The moon is exceptional tonight. It hangs there in all its gibbous glory, beautiful and luminous but otherwise useless. The contrast with the Watcher is fascinating. The moon changes and moves across the sky but as far as I know, it remains at the same distance and is boringly inanimate. The Watcher exists at a level where distance and size lose their meanings. Under its eldritch influence, lines become curves and curves, points. It is also sapient, after a fashion, and alien beyond anything that exists on this plane. Right now, the strange celestial body is quiescent, but not bored. Never bored.
Hesitant footsteps tread the loam at my back. I recline on a park bench and breathe in the scents of late summer. The grass under my feet is brittle and some of the growth around the small clearing is already starting to wilt despite the gardener’s efforts. The heavy smell of vegetation is only offset by that of the sea, more pungent. A faint breeze brings me the scent of pines and human sweat.
The woman stops at the edge of the clearing and her breath hitches in her chest. The park is deserted at this hour, so we do not risk being disturbed. Yet that same emptiness fills her with apprehension. I am intrigued by the source of light she is using though. It shines an unnatural pale blue, probably some sorcery. The newcomer’s aura shimmers and buckles wildly, signs that she is a barely trained mage and a strong one at that.
“Come closer,” I say.
For one moment, I think she will try to run. In the end, she chooses to walk to my side, but not too close. I turn to inspect her.
She is young, in her early twenties with a candid air that life has not robbed her of yet. She wears a dark dress with a cloak that has seen better days and holds in her hand a crystalline sphere from which escapes the strange radiance. The item is magical, a weak artefact. It reminds me of fireflies or luminescent flora with its organic glow, shining over her traits.
I find myself thinking of Constantine. They have in common to be more striking than beautiful, and her brown eyes express frustration as a tendril of essence quests towards me.
“I cannot feel you at all,” she remarks in a soft voice. In order to cut that part of our meeting short, I calmly release my aura though I keep it subdued.
The woman shivers when she tastes it.
“Hum, you are not a mage? But where are my manners, sorry. My name is Vera Wild. I thought I was to meet a man named Wilhelm?”
“Wilhelm of the Erenwald is busy and asked me to assist you tonight in his stead. You may call me Ariane.”
“Nice to meet you Ariane. So, if I may ask, what are you? No offense.”
Curious, are we?
It strikes a bell. She mutters and takes a small tome bound in leather from one of her pockets. It looks well-used, and she turns its pages with familiarity.
“Hold on,” she says, “I think gran wrote something about your kind. Ah yes. Here.”
She reads slowly and carefully under the pale light of her orb, like someone a bit unused to the exercise. I can hear her mutter the words.
“Vampires… If you meet one of the de-denizens of the night… who call them-themselves vampires, do as instro… instructed. First, use your most po- hmmm potent! Potent fire spell…”
Her eyes widen in surprise.
“Hmmm…” she mutters.
I still wait.
A pathetic gout of flame emerges from the half-ruined wand she just pulled from her handbag. I call the barest thread of the Herald’s essence and slap the spell away. It sputters and dies at my feet as silence once more fills the clearing.
The pathetic ring of blackened herb captures her attention and, apparently, her wit. She opens and closes her mouth like a beached fish.
“Why don’t you finish reading that text of yours?” I suggest as I stand and move closer.
The skittish dolt hesitates once more, then curiosity triumphs over common sense. A tragically common occurrence for young mages.
“That way if they lie you can… scare! Scare the pretenders away, and if they tell the truth…”
She stops and suddenly appears dismayed. I hear a few swear words.
“… then hopefully you angered them enough to die with dignity.”
Vera looks like the victim of a prank and holds her notebook with barely contained anger. Her tiny fingers grip it as if she wanted to tear it apart.
“Ooooo gran!!” she moans comically.
Only after that does she realize her predicament.
“Eerrr, please don’t kill me? I was tricked!”
Laughable. I wish I could at least give her a good scare. Unfortunately, I gave Wilhelm my word and my hands are thus tied. I am to assist the hapless thing for the night even if I do not accept her as a Supplicant.
“Does that book of yours mention our propensity for mercy?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t finished it. I’m not the fastest reader, you see?”
“So you’re not going to kill me?” she asks with a quivering voice.
“No Vera, I will not kill you. Now, why don’t you be a good girl and tell me why you would call upon us.”
“Good girl? You’re not much older than I am!” she protests.
Ah, a true neophyte.
“You don’t know the first thing about vampires, do you? We do not age.”
“You mean you can live for a very long time?”
“I meant exactly what I said.”
“Yes,” I answer with a mysterious smile, “I am considerably older than I look.”
She gulps and I find the situation amusing. I am indeed considerably older than I look, just not inhumanly so. No need to tell her though. Let me bask in the glory of my mysterious and intimidating persona.
I notice that she’s a bit gullible.
“The way Gran wrote it, you are more dangerous than a werewolf, haha.”
I cannot help but give her a grin, the toothy kind. She recoils in horror. I know I should not waste my time bullying the meek but she’s just too amusing. Nami was right, gloating is our guilty pleasure.
“We consider werewolves as delicacies,” I announce truthfully.
“Wow! But… I don’t want Opa to get hurt, that was not our agreement!”
“Enough child, if I were here to kill I would have no need of you. Wilhelm mentioned an inheritance. What is this about?”
“Right… Right. I’d better tell you the story from the beginning. It’s about my Opa, Mr. Schmidt. Mom’s dad. She… well, she didn’t marry the right person. She married my da and they stayed together until he died. He… was Irish.”
Absolutely scandalous. Seeing my lack of reaction, Vera continues with more confidence.
“She went against the entire family’s wishes and she was cast out for it. Only Opa took care of us behind their back. It changed recently though. He found out about what I could do. Also that my Gran, that’s my dad’s mom, she had been teaching me witch things. He got mad. Real mad. He told me bad things like I was Satan’s whore and got my powers from, hm, sinning with demons. I don’t do that, I haven’t even seen a demon ever! I haven’t even done anything more than kissing!”
Kissing huh? You shameless harlot.
“Anyway, he said that he was going to leave all his money with somebody called Gabriel who would punish me for my wicked ways. Have you heard of him?”
Oh, Gabriel you pitiless monster. I know thee well.
“I assume you are referring to the Order of Gabriel, a group dedicated to the extermination of any and all supernatural beings?”
“Ah, probably. That’s bad, right?”
“It does sound inconvenient. What do you want, exactly?”
Vera takes a deep breath then her lips shiver while her eyes turn liquid.
“I just want my Opa back…” she says. Fat tears roll down her pretty cheeks. She’s making me Thirsty with her amusing weakness. She just smells too much like prey.
Alright, Ari calm down this is not the time.
“I can make him love you.”
“Not like that! I want him to believe me when I say it’s not my fault, that I didn’t do anything bad with any demon or anyone really. I am not trying to deceive the hearts of men or some such nonsense, I’m just trying to learn how not to set the curtains on fire every time I’m upset! Is it so hard to understand?”
“I think I could convince him if we can have an adult conversation,” I reply, “where is he right now?”
“At the factory. He owns a printing press, the biggest one in the city.”
“Will he not be home at this late hour?”
“Nah. He always stays late. Not to work, mind you, he’s just avoiding my grandmother.”
That will be convenient. Vera takes my silence for doubt.
“No really, she’s an old harpy. She turns the milk sour by standing next to it.”
“I see. Now, show me to the printing press you mentioned.”
Vera leads me to the park’s exit and then through half-deserted streets. The difference between us is flagrant. We look the same age but while I walk as if I owned the street, she scurries around like a mouse, casting fearful glances all around. Her bent back, nervous hands and rapid head gestures scream weakness and “please mug me” to everyone around. I can see at least four groups of men stare at us like a pack of wolves. They do not act on it, however, and we leave a residential district behind us without me getting free snacks. Slowly, the modest houses with thatched roofs give way to small businesses and the occasional warehouse, all closed now. The gas lamps cast long shadows on the pavement as we walk by. We do not tarry, and it is not long before our destination comes in view. Vera was starting to forget to be scared and asking questions about what werewolves taste like so it is a relief when our journey ends at the gates of Schmidt’s Reliable Printing.
I am surprised to see that not only is the place still open, there are people hard at work. They come and go, carrying bundles of leaflets and other supplies.
Schmidt Reliable Printing is clearly doing well. The facilities may be old, yet they are well-maintained as well as recently painted. I count two buildings. One is a very large warehouse with two doors wide enough to allow a carriage through. The other is a narrower two-story edifice of red bricks. The clang of machinery coming from it is almost deafening and it is surrounded on all sides by crates and barrels containing the Watcher knows what. Following Vera’s indications, I drag her towards it under the curious gaze of the workers. Once more, disguise is decisive in facilitating my access. A well-dressed woman who walks with confidence is an unusual sight in such places, enough to garner suspicion. The key is a haughty demeanor that marks me as a rich wife or daughter, possibly of a client. While my presence without a chaperone at this late hour is improper, addressing me is even more so for those beneath my station. It would bring little to stop us and could cost them dearly, therefore nobody dares to overstep their bounds, and so we get in unmolested. A male vampire would have to take a different approach.
Urchin could not get in the normal way, because he just breathes duplicity. The shady man could not walk three blocks without a police patrol asking him about his intentions. I will have to find a proper use for him.
Without stopping, I weave my way through the long lines of the presses while staying mostly out of sight. I could easily Charm everyone barring us but I keep Sinead’s words close to my heart. Power is a crutch. To depend on it too much is to invite disaster while to hone one’s skills is the way to greatness. Besides, I have pride. I will not let an inattentive mortal get the drop on me, even while I am dragging a skittish bundle of nerves behind me.
“We can’t be here like this! What if they tell Opa?!” said bundle hisses with panic.
“He will know we’re here soon enough. Now, shut up.”
We climb a set of stairs to a much quieter second floor. A corridor leads us past closed doors leading to offices and archives, up to the biggest office. A heavyset man with salt and pepper hair sits by the heavy oaken door, reading a book. He is tall and strong with the broken nose of prizefighters and the damaged knuckles that go with it. A worker outfit in grey and brown covers the body of a warrior gone slightly too fat. He has a bit of a belly, but also corded muscles covered with scars. He has not spotted us yet.
“That’s Charlie,” Vera whispers, “he is Opa’s strongman. He will definitely recognize me. Oh my God, what are we going to do?!”
This is as far as I can go on bluff alone, at least not without preparation. I keep moving forward without stopping. When we are close enough, the man lifts his eyes and frowns. I can see the onset of cataracts in them. He probably doesn’t see very well.
Our eyes meet and I instinctively send a tendril of essence, Charming him. Instead of resorting to brute force, I fan the flames of interest in his book and smother his curiosity towards us. His task is inherently boring while the book apparently isn’t. He dismisses us as belonging here and soon returns his full attention to it. We pass him by and I take a peek out of curiosity.
I cannot help but smile. The book cover is protected by an additional layer of paper bearing the image of a pugilist. The content is quite different. I read only a few sentences and realize that Charlie is fully absorbed in a tragic romance involving a woman and a man far beneath her social standing. His eyes widen as she laments their cruel fate.
You do you, Charlie.
Without knocking, I drag a stupefied Vera through the door and find myself in a large office.
The room is clean and smells faintly of cigars. The walls are covered in overflowing bookshelves containing rare tomes as well as ledgers. Two comfortable leather seats face a massive lacquered desk behind which an old man is writing by candlelight. His traits are emaciated, and sad jowls drop on either side of his face as if he had lost a lot of weight recently. His skin is yellow and dry, and his eyes are bloodshot. White chops hang sadly by his side and the bald pate on his head is covered in liver spots. He puts his plume down and massages his eyes with a gnarly hand before looking at the intruders. He frowns when he spots us, then his expression turns horrified when he lays his eyes on his granddaughter. His shrivelled face, already pallid, turns cadaverous.
Vera recoils as if physically hurt. He stands up slowly and painfully though his thin frame quakes and twin spots of red blossom on his cheeks. His gaze is fixed on my companion and conveys not just anger but also, longing.
“Vera! You… And who are you? Another devil-worshipper?!” he asks with a fragile voice.
I have learnt much in a short time, and I have a good idea on how to proceed now.
“I am not a witch, no. I am something else.”
“What do you mean?” he asks with suspicion, just as he slowly reaches for one of his drawers.
“You talked to the Gabrielite. Did they not explain who ruled the night?”
It takes him a second to understand the implication. When he does, he frantically opens said drawer and looks around. It takes him a few moments to find what he was looking for and when he does, he jumps backwards as he realizes that I am now sitting in front of him, lazily inspecting a talon. He did not see me move.
“Stay away! Stay back, you devil!” he whimpers. His face twists in pain and he reaches for his flank.
“Opa?” Vera asks, with tears in her eyes. She is shared between the desire to help him and the fear of his wrath.
Schmidt brandishes a cross and waves it around.
We fail to scream and evaporate.
I tug a bit on a finger and blink when it feels good. It appears that I am not entirely recovered.
Finally, the old man’s breath calms down and he swallows nervously.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“Please, Mr. Schmidt. You know very well why I am here.”
“Are… are you the one who set her on the path to damnation?”
“Nonsense. Magic is an inborn trait. Wickedness has nothing to do with it.”
“But the Order said…”
“The Order lies when it suits their purpose. Your granddaughter is not lost. She was just born with an unusual disposition.”
“But the bible says I should not suffer a witch to live…”
“Also that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Yes?”
It amuses me that I can quote the book if I am vague enough.
“But she has lain with…”
“No I have not!’ Vera pleads with powerful emotion, “Opa please, you know me. You have to believe me, I am still untouched. I would never do such a thing! Please, it’s still me…”
The old man is now equally distressed. His own eyes shine with unshed tears, but soon, he steels himself and turns back to me.
“I do not know what you thought you could achieve but it will not occur. You must both leave, before I have Charlie cast you out. Vera, I love you still, my little cat. I will not report you to the Order, yet I fear it is too late for you. Depart the city. Please.”
“I think not,” I reply, gathering his attention, “I am only getting started. To make my point, let us see what Charlie thinks about all of this.”
Even now, the cross’ aura pushes me back and grates against my essence. The warning it gives is no weaker than before. If anything, its power has grown like mine. The silent threat still carries the promise of oblivion and with it, a subtle taste of ash.
Charlie, however, is unprepared. I slowly lean forward and grab a small bell from the desk. A simple shake and the light chime summons heavy footsteps. The door opens and the burly bodyguard looms in, his eyes widening in surprise before growing dull under the full strength of my Charm. I showed the carrot in the person of Vera. Now comes the stick.
I am not sure Sinead would approve of that last sentence. Oh well.
“Charlie. Join us,” I order with a pleasant voice. My captive blinks owlishly and comes to sit in the empty chair by my side. I stand up and walk behind him before placing both hands on his shoulders.
Schmidt watches me with apprehension. His knobbled hands clutch the cross like a drowning man to a buoy.
“You are dying,” I announce without preamble.
“No!” Vera screams. She rushes to the old man and hugs him with the strength of despair, making him wince a bit. He looks brittle next to her. Fading. She could squish him if she held him too tight.
Eyes still fixed on me and Charlie, the old grandfather reflexively leans into the embrace of the one he trusts. They form a nice contrast and I commit this image to memory to paint it later.
“You are dying,” I continue, “and you want your inheritance to be put to good use. You were approached by a man who said the Order needed you and it took little convincing for you to appreciate the need to defend mankind. You were already witness to Vera’s strange abilities. Am I correct so far?”
“Y-yes. He said that the fight against the forces of darkness was raging.”
“Correct. We fight a war that cannot end. They are without number and we are without limits, and so generations after generations of fighters fall to this conflict. There is something you should be wondering, however. Something obvious.”
His mind is keen, still, and he immediately understands what I am getting at.
“Why do we not rise against you?”
“Correct. Why does the order maintain secrecy? Why does humanity not unite in a great war to purge us from this world. Can you guess?”
“Your kind is not as pure and disinterested as you think. There are millions of magic wielders and many of them are born to mundane families. We vampires are few but we have influence over a great many things, and you would be surprised at the number of rulers tempted by the eternal life we offer. An open conflict would be apocalyptic and there is no guarantee the Order would end up on top. And so, we continue our secret war, age after age.”
I have their full attention now.
“There are unspoken rules, of course. One of them is that mortals who do not know of this conflict are mostly left alone. We do not lay cities to waste, slaughtering people in the alleys. If you join one side, however…”
I grip Charlie’s shoulder harder. He moans softly as my talons pierce his skin and draw blood. I relax before I tear into the muscle, though the damage is done. Both Vera and Schmidt stare mesmerize at the expanding red stains on the man’s shirt. The bodyguard is as glassy-eyed and unresponsive as before.
“… you forfeit your immunity,” I continue. “You think you are doing humanity a favor by leaving the fruits of your labor in the hands of its defenders? You are not. You merely lay the burden of combat on the shoulders of those you leave behind, like our brave Charlie here.”
I lift a talon and place it directly under the man’s right eye. The needle-sharp end digs into his skin. I drag it down, leaving behind a bloody furrow. I cast a light glance at Vera as well. She does not see it, but her grandfather does.
“They will be the ones who pay for your decision. I am sure that your friend in the Order will speak of sacrifice and safety in number. You already have an idea of how safe you are. As for the price to pay, ask yourself this: if a man dies without a choice because of your decision, is he your sacrifice or your victim? You already know the answer.”
Schmidt’s throat bobs as he swallows. His voice is calm now. He has gone beyond fear, to the cold place where one stares the reaper in the face.
“Is there a way for this meeting not to end in blood?”
“What are your terms?”
“Desist. Enjoy your last weeks with your loving granddaughter, make peace with yourselves and others and leave your company to one you deem a worthy successor, I care not. This is not your war, old man, and it is not up to you to decide who will fight it. Do we have an understanding?”
“Yes. I believe we do. I give you my word that I will not support the Order in any way. Will you need guarantees?”
“Your word is enough. You know what will happen if you change your mind.”
“I see. Yes. One last question. If this magic doesn’t come from deals with the devil, then where does it come from?”
I have a theory, actually. Loth had scholarly books that spoke of noetic fields and soul and some such. I believe the answer to be significantly more prosaic.
“Nobody knows for sure, though I suspect that some ancestors had children with fantastic creatures.”
“Like gnomes and korrigans?”
“Hm, yes,” I answer, thinking about a very specific bright-haired and absolutely scandalous individual.
“That remains a hypothesis that I do not have a way to verify,” I continue.
“A scientific-minded monster,” Schmidt remarks ruefully, “that was all, thank you for your answer.”
“Then I’m off. Remember, we will be watching.”
“I already gave you my word,” the old man growls, idly caressing his granddaughter’s hair. They have things well in hand, and my work is done. Vera gives me one last grateful glance as I exit and release my hold on Charlie.
Funny how she doesn’t realize that I implied I would kill her. Oh well. Now the situation should be comfortably heading where we want it. I did not perceive any lie in the old man’s words, and if he changes his mind and goes back on his word as mortals are wont to do... well, I shall visit again.