I trail Rose through a set of doors and smaller stairs. We do not come across anyone and soon reach a side of the manor. In front of me stand the stables and in the distance, I can see a few barns of great size, possibly home to over a hundred beasts. More houses rise around interspersed with trees.
After a quick glance to the Silent Watcher for serenity and good luck, I order Rose to walk ahead while I stealthily move after her. My guide only crosses path with a patrol of two burly men walking around before we reach our destination. I easily avoid them by sticking to the shadows.
There is something wrong with them that I had not noticed on the gate guards. They carry the same smell as lady Abernathy, only stronger. There is something too mechanical about their steps and their skin is too smooth for outdoor people. Their vigilance is also terribly lacking. It is not due to overconfidence or laziness, rather, their eyes are fixed in front of them with a strange focus instead of roaming around like proper scouts, seeing nothing and everything at once. All my instincts scream not in fear, but in outrage. This is more than blood wasted, the people here have desecrated that which should have remained untouched, for the good of everyone.
I need to get to the bottom of this and stop it, even if it means revealing what I am.
We enter the stable in total silence. Once more I grab Rose.
“Shhh, do you smell this?”
“Blood and death.”
The woman moves in the darkness with a lack of concern I find both admirable and stupid. A moment later, she bumps into a prone body and falls with a most unladylike epithet.
“Perhaps this will help?” I add as I light a lantern.
“Ah, hum, of course, silly me. I just…. Wanted to be inconspicuous, in case… Lord above!”
Inconspicuous? You opened the door like a drunk octogenarian, fumbled like a gravid hippopotamus and managed to fall heel over head? You are as inconspicuous as an eight-month pregnancy, you undrinkable daft sow. Let me just kill every last person here besides Loth, set everything on fire, then sod off. Gah.
“Somebody is dead! Oh my God! There is blood everywhere!”
I help the woman stand up and make sure she doesn’t get blood on the white part of her dress. The lantern's light falls on the remains of a burly man. He had his throat slit. Whoever did it left nothing to chance. The wound is so deep his head is half-detached.
I move the lantern to the open door of the carriage, and another door opposite us. Another guard lies dead against it. The front of his chest is a mangled mess of shredded fabric and gaping puncture wounds. He was stabbed with incredible savagery.
I cannot pick the scent of pure blood, not even a hint. A quick look in the carriage confirms that our conventional weaponry is gone.
He made it out with our guns. I choose to believe he will fulfill his part but this display of absurd violence makes me…
PROUD. COMPETENT VASSAL. DUTIFUL. CUNNING. WILL REWARD.
Oh no no no no no dear instincts of mine, let us not get carried away.
This is a good point however…
“Our weapons are gone, and so is our ally, we must…”
Rose is looking quite green around the gills. Perhaps throwing up will make her feel better?
“My, My God… All this blood. And… Those people are.”
I rotate the woman and stare into her eyes.
“Rose, I know you are unaccustomed to violence and this is hard to take, but now I need you to focus. We are still very much in danger. I need you to help me find the others, so we can all leave together.”
“I… I don’t want to go back there. They dragged me in after they raided our caravan… I did not want to, but I drunk the… Jesus…”
“You drank what? Blood?”
“How did you know!?”
“It is standard for a cult. They do this to make you feel bad, to make you feel like you do not deserve to be saved, but redemption does not depend on them now does it?”
“No, no indeed, it depends on the will of God. I… I will not let them win! I will be redeemed, once we find and save the others. If I turn away now, I will never forgive myself!”
There, it worked.
“Oh, miss Ariane, you are so strong and courageous. How I wish I could be like you!”
“Shhh, you are more courageous than you know Rose. You fought their influence alone, and you saved me from the poison. Use this iron will of yours, for the night is not done. Are you with me?”
“Yes, by God, yes. I shall show you the way.”
Gah, finally. Why do all my motivational talks make the others think of God? I assure you, he was not included in the making of me.
After drying her tears, my guide raises herself to her full height, takes a deep breath and we step outside.
I follow Rose through paths and thickets to the edge of the mountain, until I see it.
If the estate itself has already been impressive, this goes beyond my expectations. Two torches sit in a small clearing with a stone path leading to an impressive gate into the very rock. I am reminded of the vampire fortress access to the underground structure, so grandiose and unexpected the view is. Three guards stand with muskets and torches around it. There will be no sneaking in, at all.
“I need a disguise.”
“Oh, yes, that would be better. Hum, I know!”
I follow her back. The cult’s quarters are not only barracks as I had assumed. The women have their own personal sheds. I assume that Abernathy drags the choice morsels to one of his opulent bedrooms when the urge takes him, so the sheds are meant to provide intimacy for lieutenants. That brings all of them in the rapist category. There is no consent when the alternative is death.
We find an unlocked door which Rose pushes open.
“This used to belong to Sophia but she... She disappeared shortly after I got inducted.”
Guilt mars her expression before she regains control. She does have a good heart. As for the dearly departed Sophia, I do not doubt that she was set as an example. I do not believe for a moment that Abernathy believes in the sanctity of human lives.
In short order, I put on a maid uniform. It is a bit tight around the hips as usual. It will be a pain to move in.
We clean up and reach the gate once more. There are four sentinels this time, all alert. Most of them wear a dull brown overcoat except one. He is wearing all white and radiates arrogance. Behind me, I can hear shouts and the barks of dogs.
It appears that someone kicked the hornet’s nest.
Rose leads the way and I smell tainted blood. A drying pool of respectable size was spilled to the door’s right.
Four pairs of eyes follow us and when we arrive, one of the men interrupts us.
“And what are you doing here, Rose?”
“We carry a message for the jailers. Let us through.”
“Do you, now? And why are you the one to carry this message? Should it not be a guard as usual?”
I smell fear from her. She is about to falter. As expected, she is not one for deceit.
“All the guards are covering the ground so they can flush out the intruders, sir.”
The man turns to me and raises an eyebrow. His eyes roam over my body with a complete lack of decency. He might be clean and tidy, but there is something twisted about him that reminds me of the Lancaster. Malice backed by cunning.
“Hmm. And who might you be?”
“Ari sir, I... I... drank yesterday.”
The man is more alert and careful than all the others put together. I put out my best act. I lower my head in embarrassment. I am the newcomer, not quite yet indoctrinated.
I feel fingers reaching for my chin.
MAIM GUT KILL.
No, later, he is no threat to me. I can kill him when I want.
He lifts my face. I keep my eyes lowered so he doesn’t see the fury in them.
“You do have the pure skin...”
“Leonard! This is not the time for your games!”
Rose came to my defense.
“Of course, I will see you two... later.”
Rose grabs my hand. We rush up some stupid stairs.
Breathe in, breathe out. I can do it. Everything is under control. I will free the stumbling idiots then TEAR LIMB RIP HEAD PULL INNARDS.
Can’t look up now. Silent Watcher hidden. Must focus.
Rose quietly guides me up a massive central staircase and then through a big side door. The two men guarding it let us pass without a word.
I smell Dalton’s blood. Not enough to kill him. Soooo intoxicating. Why did I ever refuse him? He shall be rewarded for his efforts, I will bless him with my kiss. A proper vassal.
Yes, I will do all of that.
The passage we take is much darker than the previous one. The stone is rough and sparsely lit by torches. We follow it to yet another door, without guard this time. I get in to the sound of flesh hitting flesh.
We stand in an antechamber. It is a guard post of sorts, with chairs, a rough wooden table with a deck of cards and a rack holding rifles and crude sabers. A pistol was left unattended and its handle bears the enticing smell of Dalton’s blood.
Light shines through an opening leading to a well-lit chamber ahead. I hold Rose and take a moment to lock the door with a set of keys next to it, which I then hide in a barrel. I open the firing mechanism of every musket I find and let the powder drop on the ground.
After I am done, we cross the threshold.
This is a large guards room, mostly devoid of furniture but for chests and table set against the wall. Five men are gathered in a circle kicking the prostrated form of Dalton.
No, HE IS MINE TO DISPOSE OF AS I WISH.
“Gentlemen? Excuse me? Hello?”
The group slows the beating. They blink and look at us like people waking up from sleep. It seems that most guards lack something essential, a sense of self perhaps. They are just too passive.
A bit like...
“We are here to see the prisoners. One of you will lead us to them. Now.”
I sense resistance. They are still human, and I do not fit into the category of people who can give them orders. They stir.
“We were sent by the Master himself. Do not waste his time.”
I back the claim by the barest hint of suggestion. I focus on the one who seems most alert.
“Fair enough. Philips, you show them our guests. The rest of you back to your post. And you Wallace, take the boy to a cell.”
Wallace and Philips move and open the reinforced door opposite the entrance with the grace and energy I associate with ruminants.
We follow them inside a narrow corridor lined with cells. I close the door behind us which makes Rose look at me with worry, and catch up to the group. I bypass the girl and lift a truncheon from Wallace’s belt. He does not notice.
Wallace drags Dalton’s unconscious form inside one of the dark rooms. It takes all my self-control not to follow them. The VASSAL NEEDS US. PROTECT THEN CONSUME. No, I shall stick to my plan.
Philips leads us to the very last cell. As the door clanks open, I smash the truncheon in his neck with far too much strength. The noise is covered by the whine of the rusty hinge.
I pick the key and wordlessly hand it to Rose. There must be something wrong with me because she pales and nods frantically. We pass one another.
She stinks. They all do. They do not belong here, on this planet. They need to die.
I get in Dalton’s cell at an unhurried pace. The cow-like guard stares dumbly when I get in. He looks surprised when my hand wraps around his trachea. His eyes bulge when I wrench his neck like a chicken’s. I throw the twitching corpse to the side.
What have they done to my Vassal?
A single liquid eye opens, unfocused. The other is covered by a purple bruise. Blood everywhere. They broke his nose.
Thirsty, so Thirsty.
He lifts a wounded arm to me. I grab his chain. I pop the collar like a rotten piece of fabric.
There is something calm and relaxed in him, a sense of certainty, faith.
I lick the wound on his brow. The blood calls to me. The tear is healed. The Vassal is safer, as it should be. I feel weird, and I feel like I am starving. I need to feed but it will kill him. I don’t want to kill him. He is my Vassal, not cattle. The first one. THE FIRST OF MANY.
Somebody enters behind me. Man, Fresh sweat, Cologne. The adventurer. CAN KILL. No, oath break, oath to Loth. Cannot drink friends and business partner. THIRST.
HAND REACHING FOR ME. NO RIGHT. TEAR LIMB.
“Ah, my apologies, I forgot, Loth. No touching. The boy though…”
“Let me handle it. She is very fragile. Please wait for us outside, aye?”
“Very well my friend, I am sorry.”
“Not yer fault.”
Someone steps out. Mountain and steel get closer. Loth. Ally. Oath. Must not KILL.
“I’ll help him.”
Vassal needs help. Ally can offer. I cannot. Not in control. THIRSTY.
I nod. Yes, ally. Do it.
Mountain and steel leans forward.
“I need to get my supplies back. It’s in the guard room. I will be back.”
“Six little preys, fire sticks neutered. Do not let them run.”
“I am sorry Ariane...”
Stupid, fragile, slow mortals. If Master were here, we could just tear through them and be done. I repeat myself, in English this time.
“Six little preys, fire sticks neutered. Do not let them run.”
Stinky woman comes closer. Temporary ally. Still useful. Displays worry, concern, not a threat. Sounds from exit. Fighting. Noisy one making claims, being boisterous. Sounds of flesh beaten and torn. Can feel the silent rage of the mountain and steel. Good. Soon done. Mountain Is back. Applies magic to Vassal’s wound. Stable. Good.
“We need ta go. Rose, pick Dalton.”
“What about miss Ariane?”
“She will follow and no matter what, do not touch her, aye?”
The stinky woman picks up the Vassal with reverence. Care. Only stinky, still useful. Tolerate for now. Cannot touch Vassal. Could kill.
Follow through doors, bowels of rock. Stinky woman guides from behind. Reach vast staircase. Go up. Hear sounds. Go left. Close access.
They go up. I follow, I do not follow. Something in the way. Metal bars with Silver thingie. Magic.
“Ari, look at me.” Says steel and mountain. I do.
“You need to go back and hide before they find us. We triggered the alarm. Try to hide. We’ll come back for you alright? You need to make it out."
I nod. Try to hide. THIRST.
Know where to hide. Up.
Climb up, one hand, one foot on each wall. Hidden. Wait.
Men come in. A dozen. Torches.
A dog whimpers.
Three of them are dressed in white, the other ten or so, in brown.
The dog panics.
Two of the white ones are arguing. Dog tries to run. One of the white ones frowns. Sniffs the air. Brows raise.
It looks up.
It sees me.
I am no longer hidden.
Something bumps against my chin. It is a pendant. I know it. Inside there is a note stained by tear.
It says this:
“I love you, remember your promise.”
I cannot die before my father. I made the oath.
“Well my pretty, let’s get you down.”
There are no witnesses here. Only the stinky ones and my oath.
Beautiful patterns in shades and strands. Pure red, stained beyond measure, both holy and blasphemous. I can hear them sing. They long to be free. I have ten needles and eight knives. The eight knives cannot do. They, too, are holy. The needles are used for dirty work, like now.
Patterns flow free and pure. Other patterns fall towards me, they want to stop the dance but cannot. The dance is alive with the song of the night, the purity of the Hunt. Brown canvas falls quickly, the white canvas leave so that they are the head of the painting. It is alright, they are leading me to something greater.
I go through a neck in the fabric. More brown pieces of canvas join at the shoulders. I follow the three white ones towards the right arm. Some of the canvas use faster and noisier patterns and one of them bites into me. It does not hurt much, but a little of the precious liquid is lost. My own ink. It calls for more, too concentrated. Strong but tired. I need more so that I can keep painting.
More canvas is unmade as potential and made as fleeting perfection. Their strands blow like stars and bouquets, beautiful and rotten. The three go to another neck. I follow, there is no more brown canvas.
I enter a room. A circle on the ground. Yet another canvas stands with the three others.
This one is untainted. I can get more ink!
I move forward and the circle comes alive. Patterns of silver block my way.
I am trapped?
Keep pushing the pattern until I…
Hurts hurts hurts hurts dammit. So Thirsty so Thirsty cannot take it anymore. Never since Moore… Alright, need to focus.
“I knew your kind would show up. Your arrogance and selfishness know no bounds. You try to keep the secrets of immortality to yourselves! But you will not triumph, oh no, this is a new world and a new century. A time of science and enlightenment. No longer will your powers be in the hands of the few. I shall usher in a New Age of…”
Breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out. Push the pain away from the core. Think. Instincts will not help here.
I am inside of a magic circle.
I am trapped.
But not all is lost. Loth taught me the basics of magic and I know what I can do to escape.
Magic requires three things: power, symbolism, and will.
The power feeds magic in the working.
Symbolism is the core of the working. Symbols are used to translate power into concepts. Mages use runes, bones, dice, and so on to give a frame, boundaries.
Will shapes the meaning and unleashes it upon the real world.
Thus is intent made manifest and reality is altered.
I do not have Power; therefore I cannot cast spells. Loth mentioned that old vampires can use blood magic but this is an impossibility for me. I cannot counter the spell. I cannot stop the power, nor the will.
I can, however, ruin the symbols.
I slowly grab Jimena’s gift from a holster against my thigh. Everything hurts. I can’t even stand straight, so intense is the pain in my guts. I look at the circle. I recognize the runes. Western Standard. All mages from Europe use it, with minimal variation. There should be. There. The rune for Ulz, containment. I stab towards it.
Burns, Skin scalded but "containment" rune is now "understanding" rune. The circle flickers. The man stops talking. Need one more. Change hand. Find another Ulz. Stab.
Dry sobs, Other hand hurts. Firesticks roar and something punches me in the left arm, something else in my breast. I cough blood. Arm dangles. Dagger fallen. Pick up with other arm.
I walk forward, too wounded to run, too weak to move. A man in white is too stunned. Slit throat. Tainted blood. Need the leader. Another man jumps at me.
I swipe where I know the spell will lash. Easy to predict. The man falters. I stab him. I keep moving.
Leader back against the wall. Cannot fight anymore… Barely enough strength to…
“Noooo stay away!”
Nasty dagger aimed at my chest. Cannot block. Need to take and bite at the same time.
Mind pops like a bubble.
Dark red blood spills on the ground.