“Sinnlenst,” Sabbat growled. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the already gore-soaked snow. “That’s the last thing we fuckin’ needed.”
“Are you in any way surprised?” Archer countered, standing up and pocketing the last of the second corpse’s effects. In truth, he’d been rather hoping that the two men weren’t Sinnlenst enforcers, if only to avoid having to make the encounter a lethal one, but once they’d revealed their allegiances there was only one way the meeting was ever going to end. “We knew this was a possibility, Sabbat. Especially given where we found them.”
“Doesn’ mean I have t’like it,” the other man grumbled. He crouched down, pressing two fingers against the third body’s neck. “Alive. Not that that means much fer you lot, but saves you havin’ t’wait around ‘til he wakes up.”
“That’s something, at least. I don’t suppose he’s conscious as well?”
“‘s your lucky day.” He moved his hand from the young vampire’s throat to his ear, then gave the aforementioned appendage a sharp tug. “Rise an’ shine, matey. My friend wants a word wi’ you.”
“Eep!” said the young man, helpfully. He opened his eyes, staring around at the moonlit alleyway in what seemed to be utter bewilderment. “Um. Hello?”
“Hello,” Archer replied, trying very hard not to laugh. He crouched down in the snow, trying his best to look at least somewhat friendly. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve felt better,” the boy admitted, pushing himself up on his elbows. His red eyes widened as he caught sight of the two corpses, and he made a small worried sound in the back of his throat. “Uh. Are… are they dead?”
“No, they’re havin’ a fuckin’ nap.” Sabbat sat back on his heels, pulled out his hipflask and took a hearty swig of the contents. After a moment’s consideration, he offered it to the boy – who took it, took an equally hearty swig, and promptly burst into a coughing fit that lasted a good half a minute.
When he’d regained his breath (and Sabbat’d stopped laughing), he took another look around the alleyway, closed his eyes, and appeared to come to some sort of conclusion. “I… Thank you. I think you might have just saved my life.”
“The gin ain’t that good -” Sabbat began, but Archer raised a hand, cutting him off mid-sentence.
“Do you know who those men were?” he asked, watching the boy’s face to try and gauge his reaction. You’re not Order, or I’d have seen you around before now. Which means you’re either unaffiliated, or one of them.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a clue,” the younger vampire said, and seemed to mean it. “I was at a party, talking to a girl, and then everything went… swimmy, and then- well, now I’m here.” He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t actually know where here is, come to think of it.”
Well, you’re either genuine or the most talented liar I’ve ever met. And I’d put good money on the former. “You’re in an alleyway off Fairbourne Avenue, if that helps.”
“A few streets from the bridge to the University Quarter.” And then, on a hunch, he added, “And approximately half a street away from the Luciels’ townhouse.”
That got a reaction, though not quite the one he’d been expecting. The boy went even paler, if that was possible, and grabbed for his watch, swearing under his breath as his hand came away empty from his waistcoat pocket. “Damn! Do either of you have the time?”
“Somewhere around half eleven, if I’m any judge,” Archer replied, looking to his own watch. “Twenty minutes past, in fact.”
“Damn!” the boy said again, with feeling. He scrambled to his feet, managing to stay on them for all of five seconds or so before the adrenaline rush caught up with him and he sat down hard in the snow, his face going slightly green around the edges.
“Somewhere y’need t’be?” Sabbat asked, making the question sound a damn sight more menacing than, in Archer’s mind, it really needed to be.
“The Midwinter Ball,” the young vampire replied, in the slightly slurred tones of the mildly shocked and seriously nauseous. “Which is where I was, last time I checked. I think I might be sick now, if that’s alright with you.”
There… really wasn’t much Archer could say to that, though he had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself laughing at Sabbat’s expression. He stepped back, leaning against the wall of the alleyway while he waited for the boy to compose himself, and taking the time to work through a few rather worrying questions that the whole situation had thrown up in his mind.
First and foremost, what exactly had two Sinnlenst enforcers been doing with a red-eye vampire student?
And secondly, what were they going to do with him?
He wasn’t sick, in the end, though he’d come closer to it than he’d have liked to admit. Apparently being rendered suddenly unconscious, dragged through the street, rescued by a slightly terrifying pair of complete strangers, dumped next to a pile of corpses, fed something that he was fairly certain was incredibly strong gin, and then told that he’d been out for far longer than made any logical sense had had some sort of adverse effect on his digestive system. Strange, that.
At least being ill had given him a chance to observe his rescuers while they weren’t asking him questions, he supposed, which was something. They seemed an odd pair (though his metric for ‘odd’ was rapidly shifting, given the night he was having), but he couldn’t deny they’d been effective in… well, in murdering the people who were probably going to murder him.
Funny. It didn’t sound all that reassuring, when you phrased it like that.
The tall vampire with the silk-scarf eyepatch seemed at least to be a gentleman – though Fest wasn’t exactly sure whether that made the whole ‘murdering people in dark alleys’ thing more or less disturbing – and, judging by his clothes, wasn’t one of the yellow-eyes who were part of the Regent’s court. That meant he was likely a gentleman of independent means, which, as far as Fest was concerned, was some sort of society code-word for ‘person who has only slightly more money than you’.
So far, so confusing.
The human, who was currently sitting watching the mouth of the alley and cleaning his knives in a way that was obviously intended to be intimidating (and was, if Fest was honest, having exactly the desired effect) was another mystery altogether.
By the colour of his skin, he was a foreigner – while most humans in Sacaan were some shade of brown, Fest had never seen anyone who was quite that shade before – and the fact his hair was quite so black and quite so straight bore that idea out, unless he had vampire blood in him that wasn’t showing anywhere else. But his accent was lower class Sacaask through-and-through, and he was dressed like someone from the city (even if his clothes and his manners didn’t exactly seem to match one another), which meant that even if he was foreign, he’d been here a damn sight longer than Fest had. And then there were his eyes…
I’ve heard of people having grey eyes, but I didn’t think they meant like that. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was some kind of ghost or something. And he’s obviously friends with the vampire, even though they’re obviously of completely different classes, and both of them are obviously at home with violence, but they’re not attacking me, and….
This gets more and more complicated by the second.
The vampire was looking at him oddly, and he realised with a jolt that he’d been openly staring at the two strangers for the last several minutes.
Well, better make the most of it.
“I’m really sorry, but… who are you? I think I should probably know the names of the people who just saved my life, all things considered.”
“Y’do, do you?” the human growled, putting enough menace into the words that Fest found himself scrabbling backwards slightly in the half-melted snow. “Interestin’ assumption y’got there.”
The other stranger sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in a way that made Fest think the gesture was probably completely unconscious. “Sabbat, you’re either being unnecessarily difficult or needlessly cruel, and I’m not sure I care which. Stop it.”
“Fuck’s sake, Archer!”
“He’s not Sinnlenst. And if he were, he’d not be leaving this alleyway alive, so the point is moot.”
A sudden chill that had nothing to do with the freezing weather ran up Fest’s spine. “I-” He licked his lips, mouth dry. “I’m not…. whatever that means, sir. I swear it.”
“‘s impressive, given y’don’t know what it is you’re swearin’ you ain’t,” the human – Sabbat – commented. He leant forward, smiling. It was a sideways kind of smile, Fest noticed distractedly, since one half of his face didn’t seem to want to move as much as the other, and it didn’t reach his eyes. “See, I’m pretty fuckin’ certain you ain’t Sinnlenst either. But if you’re lyin’ to us, I’ll gut you, wait fer you t’wake up again, an’ then cut your fuckin’ heart out. Y’got that?”
Fest nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.
It… seemed to be a satisfactory answer. Sabbat leant back, nodded to the vampire – Archer? – and went straight back to cleaning his weaponry, pausing only to wipe away a trickle of blood from his top lip. “He’s all yours, if y’want him.”
“If only to keep you from terrifying the poor lad to death, Sabbat.” He moved from crouching to sitting in the snow, apparently heedless of the mess he was making of his clothes, and offered Fest a smile which, unlike his companion’s, seemed to be completely genuine (if somewhat marred by the fact that he, like his companion, seemed to have something of a slight nosebleed). “I apologise for my friend’s manners. I’d say he doesn’t mean anything by it, but-”
“We both know that ain’t true, an’ y’ain’t a good enough liar t’pull it off anyhow,” the other man interjected.
“Quite,” Archer said, drily. He turned his attention back to Fest, rolling his eye. “As I was saying, I apologise for my friend’s behaviour. However, he is correct that if you are lying to us, you will not be leaving this alleyway. Fortunately for you, I happen to believe you are being completely honest with us – not least because we appear to have somewhat terrified you out of your skin.”
Much as Fest would have liked to dispute the claim, it wasn’t exactly inaccurate. But the knowledge that he wasn’t about to be summarily executed went some way towards unfreezing the lump of ice which seemed to have taken the place of his tongue. He swallowed again, licked his lips, and said: “I’m very glad of it, sir. But who are you?”
“William Julius Archer, at your service,” the other replied, sketching a half-bow. Despite the fact he was attempting it from a sitting position, it was graceful enough that it was obvious he was a born gentleman. “Gentleman magician, research scholar, and member of the Master’s Council of the Order of Gentleman Magicians of the City of Sacaan – an organisation which has approximately one accurate word remaining in its title if you don’t count ‘the’ and ‘of’.” He grinned, apparently noticing Fest’s expression. “I take it you’ve heard of us.”
If by heard of you mean ‘been told in no uncertain terms that you’re a conspiracy theory, do not and have never existed, and I’m to stop daydreaming about ever joining you because you Do Not Exist, capital letters very much in evidence’, then yes, Fest thought. Out loud, he said: “Something of the sort.” And then, before he could stop himself, added “But I didn’t think you were actually real.”
To his chagrin, both the other men in the alleyway burst out laughing.
Archer managed to get himself back under control first, having the good grace to look at least slightly apologetic for the outburst. “Sorry. I’m aware that our existence is somewhat debated – it’s something that we’ve generally been in favour of – but I don’t think I’ve ever previously met someone who was quite so willing to tell me to my face that he didn’t think I was real.”
“That’s not what I-” Fest began, somewhat heatedly, and then stopped. Much as it slightly pained him to admit it, the whole situation was actually quite funny – the more so now he seemed to be significantly less in danger of ending up dead, permanently or otherwise. “I suppose I stand corrected, then.”
“Excellent. It’s going to be a damn sight easier to introduce you to the rest of the Order if you’re willing to acknowledge that they exist.”
What?! “I… beg your pardon, sir?”
Judging by Sabbat’s expression, he wasn’t the only one taken aback. “-th’fuck are you playin’ at, Archer? We don’t even know who the brat is, an’ you’re proposin’ what, we just invite him along an’ see what the rest o’ th’Order make of him?”
“Precisely,” Archer replied, looking more than a little pleased with himself. He turned back to Fest, expression suddenly serious. “As you’re possibly gathering by now, I’m afraid you don’t exactly have a choice in the matter.”
…You’re taking me to meet the Order. Why would I have a problem with that?
“It’s not your fault,” the older vampire went on. “But given that the Sinnlenst were interested enough in you to attempt to kidnap you rather than kill you, you don’t seem to have any notion of how you ended up in this situation, and you’re radiating enough raw magical potential that you could likely bring down a building if you lost control of it, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t take you in.” He paused, obviously trying to gauge Fest’s reaction. “If it’s any consolation, I can promise you that whoever invited you to the Midwinter Ball will almost certainly be at the meeting, so there should be at least one friendly face.”
The Luciels are members of the Order? But of course they were. That just made entirely too much sense.
Archer – Mr Archer, he supposed, but Sabbat’s way of referring to him was proving hard to shake – was looking at him expectantly, waiting for some sort of response. Which was a problem, because he had no idea what to say.
‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet a group of people I’ve fantasised about joining since I was a boy, even if you did sort of threaten me into it’?
‘Thank you for the opportunity, oh by the way what did you mean about magical potential because I’m pretty sure that sounded bad’?
‘Do you normally pressgang people like this, because that seems like it would have a fairly high failure rate and I’m really not sure whether I want to know what happens in those cases’?
‘Can you please reassure me I’m not dreaming right now?’?
In the end, unfortunately, what came out of his mouth was the next thing he thought of, which was as follows: “How haven’t the Watch found us yet? I mean, I’m not complaining, but…”
Archer blinked, obviously taken off guard for a moment, and then laughed. “Well spotted, Mr-?”
“Fest. Jonathan Fest.” And you’ve only just thought to ask me my name. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that.
“Mr Fest, then. And normally, they would have done. Tonight, however, they are conveniently elsewhere until the Midwinter Ball is over. By which time we’ll be long gone, and our friends here will be nothing more than another pair of mysterious, unfortunate, unsolved murders.”
Which was still not reassuring, but better than the possibility of ending up arrested and possibly beheaded for a murder he hadn’t committed.
“Speaking of leaving,” Archer continued, “we should get to that meeting. Sabbat, if you’d do the honours?”
“Why?” the other man countered, though it sounded as though he was mostly being contrary for the sake of it. “Y’can run your own sixdamn errands.”
“Because you said you wanted to practice your gateways, and I’m not exactly ecstatic at the idea of leaving you in charge of our young friend here.”
“Ain’t goin’ t’kill him, Archer.”
“Yes, but he’s scared enough of you as it is and, knowing you, you’ll likely end up making the whole situation worse just because it happens to amuse you.”
“And why d’y’think that?”
“Because I know you, Sabbat.”
Sabbat muttered something under his breath that Fest didn’t catch (and wasn’t sure he wanted to), but got to his feet, heading down the alleyway until he found a relatively clear space of brick wall. Then, as the others watched, he pulled a piece of chalk from his coat pocket and began to draw what Fest recognised as the sigils for one half of a two-part gateway spell.
Or rather, something that looked a lot like the sigils for one half of a two-part gateway spell. There were lines missing, and others added in, and the more the design grew the less it looked like any spell Fest had ever seen before.
Which wasn’t surprising, he realised, given that neither of his rescuers seemed to be carrying the necessary accoutrements for proper magic – while bundles of herbs, coins and candles could be hidden in pockets, glass bowls and large amounts of water weren’t exactly easy or practical to transport.
So whatever Sabbat was doing, it was a kind of magic that they definitely didn’t teach you at the University. He leant forward, watching more intently.
Sabbat, for his part, was getting annoyed.
Not about the brat – he’d made damn sure that one knew who was in charge, and Archer was probably right about him not being a threat. And not about being the one to make the gateway – he did need to practice the spell, and it freed him up from having to make small talk and/or getting accused of deliberately baiting their newest acquisition.
No, the thing that was currently pissing him off – and making him lose track of where he was in the sigils, which wasn’t exactly fucking helping – was the fact that he still couldn’t place where he’d seen that Sinnlenst spy before.
It shouldn’t have been bothering him, that was the thing. He’d met and killed a lot of Sinnlenst over the years, and done enough undercover work in their more outlying bases that he’d likely met most of their low-level hitters face-to-face at some point or other. And even without that, the man was dead – he’d made sure of that himself – so the case should have been bloody closed.
He snarled under his breath, scraping away the last line of the sigil with the side of his hand and redrawing it an inch or so to the left, before closing the circle around the whole thing and sealing it with a drop of blood from the last remnants of the nosebleed the brat’s magic had provoked. Technically, any use of blood in ritual magic was completely and utterly illegal – but even if he’d cared much about legality in general, use of the magician’s own blood had always been a grey area as far as that particular law was concerned. Most magicians were just too shit-scared of the potential magical consequences to try.
Though, if he was entirely honest, he wasn’t exactly happy about the concept of them himself. Any magic involving blood was dangerous, given the very real probability of something reaching through from the other side and getting a hold of you, but blood-sealing at least had the upside of that probability being incredibly fucking small.
And it did mean you didn’t need to fuck about with all the other trappings. Much.
He dropped the chalk back into his pocket, pulling out a set of candles and a small bundle of dried herbs (both slightly crushed from the fight, but nothing bad enough to ruin the spell), then turned to look back up the alleyway for a brief moment.
“Hoi, Archer! Y’got the time?”
“You’ve got about five minutes,” the vampire replied, holding up his watch.
Five minutes. Ain’t so bad.
They’d been lucky – if they’d talked for much longer, they’d’ve missed the window and had to wait another half an hour. And if they’d missed that one, there’d have been nothing for it but a long cold walk and a fuck-off irritating sign-countersign exchange to get through the door at the other end.
Compared to that, getting the whole thing done inside five minutes was nothing.
There was enough packed snow on the floor of the alleyway that getting the candles wedged upright in it didn’t take long, and he’d managed (somehow) to bring just enough herbs to mark out a proper half circle between them, linking up with the lowest of the sigils on the wall at either end.
Which meant that the practical side of things was pretty much done and dusted. Problem was, that wasn’t the difficult bit.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started to chant.
“What’s he doing?” Fest whispered, unable to keep his mouth shut any longer. He’d understood at least enough of the proceedings so far to be able to follow them (though he wasn’t entirely sure how Sabbat had managed to close the circle, given he’d not used metal, glass or water), but the moment the other magician had begun to chant his tenuous understanding of what was going on had gone completely out of the metaphorical window. Mostly because, to Fest’s ears, he seemed to be speaking complete gibberish. “That’s not Aventrian.”
“Very astute of you,” Archer replied, sounding irritatingly like he was trying not to laugh. “And to answer your next question, no, it’s not Old Sacaask either. Or Derkat. Or Efirasi.”
Fest nodded, trying very hard to look as though he knew exactly what all of those languages sounded like. “What is it?”
“A particular dialect of thieves cant, or so I’m reliably informed.”
The older vampire grinned. “My companion’s an excellent magician. He’s also not a particularly conventional one.”
Despite many (usually politically-motivated) monographs and screeds to the contrary, there was no set language for the vocal component of most spells – experiments had shown that you could use plain Sacaask and achieve exactly the same effect as if you were speaking the most high-flown dialect of Aventrian or a strain of Old Sacaask which had been extinct since the end of the Long War. However, using the same language both to call on powers beyond mortal ken and order a pint of beer was widely seen as… well, a bit gauche, and so a tradition had developed among magicians of using an older or more impressive-sounding tongue for their chants. Which, if you were a student at the University, meant Aventrian unless you had a damn good reason not to.
Outside the University, of course, things were a little looser. Old Sacaask was fairly common among those magicians who either had a connection to the ancient past of the city or wanted to pretend they did, and Efirasi was growing in popularity as more and more immigrants from the South braved the cold to set up home in the capital of magical research north of the Adakan border. There was even a smallish community of people who used Masik-tal in their spells, though that was generally seen as a little odd if you weren’t a werewolf, and a couple of brave souls who had decided that Derkat was worth the dark looks and occasional punches (given Sacaan and Adakar had been at war for the last several hundred years, the choice wasn’t exactly a popular one in most circles).
But even the professor in whose lecture Fest had picked up most of the preceding facts, who’d made it his life’s work to study how magicians use language (which seemed to Fest rather the kind of thing you went into studying if you weren’t actually a very good magician, though he wasn’t about to say that out loud) hadn’t mentioned anything about people using thieves cant, of all things.
Though there wasn’t any reason it couldn’t work, he supposed. It was just… not how people did things, that was all.
Though if I’ve learned anything this evening, it should probably be ‘just because it’s not how people do things, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen’. People don’t normally kidnap people and drag them down alleyways, after all. Or murder people for being part of the wrong secret society. Or…
And that right there was a mental path he really didn’t want to go down right now. Or, in fact, ever. Just ignoring the whole thing and pretending certain bits of it hadn’t happened was just fine by him, thank you very much.
The air in the alleyway felt suddenly thicker, like the heavy heat before a storm, and Fest felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as the magician’s chant dropped to a low, half-heard whisper. The background noise of the city, always present even at this hour and more so given the time of year, faded out as though he’d plunged his head under water, and the few splashes of colour in the alleyway bled away, leaving the world a blue-grey, faded echo of itself where every breath carried the electric feel of building lightning.
He looked up, trying to see what was happening at the site of the spell itself, but the air near the sigils seemed to have grown thick enough to actually stall visibility, and all he could make out was a impossible heat-haze rippling above the snow, with a blurred figure kneeling in the centre of it. He turned his head a little, trying to gauge Archer’s reaction, but the older vampire’s expression was unreadable – though Fest couldn’t help noticing that his nose had started to bleed again.
Which was odd, now he came to think of it. Nosebleeds weren’t uncommon among magicians who worked with magic a lot – they were practically an expected reaction to certain spells happening in the vicinity if you were a professional magician, to hear his professors tell it – but gateway spells were widely regarded as not being anywhere near the power level to cause that kind of reaction even in someone who was casting every day.
There’s something weird going on here. Weirder than the rest of this, I mean.
And then the air thickened again, feeling almost like a physical weight pressing down on his shoulders and back, and he lost his train of thought as breathing suddenly became something which took a good deal more effort that it was supposed to.
The pressure grew, passing the point where it seemed intolerable – then, just as he was beginning to think he was going to pass out again, there was an almost audible snap as the spell caught, and the sound and colour came rushing back into the world, along with a sudden blast of cold air that drove the breath from his lungs and set him coughing hard enough to make him see stars.
Once he’d finally managed to get a full breath he looked up again,managing to catch a short glimpse of what looked like nothing so much as a glowing-edged doorway with a brightly-lit room beyond it before something soft was pulled tight across his eyes and the world was plunged suddenly into complete and utter darkness.
He made a strangled yelp of surprise, grabbing at the blindfold, and found his hands caught in a firm but not unkind grip.
“I apologise,” Archer said, voice quiet and very close to his ear. “But there are certain traditions that must be adhered to. Even with someone quite as… interesting as you appear to be. If it helps, consider it the first step on your road to initiation.” He let go of Fest’s wrists, patting the younger vampire companionably on the shoulder. “When you’re ready, put your hand on my arm and let me guide you. You’re less likely to turn an ankle that way.”
“You could’ve warned me,” Fest muttered, though his heart wasn’t really in the objection. Somewhere deep inside, a small excited part of him was practically jumping for joy at the sheer secret-society-ness of the whole thing. Blindfolds and traditions and initiations, and Archer’d called him interesting, and he’d been invited to join the Order – the Order, of all people! – and… and it almost made up for the fact that several people had very possibly tried to murder him.
“I was planning to,” Archer admitted, and sounded as though he was telling the truth. “Then you started attempting to cough up a lung, so I thought it better to wait until you looked less likely to asphyxiate on the spot. And by that time, the gateway was already open.” His hand tightened briefly on Fest’s shoulder, in what the younger vampire interpreted as a worried sort of a gesture. “Are you feeling alright? I can fetch a doctor once we’re through if you need one.”
“I’ll be fine,” Fest said, though he wasn’t entirely sure if he meant it. “It was the spell, I think. You know how it is.”
There was a short, awkward pause. Then:
“I’m not sure I do,” Archer said, slowly. There was an odd edge to his words, as though he’d suddenly come to a conclusion that he didn’t much like, but whatever he was feeling didn’t seem to be directed towards Fest. “Does this happen every time someone casts magic around you?”
“Not always,” Fest said. Then, feeling as though more was probably expected from him, he added “But most of the time. It’s not that uncommon, though, is it?”
“Exactly how many other people do you know who react the same way to magic as you do, Mr Fest?” Archer asked, and the tone of his voice made it very clear that he wasn’t messing about.
“I… don’t know,” Fest admitted. “For a while, I thought everyone did, and they were just better at hiding it. But that’s not true, is it?”
Archer didn’t answer him. Instead, he muttered something under his breath which, from the little Fest caught of it, sounded distinctly ungentlemanly, and got to his feet, pulling the younger vampire up with him. “Come on. From the sound of things, we’re not the only ones with news tonight.”
The older vampire sighed and his voice, when he spoke again, sounded suddenly very, very tired. “There’s been a death in the family.”
If the members of the Order of Gentleman Magicians of the City of Sacaan were in any way fazed by the sudden appearance of two of their number and an unexpected guest through what had until a minute or so ago been a completely solid wall, they certainly didn’t show it.
Within moments of their arrival, Sabbat had been pulled into an animated debate going on between a group of the Order’s more notorious cut-throats as to the merits of the various drinking houses and Smoke dens around the city, and Archer had been accosted by three or four different junior members of the Order offering reports, sharing information and swearing bloody vengeance on the Sinnlenst for their latest strike.
Unfortunately for him, the drinking had started early enough that evening that most of them had clean forgotten that he hadn’t been at the gathering since the beginning, and it took him several conversations to actually find out the identity of the latest casualty. And when he did it was, unfortunately, not exactly much of a surprise.
Beorn Harrow had been a good man, and a skilled magician, but he’d always been one of the more outspoken members of the Order, especially when it came to the business of the war with the Sinnlenst. Where cooler or more tactical heads preferred the fight to stay firmly in the shadows, he’d always been vociferously in favour of dragging it into the sunlight, and, ideally, finding some way to have the Sinnlenst follow their antecedents in the Protectors of the Crown to a choking, kicking death at the end of a rope. Or, failing that, simply blowing their headquarters sky-high and letting the gods sort the wheat from the chaff.
It’d been a popular position among a fair number of the more bloody-minded members of the society – likely those drinking the heaviest tonight – but not one which had won him many friends among the Masters Council, and he’d left the previous meeting vowing that he’d take the fight to the Sinnlenst by himself if need be, since no-one seemed to be willing to accede to his plans.
No surprise, then, that his body’d been pulled from the river that evening. If Archer was going to be entirely honest with himself, he was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.
But, hothead or no, he’d been one of theirs. And the Sinnlenst had killed him.
Which, Archer realised with a mental groan of exasperation, meant that tonight was likely going to involve a good deal more blood than he’d already anticipated.
Well, we really have chosen the best possible time to introduce a new face to the Order, haven’t we?
It couldn’t be helped, however. The boy had to be introduced to them, and it had to be tonight – preferably the sooner the better, though given that the Luciels had yet to make an appearance, they’d likely have to wait at least a little longer. Speaking of…
“How are you holding up?” he asked, turning to the blindfolded figure at his elbow.
“Very well, thank you, sir,” Fest replied, and to his credit, managed to sound as though that might conceivably be true. “Should I… Um. Should I be able to hear those conversations you’re having?”
“Pardon?” Archer said, honestly confused by the question.
The boy’s voice was getting more panicked, though he was obviously trying hard to keep it under control.“I can try not to listen if you want me to, although I don’t know if that’d work and I already overheard-”
If you are a Sinnlenst spy, Mr Fest, you’re either the worst spy I have ever encountered or the most skillful. And right now I’d put a good deal of money on the former.
“You’ve not overheard anything that you wouldn’t have picked up within five minutes of being brought into the Masters’ Council, Mr Fest, and you’ve not acquired any knowledge the Sinnlenst didn’t already have.” This… didn’t come across quite as reassuring as he’d been hoping it would, judging by the boy’s expression, but nevertheless he continued. “You’ve no need to try to avoid listening in. I’m only sorry you’re likely to be wearing that blindfold for a while yet.”
“Is that part of the tradition?”
Tempting as it was to say ‘yes’, honesty won out. “A rather more practical consideration, I’m afraid. You can’t be unblindfolded without the Master’s Council agreeing on it, and that can’t happen until all of them are here.”
He’d been about to say more, but the press around the main table cleared for a moment, and he suddenly caught sight of a familiar and exceptionally welcome face: Dr James MacConnell, colloquially referred to as ‘Mac’, and the Order’s resident expert on all things morbid, anatomical, and morbidly anatomical. If anyone would have the exact details of Harrow’s death, Mac would – among his other duties, he worked as a consulting coroner for the City morgue, and they had a tendency to call him in on what he liked to refer to as ‘particularly interesting’ murders.
“MacConnell! If you have a moment?”
The doctor looked up, a brief flash of irritation giving way to sardonic good humour as he noted the identity of his interlocutor. “Archer. What can I do for you?”
“Come over here so we’re not shouting across the room, for a start. I need to ask you some questions.”
Mac laughed. “Find me a chair and you’ve my attention for as long as y’need.” He nodded towards the gaggle of younger men and women currently monopolising the space by the fire. “I don’t begrudge them the warmth, but I’d fain sit before my leg completely goes frae under me.”
It was a more than fair request. Archer looked around, finally laying eye on a cluster of chairs in one corner of the room which had yet to be colonised by any of the various groups and factions who were currently taking the opportunity to talk shop, mourn, plot revenge or just plain socialise. “Those do?” he asked, gesturing towards them.
As it turned out, they did just fine. There was a slight hiccup when a group of loud and particularly inebriated human members of the society (who were all at least in their fifties, much to Archer’s quiet disdain) made an attempt to lay claim to the corner just as they arrived, but some pointed looks and a quiet word about acceptable behaviour in front of initiates quickly had them shamefacedly scurrying off, and the three were left in sole ownership of the chairs, a table, and a half-empty bottle of none-too-shabby red wine, with accompanying glasses.
“Aye, if you’re offering.” Mac leant back in his chair, resting his cane against the wall beside him. “You said y’had questions. What’s the occasion?”
And that’s why I ask you, Mac. Straight to the point, as always.
“Harrow.” He poured a generous glass of wine, sliding it across the table to the other man. “I’m assuming there’s more to it than ‘had a nasty accident’ or ‘ended up taking an unexpected swim’, correct?”
The doctor laughed grimly, taking a hearty swig of the proffered drink. “Always said y’were quick, Archer. What gave it away?”
“The fact that everyone’s quite so up in arms about it, for one. I know he was popular, but something tells me there’s more going on here than just grief over lost friends.”
“You’re not wrong.” He leant forward, resting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers. “You’re familiar wi’ the usual Sinnlenst techniques, aye?”
“I’ll confess, it’s not my particular area of expertise – but yes, I know most of them.” He smiled, taking a sip of his own wine. “I’ll own that Sabbat’s a good deal more… personally familiar with them, if you’re looking for an expert.”
“You’re talking tae the bastard who autopsies every bluidy corpse they send our way, Archer. An expert I don’t need.” He frowned, obviously struck by something. “Though I’d no- ah, we’re frae the point. Anyroad, ye know how the Sinnlenst tend tae work when they’re killing.”
“Well,” the doctor went on, lowering his voice, “that’s no’ what happened tae Harrow.”
Archer leant in closer, lowered his own voice to match.“Then what did?”
“Someone decided tae exsanguinate the puir bugger before they dropped him in the river. Down tae the last drop.”
Archer, for his part, swore, quietly and viciously. Exsanguination murders were rare within the walls of the city, and for good reason – though the species currently lived and worked in more-or-less stable harmony, it hadn’t been all that long ago that humans (and werewolves, to a lesser extent) had still been considered acceptable prey by the more backward-thinking members of certain vampire families. Given the sort of torch-and-pitchfork mob that had tended to result in, corpses turning up completely drained of blood had a tendency to inflame those tensions which still remained on both sides of that particular conflict to dangerous heights, and it wasn’t uncommon for one murder to spark a rash of riots, assaults, and general unrest.
“Who’d be stupid enough to-” he began, but Mac cut him off.
“The Sinnlenst’ve no’ got many vampires in their ranks, far as we can tell. Three, maybe four. If one of them’s lost control tae that point, we’ll find out about it soon enough.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Archer protested. “They’re as likely to be hit by the backlash of this as we are, and this does nothing to advance their cause. At best, it angers us enough that we make a mistake, but we’ve dealt with worse from them and not lost our edge to the extent that they would be hoping for. Even someone as selfish and irresponsible as- as that damn Foreval girl would never stoop to this.”
“You’re assuming it was a conscious decision.”
“Yes, because the converse makes even less sense. We don’t lose control like that any more, never mind what certain people would have you believe, and anyone who somehow did manage to-” He stopped mid-sentence, suddenly becoming aware of Fest’s hand tugging at his sleeve. “Yes, Mr Fest? What is it?”
“Sorry, sir, but… did you say ‘Foreval’?”
“I did. What of it?”
“Nothing. Only… that’s the name of the girl I was talking to. Before everything went black.”
Maybe I should just have kept my mouth shut.
Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut in general. That sounds like it would probably be the best idea.
And maybe I should stop realising these kinds of things after I’ve already got myself into trouble.
There’d been shouting. There’d been, in fact, quite a lot of shouting. None of it had been directed at him, as far as he could tell, but that hadn’t made it any less terrifying considering the fact that he couldn’t see what was going on, had no idea where he was, and had been (and likely still was) utterly reliant on the goodwill of someone who, from what he’d been able to make out, was currently somewhere between furious and utterly incandescent with rage.
There had been shouting, and swearing, and a good deal of ungentlemanly and unladylike language, and he’d found himself very suddenly grabbed by at least two people and hustled along what sounded like a fairly narrow, echoing stone passage, before being gently but firmly pushed into… well, into wherever this was.
It was quiet, at least. Possibly too quiet, if his penny-dreadfuls were anything to go by – places that you got blindfolded and then thrown (well, pushed, but artistic license) into tended to be worse the quieter they were, and he’d yet to hear anything that suggested that there was anyone else but him in the place.
It had a door, which had been locked on him. It had a floor, which seemed to be made of flagstones, and at least one wall, which also seemed to be made of stone. It presumably, given he couldn’t feel any snow or wind, had a ceiling, and probably at least three other walls also. Beyond that, his imagination was all-too ably filling in possible terrors.
I’m not a prisoner. I mean, they’ve locked me in a room, and blindfolded me, and I’ve obviously done something that’s made everyone upset, but… I’m not a prisoner. Honest. They’d have tied my hands if I was a prisoner, and taken away my knife, and- I’m sure this is all some kind of horrible misunderstanding.
Or it’s part of the initiation. That would make sense. Scare me, make me think they’re going to do something horrible to me, and then see if I still want to join. That makes perfect sense and is definitely not just me grasping at straws in an attempt to stop myself thinking about all the other ways this could go. Honest.
Everything is fine.
“Stop panickin’. Y’look like you’re about t’piss yourself.”
Despite himself, Fest yelped and took an involuntary step backwards into the wall (which prompted a mocking laugh from the direction of the mysterious voice). Then, when he’d recovered a little, he took his courage in both hands and addressed the darkness. “Sabbat?”
“None other,” the voice confirmed. “How’re you feelin’?”
Which was such a surprising question coming from that particular source that he actually had no idea how to answer it. Eventually, after a brief moment of panic, he managed “Well? I think?” And then, not wishing to be impolite even in the current circumstances, added “How are you?”
He hadn’t previously thought an eyeroll could be audible, but Sabbat seemed to be making a fairly good go of it. “Don’t be a fuckin’ idiot. You missin’ any more memories? Any compulsions you ain’t certain of the origins of? Any desires t’go stab up random people for bein’ magicians or owt?”
“Good. Y’got lucky.”
“I… did?” He hated himself for how childish he sounded, but he had quite honestly no idea what was going on, and wasn’t exactly in the best position to ask for more details. It had something to do with the girl he’d been talking to, he knew that much, but what on earth did Sabbat mean by talking about compulsions and missing memories? The only thing he couldn’t remember was how he’d wound up in that alley in the first place. That and what he’d and Miss Foreval had been talking about, but that couldn’t be all that important. He hoped.
“Y’realise who she was, don’t you?” Sabbat asked, not answering Fest’s question.
Fest shook his head. “One of Lady Amelia’s friends from the university?” he hazarded.
Sabbat snorted. “Hah! No. That’s likely how she bluffed her way in – an’ there’s a row and a half brewin’ over that, given nobody fuckin’ remembers lettin’ her in the door, but that’s beside the point. Foreval’s a spy for the Sinnlenst.”
There was that word again: ‘Sinnlenst’. Fest had heard it enough times over the evening to build up a very general idea of what it might mean, but he was fast realising that he’d likely need a lot more than just a vague notion if he wanted to understand anything of what was going on. “Um. Who are the Sinnlenst, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Pack o’bastards,” said Sabbat, and made it clear from his tone that he wasn’t using the pejorative in the affectionate sense. “Go around killin’ magicians, burnin’ books, tryin’ t’stop people usin’ magic in any way shape or form. They’re the ones who send those two bully-boys after you – likely would’ve killed you if we hadn’t got to ‘em first.”
Well, that’s… reassuring. “But… why? Magic’s good, everyone knows that.” Well, nearly everyone. But the people who railed against it were few and far between and mostly religious fanatics who took a very weird view of some of the tenets, everyone knew that. Weren’t they?
“You’d think. Best we can tell, the Sinnlenst reckon if proper magic ever came back it’d knock ‘em down into the mud wi’ the rest of us. Given fair half of ‘em are the brothers and sisters and kids of the bastards who got thrown out the palace windows during the revolution, they ain’t far wrong.”
That made an odd kind of sense, Fest supposed. Everyone knew that the corrupt council who’d run the city before the revolution had been against magic – they were the reason it’d taken so long for the University to get built, after all – and if their families blamed the magicians for the way things had gone, then… “But why hasn’t anyone arrested them all, if they’re killing people? Surely the courts-”
“Are full of Sinnlenst. So’re half the watchhouses, an’ most o’the guilds. They ain’t stupid, an’ they kept their connections after everythin’ blew over.”
“But- I don’t- How come I’ve never heard of them?” Fest asked, trying to make sense of it all. If there really are these anti-magic extremists so high up in every faction in the city, why doesn’t anyone else seem to know about it?
Sabbat laughed. “Y’miss the part where the bastards share blood wi’ a pack o’fuckin’ traitors? They ain’t likely t’go makin’ things public, an’ they’re good at keepin’ t’the shadows. ‘s why we exist.”
“So the Order was founded to stop the Sinnlenst?”
“Aye, somethin’ like that. We were around before the revolution, same as them. Only difference is-”
“- we were the ones that everyone thought were a myth,” Archer’s voice finished. The door clicked shut behind him, blocking the sudden influx of sound from the world outside. “Mr Fest. I apologise for… well, all of this. I trust Sabbat’s at least been keeping you entertained?”
“Um,” said Fest, not quite sure how to respond to this. He pushed away from the wall, standing up straight in an attempt to look as though he was definitely completely au fait with what was going on. “Do you mind if I ask what’s happening, sir?”
“At the moment? A good deal of not very much. Various people are attempting to find out exactly how Miss Foreval managed to gain access to the ball, and how it was that nobody recognised her – or, in fact, even noticed her existence – while she was there. A small group’s gone out to see if she’s still in the area – tailing only, Sabbat, which is why you weren’t invited, so you can stop pulling that face at me. And as for you, Mr Fest, though several of my colleagues were arguing quite strongly against it given your apparent association with the girl, it is the decision of the Master’s Council that, for the moment, we trust you.”
Fest let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. “Thank you, sir. I- I will do my best to be worthy of that trust.”
“You’d better,” Sabbat growled.
Archer sighed. “Sabbat, he’s almost certainly not a threat. At this point you’re just being cruel.” He moved closer to Fest, placing his hand on the younger vampire’s upper arm. “Now, Mr Fest, if you’ll follow me, we’ll finally get you to that meeting.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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