few in Russia, and some in the least developed parts of Africa. Apparently China has a vampire family who are actually quite important and powerful. I wonder how long they will last in the spotlight, before their ways are discovered and understood for what they are.
I am digressing, I apologise. You will, perhaps, fully understand when I say that by writing this I am procrastinating on my latest research paper. But all this should give you a flavour of the environment we surround ourselves in, that is so utterly foreign and mythical to you. We are not wizards and witches – at least, we do not think of ourselves as such, despite the occultism – but are scientists, eagerly involving ourselves with the things of the grave, and beyond the grave.
An outsider would think many of us mad, if not all, but you must understand once you have spent time within these walls, so deep below the surface, you too will become infected by the mania that surrounds you, the frenetic drive that propels us to complete our work, pushing us to do more and more, ever greater scientific feats against nature.
We tell time, if needed, by our many clocks, and by the colour of the lights, that shift from white to yellow, to green, then the blue of dawn, then back to white. Not a cycle goes by where you will not hear somewhere an exultant shouting, a frenzied screaming, desperate rages, pleading, or a cry of ‘It’s ALIVE! – Oh, wait . . . fuck.’
Just remember, whatever you hear and whatever you see, that we’re all insomniacs, we’re all exhausted, and, disregarding some of our creations, we all are at least mostly human.
There are three main players to my tale, and each of them are third year students. Third years are usually the ones you have the most trouble with. First years are too awed by everything, too meek, and certainly too ignorant of anything remotely necromantic or necro-scientific. Second years are, by and large, eager for knowledge, grasping at anything that give them a foot up, and getting the most out of the classes that are more interesting than those available to first years. It’s third year, when most of the students are seventeen, that they get cocky, and think they know enough to tackle their ambitious and naïve ideas.
There is Henry Graves. A quiet, pleasant lad, with a mess of dusky hair that falls about his face. He studies with moderate effort, gets average grades, and is tolerable enough that he hasn’t had a single attempt made on his health by another student. He would not, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, be particularly notable if not for his acquaintance with Arthur Pale, and his subsequent involvement in the events to come.
Arthur is, or should I say was, slightly obnoxious. He was small and reedy-voiced, with a pinched face and short mousy hair, and he was also a know-it-all, who, as is often the case, didn’t actually know as much as he thought he did. Events have certainly demonstrated he lacked wisdom. He was ambitious to a fault, one of those in the School who forewent both sleep and their assignments in order to pursue their own private research. The lack of rest never seemed to exhaust him, although he was a jittery, quick-talking sort, and he put most other students slightly on edge being around him for any length of time. He’d put his hand up in class over and over, or plain interrupt the master, to the point that even a couple of the masters had tried to poison or entrap him, to teach him a lesson if nothing else.
Nevertheless, he had emerged from every attempt by student or master unscathed and unbothered, and he would not deign to even remark on them, annoying people further. He sat by himself in classes until a particular day, mid-year, that he was found lab-partnered with another, and without comment the two stayed at each other’s side every single day.
This man, for it is a grown man, was called Shade. A strong name, if I do say so, although nobody knew his first name, not even the masters, and I expect not even himself. Neither did anyone, except possibly the Grandmaster, know his age, for while he was clearly an older student, he had that kind of face that almost defies age, and he could well be anywhere from twenty to forty.
Shade was an enigma, principally so because he almost never spoke, except possibly in private. He would certainly not speak up in front of a group, and if asked a question in class, as I once did (taking the class when the master was indisposed), he would stare right at you and say nothing until you moved to somebody else. Not that mutes were rare in the School, but there was something singular about Shade. He was very tall, and always wore a dark brown buttoned-up jacket with a wide-knot tie, a bowler hat that hid a bald head, and wire silver spectacles that were tinted a deep, cloudy purple. On the occasions he removed his glasses, such as to put on required goggles, his eyes were large and a piercing light blue.
There was something slightly wolfish about his face, giving rise to ridiculous rumours about him being a werewolf (students in this place can get carried away with it all). But, oddly enough, he was actually rather handsome. I say oddly, because Shade became a permanent laboratory assistant and dogsbody to Arthur Pale, never seeming to want anything more, and while it may be rather stereotypical of me to say, most dyed-in-the-wool lab assistants are ugly, often deformed in some way. Whether they are or not, they are always the less gifted of students, and Mr Shade’s bright blue eyes always did betray to me a calm, yet sharp intelligence that was never spoken.
You may wonder that I have not told you anything about our selection process, how students ever come here when our organisation and practices are so secretive, and when we are not being secretive we are being misunderstood. This is one thing I will not divulge; merely I will tell you that our students are chosen, and those that reject our offer do not end up speaking of it to others.
And now you have some idea to the background, and the principal players at hand, I will not delay you further, and I will begin this story, as has come to my knowledge piece by piece. I hope my penchant for storytelling does not get in the way of the facts.