A Tale of Thieves
“It’s the last job Kate, then we can retire. Get that land you dreamed of and never work another day in our lives!”
Kate crosses her arms and turns her head wistfully. Her instinct had never failed her, and, right now, it told her that it was a ‘Bad Idea’.
“It’s too risky. We can just hit a few more banks and use the cash to disappear.”
“Not smart, darling. You never know how many rich folks you can piss off before they send the Cabals after you, and without a specific fence we would have to sell the stuff at a discount.”
“The Hell’s Gates are held by vampires, Chris. Not mages or mundane humans. Vampires. You know what they say.”
“We’ll just leave them to their games and blood drinking with the other guests. No need to get close. We get in, do the job, then get out. One hour tops. We already have someone in.”
“He did it, yes. The mark will leave him a uniform.”
Kate stood abruptly. The simple bed of their rented room creaked under the sudden move and Chris backed off with a yelp. She held an accusing finger under his nose.
“You took it! You took the contract!”
Her brown ringlets shook with fury.
“You did it behind my back!”
Chris brushed his scruffy blond hair back, giving her a disarming smile. The gesture used to make her swoon. Now it only made her mad.
“Don’t you try to act cute! You took such an important decision without checking with me first? You know we cannot back down on a contract with one of the covens!”
“Relax darling, everything’s already planned. You only need to get in and do your magic, as usual. We’ll take care of the rest.”
Kate seethed in silence. She hated this heist. She also hated that she was dismissed and that Chris had gone ahead without her approval. He had always been the brain of the outfit, but things were supposed to be different now. They were supposed to be a couple and a couple did things together, not behind each other’s back.
“This is the last time, Chris.”
“It is. I promise.”
Kate wanted to believe him.
The cellar under their safe house was Chris’ domain. He was moving with confidence from the table to a map pinned against the wall, then to the supplies spread on the ground near the entrance. Never did he look more alive than when he planned a deed. Under the pressure, he would gain an intensity that Kate loved. His passion was infectious and affected the whole group, pushing them to outdo themselves. It was that fiery passion that had captured her heart.
Sometimes, a small voice would tell her that Chris was not meant for the family life she envisioned, that he would wilt without the constant challenges that the criminal life brought him. She would push it away, but it would keep coming back.
“Let’s start with the introductions, since we have a new member joining us tonight,” her lover started with a dazzling smile as the group gathered around the table.
“Our newcomer is Father MacCormick. He will be covering us if things go wrong.”
Kate eyed the latest addition to their merry band. The father was a man in his fifties with a white beard wearing the black and white collar of catholic priests. Her aura control was decent for someone without formal training, and she could tell he was a mage like herself. There were not a lot of caster priests that she knew of, but, well, it was a big world out there.
“The good father will cover our retreat from the vampires if things go south. He assured me that crosses stop them. Isn’t that right, father?”
“Not stop them so much as slow them down,” the man grumbled, “you don’t stop vampires at night. You hold the cross and hope they don’t find a way to flank you before you close the door.”
“Have you faced one before?” Kate asked.
The older gentleman stared at her with undisguised annoyance. His next comment dripped with disdain.
“Since you lot allow women to interrupt your discussions, I will oblige. Some associates and I faced what they call a Courtier. We managed to wound and repulse him, but not before he managed to gut one of us. And it takes silver bullets to hurt one to begin with,” he continued as he opened his vest to reveal a pistol’s handle. “We didn’t even see him move. That’s what we’re dealing with if they find us out.”
“Father MacCormick will only join us on the last leg of the missions. If it looks like we were made before that, we bail.”
“Let’s not get carried away. I need the money,” their old time partner Griggs added with a radiant smile.
Kate made the mistake of meeting his eyes. The green pools captured her in their murky depths, and she felt herself drifting before she regained control. She shook her head. It was not his fault. He could not control it, she told herself.
Another part of her whispered that he made no effort to do so, and that she would not trust him around any woman she knew. She silenced that voice as well.
Griggs shook his handsome face, long dark hair fluttering artfully.
“I guess it’s my turn then, old man. I’m Griggs. I’m the infiltrator. I’ll get us through the first part of the mission.”
The priest frowned.
“You wield power as well,” he stated. Griggs’ answer was to flip a card from the deck he always kept, one of the many queer habits that rubbed Kate the wrong way.
King of Hearts.
“There are many who find me irresistible.”
Only because he left them little choice. In a perfect world, someone would have gouged his eyes out. Only Chris’ promise that he would never touch her soothed Kate enough to trust him on a heist, if barely.
“And I am Moreau, nice to meet you,” the only dark-skinned man at the table interrupted with a disapproving glare. Moreau had been the mover of the team for almost two years now. Kate was unsure as to why he kept working with them. She believed it had something to do with money, since he still had the same ratty clothes despite the hauls they had already made.
“Moreau will stay with a carriage next to our exit and make sure that we do not dally. As for my dearest Kate, she has a special set of skills that will get us in the basement,” Chris continued smoothly.
“Does she, now?” MacCormick asked with clear doubt.
Kate felt anger settle as a tight ball inside her stomach, but she would not say anything. It annoyed her that Chris let a newcomer doubt her skills, just as it annoyed her that he would introduce her instead of letting her do it herself. She settled with crossing her arms and looking as disdainful as she could. It worked, if the stupid priest’s reddening face was any indication.
“And now for the plan!” Chris exclaimed with an enthusiasm that no friction could shake.
“Our dear Griggs made contact with one of the attendants. He convinced her to hire him for the occasion as a waiter. Fortunately, their staff includes several groups working together so an unfamiliar face will be nothing too strange.”
“I also worked there for three days preparing the stage and nobody noticed anything. There are more than forty members of the staff slaving away to accommodate the guests right now,” the infiltrator added, flipping a Jack of Spades from his deck.
“They won’t notice a thing.”
“While your confidence is commendable, my dear Griggs, this only concerns the upper floors of the complex,” Chris continued with a disapproving tone. “There are two stories above the main ground, plus a small attic under the roof. The auction will take place there, in a circular room at the heart of the building. The pieces will be brought one by one from the underground vault under escort. We will intercept it on the way.”
He moved to the wall and started pointing at a map. The pinned papers showed the main floor and an expansive basement.
“Griggs will get in first and work normally. When the auction begins, Kate and I will come in as regular guests.”
Their two seats had cost them three hundred dollars, Kate thought bitterly.
“We will join our lodge first, pretend everything is normal. Then Kate will feign sickness and Griggs will escort her to the infirmary situated right next to the main entrance to the lower level. She will do her thing and bypass their security when their alarm deactivates, which is every time they open the doors to let an item through.”
“How do you know all of this?” MacCormick asked with some doubt.
“Alva is part of the retinue of the organizer, a vampire named Isaac. She was made aware of their security protocol in case she needs to evacuate,” Griggs explained.
“And the vampire just told her?”
“She has served his, errr, clan, for her whole life. Her defenses were solid, and she even had a protective amulet. He must have trusted her quite a bit but as I mentioned, I am irresistible.”
That meant that he had used his full power. After Griggs finished with Alva, she would be a babbling wreck.
The violation bothered Kate on a deep level, but she told herself that the woman deserved it for serving a monster. What person in their right mind would work for an abomination? Alva had made herself an enemy of mankind and she would face the consequences. That was all there was to it, really.
The thought comforted Kate somewhat.
“She confessed everything. We know most of their security measures, except for the vault. Which is why we won’t go in there,” Chris explained.
“Kate will follow the main corridor… here,” he continued, showing her path on the map, “then turn right into the first room where Griggs will have left a spare uniform and a key under the cupboard.”
“Why not use the trick that gets her past the guard in the corridor?” MacCormick interrupted.
“It’s exhausting,” she curtly replied before Chris could do it for her.
“Right. MacCormick, there will be time for questions afterward. The servant uniform will allow Kate to move relatively unimpeded. They have one patrol and a pair of maids who are supposed to stay there for the whole night. The disguise will serve well in avoiding their attention. Though, make sure that they don’t get a good look at you,” he told Kate.
“In the meanwhile, Griggs will return to the main room so as to not attract attention. Kate will go there,” he added while pointing at a specific spot.
The group bent over the table to inspect the small room leading to what appeared to be a tunnel.
“The ground here is very wet. The basement was modified to redirect humidity to a reservoir in this room, which they empty regularly through that passage here. It leads outside. The key opens the secured gate between the two. Do not lose it, because the gate is heavily enchanted and you won’t be able to open the door without it.”
“Understood. But why not open the escape tunnel from the outside?” Kate asked.
“An alarm will trigger if the key leaves the compound. Now, the tunnel I mentioned doubles as an escape path leading all the way to a canal. I will exit the building and link up with Moreau and MacCormick as soon as Kate is through. We will circle around, and the priest and I will get in through the emergency exit. Once there, we will wait and intercept the people carrying the Heart on their way to the exit. They function by pair, with one pair carrying goods up with the other patrolling the basement. They swap with each new item.”
His expression grew more serious.
“This is obviously the most delicate part of the heist, but we have little choice.”
“It does sound risky,” Griggs mutters while biting his thumb. He mechanically flipped a card. Two of clubs.
“Not that risky,” Chris calmly stated, “the basement is sound-proof and only has four guards at any time, two of whom will stay in front of the vault at all times. The basement is large enough that a small scuffle could remain unheard. After we disable the carrying pair, we will have some time to escape via the emergency exit. This is also where the plan branches. If it looks like we are made at any point before that, we escape, but if we manage to grab the Heart, we can escape even if the alarm is rung. You see, the entrance can be blocked by leaving the key half-turned in the lock, from the outside,” he finished with a ghastly smile.
“That sounds like a big oversight,” Kate remarked under her breath.
“That’s what Alva said,” Griggs answered and the other laughed as if it was funny.
They amused themselves for a few seconds, before Kate’s glare pushed Chris to resume the briefing.
“Right. We all leave through the exit except Griggs who will just stay long enough not to arouse suspicion before leaving on his own. We reconvene here after the deed. Any questions?
“How will you disable the guards?” Moreau asked with a frown. He was the most adverse to loss of life after Kate.
“MacCormick has a disabling spell and I have my truncheon. The guards will be caught off-guard. They are well-trained but they are not mages and should have no adequate defenses against spells.”
“How is their security looking? It won’t help if the vampire goes to pick up the Heart in person,” MacCormick commented while consulting the map.
“They have around two dozen guards, most of whom will be outside or patrolling the upper floors. As for the vampires, Alva said that they would remain around the guests.”
“Vampires? Plural?” the priest answered with obvious concern.
“There will be three of them. Isaac is the organizer, and he will present the items himself, therefore, he should not leave their auction room. The second one is called Doe and he acts as the muscle. Big guy. He looks like he wrestles bears for breakfast. The last one is called Ariane, and Alva said she and Isaac knew each other from before. She appears harmless, but she’s still a vampire so we need to be careful. She is the one who will be roaming around so we should keep an eye out for her. No matter what, the guarded, alarmed entrance is the only way to the vault and they probably trust it to keep intruders away. We would have no way through without Kate.”
“They don’t got last names?” Moreau asks.
Kate raised her brows in surprise. Moreau usually stayed quiet unless he had specific questions about the plan. She thought that he did not fully approve of what they were doing.
“I don’t think so. Apparently one vampire has one name and they don’t share. It works because there are not that many of them.”
“They are monsters, you can’t expect them to act like proper Christian folks,” Griggs commented, and the others laughed again.
Kate thought that they would be laughing much less when they met the real deal, even if those monsters could not be as bad as the rumors made them to be.
“Still worried?” Chris asked after they were alone upstairs. His voice betrayed his seriousness, Kate could tell. It wavered slightly.
He cared about her opinion.
“Of course I am. Your harebrained schemes will be the end of you, one day.”
“But you will still go with it?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Yes, yes, you convinced me, oh great genius you.”
Chris chuckled knowingly and the familiar sound warmed her heart. He had this look, the one where he had something more planned. He walked to their chest and threw it open. From there, he withdrew a package in a linen bag she had never seen before.
“What’s this?” she asked with trepidation.
“We can’t have all those rich bastards looking down on my pretty girl, so I got you a present.”
Kate opened the package with all the excitement of a little girl to reveal a dress, and what a dress it was. Dark green taffeta with sequins sewn at the shoulders, a tapered waist and a big, flaring hem. It would cover her breast yet leave the shoulders bare. It looked fit for a princess. She threw herself in the arms of her lover.
“Oh, Chris! It is wonderful! And my size! How did you manage it.”
“I have my resources,” he gloated with relish, “as for your body, I have a passing knowledge of it,” he finished, his hands trailing down to rest on her thighs.
“You are incorrigible!”
Inside, she felt more confident. She had a perfect pendant of nephrite and gold to match the outfit and she would wear her hair high, with two waves of brown ringlets falling on either side. She would look great. She would look the part.
Kate did not feel confident at all. The auction hall had appeared at the corner of a street like an ephemeral palace from a fairy tale, as if it would disappear on the twelfth stroke of midnight. It blazed gloriously with gas lights, clad in haughty confidence. The walls were sheer and neatly painted. They defied the city’s squalor with their unexpected perfection. And the guards! They were walking around in pairs, holding lanterns and muskets, all princely in their pressed uniforms and shiny buttons. It was no longer a normal building. It had become, in her mind, the domain of some Austrian prince who had deigned to open it to the commoners for one night.
Chris felt her waver. He gave her arm a squeeze and she forced herself to affect the confidence she did not feel. She was a mage, dammit, she belonged here! Or so she tried to tell herself. The ugly truth was that she was in way over her head. They all were. She had one nifty spell and that was it. The rest were trash invocations she had picked up here and there.
Only her experience let her keep her composure when they climbed up fancy stairs to wide-open gates. She affected polite disdain when Chris gave their invitations to a serious butler in a suit so well-tailored, it must have cost an arm. Then they were in and she could not help but gasp.
Kate had attended receptions before, mingled with the wives of bankers and landowners. This was a whole other level. The ceiling was so high and the room so large, you could fit her whole childhood home in there! The ground was covered in tiles that made some sort of mask and the place smelled exquisite, a delicate fragrance of vanilla, like some of those pricey perfumes one of her marks used to douse herself with. It took all of her willpower not to gawp like a bumpkin.
The guests were fine too. Chris and her had joined a queue. She fixed her eyes on the wide shoulder of an old man in front of her. He was wearing a suit of cobalt blue and the aura he emanated was incredible. She felt that she could hold her hand before her and her fingers would freeze and blacken before she could even reach his shoulder. It was that strong. And it was carefully controlled too.
She took a deep breath and tried to relax as the line moved on. There were only two groups left when she heard a commotion.
The man in front of her took a step back and she angled to the side to have a look at the disturbance. A young woman was standing at the base of a double set of stairs, dressed in a magnificent lavender gown that embraced her forms in a way that was both daring and modest. She was calmly addressing a trio of burly men in matching brown coats. A tall lad with a wide mustache covered her side, his expression alternating between flustered and angry.
“As I previously mentioned, you may keep your foci but your firearms must be left at the concierge. You will recover them when you leave.”
“I’m not disarming myself with you around, vampire.”
Kate’s eyes widened. This was the vampire? She appeared so normal! Her cheeks showed a light pink flush and she breathed and blinked normally. Not at all how Kate imagined her to be. Perhaps that was part of the disguise? Approach unsuspecting men and bite them when they leaned in for a kiss?
“Your safety is guaranteed as a guest for tonight. I will ask you to comply, otherwise we will not grant you access to the facilities.”
“You think to stop us? I’d like to see you—”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” the mustached man interrupted with a terrible bellow. The loud voice silenced the whispers of the assembly, such was the desperation it conveyed.
“Don’t say it. Don’t finish that sentence. You really, really don’t want to do that,” he hastily continued while growing red in the face. The woman had tilted her head and was staring at him curiously.
“She’s bound by the rules of hospitality so long as you keep your mouth shut and don’t do anything. I swear I saw a man tell her ‘you’re welcome to try’ from inside his house because he thought himself safe. It counted as an invitation. He died the next second. Don’t mess with semantics when you’re around her. Just don’t.”
The man’s concern was so heartfelt that Kate, who had interacted with many grifters throughout the years, found herself convinced of his honesty. Here was a man who had seen much, she thought. Here was a man who had seen enough. At least for tonight.
The trio of thugs remained ambivalent. She could see the tension in their backs.
The vampire tuted once and something peculiar happened. She started to talk and as she did, she changed. Her skin gained an unearthly pallor and her poise, once demure, turned almost… predatory.
“If you wish to keep your pistols to defend yourselves from me, I promise you…” she said, and she smiled.
It was ghastly.
Canines, no, fangs, were revealed by the withdrawal of her carmine lips like knives laid bare. Her eyes were half-lidded now, and reminded Kate of a waiting cat.
“…that they would not help.”
A cold wave washed over Kate. She and most of the other mages took a reflexive step back. She was reminded of opening the door in winter, at night. There was nothing in front of her but darkness and a biting cold that froze her to the marrow.
That did it. The three men moved to the concierge without a word. Her gaze followed them before she turned her attention to the next guest. Her expression reverted to its previous preppy self as if nothing had happened.
The old man had not stepped back before the onslaught. He strutted forward and Kate realized that he had a girl by his side, a pretty thing with a curious strand of white hair on her otherwise dark mop. The tensions must have addled her mind. She immediately remarked that the companion was young enough to be his granddaughter! Disgusting.
“Ariane! Are you making a habit of bullying the younglings?” he exclaimed in a raucous voice.
Kate half-expected the vampire to jump on him. Instead, she returned a disarming smile, sans the fangs this time.
“Frost! Always a pleasure to see you. Have you reconsidered my offer?”
“Nope! I will stay as is, thank you very much.”
“A shame. Ah, do not mind me. It is such a pleasure to see you again. And you brought your granddaughter with you! Welcome Margaret, how are you doing?”
Oh. It seemed that Kate had judged him too hastily.
“Fairly good, Lady Ariane, thank you. Grandpa has been training me with ice magic. It won’t be so easy for you next time!” she proudly answered.
“I will be looking forward to it,” the vampire replied without malice. There was no trace of her earlier hostility.
“By the way, Ariane, you still owe me one glorious death in battle!” the old man said again.
“You will have to forgive me, kind sir, a horde of werewolves failed to deliver so the task is harder than I thought. Rest assured that I will notify you of any heroic last stands I come across.”
“Damn right, you should.”
The powerful old man, apparently named Frost of all things, went on soon after and it was Chris and her turn. The experienced burglar handed the vampire their invitation with a flourish and a grin, which the monster returned affably.
“Is this your first time attending a Rosenthal event?” she asked.
“I would like to remind you of the rules, then. You are allowed to keep your foci, if you have any, and cast defensive spells if you believe that you are in danger. All other weapons must be left to the concierge. Any attack on staff or guests will be met swiftly and decisively. If your behavior interferes with the conduct of the event, you will be made to leave. Your safety and comfort are guaranteed by clan Rosenthal for the duration of your stay. If you have any questions, feel free to consult a member of the staff. Do enjoy your evening.”
She returned the invitation and they left without a word. Kate allowed herself a sigh of relief. The vampire made her uncomfortable.
They made their way up the flight of stairs, then to another further on the side. The second-floor promenade around the central area was draped in dark banners displaying a coat of arms that, she assumed, represented the clan hosting them tonight. They passed by other mages and mundanes in fineries as exotic as they were strange. There were even natives! She supposed vampires had no need to fear savages…
Chris opened a small door, and they went into the auction room.
Kate’s breath caught up in her chest from the spectacle before her.
They were in a tiny lodge with only two seats, one of many dotting the walls around the central pit. The only furniture was a small coffee table currently holding two strange glasses with tall bodies and narrow rims, as well as a bottle of bubbly.
The plush red chairs belonged in a boudoir, accommodating rich ladies in extravagant outfits gossiping over barons and viscounts. The paint did not flake. It smelled clean.
She caressed the velvety surface of the upholstery.
After seeing so many gilded travesties of wealth, after being disenchanted so many times by the appearance of affluence without substance, it felt both strange and comforting to experience the real deal.
She sat heavily and relaxed for the first time in three days. Her gaze trailed up to the large room’s ceiling where one more surprise awaited her. It was fully decorated with a massive, painted bas-relief that covered it from wall to wall.
Once, she had visited a library and found a book on the history of art. It was a treasure trove of illustrations showing the greatest works of the European masters throughout the eras.
The first page showed the Sistine chapel.
Kate’s first thought had been to question how they could paint something that high, scaffolding she assumed, yet soon her considerations had disappeared. The circular vista mesmerized her with its breathtaking composition. God granting Adam the gift of life gave her vertigo. She could not help but draw a comparison.
As her inspections continued, she felt a profound feeling of unease assail her. The men and women displayed were as varied as could be. One showed great strength. Another was a Mediterranean woman with eyes closed, seemingly asleep. Kate's eyes rested on a black man holding a miniature sun, his traits showing a strange exaltation. They were... eerie. Something disturbed her on a fundamental level, though she could not quite put her finger on what, until she looked towards the heart.
Like a small fish in a whirlpool her attention was drawn inward to a figure that sent shivers down her spine. It was a massive eye. There were lashes. At least, she hoped those were lashes.
The eye was staring down and ignoring her. She felt a wave of insignificance threatening to overwhelm her. She did not matter. She never would. She was just...
Kate shook her head to dispel the strange feeling.
“Are you alright?” Chris asked.
“Yes,” she answered, “just a bit overwhelmed, is all.”
Chris squeezed her hand once again and she felt better. Her nerves were getting to her. It was just her imagination. She would complete the job and get out. Everything would be fine. She just had to keep it together, dammit.
Kate ignored the disturbing painting and stared down. The lodges on the lower levels allowed more occupants. She recognized that Frost character with his overly serious granddaughter, who was nervously playing with her white strand of hair when she thought no one was looking. They shared the space with a handful of other mages, most of whom were caught in an animated discussion. She could hear their boisterous laughs.
There were other groups, of course: natives in western clothes burdened by pendants and amulets staring at each other in awkward silence. Blacks turtling in their own lodge as if they expected trouble. People dressed like royalty. Others dressed like soldiers. A ship captain. A trapper. A gipsy woman playing with her golden circlets. This was a strange assembly that not even the rowdy fictions she sometimes enjoyed could describe. Here was a cour des miracles to equal the Parisian one, hidden in a palatial arena at the heart of the American capital of sin.
She felt lost.
But not for long. Down below, a man walked from behind a curtain to a waiting pulpit. She knew he was a vampire with immediate certainty. There was something there that caught the eye.
The man swept the room with his gaze and it felt as if he stared directly at her. She could see his chestnut eyes with perfect clarity despite the distance. When he talked, his voice tickled her ear with its intimacy. It was warm. It made her feel comfortable and welcome. She felt herself relax a bit more.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Hell’s Gates auction! My name is Isaac of the Rosenthal clan, and I shall be your host tonight. It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you and I hope that you are all comfortable and at ease. If you are not, you will find a bottle of Mumm Black Ribbon champagne by your side. I invite you to sample it and try again.”
A susurrus of soft chuckles and approving words rose through the air.
“I am sure that you are all eager to see what we have prepared for you tonight. Without further ado, feast your eyes on our first exhibit!”
The curtain behind the man flapped open and two guards pushed forth a heavy cart upon which a shape stood hidden behind a tarp. They removed it to reveal what appeared to be a suit of armor of incredible make.
“The first item is a Rosenthal specialty, a Sentinel pattern Heritage Battle Golem. The Sentinel is an indefatigable and relentless defender, one that will protect you and your descendants thanks to a blood identification system. Upon the death of the owner, the Sentinel’s loyalty construct will follow either the first child or another one of your choosing. The frame and mechanical mind are Rosenthal specialties while the armor and propulsion systems come straight from the Skaragg armories, hidden deep in the bowels of the Norwegian Scandes. With the Sentinel, you do not just build your assets. You build a legacy. Starting price is ten thousand pounds or equivalent.”
Kate almost expected the audience to scoff at the ridiculous price. Ten thousand pounds? She could retire twelve times over with that sum! And yet, the group below was animated by discussions.
“Is that thing really worth so much?” she hissed.
“I have no idea,” Chris replied with clear amusement. She pouted.
“Ten thousand pounds on my left. Ten thousand…”
Against all odds, the auction started to take off until it was won by a fat woman in a teal dress that made her look like a pastry. Kate shook her head again.
“You fucking bitch!” someone screamed from across the room.
The fiery declamation caused a few gasps and outraged whispers. The perpetrator did not appear to care. He was practically hanging over the railing, flailing his fists impotently. His scruffy grey beard made him look like some sort of vagrant, although his fine yellow vest told another story.
“You think you can—”
It happened very fast.
One moment, the man leant forward like a hound on a leash. The next, he was gone, and the door slammed behind him.
Kate blinked to remember what had happened. There had been a hand. It had enclosed the screaming man’s head like hers would grab an egg.
The hand had been attached to a giant.
“Oh dear,” their host commented genially, “please remember that we will not suffer interruptions. Now, for the next item…”
And everyone acted as if nothing had happened.
“I’m going to be sick…” she told Chris.
“Not yet,” he replied without looking, “wait a few more items.”
She wondered what would happen if she strangled him. Probably nothing good.
The auction went on without any further disturbance. Some of the auctioned goods required lengthy explanations due to the strangeness. One, for example, was a painting of an eye that would mesmerize anyone staring at it. She was briefly reminded of the ceiling, yet when she looked up again, the feeling was gone.
Quite a few groups sent members down to assess the piece of art. The canvas was angled away from the room. The newcomers would invariably take a look, stumble, then just stand there. Even the host’s smooth voice proved unequal to the task of keeping her calm after that one.
She just wanted out.
She closed her eyes to the wands and crowns and exotic weapons. She ignored the strange bookshelves and decrepit grimoires. The scandalous prices streaked through her brain like falling stars, the amounts absurd and fantastic. Each one was high enough to feed entire villages for years. The ransom of a king.
After what felt like an eternity, Chris touched her arm and she knew that the time had come. Both of them stood up and rang the bell that would summon Griggs.
The smarmy infiltrator took Kate by the arm. She had no need to feign illness on the way down. They dodged under a curtain and reached some sort of infirmary, bypassing the gate to the basement and its group of vigilant guards.
A woman gave her a tonic and she gulped it down before she started to channel.
Her power was strange and required some time to set up. Its major advantage was that her aura would only fluctuate strangely during the casting, a pattern consistent with the distress she claimed.
She heard the telltale noise of the path down unlocking.
“I feel better, thank you. We can go now,” she announced.
The pair of thieves left through the door and she looked left towards the passage. It was half-open, its enchantments disabled. A pair of guards were dragging a cart through.
Her vision doubled.
A part of her, more distant now, kept walking forward under the guidance of Griggs. That part was solid but also, false. It was an empty shell.
The real part of her turned and walked confidently through the gaping maw leading down. That part was real. It was also invisible and intangible.
She descended a few steps.
The shell’s gaze fell on a pair of piercing blue eyes. A distant voice rang in her ears.
“Is the lady indisposed?”
“She is fine now,” Griggs answered hurriedly, ”just bringing her back to her seat, ma’am.”
The vampire called Ariane let them pass but the shell caught one more sight. The woman was scenting the air.
A great fright shocked Kate. Her concentration wavered and the ghost gained solidity. Fortunately, there was no one to capitalize on her weakness.
The shell remained solid and the vampire left.
Kate allowed herself a sigh of relief.
The way down was made of stones leading to a corridor well-lit by lanterns. The basement was clearly designed to be lived in. Paintings depicting grisly scenes from some heathen mythology adorned the walls.
She stumbled. The shell was almost back in their lodge. Every step it took tore something from her chest and replaced it with ice. She leaned against the right door and forced it open. It was blessedly empty. She collapsed on the ground.
The shell caught a glimpse of Chris and dissolved into nothing.
It was done. She was through, and no one was the wiser.
Kate awarded herself ten seconds of reprieve before starting her search.
The room she found herself in was half living quarter and half workshop. Piles of clothes waited to be ironed, a few more awaited mending. In a corner of the room, a table displayed a chessboard and a pile of books.
She took a minute to catch her breath and dispel the awful feeling that her torso was about to cave in. She had become better at it, but the spell was so harrowing that every cast left her feeling gouged out.
She found the key and uniform where Griggs left them, snuck behind a patrol, and made her way to the emergency exit. Her target was more a cistern than anything else. It was bare, save for a massive central pool. The entire far wall was occupied by a grate with a massive, fortified gate set squarely in the middle. It shone with arcane symbols of defense, alarm and solidity. Steel bars blocked a small window, allowing her to see beyond, not unlike a prison door.
The key clicked in place.
She opened the way in silence, the titanic slab of metal rotating on perfectly oiled hinges. She had almost expected some metallic shriek that would alert the entire building.
On the other side, she saw a canal with an overflow to allow the water to leave. It was tragically devoid of catholic priests. Or any other allies for that matter.
She stood there and prayed.
A minute later, a pair of footsteps emerged from the gloomy darkness and sent her heart aflutter. Her partners emerged a few moments later.
“Well done,” Chris said, “now we wait for the Heart.”
Even MacCormick grudgingly greeted her as he checked his many weapons. He was armed to the teeth.
Things were looking up.
Griggs sighed to prevent himself from whistling. He clenched his fist to avoid snapping his fingers, or taking his deck out to flick cards. Control, control, control. Frustrating. All those rules and norms and whatnot everyone had to follow. They were just games of shadows, pointless and restrictive.
He stopped on the threshold to one of the lodges and knocked. The door was opened by a mage in a ridiculous white coat, who blinked when he recognized another practitioner. Fortunately, Griggs had long ago understood that a subdued aura was an inoffensive one and the guest asked another bottle of booze before slamming the door in his face.
Griggs smirked, turned around and almost walked into the vampire.
It was the woman. Lucky him.
“Say, the woman you escorted down has mysteriously disappeared. You would not happen to know anything about that, would you?” she asked with a soft smile. Griggs returned it. They should have sent the muscle. He had a way with the fairer sex.
He met her gaze and submitted her to the full power of his hypnosis. He saw the surprise in her pallid face, he saw her eyes flutter and felt a strong resistance, then he was through.
He heard a noise like moving branches, then he appeared in her mindscape.
It was there that he was king. In the real world, the world of flesh, he was one amongst many. Here, the fabric of the mind moved under his fingers like clay under the care of a virtuoso, creating wonders and destroying much too. All that it took was to find whichever item in the woman’s core, most of the time a bedroom, represented her ego. After that, he could tweak and twist to his heart’s content.
Griggs inspected his surroundings and his good mood evaporated.
What the hell was going on?
He should be inside of a house, or a room. Instead, he was at the edge of a bizarre maze of bark and stone. Alleys stopped without reason while strange statues dotted the Boschian landscape representing men, but also strange wolf-like creatures and other chimeras. A fortress rose from the earth at some distance, white of walls, with sharp towers jutting like spines. The light of the moon was… purple? Something told him that it would be a bad idea to look up.
That was the mindscape of a vampire? Original. Yet, as always, insufficient. He focused and his form elongated. His hands turned into twin claws ending in long, crimson spikes. It was time to explore this unusual playground, and find something new to play with.
Griggs took one step forward and hissed in pain. A thorny root had sneakily fastened around his ankle. He severed the guilty appendage and walked with renewed purpose. There had to be a way to the fortress.
The first seemingly empty alley was hiding a passage, a way to the left hidden behind a sort of optical illusion with the wall of vegetation bulging slightly outward. He snickered and turned around.
A branch whacked his chest.
Griggs swore. His powerful claw savaged the guilty piece of vegetation, as well as the wall behind it. Leaves and twigs rained before his fury.
He suddenly felt quite silly. Those were just obstacles, probably some sort of passive defense mechanism against intrusion that only vampires had. Alva’s defenses had been about camouflage and misdirection. This mind was probably trained differently.
He realized that he should be grateful the blonde woman offered a challenge. It would not do to grow bored and jaded. Enough self-reflection, it was time to move on. Griggs took a step forward and gasped in pain.
Another root had grabbed his foot. He freed himself, but not without damage. The horrid branch had blood and fabric stuck to its awful spines by the time he was done. This was getting tiring.
“Have to keep moving,” he grumbled to himself.
The hidden path led through another maze, under arcs and by pools filled with thick scarlet liquid. He tried to stop to close his wounds but found the scraps reticent to his ability to shift. It was as if the thorns had marked him. He also noticed it now: every time he stopped, roots would quest towards his feet.
Finally, he emerged on a circular plaza of white stone. One of the statues occupied the middle, a wolfish thing caught mid-howl.
“Finally,” he grumbled.
Sitting on the marble-like floor, he focused on the cuts spotting his legs with red dots, in vain. The wounds resisted his effort to close them.
“Fucking weird spa—”
Griggs received no warning.
The statue’s heavy claws smashed into his flanks and sent him reeling against the bramble. His only saving grace came from his own claws blocking the worst of the damage. The pain still forced a cry out of his lungs. He scrambled out of the way and dodged the roots snaking towards him.
The statue stepped back.
“You piece of shit!” he yelled.
Griggs lunged forward and raked the statue’s chest, easily crouching under its counter-attack.
He stepped back once again.
This had to be some sort of guardian.
The statue retreated once more.
“You cannot get out of the stone circle, can you?” he asked with a dreadful smile. The construct did not answer.
Griggs carefully and patiently started to dismantle his foe. He would step in, strike one blow then dance out. He would keep moving to avoid getting trapped.
His patient and cold joy turned to frustration.
“Why won’t you die?”
He tracked the groove his first attack had dug in the statue’s torso and realized, to his dismay, that it was closing.
For the first time in years, Griggs felt something more than frustration.
He could not even leave.
The moment he broke the link with the vampire, she would kill him. He had taken MacCormick’s warning to heart. He did not stand a chance.
“I must press on,” he raged between gritted teeth. He had broken a hundred minds. Experience was on his side. He would crack this nut as he had cracked so many others.
Griggs rushed through the circle and nimbly jumped over a swipe. The second one nicked his back, then he was through. He sprinted through another opening.
His circumstances were growing more dire by the minute. The questing roots were quicker to find him now. He managed to dodge under traps a few more times, but he could feel the maze closing in around him like the jaw of some impossible creature. And still, he dared not look up.
He crashed into a large clearing, tired and hurt. The fortress doors loomed before him on the other side of a garden of statues.
His blood ran cold.
A female soldier in stylized medieval plate held a sword in a fencer guard, a fox mask hiding her features. A man in a leather suit, hands resting on the hilts of his two pistols. A titan in black iron armor gripped a massive double-headed axe. An amazon with a spear lounged on her pedestal as if it were a couch. Other unmoving pieces of art stood, kneeled, and sat between pillars of engraved onyx and amphoras bearing strange white flowers. The last guardian dominated the rest, and its alien appearance froze Griggs’ heart. It had a flat face, cruel blue eyes shining an otherworldly blue. Its smooth torso possessed a chitinous quality that the otherwise human traits made even more jarring.
Griggs had to get through at any cost. He had to hope that the gates were unlocked. It was his only hope.
There were spots there that did not have stones. Perhaps the range of each statue was extremely limited? He had to chance it.
He sprinted forward with the strength of despair, relying on his longer limbs to move with unexpected swiftness.
He rolled under the titan’s axe swing, he pushed on his feet and jumped forward.
The titan pursued him.
The titan stepped outside of its stone circle, signaling his demise.
A sword caught him in the shoulder and pinned him to the ground like an insect. He raised his claws to break it, to escape.
His left hand exploded in a shower of blood and bones. He screamed his heart out. The pain tore through his psyche and flayed his vessel. His body returned to normal.
He awaited a coup-de-grace that did not come.
The constructs took a step back while thorny branches captured his limbs. The strange vegetation hoisted him up and smashed him against a nearby wall. The ropey root around his throat threatened to crush his neck.
Around him, the statues stood in a semicircle, weapons pointed at him. The vampire was sitting daintily on the shoulder of the last guardian in a vaporous dress of midnight blue. Her feet swung in the air. She held one of the white flowers between two nails of polished obsidian.
“You know, I have a theory about those who assume a monstrous form in their mind palaces.”
“What… the fuck… are you?!”
“My theory is that they are significantly less human on the inside than they appear to be. In any case, we have a busy night ahead of us so I will be brief. Where is the woman?”
Griggs tried to break the connection, tried to fight, but he realized that he was completely overpowered.
It was time to negotiate then.
He screamed when something sharp stabbed the back of his skull. He felt himself unravel.
“I forgot to mention, your consent is not required. You are probably familiar with the concept.”
“This isn’t what you said!” Kate hissed.
One of the guards lay dead on the ground in an expanding pool of blood. He had managed to block Chris’ cudgel’s hit to the head, but not MacCormick’s follow up. The other one had crumbled insensate on the ground.
Her lover looked pale but resolute.
“Later, Kate. We need to leave first. We can hide the bodies but not the blood. We have to go.”
MacCormick seemed to agree as he grabbed the Heart of the Nile in a gloved hand. The jewel was as large as a quail egg and sapphire blue. He tossed it to Chris who deftly caught it. It seemed to Kate as if it had gained a red tint.
“You killed him!”
“They are enemies of mankind, girl, you waste your sympathy. Pah, I knew that it was a mistake to bring a woman,” MacCormick spat.
“Enough of this, let’s go!” Chris urged, but too late.
From the entrance to the basement came the noise of stumbling footsteps and a terrible whine. The female vampire, Ariane, Kate remembered, strolled in with a man in tow.
She dragged him behind her like one drags a rowdy child. It took her a moment to recognize Griggs.
The man she had known and feared was gone. Only a shadow of its former self stood there gibbering like a madman, eyes wide and bloodshot, foamy spit bordering a mouth frozen in a rictus. He was emitting a keening sound, like a boiling pot of tea. She did not know if it stemmed from madness, or the talon stabbed deeply into his clavicle.
The vampire stopped a few steps away to examine the scene with polite interest. Her gaze swept the guilty trio, the gem in their possession and the dead man at their feet. The detached, almost amused expression bothered Kate even more than the blood slowly staining her ally’s shirt.
“Not a meal then, a buffet,” she commented.
They finally moved.
Kate rushed into the cistern with Chris close behind. A blue light emerged from behind her, where MacCormick stood still.
“In nomine patris, et filii…" the priest intoned.
“Djarn," the vampire answered.
Magic devastated the hallway.
Kate had tasted power as she stood behind the old man at the entrance. She had not experienced it. The spell roaring behind her spoke of peeled skin and steel knives scraping bone. It stung her gums. It grated the nerves behind her eyes. She lost her balance even as her legs pumped up and down to propel her through the emergency exit faster than she had even run in her entire life.
She knew that it would not be enough.
MacCormick’s shriek turned into a gurgle as she crashed on the ground. The blue light dimmed.
Chris slammed the door and turned the lock.
The vampire was suddenly there.
The couple jumped back and Kate raised an arm reflexively, expecting a violent end, yet, nothing happened. The lack of any further violence was almost anticlimactic.
Chris was the first to stand back up and approach the door. She could not get through, Kate realized. The wards and steel had kept the monster at bay.
They were… saved?!
But no, she could have alerted others. Soldiers could be coming around to block all egress. They had to hurry, except she recognized something in Chris’ eyes now, something that almost never occurred.
He was angry.
And anger made him stupid. It made him stubborn and defensive. She could only guess the cause too easily: he had considered Griggs a friend despite his many flaws.
Chris lifted the jewel and practically dangled it under the creature’s nose. Even through the steel bars, she could tell that his provocation had not worked. The vampire showed the same polite interest as before, as if the murder of a man and the enslavement of another were but a pleasant diversion from her evening work.
“How does it feel to be outsmarted and beaten by a mortal?” her lover asked. He sounded bitter and furious.
Kate placed a hand on his arm to drag him away. The creature was wasting their time. It was a trap!
“How does it feel to lose?” he demanded again.
The monster tilted her head as her smile broadened. When she spoke, her voice was conversational.
“Truth be told, I lose rather often…”
Kate pulled on Chris’ shoulder towards the end of the tunnel. She could almost hear the sounds of the night, smell the spice and stench of the city.
“… yet, in the end, I always come out on top.”
Kate’s heart stops in her chest. There was a click. There was the ‘ting’ of metal touching metal. She turned to see the entire barrel of MacCormick’s looted pistol slide between the metal bars.
The vampire shot Chris.
The explosion reverberated in the enclosed space in a deafening crack that left her ears ringing, her nose itchy with the pungent odor of spent powder. Her lover stumbled back and fell onto one knee. His hands reached to his chest where bloomed the crimson petals of a strange flower, expanding from a core of tarnished black.
Kate screamed, then cut herself short a second later. She grabbed Chris under the shoulder and hoisted him up before he could finish his collapse. She took one difficult step forward, then another. They were going out. They were leaving this place for good.
Chris’ breaths came in gasps and pants. She forced herself to ignore the location of the wound. It could be fine. Such gunshots could be survived, if one was lucky, and Chris had enough luck for ten people.
She pushed the dread away.
They exited the tunnel into an abandoned garden at the back of some decrepit manor. Moreau’s carriage was right ahead. He saw them and stepped down, helped her get a failing Chris inside. They were moving by the time she had torn the fabric of her beautiful dress to apply pressure to the wound. It was not working. The improvised bandage was already soaking wet with no signs of improvement.
“Come on, come on...”
Just apply pressure and the bleeding would stop. Elementary medicine. Practically everyone knew that. She just had to keep doing it.
The carriage bumped and Chris moaned in pain. He grabbed her hand so she held onto it. The skin was slimy with half-coagulated liquid. She felt something as well.
“Take…” he rasped.
“Yes, I’m holding it. I’m holding your hand. Just hold on.”
It went limp.
It fell from her grasp. There was something left there, a mineral node that used to be blue but was now covered in scarlet fingerprints.
He was very pale.
Kate went through grief and anger at the absurdity of it all and came out the other way, heart numb, brain frozen in a haze of stupidity. She could barely think. She had a jewel. She had a corpse. She was in a carriage vibrating like an earthquake. The information passed through her mind like through a sieve. She retained nothing.
Something bumped on top of her. She heard a brief scream, quickly interrupted.
The ceiling above her was ripped off like a page from a book. Each nail gave up one after another in a rhythmic ‘clack clack clack’. A half-smile. Half-lidded blue eyes.
“Why?” the thief whispered.
“Why what?” the stranger answered, ignoring the entire absurd world.
Then she was gone.
There was a terrible crash, a feeling of weightlessness. Cold waters tore a gasp from her chest and she would have drowned here and there if the carriage frame had not kept the air in. Kate was so far beyond any reasonable thought that her instincts kicked in without conscious effort. She saw herself as if from the outside. The bereaved woman pushed herself from the wreck. She struggled with the weight of her soaked garment, the accursed thing trying to drag her to the depths. She beat a little dance with her feet until the blessed lights came close enough and her head broke through the surface of Lake Pontchartrain’s turbid waters. She gulped its fetid air. She blessed her aunt for teaching her how to swim and stay afloat, despite the weight of her clothes.
She fought on.
She heard heavy footsteps coming from the side. Someone pulled her up and she realized that the water was no longer so deep. She pushed the brown hair plastered to her forehead until she could see the brown murk around her and the green shore ahead. A man had helped her, was still helping her get out.
She had clung to the Heart, somehow.
They stopped. They were on a swampy piece of land at the edge of a gathering of shacks. A handful of torches provided illumination for the rickety wooden bridge nearby and the carriage that had smashed through its railing. Of the vampire, there was no sign.
The man was familiar to her. She recognized the mustache and the righteous air. He and the vampire had welcomed her at the entrance after he apparently saved three thugs from… whatever had happened to her team.
She understood the implication only too easily, and found that she did not care. There was not enough left of Kate inside of Kate to care about Kate. Reality had lost its value, her own life included.
“Should have left me under the water,” she said, “wouldn’t be worse than what your precious monster has in store for me.”
“You begrudge me saving you?” he answered with a gruff voice. He had this white knight, valorous defender of the meek aura that pissed her off.
“Yes, I begrudge. I begrudge mightily. Begrudge, begrudge, begrudge, you pompous ass. Why are you here? Why do you serve this... this beast! Do you not see what she has done? That she is an enemy?”
Her voice started small but grew crescendo as the bottled ocean of feelings inside of her found a leak in her armor. Anger bubbled in her chest, aimed at everything and everyone.
The man was unmoved by her anger, contrary to her expectations. He did not even exhibit a trace of guilt.
“I have seen what she has done for much longer than you have.”
“She’s a monster!”
“I know, and I think I finally understand. You think that I should help you because you are human, and she is not. Correct?”
Was it not obvious?
“Let me get it straight. You, a burglar guilty of breaking and entering, grand theft, and accessory to murder, want me to help you?”
“It does not matter!” she bellowed, “They are not people!”
“And the serial rapist in your team destroyed Miss Alva’s mind because she deserved it? You are fine with that? This… level of violation? This all alright to you?” he continued, his voice gaining in intensity. It was stronger now and burned with a conviction that he had not shown earlier when holding the monster back
“You speak of mankind. Hah! What a convenient and fleeting thing it is for you lot. Your allies loot, kill, and rape and that’s fine because they, whoever they are, deserve it. Kidnappings for the greater good. Sacrificing people for the betterment of that vague thing you call mankind. Horseshit!”
What the hell was he talking about?
“I understand now. You only plaster those values on the people you wrong so that it’s fine to treat them like garbage. You think yourself better than the monster you denounce? Hypocrites. She and I have done more for actual people of flesh and blood in the last month than you have in your entire life, you shameless tart. How people act is more important than what people are and you are a self-centered thief with no care for the victims your gang of thugs left in their trail. I am done. You can go back to your imaginary mankind, I want no part of it. I will do good in my own way.”
It took two seconds for the most important part of the answer to register.
“You’re letting me go?”
“I cannot morally justify holding you.”
Kate scowled at the tall man with obvious distrust, but she also knew that his type sometimes let women go, so happy they were with their little self-righteous moment. She also knew better than to stay. The pair glared at each other, both entrenched in their ethics as in a fortress. She trotted as fast as her exhausted legs could carry her and disappeared behind the corner of a dilapidated house.
Silence, such as it was, descended upon the scene.
“You might as well come out,” the man finally said after calming down a bit.
Shadows dissipated by the road. Ariane stepped forward.
“You did not tell her,” she said.
“No, I did not,” the man agreed between his teeth.
“She is merely reaping the consequence of her own action, bringing a fake jewel to a cutthroat cabal. I am done wasting my time on those who are not worth the effort. I have made my choice. I will stay and… stir you in the right direction. God knows you need the guidance.”
He did not see the vampire roll her eyes.
“So, hum, is that fine with you? Do we need some sort of ceremony?” he asked with much less bluster.
“You need to give me your blood to conclude the pact. All of my kin will know that you are not to be touched. We can do that back at the auction hall.”
“Just my blood, right, not my soul?”
“For the last time, no!”
The tall man grumbled under his moustache as he made his way up the road and to his horse. Ariane stayed. She took one look towards the city, where the thief had fled, then another at the back of her newest minion.
“Two birds with one stone.”
“What was that?”