Forget about gentle reserve, this man is utterly scandalous! Who would ask something like that on the first night? This is bold, quite bold in fact!
“Isaac! How outrageously daring of you!”
His face scrunches in displeasure. His shame must be great indeed for him to display it so.
“Of course, Ariane, I must apologize for being so very forward, yet I beg you hear me out before you pass a final judgement. My awkward request is dictated by the current circumstances.”
“Well, I admit to being surprised. You do strike me as a man of exquisite manners so I imagine those circumstances you mentioned must be great for you to breach protocol so.”
“I have never hunted in my whole life.”
WHAT?! He… What? A vampire that never!? Are my ears deceiving me?
“Surely you are jesting Isaac, you mentioned being alive in seventeen fifty-six. I refuse… I simply CANNOT accept that you… That is impossible.”
“Ah, your reaction does not surprise me. On the contrary, it shows you are the best person on the planet to fulfill my request.”
“Isaac! Hunters is what we ARE. You cannot not hunt! It… Gah!”
My companion smiles sadly and it occurs to me that in my surprise, I have insulted him.
“Forgive me Isaac, I meant no disrespect. I assumed you had someone specific in mind?”
“Yes, although I do not know who or more importantly, how many. What would you ask in return for this service?”
“I know not what you can offer.”
“How about this: shall you manage to garner enough support to petition House status, and should you commit no atrocities, I will add my personal recommendation to the pile. Although I am not part of the Accords, the reputation of one such as I would be of use to you.”
“I do not know the value of this recommendation.”
I will only consent to a fair deal. Isaac and I are not friends like I am with Jimena, therefore I owe him no favor but the courtesy of listening.
“When your petition is heard, your survival shall be made public with all the consequences that entails. When the Lancaster inevitably seek to regain custody over you, they will not be able to invoke your master’s agreement with them since you successfully escaped their grasp. However, they shall surely claim that you are a danger to the community and yourself and must be placed under strict control, theirs obviously, as they managed to prevent you from rampaging for six months. There will be a trial of sorts during which I shall attest that we met, and that you were polite and composed.
Constantine has a rational mind and we have a reputation for impartiality. He will know that both the Lancaster and your allies are biased. We of the Rosenthal bloodline are known for our reliability and impartiality. This will have a major impact on his decision, I assure you. Please do note that if you start slaughtering villages, I will no longer stand at your side. You understand, I am sure.”
“You are offering a conditional, future and intangible reward to an immediate service.”
“I solemnly swear that I believe it to be to your advantage.”
For anyone else I would refuse, however a vampire that swears an oath is telling the truth. Isaac does believe it to be to my advantage and his knowledge of our political system far outstrips mine. I would be wise to take this into consideration.
He does not move.
“So? Who are we killing?” I ask with burgeoning impatience.
“Right, yes. For the past three months, women have been disappearing around the city. At least seven of them, though it would be difficult to know for sure due to the low social standing of the victims.
Normally, I would not be involved, because we operate under strict principles of neutrality, and because my Master is particularly insistent on us never fighting.”
“Yes, this is our tradition, our values. We are meant to be withdrawn from the conflicts of the world and focus on arbitration and preservation. Our power comes from our wealth and alliances; as such we are encouraged not to draw blades ourselves.”
“That sounds… Tedious, and frustrating.”
“It would be an impossibility for you, Ariane. Your line is not called that of the Devourer for nothing. Your extra fangs that allow feeding in the midst of battle are for one thing only: to keep killing, again, and again, until you are the last ones standing.”
“Hold on… Hold on… Are you telling me that only we can Devour?”
“Indeed! As we are meant to be the depository of knowledge and records through our superior mind, you are made to stand alone against all.”
“…It does not seem to be going well for us.”
“That would be because your Master cares not about you, unfortunately. In any case, I… Have not yet managed a hunt from one end to another. Master would disapprove.”
“They do not have to know.”
“Oh, she will. The Consortium’s mortal employees report to her.”
Being spied upon by one’s own followers? This is absolutely unthinkable. How can he not slay them, unless… Ah, he is compelled to follow his master’s orders.
“Should you not be more worried?”
“Listen, I have served the clan faithfully for more than seventy years. I obeyed every order without fault and made major contributions to our success. Now there is a killer on the loose in MY territory, and my servants have so far failed to apprehend them. So, I will solve the problem myself! If my Master has objections, she can voice them when I return…. Thirteen months from now.”
“Your defiance is admirable, I suppose, though I hope I will not share your punishment, as your accomplice.”
“Ariane, I am sorry there is no pleasant way to put it… You are not important enough to warrant her attention.”
Well, that is humbling. Now that I am finally reconnected with other vampires, I am reminded that I am but a discarded ex-Fledgling in a Frontier region with no connections and no power. Perhaps living isolated for so long has made me forget where I currently stand in the Night’s pecking order. I find myself wanting to remedy that at some point in the future. I will not stay at the bottom. I refuse.
“Very well. Now as I mentioned, the latest disappearance happened at nightfall. If we hurry, we may be able to gather clues from the crime scene.”
Clues? Crime scene?
“I am not sure I follow.”
“We shall inspect where the victim disappeared and infer the nature and identity of the culprit from... things he may have left behind.”
“Oh, I believe I understand. You are taking a scientific and methodical approach to crime solving. Yes?”
“Indeed. You... do not?”
“No. This must be necessary in big cities but is superfluous in smaller communities. If the town you live in has two hundred inhabitants, the list of potential lawbreakers is extremely short. It is either one of the handful of troublemakers or a traveler passing by. A quick interrogation is normally enough to clear any doubts.”
“Ah, naturally, yes, naturally. I hope it will be that easy this time. Let us depart promptly.”
Shadowed by Dalton, we arrive in the poorer area of Savannah fifteen minutes later. The houses there grow like uneven teeth. Some are barely bigger than shacks. The smell of humans and their refuse is mitigated by the cold, though not much. Behind that I also smell woodsmoke, soap and food. We walk to a small home, barely more than one room under the scrutiny of all those we come across. Our clean appearance and wealthy clothes set us apart at a time of suspicion. This is not right. We are meant to stand out like roses in a sea of grass, not like sore thumbs. The whole process makes me uncomfortable and only the urgency of our task prevents me from asking Isaac for the opportunity to get changed.
We stop in front of an edifice of unpainted and unadorned wood and stone no different from the others around it. The sickly browns and greys of what passes as architecture here is so dreary that I believe putting the entire district to the torch would only improve its appearance.
My companion knocks. Inside, I can hear three beating hearts belonging to two children and a crying woman. Perhaps we can hear what they have to say?
“Go to hell!”
Well, we’re off to an auspicious start.
“Excuse me madam, we are here about the missing woman.” I say in a calming voice.
I hear a brief inhale, then heavy footsteps until the door opens with a bang.
“Who the fuck are you?!”
I give her my best disarming smile and extend the courtesy of not tearing out her throat for provoking me. She is, after all, grieving.
“This is Isaac Rosenthal, a concerned citizen and Conall Dalton, the best bounty hunter in Georgia. I understand that there is a person missing?” I ask as I capture the woman with my eyes.
I lightly push despair at the forefront.
“She’s gone! Nobody believes me, nobody! The coppers say she is just a whore turning tricks somewhere else but I know her, she said she would be home and she’s always where she’s supposed to be, and the room was a mess, and...Waaa.”
I slightly pull the woman forward and pat her head. Her hair is dry and coarse under my touch but she smells clean.
I comfort her for a while and ask her to invite us in. We follow her into the single room.
The place speaks to me of dignity in the face of adversity. The white plastered walls are bare, the furniture all cobbled together from rough wood, some of it falling apart. What pots can be found are chipped and in the middle of it all stands a bed in a state of disarray. I can now tell for sure that the disappeared woman was indeed “turning tricks”, as the smell of tobacco and stale sex is unmistakable.
I seat the woman in a rickety chair under the worried gazes of two young children, a boy and a girl. They have the lost expression of those who know that something tragic has occurred, yet do not understand the implications.
“Are they here for mama?”
I was mistaken, they do understand.
“Yes, we are. Now go sit on the bed while I talk to my new friend here.” I add with a hint of suggestion. I am bound to find the victim, that does not mean I have to suffer the presence and constant nagging of her spawn.
“Now tell us what happened.”
While our host babbles, I steal a look towards Isaac and I immediately understand how he could maintain his sanity all those years. His very mind is predatory.
Dalton looks aloof, taking in a few details but generally acting as a sentinel. By comparison, my kin is like a bloodhound. His gaze shifts from one element to another with absolute concentration, noting every detail and cataloguing them before switching to the next with a logic that only he can follow. No one here exists. He is in a world of his own where his intellect peels apart and dissects every bit of detail, every information his mind can capture.
It appears my role has been decided, I shall calm the mortal down while he does his thing.
I find the thread of hope in the woman and pull it. Immediately, her tears dry and she tells me her tale. I make sure that she keeps her eyes on me.
My host’s name is Suzanne and her sister is, or was called Christine. She lived alone with her two children and survived mostly through odd jobs. I also learn that it was common for her to place them under her sibling’s care while she was practising the world’s most ancient profession for a few more coins. When Suzanne returned today, she found the house empty and partially damaged. She knew immediately that something had gone wrong, but the neighbors had heard nothing out of the ordinary and seen no unusually suspicious people. The nearby road lies between warehouses and the docks after all, and traffic is heavy even late.
When she finishes, she glares at me as if daring to comment. I understand why she is defensive. Her sister is a cheap prostitute and a scullery maid. She sits at the bottom of a vertiginous social order and there is no reason for us to care, at all.
I find that I care, as much as I care about any other mortal. Those people are on the food chain just like the landowners, the soldiers, and everyone else, and just like everyone else they have their place, beneath me. They have value in what they can bring me and I shall not discard anyone solely because of their social standing.
That is their intrinsic value and it does not even take into consideration the circumstances: that woman was not killed, she was abducted. Nobody died here, at least recently and I know why she was selected.
Somebody went through the trouble of abducting a woman from her home. It is a risky endeavor even with meticulous planning. It speaks of means, will, and some measure of competence. I would be curious as to what motivated this decision.
As to why Christine in particular, it is obvious. She was extremely vulnerable, an outlaw in the most literal sense of the word: someone who the law no longer protects. I would bet good money that the majority of the other victims share a similarity.
If one day I must build myself a nest, those are the people I will recruit, not the posh nobles out for some thrill or the influential merchants, but the outcasts and the fringe members who life has not broken yet, for what they lack in power and influence, they make up in tenacity and scorn. Even now the defiance is Suzanne’s eyes will not be extinguished. They are survivors, like me. I can buy influence and I can influence money. Nothing will replace that sheer will to live.
Completely oblivious to the situation, Isaac suddenly walks up to a curtain and draws it to reveal a back door. He barely pauses before opening it and stepping outside.
Not one for pleasantries I see. Our host certainly looks a bit out of sort at such a cavalier attitude.
Well, time to go. I stand up to leave, Dalton in tow.
“We shall look for her and return to you when we have news.”
“Stay here and take care of your niece and nephew, yes?”
“Yes… Yes, of course.”
Outside, my fellow vampire has crossed a vegetable patch and kneels in front of a path, barely more than a mud trail. A stone wall, refuse, and stacks of firewood block the view in every direction.
Wordlessly, Isaac stands and follows it back towards the warehouse district.
“We are following a carriage?”
“Yes Mistress, there was no indication that the entry was forced so she let them in. It would have been risky to exit a well frequented street with a wrapped body however, so they probably dragged her out of the back door.”
They? I look at the ground and indeed, besides our footsteps I count three more. One of them is very well defined, which hints at quality boots. It is unfortunate that the abductee would let men in without too much fuss as a matter of habit. The kidnappers chose their victim well.
“Isaac, should we not ask the neighbors what they saw?”
“No need, I know more than enough. The woman was neutralized quickly by three men she allowed to enter, then taken out the back and placed in a covered carriage of small size”
Quite confident about the details, are we? I shall see if it is warranted.
I expected us to lose the tracks, this being a busy place, however I was mistaken. The kidnapping was only a few hours ago and it is quite late, so only light traffic was in the street. The distinctive marks have not been entirely erased yet.
We search for an hour. When the tracks are covered, such as in the middle of a busy intersection, Isaac simply inspects every possible exit road until he finds the trail again. Sometimes, men with hungry eyes follow the richly dressed and distracted passerby until a look from Dalton dissuades them. He has grown and filled out quite a bit in the past six months thanks to regular meals, and the glint of a pistol’s handle makes for a compelling argument.
Eventually, our guide leads us to a more remote part of the docks. It is perfectly silent at this time of the night and I am reminded of when I cleared the warehouse as a first task for Baudoin. I assume that just like then, this area is worked by people who know better than to ask questions.
Isaac is inspecting a puzzling set of interlocking tracks when I decide to intervene. I lightly touch his shoulder and he turns around, frustrated. Silently, I tap my nose.
He breathes in and his eyes widen in understanding. It smells like tobacco, more specifically of the same quality as the one we were subjected to while in the hovel. This time, however, it is still burning.
We follow it to its source.
We know we reached our destination when we walk past a city guard in uniform. Red embers from a cigar illuminate his sallow face and his eyes follow us until we leave his sight.
There is no discernible reason for this man to guard a private property, alone, at this time of the night.
So that is how the kidnappers managed to access Christine’s dwelling without a fuss. Not everyone would trust an officer of the law but few would openly defy one. That is especially true for vulnerable people, like those that were taken. He must have demanded that the door be opened to them and they thought better than to cause a commotion. Here, their respect of Justice and its agents were used as a tool by criminals. Truly, fate can be ironic.
We know how and what, now is the time to learn why. I see two possibilities. Either they were abducted for the pleasure of a monster wearing human skin, in which case the Hunt shall end here, or they were taken to be sold or used elsewhere. Breaking in silently will grant us the most options.
I push the men in a side street. I first turn to Dalton.
After working together on quite a few bounties, we have developed a way to communicate by gestures that I am rather proud of. I sign the message slowly and deliberately: Isaac, I, up, hunt, kill, you, go, sentinel, silent, warn, incoming.
His answer is prompt: condition, enemy, come, kill, silent, agreement?
I nod in affirmation. He can eliminate incoming threats at his discretion. I trust him.
With this, Dalton leaves like a shadow and I take a moment to appreciate his skill. After he turns the corner, I climb the wooden walls of the nearest building and stride across the roofs, Isaac in tow.
“Who is that man to you?”
I turn with no small amount of curiosity. Can he not tell?
“That is my Vassal.”
“Impressive. Vassals are the first step towards the creation of a true human servant. You are fortunate to have found one so soon, and powerful for binding him so early in your new life. I admit that your Master’s acumen in selecting candidates is as good as they say.”
I frown in anger. Of coUrsE thE mAstEr was rIgHt to choOse mE… Wait, no, what does he mean? Have I been insulted?
“Please, I meant it as a compliment. You see, most clans are so focused on turning those that are the best soldiers, artists and bankers that they forget to turn those that will be the best vampires.”
“Forgive me, I am getting distracted. Onto the matter at hand.”
I doubt that his bloodline wants for attention span. Either my status is more interesting than finishing the hunt or he was delaying. No matter.
We jump across the narrow ledge separating us from our target. I kneel, close my eyes and focus. Under the creak and groans of wood and the various sounds of the night, there are three heartbeats. It is too difficult for me to discern at this time if the victim is one of them. I need more practice.
The advantage of hunting with a fellow vampire is that I do not need signs. I can whisper and his acute hearing will pick it up while the mortals are none the wiser.
“Three inside. Shall we take out the officer first?”
“Only if we have no choice.”
A strange decision. I do not understand his logic. Why make things complicated? We should just locate the women and kill those that infringe on his territory. Anything else is just… Bah, enough. I agreed to help him. My word is given.
At least avoiding the policeman’s attention should offer some measure of challenge and make the Hunt interesting.
I am an old hand at breaking into warehouses, sadly. The first step is always to scout it.
I walk to the back and lower myself in front of a filthy window. I manage to glimpse the interior through the stained glass.
Three men are playing cards under the light of a lantern. They are sitting around a table in the center of a mezzanine overlooking the ground floor. On the far end, just above the main entrance, I spot a small office. It is barely more than a cage, but it should suffice. I hoist myself back up and invite Isaac to follow. After stopping in front of the office window, I drop down and hang in front of it with my feet in the air and one clawed hand firmly planted into the wall’s wood. Then, I close my eyes.
The noises of the game come into focus. A few hands are played in relative silence until one gets especially heated. As a triumphal “Hah!” echoes in the room, I dig my claw in the frame. My finger pushes through cleanly.
It hurts a little.
I wait in silence as they continue. I remain so far unnoticed.
I slowly lift the lock with my finger and take it out, I then place four claws under the lower rail.
I wait until the next commotion to lift the entire stile. This time, the noise was not entirely covered.
“Did you hear something?”
I still go to the roof as a measure of precaution. A few seconds later, it is not the players but the police officer who comes to check the source of the disturbance. I was heard from the outside. Fortunately, it is too dark for him to notice that the window is still open.
After a perfunctory examination, he leaves.
I admit that this is fun. My foes may be no match for me in a straight fight, but to outwit and outmanoeuvre them so completely is gratifying. Perhaps Isaac did the right thing after all.
As soon as the coast is clear, I quietly slide into the office. The game of cards has resumed though it is more subdued now. I climb over a desk and down to the dusty ground to find that the room is cluttered with a strange hoard of everyday items including tools, ropes, pots and even a toy horse. Someone managed to create a path to the door.
Isaac slides in behind me and his eyes latch on the pile of papers in front of him. Before he can get too absorbed, I whisper.
“Should we not interrogate them? The woman is not here.”
“It would be too noisy, besides, I can get all the answers I need from here,” he answers dismissively.
“Did you, or did you not come here to hunt?” I hiss quietly.
“If you can make them talk without alerting the whole quarter with the commotion, be my guest.”
He then turns and starts sorting and arranging the documents, completely absorbed in his task.
Very well then, you insufferable bookworm. SCARED OF HIS TRUE SELF. WASTE OF ESSENCE. Yet I gave my word, so he remains in charge. He did, however, challenge me.
The walls of the room are nothing but a small separation, they do not even raise all the way to the rafters. What was a handicap when trying to break in discreetly has become an advantage. I jump to a wooden beam and grab it with both talons and knees, then follow it out of the enclosed space. I am now hanging upside down and moving slowly towards the small group. Blood does not rush to my head, making the position strangely relaxing.
Now to choose.
The dominant male is a cruel-looking giant of a man with a respectable pile of coins in front of him. His clothes are grubby and there is something insane about his smile. The two others are wary of him in the typical way of people expecting violence. The second man is dressed as a docker and shows the stigmata of unfortunate souls whose mothers drank heavily during pregnancy. The last man is quite promising. He is a weasely fellow wearing a respectable but ill-fitting suit. His legs are locked around his stool in a death grip; I can also spot dirty and decrepit shoes.
This one is the archetype of the cowardly social climber. He will squeal the most and will likely have observed more than he should have.
I reach the edge of the meagre circle of light, then fish a coin from my pocket.
I throw it at a copper plate placed against the wall.
The coin lands with a small clang as I am already dropping on the ground.
The three men turn their heads away from me.
My left hand closes around the docker’s neck and shatters it as my right lightly punches the weasel’s throat.
I jump across the table and dig my index in the brute’s breastbone.
The pain steals his breath. I grab his shoulder and summersault over his head, grab it and bite deep with all eight fangs.
I devour the man’s life force. I am not feeding, I am making a point.
All the while, my eyes are on the weasel gripping his throat and struggling to take a deep breath. He stares at me with unmitigated terror as his bladder empties under him.
I drop the lifeless body.
Between my toss and now, less than four seconds have passed.
I walk to the weasel with the grace of an immortal predator and lean before him with a red-tinged smile. I am close enough that my breath makes him flinch. He desperately crosses the air in front of him with a trembling arm in a pathetic attempt to ward me off. My smile only grows wider. It is a bit late to try and convert.
“I have some questions. You will answer me, yes?”
He nods frantically, still trying to catch his breath. Rivers of tears fall down his grimy face and from his throat comes a weird keening.
I grab him and drag his mewling form up.
“You are the ones who took the woman tonight?”
“And the other women before?”
“Were they taken here first?”
“Do you know where tonight’s woman was taken?”
“Were all of them taken to the same place?”
He shakes his head.
I walk back to the office and open the door. Isaac has classified and reordered all the books and free papers and is in the process of organizing them, apparently. When I reach him, he turns around and whispers excitedly.
“Ah, you are back, I have found some fascinating tidbits of… Oh.”
Isaac takes in my captive, still hanging from my hand. He is turning a delicate shade of purple.
I smile. He looks a tad uncomfortable. YES, THIS IS WHAT A TRUE HUNT LOOKS LIKE. PAPER DOES NOT BLEED, WEAKLING.
“Tell him where you took the girl, little man.”
“The.. The Frederickson estate.” He manages to croak.
“Good, good. That is consistent with what I found so far. If you just let me...”
“Enough of this Isaac, if you want to find the girl before they move her, we need to act now.”
“Hold on, I just discovered a large illegal human traffic ring, there is...”
“That is not our agreement! You asked me to help you kill the one responsible for tonight’s abduction, not to overturn an entire conspiracy!”
“This is far more important!”
“Are you changing the terms of our agreement, Isaac?” I ask with a deceptively soft voice.
He is about to raise his voice but something in my countenance must have warned him. He pauses instead, then admits with no small amount of reluctance:
“I am not, and my current behavior is defeating the purpose of this whole exercise,” he sighs, “ Let us go, then.”
“Excellent. Do you mind?” I ask as I point to our captive.
“Not at all.”
He gathers a notebook and a few of the papers under his arm and leaves.
Hold on, disposing of the bodies is part of my attributions now?! This little escapade is proving to be increasingly frustrating. Oh well, at least I will face the night with my belly full.