Beginning: Part 1: Constantinople
It was an impressive thing, the museum; its front lined with tall columns, standing like sentries to guard the treasures within. It reminded me of the ancient temples I visited as a child, but at only two decades old, the Königliches held none of the aura of those old structures. Stone surfaces polished, and scroll-like capitals intact, it was clear this building was still new. Yet despite that, the treasures within its walls were ancient and immeasurably valuable.
I almost laughed to myself, here I was before a museum carrying a most prestigious collection, and for once I had no buyer. Since returning to Europe and beginning my search, I’d had no shortage of clients who were willing to pay handsomely for me to liberate certain items for them.
I had scoured my birth city, a place they now called Istanbul, and when that had turned up no results I had widened my search. And so it was now that I found myself in the Kingdom of Prussia, before the Royal Museum of Berlin.
I stayed atop my perch, a cast iron lamp post, and watched the men in their top hats and the women in their gowns bustle about on the street below. Carriages rolled by, drawn by horses whose breath no longer fogged the air, now that the season was changing. No one looked up at me, a lone pigeon. I took to the air, and flew once more around the museum, memorizing its perimeter. I did not enter, I had seen the inside enough times to know exactly where I needed to go and how many guards I would encounter. A coy smile and a whispered promise were all that was needed, and a gullible warden had taken me on a private tour of the whole building.
Turning on-wing, I returned to my room at the Grand Hotel to await nightfall.
* * *
I flew past the guards in their black and white uniforms without drawing the attention of any of them. Their eyes were fixed ahead, scanning the shadows for the figures of men. None bore any heed to the moth that fluttered above their heads. Once inside, I dropped to the ground and shifted into a mink, feeling the rush of satisfaction that accompanied this form in the way it did no other. I made my way through darkened hallways, over marble floors, and past columns with decorative tops, and statues carved from white stone. There was little light to see by, but I did not need any, my eyes were as sharp as a cat’s, and my memory of this path strong enough to guide me. When I reached the chamber, I paused, standing perfectly still and swiveling my enlarged ears to catch any sound. The guards’ rotation would not bring them by this room for several minutes, but even so, I wanted to be sure.
When I was certain I was alone, I shifted back to my human form, wearing the close fitting leathers that I could force to change with me. A single window, cut into the ceiling, was the sole source of light, filling the chamber with the moon’s glow.
I walked amongst the statues and painted urns. Past glass cases that sat atop embossed tables. Under each cover lay glittering jewels set into Greek and Roman artefacts. There were statuettes of ancient goddesses, ornamental daggers, engraved goblets, and jewelry; endless glass cabinets of necklaces, rings and bracelets. I trailed my fingers across the top of one case, peering through to the gold necklace and earring set that had to have been over a thousand years old. The piece I was looking for was much younger than that, yet had wound its way into the collection nonetheless. I considered taking a few others, but decided against it, with no buyer ready to take the liberated items off my hands I had no use, and no interest, for them. I was here for one thing only.
It lay in a case no different from the rest, at the back of the room on a bed of dark green velvet. It sat on the far side of its table and slightly to the back, partly hidden from view by the display’s centerpiece, a winged helmet plated with gold. I moved around the case, so I was standing directly over it, my palms flat against the glass. I checked back over my shoulder quickly, but by my estimate, the guards should still be several minutes away. Even so, sound carried in an abandoned building at night. Once I had it in my grasp I would have to move quickly, and getting out with it in my claws would not be as easy as getting in.
With one last scan of the room, I raised my arm and rammed my elbow down on the top of the glass. The fragile surface shattered, sending an explosion of shards down onto the velvet setting. Lacerations covered my elbow and forearm, but within moments, the cuts healed over. I reached into the case, brushing aside broken glass, and grabbed it, a delicate gold necklace set with tiny sapphires. I lifted it from the velvet and watched as the moonlight glinted off the facets of the dark stones.
I heard a sudden movement behind me and spun around. A man stood in the doorway to the room holding a crossbow, leveled at me. He wore the emblem of the black eagle on a white background, but he was not a guard. I eyed the crossbow and its silver tipped bolt. I had come across such things before, I knew the who the men were that wielded them. Hunters.
He fired. I dived to the side as the bolt punched through what was left of the glass case. I hit the hard stone floor and rolled, springing back to my feet. The necklace slipped from my hand and skidded across the tile and under another ornamental table. The Hunter reloaded and aimed his weapon again. I glanced to the necklace and back to him. I leapt forwards, towards the Hunter, changing mid-air to a dragonfly. Heat rippled out from my body as it shrunk, and the momentum from my jump propelled me forwards, as fast as a bullet. I shot through the air towards him and a moment before impact, I shifted again, this time to a lioness.
My paws struck his chest, knocking him off his feet. His arms flew up, and I latched my teeth around the one with the bow. Blood erupted into my mouth and the bone crunched. He hit the ground and his head snapped back against the stone floor. More blood flowed from his scalp.
I jumped to my feet and shifted back, realizing only then that the Hunter had not been alone. More men flooded into the room, spreading out to surround me. I turned and dived back towards the necklace but one of the Hunters fired his crossbow bolt at it and I was forced to dodge aside.
Another fired at me and I jumped into the air, shifting to a bird, to escape above their heads.
I circled the room and dived back to the floor, changing to a falcon, and raking my talons forward to snatch it. But again, I was forced to dart to the side to avoid being hit.
I shot upwards again. With so many of them in the room it would be dangerous to try attacking one. The others would shoot me the moment I came near, even if it meant hitting their comrades. I scanned them, looking for any weakness I could exploit.
A growl permeated the room, and suddenly the entranceway was filled once more, this time with the hulking form of a bear. The bear materialized, and in almost the same moment, swiped a paw at the nearest Hunter. He went sprawling forwards, ragged red claw marks marring his back. The others turned to fire upon the new threat but the bear disappeared, dissolving into the body of a wasp that only I could see. I did not wait for the Hunters to regroup; using the bear’s distraction as cover, I dived for a man, pouncing on him as I had done the first, and crushing his throat. The bear reappeared and downed another Hunter while I took out a fourth, poisoning him with a snake bite.
We continued to lunge chaotically around the room, never staying in one form for more than a few moments. The Hunters swung their weapons about and fired bolts across the chamber, but none made contact. The other shifter picked up a Hunter in his jaws and flung him through the air. I caught him and snapped his neck then kicked another out across the floor for the other shifter to finish off.
When all the Hunters were lying on the ground I morphed back to myself and retrieved the necklace from under the table.
“We shouldn’t stay.”
I looked around at the sound of the voice and found myself facing a young man dressed in clothing not unlike my own.
He grabbed one of the crossbows that lay abandoned on the floor and fired at the window in the ceiling. The bolt shot through it, leaving a round puncture wound amidst a growing spiderweb of cracks. A moment later the window shattered and the glass rained down, leaving an open hole to the sky.
The man jumped into the air and shifted to a bird, fluttering up and through the opening. On the roof he shifted back and knelt at the edge of the hole.
Reaching a hand down he called out, “Toss it up to me, if you want. Then you can fly out.”
I tossed the necklace into the air, but not high enough for him to catch it. Instead, I jumped and shifted to a magpie, then caught the necklace in my claws before it could fall back to the ground. Flapping quickly, I rose up to the roofline, then darted up through the hole.
He was standing with his hand out, as if to assist me. I flew past him and landed on the roof some feet away, transferring the necklace back to my hands.
“It’s lucky I came along when I did,” he said, stepping closer to me.
“I would have been fine.”
“Of course,” he dipped his head, indulging me.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Who are you? What were you doing in the museum?”
“Anton Adler,” he said with a dashing smile, bowing and tipping an imaginary hat, “at your service, Fräulein. I caught sight of them going into the museum whilst flying over the city, I decided to investigate, and can I say, I’m glad I did.”
“Your assistance wasn’t requested.”
“But given freely, nonetheless.” He grinned again and looked down at the necklace, draped across my palms. A series of gilded rosettes, each set with it’s own small stone, joined together by a multitude of tiny links.
“This was your prize?” he asked. I closed my hands over the necklace. “That’s what you broke in to steal?”
“‘Not compared to the other artefacts in that room.”
“It’s valuable to me, it belonged to my mother.”
He nodded once. “And when you changed and had to leave, you lost your inheritance,” he stated it as if it were an obvious fact.
“She died when I was a child,” I countered. “I don’t remember her, but my father once said she was wearing this the day that they met. When I was married my husband claimed it for his personal collection. I didn’t know where he kept it, so I never got the chance to retrieve it, when he died. Somehow it came to be in the possession of the Prussian King, I came to reclaim it.”
He watched me with knitted brows, head tilting to the side slightly as I spoke.
“What’s your name?”
“Mink?” his eyes widened. “I’ve heard of you; you’re a thief.”
I shrugged and looked away, out across the city. “I’m good at it.”
“That’s not all you’re good at. I saw you move in there; you’re quite a fighter.” His gaze wandered briefly to the south and back to me. “You know, we’re but a few miles from the Castle, have you ever been?”
There were dozens of castles in this part of the world, but I had no doubt of which one he was referring to.
“No. I have no intentions of crossing Ducovi’s threshold,” I said, although it wasn’t completely true. Ducovi, the shifter guild lead by Donovan Ursus, was the most formidable organisation in the world, and it’s agents the most feared and respected. It had captivated my interest for longer than anything else I could remember.
“You’ve never considered joining them?” Anton asked. “You must admit, it would be a nice change to be paid for stopping Hunters, rather than stealing jewels.”
“I’ve considered it,” I admitted. “Many times. And if it weren’t for the man in charge I may well have enlisted already.”
“The Bear King?” he asked with a hint of a laugh in his eyes. “Do you have something against bears?”
“No, against kings. I will answer to no man.”
His lips twitched, and for a few moments we were both silent, gazing across Berlin’s lamp-lit vista.
“Perhaps,” he began, “your options aren’t as limited as you think. I’ve heard tell, from those who have ventured to the New World, that Victoria Mamba has begun an organisation of her own.”
“Mamba? I thought the snake was a Ducovian.” The serpentine second in command was almost as infamous as the bear himself.
“As did we all,” Anton said. “But rumor now has it that her Cadisians are the first in a millennia to challenge Donovan’s rule.”
“Then perhaps I shall keep them in mind, should my travels take me back to the New World,” I said. “However, theirs is an all-encompassing mission, I’m not sure I’m ready to give up my freedom just yet.”
“Of course.” He gave a slight bow and another charming smile then backed away until he was standing at the very edge of the rooftop. Feathers began to form at his fingertips. “Until we meet again, Miss Mink.”
Continue: Part 5: Michigan
Image credit: Christie’s