Fest blinked, wondering when in the world the library bookcases had grown quite so tall – or, for that matter, the floor’d got quite so close to his face.
“Whuh? I-” His mouth tasted like glue, and one of his legs didn’t seem to be working right, which was concerning. On the other hand, the face peering down at him (once he’d blinked it into something resembling focus) was flushed with an excitement which didn’t seem to be particularly tempered by any kind of concern for his wellbeing, which meant that either he was perfectly fine or that Anneke had found something which was so engaging that they hadn’t noticed that he was slowly dying of…something or other.
“I found something!” the priest whispered, accidentally confirming at least half of Fest’s second hypothesis in the process. They leaned down, poking a finger experimentally at his nose. “Are you alright down there?”
“Gah! I… think so? I’m not sure how I ended up here, but-”
“You fell asleep,” Anneke said, helpfully. “Or, at least, I assume as much. I know I did.” They smiled sheepishly. “You’d think I’d know better than to put my head down on a book.”
Well, that made a good deal more sense than any of the hundred other horrifying alternative scenarios his mind had been busy coming up with. And, unlike the last time he’d apparently fallen asleep, he’d not woken up covered in silt and having somehow broken his neck.
At least, he assumed not.
“Er. I have a somewhat awkward question. Um.”
“You probably didn’t sleepwalk. Or, at least, not that I noticed – I was asleep, so you might have managed to get out and back before I woke up, and I don’t know how long both of us were unconscious for. I suppose it’s possible that-” They cut themselves off, wincing. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t all that reassuring, was it?”
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t think you did sleepwalk out of the library to do anything nefarious. While it’s still a distinct possibility, and certainly not one we can discount, I’m sure one of us would have noticed if you’d got up and started moving. The floors here creak, we’re both on edge, and you don’t have any odd marks or stains on you which weren’t there before we came in here.” They paused. “Oh, and another thing.”
“Your leg’s gone to sleep, hasn’t it?”
“What- How did you know that?”
“Because you’re poking it.”
He looked down, and found, somewhat to his surprise, that he was. He stopped. “That’s… actually a really good point. If I’d been sleepwalking, the odds of my getting back in time to spend enough time lying down that my leg’s gone to sleep-”
“-are fairly low, though not impossibly so,” Anneke finished. “Incidentally, if I’m any judge, you should probably be starting to get feeling back into it-”
Well, at least I know there’s nothing actually wrong with my leg. Silver linings and all that.
Which… wasn’t exactly a particularly helpful thought at this moment in time, given how bloody excruciating the pins and needles he was currently suffering were, but he was sure he was going to be thankful for it later.
After another minute or so, during which he managed to get himself upright and stamp the worst of the pain out, he finally regained enough feeling in his foot that he could turn his concentration to something other than his current physical predicament.
Namely, whatever it was Anneke had discovered.
“It’s not a perfect match,” the little priest admitted, “but I think it’s close enough.” They hefted one of the larger tomes, flipping through the pages until they came to one marked with something which looked an awful lot like one of the metal decorations from their headdress. “Here, listen. ‘In order to bind a victim to their will, a magician may enlist the aid of one of the denizens of the Void, which the common folk are pleased to call demons, sprites, or any number of names by which they designate those beings which are not of our earthly plane. Though superstition holds that treating with these beings brings nothing but ill fortune, a well-educated mage may find his study and practice broadened by the use of one of these creatures as a familiar, tether, or guard, especially since some among their number are adept at tracking magical interference through the planes of ether to its source.’”
Well, they definitely don’t teach that in Introductory Ritualism And Practical Magic, Fest thought, numbly.
“I knew it was a demon,” Anneke crowed triumphantly. “I mean, I didn’t know know, but I was almost certain.” They put the book down on the table, looking up at Fest with a grin which was almost unnervingly wide. “Do you see? We have confirmation that she’s using a being from the Void as a guardian on her spellthreads! It’s not something that’s widely known about, which was why I wanted to be sure, but it makes perfect sense as a tactic… if you have no ethics or moral compunctions whatsoever, and are also a complete and utter hypocrite, like every Sinnlenst magician.”
Which was all well and good, but also nothing that Anneke hadn’t hypothesised before they came to the library. And, if Fest was any judge, their excitement wasn’t entirely to do with being proved right (though he suspected that was no small part of it, given their particular way of working). “So we have confirmation that she’s doing what you thought she was up to.”
“Do we know what it is, how she bound it, or how to stop it?”
“Yes! Maybe! And… maybe, probably yes!” They thumped a hand on the top of the pile of books next to the one they’d been holding, having to reach up above their own head height to do so. “So! I looked in almost every compendium of Void entities and Outer beings and everything else which is orthogonal to our world – which is why I’m fairly certain you didn’t sleepwalk, because that took a long time, and I don’t think I managed to find all of them, though I did discard two shelves-worth of nonsense. Did you know your University’s still using Parevar as a foundational text? Parevar! The man was a hack! The only good ideas he had he stole from a whole variety of unnamed hedgemages and cunningfolk and claimed as his own, and even then he insisted on forcibly syncretising completely unconnected folk-practices and insisting that the result represented the length and breadth of the Aventrian magical tradition as it stood before the Fall! If I ever-”
Fest coughed. “Um. The demon?”
“Oh! Sorry. Yes, anyway. There’re a few mentions of something similar in some of the older texts, but the closest description I can find actually comes from a book from about two centuries ago called… well, it’s in Old Aventrian, but the title translates out to something along the lines of ‘Through Power, Dominion.’”
“Why does that sound like something I already don’t trust?”
“You’d be right not to. It’s a Sinnlenst text, though one which was suppressed by them to the point that it’s almost entirely been forgotten – I had to go back into the restricted section to find this copy, and it wasn’t easy to find even there. It was written by one of the Sinnlenst’s first open magicians, and it’s essentially a manual for how to use magic in a way which aligns in some respect to their goals.”
“…Which are mostly about destroying magic, yes?”
“Correct! However, this book’s author has the idea that the problem with magic isn’t so much that it – and, by extension, all of us who’re tied closer to it than humans – exist, it’s that it’s uncontrolled.”
“That anyone can be a magician. Yes, we have class and gender restrictions on who gets taught what, and how, but knowledge is free, and anyone can have magical talent – or, failing that, pick up a book or find someone to teach them. This author argues that that’s wrong: magic should belong to the ruling classes, and, particularly, to those who have the power and ability to back up their possession of it by force. Essentially, it’s might makes right, but with rituals instead of swords.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Fest admitted. “The Sinnlenst want to stop us bringing magic back into the world – that’s why they’re so against the University, and why the Order exists. How could a Sinnlenst argue that they wanted magic and still be a Sinnlenst?”
“Ah!” Anneke exclaimed. “That’s where this gets interesting. Sorcery’s not specifically a bloodline trait – as far as we know, it just springs up at random – but there’s some evidence to suggest that families who’ve had one sorcerer are likely to have a few more some generations down the line. Nothing solid enough to make a case for it being passed down like hair colour or noses, but the point still stands.”
I don’t entirely see how this follows, Fest thought. But even on a day’s acquaintance, he’d started to get an idea of how Anneke’s mind worked, and so he stayed silent, waiting to see how the apparent tangent was going to relate back to the large and very pressing problem of the monster that was trying to kill them.
“The Sinnlenst tried very hard to expunge all mention of this book and its author, for obvious reasons. But this copy still has its title page, which means that we have the author’s name. Or, at least, their surname.” They paused, ensuring Fest’s attention was entirely focused on them, and then went on: “Their last name was Foreval.”
For a brief moment, Fest didn’t entirely understand what he’d just been told. Then the reality of it hit him, and he nearly fell over. “Wait. Lucy Foreval’s ancestor wrote this?”
“Almost certainly,” Anneke confirmed. “It’s not exactly a common name, and the writer was definitely both a vampire and a magician of no uncommon skill. Also, given the time period we think it was written in, it’s not inconceivable that it was written by one of her grandparents, if not her parents.”
“Which means she might have- no, probably would have had access to it when she was growing up,” Fest added, quietly. “And she’s intelligent enough to have memorised practically anything in there.”
“Exactly,” Anneke said. “If I had money, and if I gambled, I would put a fairly significant bet on Lucy Foreval’s use of the demon or Void creature being inspired by what she’d read in this book as a child.”
“That I am almost entirely certain that I know what it is, how she called it, how she bound it, and how we get it off you.”
Thank the Lady, Archer’s werewolf apparently did have a sodding brain.
He’d not managed to explain any of his plan to her before the Sinnlenst brat showed up – even ‘You distract him, I’ll pick his damn pockets’ had been too much to get out past the wreckage of his throat – but she seemed to have picked up on it nonetheless, keeping up a running commentary which was just the right side of outwardly insulting to avoid her straight-up getting shanked, while being squarely aggressive enough to keep Avebury’s attention focused almost entirely on her.
Sabbat had to admit he was impressed. It took guts to be that annoying.
Fine. Maybe she’s not all that fucking bad. Still don’t see why Archer had to give her his bloody shirt, though.
Wasn’t the point, wasn’t the bloody time.
He swallowed, feeling his face twist as the pain in his throat flared again. He didn’t think it was getting worse (though right now he wasn’t sure how he’d tell, given how fucking bad it felt), but the spectre of Cervanso’s knife at his windpipe wasn’t exactly making this whole situation any easier to deal with.
Slow. Slow, shallow, stop thinking about the fact you’re that bloody close to choking, and sodding breathe.
Oh, and do all that while still faking being unconscious and trying to work out how in the hells you’re going to get your hand into the bastard’s coat pocket, because he’s almost certainly carrying something interesting in there.
Originally, the plan had just been to take whatever the Sinnlenst had in any pockets which were accessible. Simple, easy, and, if you were someone who’d been pickpocketing since you were barely old enough to walk, doable even after someone’d tried to throttle you and thrown you off a roof. But, even as battered and out of it as he was, Sabbat still had a thief’s eye for valuables and, when Avebury had bent over to pick him up, the boy’s coat had swung open just enough to disclose the outline of something small, flat, and patterned with raised decoration wedged into an interior pocket which was just slightly too small for it.
And once he’d seen that, everything had changed.
He didn’t know what it was, of course. Oh, he had a couple of guesses – some book or other which the boy’d decided was important, a present for or from a lover, some trinket he’d picked up at a shop and hadn’t had anywhere else to store – but the beauty of the thing was that he didn’t have to know what it was to know that he wanted it. Or, more specifically, to know that it was important to Avebury in some way, and that half-inching it would go some way towards settling the score the brat was racking up.
At least, until Archer gave him the go-ahead to settle it up properly. And then, my fine friend, we’ll see exactly how fucking brave you are when you’re not hiding behind blackmail and dead-drop letters. You’re playing on borrowed time, mate.
But borrowed time or no, he couldn’t slit Avebury’s throat now, which meant stealing whatever it was the Sinnlenst was hiding was the next best move. Which also meant working out how to get his hand inside Avebury’s coat without the younger man immediately realising what he was up to.
If he’d not just been thrown off a roof, it would’ve been easy – any variation on ‘oh, sorry, didn’t see you there, let me help you up’, and he’d have been three streets away before the brat would’ve thought to check his pockets and found the thing missing. And, absolute worst case, he could’ve followed the Sinnlenst back to his lodgings, cracked a window, and taken it out of his room.
But he had just been thrown off a roof. And, for all he’d broken his fall on a convenient werewolf (and, fuck, he probably owed Cervanso his life for that. That made things complicated), he wasn’t in any fit state to pull anything which required running, climbing, or anything much above trying very sodding hard not to choke on his own spit and wondering hazily why his mouth tasted of blood and whether that was a bad sign or not.
Fuck. If Archer was here…
If Archer was here, he wouldn’t have had to try explaining his plan. Hells, if Archer was here, he’d probably have had much the same idea – and, even if he wasn’t half as bloody good at pickpocketing, he’d have somehow managed to get Avebury into a position where Sabbat could’ve nicked the whatever-it-was nice and easy.
And if Archer was here, his brain went on, treacherously, you wouldn’t be worrying that Caine’d be going after him next.
It wasn’t rational – even with his head swimming and his thoughts going sideways he could reason that much. But then again, wasn’t as if Caine was exactly bloody rational right now either, and if he had enough of his old self left to remember Sabbat’d killed him, he might well have enough left to figure who else might’ve been involved in that particular plot.
And, if he did, right now there was fuck-all Sabbat was going to be able to do to stop him.
He twitched a muscle in his leg experimentally, trying to keep the movement (and the accompanying grimace of pain) as subtle as possible. It stung like a bastard, because of course it did, but less than he’d expected given how bad it’d felt earlier – possibly enough that he could put weight on it, if he had to.
Better than nothing. Won’t be much use in a fight, but wasn’t much use against whatever the fuck he is before all this shit, so that ain’t much of a change.
And the pain was knocking his thoughts off track again. Fuck, but I could do with some Smoke. Didn’t matter whether or not he could fight right now – hellfire, barely mattered whether he could run or not. He was supposed to be working out how in the hells he was going to half-inch that bloody whatever-it-was Avebury had, not going off on some half-thought half-focused idea of rescuing Archer from something he couldn’t kill that probably didn’t even know the vampire existed.
… Wait. Archer said the corpses were exsanguinated. All of them.
But Caine ain’t a vampire.
And, as another thought struck him: He ain’t exactly a regular human right now either.
There was the edge of something there – a wrongness, like sticking your tongue in the hole left by a missing tooth – but the moment he tried to get his mind to focus on it, it skittered out of his grasp. Wasn’t much he could do about it now, anyhow, but it felt like it ought to mean something. If his sodding head would just stop fucking aching…
“Shit!” Cervanso hissed, breath hot against his ear. “We’ve got company.”
And, for the second time that night, the snow rushed up and hit him in the face.
Shit! Should’ve expected this. Should’ve bloody expected it.
They’d come out of nowhere – or, at least, it’d seemed like it. Too many of ’em to be trivially easy to deal with, working together well enough that they weren’t getting in each other’s way, (worse luck – enemies who weren’t used to fighting together tripped themselves up more often than not), and enough of ’em non-humans that they were actually going to be a sodding challenge.
And, worst of all, she’d lost sight of Amelia.
Someone swung a fist at her face – she ducked, twisted under the blow, and slammed her shoulder into what felt like half a bloody cutlery shop hidden under her attacker’s clothes. The impact seemed to knock the wind out of them, though, and they dropped… just in time for another one of the thugs to charge in from the side, blade swinging for her guts.
“Who the fuck are you people?”
They weren’t Sinnlenst, she was sure of that much: Avebury’d been as surprised as the rest of them by the attack, and they didn’t seem to be particularly avoiding trying to hit him. But if they were muggers, why attack them on sight rather than take the time to actually demand what they wanted? And what kind of muggers went around wearing armour under their clothes, anyhow?
The kind who want to go up against a werewolf and survive. Or the kind who’ve been paid very bloody well.
Whoever they were, they didn’t seem much inclined to introduce themselves. Or stop trying to kill her, which was just sodding irritating.
“Why. Don’t. You. Just. Die?”
She’d cleared herself a breathing space at least – even other werewolves had weaknesses, and hurling their human friends bodily into them seemed to put them off their guard long enough for her to get a good hit or two in.
Now where the hells is she?
Viola’s knees nearly went out from under her as she turned, scanning the mess of combat for the source of the voice. “You’re alive!”
She looked up. And there, covered in blood, her skirts and jacket ripped halfway to shreds, clinging to a rusty metal ladder halfway up the side of a building with one hand and brandishing a surprisingly large knife in the other, was Amelia Luciel, pampered, well-bred, supposedly sheltered only daughter of the most influential and powerful family in the city of Sacaan.
… Your parents are going to kill me.
“How did you – fuck off! – how did you get up there, ‘melia?”
The other girl laughed, though it sounded more than a little hysterical. “You know I climb trees, right? Ladders are easy after that, especially when people’re trying to kill you!” She paused, looking down at the thugs on the street below (who, Viola was pleased to note, looked more than slightly taken aback by the whole thing).”I’m assuming that’s what you were doing, but you haven’t exactly introduced yourselves. Do you have names?”
Silence. And then, from one of the less wounded-looking of the group: “And who the hells are you supposed to be?”
There was, it turned out, one advantage to being dropped on your face in a snowdrift in the dark at the start of a fight.
It meant, if you were very lucky, none of the bastards actually realised you were there.
Just… need to get my damn blades out. And get the feeling back in half my sodding spine, but there’s sod-all I can do to hurry that along.
Whoever they were, they weren’t ordinary muggers. And, more to the point as far as Sabbat was concerned, right now it didn’t seem like they were particularly interested in hunting around for bodies on the floor.
Mostly because they were getting the shit kicked out of them by a werewolf, admittedly, but he’d take that.
Looks more like a paid hit than anything else. But if they ain’t after the little rich girl, which it’s looking a whole lot like they’re not, then who’s the sodding target?
He shifted position slightly, sliding his straight razor out of his pocket and palming it against the breast of his coat as he did so – no need to let the enemy know he was awake unless he really had to, but he wasn’t about to get caught in the middle of a fight without at least one blade in hand.
Wasn’t likely they were after him, of course. He’d enemies enough and to spare, but hiring a street gang didn’t seem like the way any of them would’ve gone about trying to take him out: the half who didn’t want to see him on the gallows wouldn’t pay someone else when they could have the satisfaction themselves.
No, whoever’d paid this lot – and paid well, judging by the amount of blood they were willing to lose for the contract – they’d not been hired to deal with him. And, judging by the way they were reacting to the Luciel girl’s speechifying, they’d not been hired to deal with her either (or they were thick as two short planks and hadn’t managed to get a description of their target. Unlikely, but it was dark as hell and not all of ‘em were werewolves and vampires).
Which left Cervanso, Avebury, and, coming in at a fairly low-odds third, the possibility that the whole thing was a massive sodding misunderstanding.
“I don’t think I’m going to tell you that.” The Luciel girl again, after a pause long enough that it was blindingly obvious she was hiding something. “Given the fact that you haven’t told me who you are, it seems like giving you my name would just be a very bad idea all around.”
“Doesn’t matter to me. You’re not the one we’re here for.”
“And who would that be?” That from the Sinnlenst, speaking up for the first time since the start of the fight and, much to Sabbat’s delight, sounding like he’d caught himself a broken nose somewhere in proceedings. “Or do I take it that your employers gave you strict instructions not to tell?”
“Pretty sure you know.”
“Who paid you?”
“Someone who wants you dead.”
“Oh for the sake of all my favourite bloody ancestors!” Cervanso, with a snarl of exasperation that was more wolf than anything he’d heard from her before. “Either sod off or stand and fight, the lot of you!”
Fuck, but he was actually starting to like her.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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