August the 3rd 1812, Higginsville.
I look around Loth’s study number three, the one he usually uses for storage and long-duration experiments. It has now been cleaned, emptied and placed at my disposal for my first complete project. Time and time again, I have conducted my own studies, written my own dissertations and run experiments. This time is different. This time, I am handling this task from beginning to end.
And what a project it is, to go toe to toe with the mysterious Brotherhood of the New Light and prevent it from achieving its nefarious goals.
I will not tolerate this sort of competition.
Sadly, the room is mostly empty at this stage, although this is about to change.
We have a basic map of the South Coast with a pin on Charleston and a few tentative ones in other cities showing possible Brotherhood presence.
We have a list of names, ranging from bankers to officers with possible or proven associations with the group.
We have movements of goods, people and funds, most being sadly outdated.
Finally, we have the object of their current activity and the reason for Jenkins’ demise. His last notes speak of an auction for the sales of a surgery set (mostly intact) belonging to one Andrew Exeter, as well as a shipping manifest for the Leucadia on its trip to New Orleans, dated 1792.
The dearly departed officer mentions that most members know very little about the plan of the whole group, and so rather than going blindly from assumed location to contact and leave a trail of blood, I decided to exert subtlety, for once, and have Dalton consult the Port Authority archives in New Orleans.
Alone, this time.
“I can start whenever, Mistress.”
My Vassal looks a bit rough around the edges. He has been riding for three days straight. His thin moustache, which he has taken to grow lately, is scruffy and his large amber eyes are bloodshot.
“Make your report and then you should catch some rest.”
“Yes, Mistress,” he replies, not quite rolling his eyes.
If I am without artifice, Dalton looks slightly older than me, perhaps like a big brother. This has made him more daring in public, going so far as to give me suggestions! How very daring of him…
I ring so that Loth can join us and soon, we begin.
“I obtained the information we sought without difficulties. The man in charge of the archives is an old bugger with a sharp mind by the name of Kilbride. The first thing to know is that we were not the first to ask about the Leucadia. Some suspicious people came to inquire about the ship not a month ago. He answered fully and politely, though their dubious behavior was suspicious. Lo and behold, two weeks ago he had a break in: two masked men with knives. He burned the brains of one and skewered the other with a cavalry saber from his days in the light dragoons. The curious thing is that they were quite strong and did not attempt to steal anything. It is obvious that there was an attempt to silence him.”
“That is very thorough, my Vassal. If we have further need of him, we may need to offer some measure of protection.”
“That will not be necessary Mistress, I know all he knows on the matter.”
Dalton straightens up and clears his throat before continuing.
“The British Merchant ship Leucadia was due in New-Orleans in October 1792, however it never arrived and was believed to be lost with all hands. The crew manifest from a previous voyage mentions one Andrew Exeter as ship doctor. This implies that the Brotherhood is after something, or someone, who was on the ship, and that the wreck itself must have been located for the surgery kit to resurface.”
“I checked the shipment manifest, there was nothing of note.”
“There were also no mentions of the ship taking passengers both in the archives and on the notes we recovered. That does not mean that there were none. I suspect that the Leucadia may have been used by smugglers or even the Brotherhood itself to transport sensitive goods or individuals. Illegal transport was and still is prevalent around here.”
“So, we know that they were after what the ship transported. That does not tell us what it was.”
“No, lass, it does not, but do let the boy finish.”
Dalton nods in approval before continuing.
“We were fortunate in having the Archivist survive. He recognized his dead assailants as the men who had come to ask him questions and reported it to the guards. The lawmen, however, saw the dead bodies and considered the matter closed.”
“Indeed, and while they gave up, Kilbride did not. He was understandably miffed by the attempt on his life. He found out by asking around that the trespassers had come from the North on a direct coach from Milledgeville.”
We have been to this brand-new city a few times. It was founded just after I started living with Loth and the role of state capital was forced upon it during its infancy.
“He did not pursue, the risks were too high for his tastes.”
“Then we have two matters to look into. First, we need to find who sold Exeter’s surgery kit to that auction, and second we need to go to Milledgeville, find out where the goons came from and ask some pointed questions.”
“I need to go to Savannah to pick up some orders lass, I will stop at the Rosenthal consortium and request their assistance. There is no way someone held an auction without them knowing about it. As for ye, ye should go and ask those questions yerself, ye’ve been a wee bit tense since we came back from the heist.”
“For the last time it was not… Augh! Fine, I suppose that you are correct.”
I had to run away and hide like a cockroach. I thought it would not matter, but my instincts disagree. I need some action to take my mind off things.
“Very well. Dalton and I shall leave tomorrow evening.”
August the 6th, Milledgeville, Georgia.
“I do not know what would have occurred without your help my dear Magdalene, you and your husband have our most sincere gratitude,” I say as I lightly pat the woman’s hand.
I am currently acting the part of Mrs. Langford, of the Savannah Langford. I wear travelling clothes bearing the subtle marks of wealth, in light blue. The conservative apparel and my impeccable posture give me the air of the scion of a very good family. I complete the deception by sitting with confidence in the middle of the eating room like a noblewoman holding court. Poor Magdalene has ruddy cheeks and covers her distended belly with a sack-like cotton dress. They are a humble family of honest workers. Her husband is laboring at the forge to repair our coach despite the late hour, and the woman is doing her best to play the part of the gracious host. A gaggle of children peeks curiously from the door when she is not looking.
“Think nothing of it,” she says with a blush, “it is my honor, hem, I am happy I could receive you. Oh dear, please forgive the poor reception, I have so little to offer!”
The woman is suitably flustered.
“It is I who should apologize for dropping by unannounced, alas, Man plans, and the ‘lord’ disposes.”
I can actually quote the bible if I don’t think too hard about which lord I am referring to. Saying “God” will, I assume, remain an impossibility forever.
We make small talk for a while, during which I praise her for her clean house and the impeccable morals and values it represents. Magdalene likes being the center of the conversation, especially while in my hallowed presence. She has much to say about Milledgeville and its most notorious citizens. Eventually, curiosity spurs her into asking the question that had been at the back of her mind since she invited me inside.
“And what brings you here in our beautiful city?”
“Oh,” I scoff, “a most sordid affair, but I do not wish to burden you with the details, I do not know if it is even proper to mention them.”
I can almost see the fire of gossip burning bright in her honest eyes. An affluent midnight visitor? A sordid affair? Her fame in the parish will be made for a decade, sharing those juicy tidbits.
“Do not mind me Mrs. Langford, we are hardy folks here, I am sure I have heard worse.”
I am sure as well. I reluctantly share my anger and outrage at being swindled so. Two men from Milledgeville, coming to lodge at our family-owned flophouse and leaving with the strongbox. The audacity! What manner of ruffians could do such a thing?
Magdalene is at first ashamed and displeased, until I mention that every city has its undesirables, and that it in no way impacts the respectability of its law-abiding citizens. We go on a tangent blaming the Indians for their raids until I specify that the scoundrels were clearly of European decent. No, they were not mulattos. Yes, they were white white, not half-white. Were they Irish? Perhaps.
Excited, Magdalene starts a long list of all the people she has grievances against starting with her cousin who married a catholic, to that thief of a tanner. Eventually, she mentions some disreputable persons at the warehouses and even out there among the plantations.
It is at this moment that she stops in fear.
“If those men came from the Baxter estate, I beg of you, you must desist.”
“Pah, I am accompanied by a marshal, what do I have to fear?”
“No miss, you must not think like this. We may be the capital, but we are still a frontier town. This attracts all sorts, even the worst and there are dark rumors circulating around. There are some who say that they are cannibals!”
“They eat people!? How monstrous!”
“Those are just silly rumors miss, do not take them at face value, I would still recommend that you exert great caution. The marshal’s star will be of little use if you disappear without a trace.”
“I shall take this into consideration. Let us forget about this,” I add with a hint of suggestion, “and talk about more pleasant matters. You said that you enjoyed sewing?”
My host shows me some of her work, fearful of my judgement. It is precise and expertly made, if unimaginative. I congratulate her and she acts pleased as can be.
After an hour, Dalton and the husband inform us that the task is complete. I decline their invitation to stay under the pretense that we are already expected in town and we soon depart. Dalton leaves them a suitable bonus.
“We are delayed Mistress, the inn’s main room could be empty. I will make discreet inquiries tomorrow.”
“My time was not spent idly, my Vassal, there are already places for us to check.”
We successfully located the base of the Brotherhood of the New Light at the Baxter Estate. The members make a show of being isolationist and hostile and so their neighbors leave them alone. Careful observation, however, reveals insignia, strange handshakes and a myriad of other behaviors that betray their allegiance. They are not even remotely discreet about it, nor do they have reason to. The Baxter estate covers easily forty acres of land with exposed access points and several patrols. No less than twenty-five men work on it and tread in groups of three, with attack dogs. This is less a safe house and more a fortress.
This would not trouble me much in normal circumstances, however we are trying to get information and I will not obtain it through bloodshed. We need a careful approach, and to infiltrate the place properly. Abducting and interrogating somebody who might, in fact, know something remains a daunting prospect. The only one who displayed signs of authority is Baxter himself, who rarely leaves his enormous house.
It is time for an abduction.
August the 9th, Milledgeville, Georgia.
I walk from shadow to shadow, ten paces ahead of Dalton. I guide him through copses of large oaks and sugar cane fields. On the outskirts of the property the place is mostly deserted. This will change soon.
My ears pick up a sound and I click my tongue. Two clicks answer behind me. We retreat deeper into the woods.
In front of us, three guardsmen and a dog walk the road. Despite the late hour, their attention is fully focused on their tasks and rays of light from lanterns swipe over the surroundings. The men do not speak.
For this infiltration I dabbed peppermint oil on my neck and wrists. The smell is overpowering, and it should fool the hounds long enough for us to leave undetected. For some reason the perfume is fading very fast however, and I suspect that my nature is to blame for this.
The patrol leaves none the wiser.
I still wait for thirty seconds before signaling Dalton that we may go. The plan is simple. I will lead him to the Estate, which he will enter alone as I would need an invitation. Dalton will use a simple charm Loth made to disable Baxter and get him out, as well as gather any incriminating documents we may find. We will then escape and interrogate the man at a remote hunting cabin, where we will also dispose of his remains. This is a basic scheme with little opportunity for errors. It does depend on us remaining undetected, at least until our target is in our hands, though I am not worried. If needs must, I have a petrol bomb which I may use on the silo of molasses we located close to the house. The subsequent fire should give us a nice distraction should we need it.
I skirt one of the last fields to take a side path going around the property. With Dalton behind, I hasten my step when suddenly, something metallic snaps under me.
I jump in fright and am still in the air when steel teeth join where my leg was but an instant before. What in the?!
“Mistress?” whispers my Vassal.
I walk back to him and mutter in his ear.
“Bear traps! On the path! How paranoid can these people be?!”
“Not enough, it seems.”
“Hmf! Given the average lout’s memory, I’m surprised they don’t lose a leg a year, at least!”
“Those groups do tend to have a high turnover. Shall we?”
“Yes, I will keep an eye out for freshly turned earth, do be careful though.”
Dalton smirks ever so slightly.
“I will just walk slightly off the path. And if I see you bounce like a scalded cat again, I will know you found another one.”
Bah! He used to be so cute, looking up to me with adoration. Whatever happened? Truly, familiarity breeds contempt.
We continue quietly until we reach a fence. The Estate proper lies before us and in its middle, the colonial edifice Baxter calls his home.
The entire area is flat and devoid of any form of cover. The well-cut lawn is just an excuse to deny any covert entry. I spot a sentry near the roof, as expected, and three more groups patrol the area with their dogs. Torches placed on sconces provide reliable light sources at regular intervals.
There is no good approach here, I will have to brute force my way through their defenses.
I signal Dalton to stay put and crawl forward, close to the ground. I move slowly and patiently along a tortuous path. I avoid the most lit areas and always keep an eye on the sentry.
So long as the sentry looks the other way, I move quicker but not too fast. Humans are good at spotting rapid movement at the edge of their line of sight. There is no need to make a mistake trying to save twenty seconds.
After a few good minutes of slow progress, I freeze as yet another patrol turns the corner of the mansion. Their path will lead them in front of me. I stick to the ground and wait.
They pass me by and are about to go on when their hound stops and growls.
Ah, this might be an issue. Thinking quickly, I reach for the bottle of perfume and open it, spreading some on the ground. In a few moments the unfortunate dog stops growling and starts sneezing instead.
Thankfully, I am upwind.
The men mumble and drag their whining charge forward.
I take a breath in order to sigh in relief, a habit I have not managed to shake off yet, and regret it instantly. The assault on my nostrils is unbearable. Pwah! If I smell peppermint again before the end of the century, it will be too soon!
When the last torch disappears around a corner I rush forward and start climbing the plaster walls to the sentry’s crow's nest, it is nothing more than a repurposed balcony. I only tolerate one gaze watching me, and it is not his.
I jump over the ledge and as his mouth opens in surprise, our eyes meet. I keep his attention captive as I choke him. As he loses consciousness, I release him and wipe the memory from his mind. I would prefer to leave as little evidence as possible. The man will simply believe he fell asleep.
Once this is done, I take out a sort of whistle and blow it. The call of a bird of prey rings in the empty night.
I watch Dalton’s form run forward to join me. He stops and hugs the ground halfway to let a patrol pass through. His dark green coat is barely visible against the short grass.
When he reaches the wall, I lower a rope and drag him up. He quickly joins me and immediately opens the window leading inside. As expected, it is unlocked to allow the sentry access.
Dalton sneaks inside.
I wait. Only someone who lives in a house can invite me in, so long as its inhabitants draw breath. We have determined that Baxter’s study is most likely a room near the roof given that it is sometimes lit even at night. Dalton will try that first, then check the bedroom around for the man himself.
I settle in to wait.
This is the part I hate the most. I am not waiting for prey or for an opportunity, I am waiting for something beyond my control, and I hate it. It does not matter that Dalton is one of the most competent infiltrators in the entire country thanks to Loth’s and my training. All I know is that he is inside, and I am out. Even his heartbeat is beyond my ability to hear, masked as it is by thick walls.
He is grown up now. I will not be the one to break his wings. In the meanwhile, I keep an eye out but besides the patrols, there is not a sound.
Until I hear a gunshot.
Even muffled by the walls, the deflagration echoes through the night with unmistakable clarity.
Then there is this single second of silence, when the world takes a deep breath, and everyone stops to make sure of what they heard. After that, all hell breaks loose.
In the distance and towards what we identified as the barracks, a bell rings frantically. Shouts erupt left and right and the night shines red with lit torches. I can see the dancing lights of lanterns rushing in the distance, all aiming towards us. The closest ones are about to reach the clearing. Hidden by the wall, the main entrance of the mansion is banged open by irate men.
Dalton is fine, I can feel it through our bond. He will not stay that way if we make a break for it. I cannot kill them all before they shoot at us. We need a diversion.
With apprehension, I take out the petrol bomb I prepared. I take out a matchstick and light it.
Come on Ariane, it’s just a small FIRE, that will help us, really no need to BURN… Gah!
Fighting my own instincts, I light the fuse which sends angry sparkles everywhere and throw it at the molasses silo at the edge of the lawn.
The projectile arcs beautifully into the night sky, leaving a trail of red embers. It lands and a small pool of incandescent liquid trails down the wall.
I don’t know what happens next. I think it touches an existing leak. No matter the reason, the fire spreads along a line to the ground and to the side with tremendous speed. In only a few moments, the entire structure is ablaze. The cries of alarm turn to sheer panic when a barn beyond our view catches fire as well. A cacophony of squeals, shrill and ear-shattering, soon smothers every other noise.
It is the worst sound I have ever heard in my entire life.
I get a sense of deja-vu, an echo of something that happened years ago…
Something Jimena mentioned…
I think it was in her advice letter.
Oh yes, do not use pigs set on fire as a distraction. It never works as intended.
Surely, she was exaggerating. It cannot be that bad?
Something breaks open under the onslaught of porcine panic. Quadruped forms charge through fences, through the grass and into the building, rolling around and hitting things. Maddened with pain, they leave trails of flames everywhere, which spread like the plague. Some people in the distance open fire and I can already hear cries of agony. One patrol in the distance is charged by a crazy animal and fall like pins. Two of the men catch FIRE. FIRE EVERYWHERE. MUST RUN. No, I need to wait for Dalton.
The window behind me opens and he runs out, cradling his arm. He’s bleeding. MUST KILL THE FOES, no, I must protect him, we need to leave. Now.
I do not wait. I grab him in a princess carry and jump off. He screams in surprise. I manage to land properly and not break his spine. Without waiting, we start to run.
The bowled over patrol is almost directly in our way.
I move forward. I need to protect him, and so they need to die.
They see me and move as well. I almost stop in surprise. They are inhumanly fast!
Well, nowhere as fast as me of course.
I charge the first one as he aims his musket and just as I reach him, the silo explodes.
For a single instant, it is day. Then the noise and heat reach us. We are all sent to the ground, head over heel, by the shockwave. Flaming debris rain everywhere. In the distance, some of the forest ignites.
Something warms lands on my back. Hot, HOT HOT! I roll on the ground before I am burned to a crisp. The budding flame is immediately extinguished but it still hurts like hell.
NEED TO GET OUT. Damnit. I pull a shaky Dalton on his feet and drag him forward. One of the guards sees me and reaches for a holster.
Oh no you don’t.
I jump on him and grab his neck, then I Devour him. Perhaps this will stop the pain.
So little. This man has almost no vitality! I have drained ancient grandfathers with more strength than him. Bah, no time. We need to leave now!
Dalton has almost reached the edge of the forest. I quickly finish off the patrol with a knife to the throat, thus also masking the bite marks, then I join him. We dive under cover. Copses on both sides are already engulfed by the raging inferno. Crimson embers reach for the stars.
We rush out without a word, only stopping to let running men pass us. Thankfully, Dalton’s wound is not serious, and he already staunched the bleeding. Eventually, we make it out and back to our hideout and hunker down for the night.
August the 13th, Higginsville, Georgia.
“Lass, I did say ye should ‘ask some pointed questions’. I never mentioned blowing up their property!”
“It was an accident! I just wanted a diversion! It’s those accursed pigs!”
“Pigs? You set pigs on fire?” asks Loth with dread in his eyes.
“What’s with all of you and the devil-cursed pigs? Huh?”
“Ye NEVER set pigs on fire! Even as a diversion! It never works as intended!”
“For the last bloody time it was an accident!”
“The place had pigs, and you set it on fire! What did ya expect!?”
“Enough with the damned pigs and the damned fire! I got it already!”
“Fine, fine.” answers Loth, deflating, “we all need to do it once to learn anyway.”
I throw my hands up in frustration. I planned this whole operation and it was a complete disaster. I sit heavily on the chair. Dalton has not joined us. He is in bed as recommended by Loth after being not only wounded but also inhaling smoke.
“Baxter, our target and the leader of the cell, happened. He resisted the charm you made and overpowered Dalton. He even rushed him while my Vassal had a pistol drawn.”
“A strong man…”
“No. Baxter was five feet two, grossly overweight with a potbelly and he smoked. The Society’s members outside also demonstrated supernatural speed, on par with a young fledgling, I would say.”
Charlotte had been that fast, although she was truly the bottom of the barrel.
“Did ye not mention that the Brotherhood member in Charleston was faster than even a strong human?”
“Yes, and when I consumed that guard, his vitality was extremely low, as if he were dying.”
“Do ya believe…”
“Yes, they have a way to temporarily boost their physical abilities, at a high cost to their life expectancy I would wager. I wonder how they do it.”
“I am sure a dissection would shed some light on this mystery.”
“Oh, I would be delighted to procure one for you. If Baxter is any indication, they are fanatics. It is getting one alive that will prove difficult. In any case, the raid was not completely fruitless. We did acquire a few things.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“Dalton stole documents, coded, I already started working on them. It seems like a basic substitution cipher. Even then, there is no guarantee that it will be something useful.”
“He also recovered a Brotherhood insignia as well as a special ring from Baxter, and we observed and recorded sets of signals they use. With this, we may be able to infiltrate a cell if we manage to locate it.”
“That is not so bad. I lost my temper a bit here. In my experience, any raid you can walk out of is a good one.”
“I would not be quite so sure.”
I shake my head in frustration.
“It does look like a spectacular failure to me. I thought I was fast and efficient and instead I ruined what could have been our only chance at information, all because I misjudged our mark. Had I been more patient, more careful, I could have Charmed my way to more information.”
I sigh heavily.
“Everything is wrong. This is my first true project. I thought I was ready…”
“You are. Ariane, listen. Ye mistake lack of experience for lack of talent. Ye may be good at being a vampire, but that does not magically turn ye into an all-knowing spymaster, ya know? Ya grew up the lady of a good family, not a swindler or a con artist. Give yerself some time and it will all come to ye.”
“We may not have some time…”
“We do. I am here to help. We’ll succeed together. We will hunt them and erase them from our territory. Where ya see a failed attempt ta acquire intelligence, I see a partial success and the complete elimination of a major cell. No doubt this will set them back and put some fear in them. And you accomplished that with two people and in less than a week.”
Loth is always supportive, and that is perhaps what I need right now.
“Perhaps you are right... Yes, it will not do to dwell on my mistakes. We still have much we can achieve. Speaking of which, were you successful in uncovering the origin of the surgery kit?”
“Sort of. Isaac’s replacement knew exactly what I was referring to. He is human by the way, and he said the kit was sold in a semi-legal auction. Many items were most likely acquired by smugglers. They are also looking into it and he will tell us more in exchange for a service, as soon as he knows more.”
“Very well then. In the meanwhile, there are more documents to go over. I should get started…”
“Did I ever tell you about my first real raid?”
I turn to him with no small amount of curiosity. Loth is always secretive when it comes to his past.
“We made landfall and I isolated myself to, hah, get myself some privacy. We had been stuck in the ship for two weeks and I was young, ya know? Anyway, the camp was attacked while I was otherwise busy. We were not prepared. Would have lost half our numbers normally. I did not even take the time to pull up my pants and just charged them from the flanks. I was screaming in fear and fury, totally naked from waist down and sporting a raging hard-on.”
My imagination helpfully supplies a few images, which I could have done without.
“I assume your story has a point?”
“Aye, I thought I did poorly. I left my people behind to have a wank and charged the enemy without a plan and with my erect dong flapping in the wind, so ta speak.”
“And they ran away. They all just ran away. A half-naked madman charged them with a battle boner, and they scattered in panic. I thought I was a failure but the psychological impact on them was incredible. It became a clan legend. My point is this. Don’t just think about how you perceive what happened, think also about what the enemy perceives as well. Their base burnt to the ground, many men dead, all at the hands of a mysterious foe. Do not show weakness and you can capitalize on this in the coming battles. Turn an apparent failure into a resounding victory.”
That… Is some good advice.
“Thank you Loth, I really appreciate it, although your description of the events…”
“Aye ye always get flustered when I talk about naked men, let an old man have his fun, aye?”
“I knew it,” I grumble without much conviction.