Despite what he’d told Archer and Cervanso, Sabbat had no intention of heading back to bed. He felt like seven hells, but he’d be damned if he was going to waste the rest of the day sleeping, not with that fucking hourglass counting down the hours and the sixdamn box gnawing at whatever remained of his magic (and if Archer didn’t think he’d realised that was what was going on, he was slower than Sabbat’d given him credit for).
Problem was, he was feeling shit enough that marshalling his thoughts into any semblance of order felt about as possible as keeping up with the other two on their hunting trip would’ve been – in other words, not.
Hit of Smoke might take the edge off that.
Almost certainly wouldn’t, but it’d at least mean that his head was full of fog for a better reason. And, given what was currently happening, Archer’s worries about what the Smoke was doing to him could take a running fucking jump as far as Sabbat was concerned.
Pretty fucking sure he’d agree with me on that as well, and ain’t that a fucking sign of how bad this is?
His Smoke pouch was back in the room, which meant heading back up the stairs – easier said than done, when the climb felt like scaling a fucking mountain, but he managed it with only a couple of stops to rest along the way when his lungs felt like they were halfway to catching fire inside his chest. The pouch was still where he’d left it, tucked away under the side of the bed, and the motions for lighting up a pipe were so familiar he could do them in his sleep – which was good, given the fact that everything felt as though he was fucking sleepwalking at the moment.
It took a couple of drags on the pipe to blunt the worst of the pain, and a couple more after that before the familiar comforting warmth of the drug started to properly take hold. Would’ve been easy enough to keep going after that point – he’d spent enough bad pain days flat on his back in his room at the Daggers, watching the cracks in the ceiling blur and twist around each other like water-dragons fighting on a tapestry – but he managed to fight through the temptation and douse the pipe, stuffing it back into the pouch almost before it’d cooled in an effort to keep his hands from reaching for it again while he was thinking through his next steps.
Ain’t going to manage anything outside, not in this weather and with my lungs halfway to fucked. Plenty to do in the Hall, though, even with that bastard Sinnlenst sneaking around the place.
He could always try and get into the library, find some of those books Archer was after. Would mean having to parse Archer’s research notes, though, and like fuck he was going to be able to do that in his current state.
Especially since half of what he’s writing is in shorthand anyhow, and the half that’s not reads more like lecture notes than anything actually useful.
He’d almost suspect that Archer was trying to deliberately obfuscate what he was up to, if that idea didn’t make less than no sense. Whatever the vampire was doing, though, point was that there was no sense risking getting caught sneaking into the library if he didn’t have a workable plan for what he was going to do when he got there.
Library isn’t the only place to find information, though.
He’d not raised the possibility of his other plan with Archer, mostly because he had a fair guess that he’d not approve (wouldn’t stop Sabbat following through on it, of course, but he was too fucking tired for a fight right now, and not in the mood for certain people deciding to come over all fucking overprotective for want of anything else to do). But, if it got them the information they needed, there was a decently good chance that the vampire would be too distracted by that to worry about how Sabbat’d managed to get hold of it.
Have to time it right. Last thing we need is the bastard realising he’s left something behind and doubling back for it.
The apprentices were supposed to be spending the day down in the workroom in the cellars – at least, as far as Verist’d told Archer and Archer’d told Sabbat – which meant that the coast should be clear. And, even with the Smoke dulling his senses and the pain from the box still leaking in around the edges, he was still more than enough of a thief to manage a simple in-and-out job on a single room.
And then we get to find out exactly what a Sinnlenst apprentice reckons is worth lugging all the way out to the middle of the forest.
Knowing their luck at the moment, it’d not be anything worth actually stealing, let alone anything they could use to fix this fucking mess. But if he didn’t make the attempt, he’d never know, and if by some chance there was something the bastard was hiding that would untangle the whole knot and he died before they found that out, then-
Then I’ll drag myself back from the other side out of pure fucking spite just to make certain Archer takes him down.
His fingers itched for the pipe and the comforting fog of the Smoke – he clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms in an effort to force back the craving. Time enough for that when he’d found out what Avebury was hiding, if he still felt as though he needed it.
Fairly certain Archer’d have something to say about that. But, then again, ain’t we just agreed that it doesn’t count when you’re dying?
If he was dying, though, he’d be damned if he was going to die lying down. With a surge of restless energy, he pulled himself up off the bed and limped out of the room, following the dark corridor through the centre of the Hall until he came to the green baize door which marked the dividing line between the servants’ quarters and the rest of the house.
Everything past that door was enemy territory, as surely as if it’d been the Sinnlenst safehouse he’d infiltrated barely three days ago (and gods, had it been only that long? Felt like a fucking month, at least). Aye, Verist knew they were here, and they weren’t trespassing as far as he was concerned, but if Avebury caught either of them or Cervanso sneaking around where he wasn’t expecting them to be then the Archmage could kiss goodbye to his neutrality as far as the Sinnlenst were concerned.
And that’s the least of the fucking problems that’d cause. Would be a fuck of a lot easier if we could just kill him and have done with it, but he’s too fucking clever for that. Or, at least, too much of a proficient fucking blackmailer.
And that right there was the fucking problem. Kill Avebury, and Cervanso and Fest both went down with him – socially, if nothing else, and they were both in positions where that’d be more harm to them than an actual wound, especially with Cervanso being a sodding servant (‘course, there were half a dozen things she could be doing with those skills of hers that weren’t dancing attendance on toffs, even ones who were in the Order, but he wasn’t going to get into that with her right now).
He pressed his hand against the baize-covered wood of the door, deliberately slowing his breathing enough that he could focus his attention on the sounds in the corridor beyond. It seemed quiet enough – the usual creaks and groans of a house this age and size, and the muffled noise of people moving about on the floors below, but nothing which sounded like movement in the passageway itself.
Longer we stand here waiting, the more likelihood something’s going to go wrong. Go through and have done with it.
Archer was going to be furious when he found out. But, then again, he was already furious about a fuck of a lot of things, so what was one more added to the pile?
And besides, I’d rather have him angry with me than treating me like I’m made of fucking glass. Ain’t dead yet.
Ain’t about to go quietly, either.
Several floors below, Fest was also deliberately focusing on slowing his breathing and heartrate – though, in his case, it was because if he didn’t he was very likely to try and put Avebury through the nearest wall.
It wasn’t that the Sinnlenst had done anything specific. If anything, that might have been easier to deal with. No, instead it was just the sheer volume of smugness and self-centred superiority that the other boy was managing to generate that had managed to get Fest’s hackles practically up around his ears (and he’d clearly been spending too much time around Viola, if that was the synonym that sprung immediately to mind).
The Archmage seemed to be feeling it too, at least, which was something: he’d not been anything other than polite to both of them, but there was definitely a somewhat sarcastic edge creeping into some of his answers to Avebury’s questions, and Fest was fairly sure that, once or twice, he’d had to stop himself saying something considerably less reasonable than what he’d eventually come out with.
Now if only Avebury would actually overstep and say something the Archmage could reasonably shout at him for, that might actually get us somewhere.
The odds of that happening were depressingly slim, unfortunately. The Sinnlenst knew exactly what he was doing, and it apparently didn’t include deliberately provoking their master. Deliberately provoking Fest, on the other hand…
“Were you daydreaming again when the Archmage was showing us how this spell’s meant to be put together, or do you honestly not understand the assignment? That’s twice as many feverfew leaves as you need.”
Fest gritted his teeth, leaning in and hunching his shoulders in an attempt to shield his workspace from the other apprentice’s supercilious gaze. “No, it’s not. Go look at your notes again.”
“You might want to take your own advice,” Avebury said, in a tone which, if Fest didn’t know better, might almost have been mistaken for friendly. “You’ve muddled the feverfew and the nightshade – check your own notes, if you don’t believe mine.”
Which was all very well for him to say, except that the part of Fest’s notes which specifically dealt with the quantities of herbs needed for the ritual preparation was on the previous page of his notebook, and the two of them had been warned several times about washing their hands before they touched anything else once they’d started handling the nightshade.
Though in my case, death by poisoning wouldn’t be permanent. On the other hand, it’d give Avebury a whole lot more ammunition for his argument that I’m a terrible research magician… not to mention giving him all the time he needs to get into my room and go through my things while I’m out cold.
He’d locked his door before he came downstairs – call it paranoia, or call it a healthy response to sharing a house with someone who’d already stolen something from him – but Avebury seemed like the sort who’d be able to find a way past that, especially if everyone else in the place was otherwise occupied (say, by the fact that the other apprentice they were responsible for had just temporarily died).
“Did you forget to write it down? I’ll lend you mine, if you like.”
I’d rather die. But he was going to need to double-check anyway, and it was that or go wash his hands and draw attention to the fact that he was having to redo something.
And I’m overthinking this again. The Archmage isn’t going to judge me for taking five minutes to clean up and check my work.
Avebury would. But then again, Avebury was judging him already, and there wasn’t much he could do to lower the Sinnlenst’s opinion of him, given it appeared to already be through the floor.
Other than admitting to being a member of the Order. That would probably do it.
And if it’d got to that point, he’d be dead anyway. Likely permanently.
“Thank you for the offer,” he said, with as much cold dignity as he could muster. “But I think I need to take a break anyway. With your permission, sir,” he added, looking towards the corner of the workroom where Verist was busy preparing a significantly more complex spell.
“Granted,” the Archmage said, without looking up. “As long as the both of you have your herbs and metals prepared by supper, you’re welcome to take as many breaks as you need.”
“Thank you, sir.”
It took a conscious effort to stand up and walk away from his desk, especially with Avebury still in the room. But the Sinnlenst wouldn’t do anything with the Archmage watching (though, a treacherous part of his mind pointed out, Verist did seem very engrossed in his own research, and it was entirely possible that he’d not notice if Avebury did something subtle) and, besides, he couldn’t touch any of his possessions until he’d made sure his hands were clean of any possible nightshade residue.
It didn’t stop the back of his neck prickling the whole time he was at the sink, though.
The locks on the bedroom doors in the Hall were old, but well-maintained, which was the perfect combination for a housebreaker: no chance of the thing being too full of rust to open, and none of the innovations which’d been added by clever locksmiths over the last few decades specifically to foil the usual run of thieves.
And yet, somehow, in spite of the fact that this was a gig Sabbat should’ve been able to mill in his fucking sleep, he’d spent what felt like half an hour already kneeling on the floorboards outside the Sinnlenst apprentice’s door (and trying to ignore the growing pain in his legs and spine from holding that position) trying to make the sixdamn fucking gods-damned pick catch for more than half a fucking second.
Been on the dub lay since I could hold a set of kifers, and knocked under by a door that’s barely standing screw? Fuck this. Fuck all of this.
He dragged his thoughts back out of cant with an effort – if he needed to play the servant suddenly, coming out with even a couple of words of that’d be as good as out-and-out admitting he was a thief to anyone with half a brain – and closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating on feeling the tension of the lock through his fingertips. He’d not be able to see anyone sneaking up behind him, but then again, he’d hardly have been able to see them with his eyes open if he was looking at the fucking lock, and his trip down the corridor to get here had taught him enough of the Hall’s particular creaks and groans that, even as off his game as he was right now, he’d be able to hear if anyone else was heading his way.
Working by touch and by sound helped, after a fashion. Kept his attention focused in on what was important – the click and scrape of the pick, the minute shifts of pressure translated through the body of the wrench – and, more to the point, stopped him noticing the pale skin under his fingernails or the smears of dried blood at the edges of his shirt cuffs.
Hells, almost made him forget about the fact he was dying.
Ain’t dead yet. And Archer’s got a plan.
Fucking terrible plan, of course, and he’d told him as much, but what other choice did they have? Other than what he’d not ask Archer for. Not now, at any rate.
See how this goes, first. If it doesn’t work, then-
Then he might as well slit his throat himself and deny whoever was behind this the satisfaction. Better that than the look in Archer’s eye when he’d even so much as hinted at the other possibility.
Besides, who’s to say I’d not end up like Caine? Better dead than… that.
And better neither, if he had any fucking say in the matter. Just needed Archer’s plan to work.
Or, failing that, for either of them – or Cervanso, or the bloody soldier-boy – to come up with anything better.
Library. Tonight. Should be something we can fucking use.
And if there wasn’t… well, there were plenty of other opportunities to find an angle on the situation. Starting with Avebury’s room.
Just need to-
The final tumbler clicked into place, and, with the pressure on the wrench now all in one direction and with nothing holding it back, it twisted smooth as if it’d been the proper key to begin with, sending the latch sliding smoothly back into its housing with a quiet clunk of metal on metal. No other sound in the passageway, which meant nobody else on this floor – or, at least, nobody close enough to be a problem – which meant it was the work of all of a couple of seconds to stand up, push the door just open enough, and slip inside.
Even after seeing what Mortimer’s people considered standard, Viola had to admit that the presence of an honest-to-the-ancestors bathhouse – complete with piping hot water which didn’t smell overwhelmingly of sulphur – was more than she’d been bargaining for.
And here I thought the Luciels were rich! Apparently the Verists could give them a run for their money.
According to Archer, the whole thing was built on top of some sort of pre-Fall artifice rather than a naturally occurring hot spring (which explained the lack of smell) and, if there hadn’t been so many bloody things vying for her attention, she’d have quite happily spent the entire morning there, letting the hot water ease away the aches and pains of the last few days and draw the stress-tension out of her spine and shoulders.
But lazing around in a bathhouse, even an artifice-enhanced one, wasn’t going to do a damn thing to solve any of the problems they were facing – and, for all she was trying to distract Archer, getting into a row about vampire and werewolf cultural differences when it came to acceptable nudity wasn’t exactly the kind of distraction she was looking for.
“You realise I’m going to need to strip off to transform, don’t you?”
The vampire in question, who’d been leaning against the wall and looking halfway to falling asleep, jolted upright with a look which seemed half a blink away from panic. “Ah. Yes. I should- I’ll- That is-“
“You’ll leave me to it?” she suggested, and had to bite back a grin at the sudden look of relief on his face. “I’ll see you outside when I’m done.”
“You’re welcome.” Time enough to rib him for that later, when he wasn’t so on-edge that she could smell it from six feet away. “Be out in a second.”
Between breakfast this morning and supper the night before, she’d eaten enough to refill her reserves, which meant that the transformation was a good deal easier than it might otherwise have been – once she’d stripped down (and taken a moment to luxuriate in the feeling of the warm air on her bare skin), the shift came almost without her having to call it, and it was barely half a minute later that she padded four-footed out of the bathhouse… and came face to face with a one-eyed black wolf who looked, if possible, even more anxious than he had done in his two-legged form.
<<Still feel like hunting?>> she asked.
<<Gods yes. Give me something to focus on that’s not…. all of this.>>
He’d likely not meant to be quite as obvious about his desire to be off and doing, but even the not-quite-real wolfshape that vampires wore conveyed significantly more emotion than their twolegged forms tended to be capable of (or, more accurately, inclined towards – nothing said vampires couldn’t be emotional, after all, other than a lifetime of cultural pressure and an apparent desire to play the detached and rational card in every social interaction going).
Goes both ways, remember? He might not be a werewolf, but he clearly had enough experience being fourlegged that he’d picked up on herthoughts almost as easily as she’d picked up on his. <<You stink of stress,>> she said, before she could stop herself. <<Stress, and sickness. Are you going to be alright?>>
The fur along his shoulders bristled, a reaction that she was fairly certain he’d either not noticed or was actively trying to suppress. <<Don’t.>>
<<Don’t press me, Cervanso. Not right now.>>
<<Sorry.>> She crouched down, lowering her tail and tilting her head to expose her throat – not much, just enough to make it clear that she understood she’d crossed a line. <<Just… wanted to make sure you weren’t about to go to pieces on me.>>
He shook himself, hackles slowly lowering, and, after a brief pause, nosed companionably at her muzzle. <<No need to apologise. I’m fine.>>
Liar. But if he wasn’t willing to admit otherwise, she wasn’t going to keep pushing. Just as long as he doesn’t fall apart completely if Caine shows up.
One of us needs to be able to keep their head if that happens, after all.
<<Shall we?>> He nodded his head sideways towards the forest, a very twoleg gesture which looked almost hilariously odd coming from a wolf. <<We’re not likely to catch much prey standing around out here.>>
It was a very transparent attempt to get out of the conversation, but she couldn’t exactly fault him on it, especially since she’d have done much the same in his pawprints. And besides, with the snow swirling in the air and the scent of the pines in her nose and the wind ruffling the fur along her spine, the idea of spending the morning running four-footed through the forest in pursuit of a quarry she could actually catchwas more cheering than it had any right to be.
<<Let’s hunt,>> she said, and added, because she’d be damned if she’d let him have the last word, <<And don’t think I’ve forgotten you wanted to make a race of this.>>
<<Wouldn’t dream of it,>> he replied, with an open-jawed grin that actually looked as though it might be genuine. <<On three?>>
And that’s how I know you’re still a twolegs on the inside, for all you could almost pass for one of us otherwise. She grinned back at him, lowered the front of her body into a brief play bow, and then, as he bowed in response, sprang forward and darted away over the snow, casting a brief taunting glance back over her shoulder as she went. <<Catch me if you can!>>
The first thing Sabbat noticed about Avebury’s room was that it was a fucking mess.
Not as bad as some he’d seen – hells, not as bad as his own, half the time – but, given everything else he knew about the Sinnlenst brat, the fact that he apparently used his floor and most of the flat surfaces in the room for clothes storage and kept half his books in an untidy pile next to the head of his bed was a stark reminder that judging by appearances was a good way to wind up making the kind of assumptions about your enemy that you didn’t survive to learn from.
And, on the topic of the books, that was something else he’d not expected. He’d been assuming there’d be academic texts and journals – maybe even a diary, if he was bloody lucky – but instead, fully two thirds of the books he could see from where he was standing were thin, soft-covered pamphlets with illustrated covers which, unless the university’s teaching had got a fuck of a lot more interesting since he’d last been lurking at the back of a lecture hall, had entirely fuck-all to do with magical theory.
Wouldn’t have figured him for a penny-dreadful reader. Suppose he has to get ideas for those sixdamn gloating monologues from somewhere, though.
Admittedly, he’d had to deal with less of that than Cervanso had – mostly on account of being barely conscious when the bastard’d shown up back in that alleyway – but what he’d overheard both then and at the meeting hadn’t made him like Avebury any more than he did already (and, given he was fairly fucking certain the Sinnlenst was at least partially responsible for the fucking box and everything that’d come from that, ‘like’ was a fucking strong word for how he felt about his continued existence).
Wait until we’ve got Cervanso and Archer’s brat untangled from whatever scheme Avebury’s pulling. Then we’ll see how smug he’s able to be with a knife in his fucking windpipe.
Better to go for the carotid artery if he wanted to kill the bastard quickly, of course, but he wasn’t above dragging things out for his own satisfaction – and it was going to be fucking satisfying, when the Order finally gave him the go-ahead to take that fucking contract.
Assuming I’m still alive to see it through, of course. Ain’t exactly easy to fulfil a contract if you’ve gone the other side of the fucking sky.
Wasn’t going to happen. Archer had a plan, didn’t he? And even if that went to shit, there’d be another plan, and if that didn’t work, then- fuck, they’d figure something out. Always had done before, hadn’t they, and even if that was more than half because the Lady seemed more inclined to smile on him than not, didn’t mean they couldn’t manage it again.
And getting distracted ain’t going to fucking help with any of that. Get what we need and get out.
Easier said than done, given the mess. And most of the books which weren’t penny-dreadfuls were standard theory texts – nothing useful there that Archer wouldn’t have already thought of.
Has to be something.
Looked like a journal of some sort, wedged between a discarded boot and a rolled-up pair of socks at the foot of the bed. He worked it loose, flipped open the cover- and swore, quietly and violently.
‘If this book should chance to roam, box its ears and send it home
Jonathan Amaranth Fest.’
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is raw Camp NaNo content, so I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2023 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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