Laura had never been particularly talented at divination, but the portents were unmistakable. Death's shadow hung over her and was not to be denied. She inspected the cast bones a little longer, then shrugged.
Everything died eventually, though why her day should come soon was a puzzle. The signs were too insistent for this to be a matter of being careful on uneven stairs.
Laura performed a trivial ritual to reveal the flaws inherent in her mortal flesh. There were quite a few, but she knew about them all. None were likely to prove fatal, not even her old wound. Taken well over a century ago at the start of the Schism War, it was unhealing, for the Diedne were masters of the bloodiest Life magic.
House Tremere had many enemies and the surrounding lands were prowled by foul monsters. But even if the other chantries had fallen, Ceoris' walls stood strong against the dark.
In all likelihood her doom would be her longevity potion failing, suddenly and catastrophically. Magic itself was dying. Perhaps the swerve was weakening.
Setting her affairs in order would not take long. She wanted to bequest a few items to Honoratus, but House Tremere could otherwise disperse with her possessions. It would arrange her funeral as well. She had no regrets that could still be remedied. Lacking pressing business, the question of how to spend her last time loomed. It ought to be spent meaningfully.
Priests and Tosia would suggest penance and prayer. Laura couldn't help but laugh. The rewards and punishments of religion were useful for controlling the peasants, even the nobility, but she was a mage of House Tremere. The wise could console themselves with philosophy. Epicurus would enjoy what time he had left and so would she.
Friendship was of the highest value, so Laura sat down at her desk and wrote a letter to Honoratus, a simple invitation for him to dine with her and celebrate her life, as it was soon to be concluded. She almost made a copy to keep for her own correspondence out of habit. Once the ink dried, she folded the letter and affixed her seal. The servant sitting outside her door would deliver it. Life had already been too short for Ceoris' dark corridors.
Having handed over the letter, Laura returned to her rooms and sat down at the window to wait. She could see for miles from these heights. Ideal to spy an approaching enemy, if it weren't for the dense forests, but for now everything was peaceful. The morning was beautiful, the breeze refreshing and the sun warm against her skin. Laura sighed.
A timid knock on her door broke her reverie. It didn't sound like Honoratus and proved to be the servant. "My lady, I have been instructed to relay that Lord Honoratus cannot come until midnight. He hopes that is acceptable."
Midnight? It wasn't even noon. "You told him I sent the summon and handed him the letter? Mentioned its urgency?" Laura hadn't told the servant how urgent it was, of course. She would not discuss her mortality with her inferiors.
The servant cringed. They were so irritatingly jumpy nowadays. "I did all those things. Lord Honoratus read the letter, then said when he could come."
"Very well. I shall make virtue out of necessity. See that a properly festive meal is brought to my chambers for then. You are dismissed." Laura closed the door, then shook her head.
Honoratus was no longer her apprentice whom she could command, but still… The philosophers, a quarrelsome lot, agreed one should respect one's teachers. It was a little self-serving, but they were right. She'd never given Honoratus cause to hate her or wasted his time with frivolities, so why wasn't he here? If Laura had known that her old master was to die, she would have wanted to be by her side. Though as it happened, she had been, and it hadn't helped. Maybe it made matters worse. It was of no importance now in any case.
Perhaps she should go to Honoratus herself, but that would seem needy. Was there anybody else she wanted to talk to? Not truly, unpleasant as it was to admit. Laura walked back to the window. She ran her fingers across the rough stone. The friends of her youth were mostly long dead. Her teacher was not alone in perishing during the Schism War. After that, misadventure took a frightening toll. A few still survived to be sure, but those friendships had died. At best, the bonds of camaraderie had frayed until there was little left. Otherwise there was rivalry and division. She had often wondered in these last decades if the Diedne had cursed House Tremere, rendering their victory pyrrhic.
Even Honoratus had grown distant. She suddenly realised that, despite them both residing in Ceoris, it had been almost a decade since they last talked. Their letters were banal. But she had been his teacher once. Fifty years ago she had poured all her effort into his education – the liberal arts, natural philosophy, the basics of magic and the values of House Tremere. They had been good friends and collaborators then. It was as real a relationship as any she'd had since the Schism War. She had taken two apprentices since Honoratus, but both vanished, and her searches only located the remains of Elena. Cordwood had been exceedingly unhelpful.
She shook herself. Better to avoid such thoughts, particularly as there was no time to rectify the situation. She had always acted dutifully and honourably. Studying magic had been an interesting challenge. Her life had mostly been comfortable, even with the wound, and soon she would know no more pain. That had to be enough. She had reached an acceptable philosophical conclusion. Even if it was never too late for the study of philosophy, ruminating would not help. If she was still alive the next morning, she would travel to Perugia. What is terrible is easy to endure, and it would be all the easier there. The journey might kill her, but the sunny villas and wine would make an excellent diversion, and the exorbitant stipend was no longer a concern.
Laura decided to clean her laboratory and pack her bags, but being neat, little work was necessary. She even had servants haul all her borrowed books to the library. Perhaps Celestyn would discover her corpse when he came to thank her. The sun was barely passed its zenith when she finished, despite having stopped to eat. It probably was ironic that what little time she had left dragged.
Perhaps she ought to write something. She'd likely expire with it uncompleted, but few would hold the waste of parchment against her and she'd be too dead to care. Writing about her magical research was pointless. There was nothing new to document, as she'd always recorded her experiments as they were carried out. Besides, magic was dying, so it would only be of historical interest.
The idea of composing a satire about the rumour that her House was infested with vampires was quickly dismissed with the scorn it deserved. The rumour was too ridiculous to be given attention and probably spread by Diedne sympathisers besides.
Laura settled on a memoir. Vain and predictable, but the time constraint would limit egomaniacal long-windedness. And she wanted to call to mind friendships past. She wrote about her few meetings with Lord Tremere, to give it historical significance and about Honoratus' apprenticeship, as he was the person most likely to read it. Most ink was devoted to her own apprenticeship and the Schism War though. As she wrote, she realised that these events, all nearly two centuries ago, were the ones most important to her. She was ready to die.
A knock on the door had her put down her quill. The sun was only starting to set, but Honoratus had surely hurried, given the seriousness of the message. When she opened the door though, it was only the servants carrying a small feast. She ushered them in and they placed the food onto the prepared table. "Is anything else required, my lady?" the most senior servant asked.
They had brought thick pottage, bread, a garnished pike and candied fruit, as well as two flagons of wine to wash it down. There was nothing to complain about the food itself. "My meeting is at midnight."
The most senior servant pointed at the one Laura had ordered to organise the meal. "She claimed you wished to be served at this time."
The accused shook her head vigorously. "No, my lady, I said your desired time. But she said we mustn't be late."
The real reason was no doubt that they did not want to walk Ceoris' halls after sunset. Laura could hardly fault them. She felt likewise, and she was a mage while servants were a superstitious lot. They shouldn't be trying to shift the blame though. "If you cannot fulfil a mage's order, be honest about it. Dismissed."
They hurried off.
She didn't say that soon there would be no mages left. House Tremere might turn its wealth towards ennobling its members, or perhaps only some of them, given all the secrecy and infighting. Without magic, there was nothing to set them above other humans. She would just be another pockmarked peasant and was suddenly glad she wouldn't live to see the day. For now she could still perform a simple spell to keep the food enjoyable. And savour one of the fruits.
They used to take most meals communally in the great halls, but that had been a long time ago. Lord Tremere set the fashion, and he had taken to eating privately.
Laura returned to her memoir until both midnight and Honoratus finally came. He was dressed in magnificent robes, but looked sickly pale, and his hands were cold as a corpse when she clasped them. She smiled at him. "Glad you made it. Are you ill?"
"No, I am hale as can be." He frowned. "I'm afraid it was my man who read your letter and he took my order not to be disturbed too literally."
"Servants." His claim of health was probably false, but he wouldn't want to admit weakness.
"Indeed. I will see him punished."
"That is unnecessary. He was obeying your orders, if ineptly."
Honoratus shrugged. "Fortunately, I planned on coming anyway, as I also heard about your pending fate. I am most glad to have received the letter though. It spares me the anguish of whether I should tell you that your life will end later tonight."
He'd seen more than her. "I assure you that all the anguish is your own. I am not afraid." It was merely a pity about her plans to visit Perugia.
"And existence won't be missed?" he asked, mocking.
"The dead miss nothing." They dissolved back into the atoms of their existence, and retained no sensation. She gestured at the table. "But while I breathe I can imagine that I'll miss good food." They sat down and she filled their glasses with wine. "A toast to my life and your health?" Saying that he looked like he needed it would be impolite.
Honoratus raised his glass to hers, but instead of drinking, he put it down on the table. "Food is one of the lowest pleasures. Surely there are better things to miss."
She deliberately took a spoonful of the pottage. It was creamy and quite nice. "No, I think not. Do help yourself." When he failed to smile, she continued, "Of course there are better things, but why torment myself? Mortality is the fate of humanity."
"We are not mere men, we are mages of House Tremere. Mastery over all."
Laura picked up her wine to give herself time to think. Why was he being confrontational about this? Probably because he hoped not to die. Her death would be another reminder that such dreams were dust. She reached out to hold his hand and spoke softly, "Magic is dying. We don't have much choice in our fate, only in how we chose to face it. Perhaps it is best not to concern ourselves overmuch. While we live, we don't have to deal with our death. And once we are dead, well, then we won't have to worry about death either."
He half smiled at that. "True enough. But what if there were an escape?"
"Ascension? Sounds nice, but lacks proof. As for the ritual of lichedom, it is lost in time, the chroniclers describe its effects as unpleasant and who knows if it would even work now?"
"No, something different. Some… breakthrough."
"Then it will come too late for me. And I doubt there is one." She sopped a piece of bread in her pottage. All of House Tremere had searched for decades and found naught, though she'd given up a good ten years ago. The oh-so-clever Goratrix having found nothing was no surprise, he was all reputation and negligible results, but Lord Tremere himself had not been crowned with more success. Come to think of it, their founder might well already be dead, though his lieutenants claimed otherwise, for he had not made a public appearance in ages. It felt distressingly plausible, but she would absolutely not voice that suspicion, not even now and to Honoratus. She served him soup, as he wasn't taking any himself.
"Vampires do not seem to wither and die, at least not without being actively killed."
"By already being dead."
Honoratus leaned in closer to her. "Would death be such a steep price to pay for eternal life?"
"That sounds contradictory." Had he not sounded so earnest, she would have laughed it off as a paradox. Was he seriously suggesting vampirism? Desperate attempts to avoid one's fate lead to foolishness, as Laius could attest. She put down her spoon. "You are no longer my apprentice, so I cannot command you and soon I will not be able to say anything. But I am still alive and you were my student, so let me advise you a last time. Answers can be found in unexpected places, but I strongly council against trying to imitate vampires."
"Why not?" He smiled that mocking smile again. He could wipe it right off his face, because it was a stupid question.
Laura was no expert on vampires, but it was hard to remain wholly ignorant of them if one delved into occult matters in Transylvania. "Where to start? That they are undead monsters who stalk the night and prey upon the living? That, while they resemble people who once lived, who is to say that they aren't demons wearing their skins?"
He clenched his fists. "I think vampires themselves would beg to differ on the last point."
Laura shrugged. "Assuming you would receive a honest answer, does the dreamer know he is dreaming? To my knowledge, vampires have no avatars, not even such as sleepers. No magic is possible without an avatar. So that's another reason, each of which should be sufficient on its own."
Honoratus' scowl only deepened. There went his grand idea with which to curry favour with the leadership. Well, it had been a terrible plan. He probably wasn't even the first to have it. Those bright ideas could be the source of the rumours about vampirism. Plans like that would need time to implement though, granting time to think about it, and time for common sense to prevail. After sitting in sullen silence while she finished her soup, Honoratus said, "And here I thought you'd comment on the difficulty of obtaining research specimens."
Laura smiled and drank. "I imagine that would be the simplest part. There are far too many of them, so they're not too hard to find. And even with magic dying, and I'd like to ask why you think they will stay unaffected, we are still mages and vampires are not."
"Of the Transylvanian chantries, only Ceoris still stands, the rest have fallen to vampires."
If any of them still stood, she wouldn't be in Ceoris. More wine would help. "They were underprepared, that is all." She cut the pike and served Honoratus some as well, though he hadn't touched his soup. Maybe he was sick, but surely something should tempt his appetite at least a little, if only out of politeness.
"Even if vampirism is a diminished state, even if it only gives us a little longer, it would be worth it to keep our candle burning."
"It wouldn't be. Things come to an end, and we should face it with dignity."
"Dignity means giving up?"
Laura sighed, drained her cup and helped herself to new wine. "It means not fooling ourselves or making fools of ourselves. This is not such a hardship to endure. Men are given seventy years, and they are years of toil and sorrow. I've had more than thrice that, and my life has mostly been good."
"I'm younger than you."
She laughed, which proved awkward and undignified with a mouthful of pike, but after a bit of coughing and another gulp of wine to wash it away, she decided that the meeting could be enjoyable after all. "So you are. As this is the last time we'll spend together, why don't you tell me about what you've been doing recently?" Hopefully he'd take the cue and proceed to ask her about her life.
Honoratus almost smiled. "The usual. Researching, working my way up the pyramid. Furthering Tremere's interests. And that's something we still wish of you."
The pyramid? Had he developed an interest in Egyptian magic? That was something of a fashion currently. "My will is on the desk, along with my attempts at a memoir. There should be no problem with it. If the House wants more, we know that I must disappoint."
"I'm not so sure."
Did some researcher want the bodies of mages? Well, when she was dead she would neither think, nor feel and wouldn't care what happened with her corpse. That was a bit macabre for dinner talk though, though a fine discussion for drink. "I've served dutifully, but this is the end."
"Surely it is a pleasure to owe fealty to as noble as cause as Tremere's, one you will miss."
"Pleasures are fleeting. I will not miss any of them." That she would in particular not be sorry to see the end of her servitude would be the wrong thing to say, even now.
"Maybe. But let me tell you of the pleasure of blood, which is incomparable. Fleeting as anything, but what a rush!" Honoratus actually smiled when making that strange pronouncement.
"The battlefield brought me no joy. Did I ever really tell you how my teacher died?" Laura took another sip, and refilled her glass again. She'd recorded this in her memoir too, but she wanted to say it all the same. "I told you she died in the Schism War and that I named you after her, but not more."
He only shrugged.
"It was right at the beginning of the war. Almost no one had died yet. We were scouting. And all seemed peaceful where we were. Honorata and I, we had no clue what we were getting ourselves into." Her mouth twitched into a brief smile. "We were talking about the Iliad, and imagining ourselves winning similar glory."
Honoratus looked at her with a polite blankness.
Having started, she wanted to unburden herself though. "Caught up in our fantasies, I didn't see the Diedne trap. Her death was gruesome, though it must have been quick. I crawled away, gravely wounded."
Honoratus said nothing, though he could at least have said he was glad her death would not be like that. Even a reproach for her carelessness would be preferable to silence. Perhaps it was too terrible a thing to have done.
She emptied her glass and filled it again, from the second flagon. "When my wound pains me, I often wonder if, had I not been there, she wouldn't have distractedly walked into the trap. Still, the Diedne are destroyed, so she is avenged. Once I am dead, my wound will not trouble me, nor shall I reproach myself further."
"Then you'll understand why I do not want death to claim you if I could do anything about it," Honoratus said, his voice softer than before.
"It isn't a choice you'll get to make." Her appetite was gone, though she was only halfway through her pike. Her stomach felt like it had tied itself into a knot. Across the table, Honoratus hadn't as much as touched his food or sipped his wine. She had wanted a funeral feast, if he wished to fast, that could wait until she was dead. "For goodness sake, it's me who'll die, though your time will come and all the sooner if you starve yourself! We should enjoy life! Eat something or at least drink!"
Suddenly, Honoratus was standing. "I think I will."
Laura was too surprised to scream.