First comes a wave, then the feeling of being compressed, like under a cosmic rolling pin. The blast sends me into the air like a ragdoll. Up becomes down, down becomes left and earth is in the sky. For a moment, I feel lost, the certainty of my mind fractured. The next instant I see something at the edge of my field of vision that grants me enough willpower to regain my focus.
I gasp in pain and dig a claw in the ground, leaving behind tortured furrows. My trajectory changes at the last moment and I impact the house with a dull thud and falling plaster. I gasp in pain but I care not, I succeeded.
“Hah!” I exclaim to fate and the heavens both, before coughing pinkish foam. Ow.
The flaming remains of a shovel shaft fall on my arm. I AM ON FIRE. No, I am not on fire, calm down. I pat the embers with a nervous hand until they die off. I did it. My eyes go up to the intact form of the outhouse only a few feet away. I bloody did it. I avoided crashing into human refuse, and my honor and dignity remain intact! Ariane, defeating the odds once more.
My ears pop and the whispers of worried voices and crackle of dying flames make their return. People are going to react.
The estate’s door bursts open and Merritt comes out, hand covered by a shimmering gauntlet. Behind her, a few women peer out fearfully with loaded muskets. Irma the housekeeper stomps out with two cleavers held in her massive hands.
“What happened here?” she asks with her large wrinkled face scrunched in displeasure.
I raise a hand to signal that I need a few moments and the reality of my situation finally occurs to them. In moments I find myself surrounded by a gaggle of yapping humans prodding and pulling at me. I resist the urge to hiss and successfully climb to my feet. If I had been a mortal, it would have been a bad idea to move me so. Come to think of it, if I had been a mortal, I would not have heard the powder and I would be a squishy corpse with my brains leaking down my nose.
“Are you alright? What happened?”
“The storage shed exploded,” I answer laconically. It distracts them for long enough for me to take some distance and consider what happened.
Someone blew up a powder charge on my damn lawn and destroyed both my gardening tools and my credibility. This will not stand. I slowly approach the fuming crater while a few of the more quick-witted girls pour water on still burning wreckage.
It is, as expected, quite large. I smell spent black powder in the air and presume it would have taken at least a small crate to achieve this result, a non-negligible amount. There is one more important thing I have to find out before everyone and their dogs come to trample the place. With a protective Irma and Merritt in tow, I circle the hole and find what I was looking for snaking along the debris. Burning powder left a long trail of scorched grass leading to the epicentre of the deflagration. This tells me a few things. First, somebody waited for me to come out before igniting the charge so I was presumably the target. Second, that person must have been close by.
It appears that I have been upgraded to assassination target. Marvellous. I should get a plaque to commemorate the event.
I try to step forward and see if I can get the scent of my mysterious admirer. Alas, it is not to be. I am literally dragged away and inside by irate and protective followers despite my best efforts to convince them that I am, in fact, unharmed. I could try to Charm them all or threaten them but decide against antagonizing my entire staff. In short order I find myself tucked in bed with a hot cup of chamomile infusion.
This feels nice, a testament to the success of my infiltration and my meek public persona, hiding beneath the…
Ah whatever, it is just nice. I enjoy the feeling of people fussing around me until only Merritt and I are left, with someone sent to fetch John to escort me back.
The mage builds up enough courage to ask what had been distressing her the past minutes.
“So, I have to ask Ariane.”
“Is that sort of thing normal here?”
“If you are referring to structures exploding, it almost never happens. We had that warehouse back in 1821 but that was due to an unfortunate mix of highly explosive substance and poor judgement. No, this is a deliberate attempt on my life, I am sure of it.”
Merritt stares at me with the face one shows when amusing a delusional patient.
“Of course, of course, say, can vampires get concussions?”
I tsk in annoyance. One moment in bed and my entire reputation collapses, really?
“It was easier to let myself be pampered than to fight them off. My death would be catastrophic for them, at this stage.”
“At this stage?”
“Yes, I realize now that I made a mistake by not grooming a replacement. My lack of trust in others endangers my project. I understand their concern and that is why I consent to this farce but rest assured that I remain in full possession of my abilities. Which leads me to my next point, this amount of black powder cannot be obtained so easily, even here on the frontier. Somebody obtained this and we must find who.”
“Do you need my help?”
“Yes, I do. I want you to go to a shop called the Seamstress Union, two minutes on foot East of the Dream. The owner of the shop is called Debbie. Tell her Ariane sent you and inform her of what happened, then enlist her help in finding out if a shipment of explosives disappeared recently.”
“You want me to interrogate a seamstress?” asks Merritt with disbelief,
“Debbie is the city’s information dealer, and you would do well to take her seriously.”
“Oh, I understand.”
“You can work tomorrow during the day while the stores are open. I will ask Harrigan and a girl called Lizzie to see if the warehouse master knows anything.”
“Is Lizzie an informant as well?”
“No. The man likes petite brunettes.”
“I’ll have John and Margaret go to the mine’s foreman and that should be all I can think of. After they’re done, they’ll return to the Dream. Coordinate with them and prepare a report but do not engage if you find the culprit. I will take care of it at nightfall. You are not as durable as me, and there is no reason for you to risk your lives.”
John arrives shortly thereafter and I am escorted back to the Dream. I was hoping for some calm so that I may investigate on my end, but unfortunately a problem never comes alone. A man I could have done without is waiting for me by the entrance. His face is painted with hostility and when he sees me, the corner of his mouth lifts up. Only two of his men have come to back him up this time.
“Judge Sullivan, good evening. To what do I owe this pleasure?” I ask with enough emphasis on ‘pleasure’ to leave no doubt as to my real feelings.
My nemesis makes a conscious effort to hide his delight and I am starting to wonder if assassinating a public figure really is too risky. Perhaps he could fall to his death from a tall building? Who knows?
“I am here to personally inform you that one of my modest proposals has been approved by the State judiciary committee in order to cleanse the sin from our fair city.”
He is righteous anger incarnate.
“For too long I have tolerated the pit of degeneracy that… some citizens have let fester around here, and it is my pleasure to inform you that starting on May 1st, 1832, only citizens of white descent and of pure pedigree will be allowed within the streets of Marquette. You will inform your… employees of color that they must vacate the town on April 28th at the latest. One week from now. That includes employees of both genders, mind you, in case I was not clear enough. I expect you to comply with the law to the utmost of your… abilities, and I will be checking on this establishment to ascertain your compliance. I hope I am being direct enough, and with this, I bid you good day."
The judge shoves the crumpled ordnance in my hands, tips his hat and struts away with the pride of the just.
“Is Oscar a man of color?”
“Yes he is, John.”
“That means he must go?” asks the simpleton with a hint of worry.
“Not quite yet. Don’t worry dear, I have been a bit lenient but it appears I need to give our brave magistrate a reminder of who he is dealing with.”
I pat my bodyguard’s arm to offer comfort and walk back in, already plotting. This will have to take priority over patrolling the city in search of some mystery bomber.
April is dying and with it, the once pristine snow has melted into a disgusting sludge that sticks to our boots. The main thoroughfares are little better than mud alleys. Mortals can be heard from afar, one only has to follow the squelches of their soles leaving the ground, and I am grateful for whatever supernatural power allows me to walk over instead of through it.
A light drizzle falls on the hood of my cape. The occasional fat droplets condense on the hem before falling on my skin, delivering their frigid payload. I may no longer fear the cold but I do abhor humidity. This weather is miserable and when I get my claws on whoever forced me out, there will be hell to pay.
The warehouse at the Northern end of town I am looking for can easily be noticed, for it is the only one whose entrance is lit by a lantern despite the late hour. It swings with the occasional gust of wind, its meagre pool of light more a beacon than any effort at illumination.
As is proper, I ignore the inviting door and step to a side alley. I find purchase in the walls’ wooden planks and lift myself to an opening covered with shutters, before taking out a burglary kit from a recess in my cloak. It saddens me to say that I am an old hand at this.
I pull myself inside and take a look around. I find myself on a small concourse devoid of any sort of furniture. Only pails of rotten hay lay discarded here and there, making the air wet and pungent. The wood used here looks brittle and decayed, its surface scored by pockmarks like the skin of a diseased man. If I were a mortal, I would be worried about catching tuberculosis just walking around this place. I would never tolerate such slovenliness in one of my own properties.
Downstairs, rows of crates and barrels are piled haphazardly around the open space. There are no clear delimitations, and the only thing standing out is a table on which two men are working by the light of candles. One of them shivers and pulls on a cloak.
“Right, gonna take a leak.”
Ah, excellent timing.
The burly man limps towards a side door, opens it and disappears outside. I sneak back out and soon find myself overlooking my first victim as it leans heavily, one hand resting against the wall and the other helping his aim. I do so enjoy catching them with their pants down, pun intended.
I drop behind him and snake an arm around to grab his throat. With the other, I place a knife against his jugular and force him to arch backwards.
I expected his frantic struggle and stay upright as he fights for purchase, in vain. Very soon, the reality of his situation overcomes the first instinctive response and silence returns as the last drops of urine fall on his trousers. I will not need charm here, I caught him at his most vulnerable.
“I want a word with Stutton and I expect privacy. You will leave now without looking back.”
My captive nods frantically and I release him. I watch with interest as he struggles to sprint and lifts his trousers back up at the same time. It seems to cause him some difficulties, and I find the show amusing in a base way.
Enough distractions, I have things to do.
I sneak back inside and make my way around the warehouse in perfect silence. As I approach the second man from behind, he passes a hand in his greasy grey hair and turns his attention away from a pile of yellow papers. His coat is heavy and filthy and must have been blue at some point. In the distant past.
“What’s taking him so long?”
In lieu of an answer, I smash his head against the table. The old smuggler does not even attempt to struggle upon feeling the cold weight of steel on his neck.
“Good evening Stutton.”
“Who are you, what do you want?”
“You will remain silent until I let you speak and when you do, you will tell me the truth, and all of it. Now, two weeks ago you were tasked with transporting cargo. Who paid for it and what did it contain?”
“Listen, hm, miss, my reputation as a smuggler is everything.”
“I will get my answers from you now, or when you are but a pile of raw, quivering flesh begging for the sweet release of death.”
“It was some sort of powder and I don’t think it was made of wheat. As for the buyer, he was a sullen man, black beard and very light grey eyes. Tall and thin. Not much of a talker.”
“Tell me more about this mysterious man.”
“Went by Bradley. Moved very quietly, all cat-like. Huh, I don’t know where he went.”
“Is he here? In Marquette?”
“Aye, I brought him as a caravan hand. He paid me in gold doubloons too. The old Spanish kind.”
This is highly unusual. If he used more of that rare currency, I can definitely track him .
“Anyone else with him?”
“Nah, he was definitely a loner, didn’t mention anyone else here.”
“Anything else you can tell me to find him? Think carefully.”
Stutton stops for a while to consider and that is good for him, because if he had just replied no I would have had to take a finger.
“He was armed at all times, like he expected a tussle. And he looked kind of angry.”
Not much to go by. I turn Stutton and our eyes meet. He is already at my mercy and this makes Charming him trivial.
“Did you tell me the truth?”
“Is there something you hid from me?”
“Yes. I like rough women.”
I sigh deeply, now aware of the man’s aroused state. The Watcher protect me from this town. Sometimes I feel like half of them are judgemental bigots and the other, shameless deviants.
“Anything else that concerns this man?”
Good. I wipe the memory of the last ten minutes from his mind and force him to sleep. I could have Charmed him from the beginning, however Sinead warned me against using it as a crutch. I try mundane means first, then make sure I did not miss anything. This method allowed me to become better at telling lies.
As I exit the building I consider his words. My target is a man, apparently alone, who pays in doubloons and doesn’t like to talk. If he is indeed a newcomer then he must be living somewhere and that is not in one of the city’s inns. His strange behavior and the amount of powder he procured means that he needs a base of operations of sort, somewhere dry and relatively isolated. This means an abandoned building within close distance and the list of possibilities is short.
I decide to head back and find Nami first. I remember the shock and fire from yesterday and realize that I fear this man more than the group of mages we recently slaughtered, and for good reasons. He knows what I am, and he came prepared.
This must be it.
I have spent the last hour going from one possible hideout to another and this is my third attempt and the right one at that. The Smiths moved back East after Peter Smith inherited, and they left behind a quiet building at the edge of town, conveniently hidden behind a copse of trees. A perfect spot to hide unusual activities.
I can see wafts of smoke coming from a chimney of the two-storey building, where there should be none.
“Shall we, sweet cheeks?”
“Let’s take a look around the place first.”
We discreetly inspect our target. This home is abandoned, a derelict, which means that I should be able to enter without issue. Mud tracks mar the wooden planks at the front and back entrance but whoever lives here made no effort to make the place more inhabitable. Or clean, for that matter. The garden plot is abandoned, only a fallow field covered in sickly weeds, a pile of mud and a half-fallen shed.
“Right. I’m handling this, and I have a request. Could you please stay outside and whistle if you see anything wrong?”
“Yes. Explosions. We are not exactly fireproof and this house is made of wood.”
“Why not have your mortal servants handle this?”
I look at her in disbelief before realizing from her placid face that this is a test.
“Enough with this nonsense, now is not the time.”
She nods and walks back towards the copse, masking her aura. In moments even I cannot find her.
I turn back to the house and approach the back door. Instead of using the handle, I close my eyes and focus.
Wind. Cracking wood. Nocturnal animals chasing and being chased.
No human heartbeat nor footsteps inside the house, though it could be covered by thick walls. On a whim, I punch through the fragile wood above the lock.
Nami lets out a warm chuckle. What, one can never be too careful. Have a Dvergur ninja crawl down a wall to place a touch-trigger rune outside a window and you too will reconsider traps as a way to take out your targets, I assure you. How I wish I could trap my opponent, unfortunately he seems crafty and I am not exactly patient, particularly not when my real estate is at risk of being turned into smoldering cinders.
I search my cloak and find a small hand mirror, and though I cannot see my reflection, I can use it to inspect the door for anomalies. It pays to be prepared.
There is nothing.
This is a completely normal door.
With a sigh, I open it and find myself in a central room. Two pairs of doors lead to the right and left, and a set of stairs leads to the second floor. There are no cries of alarm and no sound of a heartbeat, and so I take my time to inspect my surroundings.
The walls are entirely bare and covered with a thick layer of dust. The ground too has not seen any cleaning in a while, which allows me to notice tracks left by the same man coming and going multiple times. Interestingly, they only lead up. Did the man never use the kitchen?
I am about to go forward when two irregularities catch my attention.
First, there is a lot of mud, so he may have spent quite some time in the garden, but to what end?
And then it comes to me.
The pile of mud outside has not grown any vegetation, meaning it is quite recent! How have I not already drawn this obvious conclusion? I must be losing my peasant roots; Papa would be disappointed.
So Mr. Bomber dug something out. Whatever it is, the access must be upstairs. Curious.
The second irregularity is a single plank just before the stairs. It is suspiciously clean,as if the man had avoided it every time.
I would be wise to do the same. Curiosity still leads me to lean above it and breathe in. Rot, mud, humidity, and below that the scent of gunpowder. So, there was indeed a trap. Satisfied, I climb up the stairs in silence, taking extra care to pause at every step. I consider climbing on the walls and just forfeit the damn floor entirely, but I am afraid that they may not support my weight.
Not that I am heavy, the wood is just that damaged.
After entirely too much time, I find myself on the landing to the second floor. Once more, there are a total of four doors and only two on my right have been in use. I walk up to the first one and look through the keyhole. It appears to be a workshop of sorts. I lean down and snap one of the most damaged planks to look in with my mirror. This time again, there are no traps, and I enter the room.
All the windows have been shuttered. My vision dims, something that only occurs when in presence of absolute darkness.
The room is mostly bare. I can only see crates, a worktable, and a cabinet filled with equipment set against the wall to my left. I am shocked by the contrast between this room and the outside. The floor has been meticulously cleaned, the walls are almost shining and the supplies and tools are strictly classified with a sense of detail that I haven’t seen since Loth. Even the pots of powder on the shelf are labelled with the date of creation and chemical composition of its contents. This is where he made his bombs and I can only applaud his professionalism.
I move to the table to inspect it. There is only one thing of note, a small book that I quickly skim through. The contents teach me nothing. The man just tracked the resources he expended with a rigor that borders on obsession. The letters are blocky, even childish perhaps, but the hand that drew them was assured.
The crates and cabinet show nothing but the parts and components used by an artificer and a gunsmith, including the expected powder.
I exit and walk to the last room, and I can tell that it is far more promising. From behind the door I smell cooked bacon and beans, as well as human sweat. Still no heartbeat.
For what I hope to be the last time, I snap parts of the door to inspect the other side. A thin thread is attached to the handle and trails up to the frame, then through loop to flintlock firing mechanism lodged against a earthen pot of massive proportion.
I knew it.
I punch a hole at the center of the door to let my arm through, then after a second of realization, a second one to actually see what I am doing. With infinite patience and inhuman precision, I seize the thread between two claws and cut it. The piece of twine falls slowly on the floor, without a noise.
With a smirk, I realize that I am in my opponent’s sanctum. Pride fills my chest. YES, HIS NEST IS MINE NOW. Like his workshop, the place is perfectly clean, with only a small cot, basic cooking implements near a still warm hearth and a single wardrobe. The Spartan surroundings leave me uneasy. Did this man really live here for two weeks? I would have grown insane. The level of dedication required to maintain discipline for so long is both inspiring and terrifying, and I find myself respecting my foe for it. Even if he turns out to be insane, at least he managed to transcend his madness and turn it into a strength.
With nothing urgent, I sweep the room to see if there are any clues as to his location. The most promising element is what appears to be a trapdoor at the edge of the room, now sealed. What is it doing here? I approach it and check it for traps as well before opening it.
It leads down, far down, into a walled out section of the house. It is not deserted though, just filled with lit fuses.
At least five of them, snaking up from the depths.
I tear the shutters away with the strength of desperation. Open air. Wide enough.
I jump out.
I hit the ground running as fast as I can, the world blurs around me and I whistle with all my power, hoping that Nami heard. The pile of mud, a passage down. He must have dug out his way to a sort of cave and holed here, but how did he know I was coming?
I run around a bend of the road and roll on the ground, covering my ears.
One… Two.. Three...
At the count of five, the house explodes. I scream as the deafening bang reaches me, and a wall of heat passes me by, singeing my hair. Flaming debris is sent so far in the air they can probably be seen at the other end of town.
Wow. He really wanted to make sure huh.
I stand up and survey the wreckage. The scene is apocalyptic, a valley of flame and scorched earth around a smoldering crater that may well lead to the gates of hell.
Nami runs the periphery of the disaster zone and slides to a stop by my side. Her face twists with concern until she sees that I am well, then her smile turns wicked.
“First stop screaming, and second, don’t worry they should grow back within a few minutes.”
“What? Why are you whispering?”
She does not answer and instead just taps her ears. Ah. I am deafened. An instant later, my ears pop and a black liquid trickles down my neck.
What was it about growing back?
I realize that a side of my head is suddenly more sensitive to the warm wind blowing from the remains of the house and pat it.
“Relax, it will be back in a few minutes.”
My hair, my precious hair, blond and silky! My pride and joy…
“Ariane, calm down. It will be back soon. Yes?”
“Mes beaux cheveux…”
“Sweetie, focus. Did you see the bomber?”
Ah right, the man who almost roasted me, that little… Ugh!
“No, he has dug some sort of passage down. He set off the explosion from there.”
“Do you believe that he killed himself?”
That is an easy question.
“I find it unlikely. Everything was carefully prepared with several layers of redundancy to make sure I would end up as charcoal. He probably has an escape tunnel. It couldn't be too long. We could look for a trapdoor heading out from that corner,” I answer and point to where the trapdoor used to be.
“Alright. We must hurry, people will undoubtedly come to see what happened.”
We spread out and search quickly and for once we are in luck. The blast of the explosion pushed away all manners of things from its epicenter, including a dust covered tarp marking a secret exit. Truly, does that man know no limit? Who does that?
I slam the door open and move aside at the same time as a precaution. Thankfully, it appears that the man ran out of powder. I peer down and find a tunnel heading down then back towards the house. I glance at Nami and with a nod, jump down.
The passage is very narrow, it arches so that I have to follow it sideways and can only see a few feet forward. The earthen walls, barely reinforced by the rare log, give me an intense feeling of claustrophobia. If it collapses, I could stay there a long time, crushed by a mountain of rock and maddened by bloodlust. I shiver and chase the thought away. Nami knows where I am.
I slowly move forward, taking time to make sure no support has been sabotaged but it appears I am in the clear. After entirely too much time, the passage widens and leads to a reinforced door adorned with a cross, fixed into the walls by bars of steel. As I come into view, a metal bar slides open and I find myself face to face with the business end of a blunderbuss.
I move down and forward and the following shot rakes the passage above me.
In the blueish cloud of powder that follows, I spot a slit of light. In a single motion, I take out a pistol and fire at point blank rage. There is a ping of metal, then silence.
The air rings with two consecutive detonations in such a closed space and swirls of spent powder cloud my vision. My ears pop once more, and I comment off handedly.
“So did you.”
There, where used to be the yellow glare of a lantern, now sit two grey eyes. The skin around is angry and red, signs that the cloud of powder from my own shot still marked my target. I try to Charm him more out of habit than anything else, though the bond is stopped by an invisible barrier that tastes like a warning. Just as expected then.
“I don’t think we have met yet, Bradley.”
I blink, trying to place him. His steely glare is unflinching. Not fearless, but beyond it. He knows what I am, he knows what I can do, and he still decided to come after me. He also managed to drive me to a stalemate. I cannot pass that door of his without preparation, a fact that escapes neither of us.
I think I would remember such a man.
“You were at the order’s prison. You are the sole survivor, the one who got away.”
He does not have to reply, the flash of fury on his face is answer enough.
“And you still decided to come after me,” I continue, “alone. I do not know if I should salute your courage or laugh at your arrogance.”
“I am never alone.” Adds the man, still calm.
“Nobody else came here. I checked.”
He does not answer, instead, a finger appears pointing down. I lower my gaze to the cross embedded into the gate with apparent dedication. The object glints with a silvery sheen, despite the absence of any sort of illumination.
Strange to think that it used to be a familiar symbol and now, it is anathema to my very existence.
“I am never alone, unlike you.”
“Ah, we have reached the part of the conversation where you call me an abomination?”
“If you wish.”
I smile at this. What a surprising man, and so unexpected. We are a minute into an exchange and I haven’t been called a devil’s harlot even once. What a novel prospect. I am enthused.
“Where is your righteousness, warrior of the order? Where are the insults?”
“I am not much for conversation.”
“What are you much for then, besides meticulous planning and demolition?”
His eyes track my expression, gauging. Fool, I have played poker for thirty years now. Even Loth could not read me.
“You sure like to talk a lot.”
“Ah, but can you blame me? Such occasions are so rare. Old enemies forced to a truce by circumstances. We are like characters in the Iliad. So tell me oh defender of light, why come here alone? Why not gather a large troop and burn the city to the ground, hmm?”
“Wouldn’t work. You don’t sleep in that room.”
“Oh? How would you know?”
“I climbed the wall and had a look.”
I look at him, aghast.
“You scoundrel! Peeping Tom! How did you even manage to slip past the guards?”
“During a change of patrol.”
“What? You know their schedule? How?”
I am having the most curious of experiences. I am talking to a door, with a man behind who would see me dead if he could and yet is more interesting than most people I have met.
“Are you telling me that in two weeks, you managed to infiltrate the Dream, blow up my shed, and set up such an elaborate trap all without attracting attention even once?”
“Hm. Yes? Why?”
He even looks surprised.
“Have you considered that you could be a great vampire?”
“Never mind, I prefer my fellow night denizen to have a sense of humor.”
“You stole that from me.”
He avoids my gaze for a moment to reminisce on some painful memory, no doubt. The pause lasts for but a moment and when it ends, the man is as controlled as ever.
“Not you. Your kind. Some demon worshipper cult.”
“You lost people to mages?”
Once more, the naked pain and anger that flash on his face convey more meaning than a book ever could.
“I am no mage, and I worship no one if you must know. Why serve in a prison in the first place then?”
“Don’t work well with others. They don’t trust me in a team so they put me there. I took the prison’s money cache and came after you.”
“I know you are entertaining me to waste my time until dawn. You are trapped here and this town answers to me, so if you want to see the day, you will have to do better. Why come after me at all, alone of all things?”
Bradley sighs and closes his eyes, and I can tell that the pressure of the past two weeks has taken a toll on his mind.
“My sin was pride. Vampires are arrogant, is what I heard.”
“We are people. Some of us are arrogant, some of us know better.”
“You… I guess it’s true. You were a bit careful.”
“No, if I were truly careful, I would have sent mortals after you.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
This is the first question he asks. I smile wider, showing my fangs. He doesn’t flinch.
“You did not hurt my people, so this Hunt is still between the two of us. Ah, and those demon worshippers, have you found them yet?”
“Did you join the brothers for this?”
“They had the tools. And the training.”
“I see. It appears that I have to cut our conversation short. There are people coming. Goodbye Bradley, and see you later.”
I turn around and get back into the passage. He does not fire on my back.
Outside, I manage to avoid the attention of the handful of people already searching the wreck for survivors and quickly find Nami under the cover of the trees. I relay the meeting to her, which she finds immensely amusing.
“Ah, my little chocolate pie, I am so happy for you. This is the kind of memory that you will cherish decades from now, when you share it with your lover.”
That sounded strangely specific.
“What will you do now?” she continues, “Have your men smoke him out?”
“That won’t be necessary. I left the way open; it is only a matter of time before… Ah. Look.”
The number of people checking the wreckage has reached two dozen and the trapdoor is quickly found by an inquisitive girl. A couple of burly men volunteer to check the tunnel and I watch with fascination while reloading my pistol. I am still looking at the crater, expecting Bradley to exit from there when a noise warns me and Nami and I jump away.
The earth collapses to reveal a mine hole. A dirt-covered form with a backpack brushes itself and emerges into the night.
Nami and I exchange a look. There is no light here, he is blind as a mole!
With a resolute air, the man steps forward onto something soft.
The moment he realizes something is wrong is just priceless.
“That,” I whisper in his ear, “was my foot,”. This is the moment of truth and Bradley does not disappoint. He shows determination and courage in the face of certain death and I admire him for this.
“Does the order know I am here?”
“Would you like to live?”
“Do not play with me.”
“I do not. Offer me your blood and swear to keep my existence a secret, and I will escort you to the edge of town. You will be free to pursue your revenge.”
“Why would you do that? You can just bleed me here.”
“Call it… A professional courtesy, from one explosion-loving hunter to another. What will it be, Bradley? Your loyalty to the order and its principles, or a chance to pursue your revenge?”
Silence. Nami looks at me in delight, probably happy that I would do something so reckless. Only his fluttering heartbeat betrays the man’s desperate inner struggle. What will it be? I can’t wait to see.
“Extend your arm and swear.”
“I swear I’ll keep your existence secret, and never return here.”
I bite down. Ah, so delicious. A broken oath to God and his peers for the pursuit of a grudge, the end of a successful hunt. Delectable. Once I am done I lick the wound close and whistle lightly. Metis trudges through the undergrowth like the massive warbeast she is and I climb up, then drag Bradley across the harness like a trussed up boar.
We ride like the wind into the night and as the smokey air clears up, I consider that I am truly glad to be alive.