My feet tread the familiar ground in silence, and I bounce up the three small stairs to the entrance with the ease of familiarity. They have not changed. Neither have I.
The door could use another coat of paint though.
I pull on a cord. Light chimes sound from inside and a pair of heavy steps heralds the coming of the house staff. We are late enough that a visit would be considered rude, but not enough that I would be greeted with a musket.
I do not recognize the woman who opens the door. She wears a conservative light dress and a scowl as she squints, trying to recognize me.
“I am here to see Achille Reynaud,” I announce.
“And what business do you have with Mr Reynaud?”
“He called me here.”
Her inspection is done and she clearly does not like what she sees. Some people have good instincts and I cannot help but smile. I am experiencing something new: nostalgia.
I have not been home in so long.
“Mr Reynaud is indisposed.”
“Then you should also know better than to come so late. Return tomorrow.”
She goes to close the door and shows quite a bit of surprise when I press a hand against the heavy frame, pushing her aside with ease. Her expression turns scandalized.
“Madam, I will ask you to leave. Immediately!”
I take a deep breath to appreciate the moment, tasting the air. I am still welcome. The old magic has left me untouched.
I step forward.
“Fortunately, you are not my host. I do not need your agreement.”
I lightly push her protesting form aside and climb up the stairs, ignoring her pathetic invectives. My brother will rest in the master bedroom and this is where my steps lead me.
The house smells of incense, sickness, old furniture, and old people. Girders and support beams creak like the knees of a crone all around and the ticks of an ancient clock thrum like heartbeats. Still, this place lives, more solemn than decrepit. The pitted planks are lacquered while the shelves sag under the weight of well-ordered books and polished trinkets. Some of them even look quite expensive.
I finally reach the fateful door. When I was a child, this was my father’s domain. He would tolerate my presence there while he accepted no one else, not since mother had died. I would charge in to wake him up sometimes, jumping on the mattress and bumping my head against his as if I were a ram.
He is long gone and so is his scent.
I knock lightly on the door and enter. Most of the furniture must have been replaced at some point. Only the bed itself occupies the same space.
In it lies the prone form of my brother.
The years have not been kind.
I suppose that he is old now at sixty-four. Age does not explain the sunken cheek, the stringy beard or the yellow skin stuck to his skeletal body. Sickness does. His breath comes out raspy and difficult. A desiccated hand grabs at his torso and the probable source of his pain even as he fitfully sleeps. The air is heavy with the smell of medicine.
I step closer and find a comfortable chair. I am confident that I was quiet, and yet just as I finish sitting, he pops his eyes open and turns them on me with unerring purpose. They are bloodshot and just as keen and blue as I remember them. His gaze turns to the table at his side and I understand the unspoken request. I stand again and light a few candles before returning to his side. We scrutinize each other in silence. His jaw shifts several times as, I assume, he struggles to find words that he perhaps prepared. I know better and did not even attempt the foolish exercise.
“You have not changed at all. Are you still… you?” he finally asks, his voice grating from an exhausted throat.
“I’m afraid that is up for debate, and I wish I could return the compliment.”
For a moment, the barb throws us back to a time when our conflicted relationship shaped the lives, and ears, of many a nurse. We both smile at those memories and something clicks between us, a fleeting sense of camaraderie. When Achille next speaks, his voice is softer.
“Thank you for coming. I wish it had been sooner but I had a few things to work through.”
“When did you learn that I was still, for lack of a better term, alive?”
“Father told me before he passed away.”
Achille’s eyes grow distant.
“It took me a long time to accept what he said as more than the delusions of a sick man and even longer to act. I apologize.”
“No need, Achille.”
“Yes, need,” he retorts. He painfully shifts in his bed and grabs an envelope from his bedside table. The paper is wrinkled and faded by old age and when he hands it to me, I feel a weight inside. His skin is dry and feverish.
“Father left this for you. There is a key inside. I did not want to give it to a monster. It took a lot of growing up to realize that it was not my decision to take.”
“Self-reflection? Who are you and what have you done with my brother?” I retort teasingly as I accept the gift. Achille’s answering smile is brittle and bittersweet.
“You laugh. I spent entirely too much time growing a business and a family before realizing I had to grow as a person as well. A lot of events happening late in my life have changed my outlook. I had many certitudes. Now, much less so.”
“Je suis surprise,” I admit, temporarily reverting to French.
“Do not be, petite soeur, it is never too late to change.”
Our moment is interrupted by heavy steps trampling the floor on their way to the bedroom. I recognize the decisive struts, quick breath and dancing heartbeat of a terrified human desperately trying to rally their spirits.
The door bangs open and a woman crashes in, head high and armed with an iron poker.
A strange sensation of uncanny otherness overcomes me and I grip the couch, fangs almost bared in an instinctive response. It takes all of my self-control to shut my mouth and force myself to relax. She is not me. This was just an illusion, a phantom born from decades spent away from my own blood.
She is not me.
Her hair is darker and her face smoother. There could be other details but I forgot. I have not seen my own face in so long that her arrival confused me for a while. I notice with some amusement that her reaction mirrors my own, and that the threats and imprecations the iron poker was supposed to back up died on her lips the moment she took me in. We could be sisters.
“Who are you?” she asks with a trembling voice.
“My guest,” Achille interrupts before I can reply. I let him. Host privilege.
“Grand-pere, the doctor said that you should rest, especially at night.”
“I know, ma petite. This meeting could not wait.”
“Grand-pere! Please, you have to take care of yourself. Mademoiselle, can you not come back tomorrow morning?” she asks, turning to me.
“June, listen to me,” Achille speaks in a kind voice that I do not recognize.
My brother has changed a lot. The Achille I knew could not tolerate objections or refusals. He had a very firm idea of his place in the world and everyone else’s too. Those who opposed his orders while being his inferior were severely reprimanded and their objections immediately dismissed as the ramblings of an inferior getting out of line and, therefore, unwise. This Achille is reasonable and patient.
“June, my dear. You know that some things cannot wait. Please.”
Tears pearl at the corner of the girl’s eyelids. She furiously tries to chase them away by blinking very fast and scowling mightily before turning away and stomping back into the corridor where she stays to eavesdrop with all the spying acumen of a five-years-old.
“You have mellowed in your old age,” I remark, not unkindly.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Achille replies with a strangled chuckle, “that was June by the way.”
“Your second son’s daughter. I know.”
He welcomes my revelation like a pleasant surprise.
“You kept an eye on us?”
“Yes. I would have acted if you were facing a true menace, mundane or otherwise.”
“I see, I see. That is good. To return to my change of heart, a great many events rocked my perception of the world in the past few years. June is one of them. My second son turned out to be a major disappointment while June herself is kind, smart, and responsible. It certainly impacted my opinion on family hierarchy and the merits of male-only inheritance.”
“You are not considering…”
“I am. When I die, she will inherit the property and quite a few assets besides.”
“You impress me,” I admit with genuine care.
“Thank you. I am sorry that I could not reconsider things before disease and circumstances made it an imperative. I called you here for a favor.”
Supplicant. It has been a while since I last felt the intimate bond created by such a request. The ingrained urge to demand a price for my help fights a short war with an old sense of loyalty and loses. I will not ask for a price from Achille.
“My youngest son, Richard, enrolled in the US army last year following our increased tensions with Mexico. Are you familiar with the situation?”
Naturally. The Natalis under Lord Jarek are monitoring the situation with great attention. They favor the American side for a variety of causes ranging from security against the Comanches to the benefits of having a stable government for one full year.
“We are on the brink of war. President Polk ordered Taylor’s men south into the Nueces strip and Mexico will react.”
“Correct. Richard is now a proud dragoon in the second brigade. Full of bluster, that one. ‘The nation this! Our honor that!’ His blood runs white-hot with the fury of unbridled patriotism!”
His mocking tone surprises me. I always took him for someone who would support traditional institutions with the firm belief of a man whose position in life depends on them. He must have reconsidered his values at a fundamental level over the past decade.
Achille’s breathing grows hard as the memory of his son’s departure agitates him. It takes a few seconds for him to take a deep, relaxing sigh.
“Funny things, wars. Victory or defeat, there will always be one foolhardy charge or one vainglorious assault that kills all of its participants. Then, ten years from now, some Washington asshole will paint a nice scene about the whole affair.”
“You want me to get him out?”
“I wish, but no. If life has told me one thing, it is that we must learn some lessons ourselves. I do not expect you to shield him from bayonets. I only wish for him not to lose his life in a stupid, preventable way. Can you do that?”
“I can travel west and keep an eye on him, if you wish. I may not save him, but I will extract him if he is taken prisoner or if he is on the run.”
“Good enough. Yes, good enough.”
We keep quiet for a while, Achille lost to his musings and me observing him.
“Say, I did not offer payment?” he asks as an afterthought.
“No need. I think of us as family.”
He laughs at that. One short exhalation that soon turns into a wince of pain.
“I will keep you apprised,” I tell him.
“No need. I have an understanding with my doctor. When you are gone, he will increase the dosage of some of my medicines and thus shorten my already minute lifespan. All my affairs are in order and I have no intention to dawdle and be a burden on June and the staff.”
“You will let go of the world?” I ask.
“You do not age, do you? Then you will be spared the indignities of your own body failing you. Waking every morning, weakened. Dimmer. A slow wreck that nothing can stop.”
His gaze grows clouded as he contemplates his own mortality.
“Death is not a failure. I am eager to shed this body and see what lies beyond, not because I despair, but because I can no longer grow in this crumbling vessel. You will stay here and look after our family, won’t you?”
“For as long as I live.”
“Good. Now, I have never been one for long farewells. You must go to the wine cave.“
I thought it was never finished?”
“Papa completed it a few years before he died. I think he left you something there. I sealed it after his passing and never entered it but I cleared the entrance every spring. It should still be easily accessible.”
“This is goodbye, you who may or may not be my sister. For what it’s worth, I think Papa is right and whatever you have become is still you.”
“Thank you, Achille.”
“Yes yes. Now begone with you! And look after everyone.”
“I will. Hopefully, for a very, very long time. Farewell Achille, it was a pleasure seeing you one last time.”
My brother chuckles and rests back into his pillow, closing his eyes. I can tell that he is in pain and do not wish to annoy him further.
I do feel something, though the cold of my mind significantly dampens the intensity of the emotion. I close the door quietly behind me on my way out.
June is gone. For now.
I do not return to the entrance. My steps carry me further into the old house until I finally arrive at my old bedroom but I do not walk in. I will not find anything that belongs to me within this place I used to know more than any other. Several occupants have come since then and left their mark. The only prize I will reap would be a sense of violation, of breached den. I feel agitated and fear that bringing too many strong emotions to the surface would be unwise, and so I stop my hand before it can grip the handle and turn around, heading back.
If I had not been taken that night decades ago and turned into what I have become, I would have followed a much different path. There would have been no midnight rides, no battles and no heists. No guns. Well, less guns in any case. I would have probably found a suitable husband I could have loved and trusted, who would have supported me and my projects rather than impose his will as some tend to do. I would have built a rum distillery and managed it for years. I would be here now, in this room, caring for my dying brother supported by my children and grandchildren. We would have had massive family reunions with luncheons lasting well into the night.
I think that I would have been happy.
Just as I am now.
There was much to discover and many incredible people to meet. A mortal could not understand the ecstasy of the Hunt, of killing a werewolf and drinking them dry, of dancing in the midst of immortals dressed in fineries from another age.
Yes. It was, in many ways, a worthy life I have lived so far. I made it so through my own efforts.
Bah, enough! I am on a schedule. I retrace my steps and make for the exit.
June is waiting in the main hall. Her expression is complicated. I climb down the stairs, taking care to make some noise and still she does not turn her eyes. Her mind remains fully captured by a painting on the wall I had ignored on my way up. Now, I finally look at it.
Half a century ago, our father had sat us to celebrate Achilles’ twenty-first birthday in a way that would immortalize the occasion. Some cheap artist from Baton-Rouge came with his brushes and meek manners and drew a portrait of our family. His work had been awkward. I can now easily spot the flaws in his style and some too hasty strokes that blurred the contours of dad’s face. Despite the shoddy work, there is no mistaking the people present as one of them has not changed at all.
June finally turns to me, mouth open in mixed horror and surprise, so I do the most vampire thing I can. I lightly tap her shoulder, smile mysteriously, and take my leave before she can recover.
Being darkly secretive is a form of boasting.
Outside, the smell of wet earth from recent rain and the sounds of nature renew my sense of nostalgia. The property has changed and has also stayed the same. Like me.
The path to the wine cave is overgrown now, Achille being unable to clear it himself. I tread it with ease and end up at the edge of a gate seemingly stuck into a small hill. The surrounding vegetation assaults it from all sides in a furious attempt to close the gap. Green sprouts and other tendrils grasp towards each other like grasping limbs frozen in time.
I use the iron key on the lock and push in. The door protests the intrusion with a deafening creak.
Papa built himself a nice little haven here, away from prying eyes, and I immediately realize why. Two of the walls are lined with moldy bookshelves filled with cheap editions of magic theory books. A desk by the side collects dust, its surface barren. The entire far side of the room is covered by a large workshop filled with curious tools, including a few optical ones with their lenses shining strangely in the darkness. On it sits a box and a sealed envelope.
I neglect the books. Most of them are easily obtainable and I know their content already, having spent a decade learning from one of the greatest arcane smiths who ever lived. A quick inspection of the desk yields nothing of value; the room was thoroughly cleaned before it was vacated.
This is it.
I open the envelope with trepidation and take my time to unfold the yellowed paper. My father’s smooth cursive greets me in all its comforting familiarity. My hand goes to my neck, to the pendant where his last instruction rests locked forever in a case of steel.
Do not die before me.
I fulfilled his request and read the text, written in French, to see if there is another one.
“My dearest daughter,
When you read this, I will probably be in a better place or at least I hope so! How I wish I could have held you in my arms one more time, but despite your absence I find comfort in the knowledge that you are safe. Jimena kept me aware of your progress through small missives slipped here and there throughout the years. The woman is paranoid! But considering who you face, I suppose caution is warranted.
I am leaving soon. As I am writing these words, I have finished tidying up the cave and getting rid of the more incriminating correspondences. Know that I have not spent all of my last few years in idle occupation, sipping rum and flirting with the ladies. Only the majority of them. I also did a little bit of trading here and there. You know your old man!
Eventually, I got my hands on something that will help you. Jimena informed me that it would be some time before you could use it and I find that I do not mind. I very much enjoy the idea that you carry this present into eternity, one gift from me, by your side, forever. Please take good care of it and give your enemies hell!
This is farewell, my daughter. I wish I could have helped you through your original projects of having a large family and opening that distillery. Fate had something else in store for you and you faced it head on like the indomitable woman I raised. Remember me, remember us, and keep an eye out for Achille and his swarm, God knows he needs all the help he can get!
Your mother would be proud.
With all my love.
Silly, silly Papa. Silly. I did get my family, and my distillery too. And now I am crying blood on the silly paper. Bah!
I fold the letter religiously, replacing it in the envelope. The container is locked until I try the key in the envelope Achilles gave me. It opens to reveal a velvet-padded interior like a jewelry box, and enshrined within, a mage gauntlet.
And what a gauntlet it is. Smooth, elegant lines of the darkest black shine ominously like midnight stars on a glove that redefines threatening grace. If there was ever a vampire empress, she would have worn it. I recognize obsidian as the primary material for the frame, one that is as potent as it is difficult to handle. Chains of silver alloy bind the lithe knuckles to grant the artefact even more power. This is, perhaps, one of the mightiest foci one can make, and it looks good. An exquisite tool and a fashion statement. A small, hand-written note lies near the wrist.
“Celestine ‘Blackhand’ MacDhuibh’s regalia. Certificate of authenticity of the Rosenthal consortium.”
I recognize that name. Celestine MacDhuibh was a fifteenth century unconventional Scottish mage known for her brilliance and her short fuse. She invented several interesting spells, including the short-range killing one that afforded her the moniker, but also an explosive diarrhea hex she would use on rivals. Now, her gauntlet belongs to me, thanks to my Papa.
I caress the smooth surface lovingly and consider how lucky I am.
When I came back to my home after my escape from Lancaster custody, I almost expected him to be gone, or dead. I hesitated and delayed because I knew the most likely outcome of our reunion to be curses and screams. Instead, he welcomed me and sent me on my way with a gun and a promise.
He was wrong in a way. Dalton, Loth, and Jimena became my family and I realize that without them my path would have been much darker. It would have been cut short quickly as well. I do not know how I would have behaved if rage and bitterness had guided my actions. The memory of that time remains dark. I had traveled the land harried by time, filth, and the Thirst. A Gabrielite almost killed me. Instead of disappearing like a ghost, I may have slaughtered my way through the countryside in a fit of rage and despair.
I would not be the same person without them.
I grab the gauntlet and place it in a small bag by my side, replacing the standard focus I had purchased before. I make a note of recovering the books, just in case, and leave the wine cave. On my way out I meet an old man waiting by the road. He smokes a pipe with dignity, dressed in comfortable and clean outdoor clothes, but his eyes are laughing. I raise an eyebrow as, in my mind, mortals do not have the right to be silent and mysterious. I should maintain the exclusivity.
“Hello, cousin,” the man greets me.
I freeze and dig through my memories, the Rosenthal essence proving necessary for this one.
Cousin? I have some cousins. I even met one on the night I returned.
“Lucien?” I blurt out.
“Hah! I knew it. All those years and people telling me I had dreamt it, but no! My cousin Ariane is immortal! So, are you some sort of Greek hero or something? Is it a mythic item taken from a dead god?”
“Something of the sort…” I mumble, completely out of sorts. I was recognized! Twice!
“Alright then. Are you on your way to keep an eye on Richard?”
“How did you know?”
Arg! By the Watcher, I am supposed to be the one who surprises people! Being emotional interferes with my darkly charismatic femme fatale persona!
The man nods wisely.
“I thought old Achille would come around, eventually. On your way then! I’ll keep the house safe while you go slaying hydras or something. Good luck!”
“Um. Fine. Goodbye Lucien, it was good seeing you again. I apologize for, huh, coming back from the dead?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Everything in life is relative, including your relatives. Bye bye!”