“For the record, ‘melia, I still think this is a stupid idea.”
Amelia rolled her eyes, though she was grinning as she did so. “Your objection is noted, just as it has been the other hundred times you’ve told me that. But I don’t see what else I was meant to do – it’s either this or try and sneak him into the house without Mama and Papa finding out, and that’d go far worse for the both of us if they did manage to catch us. At least this way I can tell them I was just out adventuring, and the worst that’ll happen is they’ll stop my allowance and forbid me from going anywhere other than the University and the house for a month.”
“And stop my pay for a month for being fool enough to let you do it, if I’m lucky” Viola interjected, more bitterly than she meant it. “I’m supposed to be at least partially responsible for you not getting yourself killed, after all.”
The other girl pulled a face. “I won’t let them. I’ll- I don’t know, I’ll say that I threatened you or something. Or that I said I’d go whether you went with me or not, so you had to either come along to keep me safe or let me go and get myself hurt, which would’ve been failing in your sworn duty to protect me.”
“Or I could pick you up, stuff you in a box and sit on the lid until you’d stopped wriggling.”
“Or that,” Amelia agreed, cheerfully. She stuck out her tongue, grinning as a snowflake landing briefly on the tip of it.“Though you’re a little late, if that’s your plan. Unless you’ve got a chest stashed away in one of these alleyways?”
“Don’t tempt me,” Viola growled playfully, fighting back the urge to retaliate in kind. She looked around, eyes scanning over the aforementioned snow-choked alleyways, and wished heartily that she’d thought to check exactly how many knives Amelia had strapped on before they’d headed out. “We’re not far enough away from home that I couldn’t carry you back there bodily if I wanted to, you know.”
“Oh, I’d like to see you try!”
“No, you wouldn’t. Because I’d win, and then it’d just be embarrassing for everyone.” She reached out, tapping Amelia lightly on the nose. “Unless you really want to explain to your parents why I’m lugging you around like a particularly uncooperative carpet?”
“You wouldn’t. Not unless you wanted to explain why we were down in Old Town in the first place.”
Viola rolled her eyes. “I thought you were planning on saving my neck on that one.”
“Not if you’re going to drag me back before we’ve even done what we’re here for. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – isn’t that how the saying goes?” She sighed, suddenly serious. “Look, Vi, I know you don’t like this-”
“That’s an understatement and a half.”
“Fine. You hate this. You think it’s a stupid idea, you wish I wasn’t doing it, you think I’m being stubborn and foolhardy and half a dozen other things…”
“That’s not- You’re making me sound like Seb.”
“And? Aren’t you both in agreement on this?”
“No! I mean yes- but- It’s not that simple.”
Viola groaned and blew out a breath, trying to find a way to phrase the next part which wouldn’t immediately lead to a resurrection of the worst parts of the argument they’d had back at the house. “It’s- It’s your damn boyfriend, alright?”
The younger girl stopped in her tracks, turning to face Viola with a scowl which could’ve stripped paint. “What about my damn boyfriend?”
His existence, for a start. But that wasn’t any way to get Amelia to listen to her – and, if she was honest, wasn’t entirely true. After all, hadn’t she been happy enough for the other girl before that bloody letter? And before he invited her down to one of the worst neighbourhoods in the damn city. Can’t forget that, can we?
Amelia was still scowling, arms folded in what looked like the kind of sullen defiance she usually reserved for arguments with her parents (a comparison which made Viola’s heart twist in ways she really didn’t like thinking about). “I’m waiting, Vi.”
Of course you are. “I’m- Oh for the sake of all my favourite ancestors, I swear I’m not trying to get at you over this. I know you love him, I know you’ve been seeing him for – I don’t know – far bloody longer than you’ve ever admitted to me, and I know you don’t think he’s going to do anything to hurt you-”
“-but try and see this from my point of view for five seconds, will you?” She closed her eyes, if only so she wouldn’t have to look at Amelia’s face. “I know less than nothing about this boy other than what you’ve told me, and you’re not exactly a sodding unbiased source where he’s concerned. You’ve been cagey as anything over ever letting me meet him – and yes, I get the reasons, but it doesn’t make me any happier about the whole damn deal. And then, out of the blue, he sends you a note asking you to come down to the bloody River Quarter of all places, after dark, when he knows for a fact you’re keeping the whole thing so secret that you’ll not tell your parents where you’re going. Look, for all I know we’re going to meet someone who wants to… I don’t know, kidnap you for ransom, or kill you to make a political point, or sell you to the Sinnlenst to get himself into their good graces, or-”
“He’s not like that.”
She’d been expecting raw emotion. Tears, maybe. Possibly, if she was really unlucky, a broken nose. But there was nothing in Amelia’s voice but complete and utter conviction, rigid and unyielding as stone – and, when she opened her eyes, she saw that the other girl’s scowl had melted into an expression that almost looked amused.
“He’s not like that, Viola. He just… isn’t.” One corner of her mouth lifted into a small, secret smile. “He’s too honest, for a start – Mother’s Breath, he goes practically scarlet when he tries to lie, even if it’s just about the fact he’s got me some present or other he doesn’t want me to know about in advance. It’s adorable. And besides, if he wanted to kidnap me or kill me or do whatever else you’re thinking of, he’s already had more than enough chances.”
“That’s not as reassuring as you seem to think it is, ‘melia.” Though it wasn’t not, as cold comfort as that was. “And it doesn’t mean he’s not planning something, it just means he hasn’t done whatever it is he’s planning yet.”
“Or he’s not planning anything at all, and you’re being paranoid.” She leaned forward, bumping her forehead companionably against Viola’s shoulder. “It’s going to be fine, Vi. I promise. And if it’s not – if he really does turn out to be everything you’re worrying about – then you have my permission to do whatever it is you want with him.” She paused. “Assuming there’s anything left after I’ve finished, of course.”
“I’m sorry!” Anneke said, for the fifth time in as many minutes. “But I did honestly think you already knew.” They paused, obviously considering something, and then went on: “I mean, it was fairly obvious.”
“So you keep saying,” Fest growled, kicking peevishly at the chunks of broken icicles scattered across the pavement. He jammed his hands more firmly into his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and tried unsucessfully to stop his mind dwelling on exactly how stupid the priest must think he was.
Not that they’d be wrong to think so, given the circumstances.
How in the name of all the gods didn’t I see it before, if it’s as obvious as all that? ‘No, of course everyone else gets magical backlash without casting any spells, they’re just not saying anything about it’. ‘No, of course everyone else reacts ridiculously strongly to magical workings, they’re just hiding it better than me’. Gods and goddesses, no wonder nobody bothered to tell me – they must have thought I was a complete idiot.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t still angry at Archer, mind. The older vampire must have known he didn’t know what he was: would it have killed him to mention it, even in passing? Would it have really fouled up the Order’s plans all that much to say ‘oh, by the way, in case you didn’t realise it, you’re a sorcerer’? Honestly?
But no. He’d kept his bloody mouth shut – they all had – and so Fest’d had to find out the hard way. Which made him feel just wonderful about the whole thing.
“You know, I bet other sorcerers don’t have to deal with terrifying tentacle monsters trying to eat their faces.”
Anneke laughed, loudly – then bit their lip and looked away as he turned to face them. “Sorry. I know it’s not funny, and I know you’re upset about this. I just-”
You’re just going to keep apologising to me until I change the subject, and probably end up making both of us feel even worse about the whole thing along the way, Fest thought. I understand. And, if the situation was reversed, I can’t say I wouldn’t probably be doing the same thing.
I mean, how do you even go about dealing with someone who’s a massively powerful natural mage… and somehow has spent their entire life completely unaware of this fact?
Honestly, he could probably count himself lucky they’d stuck to apologising. It certainly beats trying to have me locked up for being insane, I suppose. And, if he was honest, (and when he wasn’t thinking about exactly what ‘you’re a sorcerer’ actually meant in terms of… well, his entire life) the whole situation was kind of funny. Especially the part where neither of them had actually died.
“No, no, it’s alright.” He chewed on his own lip for a moment, making a valiant attempt to push away the worst of the worry, and then said, with a cheeriness that was only slightly forced: “It really wasn’t your fault it tried to eat us – and anyway, it tried to eat you more. That probably means you’re allowed to laugh at it more than I am, if we’re being pedantic about it.”
The priest stopped dead in their tracks, staring at him for a long moment. Then they blinked, covered their mouth with both hands, and promptly doubled over, shoulders shaking.
For a horrible moment, Fest thought they were about to be sick. Then he looked closer and realised, with a slight jolt of surprise, that they were laughing, the sound muffled by the thick padded leather of their gloves.
“It wasn’t that funny,” he said, bemused.
Anneke looked up at him, red eyes bright with tears of mirth, mumbled something incomprehensible through the gloves, and dissolved into a fresh round of giggles, collapsing sideways against the wall as though they were suddenly unable to hold themselves upright.
“I… think you might be in shock,” Fest suggested, partially thinking out loud. He paused. “Either that or I’m suddenly a lot more amusing than I previously thought I was.”
Anneke shook their head, pulled one hand away from their mouth for a moment, and wheezed “‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’”
Fest felt his cheeks flush, the heat obvious even through the bitter cold of the evening wind. “…You were conscious for that?”
The little priest nodded, managing to get their laughter just about under control enough to peel both hands away from their mouth, and leant back against the wall. “Hard not to be: you were loud.”
“Oh.” He had to admit, that line probably had sounded better in his head. Then again, it had turned out to be surprisingly hard to think of proper witty repartee when you were actually facing down almost certain death, so managing to say anything at all should probably be counted as at least a few points in his favour. “I… couldn’t think of anything else to say. And I didn’t want it to charge you while you were on the floor, so-”
“It worked,”Anneke said, and there was a serious note underlying the laughter still bubbling through their voice. “I think I probably owe you my life.”
Fest shook his head. “You’re the one who exorcised the… whatever-it-was. I just distracted it.”
“For long enough that it didn’t eat my face,” Anneke pointed out. “Which meant that I was able to do the exorcism, which meant that neither of us got eaten. Or stung. Or ripped apart. Or… whatever else it was planning on doing to us.”
“I don’t think I want to know,” Fest said, and meant it.
Anneke frowned. “I think I do. If nothing else, it would tell us something about what whoever put that spell on you-”
“-about what she wanted to do with it and, potentially, with us. If it was meant to try and drag us back through the Void, for example, then that has a very different set of implications than if it was just sent to kill us. And if we can work out where in the Void she summoned it from, then-”
A sudden sickening suspicion swirled up from the morass of gently bubbling terror at the back of Fest’s skull, clear and bright and sharp as a shard of broken glass. He swallowed, closed his eyes for a moment, and then said, very quietly, “Is it possible that she might have wanted to send it to… track us?”
“I don’t see what you-” Anneke began. Then they broke off, hand going to the stark white line that’d been scored across their face by the creature’s tentacle. “Oh. Oh.”
“It’s only a theory!” Fest said, hurriedly, though the twisting sick feeling in the pit of his stomach seemed to argue against that particular defence. “And there’s nothing to say that it-”
“But it makes too much sense. By all accounts, she’s the kind to want to deal with her enemies more personally,” Anneke muttered, all the laughter gone from their voice. They shivered, and it had nothing to do with the temperature. “And I get the feeling that anyone who’s interfered with one of her ‘projects’ is more than likely to find themselves on that list.”
“I won’t let her hurt you,” Fest said, almost without thinking.
Anneke laughed, the sound low and ugly. “If she’s got her hooks into you, you wouldn’t be able to stop her. Hells, you’d probably help.”
“You wouldn’t have a choice, Fest. That’s how she works. She gets into your head, and makes you do things, and at the best you don’t even realise what it is you’re doing until she pulls her tendrils out and you’re left with the ruin she’s made of your life.” They smiled a small, sickly smile. “How do you think she ends up getting half of her conquests to kill themselves?”
“I don’t-” Fest began, and then stopped. There wasn’t anything he could say that would help – no promises Anneke would believe, or that he could trust himself not to break if Foreval’s hold on him was as strong as they seemed to think it was. Instead, he took a step forward, reached out and put an arm around the little priest, pulling them tight against him for a brief second.
Anneke froze almost instinctively at the touch – then they shuddered, closed their eyes, and leant their head against Fest’s shoulder for a moment, the beaded fringe of their headdress rattling quietly as they did so. “Thank you. We should- We should get moving again. If she’s tracking us…”
“Then the University’s a lot better defended than the streets,” Fest finished. He stepped back, once again wishing fervently that he’d remembered to put his sword on that morning, and eyed the snow-filled sky warily for any sign of looming tentacled monstrosities. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any more of those herbs with you, have you?”
The priest’s smile was genuine this time, if a little shaky. “I’m a Scribe of Ashkenta. If I wasn’t prepared for trouble, I’d be doing my Goddess a disservice.” They held open the large pocket on the side of their coat, allowing Fest to catch a glimpse of a set of neat red paper parcels, each one sealed with a hasty blob of black wax. “They won’t kill the thing outright, or send it back to where it came from – we’ll need an exorcism for that – but they should weaken it enough that, without a direct link to feed on, it might well have to retreat into the Void to reconstitute itself.”
“Allowing us the time to find out what in the worlds it is and how we kill it permanently.”
“Exactly.” They pulled a face. “Though, one thing.”
“When we get to the library…”
“You’re the one doing the talking.”
The problem, Archer realised very quickly, wasn’t going to be getting information out of Jenny’s ‘boys and girls’. It was getting them all to be quiet long enough that he could actually understand what any of them were saying.
As soon as Zlata had explained what he was doing there and what he wanted to know, it seemed as though everyone in the room had wanted to weigh in – and, given it was a relatively small room and there were at least twenty of them, this had led to a confusion of noise at a volume which, for a vampire, was actually physically painful.
Zlata hadn’t been much help, unfortunately. As soon as she’d ascertained that he was in fact there to do what he’d said he was there to do, she’d made her excuses and left: judging by the yawning, Archer suspected she was going back to bed for the rest of the evening.
Honestly, he couldn’t exactly blame her.
“Ladies, gentlemen and others, if I could have your attention for a moment?”
He might as well have been shouting into a hurricane. A couple of the obvious non-humans did quieten down for a brief moment – presumably because they were the only ones who’d actually heard him – but, given no-one else did, it did literally nothing to make the situation any more bearable.
He was on the verge of giving the whole idea up as a bad job when one of the quieter members of the group, a heavier dark-skinned girl with flame-red hair who’d been doing her makeup in one of the two cracked mirrors in the corner of the room, turned around and held up her hand for silence. “Shut it, the lot of you. How’s he supposed to hear anything if you’re all gabbin’ like a pack of hyenas?” She smiled sadly at Archer, revealing a pair of pointed fangs the mirror of his own (though her red eyes had given her away the moment she’d looked at him). “If you’re meaning the lass who died this morning, her name was Rose. Leastwise, that’s what she called herself, an’ nobody asked if it was the name she’d been born with or no.”
“Not what you do round ‘ere,” another girl chimed in, to a chorus of nods and noises of agreement. “Plenty of people runnin’ from things they’d rather not come findin’ ‘em.” She flicked her skirts to one side, dropping down onto the bench next to the first speaker, and yawned widely. “Dunno what she was runnin’ from, mind, but she din’t ever give more of a name than just ‘Rose’, an’ that was fine enough for me.”
“Dunno where she came from, neither,” one of the boys added, pulling a shirt on over a body which would have made a statue jealous. “I mean, she din’t look Sacaask, but that don’t mean much. Din’t have an accent on her, so she was likely more city than me, but more than that I couldn’t tell ya.”
Nor could anyone else. She’d apparently been ‘just plain Rose’ to everyone, and even those who’d known her better hadn’t ever managed to get a family name out of her. Inquiries as to names of any siblings or parents met with similar blank faces, though one of the older women did remember her once saying something about her father having possibly been a sailor – pushing further on that, however, revealed that it’d been a passing comment in relation to her skin tone rather than anything more concrete.
When it came to the girl’s- to Rose’s personality, however, the whole group had something to say. And, somewhat to Archer’s surprise, pretty much all of it was positive. He’d been expecting at least some level of negativity – nobody was universally loved, after all, and a jilted lover or angry rival was a fair bet when someone in Rose’s position wound up dead – but the worst that anyone could say about her was that she’d had a temper, and that she’d occasionally used her fists as opposed to her words when she’d got into a particularly heated argument. Which, given she lived in Steepside, was practically a given.
The girl with the flame-coloured hair – whose name, Archer had learned, was Tatiana – seemed to have been particularly close to Rose, and, once she’d been persuaded that he wasn’t about to tell the Watch everything he’d learned, was more than happy to explain exactly why the dead girl had been quite so much of a favourite among the other workers at the Daggers.
“Simple as. She was nice.” She laughed quietly at his expression, and went on: “Most people who’re fighters, they’re fighters all the time. Can’t relax around ‘em, ‘cause you don’t know what’ll set ‘em off, and then when they do go, you duck behind a table an’ pray to the Mother they ain’t lookin’ your way. Rose… wasn’t like that. She’d be all quiet, right up until something riled her, an’ then she’d smile, just a little bit, and nod to us to get behind her, and then she’d just snap. Saw her put a bloke’s eyes out with her thumbs once, when he tried to get up our Eva’s skirts an’ wouldn’t take no for an answer.” She grinned, fiercely. “Bastard went in the stew, an’ nobody bothered us much after that.”
And that, it turned out, was all that was needed to open the floodgates. Archer was promptly overwhelmed by half a dozen stories on a similar theme, as a good third of the group took the chance to speak up about other times Rose had stepped up to see off clients or bar patrons who’d been various varieties of drunk, handsy, violent or all three.
At last, once the hubbub had died down enough that he could hear himself think, he managed to ask whether any of them knew why she’d been as proactive a defender of the group as she had – given Jenny’s ever-growing brood of children and grandchildren tended to do an admirable job of keeping the peace themselves, it seemed odd that one of the working girls had taken it upon herself to join in.
“She told me she’d been raised in a whorehouse.” This from a tall Adakan-looking man, leaning against the wall a little further out from the main crowd. At Archer’s inquiring look he went on: “One of the ones that does for sailors, down Dockside way. Said she used to be a pickpocket, back when she was a little, but that she’d seen enough of the johns go for the whores that she wasn’t going to stand for it now she was big enough to make a difference.” He stretched, rolling his shoulders, and flashed a smile. “Don’t know if it was true or not, but she had fucking fast fingers when she needed to. Jenny used to have her frisk any clients who looked like they meant mischief, and they’d never know she’d done it. Up until they found they’d mislaid all those hidden weapons they were trying to sneak in, anyhow.”
There was a general bubble of laughter at that, though Archer caught the edges of more than a few sobs. It seemed like Rose had been, if not a friend to everyone, at least well-beloved enough that they’d been hit hard by her death. Once the reactions had died down a little, he ventured a few more personal questions – had anyone else heard her talk about this whorehouse? Had anyone heard her say much about Dockside, for that matter? Or any other neighbourhood in the city?
That got him more than a few suspicious looks – but, when he’d explained roughly why he wanted the information ( ‘I want to know if there’s anything in her past which could have made her a target’ being a fair approximation of the truth) a few of the quieter members of the group admitted that they’d also heard her mention having grown up in a brothel, though none could give him any more information than that.
“Don’t reckon she had much in the way of family, besides us,” a slim, barechested werewolf told him. They scratched behind their braid, frowning slightly. “Least, if she did, she didn’t want to talk about it.”
Tatiana nodded. “She told me she’d come up here to get away from the Dockside gangs, back when she showed up. Might be her people’re in the trade.”
She didn’t elaborate. But then again, she didn’t need to. Archer hadn’t known Sabbat for a decade without picking certain things up and, in reference to Dockside and the Dockside gangs, ‘the trade’ meant one thing and one thing only.
“You think they were smugglers?”
“Ain’t sayin’ yes, ain’t sayin’ no. But if I wanted out of that business, up here’s where I’d come. Docksiders don’t come our way, not unless they want to end up runnin’ home with their tails between their legs.”
That was a possible trail to follow then, if a faint one. But faint was better than nothing, and surely someone in Dockside would remember a girl with Rose’s looks and temper. “Thank you,” he said, and meant it a good deal more than she probably realised.
The rest of the interview passed without much further in the way of revelations, and Archer came away at the end of it with the distinct feeling that, far from sorting things out, he’d somehow managed to make his investigation significantly more complicated.
The problem was that he’d ended up with a good deal of information about the murdered girl’s personality, very little about the actual day-to-day realities of her life, and almost nothing which would give him any clues as to who her family were and if, as the captain suspected, they had connections to the Order. The connection to the docks was potentially something to look into – if Rose was connected to a member of the Order and had been telling the truth about her past, finding out which brothel she’d grown up in might go some way towards joining the dots – but Docksiders tended to be even more reluctant to talk to outsiders than the rest of the River Quarter, and there was no way in the hells he was going to be able to pass himself off as one of them, even with a day or so to prepare.
I could always ask Sabbat to do it, I suppose. It’s not as though he’d be all that out of place down there.
It wasn’t, on the face of it, a terrible idea. Sabbat’s accent wasn’t far off Dockside, even if he hadn’t been brought up there, and the roaring trade done by the taverns and bawdy houses which lined the quays meant that combinations of skin and eye colour which would be seen as unusual almost anywhere else in the city barely raised an eyebrow in that neighbourhood. And, if Archer was going to be uncharitable, he certainly had the manners for it.
There was, however, one small problem with this idea.
The last thing we need right now is our killer getting wind of someone asking questions on this particular topic. And Sabbat’s not exactly subtle.
That… wasn’t entirely true. Sabbat was, in fact, incredibly subtle – if by ‘subtle’ you meant ‘exceptionally good at remaining undetected while sneaking up on someone prior to slitting their throat’. And, as Archer had been forcibly reminded only yesterday (for all it seemed like a lifetime ago), he had a surprising aptitude for accents and disguise. The problem was that when the assassin heard ‘ask around about X’, he tended to interpret it, rightly or wrongly, as ‘find the person who knows the most about X, back them up against the nearest wall, and terrify them into telling you everything’.
Infuriatingly, this particular tactic had a damn sight more of a success rate than it had any right to. Probably because when Sabbat threatened people, it was usually fairly immediately obvious he wasn’t bluffing.
Disturbing success rate or no, asking after Rose’s people like that isn’t exactly likely to make them want to come forward. And, if our killer’s feeling particularly vindictive, it might put them in even more danger.
Which meant asking Sabbat for help on this particular avenue of investigation was likely, in fact, a completely terrible idea.
Ah well. It’s not as though he’s not got other work to be getting on with when it comes to catching this bastard.
And there was another mental alleyway he really didn’t want to go much further down than he had already. If the killer was a Turned, unlikely as that was…
He turned on his heel, heading back up the stairs with a muttered curse that, if Sabbat had heard it, might have impressed even him.
I only hope he’s decided to come back to get the rest of his blades before he heads out. I don’t exactly fancy my chances trying to find him if he hasn’t.
The night’d started off bitter, even at street level, and by the time Sabbat had made it back to Old Town the temperature on the rooftops had plummeted to the kind of raw, vicious cold that stopped breath, stole feeling from fingers, and made any attempt at full-speed roof-running suicidal at best.
Lucky, then, that that wasn’t what he was planning.
There’s a difference between hunting and chasing. No sense wasting time and energy racing over the rooftops when all I need to do is wait for prey to come to me.
It wasn’t going to be that easy, mind. Old Town was big – bigger than most people gave it credit for, given half of them only ever saw it from the bridges in the other Quarters – and the rooftops were a maze of rat-runs and hidden passages, constantly changing as people added storeys or knocked down half-rotten extensions. Add in the summer fires and the deliberate traps and deadfalls the gangs built along the borders of their territories, and you had a labyrinth easily as deadly as anything the old Adakan mage-kings had been able to dream up and a hundred times more vicious for being home-grown (say what you liked about Sacaan, its reputation for bloodthirstiness was sodding well deserved).
Course, that all meant a good deal less if you knew it – and, for all he’d spent a fair amount of his life so far at sea, Sabbat was more at home on the rooftops of Old Town than half its residents were on the streets.
Which means this bastard, whoever he is, is in my territory. Which means I get to make the rules.
Nothing said the killer was going to be in Old Town that night, of course. Hells gates, nothing even said there was a killer – any of the leeches could exsanguinate someone if they wanted to, and there was nothing to say Jenny’s dead whore and Harrow had been killed by the same person. Save Archer’s insistence that it was a fucking insane thing for a vampire to do and more than one of them going mad without someone noticing was so unlikely as to be practically impossible, of course, and it wasn’t as though he was exactly unbiased when it came to dealing with this kind of thing.
Still, it felt right. And, in his line of business, you didn’t get to be as old as he was by not trusting your gut, especially when it came to people trying to kill you. (Admittedly ‘as old as he was’ was ‘somewhere in his mid-twenties’. Thieves and assassins died young, fast or not at all).
Both the last kills were Old Town, which means he probably knows his way around – more so if the girl wasn’t killed at the Daggers, on account of that meaning he felt confident enough to take her away, kill her, then dump her back there to… what? Make a point?
It’d be a point directed at Jenny, then, if that was his game. It was common knowledge how much she cared for her working boys and girls, and leaving one of them bled out in the snow outside her own back door was the kind of ‘fuck you’ that’d hit right to the heart of her, whether she admitted it or no.
But where’s the profit in it? If he’s the same one who offed Harrow, he’s almost certainly Sinnlenst – the fuck do they want with the Daggers, or with Jenny?
It didn’t make any sense. For sure, the Sinnlenst used enforcers and hitters from the rougher districts of the city, just like the Order did, but the leadership had a stick rammed so far up their collective arse they could’ve used the end as a toothbrush – if they had any interest in Old Town, it only went as far as dipping their wicks cheap and getting blind drunk on rotgut afterward, same as any toff. All threatening Jenny got them as far as that went was one less brothel to patronise and one less tavern to piss their money away in… unless one of them had some interest in buying the Daggers out from under her, and wanted her running scared so she’d be more likely to take the money.
More fool them, then. Only thing killing one of her people’s likely to do is mean she’ll be more inclined to make the next drunk fuckwit with wandering hands into stew first and ask questions never.
He scowled, leaning back against the chimney breast, and took another pull of cheap gin from his hipflask, feeling the warm burn of the alcohol cutting through the chill of the night air. It was a sensible enough idea, that someone might be trying to buy Jenny out of the Daggers, but it still didn’t make much sense – not with Harrow’s murder, or the way the girl had been killed, or… fuck, anything about this whole crock of shit. It stank of Sinnlenst, that much was clear enough, but why go out of their way to murder some girl none of them had probably even met? And why do it like that, of all ways?
Could’ve just slit her throat, if all they wanted was to keep her quiet. Strangled her, if they were squeamish about the blood. Hells, knocked her on the head and thrown her off the edge of one of the side-streets, or dropped her off a bridge, or into the river, or… anything other than fucking exsanguinating her.
Fuck. Archer’s fucking right, isn’t he? Of course he is.
Another mouthful of gin, just enough to thaw his fingers out, and he slipped the flask back into his pocket and shifted his weight, trying to keep as much of it as possible off his injured leg. He wanted a cigarette, but lighting up in this weather’d be bloody difficult even if it wouldn’t also give his position away to anyone who happened to be keeping an eye out, so that’d have to wait until he got back to his rooms.
A smoke, Smoke (ha!), and a change of clothes, and we might get back to feeling somewhere close to human.
That or a chase, mind.
He’d set himself up about where he reckoned he stood the best chance of spotting the killer – a rooftop overlooking one of the less commonly-used entrances to Old Town, but the one which was closest to where both Harrow and the girl had been found. No guarantee the bastard’d use the same way in and out twice, of course, but again, it felt right, and it was a better plan than spending the night stalking the rooftops in the hope of crossing paths with someone who looked like they might be off to go exsanguinate a prostitute or two.
Not that you’d be getting much stalking across rooftops done with your leg and your hand both out of commission. Practical fucking considerations and all.
He hissed out a breath, flexing the fingers of his wounded hand. It hurt to move them much but, between the cold and the alcohol, he still had about the range of movement he’d need for climbing if he didn’t put too much weight on the palm. Holding a knife was going to be a problem, though, and he thanked the Lady that it’d been his left hand and not his right that he’d gouged open – at least that way he still had a fair chance in hand-to-hand if it came to that.
Or, if he was honest, when.
Come on, you fucking coward. Show yourself!
Almost as soon as he’d finished the thought, there was a flicker of movement on a rooftop two streets below – something quick, quiet and humanoid, darting between a chimney and the slanted side of a wooden lean-to someone had thrown together against the remnants of a half-broken wall.
Then, very deliberately, he relaxed back against the brickwork, letting out his breath in a long, silent sigh. Whoever it was was too far away to be able to notice details, even if they had non-human night sight, and he was camouflaged enough against the soot-stained brick that they’d have trouble picking him out even if they’d got the idea that there was someone up there to begin with.
Could be him. Or her, or them, I suppose. Nothing says murderous leeches have to be male.
As he watched, there was another flicker of movement, this one closer to what he supposed must be the door of the lean-to, and something thumped once against the bricks, the sound oddly loud in the relative quiet of that particular corner of the district. There was another thump, this one with a rattling sound attached to it, and then a figure appeared beside the lean-to, silhouetted against the lamplight from the all-night cookshop a street over.
They were smaller than he’d expected, and slim to boot, and there was a hunched, feral look to their posture that didn’t match the way the killer felt as though they’d move in his head. Appearances weren’t everything, mind – some of the best assassins he’d ever met had been the ones nobody’d ever look twice at – but the more he looked at the figure on the roof, the more he was sure they weren’t the prey he was hunting.
It wasn’t just the way they looked. The killer, whoever they were, had been calm and collected enough to take the girl away from the Daggers without arousing suspicion, drain her dry, then dump her body back in the courtyard without anyone being any the wiser. Whoever it was moving around down on the rooftop, by contrast, looked like they were more used to being the hunted rather than the hunter – sudden movements, followed by long periods of stillness, and the occasional twitch that looked a hell of a lot like someone looking back over their shoulder to see if they were being followed.
Probably a street kid, then. Odd are they’re lairing up in that lean-to overnight, and begging on the street during the day – not likely to be part of a gang, else they’d be in a safehouse somewhere, and if they’re out on a job they’re doing a fucking bad job of not drawing attention to themselves.
If he’d been a different man, he might’ve felt sorry for them. As it was, they’d distracted him from his hunt, left themselves wide open for anyone who might want to take a shot at them, and made enough noise to scare off anyone who might’ve been trying to move through the area without getting caught. He snarled a curse under his breath, took another swig from the hipflask, and turned away.
And then stepped back hard onto his wounded leg as something dark and humanoid and huge hurled itself over the side of the balcony a street above him, grabbed hold of the top of a chimney-stack, and pushed itself off to sail over both the street and the rooftop he was standing on in a leap which was equal parts inhumanly strong and terrifyingly fast.
He ducked, instinctively, as the thing flew over his head, and felt something warm and wet hit the side of his face as he did so, splashing across his cheek and over his still partly-open mouth. The taste of blood hit his tongue at about the same moment the true implications of what had just happened worked its way into his brain, and the resulting explosion of revulsion, realisation and sheer bloody adrenaline had him on his feet and running before he’d even had time to consciously make the decision, chasing after the shape as it hurtled down towards the ragged lean-to and the still unaware hunched figure on the rooftop below.
It was a stupid plan. He knew it was a stupid plan, would’ve done so even if his leg and hand hadn’t been screaming it at him, even if his boots hadn’t been slipping on the icy slates of the roofs, even if he hadn’t been chasing after something which he was pretty fucking certain wasn’t any kind of vampire he’d ever seen before. But, fuck, what in the hells else was he going to do? It was running, and he was hunting it. Simple as that.
And besides, if he didn’t do anything, it was going to eat the kid. And nobody deserved that, even if they were stupid enough to get themselves silhouetted against a skyline.
“Hoi! Come fight someone your own size, you fuckin’ coward!”
If the thing had heard him, it didn’t give any sign of it. The kid – if they were a kid – looked up, though, and he almost thought he could see their eyes widen as they got an up-close-and-personal look at whatever it was that was racing towards them.
The thing stopped, abruptly, as though taken aback by the noise. Then it threw back its head, opened its mouth, and laughed.
It didn’t sound like a monster. Fuck, it sounded like nothing so much as one of the older toffs you sometimes got down at the Daggers reacting to someone telling what he thought was a particularly funny joke – a long, low rumble of sound, thick with wine and good humour and completely and utterly relaxed.
Which, coupled with the way it had been moving, meant it was almost certainly a vampire, no matter how weird it looked.
The kid on the rooftop hadn’t stopped screaming – a thin, high, thready wail of terror which cut through the general buzz and hum of the nighttime city like a knife. They’d frozen in their tracks, too, obviously too scared to run or hide, and it was only the fact that the bastard had stopped to gloat which’d saved them from an immediate quick and messy death. That wasn’t going to do jack shit to protect them when it got its head back in the game, though, and they didn’t seem inclined to start moving again any time soon.
Fuck, Sabbat thought again. Then, with a sick sense of inevitability: Trust Archer to push me into something where I have to end up playing the fucking hero.
His knife was already out, wrapped hilt digging into the gloved flesh of his palm. Assuming the thing died like a normal vampire, all he needed was one good slash across an artery – or, failing that, a chance to get the blade tang-deep into its guts – drop it where it stood, and deal with it at leisure once he’d stopped it running off on him.
Course, that was making a hell of an assumption about the bastard. And very squarely the kind of assumption that, if you got it wrong, very quickly got you killed.
Then again, what other choice do I have? Ain’t letting it eat the kid, that’s for fucking sure.
Fuck. Of all the times to have a fucking conscience.
The kid was still screaming.
The thing was still laughing.
Sooner or later, one or both of them were going to have to pause for breath, and things were going to get bloody.
No time. Just fucking do it, and damn the consequences.
He shifted his grip on the knife, fixed his eyes on the point right behind the bastard thing’s left ear, muttered a brief prayer to the Lady, and charged.
Three things happened in quick succession.
First, the thing stopped laughing.
Second, the kid on the rooftop stopped screaming, suddenly acquired some common sense from somewhere, turned on their heels and ran like fuck for the nearest survivable drop down onto the streets below.
And third, something that felt as solid and immovable as a fucking iron bar smashed hard into Sabbat’s ribs, knocking him off his feet and sending him sprawling halfway across the rooftop. The dull ache in his wounded hand flared to white-hot agony as half his weight landed on it, and he didn’t bother to bite back the shout of startled pain – better to keep the killer’s attention focused on him and give the kid a chance to get away.
That, it turned out, wasn’t going to be much of a problem. The thing had turned to face him as he’d charged it, slamming its arm into his chest as it did so, and it was now stalking across the rooftop towards him, moving as slowly and leisurely as though it was taking a sodding afternoon stroll.
It was a tactic Sabbat knew well. Mostly because it was one he liked using on Sinnlenst.
Keep ‘em waiting, make ‘em know you’re the one in charge, let ‘em piss ‘emselves in terror trying to work out how to get away from you, and just. keep. walking.
This’d be funny, if it wasn’t so fucking irritating.
He’d kept hold of his knife in the fall, thank the Lady, and for all he’d landed hard enough to knock the breath out of him, nothing seemed to be broken or bleeding much beyond the wounds he’d already taken. And, judging by the fact the skin of his torso didn’t seem to be melting, the bottle in his pocket had been tough enough to survive the blow.
Not completely defenceless then. That’s something.
Of course, the moment he tried getting to his feet the bastard’d probably make a good go at ripping his throat out – playing with your prey like this only worked as long as they weren’t in any shape to make a serious attempt at turning the tables on you, after all. Which meant his best bet of getting out of this alive was to lie very still, pretend to be unconscious, and then wait until the last possible second to get the knife in.
And that’d be a fuck of a lot easier if I was halfway sure this thing was killable.
Logically, he knew it was a vampire. Couldn’t be anything else. But it hadn’t moved like any vampire he’d ever seen, even in the midst of full combat, and the size of it…
It’s dark. It’s dark, and it – he – was moving fast. ‘s all.
Except that he wasn’t, now. And aye, fine, he wasn’t half as tall and broad as he’d looked when he was hurling himself over the rooftops, and vampires ran taller than humans anyroad, but there was still a sheer bulk to him that didn’t look right – not for a vampire, and not for something that could move that fucking fast and that fucking quietly.
And he was sodding laughing again. Quieter this time, more as though he was laughing to himself than anything else, but worse for that because it didn’t sound as though he was trying to be intimidating. He just seemed to be… amused, like this was a joke someone’d told him and he’d only just worked it out.
Creepy fucker. Shouldn’t’ve expected anything less from the kind of freak who goes around fucking drinking people dry, mind.
As if in answer, the killer’s laughter abruptly tailed off, leaving only silence and, far below, the humming, bustling, rattling song of the city at night. He stayed where he was for a brief moment, head on one side, apparently considering something.
Then he huffed out a breath through his nose, bent to pick up something from the snow at his feet, and started towards Sabbat again, whistling tunelessly between his teeth.
And now you’re trying to fucking intimidate me. It ain’t going to work.
Problem was, that wasn’t entirely true. Aye, he’d had people trying to threaten him before – hells, that was practically a daily occurence half the year round – and he’d had more than enough practice at facing down fuckwits who thought they’d got the drop on him. And aye, he’d been in worse situations than this one, even – least this time he had a weapon, had at least something of an advantage on the enemy, and wasn’t halfway to actually being unconscious. But people were one thing. This bastard, whatever he was, was something else.
And if he couldn’t kill him…
Then I’m dead. And the kid’s dead. And, once he figures out what happened to me, Archer’s probably dead too.
So we stab him, hope it works, and run like hell if it doesn’t. Ain’t cowardice if you run away from a fight you can’t fucking win.
Not that he’d be doing much sprinting with his leg feeling as bad as it was, mind. But, given how much smaller and lither he was than the vampire, he’d probably be able to lose him in the rat-runs up by where the Tin Street Gang’s warehouses were, and that was only a street or so away – hardly anything when you were running on sheer adrenaline and bloody-mindedness.
Just have to keep pretending we’re out cold until he gets close enough. And hope he’s not waiting for us to catch frostbite in the meantime.
He’d started shivering, now that the adrenaline from the initial charge had begun to wear off, and the few inches of exposed skin on his face and neck touching the snow burned with cold, a bone-deep freezing chill that felt as though it was eating down to the marrow of his skull and spine. He needed to move – but if he did, the bastard’d realise he wasn’t unconscious, and then everything’d get a fuck of a lot more complicated.
Come on. Stop playing with your bloody food and do something!
The whistling was, finally, getting closer again – close enough, Sabbat reckoned, that its owner’d probably be able to see his face in a second or two. And, given unconscious bodies didn’t tend to blink, that meant the next part of this was going to get even more fun.
Lady, if you’re watching…
She always was, of course. But if you had to go calling her attention, this kind of situation was about the only time it was in any way anything approaching a sensible idea.
He closed his eyes, slowed his heartbeat, tightened his hand on the hilt of his knife, and waited, holding his breath, as the killer’s boots crunched slowly closer on the new-fallen snow.
“Vi? Did you hear that?”
Viola raised a hand, cutting the other girl off, and nodded once, eyes scanning the darkness. Screams weren’t uncommon in Sacaan, especially in this quarter, but there’d been something about this one which had sounded wrong – not drunken messing about or someone getting a handful of snow shoved down her shirt, but sheer, raw, unbridled terror.
The kind of noise, in short, that you really didn’t want to hear while in the middle of unfamiliar territory, trying to escort a naive and worryingly headstrong charge towards a meeting which had an even chance of being some sort of horrific trap.
“I heard it, ‘melia.” And I really bloody wish I hadn’t, because then it wouldn’t have suddenly become my problem.
“It sounded… bad. Really bad.”
“Someone’s probably in trouble.”
“I know.” Us, for a start, if we don’t get out of here.
“We should go-”
“-and see if we can help,” Amelia finished.
Viola stared at her for a long moment. Then, very slowly, she raised a hand, ran it over her face, and said, in a voice which she thought was admirably calm given the circumstances: “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Someone’s hurt. Possibly dead. We can’t just walk away as if we didn’t hear anything!”
No, that’s exactly what we can do. As fast as possible, for preference. Because you’re not a werewolf, and your combat experience is theoretical at best, and whatever made someone make that kind of noise isn’t exactly going to back off and let you try again when you fuck things up. It’s going to kill you. “We can, and we will. This isn’t a good area of town to be loitering in, especially after dark, and it’s an even bet whoever made that noise was trying to lure someone in so they could kill ‘em and make off with whatever they were carrying.” And if the ancestors have a problem with that lie, they can take it up with all the people who got killed falling for the same trick when it got pulled for real.
“Except it’s not, and you know it,” Amelia said, quietly. She set her jaw, hand going to the largest of the knives on her belt. “Someone’s in trouble, and I’m damned if I’m going to let them get killed just because you’re feeling overprotective. I’m going to go help.”
“If necessary, yes.”
Except you know I won’t let you do that. Damn you, Amelia. “And what if I stop you?”
“You can try.” It was a statement of fact rather than a challenge, and that almost made it worse. “But I’m going to go help, Viola. What you choose to do about that is up to you.”
“I suppose knocking you out, chucking you over my shoulder and running like hell is out of the question?” Viola muttered, more to herself than the other girl.
“Again, you can try.” She paused, obviously considering something, and then said, slowly “You realise that if you were here on your own, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Viola blinked at her, momentarily taken aback. “…Yeeeees? But I don’t see what that-”
Amelia made an irritated noise. “That’s- gah! That’s not what I meant, Vi. If you were here on your own you’d already be running off to help and we both know it. You wouldn’t even have stopped to think whether it was a good idea – you’d just go, and damn the consequences.”
“That’s not the point!” For a start, if I was here on my own, by definition you wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have to protect you, and we wouldn’t be having this bloody argument.
“It’s entirely the point. If you’d go running off to save people if I wasn’t here, why let me being here stop you?”
“Because I’m supposed to-”
“Protect me, yes, I know. But if I go…”
Back me into a bloody corner, why don’t you? “You’re not going to give up, are you?”
“No. And the longer we keep arguing, the more trouble whoever screamed is likely to be in. Are you coming or not?” Before Viola could do anything to stop her, she turned on her heel and ran, heading up the alleyway towards the direction that the screaming had come from at a dead sprint, spurts of snow kicking out behind her into the night air.
And there was nothing Viola could do other than follow.
Hurry the fuck up, will you? Sabbat growled, silently.
Even without opening his eyes, he could tell the killer was standing over him. Hells, he could hear the bastard’s breathing – fast, excited, and all too sodding close for comfort – but the other man (and that was an assumption and a half right there, that he’d even count as anything close enough to sapient to be a person) seemed in no hurry to actually get on with the business of actually trying to kill him.
Too busy savouring the sodding moment, are you? Bastard. Hurry up and fucking try something.
The killer’s breath hitched, as though he’d somehow managed to hear the thought (which, if Sabbat was honest, wouldn’t have surprised him at this point), and the snow crunched again as he shifted his weight.
And then he did something Sabbat hadn’t expected.
His voice, unlike his laugh, was monstrous – rough, ragged, with pauses and inflections that made no sense, as though he’d learned to speak by rote. But for all that, it was somehow darkly, horrifyingly familiar.
“I… think I recognise… you.”
Sabbat’s stomach went cold, and he suddenly had to fight to keep his own breathing slow and even. Who the fuck-? And, as the obvious, impossible answer presented itself, No. No. That’s- fuck, that’s not possible. I know I killed you.
“I think… this… will be fun.”
Steepside was, it turned out, even more accurately named than Viola’d thought. She’d run the streets here a few times during the summer – fewer people batted much of an eyelid at wolves in these parts, and there was only so long she could stay cooped up in the house on the full moon – but it’d been on four legs rather than two, and, more to the point, there’d been a hell of a lot less snow and ice to contend with. Even with nightvision as good as hers, the uniform blanket of white from the most recent fall left the alleyways and rooftops alien and unreadable, masking every dip and drop-off and turning an already treacherous neck of the woods into something practically suicidally dangerous.
Which was, of course, why Amelia had decided to take the whole thing at literally breakneck speed.
“Sodding hellfire, ‘melia! Slow down, will you?”
If the other girl had heard, she wasn’t wasting breath on responding. She skidded sideways on a patch of ice, grabbed onto a lamp-post to keep herself upright, and then used the momentum to whip herself round the corner and down the nearest side-street, practically skating on the solid river of hard-pack running down the centre of the road.
It was impressive, Viola had to give her that much. It was also insanely bloody stupid.
She’s going to get herself killed. She’s going to get herself killed, and it’s going to be my fault, and I’m never going to forgive myself.
She snarled under her breath, toes digging into the soles of her boots as she dug for purchase with phantom claws. If she’d been running four-legged, the chase would’ve been over by now – Amelia was a good sprinter, true, but she couldn’t outrun a werewolf in full hunting mode – but as it was, the younger girl had just enough of a lead on her that she couldn’t trivially catch up without putting on a burst of speed which’d likely send them both hurtling either into a wall or off the edge of the nearest parapet.
And, despite their many differences, humans and werewolves were united in at least one aspect of their physiology. Neither of them had yet worked out how to fly.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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