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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22
Haunted by the stench of demons, Brother Tenzin climbed a steep flight of uneven stone steps. After more than twenty years of living in Key Gompa, the Buddhist monk had come to take for granted the sweetness of its air, which washed down from the Himalayas and across the River Spiti to arrive at the sanctuary cool and cleansed. The temple’s unsullied atmosphere made any manifestation of evil beyond its hallowed walls seem all the more foul by comparison, like carrion festering in a field of lavender.
He halted at the top of the stairs to palm sweat from his shaved head, and dried his hand on his tangerine-colored robe. A deep breath slowed his pulse—and confirmed the brisk morning air remained polluted with demonic odors. The presence had grown stronger and more putrid in the minutes it had taken him to reach the abode of the temple’s longest-dwelling resident.
Tenzin approached the master’s door. When he raised his hand to knock, the door swung silently open ahead of him.
“Come in, Tenzin,” said the ancient one.
Tenzin stepped inside. Unlike most rooms in the temple, this one was packed with books, scrolls, and a plethora of containers in a range of sizes—some of them copper, others brass, a few of crystal. A large leather-bound grimoire lay open on the sleeping mat in the corner. In the middle of it all stood Master Khalîl el-Sahir. He tied shut his dark gray robe. “You smell them?”
“Every soul in the temple can smell them.”
“No doubt. Where is my wand?” The white-bearded magician pivoted left, then right. “Aha!” He pulled his rod of hand-carved yew from a pile of scrolls. “What say the stars?”
“They are full of dark omens.”
“As ever.” He wrapped his wand in a band of red silk before tucking it under his belt. “Come.” He strode toward the door. “To the roof.”
Obedient but apprehensive, Tenzin followed his old friend out of the room. “Do you think that’s wise, Master Khalîl? If the enemy is moving against us—”
“If they are, they do so in the open.” Khalîl quickened his pace. Despite being over five hundred years old, the master karcist was lean and spry. “Let us observe them from a safe vantage inside the temple’s wards before we commit to a response.”
Key Gompa’s narrow passages and winding stairs were infamous for confounding newcomers, who often derided the temple’s interconnecting pathways as a maze, but Tenzin found them as familiar as his own reflection. So, too, did Khalîl, who led Tenzin past the temple that crowned the fortlike conglomeration of boxy white buildings, which ringed the peak of a hilltop high above the Spiti Valley.
Tenzin and Khalîl climbed a final flight of stairs to the temple’s flat roof. Icy gales slashed at their faces while they surveyed the landscape below.
Sunrise filled the valley with shadows as long as the land was wide. To the south, rugged ice-capped mountaintops stretched across the horizon. Below the monastery, the River Spiti cut a dark and serpentine path through the frosted plain. To the north, behind Tenzin and Khalîl, slopes blanketed with fresh-fallen snow were topped by broad cliffs of black rock. The wind keened as it swept over a landscape as desolate as it was austere.
Green flames blazed inside Khalîl’s eye sockets. Out of respect for the monks of Key Gompa, the old master had restricted his exercise of the Art to angelic magick while he dwelled within the temple’s walls. Khalîl found the Pauline Art more difficult to practice and less reliable in its results than its dark counterpart, the demon-driven Goetic Art, but the ancient karcist had never complained about or asked to be exempted from the prohibition. With only a few fleeting exceptions, he had been an exemplary guest.
If someone living here for over a century can truly be called a “guest.”
With a blink the flames vanished from the master’s eyes. “Our enemy is well hidden.”
Tenzin wondered aloud, “Spies?”
“Perhaps. They could also be scouts.”
Both possibilities worried Tenzin. The monk searched the blank canvas of snow-covered hills for any sign of danger. “Master Khalîl, if your foes know to seek you here, it might be best if you kept out of sight.”
“If I’m their target, the mere sight of me tells them nothing they don’t already know. Besides—” He gestured broadly at their surroundings. “We are well defended inside the temple’s wards. Neither spells nor spirits, blades nor—”
The crack of a rifle shot cut him off.
A flash revealed a previously unseen sphere of magickal energy surrounding the entire monastery—and in that instant the bubble popped.
The temple’s wards were gone.
Khalîl shoved Tenzin toward the stairs. “Run!”
Another shot split the frigid morning air. Warm blood sprayed Tenzin’s back and the nape of his neck. He turned to see Khalîl stagger like a drunkard and fall to his knees. A bloodstain spread across the front of the master’s robe, and pink spittle foamed in his mouth as he gasped for air. Tenzin reached down to help him as a third shot rang out—
The top of Khalîl’s head erupted. A bloody shrapnel of skull and brain matter struck Tenzin’s face, forcing him to wince in pain, horror, and disgust. When he opened his eyes, he found himself bathed in the blood of his friend, whose body lay sprawled on the roof at his feet.
Tenzin felt trapped outside of himself as he raised the temple with his inchoate cries for help. His voice sounded distant to him, foreign, unknown. Calling for aid was pointless—there was nothing anyone could do now to save Khalîl—but he shouted as if by reflex, unable to stop himself. By the time his fellow monks found him and the slain karcist, Tenzin’s voice had turned hoarse as much from grief as from the arid cold.
Sick with anger and desperation, Tenzin searched the hillsides for the killer, but there was no one to be seen, no one to pursue, no one to punish for snuffing out over half a millennium of learning and wisdom with the taking of a single life. There was only the wind howling through the world’s empty spaces, giving voice to his sorrow.
* * *
The greatest privilege of luxury was privacy. As much as Niccolò Falco admired the opulence of the Tower Suites in New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, what he respected about them was the way voices failed to carry from one room to the next when doors were closed. He had too much regard for his employer to put his ear against the wall for eavesdropping, though he doubted he would hear anything through the hotel’s thick walls or doors.
Consigned to an anteroom with four other karcists—none of whom he regarded as his equal—Niccolò was loath to interrupt his employer’s business. But the phone call he was about to conclude was one they both had long awaited. The gears of ambition were turning.
“Thank you for calling,” Niccolò said to his operative. “The fee for your services will be wired to your account in the morning, as promised.”
“It is morning now,” said the gruff Pakistani assassin.
“Not here. In New York it is still Thursday night.”
“Are you trying to cheat me?”
“Learn how time zones work. And if you slander me again, I’ll have a demon rip out your tongue. Ciao, verme.” Niccolò hung up the phone and crossed the room to the double doors that segregated him and his fellow magicians from their patrons. Two quick taps on the oaken doors with his knuckles, and then he waited until a voice from the other side bade him, “Come in.”
He opened the doors and entered a large parlor. Whereas the anteroom he had shared with his fellow magicians had been comfortable, this chamber was decadent—spacious, richly furnished, and adorned with art. Its broad windows looked out upon the electric splendor of midtown Manhattan—a nightscape of brightly lit high-rises and streets bustling with mad traffic.
Five men sat in the middle of the room, gathered around a circular table of lacquered mahogany resting upon a thick pedestal. All five gentlemen were fashionably dressed. The youngest of them, the Russian, looked to be in his early fifties. The white South African, the fair-haired Argentinian, and the black-bearded Arab all looked to be in their late fifties. Niccolò didn’t know any of their true names. He had learned not to ask.
The eldest member of the group was Niccolò’s employer. Though he knew the Old Man’s name, he had learned through harsh correction not to use it in front of others, even those who, such as the other members of the Commission, seemed likely to know it.
Niccolò approached the table only after he was beckoned by his patron.
As the magician walked to the table, a well-groomed German shepherd lounging at the Old Man’s feet stirred and lifted its head. The dog yawned at Niccolò and resumed its repose.
The karcist bent down near the Old Man’s shoulder. “Pardon the interruption, signore.” The Old Man nodded for Niccolò to continue even as the other billionaires at the table glared, resenting any intrusion upon their grand designs. Averting his eyes from the table’s collective reproach, Niccolò whispered, “I just heard from our asset on the subcontinent. It’s done.”
“Splendid,” the Old Man said, his London accent uncharacteristically free of hauteur. “Thank you, Niccolò.” With a look he signaled Niccolò to step back from the table but not to leave. As the magician complied, the Old Man stood and smoothed the front of his tailored three-piece suit. “Gentlemen, our plan to remake the world has been set into motion.”
His peers met his declaration with looks that ranged from surprise to alarm. First to speak was the Arab, his dark eyes wide with anger. “It’s too soon!”
“I agree,” said the South African, in his Afrikaans accent.
The Russian, meanwhile, had recovered his composure. “There should have been a vote.”
“I concur,” said the Argentinian, though his mood was far less sanguine. “An undertaking of this magnitude is best effected by degrees.”
The Old Man raised his hands in what he likely intended as a calming gesture. “Please, my friends, don’t assume I’ve acted rashly. Tomorrow’s regime change is a matter of necessity, one required to protect our shared investments.” He downplayed the magnitude of his gambit with a shrug. “The fact that it sets the stage for an even bolder stroke—one that will advance our long-term global agenda—is a fortuitous happenstance.” Behind his bone-white Vandyke beard, he smiled. “One I intend to exploit to its fullest.”
The Arab made no secret of his doubts. “A foolish risk. One that could expose us all.”
“I have to agree,” the Russian said. “A single mistake could lead to disaster.”
The South African and the Argentinian overlapped their protests, both of which were so loud and vehement that combined they became unintelligible.
Once more they were brought to silence by the Old Man’s raised palm. “Friends. I’ve long prepared for this. I would not have moved unless I knew my assets were ready and the game tilted in our favor.”
“That may well be,” the South African said. “But I think it might be best if we adjourn this meeting and go our separate ways until this scheme of yours has run its course.”
“I second that motion,” the Arab said.
The Argentinian asked, “All in favor?” Four hands shot up—all except the Old Man’s. “The motion carries. We stand adjourned.”
The other four billionaires pushed back from the table and stood. The Russian set his hand on the Old Man’s shoulder, a fraternal gesture. “You’ve put us on a dangerous path. Need I suggest how you ought to proceed?”
“If ’twere done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”
The Old Man’s invocation of Macbeth drew a nod of approval from the Russian, who walked away, followed by the others. The four oligarchs rousted their karcist retainers from the sitting room and then made their collective exit.
The Old Man took a plate of half-consumed duck-liver paté from the meeting table and set it on the floor. His German shepherd wasted no time devouring the fatty treat. The Old Man smiled and scratched the dog’s head while it ate, but his voice sounded grim as he told Niccolò, “Look sharp, lad. We’re on the clock now.” He shot a dark glance at his senior magician. “And the sooner this bloody mess is over, the better.”
Copyright © 2020 by David Mack