I wake up to the same thing I have woken to for the past hundred days: complete darkness. My hand easily finds and pulls a handle. With nary a noise, the top of my sarcophagus slides up and away on a pair of well-oiled rails. The exterior is completely smooth. It can only be opened from the inside.
My room is rather small but I like it. It is well furnished with a bed I barely ever use, a desk, a wardrobe that hides a secret exit and a small but well-provisioned library. I quickly dress and cross the fortified door that leads to the rest of the basement, rush up the steps and reach the study. Loth is not here so I quickly uncover two golden chalices covered with runes and gulp down their crimson contents.
The chalices are of Loth’s design and manage to conserve the vitality of the liquid for a short while. This way, I can get some nourishment from donors I will never have to touch. It is not much though, just a pale copy of the real thing to stem the Thirst until the next bounty. It will never suffice on its own.
I close my eyes and listen. Loth is not in his office, which means…
I leave the part of the house that doubles as a doctor’s office and reach Loth’s private quarters. A woman is slowly walking down the stairs. Despite her conservative clothes and traces of gray in her hair, she blushes like a maiden when she sees me.
“Hello Mrs. Nobel.”
“Oh! Hum, Ariane! I did not see you there. I was just hmmmm.”
“Of course Mrs. Nobel, I wish you a good evening.”
Turning a delicate shade of tulip, the mature girl makes an awkward exit on shaky legs. As she passes me by, I catch a whiff of her. Oh my, Loth, you have outdone yourself this time.
Leaving our visitor to her walk of shame, I continue and hear Loth in the smoking room. I knock politely.
“Good evening Loth, are you decent?”
“Good evening Ari, come in, come in!”
Loth sits leisurely in a very casual set of silk pants and jacket crossed over a muscular and hirsute chest. He sips Whiskey from a lowball glass while staring at nothing.
“It is good that ye came, there are three things I wanted ta address.”
“Oh?” I answer, suddenly wary.
“Nothing bad I assure ye. First, I recovered a letter from Jimena at the drop point. Here it is." He says, and hands me a sealed envelope.
“The second thing is a bit delicate, ya know. Would ya consider taking a seat?” he says, and gestures to a leather couch. I do as he says.
“It has come to me attention that the disgusting little weasel who abused poor Margaret was apprehended yesterday. I received a very thoughtful thank ye note from her, I should mention. She even offered to introduce ye to her favorite nephew, a banker from Savannah who happens to be looking fer a wife.”
“I shall convey yer regrets lass. What concerns me slightly is the state of the weasel’s hands. Now, ye have respected our agreement to the letter and ye had every right ta kill the prick where he stood, however, I would like ta offer ye a piece of advice, from an old monster to a young one.”
“How unusually serious. Do tell.”
“I know ya played with that one while ye simply bit and questioned that other conman from three weeks ago. Ya treated them differently. Why?”
“I was curious about Bishop’s lies. It is as if he could not stop, as if his life depended on it. Testing the limits was quite interesting.”
“So ye did it on the spur of the moment, aye?”
Loth calmly puts his glass on the coffee table and crosses his fingers in front of him in a pose I now associate with lecturing.
“Many of us long-lived creatures do not attach the same value ta life as most mortals do. They will often hesitate ta torture or ta kill, ya know. It is a natural mechanism that I have observed in all of the peaceful societies I have lived in and is, I believe, caused by the need ta live in harmony. Killing becomes taboo. We outsiders are exempt of that. This is both a benefit and a tremendous risk.
Ya see, the more you follow your instincts and the more you are prone ta fall the path of easy murder, until the very idea of civilization and peaceful cohabitation loses its meaning.”
My Master being the prime example of that.
“Do you mean that I should not torture or kill?”
“Of course not, ye are a vampire. And besides, it would be hypocritical of me to ask this of ya, don’t ye think?”
I remember the only time we went after a band of outlaws together. They had raided a distant farm and spared no one. Loth had been… Thorough. He does not play around like I do. He is methodical and merciless.
“I merely suggest that ye develop a code and try ta stick to it.”
“What if I decide that rapists and those who wear white at someone else’s wedding can be mercilessly tortured before I kill them?”
“Then it is so. I am not judging the scale by which ye decide someone’s fate, Ari, I only ask that ye find one.”
I contemplate those words. Loth is experienced and there is a truth to what he says. I suppose I could at least try.
“I need to think of one. And it will not apply if my life is at risk.”
“Naturally. Now, onto more pleasant matters. I apologize fer the heavy discussion and I have just the thing ta lighten the mood. There’s this English lad who came ta visit this afternoon. He wanted ta, what was it? Entertain me with a proposal that I would find to me taste. Or something. I thought ye might want ta hear it as well so I told him ta show up at eight.”
“That is very thoughtful of you Loth. I appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it lass” he adds with a smile, “and if he’s trying to, as aunt Freyja said, slather me up and shove me on a spit, I want ya to eat him.”
I smile as we talk about yesterday’s hunt. No matter what happens, tonight will be fun!
“Cecil Rutherford Bingle, miss, at your service!”
The red-haired man removes his bowler hat and bows perfectly. I simply cannot believe my eyes. The chops, the wide, waxed mustache, the leather overcoat, everything conspires to make him appear as the hero of some silly book about mummies and damsels in distress. He has a ruggedly handsome face with a chin like a sledgehammer and the healthy tan of the consumate traveler. He even speaks as if he were in the middle of a theater and had to be heard by spectators on the fourth floor! I am simply in awe.
Loth gives me a half smile and a knowing look.
“Oh, uh, it is my pleasure Mr. Bingle.”
“Hohoho, do not be alarmed by my roguish appearance young miss, I assure you, I do not bite!”
What a coincidence.
“Yet the road is not safe, and a gentleman must do what he must do to guarantee his safety, I say! Now, I apologize if I seem abrupt, but the tardiness and the reason for my visit bear heavily on my heart, and I must beg you to hear me out promptly, for this matter is urgent, as you shall see Professor Delaney.”
Loth answers in kind.
“Then let us retire to my salon. Ari, my dear, would ye be so kind as to brew a pot for our guest, and then join us.”
“Mr. Delaney, hrm hrm, far from me to tell you how to manage your house, hrm, however, the matters I wish to address are so grave as to, hrm, hurt delicate sensitivities, and I would be mortified if hrm, your niece were to be indisposed as a result of hearing them.”
Loth takes a grave and tragic air. With his red nose and beard, he looks like a grizzled retired captain reminiscing about a doomed expedition to the North Pole.
“My esteemed guest, I appreciate yer tactful observation and I see that even in your hour of need, ye still show admirable concern for everyone around ye, however I ask now that ye trust in my judgment on this matter, as it pertains ta my expertise, and to please exert patience, as the necessity of her presence will be explained in due time.”
“Very well, Mr. Delaney, lead the way!”
I leave the two men to go prepare tea and cups. I find the ritual of tea brewing relaxing, one of the reasons why Loth lets me use his precious reserve. It does not matter that I do not drink, the act of preparing it and the fragrance from a successful brew are rewards enough.
When I reach the others, Loth is busy explaining the subtle differences between two rune systems, one of which I am unfamiliar with.
After serving them, I sit in a comfortable leather sofa slightly on the side. After one last dubious look at me, Bingle starts his tale.
“Three years ago, I was stationed in Gibraltar when I met a most peculiar and delightful woman by the name of Flora Schaffer. The daughter of a Prussian Junker, she had a deep and curious interest in ancient history and when my service ended, I agreed to follow her in an expedition to Syria, deep in Ottoman territory. I shall not recount our tale now, as one night would not be enough to do it justice. Suffice to say she located a tablet covered in strange runes that she studied with a morbid fascination.
Seven months ago, I received a letter from her and it was no small amount of surprise that I learnt that she was in the Americas, where her search had led her. Indeed, the only match for those strange runes came from a lone amphora traded to a collector of curios by a group of Natives who disappeared soon after. The letter was vague but hinted at the need for a dangerous expedition. Alas, when I arrived, she had already left to hire a group of adventurers of ill repute called the Valiant Companions. This was three months ago. I am afraid that her eagerness may have cost her dearly.
I inquired about them and learned the most dreadful thing: they are now suspected of several acts of heinous banditry, such as raiding, kidnapping, and racketeering. They have since then escaped the vicinity of Atlanta and thus, the arm of the law. Of my companion, there is no trace and I fear the worst has happened.
Intent on gathering clues, I found her notebook in her personal effects, however many of the notes relate to a runic alphabet I cannot decipher. I was about to give in to despair when a friend of mine mentioned you, Mr. Delaney. He said that you were a scholar, a gentleman, and a crack shot, all qualities that I am in dire need of.”
Loth nods in understanding. He opens the notebook and takes out a few drawings, then raises an eyebrow. He places them back and resumes the conversation.
“I appreciate the worth and the urgency of your task Mr. Bingle. Before we continue, I ask that you forgive my rudeness for there is something I need to discuss with my niece. If you will excuse us for a moment.”
I follow Loth outside.
“He is going ta ask me to join him on his expedition and I am going ta accept because I am bored and his story sounds interesting. I think ye should join too.”
“Isn’t every trip dangerous? What if I cannot find a prey?”
“I think this will not be a problem, at least not at the early stage. I anticipate a lot of violence. The reason why I ask is because I recognized the runes on the tablet and amphora. Those are vampire runes.”
“Truly? In the tongue?”
“Yes. They are vanishingly rare in mundane circles, and their presence outside of vampire cities makes no sense. I am curious as to how the trail ended up here. I also need to state that remote regions of the world are where deranged individuals hide, and strange runes are closely associated with them.”
“There is a major issue though, should ya join, and it is that of your peculiarities. Mr. Bingle is sharper than he appears, and I have no doubt that he will figure out that something is wrong too quickly. I would be disappointed if we had to silence him.”
“If we travel together, I am afraid that it is inevitable. What do you propose?”
“Well, I caught a glimpse of Frau Schaffer’s notebook and it contained ample references to magic although I doubt that she was a practitioner herself. I am convinced that Bingle knows about magic in general, and suspects that I dabble. Otherwise, he would have defended himself from believing in it beforehand so as not to appear as a lunatic. We could pretend that you are under a curse.”
“A curse? As in I am a human victim of a spell?”
“Would he believe it?”
“He will if you are the one to tell him the tale. Vampires are unnaturally persuasive. I am sure you can come up with something.”
“What do we do with him after we discover the truth. I would rather know beforehand. I would not create ties or take oaths if we end up disposing of him.”
“If we manage to keep most of your physical prowess and my deadliest enchanted weapon under wrap, it should be within his expectations. If so, he will naturally assume that we are but two eccentric people and we won’t have to kill him. If we reveal inhuman traits, then it is different. He will want to know the truth.”
“If we fight by his side then killing him would be distasteful.”
“Then let us make sure it does not happen.”
I do not even suggest killing the man and recovering everything ourselves. This man is Loth’s supplicant, he is also a guest and he has been nothing but honorable. It would simply be wrong to kill him.
We head back and as I sit, Loth turns to me.
“Cecil, I ask that you forgive my poor manners. I had to ask my niece if she were comfortable about sharing the details of the tragedy...
But before we begin, Cecil, I must ask. Do you believe in magic? Do you believe that in dark corners of the world exist things that have no place in civilized society? Do you believe that there is some knowledge that it would be wise not to acquire?”
“Mr. Delaney, no, Loth. I was afraid to say so, for who in their right mind would believe what seems like childish poppycock! Yet my eyes did not deceive me, back in Syria. I saw and fought things that will never have their place in a compendium of natural history.”
“Indeed, and this leads me to my poor Ariane’s story.”
In a shaky voice, I tell Bingle about my father, the African explorer. How he hunted dangerous game, and how one day he came across a strange altar while tracking a vicious lion on the plains of the Serengeti. Upon this altar sat the effigy of a bat. Curious, if wary, he brought it to a local sorcerer. He was told that the effigy was linked to a powerful spirit, that of a night hunter. A ravenous, bloodthirsty beast. He was told that the night hunter would share its gift upon the offering of a suitable sacrifice. Amused, my father brought the morbid statue back with him as a sort of grisly trophy. The years went by and we thought nothing of it until my father’s vision declined and he was forced to retire. Alas, the thrill of the hunt could not be denied, and he became increasingly obsessed. What if he could still go after the most dangerous preys and fell them? What if he could move at night like the deadliest panther? The thought devoured him until he could take it no longer.
I tried to stop him, to distract him, but it was in vain. One night, I saw a light in the distance and grew suspicious. As I approached, the most horrid spectacle was unveiled, and I almost fainted. Upon a meadow was my father, the accursed effigy and the bleeding body of the family dog. My father turned to me and the insanity in his eyes made me recoil in terror.
“Behold, Ariane, for we are blessed!” He said in a great and terrible voice. Then, with a great laugh, he ran into the woods with a vitality and gait most unnatural. I waited for his return and as dawn came, I saw him appear on the horizon. As the rays of the sun touched him, a dreadful shriek escaped his lips. He fell, unconscious. I immediately set out to rescue him but alas, no sooner had I stepped outside that a most abominable pain seized me and I was forced to retreat. The sacrifice, it seems, was not suitable. Indeed, how could such a dreadful entity accept anything but the most precious of flesh? We were deemed unworthy. In exchange for vision, my father and his bloodline were cursed never to walk under the sun on penalty of death. Worse, I now must follow their habits and drink the blood of living creatures!
I left the family house without looking back and went to my dear uncle for help, for his knowledge of the world is renowned. He protects me and together, we have looked for a cure forever since.”
Warm tears fall freely from Cecil Rutherford Bingle’s weathered face by the time I finish the steaming pile of inanities that is this story and when he speaks, his voice is quavering with emotion.
“Such a dreadful tale my dear, such a dreadful, dreadful fate! Oh cruelty of cruelties to place this burden on the shoulder of such kind a soul, such amenable a temperament! If I can be of help...”
I shake my head, my eyes wet with emotion, face slightly flushed despite their pallor.
“It almost seems like a lost cause Mr. Bingle, but at least I have my dear uncle to look after me. I wish to accompany and help, for if I cannot save myself, my heart can be at ease with the belief that I should help others.”
Bingle lets out a terrible sob as emotion once again overcomes him. Loth grabs my shoulder in a paternal hand, his face also marred by sorrow and regret. As he turns away to wipe a tear I hear a whisper from him.
“Seven out of ten.”
What?! The man is crying, I at least deserve a nine! Bah.
"Cecil, ye may ask yerself why I wanted to share this delicate piece of information with ye, sir. Well I wanted ta explain why my niece is competent to hear such stories. She is also well-versed in dead languages. Ariane, could ye look at this?”
I take the notebook and read what was transcribed form the amphora.
“Yes salt, the alchemical reagent. This is the language of Akkad, derived from Akkadian inscriptions. Notice the sharp indents. The runes are designed to be inscribed on tablet with stylus.”
“What could it mean?”
“This was most likely taken from an alchemy set. It hints at some sort of laboratory or even something larger.”
“Who would use a long dead language to perform alchemy?” asks Bingle.
“Someone who studied alchemy from a dead civilization, perhaps.”
Or someone who was there when it was still very much alive.
Loth clears his throat and the adventurer emerges from his contemplation to look at him.
“My dear Mr. Bingle, if I understand correctly, ye require my expertise in deciphering Mrs. Schaffer’s notes, and ye also ask for me to join ye on this expedition, aye?”
Bingle blushes in embarrassment when the enormity of what he asks is stated so plainly.
“Hrm, I am aware that I ask much, hrm, however, circumstances dictate that I put aside my pride! Indeed, the life of Flora is certainly at risk, and I would gladly sacrifice my reputation should it bring her back alive and safe. Please forgive me for this audacious request, and know that we Bingle are not without means. I will compensate you for this effort, naturally, though I know that for a gentleman such as yourself, the call of adventure, knowledge, and honor fulfilled are of greater import!”
I never imagined that Bingle could assess Loth so accurately, albeit for the wrong reasons. I can tell that his curiosity is piqued. An amphora covered with ancient runes, found here? Even I am curious.
“Fret not, Mr. Bingle, fer yer call fer help has not fallen on deaf ears. I am willing, nay, eager, ta help ye rescue yer friend from those ruffians. We shall depart tomorrow and find those Valiant Companions you spoke of so we can determine Miss Schaffer’s whereabouts. I have a few acquaintances in law enforcement who will be eager to inform me upon their current whereabouts. Perhaps the outlaws will be amenable to discussion and if not, we can extract this knowledge from them through violence or subterfuge.”
The conversation devolves into minutiae and after a manly handshake, Bingle is gone. Loth and I go to his workshop.
The massive room which takes half of the first and second floor is his sanctuary. I only entered the place a few times and never alone, so it comes as a mild surprise when he drags me in.
“Ariane, I have a service to ask of you. I am quite drained…”
I chuckle. He smiles, a bit embarrassed.
“Yes, I did not anticipate Clara’s appetite. In any case, I am tired. Could you please pack for me?”
He points out what he wants to take, and I spend a few hours moving heavy equipment and gadgets to the heavy carriage. Even though he does not intend to use it, I also take his massive armor as a measure of safety.
I myself pack the practical outfits he made for me, as well as my rifle, knife and notebook on ancient languages. I go by the kitchen and prepare a significant amount of travel food. After I am done, I retire to my room.
I pick a piece of paper. It was torn from an advertisement and on it are a few words.
“I love you daughter, do not forget your promise.”
A tear smudged the ink a bit.
I place it in a locket, which I put around my neck.
Finally, I decide to open Jimena’s letter. Most of the content is news about herself, but one line catches my attention.
“We have received confirmation that the Southern Lady was lost off the coast of Senegal with all hands.”
This was the ship my Master was sailing on. I do not know what happened to him. I was told that older vampires can enter a form of stasis if they are trapped somewhere, so it is likely that he still lives, held in an iron coffin in the darkness of the deep ocean.
I do not know how I feel about this.
Artificial tendrils of twisted love make me yearn to go and rescue him, but they are quickly silenced.
I am relieved that I will not see him again. I hate how I lose my mind when he is around.
I am afraid of what will happen when he gets free. It is inevitable.
Well, enough moping. This is far beyond my control.
I drag the sarcophagus to the carriage, secure it and call it a night.