I place the dessert spoon back on the empty plate and rest both hands on my round belly.
“Where are the kids?” Asks Achille with a smile.
“Mine or yours?”
“They are outside. Roger is looking after them, don’t worry.”
“Good. There is somebody I wanted you to meet.”
“Really? At this time?”
“You already know him.”
A young man enters the dining room. He is certainly not dressed for the occasion! Why, he just looks like an apprentice running errand for his mentor!
“That is exactly what I was doing.”
Huh? Now that I am paying attention, he looks a little pale, and are those tear marks on his boyish face?
“What I was doing when you killed me that is. They captured me and dragged me to you. You were a new monster then, not yet the accomplished murderer you have become”
“We could have had children, family of flesh and bone and not those pathetic fantasies you still cling to.” Says a newcomer to my left. I recognize him. He was father Perry’s son. My talons grip the edge of the table and I move forward a bit now that my figure is as lean as it should be.
The dining room is full of men clamoring and complaining. I recognize some from my days as an enforcer, the estate where I met Nami and my days at the Gauntlet.
“We could have been so much more!”
Achille grabs my hand.
“You will never create life. You will never make the world more, only less. Your very existence is...”
I pick a knife and stab him in the wrist. The flesh breaks like porcelain, as if it were solid. I stare into cracking eyes as black as night. The entire assembly is focused on me like a pack of hounds on a wounded deer.
I am no wounded deer.
“I claimed your essences to the last and you think your pathetic rabble of fools can stop me?”
Night falls outside and the smell of roast is replaced by wet earth and woodsmoke. Something grinds against the walls of the dining room. Something huge, and covered in spikes. The ceiling breaks and strands of baleful purple light shines on the white sheets and posh chairs.
“You are no hunting party. You are just drained prey I left in my trail.”
“You can’t stop us all.” Says Crow.
I stand up and the wood groans and cracks under my feet.
“I already have.”
I wake up to the familiar darkness. Well. That was... different. I did not expect a nightmare to lead to anything but my death. This is also the first time that it refers to potential events instead of reinterpretation of my past.
Now is not the time for introspection, however. I close my eyes and focus on my hearing. This is a new precaution I have come up with. We are in hostile territory and there is no guarantee that the carriage could not fall into hostile hands. I need to see if anyone is around before I make my presence known.
There, a heartbeat. It stands just beside the sarcophagus. I feel a tug on my mind and the beat grows more excited. With a sigh, I open the sarcophagus.
I slide the door open, already annoyed.
“I feel like I am repeating myself in vain, but you should really leave.”
“Yes Mistress, you are repeating yourself in vain.”
I tap on the edge of my haven with a talon. The clinking sound echoes the noise of the rain outside. Dalton’s large eyes do not have a hint of mockery. He just stands there being… I do not know what he is.
“We will arrive at the estate within two hours. Mr. Bingle says that the heavy rain will help us with our cover as waylaid travelers. Mr. Delaney suggests that you wear the blue dress.”
The blue dress is formal. Why do I want the formal dress? Why do we simply not move under the cover of the night and the heavy rain and slaughter everything? We already determined these cultists mass kidnap innocents.
Just like the Lancaster.
Fair enough, I am being hypocritical. Let us just say that I, as the resident vampire in these lands, reserve the exclusive right to the mass kidnapping of innocent people for the sake of sacrificing them to some dark entity, in this specific case myself. There. Now they are an enemy organization and all its members are fair game.
This adventure is wearing my patience thin. Dalton leaves and I clean myself quickly, brush my hair and finally open the slit that separates the interior of the carriage from the drivers.
“Good evening miss Ariane, I hope you are well?”
“I am Mr. Bingle, thank you. I am however concerned by your plan to make yourselves known! Those ruffians are in the habit of capturing people. Why would they not put all of us in chains at the first opportunity?”
“You would prefer that we simply find Flora and make our escape, do you not?”
Actually, I was planning on slaughtering everything and everyone and then setting the rest on fire.
“That seems more prudent.”
“Indeed, and I recognize there your kind heart, miss Ariane. Truly, you are too pure for this world, and indeed what you say makes perfect sense, but for two important factors. First, we do not know how many prisoners they hold, I wager quite a lot! We must also learn of their sinister purposes!”
I wager those prisoners are not as many as he thinks, the live ones at least.
“And secondly, I know the type of people who lead such terrible and dreadful schemes. They are vain creatures, eager to display themselves and their extraordinary qualities…”
Look who’s talking.
“Therefore they will want to show how superior they are, as well as learn how we found them. And we shall let them know, I say! We shall let them know before the night is out! They will rue the day…”
I ignore the rest of the rant. I am Thirsty now. Yesterday I managed to feed a bit from a Choctaw traveler who left his teepee to attend to a natural need. I had to wait for two hours for him to come out. He was weakened by the low temperatures and I did not get much vitality. Tonight will be a feast I am looking forward to.
As the Thirst momentarily overcomes me, I feel my fangs draw out and something tugs on my mind. A pair of large icy eyes reach the slit.
“Are you alright, miss?”
The invitation in his eyes is clear. He offers himself, his blood, to me. I should accept but something makes me uncomfortable. He chose me, not the contrary. He chose me not as supplicant but as something else. I am not in control. I should be in control. I should be the one to select who I want to feed on. It is not normal that one would be willing to serve an abomination like me. All humans should want to kill me because I prey on them. This is unnatural? I think?
Bingle interrupts his many promises of retribution and justice to express his concern.
“Miss Ariane, please do not be alarmed. I know you abhor violence, but this is not my first adventure and I will protect you with my life!”
You fool, how can you promise such a thing? Can you predict the trajectories of bullets? Can you stop explosions before they deliver their deadly shrapnel? Could you have stopped Master from k… Enough. Enough of this.
“He is right niece; it would be better for us to be invited in. They would lower their guard. Besides, young Dalton will remain hidden inside the wagon and bring us our weapons should we need them.”
Mmmmh, as always, Loth makes a point. I could not get into the mansion without an invitation. Well thought.
“Yes, miss Ariane, young Dalton has proven himself an invaluable help since he joined us. He has been looking after you with dedication, and I am pleased at his change of heart. He is the proof that men who lose their way to darkness can always find the light if they look for courage inside their heart. A truly moving tale, I say!”
Yes, invaluable help since he showed up at their camp with a wild tale of the Valiant Companions killing each other. He offered to show the group the way to the cult’s base and drowned Bingle with a tale of contrition. It never occurred to the red-haired hero that Dalton’s change of heart happened rather late in the group’s criminal career.
If he is not evil there is at least something wrong with him. I am unwilling to ask. After we return to civilization, he will have to go. Yes. That would probably be for the best.
Around us, pine forests give way to empty fields and basic wooden shacks. I change seats with Dalton, who is supposed to remain hidden, when we reach the outskirts of the cultist base. I can smell cattle, the animal kind, and woodsmoke. It is not long before we arrive at the limit of a stone enclosure.
If I were still mortal, I would pinch myself and check for a fever.
The wall marks the border between semi wilderness and an outlandish version of a British cottage. Why, I am looking at something out of a book!
A beautifully made manor of stone and glass, actual glass, with an arched rooftop of grey tiles sits at the top of a gently inclined hill. Even in the dead of winter, the trees are expertly trimmed and the lawn is taken care of. A small pond lies further to the side and a clean road of white gravel leads from an iron gate to the foot of the grand entrance. A cliff of sheer rock rises a hundred yards behind the property, adding a mysterious and grandiose air to the edifice.
What am I even looking at?
“How peculiar!” says Bingle.
What is peculiar is the color theme. The walls are painted, flawlessly, in white and red.
“Where are the workers housed? With so many fields there should be at least thirty people tending to them and cattle. They’re not living in the manor, I assume?” I add.
“A most astute observation miss Ariane! We must assume that there are more buildings we are not yet aware of, and that we should keep an eye open for them. Indeed, who knows how many people live here?”
I hope we do not find out when they rush us with torches and pitchforks? This… This stupid plan! I want to leave, find somebody to drink. This farce can only lead to disaster! Gah, why am I so Thirsty?! I drank my fill less than a week ago! Do I really have to suffer through this for another year?
Curses, curses, curses…
While I am ranting in the privacy of my addled brain, two men in mud-colored cloth emerge from behind the wall and open the door of the property for us.
Maybe I can eat them?
“There, there.” Says Bingle with a comforting voice. He is about to pat my shoulder but then he hesitates and retracts his hand. That’s right my good man, keep your appendages away or I will tear them off and shove them up your…
“Welcome to the Abernathy estate gentlemen, and lady. May I inquire what business you have here?”
We let Bingle drown the poor guard in platitudes and a story of lost travelers, unusual itineraries and some such nonsense until he regrets ever asking. Perhaps I should slice his throat to end his suffering, let the warm, red geyser of life…
“Alright come in, come in, Mr. Abernathy will be delighted to see you.” He adds with a sinister smile. If I were a normal girl I would already be out there trying my luck with the grizzlies. Is everybody devoid of common sense?
I gnash my teeth as the carriage climbs the small hill and we come in view of the manor’s owners, apparently warned of our presence.
“Come in, come in, gentlemen, and lady! I, Rufus Abernathy, would like to formally welcome you to my humble abode.”
The man who addresses us is in his fifties with carefully combed silver hair and an aristocratic face. He is clean shaven but for a small mustache and dark eyes. His prestance and charisma are impressive and are reinforced by a fetching tweed ensemble. I feel myself warming to his presence despite an inkling of what he is. He introduces his wife Maria, a portly woman with an astoundingly good skin. Her black hair is held in a severe bun, but her smile is warm and welcoming.
Those people are good. They really look the part of the kind and welcoming hosts. They smell a little bit wrong, however, particularly the woman. There is something acid and altogether unpleasant about her smell. It is not rot or any disease I can think of. Odd.
“You are too kind sir, and we apologize for coming here unannounced. We were set upon by a dreadful storm and I was afraid we would have to spend the night outside, if you would imagine!”
We follow our host through a grand entrance and up a set of stairs to corridors painted white. The furniture is a bit crude but the ground is spotless. We do not meet anyone on the way and I suspect it is not due to the late hour. My hearing confirms that this place is mostly empty. It is a façade.
Abernathy leads us into a large smoking room. Several leather couches surround a coffee table while the walls are covered with books and maps. The smell of cold cigar and alcohol is prevalent, it makes me suspect that this is used as a meeting room of sort. The number of seats hint at five or six people and I presume that the cult’s leadership may include people we haven’t met yet.
After a short exchange of niceties, Bingle tells our cover story in a performance I judge passable while I do my best to ignore lady Abernathy’s inspection of my appearance. I pretend not to notice, and play the tired and reserved niece until her attention switches to Loth. Free of scrutiny, I examine our surroundings. There is nothing untoward here. No scent of blood or corpse, no suspicious sounds. Were it not for the strange stench emanating from the woman at my side, I could have closed my eyes and imagined being back in New Orleans.
With the niceties out of the way, our host finally hits his stride, much to my dismay.
“America was meant to be a land of opportunity and so it was for a short while, but man needs to rule and be ruled and now states and governments spread everywhere to bring order to what they perceive as chaos but in the end is just what Rousseau would say is the state of nature."
“Rousseau assumed Man to be good at heart, however...” answers Loth.
“Ah, a fellow philosopher? Would you not agree that...”
And so they go on.
Bingle who I suspect does not care the least about the enlightened philosopher and would prefer to treat every Frenchman as if they were the devil himself pouts in silence. It seems that not being the center of attention is an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling for our brave gentleman. I, however, pray that they finish their pointless conversation with commendable haste, or else...
To my chagrin, Abernathy keeps on leading the conversation in the tried and true method which consists in asking a question, pretending to listen, and then saying what you wanted to say to begin with. Now he has “masterfully” led us to where he wanted to be and starts his main point as tea is served by a shy maid.
“We who traveled across the ocean to this place have brought with us chains. Those chains I speak of are chains of the mind. We still worship what we should study and pray to what we should strive to understand. The judgement of others stirs the direction in which we...”
Yadda yadda yadda I deem myself a scientist and ethical concerns hold me back. I get it. Abernathy now leans forward with a mad glint in his eye, his slight frame animated by the manic energy of the fanatic.
“You do not seem to agree, Miss Delaney.”
I should have better schooled my expression. This pretentious fop is dancing a waltz on my already frayed nerve. Should I play the dumb blond? Should I throw Aristotles in the fragile construct of his theory? Should I START KILLING. ENOUGH GAMES.
“Mr. Abernathy, the road has been long and tiring...”
“Yes darling,” adds his wife who had been standing there like a scarecrow, “we of the fairer sex have little taste for those grand endeavors, let me take care of the young Lady while you men remake the world.”
“A fair point, I wouldn’t want to... overtax you.”
I stand and bow stiffly. Yes, a breath of fresh air and a drink is exactly what I need right now.
“Take good care of yourself niece, we shall see you again later.”
Yes don’t worry old man I shall take really good care of myself, indulge even.
The mistress of the house holds my hand and drags me out in the corridor and deeper into the mansion, which I will tolerate without severing it from the rest of her arm nail after nail, knuckle after knuckle, because I am patient and perfectly in control. After a while, we enter a small tearoom with a roaring fire and decoration in shades of red and white, to no one’s surprise. A woman in a maid uniform is stirring a log with a cast iron poker.
“My, your hand is freezing. How about some tea?”
“I would appreciate something hot to drink, Mrs. Abernathy.”
“Excellent. Rose, please give her a cup, my house blend.”
The maid nods silently. While the water boils, I notice that she has the same wrong smell as her employer, and she’s almost paralyzed by anxiety.
“You must forgive my husband. Ah, those men, always remaking the universe from the comfort of their seats while we toil to make the world around us better through action. I must confess that all those talks about ethics are going over my head!”
I could suggest that she read the classics, starting with Socrates. I remember fighting with Achille, stating that we should act in accordance with virtue, not with what seems the most convenient at the time. I remember him telling me women did not understand such things. I remember informing him this was taken directly from Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. I remember him mumbling something. I remember needling him about it for a whole week.
It doesn’t matter. We are on opposite sides of the conflict. I feel no need to advise someone I may have to kill. I do not have the patience.
We exchange a few platitudes until the maid comes and serves me tea. I bring the cup to my lips and take a deep breath in.
Essence of laudanum. A very powerful anesthetic. A single gulp would have sent me to dreamland for the next few hours. I raise my eyes to Mrs. Abernathy. I will not consider this oath-breaking because we are already hostile. This is more ruse or....
I watch, astonished as Rose swings the iron poker with all her might and crashes it against the mistress of the house’s temple. I hear a wet crunch and the woman falls like a puppet with its strings cut.
The maid killed her employer in front of me. Finally, something amusing.
“Ssssh! Please do not scream,” she whispers “I mean you no harm!”
Miss, that would work better if you were not waving that red-tinged poker around? Common sense?
Nevermind, let me just nod.
“Please do not drink the tea, as it is poisoned. I apologize for this, but we must speak at all costs. Your companions and you are in grave danger! This place is not what it seems. It is a den of sin and iniquity of the most grievous sort! I beg of you, escape this place and take me with you!”
I turn to the corpse of my deceitful host. The blood dripping from her temple and nose smells abominable. It is not disease or a spell but something tainted and abject. I feel as if someone had taken a painter’s masterpiece and covered it in feces. I am beyond disgusted. I will never, ever partake of it.
I look at the maid. She is a tall and sturdy girl and the loose uniform barely hides her well-endowed figure. Her face has a kind of honest beauty to it. I would think her smart but guileless. This sudden murder is rather unexpected.
Alarmingly, she has the same revolting smell as her former employer. I knew it. I should have fed from Dalton. Why did I wait? Gah. So Thirsty...
“She is in on this conspiracy. Please, I know you must be alarmed and that this is difficult to accept but you must believe me! Those people here, Abernathy, everyone! They kidnap settlers and then they... They.... Snif. God as my witness you are my only chance. We must save your friends and escape!”
I need to find them, and I need to find Dalton.
“We expected this. We are looking for someone who was abducted.”
“Wait. You knew? And you still came?! The three of you?!”
“We, ah, underestimated the size of the group.”
“There is almost a hundred people on the compound! Fighting is folly!”
“It is too late now. Let us meet up with the others and at least get our gear back. We can discuss a plan then.”
“Right, quickly before she wakes up.” She says.
Huh... If she wakes up from that she can start her own religion. Nevermind, I should not mention it now. There is no reason to risk her turning hysterical. That would be the last thing I need.
The first thing I need is blood, and quickly.
“Lead the way back to the salon. With any luck they are still listening to Abernathy’s disjointed rant so my uncle and his friend can overwhelm him.”
I grab the late mistress under her shoulder and pull her behind a couch, then I cover her with a table sheet while trying to ignore the smell of excrement.
When I return to Rose, she is staring at me warily. Ah yes, I was supposed to be the brainless blonde.
“Ah, you are more, hm, resourceful than I thought.”
“I came prepared, although not prepared for this. You surprised me.”
“I...I suppose. I shall lead the way! Stay behind me and all should be well. Yes.”
We walk back through an empty corridor. Yes, I remember. Now we go right and...
I hold Rose back as she is about to turn and pull her towards me. She looks at me in confusion until I hold a finger in front of my lips and point towards our destination. We peek across the corner. A large group of very burly men is dragging two struggling shapes to parts unknown. There goes the team. I knew this was a stupid idea from the beginning! I should never, NEVER HAD AGREED. PATHETIC HUNTERS. BUFFOONS. Alright. Calm. Enough. Loth has probably decided to play along and he is counting on me to drink, I mean to save him later. Alright. I can’t just go in and DROWN THE PLACE IN TAINTED BLOOD, HOW DARE THEY. ROACHES. MONGRELS. Yes. Yes yes yes fine, I shall wait. I shall rescue them the old-fashioned way, with dumb luck and outrageous plans that should not work.
“Nooooo we are too late! What should we do?!” My unfortunate companion whispers.
“Calm down. Do you know where they are taken?”
“Yes. Yes I do, all the prisoners are held in cells inside the mountain.”
Inside the mountain?! What is this?! Shakespeare’s Tempest? Will I meet queen Mab and Puck? Gah. This is all Bingle’s fault! Him and his stupid fate magic!
“Can you lead me there?”
“Yes I was held there before I... before I joined them.”
“There will be guards and other people on the way.”
“We need weapons and we need a disguise. Weapons first. Do you know where they took the carriage?”
“I do, near the stables and the pens. Follow me!”