“You seem preoccupied today,” Marc-Antoine states with a knowing smile. His blade lightly taps my chest protector.
“Careful,” I warn, and the man lifts his hands in mock surrender. The local Roland Master-at-Arms adjusts his mask and brushes his intact white chest plate. I assume the guard he showed me and we resume our bout.
“Remember, this is not a hammer,” the man remarks as I attempt, in vain, to smash his guard aside. I am faster and stronger than him, and so I could CRUSH HIM, but that would defeat the purpose of the exercise.
With Noel mostly focused on brushing stone, his only other permanent neighbor, Marc-Antoine, was left bereft of a fencing partner and I was only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, old habits die hard. The old Master realized rather quickly that I had absolutely no proficiency with a blade, at all.
“Swords are the noble weapon, Ariane of the Nirari. You cannot keep coasting on speed and positioning alone!”
Or so he said. I believe I did a good job coasting so far. His comments keep fusing as he effortlessly keeps up with my bumbling.
“Don’t let me hit your blade! You can move the tip of your sword up and down with minimum hand movement. Do not let it stand still!”
“Jumping back is fine but we are trying to get you used to the flow, my dear. Do not always disengage, parry and counter! Are you not faster than me?”
“Cover your side!”
“Guard up! Guard up!”
Marc-Antoine is relentless. Every attack I make is easily parried or dodged, while his are flowing strikes that meld into one another, all of them deadly. He also tends to swing into my own attacks on occasion, as well as get into my guard and other annoying maneuvers.
Part of me is impressed by his technical expertise which goes beyond just moving well. His battle instincts are superb.
Another part of me wants to pick up my spear and skewer him against the wall like a fat butterfly. I could do it by playing on my superior physical abilities. Unfortunately, he is right. Technique is my weak point, despite years of practice. I am not halfway bad, I am just contending with a man who has dedicated himself to the craft for several mortal lifespans with the obsession of the Rolands.
Sparring is only part of the practice. Marc-Antoine also makes me work on slow dance-like moves that Nami had also ingrained into me. They allow me to appreciate the realm of possibilities the sword offers in terms of movements. Many of those are either aerial or use walls and other vertical surfaces for quick changes of direction which I believe was designed for vampires. I enjoy this part a lot as I find it relaxing.
After one hour of practice, my improvised mentor raises a fist to signal the end of the session.
“You are doing well, Ariane. I am confident that I can turn you into a half-decent swordfighter by the turn of the century.”
“Flatterer,” I reply with limited amusement.
“Hah! Do not take umbrage, Devourer. Your dedication does you credit, and my lessons will serve you well. We will focus on the basics while you study the arcane arts. Your next teacher will have a solid foundation to build on.”
“I am surprised that you would invest so much time in me. I am, after all, but a guest.”
“Sword fighting is my life’s work Ariane. Raising a new talent is its own reward.”
“Are you not concerned that I could turn it against you, far in the future?” I jokingly ask.
Marc-Antoine’s smile only widens.
“Then it might be my turn to learn, who knows?”
I mirror his good humor as we clean our blades and gear ourselves at his insistence. The sun is still high above and it will be another hour before I can leave the compound.
“Will you train with anyone else tonight?” I ask, a bit curious as to why only we practice.
His smile falls off a bit.
“How I wish others were as dedicated as you are. Noel is too focused on his studies. As for the others, they seldom ever come back anymore. They all have their own dens in Southwark or the Northern Liberties. We have become a scattered bunch,” he admits with regret.
“Forgive me for saying so, but you all seem… disinterested in the affairs of your domain,” I risk.
To criticize your own host is always considered a faux pas, especially in our society. Recent developments have forced my hand, however.
Marc-Antoine shrugs helplessly.
“You must understand, we have held this town for over a century now. There are few opportunities to explore, and fewer still now that power shifts elsewhere. We are victims of our own success.”
I am forced to blink at this outrageous declaration. Nothing to explore? In a city of tens of thousands?
“I see that you do not believe me. Perhaps, in a few years, new mage cabals will make a move on us, blinded by our lack of activity. For now, we are at peace and our rule is uncontested.”
This is not right. We should always seek new challenges. To stagnate is to fall. We are designed for the Hunt.
“Alas, our current leadership is not conducive to vast projects.”
The blademaster hesitates, perhaps aware that with this innocuous remark, he opened Pandora's box.
“Was he always this interested in paleontology?” I ask, plunging into the breach.
“No…” the other answer with some hesitation, “at least not while he was in France. Noel was Dominique’s lover. He fell out of grace.”
“I heard about Dominique. The current leader of your clan, yes?”
“Indeed. A curious and magnetic figure they are.”
“I have already said too much. Suffice to say, the man is taking some time away for himself and I admit that we have a tendency to focus a bit too much on our distractions.”
I choose not to comment and move to my room to get changed. The Roland's disinterest in ruling is not my most dire concern. Tonight, I have an appointment with my newest toy.
I look down on the red brick building below. Salazar is on time, alone as requested, and dressed with much more care than yesterday. He wears a well-tailored grey suit and his hair is combed back under a clean bowler hat. As I watch, he removes a silver watch from a coat pocket, which he nervously inspects. He turns left and right, his eyes scanning the deserted street.
I grab my cloak and tug my dress between my legs before falling by his side to prevent the displaced air from making it flap. I have already been standing there for a second when Salazar turns again.
“NGAAAAA! JESUS, woman! Erm. Sorry! I did not see you there.”
“I mean, sorry milady, errrr, good evening. Would you like to go now? Aha.”
“Lead the way,” I order in a flat voice, though internally I am having an unexpected amount of fun. Salazar is jumpy. It makes me feel… playful.
We start walking south along the still busy streets of uniform brick buildings. Here, gas lights cast their warm glows from inside their glass prisons on pedestrians and passing carriages alike. Traditional clothing in drab colors abound, as befit the city’s Quaker inheritance. The fire is not in the fashion but in the voices of the groups we come across. Philadelphia is host to the Second Bank of the United States, and the President — that arrogant loon! — has decided to defund it. The gall. The entire town is aflutter with snide remarks and consternated rebukes.
My companion does not share in the general outrage, only casting looks left and right with the vigilance of someone who expects trouble.
Slowly, I compress my aura until it almost disappears and walk slightly behind the tall man. We turn left into a deserted street. Salazar’s shoulders tighten when, I assume, he only hears one set of steps.
The mage flinches and turns frightfully, only to jump once more when our eyes meet. I stand at the edge of his personal space, slightly to the side, and make no effort to breathe nor blink.
“Yes?” I ask.
“Nothing! It’s nothing. Sorry. We’re not far now. From a stable I mean. The place is a bit farther off. Errr. We’ll get a horse for the evening. You can ride horses, right?”
“I will find my own, not to worry.”
“Oh good, good. I know the stable owner. You can rent a horse there. I mean, I will pay for the horse and you can ride it. Would that be acceptable?”
“I will find my own,” I repeat curtly.
“Right. Right. It’s not far.”
We continue and this time, I slowly increase my aura while focusing on the man. As soon as he flinches, I reduce it again, then increase again.
I am not being facetious; I am conducting a study on intimidation and destabilization methods on unaffiliated mages. The fact that I am having a tremendous amount of fun is merely a side-effect of my rigorous scientific investigation. It most definitely is.
“We’re here,” Salazar mumbles as we leave the well-ordered row of buildings to more open grounds, dotted with both fields and warehouses in the distance. A long wood construction takes the side of the road here, and from there comes the familiar smell of equines and their dejections. A few neighs filter from the now-closed door and in front of them, a burly man sweeps the ground under the light of a pair of lanterns. He raises his bearded face as we approach and only relaxes when he recognizes my companion.
I stay near the entrance and leave the man to his business. He approaches the stablemaster with a confident stride and the two of them clasp hands like old acquaintances.
“Salz, good to see you. Who’s the bird?”
“Shhh!” the other man urges with a suddenly fearful glance. Both of them turn to my silhouette standing alone by the roadside. I keep a neutral face and, once more, make no particular effort to blink.
“I’ll tell you later. You got a horse for me?”
“Straw isn’t too tired and he’s already saddled. Will he do?” the other whispers back.
Salazar follows the other man inside, the pair now equally nervous. He appears to hesitate at the threshold as he expected me to follow inside and I do not, but in the end, he decides to move forward.
I do not even have to whistle for Metis to stop by my side. The noble steed comes for only three things: food, extreme violence leading to the acquisition of said food, and showing off. I easily sit side-saddle on her back, with my gloved hands on my lap.
And I wait.
After a few minutes, one of the large doors of the barn open to let out the stablemaster, Salazar, and a dun mount of middling size. The men freeze when they see me, mouths open and everything. The gelding by their side lowers his head and turns it to the side, casting a fearful glance at my Metis in all her glory.
My impatient friend stomps a hoof, and the unnaturally heavy noise breaks the men from their fearful reverie. The stablemaster decides that, perhaps, the entrance is sufficiently swept for the night. He pushes Salazar out and barricades himself with the loud thud of a plank resolutely plonked down. The horse and rider pair is left stuck outside between a vampire and a hard place.
“Well?” I demand with as much queenly scorn as I can manage.
From his face, I believe I am doing well.
Metis assists with a low-pitch neigh of impatience that sends the pair on their way, posthaste. The mage hastily grabs a lantern then goes forth at the edge of a gallop, both himself and his mount focusing steadily on the path ahead as the heavy impact of nightmarish hooves leaves no doubt as to what follows.
Such unexpected fun. What an amusing bouquet coming from my dear guide! Truly, our brand of humor does require a victim.
Salazar rides south, then west towards Schuylkill. The night darkens as human sources of light grow far between. Soon, the lantern becomes a small halo of radiance surrounded on all sides by the encroaching shadows.
“Would… would you mind riding by my side?” the man bleats pitifully.
Don’t mind if I do.
I kick Metis forward. In a second, she has closed the distance.
Salazar yelps and jumps as we burst from the night, then he struggles for a few seconds to keep his mount under control.
“Mother f— Jesus!”
The scowl dies on his face as our eyes meet.
“Ah, I wanted to inform you of a few things. Yes.”
A pearl of sweat snails its way down the man’s forehead.
“That is to say, there were three sites of attack. We will go to the most recent one which happened four days ago. And then the others afterward. At least, we think they are. We did not suspect a thing at first, you see? The first looked like a tragic accident.”
“Starting with the recent one is a good idea. The other sites are most likely too altered to reveal anything useful.”
Interesting. Once focused on his task, Salazar instantly calms down. Even his posture changes.
“Do you suspect anyone?” I finally ask.
“That is the problem. I suspect everyone and no one. The first deaths were a very tight-knit group of mages following a Christian ethos, while the second victims were a couple belonging to a loose alliance of practitioners from south Germany. The last group were blood mages, or close enough, hence why I wanted to inquire about Ezekiel’s whereabouts the night of the murder.”
“From observation, he was probably holed in his moldy basement, dressed in opera prop rejects,” I deadpan.
Salazar laughs, then turns it into a cough with a measuring glance in my direction. Perhaps I should not make light of my teacher in front of his rival. I just… do not feel the kind of kinship I had with many of the other mortals I have worked with. Ezekiel and I are bound in a professional relationship. That is all.
Nevertheless, I admit, I have behaved in an uncourteous manner. I will not criticize him publicly any further.
“In any case,” my companion continues after a pause, “none of those groups were even remotely allied. I expect that the culprit is either an independent agent or a splinter group. They took great pain in erasing all tracks, therefore their purpose is not to sow discord by planting false evidence. My suspicion is that the victims were used in a blood ritual.”
“On site?” I ask with surprise.
“It is possible and, in fact, the best option. Criminals and civilians alike severely underestimate the difficulty of carrying bodies across a populated area unchallenged.”
As I say that, we finally arrive. In the middle of a fallow field stand the remains of barn-like structures, or at least it appears to be as the building has been devastated by a fire of great intensity. Only a few blackened beams remain pointing skyward in uneven clumps, like the rotten teeth of an evil witch. The roof is entirely collapsed in a solid pile of coal covered in soot-stained snow.
The silence is deafening,
I step down from Metis and slowly circle the wreck. There is not a single aura to be found here. The ground, trampled by a great many steps, offers nothing of value until I come across an anomaly.
On the side and to the left, I find a secondary pile of ashes linked to the main house by a snake of darkened ground. I lean forward until my nose is close enough for the frosted grass to tickle. A whiff is enough. The heavy smell of pine remains over that of charred vegetation. Terebinthine, or turpentine as it is known.
Turpentine can be used as an accelerant, a substance that increases the speed of a chemical process. In this case, it would be the fire. Whoever started this arson was meticulous, but also terribly inefficient. It would have been much simpler and safer to cover the walls then ignite multiple locations at once, unless they were so afraid of discovery that they had to leg it at the first spark.
This is quite curious.
I find nothing else noticeable and return to Salazar who had been blinking owlishly from inside his little safe place in a foolish attempt to locate me. I, of course, approach him from his blind side.
“Were there any wards in place inside the barn?”
“Dammit… Yes. Yes, there were but they were purged in the fire just like most of anything. That is why we highly suspect someone from the magical community. A group of mundanes would not have known how to break through without causing an alarm. This place might be remote but the first one was not. It was a school, with houses around. A fight would have attracted attention. Especially a firefight.”
“Hence why it could not be the order of Gabriel?”
“I am not discounting them yet, though there have been no signs of them showing up. They have been known to use stealth when convenient. I just find it hard to believe that they could successfully kill a dozen people without alerting everyone around.”
“Hmm. What about that cottage?” I ask, pointing at a solid stone farm a few hundred yards away.
“What about it?”
“Did you interrogate the person there?”
Salazar has the grace to act embarrassed.
“We did not think it necessary. I mean, the building is rather far…” he replies somewhat defensively.
“Well let’s give it a try, at least,” I suggest sweetly and the man hurries to nod along.
We walk to the isolated house and easily spot the light of candles from what appears to be the living room. The door looks solid, and locked tight.
“Make the lantern brighter,” I order in a low voice.
“You can’t see?”
“Not for us, for the one who lives inside,” I hiss with annoyance.
Salazar obeys and I knock on the door. Inside, a breath hitches. One inhabitant. A woman, from the footsteps.
I pull Salazar back a bit and raise his arm so that we are well-lit. I then channel the Hastings essence.
My posture changes immediately. My back bends a bit, and I cross my arms protectively under my chest. From unmoving, I let my eyes dart left and right in a typical prey fashion. I allow my composure to crumble until what is left is a scared young woman looking for answers, though she should know better.
The person inside inspects us for a few seconds through a thick glass window. This is the moment of truth. If she refuses to open the door, there is not much I can do, and yet I remain confident.
The hinges groan and we find ourselves face to face with a woman in her forties wielding a fire poker and a mighty scowl.
As expected, curiosity has triumphed over common sense.
We do not speak. I let her finish her inspection while Salazar is apparently too busy gawping at me and my change of behavior. The Hastings essence guides me into regular breaths, shifts and other quirks that make a living person more relatable. I can even tell that my cheeks have reddened under the influence of the biting cold.
“Who are youse, and what the hell do you want?”
She is messy but clean. Her clothes are unadorned and chosen for comfort rather than for style. She is still the kind of mature beauty that Loth would go after were it not for her open hostility. A widow, I’d wager, or someone who was at the losing end of a social conflict and ended up a pariah. Our eyes meet and I taste her emotions with a light touch. Fear, anger, frustration, curiosity. I need that last one the most.
“Sorry to bother you at this late hour ma’am. My name is Ariane and I lost my brother a few nights ago. In there,” I finish, pointing at the blackened husk of the barn.
Oooh yes, the ambers of curiosity are fanned. I do not even need to push.
“People are lying to me about what happened to him. They say it was an accident but it is all nonsense. I know it is late, but would you mind answering a few questions?”
Without missing a beat, my interlocutor turns to the mage at my side and points the poker at him in a vaguely threatening fashion.
“And who is this?” she asks, her suspicion surging to the top.
Salazar is still looking at my meek figure as if I had grown a pair of horns.
“My cousin. I took him with me for safety, you understand. Please do not mind him. He is a bit…. touched in the head,” I deadpan.
The experienced caster’s expression flinches, anger at being called a simpleton warring in his mind with the realization that breaking character would have immediate and unfortunate consequences.
“Hellow!” he eventually says with a forced smile.
“I see,” the woman replies before returning her attention to me, “you said you had questions?”
“Yes. If it’s not too much bother. I would have come tomorrow but time is of the essence, if indeed this was not the accident the authorities claim it is.”
“Yes, they would, wouldn’t they? Addled-brained gossipers and cowards, the lot of them.”
Ah, excellent. Hostility successfully redirected.
“Well, come on in and hurry, ‘fore all the heat is gone! Quickly!”
I step in and allow myself a smile of pride as Salazar closes the door behind us.
Our host drags us through a corridor that separates what I guess is the workshop from the living part. From the rolls of fabric stored on planks against the wall, I assume that she is a seamstress. We turn right through a creaking door and into the lit space we saw from afar. The room we now stand on clearly started as a kitchen until she dragged in a bed. One comfortable and well-used couch lies close to a dying fire with a book and a ceramic cup of tea placed on a small table beside. The walls are covered in shelves covered in pots, jars, books, and trinkets. The smell of human and stew saturates the air in a mix that is not entirely unpleasant.
It feels cozy. This is the heart of the house. I can feel power as ancient and fundamental as crosses and the Watcher itself pulsing softly. One word from our host and I will be flung out, swatted like a fly by the very nature of the locale.
I never harbored any ill will towards the prickly woman. Even if I did, I would hesitate now under the influence of this… I do not know what to call it. I am a guest and a guest is respectful. Yes, that is the proper way of things.
“I did not catch your name,” I remark.
“You can call me Paulina,” the woman grumbles while removing piles of folded covers and clothes from two small stools. She frees the seats and puts them against the table. Salazar attempts to help but is quickly dissuaded by a murderous glance. In the end, he leans against a window.
“Care for some tea? It’s not good but it’s hot.”
“I would love some,” I reply, causing another jolt of surprise in my companion. Even if I could not drink, any vampire worth their salt can pretend to sip with consummate grace. Clearly, Salazar has wrong expectations.
The woman silently hands me a large chipped mug filled half-way with steaming liquid. I grasp the body of the container with two hands, feeling the warmth travel through the fabric of my gloves. The scent of black tea travels in wafts and I take a quick sip. The piping hot liquid almost scalds my tongue and leaves behind a sweet aftertaste.
“Honey?” I ask.
“My only indulgence,” the older woman grunts. I cast a quick glance at the cover of the book she is reading. A collection of romantic poetry, nothing scandalous.
“Thank you. Would you be comfortable answering a few questions for me?”
“Yes, I suppose,” she replies with apparent impatience, but I know better. Her posture is attentive and with the bond between us deepening, I can taste more. She is defensive and cautious as the poker still by her side easily reveals. Beneath, however, are the standard traits of the exiled. Loneliness. A need for validation. Paulina’s education is respectable if the rows of books are any indication, and she appears rather distrustful. I therefore judge that showing proper diction and a bit of spine would endear her enough to share what she knows.
“I understand that my brother gathered here relatively often?”
“Yes, twice per week without fail. He and his friends would come with platters of food and spend the evening together doing whatever it is they did. Do you know what this was about?” she asks with a challenge.
“Not exactly, but I doubt that it was anything illegal. He never lacked for money.”
“What was his name?”
“James. James Dalton,” I reply immediately. The core of lying is to create another truth rather than improvising your way through the conversation. That way, there are less opportunities for contradictions. James is one of my go-to names for male relatives.
As for the name Dalton… I had not used it in a long time. Perhaps I am growing lonely.
“James, huh. Sorry for your loss,” she says, and I realize that with the help of the Hastings essence, I had revealed enough weakness and grief for her to latch on.
“Not your fault. In any case, were you here the night he… the night the barn burnt?”
“Yes I was, but I feel the need to apologize. I know very little. By the time I woke up, the fire was already raging outside.”
“You sleep in this room, correct?” I say and point at the small cot.
“Yes. In wintertime, warming the entire house is wasteful since my Henry died. I just stay down here.”
“Your windows face the barn. Were you woken up by the light?”
“No. The windows are not large enough and the bed is low so the glow never shone into my face. It’s the noise that did it. Their roof collapsed.”
“I see. Did anything coming from the barn ever wake you up before?”
Paulina considers the question seriously for a few seconds, clearly showing that those meetings have been going on for some time.
“Maybe twice last year during celebrations. They were obviously quite drunk, including the women.”
She frowns with disapproval, but then her expression softens.
“It was not much. Just loud conversations and raucous laughs, and it did not last. They were mostly a quiet bunch and I am not one to pry so I left them alone. Why? You’re thinking of something,” she adds.
I can share that much.
“The accident did not have a single survivor and I learned yesterday that they found the bodies throughout the house. I find it unlikely that not a single person could escape. Even if they were all asleep and slowly choked on smoke, the people closest to the ground should have survived long enough to escape.”
“You suspect foul play.”
“I do not suspect,” I correct her, “I know there was foul play. The fact that nothing woke you up shows that they did not scream. They were all probably dead by the time the fire claimed them.”
I darken my expression as Paulina gulps her tea to ease the tension.
“It could have been someone on the inside.”
“Or a group of bandits,” Pauline adds with some alarm, “do you think…”
“I doubt that they were chosen at random. You are probably safe,” I reassure her.
“I pray that you are right,” the woman finally adds.
This is all she knew, and it confirmed that whatever killed them did so through successful infiltration, one way or another. After a few more remarks, I take my leave with a quiet Salazar in tow. We head back to the horses and ride to the next site, as planned.
“You are not what I expected,” the man finally remarks as I ponder on what we learned.
“What did you expect then?”
“I’m not sure. More… grandstanding and ordering around. More putting that woman under your spell and dominating her into telling her everything you want to know.”
“A more vampiric display of might?”
I could ignore him, but in the end, decide not to. As amusing as it is to tease the mage, I must not forget that he is an ally in our quest to hunt a dangerous foe. I must not let my fun stand in the way of efficiency. Or at least, not too much.
“Power is a crutch. Use it too often and you forget how to operate without it,” I finally explain.
This remark is as valid for me as ever. Such an occurrence would never happen in my territory. I would use my vast network of agents and informants to track every possible culprit, resorting to extreme measures to stop them before they could claim a second victim. I would unleash werewolves in the streets (in human form), and have mage scry every pebble. I would bring all my resources to bear.
Here, cut off from most of them, I am forced once again to rely on myself as well as unreliable agents. I welcome the practice. Time honing one’s skill is never wasted.
“You were also much less, err, vampiry,” Salazar continues, passing a hand in his spiky black hair. I notice that he looks a bit miffed.
In answer, I channel hasting essence once more and, this time, assume the persona of the bashful young country lass, intimidated by the handsome and savvy city man before me.
“Would… would this be better, Mr. Salazar?” I ask in a sweet voice and I shily glance down.
The man recoils.
“You know what, that’s even worse!” he complains.
I stop my impersonation and return to my old glacial self with a knowing smile that I make sure he sees.
“You know what I truly am. If I wore a different skin, you would find it disturbing.”
“You don’t mean that literally, do you? The wearing a skin part?”
If my eyes roll back any farther up my skull, I shall soon see down my own throat.
“Please be patient with me, yes? I am not some century-old aristocrat of the night,” the man protests.
Hah. I have never heard us be called that, but I suppose it is fitting.
Also, he thinks that I am a century old. I am wise and mature beyond my years. Even the mortals can tell.
“Enough of this,” I reluctantly say to stop his flattery, “we have two more sites to visit. Lead the way!”
It takes us three more hours to inspect everything. The couple was killed in a shed at the back of their property while the second group was indeed slain in a school. The way the fire started was exactly the same, except the first time where the distance is significantly shorter.
“There is not much to see,” Salazar declares, mid-yawn.
“On the contrary, there is plenty to understand. I do believe it is high time we met the vampire in charge of this location. The murder of the couple happened on the master’s territory. The two others belong to a Courtier named Lydia, unless I am mistaken.”
“You need her permission to act?”
“I could bypass her and go directly to Noel, though that would be discourteous. We will visit her soon. First, we will need a little bit of magical and mundane assistance and you are going to help me.”