“And what is this?” I ask as I get out of the carriage.
We are in the middle of a meadow off the beaten path. Besides Loth’s moving fortress there is also another one, an actual coach of outdated but solid make.
“That’s yer ride. I need to keep Asni and the wagon with me, ya know?”
“Yes yes, I was referring to the man.”
A prisoner kneels between Loth and Dalton. Sinead is standing a hundred paces away, busy drawing a pile of something in a notebook. From the smell, I assume it to be carrion.
“We were set upon by bandits, if you would believe it. We thought you might want some breakfast.”
The captive’s eyes widen in surprise. Having someone hunt for me feels like a bad habit to develop but I would not want this man's life to go to waste. I can indulge for a night, I suppose.
I draw closer and take in the man’s appearance.
Is this some sort of test?
“Is something the matter, Ari?”
“Loth dear, do not tell me you have not noticed what is wrong? This man is no bandit.”
“Excellent.” Whispers the wind.
We all turn to Sinead as he makes his way to us.
“I was afraid that you would simply miss it, Nightwalker. I am pleased that it is not so. As part of our agreement on safe passage, I believe I still owe you a bit of information and so I have decided to turn it into an impromptu lesson. Consider it a mark of appreciation for yesterday's timely assistance.”
The Fae pockets his book and pen then turns to me with his hands against the small of his back. There is an intensity and fire to him that even his gaunt figure cannot dim. He smiles, pleased like a well-fed cat.
“Trickery, lies, and deception. Those are the greatest tools of your kind. It is not the strength of your arms that moves nations against one another, but a well-placed letter, a forlorn love or a single word at the right time. We both know why it must be so, do we not?”
It is so because we would lose ourselves then lose our lives to a united humanity. There is no need to voice this, however.
“And how do they unravel, those plots and conspiracies? By the pull of a single thread. Find one inconsistency, unmask one perpetrator and the whole scheme falls apart like a house of cards. This is why it is so exciting, no? Patience and meticulous planning against paranoia and observation. The eternal balance of the secret battlefields. Tell the class, oh dweller in the dark. Tell us what you saw. And then I shall guide you on the next step.”
I am loath to indulge him, however I am quite eager to learn from his experience.
“This man smells like soap and his clothes are rumpled but clean. His beard is trimmed and I can smell wax. Expensive. His skin is too healthy for someone who spends much time outside in squalor. Finally, his self-discipline is admirable. He is ex-military and lives in town. This is a mercenary.”
“Precisely! Observe the clean shoes as well. Amateurs always get the shoes wrong. And the guns! Too expensive. Too modern. Outlaw outfits rarely manage to obtain uniform gear. No, we have been deliberately attacked.”
Dalton and Loth are only surprised but for a moment. Soon, their gazes turn calculating and our prisoner fear turns to stark terror.
“And before you two lovable meatheads take out the pliers and hot coals, I would ask your patience. I wish to instruct the Lady of the House in the subtle arts of suggestion.”
Oh, this is going to be good.
“What annoys me the most on this forsaken plane of existence is not the fact that your kind enslaved my own. It is not even my unfulfilled wish to regain my true power so that I may turn my jailors into quivering piles of flesh for all of eternity, no. What truly sets me off is how pathetically primitive your mind techniques are. You had millennia of existence to come up with something fun and still miserably failed! I know that good techniques are wasted on mortals, but still, for the love of art! You should not settle for mediocrity! It is thus my greatest pleasure to introduce you to this most hallowed of pursuit. Now, Nightwalker, how do you perceive your own Charm?”
“Like a rope.”
Sinead turns into the living embodiment of condescension. I need to learn how to draw properly so that I may immortalize the arrogance on his face if only to have a frame of reference when I eat him later.
“A rope. Truly. I expected so little and am still disappointed. Well, do you notice that this rope changes as you proceed with the manipulation?”
“Yes. It can be strong or weak, taut or loose and it frays under pressure, just like my tolerance for rude behavior.”
“Yes, hrm, a fair point. Obviously the strength of the bond reflects the depth of the relationship. Time and genuine care will improve it better than brute strength. The frays appear when you force your victims to do something against their will. The more unreasonable or absurd the request, the more they will fight it. Even the frailest human mind will buckle and fight if you, say, ask them to kill their own child.”
I hope he does not speak from experience, that would be rather distasteful.
“You will, if you focus, notice colors and patterns in your... rope. They are the marks of emotion. Not all bonds are the same. I find that love trumps all, though terror is a close second. Now, the basics. What do you think is the most important thing in manipulation?”
“Wrong, though not entirely out of topic. The answer is: the other. You are not stabbing a target, you are painting a masterpiece. Every working is different even when it involves the exact same person. You need to understand your target to some extent so that you may obtain the best results. A proper session is nine parts eloquence and one part magic. Without eloquence, you will not even understand which are the best questions to ask."
"Let me take an example. You, Vassal, what is the first question you would ask our guest?"
“Hum, do you have mates and are they on their way here?”
“Not bad! I’ll give you three out of ten. The proper question is: am I in immediate danger? What tells you that his 'mates', as you call it, are the only things that threaten your life? Hmm? What’s your name lad? How should I call you?”
The man struggles a bit before admitting to himself that this is not exactly vital information.
“And Hendricks. Do you believe me to be in immediate danger?”
“Maybe a little bit eh?”
The man reluctantly nods.
“It’s not that the knife would have saved you. You saw us fight. Do you believe yourself fast enough to capture a hostage? Indeed not. Now be a good lad and drop it on the ground.”
Dalton pales as an open straight razor drops from the captive’s bound hands. Loth seems a bit displeased.
“First thing I’ll teach ye when we’re back is how ya frisk properly.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
“Now, now, do not let yourselves be distracted! Remember, open-ended questions! Do not let your preconceived ideas get in the way of the truth. Do not demand a flower when you could inquire about the whole bouquet.”
“What are you doing to me?!” Asks the mercenary in a panic.
Sinead considers him for a second as if remembering that this is an actual living being and not just the point of his demonstration. How does the puppet dare speak out of turn?
Before things can get any further I step forward and our eyes meet.
I smile kindly and brush a strand of errant hair behind his ear.
“Shhh do not worry, my friends are a tad strange, but I am here for you. You are safe now as long as we get what we want. You want to help us, don’t you? Help us then leave?”
“Hendricks was it?”
“My name is Ari. These men here just want to protect me. Do you understand?”
“You are strong. And courageous. Are you an army man?”
“Yes ma'am, I was a Marine before I signed up with this outfit.”
“A Marine eh? You served aboard a ship then?”
“Yes ma'am, I had the honor of serving aboard the USS Wasp!”
“Indeed! And you signed with 'your outfit' afterwards then?”
“Yes, ma'am, seven months ago, hrm. The pay is very good. You understand, I am sure.”
“Of course! Soldiers are never well paid, even during a war, are they not?”
“Absolutely ma'am. A disgrace is what it is.”
“And I understand that your current employer would better reward a man of your talents?”
“Yes, they do what needs to be done and they know who to hire for that.”
Keep him talking, keep him saying yes, build a rapport, make him talk about himself. Those are all things that I learned from my dad and from Achilles. I understand now that this is the heart of Charm. My ability to mesmerize is only one more tool in my arsenal and if I am not careful it will become a crutch. I will have to use it now, however, if I hope to reach the next part of our conversation. I place my hands on the sides of his head. He is close now. My cool breath ruffles his dark hair.
“It sounds dangerous.”
“Why yes, it is, obviously...”
“You have been placed in danger, my good Hendricks, by incompetent people,” I add with a frown.
“Yes, in danger.”
“They don’t know how to work with you. They didn’t know how to use your skills. Yes?”
“Don’t you think it’s unfair? You’re so good at what you do, and they waste your potential so...”
“Truly unfair. We should do something about it. We are friends, are we not?”
“And friends protect and help each other. Yes?”
“Yes, protect and help.”
“So we should go and see them, those that sent you here.”
“Yes, they are not far.”
“Yes, they wanted us to bring you to them.”
“Us as in....”
“Either the bearded one or the blonde woman.”
“And that is why you were hired?”
“They showed themselves to you?”
“Yes. Two officers from the continental army. Bunch of pricks.”
“I bet they looked arrogant and thought they were better than anyone else.”
“Yes. Yes! Just because they are still in service. As if they didn’t buy their rank! Hah!”
“This place is desolate. How would you ever find them?”
“Easily Ari, just follow the road west until you come across an abandoned farm with brown brick walls and a burned down barn. They are waiting there.”
“Thank you, Hendricks. Gentlemen?”
“I want to talk to those fine gentlemen promptly. Do hurry.”
“Go ahead lass.”
“Bon appétit, Mistress.”
Normally, feeding is an intimate experience. In this specific case, I make it quick and lethal.
There is something empowering about draining someone to death while surrounded by three killers. Even if the act of drinking should make me vulnerable, I am not afraid, because they are on my side. All those present know what I am and accept it, well, all those that will survive anyway.
I am making a statement and I like it. Out of those killers, I am also the deadliest. My feeding shows my lack of concern. It is as much a show of self-confidence as it is one of trust.
I have achieved much in the past year.
“We are expected, gentlemen. Shall we?”
“Aye lass, can’t wait to see those twats again.”
We are polite monsters. Sinead kindly requests to sit next to me to continue the lesson which leaves poor Dalton to eat our dust.
“No worries Mistress. Just make sure you learn all you can!”
We sit down next to Loth and Sinead immediately turns to me with a smile.
“You are a natural, Nightwalker, but you miss the point. You are far too ruthless, too result-driven. Charm is an art that should be enjoyed for the sake of it. Aaaah, how many masterpieces has my race created over the eons, games millennia-long won by those we never even suspected of playing? How pleasant the retelling! Ah, but I digress. It will come to you in time I am sure. The young ones are always eager to go for the immediate reward instead of one matured to perfection. No matter. Now I shall teach you how to force a mood, then we shall move on to memory alteration and defense bypasses. The basics, really.”
We spend a good hour working on each other. Sinead feels like a genius swordsman fighting with a spoon. He is blocked from most of his capabilities and yet his skill is undeniable. His insights are keen beyond compare and I feel myself progressing with incredible swiftness. I believe that he simply is the best Charm teacher on the planet at this moment, and my opinion of him improves drastically. We only stop when we are in sight of the abandoned farm mentioned by the dearly departed Hendricks.
“Excellent. Now let me see you apply this lesson to your next target.”
All four of us silently sneak through the overgrown edge of the farm. I lead the way by tracking the smell of fresh sweat and bad cologne while Sinead manifests a light that only we can see.
Without surprise, we spot Captain Lannes and his arrogant subordinate smoking nervously in the lunar shade of a great pine tree. I can smell the musk of their anxiety with the barest onset of panic. They are perfectly ripe.
“Someone wants them?” I whisper.
“I think you need them for practice, Mistress, lessons applied on the spot are the easiest to remember.”
“I concur with the mortal.”
“I want to watch ye at work lass, make it fun.”
I stealthily move up and around. They have horses in the distance and more interestingly, a few unlit torches on the ground.
“I don’t like this, they are taking too long!”
“Shut up, Jenkins.”
Aha! I did not know the other imbecile’s name. Since they have their back to me it is trivial to steal one of the torches as well as a match. It takes me a few tries to light one, however when the sound of burning Sulphur reaches their ears, they turn just in time for flames to shed light on my pale visage.
Both men freeze with their hands on their pistols while I smile cordially.
I do so love this moment when it dawns on them that the nature of the hunt is not as it seems, that their condition is not that of the predator. My fangs are still hidden, and my claws tucked away, but they know. Deep inside, they know.
“Why the cold shoulder, gentlemen? Was I not expected?”
I walk slowly to the side as I speak. The predator in me taught me how to walk better, and it has become increasingly easier to bring this skill forward. My step is as assured as it is silent. I still walk as a human in public but here I do not have to. I know the feeling I give, more sinuous. Predatory.
The men instinctively take a step back. Lannes knows something is wrong. He is hesitating. I can hear the cogs turning in his panicked brain:
'We have been found out and the sellswords defeated, but why is this woman here? Why is it not Loth holding me at gunpoint?'
'And why am I so afraid?'
I know the answer. Their well-honed instincts are telling them something is wrong while their societal mind tells them I am harmless.
Lannes takes out his pistol and cocks it threateningly. My eyes meet his and Jenkins’ and I capture their attention.
Following Sinead’s advice, I taste the connection. I still visualize it as ropes but this time there is a hint of colors and more details on its strength. There is fear here, as well as disdain and mistrust. I could brute force attraction, perhaps, but it would defeat the purpose of the exercise. I am here to learn how to properly Charm someone and as my improvised mentor said, it is an art.
“You are under arrest! Now tell us where Loth Delaney is!”
The rope on Jenkins’ side vibrates as a new emotion runs through it. I recognize it well. Discomfort and embarrassment.
“Under arrest? For what crime and under what authority, pray tell? Do you claim to serve justice as you lurk in the dark like a highwayman?”
“You and your ilk may have fooled the Tillersons and most of the garrison but I know better, oh yes! You are criminals and traitors of the vilest sort!”
“So you are acting on your own! Breaking the law by ordering hired thugs to abduct citizens? Are those the actions of law-abiding men? Is this not the sort of thing our fathers fought to end not two decades ago?”
Yes! I knew it, Jenkins does not approve. With the lightest touch, I fan the flames of paranoia in both their hearts. It is difficult to affect two people at once but I still manage it with patience and concentration. With minute detail, Lannes’ second reaches for his own gun while keeping a wary eye on his commanding officer.
“I do what is necessary to protect us from outside influence!”
“Whatever are you talking about?”
“Do not play coy with me! You are foreign agents!”
“Those are preposterous accusations that you pulled out of your hat! You have no reasonable cause to insult us so!”
I lace the challenge with the barest hint of suggestion, just enough to make him choose outrage over caution.
“Schaffer was a spy!”
What!? Oh my GOD this is Bingle’s fault! Again! Aaaarg!
“Flora Schaffer! The woman your British scoundrel followed was an asset for Prussia and your so-called adventurer knew it. Why else would he track her all the way to this god-forsaken mudhole?!”
“Love of course, you monster. He was madly in love with her!”
I do not even need to act for Jenkins’ discomfort to turn to doubt. Few people would be comfortable placing “Bingle” and “intelligence”, foreign and otherwise, in the same sentence.
“And what a strange thing to assert, Captain. Your covert actions do not strike me as those of a man mandated by the government! Where do these accusations come from, I ask? Not from our own spies I’d wager!”
“You! I do not have to justify myself before a scandalous woman of dubious origin!”
And now we have anger, the last primal dye to add to this first painting. It only takes a nudge to set the stone in motion.
“As a matter of fact…” says Jenkins. “I would like to know from whence this belief came, sir.”
“You dare!” adds Lannes, incensed, “I will not be questioned by the likes of you!”
Oh, this is almost too easy.
“The likes of me!?” screams the second man in outrage.
“You are naïve, Jenkins! People like me are what stands between our country and tyranny. We are the shield of civilization against the machinations of the old world and its darkest creations!”
“So you admit being part of a conspiracy!” I add with delight.
“It is no conspiracy! We protect the nation!”
“In secret and against our will! That is a conspiracy! Hah! Who is the traitor now?”
“The Brotherhood of the New Light is no group of rakes you wench! And you…”
Lannes takes a step back from his subordinate and his pistol sways towards the man’s chest but the righteous Jenkins has had enough. He jumps and manages to seize his opponent’s arm. Both of them fall and struggle on the ground with grunts of effort and anger.
I watch, fascinated. Admittedly it got out of hand before I could learn more but I don’t care. This is… Beautiful.
A shot rings under the canopy with the distinct sound of gored flesh.
Jenkins recoils in horror from the mangled form of his superior. Only a gurgling scream can be heard in the dead silence, coming from the ravaged half-face of his victim. The sinus and other cavities are exposed to the air. One eye has been burnt from its orbit and as I stare, arterial blood splurts from the ghastly wound with every heartbeat.
Ah, what a waste.
With a step, I walk to Jenkins and use his pistol to finish off the Captain cleanly, as the Hunt demands.
And now I have a whimpering and guilt-stricken human to handle. This is so annoying. He tried to kill you, he failed, and you killed him. The logic is sound. You were not even friends!
“Jenkins… It’s over calm down.”
“It’s over, it’s all over! I committed a murder!”
“No. Jenkins, look at me. There. Good. You defended yourself against someone you thought you trusted.”
“Hah,” he sobs, “as if it mattered in a court of law!”
“There will be no court of law.”
“What? But… I killed him.”
“No, I killed him. I pulled the trigger.”
Jenkins stops to consider. I use this and the barest hint of suggestion to talk about conspiracy and duty, how Lannes' associates must never know that they were found out and some such nonsense about sacrifice, the good of the nation and whatnot.
“You are correct miss Delaney, I must uncover this vile plot! I shall return and head a discreet inquiry, starting with this traitor’s personal correspondence. But… What of the body?”
“I came here to get answers but my companions are not far behind. The mercenary’s ambush made them irate, as I am sure you understand. If you leave quickly I should be able to convince them to let you go, and take care of the remains beside.”
“But what should I tell the others?”
“Nothing. You know nothing of this man’s desertion. I am sure that a thorough search of his personal effects will shed some light on the matter.”
“Yes… Yes you are correct. Thank you Ms. Delaney, thank you! I shall return, and should I find something I will keep you and your uncle in the confidence. I will get to the bottom of this yet! Goodbye Ms. Delaney! Cecily was right, you are a true heroine.”
Then the brave soldier takes his horse and leaves in a gallop.
A true heroine, huh, at least he did not mention God this time.
As the sound of hooves pounding the ground recedes in the distance, I hear a slow clap. The trio of men exits the undergrowth with a grinning Sinead at the head.
“A capital performance young Ariane. Aaaaaah it is so pleasant to see a new talent enter the scene. A first rendition of “the False Egress” and “the Turning of the Friend” in a single night! That is two out of the five basic plots as described by Arakus the elder in his famous anthology. You need but “the Unrequited Love”, “Brother Bane” and “the Apprentice” and you will have completed an important rite of passage for us Likaeans. I am most pleased, most pleased!”
I am not sure what to do so I curtsey awkwardly. This is the first time Sinead does not address me as “Nightwalker” I believe. I will take the compliment.
“Let us travel together tonight so that I may impart a few more pieces of knowledge upon you, then we will split ways. Fate will bring us together again in the future. Of this, I am sure!”
Before we leave, we draw straws to determine who will bury the bodies and I lose. From the other’s innocent faces I highly suspect foul play, yet I decide not to press the issue. I made this body after all. As I dig and later, as we travel, I soak up Sinead's knowledge for all I can until dawn and exhaustion creep upon me.