Chapter 1: Prologue
In a place that has not yet finished becoming real, a boy waits. He sits with his back against a wall that can’t decide between stone or sheetrock, his legs stretched out over ground that is not wood or carpet or sweet spring grass, sprawled as artlessly as a fallen doll.
His hair is too long; it falls in his eyes. Weary bloodshot eyes, they stare dead ahead, not tracking the shifting architecture of the not-yet-real place as it veers wildly between daybreak and dusk. The colour of his irises shifts from the deep green of pine needles to sea glass in a rockpool with every change of the light. The fresh blood smeared across his cheeks goes from dull black to a red so bright it hardly seems real.
His hands busy themselves a little ways over his chest, rolling a tatty smoke with the last scrapings of tobacco from the bottom of the tin. He lights it with a murmured word and lifts it to his lips with mechanical precision.
There is more blood on his ratty old t-shirt, the worn jeans. His boots have dust glued to the soles after he walked through the sticky puddles. It is beneath his nails, splashed in the thick dark curls falling across his face. It is not his blood. The wounds he bears beneath the sleeves of his ragged jacket have not yet had the courtesy to bleed properly. In this place, it is unlikely that they never will.
But that is beside the point.
There is a boy, drenched in blood that his not his own, with eyes that change in the light, and hair in desperate need of a trim, waiting, smoking his last cigarette, in the Place-That-Is-Not-Yet-A-Place, there at the end of the world.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
In which the car is quite possibly possessed, our gallant heroine is a willing victim to her deeply ingrained class prejudices and the bed is a trap.
The car packed it in on the outskirts of some little town deep in the hinterlands. I supposed that was fair. I’d never expected it to last as long as it had -- I’d bought it off another drifter for half a bottle of gooseberry wine, a battered copy of Practical Charms I’d had memorized by age six and twenty minutes work darning her holey socks in entirely the wrong color wool. Every door was painted in a different shade from the main body and the engine had clunked unsettlingly the first time I turned the key -- and every other time thereafter. It drank oil like water and struggled up the slightest incline. And then there was the fact that somebody had obviously once died a very messy death in the back seat.
Still, I patted the steering wheel with something approaching affection before unbuckling my seat belt. 'Nice job,' I complimented it.
In reply, the engine made an even more unnerving noise than usual and a cloud of dark smoke erupted from beneath the hood. That did not look promising.
‘Urk,’ I said. ‘Good talk, car. I’ll be seeing you.’ And then I grabbed my pack from the backseat and bailed before the car could self-immolate and take me with it to whatever afterlife demon-cars customarily went to. That really wasn’t how I planned on ending my career, after all.
I ran some distance from the smoking car, dragging my pack, and was well past the non-existent blast radius when it finally went up. It was a little anticlimactic, really. A steady diet of cheesy action flicks back in the children’s home had given me certain impossible standards when it came to explosions. The car just gave out a few rather pathetic tongues of flame and made some loud popping noises. I guess there hadn’t been enough petrol in the tank to provide me with the sort of pyrotechnics my inner firebug craved. Such a shame.
I watched the flames for a little while, before a distant howl reminded me that I was standing on a deserted road at night, with dark woods stretching out to one side of me, a clearly unclimbable cliff wall on the other and a big glowing beacon right in front of me, alerting anything that might be lurking in said woods to my exact location. And I was really shitty at offensive magic. Not my smartest move, that.
I slung my pack onto my back, staggering a little under the weight and set off at a pretty decent clip towards the distant township. I’d never been in this part of the world before. I had no idea the name of the town I approached, or even the district I’d been passing through. Not that it really mattered, anyway. It was doubtful that I’d be staying long.
The howling seemed to be getting closer. That was… worrying. As I strode, I started to roll up the tatty sleeves of my fourth-hand plaid shirt. The thick inked designs tattooed on my forearms were glowing slightly around the edges. Oh dear.
I drew in a breath and focussed my power, tapping two fingers against a complex sigil cut into the soft inner skin of my left elbow. The ridged flesh prickled sharply, a sharp reminder of the price I’d paid in blood and pain to craft that particular bit of protection. I sent a jolt of power through the old wound, waking the complex harmonies sleeping within the pattern to coil tightly around my body, singing in a multi-voiced choral in my inner ears.
I said I was bad at offensive magics. When it comes to castling, however… I was set for just about anything short of a tactical nuclear strike.
I hiked my bag a little higher on my shoulders and carried on. The town was getting closer; I could pick out the lights in individual windows now. After a little while, the howling died down. That could mean one of two things. Either whatever vocal terror was out there had lost interest, or now it was hunting and didn’t want to frighten off its prey. Which may or may not be me. Irrelevant, really. My personal wards were finely crafted things of beauty, and I would not be dropping them until I was safely behind a securely locked door. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I was not, in fact, a complete moron.
After an almost interminable period of walking, I came to the first house. Built of what seemed to be dull, honey coloured stone in the faint light of the streetlamps, it rose two stories before coming to a sharply peaked roof. Quite charming. Pretty much the classic fairytale cottage, really. I wondered what country I was in. I’d lost track of borders a number of months back down the road.
The other houses I passed followed the same general theme. Honey coloured stone walls, dark high peaked roof, gables. The whole nine yards. Hell, the road under my feet was cobbled , for Cerridwen’s sake. I tentatively placed my location as being somewhere in Eastern Europe. Last I checked I was in France. Interesting.
The houses were all jumbled together, higgledy-piggledy and the streets were narrow and twisting. At one point, as I walked between two buildings, I reached out my arms and brushed fingertips against the rough brickwork on either side, feeling the aching tingle of house-wards just below the surface of the stone.
I followed the winding roads until I came to the central square. A huge old tree stood in the exact center of the paved plaza. The leafless branches stretched up to cut at the stars in the sky. It fairly bled with ancient power. In the whorls and ridges of its bark, I could see a glimpse of eternity. And I hadn’t even known it was there until I came upon it.
I may not be some combat mage, wild and terrible with fire dripping from my fingertips but I’m not some chill-charmer scraping a living riding with shipments of fish on the trains either. I am a witch of some power and there is no way I shouldn’t have sensed that terrible tree from miles away. For the first time in a long while, I felt a prickle of real fear.
I don’t know how long I stood staring at that dead tree, unable to move away. I do know what roused me from the trance: an immediately irritating voice declaring in haughty tones from a few feet away, ‘You are very late, madam.’
I turned quickly. Just out of arm’s reach stood a tall blonde woman whose clothes and manner instantly raised my presumably working class hackles in every way possible. She was fair skinned and blue-eyed, maybe a decade younger than me, which put her somewhere in her early twenties. Very pretty in an icy, aristocratic sort of way; though her fine-boned face was marred by a rather snotty frown. She wore a severe, dark pants suit in what seemed to be fine wool or cashmere, very well cut; softened marginally by the lavender silk shirt she wore beneath it. Even in the evening chill, she wore black open-toed stilettos. So practical on cobblestones.
She was doing everything but tapping her toe impatiently, clearly expecting an explanation. Having never seen her before in my life, and quite rightfully confused, as I could hardly be late for an appointment I’d never made, I said something inarticulate about my car dying.
She sniffed. ‘Well, then, you should have sent word. The princeps was waiting on you this evening, and it is never a good idea to keep him waiting.’
I raised an eyebrow, my natural equilibrium reasserting itself slowly. ‘With respect, Madam, there really aren’t that many messengers for hire roaming the backways of this charming… place. And the cellphone service is simply atrocious .’
It really must be said here that I had no idea as to the quality of cellphone coverage in the area as, A) I’ve never owned a cellphone in my life, and B) I still had not the slightest clue as to where I actually was. Still, she was annoying me.
Her scowl kicked up a notch before smoothing out into a mask of icy composure. Despite myself, I was rather impressed by her poker face. Not bad.
‘It’s of no matter. If you will come with me?’
Hmm, following a strange woman through the streets of an unknown town to who knows where… Sounds like a smashing idea! I trailed after her anyway. Between my ugly but practical combat boots and her skyscraper heels, I knew who would be winning the footrace if it turned out I needed to bail. Besides, I was curious.
She led me back into the maze of buildings, ending up in a pretty little neighbourhood. The narrow cobbled street was lined with the by now ubiquitous multistoried honey-bricked houses, though they did not lean so close together as the ones before. Each house had a tiny yard in front and a low stone wall sectioned each property off from the next. The street lights were a little brighter in this part of town and I could pick out a few more details in the gloom: charming flower bushes and potted plants, a horseshoe nailed over the doorway of one house, lace curtains in the window of another.
The cottage at the end of the row which the woman led me to was a little smaller than the one preceding it, two stories rather than three. But there seemed to be a small solarium attached to the southern wall, which was rather interesting. She unlatched the iron gate and gestured me through. I smiled pleasantly, having no intention of passing so close to her when I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to fend off an unexpected blow. I could practically hear her grinding her teeth. It was terribly satisfying.
She stalked down the path to the front door, her back ramrod stiff with offense. As we neared the door, she said icily, ‘You are here as a guest, madam. You may put your mind at ease; I am not planning to attack you.’
Oh, Old World greeting customs, was it? She looked a little young for that, but then this was the back of the beyond, and I’ve found that such places hold on to tradition a great deal longer than the cities. Also, there was apparently a princeps involved in this little farce. Nobility always changed things. But still, she had been quite rude.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘I haven’t felt especially welcome, thus far,’ I pointed out pleasantly. ‘While I understand that my unavoidable detainment must have been somewhat inconvenient for you -- let alone how much so it was for me -- the fact remains that any kind of welcome would traditionally include an exchange of names, at the very least. It’s the little things that foster trust, you understand.’
She swung around on the doorstep and stared at me, her icy eyes filled with a kind of offended shock. ‘You must think me very stupid,’ she said with cold dignity, ‘that I would give my name freely to a witch.’
Alarm bells rang, even as I snorted rudely. Was this going to be one of those towns? I had no desire to wind up tied to a post and set alight in the fine traditions of backwater villages everywhere. Still, she hadn’t actually attacked me yet. Perhaps sense would prevail.
‘Wrong kind of magic user,’ I reassured her, in only slightly condescending tones. ‘To use your name against you, I would need to be an enchantress - which I am not. And besides, everyday names are pretty much useless for that kind of magic anyway. They’re used too often to have any real power behind them. Even a talented enchantress would only just be able to make you scratch your nose using that .’ She thawed a little, but still looked a bit doubtful, so I rolled my eyes and added, ‘By my own inner name and power, I do so swear.’
A breeze lifted the leaves of the young birch tree in the little front yard as my oath was witnessed. The icy lady relaxed, finally.
‘My apologies,’ she said a little stiffly. ‘Where I was brought up, there had been… incidents. It has made me perhaps a little overcautious. My name is Katherine Ashbridge. How do you do?’
‘Oh, you’re actually British,’ I blurted despite myself. I’d been wondering. Her accent was pure Oxford, but that meant next to nothing, considering how many minor aristos sent their kids to be schooled in England. ‘Nesta Merrick, at your service.’ I gave a somewhat sarcastic little bow, and more than a little surprised when she returned it much more formally.
‘Yours and your family’s,’ she returned and turned to unlock the front door while I wrestled my jaw closed.
What in the hells was going on here? That this was a serious case of mistaken identity went without question. I’d only really been going along with it out of curiosity and maybe just a little bit of spite -- Katie-dear had been rather rude -- but I was beginning to think that I might have miscalculated just a little. I was most emphatically not the kind of person one bowed to.
Still, I followed Katie-dear into the house, absently kicking dirt off my boots on the top step before I went in. I wasn’t a complete barbarian, after all.
There was a little entrance hall, with plain white walls soaring to a high ceiling. The floor was made of some kind of rich honey coloured boards, polished to a high gloss. Katie-dear ignored the staircase ahead and went left into what seemed to be the front sitting room. A few squashy armchairs faced an open hearth. My weary bones demanded that I collapse into one of those chairs and sleep for a few thousand years. I ignored them, as was my custom. I would sleep when I was either dead or actually safe, dead being the more likely.
‘Dining room is that way,’ Katie-dear gestured, ‘and kitchen beyond that, around the back of the house. There’s a doorway out to the back garden in the kitchen, and the path there leads around to the solarium. There is a small bathroom off the entry hall -- the doorway we didn’t go through -- and a larger one upstairs, attached to the master bedroom. The smaller bedroom has been turned into a workroom for you, stocked with such items as Master Kainen said you would require. The kitchen and bathrooms were also fully stocked this morning. Any clothing that you require will be provided for you.’ This last was said with a slight sneer that I certainly didn’t appreciate.
‘Lovely, thank you,’ I said dryly. ‘Was that all?’
Again with the teeth grinding. She was going to wear the poor things away at this rate. ‘The princeps will expect you to wait upon him up at the castle at eight in the evening tomorrow. I will send someone to collect you at seven.’ Katie-dear paused and ran her eyes over me, from the toes of my dusty old combat boots to the crown of my five days unbrushed head. She valiantly fought down a wince. ‘I’ll send someone over with clothes for you tomorrow,’ she offered ever-so-generously.
The urge to apply one of my woefully unfashionable boots to her well-clad derrière was rising with every passing second. I made the snap decision that it would be better to swallow my outrage and get the silly girl out of the house before I had to kill her. Any satisfaction gained by forcing the little brat to apologize yet again would hardly be worth the hassle.
Nodding and smiling, I all but shoved her out the front door. She left with surprising grace, calling over her shoulder, ‘Seven o’clock tomorrow, Ms. Merrick. Please be ready when the driver comes!’ as she clacked her way back down the garden path. Glaring at her retreating back from the doorway, I watched as she closed the gate and pulled a slim phone from her pocket before striding away, chattering into it in an unrecognisable language. Calling a ride, I supposed.
Well, it was none of my business, really. And there was no point getting all worked up about the jabs against my appearance. It was all moot considering I had absolutely no intention of meeting Katie-dear’s princeps , and therefore would not need to wear whatever ridiculous outfit she decided would be appropriate. Come eight tomorrow night, I would be long gone.
I closed and locked the door, before wandering around the lower floor, checking the doors and windows for locks. The house was tastefully, if rather blandly decorated, all taupe and cream. The kitchen was gorgeous, and the urge to drop everything and start baking was near irresistible. Still, I found the will and turned away, after investigating the state of the fridge and pantry. I’d be able to carry on my aimless journey well-stocked tomorrow at least.
The stairs didn’t creak even a little as I headed up to continue the tour of my extremely temporary accommodation. That was a little annoying. One good thing about old houses is that they’re usually home to a host of creaks and squeaks. Very handy when someone’s trying to creep up on you.
Upstairs there was a small landing with a door on either side. I tried the one on the right first and walked into a bedroom straight out of every fantasy I’d ever had while sleeping on the cold hard ground.
A huge four-poster bed carved of that rich honey-toned wood dominated the room. Piled with fluffy pillows in a variety of sizes and draped with a squashy duvet, the bed was high enough from the ground that a short step ladder was set into either side of it. All the bedding and the curtains surrounding it were made of fine-woven creamy linen. I think I made a few pathetic whimpering noises at the sight of it.
Forcing my eyes away from that glorious bed, I quickly took stock of the rest of the room. Carved tables to match the bed flanked it on either side, providing a resting place for a pair of gorgeous leaded glass lamps. Over by the casement windows, a large bookcase stocked with a great many interesting looking books sat alongside a plush wingback chair. A small cast iron stove would provide warmth in what were probably bitterly cold winters.
The urge to just fling myself into the bed and forget everything for a few hours was damn near irresistible. I dragged myself away, and quickly walked a lap of the downstairs instead, laying my own wards on every potential entrance to the house with a speed born of years of practise. I knew better than to sleep in an unsecured location -- should I ever forget that lesson, the messy bullet scar in my right thigh would be more than happy to remind me. Even after the attentions of a half-dozen Company healers, I still limped when it rained.
Satisfied that the house was secure to the best of my abilities -- which are quite impressive, if I do say so myself -- I returned to the bedroom. But once there, I couldn’t bring myself to crawl into the pristine sheets in my ratty clothes and weeks of ground in dirt. Time to investigate the fabled ensuite.
The bathroom floor was tiled in a soft beige which echoed the exposed ceiling beams. Again that honey-coloured wood. The walls were creamy white, as with the rest of the house. Whoever had decorated this house had really liked their warm neutrals.
More important to me was the huge clawfoot porcelain tub set opposite the door. I may or may not have let out a delighted squeak at the sight of it. I admit nothing.
I set the plug and turned the taps on to full, returning to the bedroom to poke through my abandoned pack for some marginally cleaner clothes to sleep in. None of my worn shirts or pants were really acceptable. It’d been a long time since I’d had access to a washing machine, alright? No judging.
My eyes fell on the intricately carved wardrobe next to the bathroom door. Well, it was worth a try. I wouldn’t be taking any clothes I found with me when I left, but it should be alright to borrow something to sleep in, at least in the name of not irredeemably sullying the no doubt incredibly expensive sheets.
I opened the carved doors and damn near goggled at the ridiculously fancy clothes hanging inside. I may have been broke as fuck since the day I was born, but I knew quality when I saw it. And this was all top of the line shit.
I poked through the masses of hanging dresses, checking tags now and again and shuddering a little at the thought of what all this nonsense must have cost. Vera Wang, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen. All very sparkly and quite lovely but A) not anything I would be caught dead in, and B) pretty useless as sleepwear. Or as anything else really. I had a brief vision of trying to fight off a rampaging ghoul in one of these… things, and had to choke down a hysterical giggle.
I had better luck poking around in the drawers set into the other side of the wardrobe. Ignoring the hilariously frilly underthings, I finally found a cotton nightgown in the third drawer down. I didn’t think I’d worn an actual nightie since the children’s home, but it was better than my grimy undies and tank top. Besides, the simple lines and delicate pinhole lace panels in the bodice actually appealed to a very deeply buried part of me that I spent a fair chunk of time ignoring. It’d do.
I grabbed the nightie and the least frilly pair of underwear I could find and returned to the bathroom. My lengthy perusal of the wardrobe had allowed the bath time to fill. Steam drifted lazily above the surface of the water as I shut off the taps. The water looked lovely, crystal clear and steaming. I paused with my hands on the buttons on the first of my three layered shirts. I could just imagine how that water would long just seconds after I stepped in -- murky brown and stinking. It was not a pleasant thought.
I glanced over my shoulder. There was a glass-doored shower cubicle next to the marble-topped sink. I stripped quickly, dumping my filthy clothes in a pile on the floor. Flicking the shower on to scalding hot temperatures, I undid my scruffy braid and stepped beneath the water.
The relief was immediate. Searing water pounded down on the back of my neck and a wave of relaxation swept so strongly through me that I nearly went to my knees. A quick glance down persuaded me not to crumple into a ball on the shower floor -- the water running down the drain was near black with grime. I grimaced and picked up a cloth.
The shower was fully stocked with a variety of different body washes. I picked the least offensively scented and quickly scrubbed down, before repeating the process with my hair and a blessedly floral-free shampoo. It took quite a while for the water to run clear.
After my shower I soaked until my fingers and toes were all but unrecognisable and then hauled myself out of the tub and sat on the closed toilet lid, wrapped in a towel and wrestling with the sopping mass of my horribly tangled hair.
I could see my reflection in the mirror overhanging the sink opposite. My mouth quirked sideways in wry amusement as I realized that for the first time in quite awhile my face was more a mass of freckles than of dirt.
I’m a bit of an odd looking wee thing, I know that much. Barely five foot two, wide in the shoulder and hip, and pretty short on traditional womanly charms, I have an angular face, sharp-chinned, narrow-jawed, with high cheekbones and a long sharp beak of a nose, all covered in masses of freckles. My mouth is too wide and my eyes wide-set and slightly too large. The only claim I have to good looks is my hip length mane of wavy auburn hair. That I typically keep bound back in a braid.
I’m also pretty much covered in tattoos from the waist up. Both arms are sleeved with heavy twisting black designs, sigils intended to seal and dispel hostile magick. Or at the very least confine it to the blank spots on my forearms and prevent, say, a caustic curse from eating away at my lungs. Flesh and bone are a lot easier to repair than internal organs, after all.
My back is home to a much more complicated mandala, an energy storing powerhouse etched in delicate lines, surrounded by much thicker bands of deep black. The curling black bands wrap up across my shoulders to similar bands on my biceps, which in turn lead down to the protection and containment sigils on my forearms. The entire back design extends as far down as my hips.
Along my sternum, arcing up between my non-existent breasts is another mandala. Unlike my other tattoos, this one is done in colour: deep greens and blues, edged in black. Black bands across the line of my collarbones connect this design to the others. While the tattoos on my back stores kinetic energy to power the wards on my forearms, the mandala on my chest has a very different purpose. It’s there for when things go wrong.
I finally wrestled my hair into submission, with the aid of a heavy brush I’d found in one of the drawers of the sink. Twisting it into a thick plait, I dressed in the borrowed underwear and nightgown, gathered up my clothes and went back out to the bedroom. I dragged my equally filthy spare clothes out of my tatty old pack and lugged the whole stinking lot down to the small laundry I’d found off the kitchen. Happily, the washer/dryer combo had a setting called 'Heavy Duty,' which I assumed really meant 'Dirty As Fuck,' so I set it on that and headed back upstairs.
Even clean, I felt oddly nervous about climbing up into that huge bed and going to sleep. I dithered around for a while, checking through the bookcase, rechecking the contents of my pack. Eventually, I lost patience with myself and shoved the book I’d been nervously leafing through back on its shelf and stomped up the little stairs and flopped down on the bed.
It was like being hugged by a cloud. I groaned and thrashed my way down under the fluffy coverlet, humming happily under my breath as I settled. A wave of my hand and a rather pathetic surge of kinetic magic -- the only kind of physical magic I’m capable of -- switched off the lights. I fell asleep almost immediately.
The LT was being very noisy about dying. Hip-deep in mud -- well, mostly mud -- I gritted my teeth and fought to block out the sounds of his raspy screaming.
This was a tricky one I was working on, triple layered from the feel of it, and the clatter and snarl of the enemy’s rifle fire and combat mages had been getting closer and closer over the last few hours. We needed to get out of here before the main front swept back over us.
Four years ago, I likely would have been ashamed of how I wished a twenty-two year old boy, who’d laughed, and joked, and offered me half of his last cigarette only the day before, would just hurry up and die already. But now, bitterly cold, soaked down to my bones and nearing the limits of my power, shit-scared of the approaching sounds of battle, I just wanted him to shut the fuck up and let me concentrate.
The screaming cut off abruptly, ending in a soft gurgle. I glanced over my shoulder, dried blood cracking along my back, and saw Sergeant McConnell sloshing through the mud towards me, face set and grim beneath the mud and several weeks worth of beard. He was tucking a knife back into its sheath as he came.
‘Nesta,’ he called quietly. ‘Any progress?’
‘It’s layered,’ I called back, my voice cracking horribly on the tears I knew I would never be able to shed. The Lieutenant’s name had been Andy. Before the war, he’d wanted to be a vet. The first week he’d been attached to our unit, he’d rescued an orphaned kitten and dripper fed it milk until it could drink on its own. We’d eaten it months ago, during the second break in the supply chain.
‘Fuck,’ McConnell said softly, as he reached my side. ‘Nesta, they’re getting close. We need to get out of here.’
I shuddered, fear choking out the last lingering shreds of grief. ‘I can…’ I trailed off, swallowing convulsively. ‘I can blow it,’ I whispered. I was weak with terror. I didn’t want to die.
McConnell nodded to me. He unhooked the shotgun from my back -- someone else could use it, after -- and started to back up. 'I’ll gather the men.' What was left of them.
He hesitated a few feet away. ‘Nesta…’ I glanced back at him. His eyes were level and so very tired. ‘If we can carry you out, after... we will.’
I found a smile somewhere. He was a good man, the Sergeant. We both knew that if I fucked this up, there wouldn’t be enough of me to carry out. ‘Just get clear, Sarge,’ I said with a confidence I didn’t feel. ‘This is prob’ly going to be a little dramatic.’
I drew a deep breath and turned back to the half dismantled curse. There were a few weak points in the lattice, half-assed sigils scrawled in haste. Likely the enemy’s mage were as overworked as ours were. The thought gave me little pleasure.
Sick with fear, I located a likely looking spot and gathered my failing power, ready to strike. ‘Sarge?’ I called, my voice tight.
‘Ready,’ he called back. ‘Gods go with you, Major.’ I could hear the remnants of our squad chorus along with him. I wished I could still cry. It seemed an appropriate moment for it.
I slammed into the weakened lattice and blew it wide open. The detonation was deafening as the triggered curse exploded back onto me. It blasted through my overtaxed wards in less than a second.
I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see -- were my eyes gone, broiled away in the blast? Fire ate at my shattered arms, scorching down to fragmented bone in a matter of seconds. I knew I was screaming louder than the LT ever had, but I couldn’t hear a thing past the ringing in my ears. There was something in my chest, and it was moving, biting.
Had the blast reached back to the huddled remains of my squad? Were they still ok? Had I just killed us all?
I couldn’t see.
I fell back. Bloody mud in my throat, sliding down. The biting thing went deeper.
I couldn’t see.
I couldn’t see the thing killing me.
I jackknifed off the bed, hitting the floor with a bone-juddering thump. Scrabbling frantically on hands and knees, tangled in the nightgown and rasping deep in my throat, I made it to the toilet just in time to puke up everything but my toenails.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
I knew better than to let my guard down like that! I knew the quiet moments were when it would all come creeping back. I knew!
Shuddering with dry sobs, I rested my head on the cool rim of the toilet bowl, dogtags digging painfully into my chest, mind a sickening gallery of faces I would never see in life again. Everyone I’d ever failed.
I spent the rest of the night on the floor, my arms aching with ghost pangs. I didn't take the blanket with me. Better cold on hard wooden boards than back there again.
I’d leave first thing in the morning. The ghosts seldom caught me on the road.
In which a few things become clear while the rest remains decidedly murky, Katie-dear continues to have terrible taste in footwear and Nesta really wishes people wouldn’t turn up before she’s properly caffeinated.
I gave up on trying to sleep at dawn. Gritty eyed and furious with myself, I hiked up my too-long nightie and stomped down to the laundry. I didn’t bother taking my clothes back upstairs, just stripped off the borrowed sleep clothes and dressed there in the chilly little room. The worn jeans and layers of tatty shirts felt like armour.
With the machine turned back on to deal with the sweat-soaked nightclothes -- I had no intention of taking them with me -- I stropped out to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee.
My mood was not improved by having to come to grips with a ridiculously over-complicated coffee maker before I could get some of the glorious elixir of life inside me. I sat defiantly on the kitchen counter, sipping strong black coffee, and slowly I began to feel slightly less like setting the entire world on fire.
It was right at this moment, of course, that there came a knock at the back door.
My head snapped up and I made a sound reminiscent of an angry, extremely tired woman whose morning coffee has been interrupted by some rude bastard at the break of dawn. It was not a very happy sound.
The man standing at the back door with one hand still raised to knock looked rather taken aback. He was tall and lean, with greying blonde hair and beard. The lines around his thin lips and deep-set arctic blue eyes spoke to frequent laughter, though he didn’t seem particularly mirthful just now. In fact, he looked a little frightened. My pre-coffee glare must have been pretty potent this morning.
McConnell used to hand me my coffee in dead silence in the mornings. Even Gerald, who’d never met a morning he didn’t like, had had the grace to leave me alone until the second cup. Once, in some tiny wrecked village somewhere in Latvia, Harry and Charles had traded half a pack of smokes and a handful of dirty postcards they’d carried across two continents to a group of gypsies in exchange for a semi-solid lump of shitty instant. They’d said they’d rather deal with a rampaging wendigo than me without my caffeine fix.
The LT had formally commended them for sacrifices made for the good of the unit and everyone had laughed.
My glare kicked up a few notches. I knew I’d be getting echoes like this for days. The LT and McConnell and the rest weren’t the only comrades I’d lost, but they’d been the first.
I slid down from the counter and stalked over to the glass-paned back door, mug clenched in my fist. ‘What?’ I snarled, not bothering to take down the wards, or make the slightest move to actually let the man in.
He smiled, rueful. ‘I thought you might like to know why you’re here, Major,’ he said calmly. His English was perfect, though thickly accented with something Nordic. ‘Evidently I mistimed my visit.’
I’d always wondered at the phrase “cold with rage”. With me anger was an inferno, burning everything in my path to ashes. But now? Now, I was cold.
I dropped the wards smoothly, opened the door and yanked the man with a hand fisted in his oatmeal coloured jersey. My other hand came up to his face, kinetic power gathering in my fingertips as I rested them against his eyes. One false move and he’d be missing his eyeballs. And a pretty sizable chunk of his brain.
‘Who the fuck are you, and how do you know me?’ I asked pleasantly.
To his credit, the mystery Nordic guy merely smiled under my obscuring hand. ‘Vaino Kainen, at your service, Major Merrick.’
‘I am not .’ Every word felt like a chunk of ice in my throat.
‘Ah, you would prefer Nesta, then?’ The urge to just let the stored energy in my fingers go and then run from this place was strong. I fought it. I’d grown too used to killing, before. When I’d set out on this pointless journey, I’d decided to leave that behind, along with everything else.
‘I would prefer that you tell me what the hell is going on,’ I ground out.
He sighed. ‘This really is not how I’d planned this meeting to go,’ he mourned.
‘I’m terribly sad for you. Explain.’
‘Very well. But not like this, I think.’ He gestured vaguely with one hand and…
… and then we were sitting side by side at the counter. I had a full cup of coffee before me and I was almost eerily calm.
‘I knew you were coming, Ms Merrick,’ Kainen said placidly. ‘Your magic may not be particularly flashy -- that made it quite difficult to pinpoint your location, you understand -- but I’ve a gift for finding what is needed. And you are needed.’
‘Needed by whom ?’ I asked. I could feel the outrage creeping up, past the soothing fog Kainen had wrapped around me. The bastard had rolled me, as easily as if I was some snotty brat just out of the Academy.
Kainen sipped his tea. ‘Well, specifically you are needed by the princeps and his bloodline. But in a rather more general way, the entire world needs you. Without your expertise, we’re all in serious danger of plunging head first back into the very nightmare you yourself are still fighting to escape.’
‘Very dramatic,’ I said coolly, struggling against Kainen’s fluffy cloud. ‘Drop this, please.’
He cocked his head to one side, running his eyes over me. ‘I really do need you to at least listen to this,’ he said apologetically. ‘As ingenious as your method of attack -- borrowed kinetic power from the design on your back, I presume? -- I can hardly explain what is happening, and how you are needed, if I’m continually dodging offensives.’
‘I can promise you half an hour, how’s that? I really don’t care for this.’
He smiled. ‘Truly? Most people find it rather soothing.’
‘I am not most people,’ I grit out from between clenched teeth.
‘Very well. I will hold you to your promise, Ms Merrick.’ Kainen raised a hand and the fog dropped.
My heart hammered as the adrenaline surge his magic had held off caught up with me all at once. I focussed on my breathing as waves of rage and terror battered me. With some effort, I forced the emotions down, pressing my shaking hands to the counter until they stilled.
‘If you ever do that to me again…’ I said slowly.
‘They’ll never find my body?’ It sounded like Kainen was smiling. I refused to look at him. I had promised half an hour, after all.
‘On the contrary, Mr Kainen, they’ll be finding you for years . Now, what is it you need me for ?’
He was quiet for a moment, hopefully appreciating my threat. I had been serious.
‘I need you to break a curse, Ms Merrick. That is what you do, is it not?’
I turned to glare at him. ‘It’s what I did . I’m not in the army anymore. In case you hadn’t noticed, there isn’t a war on just now.’
His face turned serious. ‘If the curse I speak of isn’t broken, and soon, there will be. And it will be a hundred times worse than the one you endured.’
I scoffed. ‘How could it possibly be worse?’ I demanded, furious. My mind was a sickening mess of weeks, and months and years spent sleeping in mud and messier things, of starving and bleeding. Of watching as everyone died around me.
‘It will be worse, Ms Merrick, because this time the vampires will be involved.’
I stared at him. ‘You… you’re joking. You’re full of it.’ His expression didn’t flicker. ‘Nine years,’ I said angrily. ‘Nine years and they didn’t lift a finger. They said that the petty conflicts of mortals were beneath them !’
Kainen winced. ‘In their defense, that was the position of the Elder Council and it didn’t actually reflect how most nests felt. And some did send aid, they just had to be quite… subtle about it all.’
‘Oh, subtle ,’ I seethed. ‘They had to be subtle . How terrible that must have been for them!’
‘The consequences otherwise would have been quite severe --’
I shoved away from the counter, staggering a few steps away before I could violate my promise. ‘You picked a really bad time for this,’ I snarled, in a voice that didn’t sound like my own.
He waited as I struggled through the rage. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him sipping calmly at his tea, which did nothing for my mood.
As I stood there, a roughly person-shaped conglomerate of rage and homicidal impulses, McConnell came to me, speaking words of semi-wisdom. ‘Don’t fucking panic yet,’ he said calmly, a smouldering dog-end hanging from the corner of his ruined mouth. Blood dripped sluggishly from the crater a piece of shrapnel had made of the left side of his face, pooling on the so-elegant hardwood floor. ‘Get all the facts, and then you can fucking panic. Hopefully in the right direction.’
I digested the words of the extremely dead man standing in my temporary kitchen, took a deep breath and swallowed my rage. It would be waiting for me later, if I needed it.
I sat down. I drained my coffee to the dregs. And then, appropriately caffeinated at last, I turned to Kainen and said, in a voice more dead than calm, ‘Lay it out for me.’
‘The head of the local nest has held his seat for nearly six hundred years. He was, if it helps, opposed to the Council’s edict. In recent days, the younger members of his line have been… showing disturbing signs of interference. Nothing overt as yet, but there have been incidents.’
‘Get to the fucking point,’ I said icily.
He sighed and put his cup down. ‘Three nights ago, a young member of the princeps line went berserk at a nightclub in Bucharest. Six people died. That has been the worst incident thus far, but there have been others.’
‘That’s not an incident,’ I shot back. ‘That is a fucking travesty. Have you reported this to the Council?’
‘Not as yet. The Council would call for a purge. Likely the entire younger generation would be slaughtered, possibly even members of other lines. The princeps wanted to avoid that, if possible. Also, while we have been able to deal with the aftermath of these tragedies privately thus far, if this continues word will surely get out. We have come some little way towards healing the wounds the war left us with, but there are still tensions. It would not take much to destroy what tentative peace there is.’
‘And you’re sure that it is a curse?’
‘Horatiu walked into that club sound of mind, well-fed and laughing. Half an hour later, he tore into a young girl as if he had starved for months. There is little else we can think of that would cause such a sudden change of character.’
I sat quietly for a few moments, thinking my way through the problem. ‘You do realise,’ I said eventually, ‘that most of my experience comes from a war-front. My methods are… unconventional, at best.’
He laughed. ‘The afflicted in this case are vampires , Ms Merrick. They will likely survive whatever you throw at them.’
‘Why me ?’ I demanded abruptly. ‘I assume you called me here somehow. You could have pulled anyone in. I can’t be the best qualified to deal with this.’
‘I wouldn’t undersell yourself, Ms Merrick. As… unorthodox as your career has been, you are perhaps the strongest cursebreaker currently operating outside of the Aetherium. And I’m sure you understand that the academics there are unlikely to offer their expertise.’
Well, fuck. I’d run out of excuses. I’d at least have to go take a look now, and see if there was anything I could do. While the thought of the fate of, well, everyone hanging over my head made me want to run screaming from the room, and not stop until I got to the border, I knew that just walking away wouldn’t fix anything either. I had to at least make the attempt or the remains of my conscience would never let me sleep again. The ghosts would win.
Damned if you do, I thought sourly. Damned if you fucking don’t. How do I keep wandering into these messes?
Well actually… I didn’t exactly wander into this one. Kainen had dragged me kicking and screaming. I turned a stony glare towards his pleasantly smiling face. ‘I don’t like you very much,’ I informed him.
‘Yes, I had gathered that much, Ms Merrick,’ he replied cheerily. ‘Can we expect you up at the castle this evening?’
‘I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?’
‘Seriously, mate. Just… piss off, will you?’ I was exhausted. I had just gotten out of bed, for fucks sake.
‘I will see you this evening then, Ms Merrick.’ He uncoiled his lanky frame from the stool and let himself out the back door. I just sat there, completely done with everything, ever.
This, this is why I don’t talk to people. It’s just not worth the effort.
It was a couple hours later that a scrawny boy courier arrived with Katie-dear’s approved interview clothes. I peeled back the edge of the garment bag he handed me and snorted. Tailored black slacks, black blazer, snowy white Oxford shirt. Oh, she’d included underwear too. How kind.
The boy handed over a couple of boxes as well, said something unintelligible and fled. I imagine my expression spoke volumes.
I opened the smaller box first. Nestled on a bed of dark blue velvet were a pair of pretty pearl earrings and a likely rather expensive watch. My eyebrows crept a little higher. Did she think I was going to pierce my ears for the occasion?
The other box contained shoes. Specifically, black four inch stiletto pumps. With pointy toes.
I stared at the shoes. ‘Oh, I don’t fucking think so, sunshine,’ burst out of my mouth.
I lugged the whole ridiculous, preppy mess to the living room and abandoned it all on the couch. As I set it down, a note fluttered out of the garment bag. I gathered it up and swallowed a scream of abject frustration as I saw that it was a series of instructions on how to achieve a decent chignon . With pictures.
What the fuck, Katie? Did I look like the kind of woman who wore her hair in a chignon , for shit’s sake? Really ?
I stalked upstairs and dug through my pack for the remains of my cash. It was in half a dozen different currencies, but surely there’d be a bank round here where I could get it changed. I was tempted to try pawning the watch and earrings, but I resisted the urge. That likely would given an even worse first impression than whatever clothes I eventually showed up in would.
Whatever. I had a hundred kroner note (when had I been in Denmark? When ?), six Euro in various small coins, sixty-three rubles in notes and coins (which is actually worth fuck all - I would never get used to currency where a thousand whatevers would barely buy you a coffee), a five franc piece from Switzerland and one sad, lonely British pound. Would any respectable bank even bother to exchange this mess for me? And for that matter - what country was I in?!
I shrugged and shoved the whole mess in a pocket, slinging my pack over my shoulder - like hell was I leaving it in an unsecured location. I had a little under ten hours before Katie-dear’s driver would come to pick me up. Plenty of time to figure this out - and track down some newish clothes that didn’t make me want to laugh hysterically and then kill something.
I took down all the wards I’d set the night before and left, locking the door behind me. It took a half hour of aimless wandering before I found someone who could direct me to a bank - in Russian rather than English. If nothing else, the war taught me a number of languages that had served me well in my rambling journey across Europe.
The young girl who’d given me directions had also cleared up the nagging question of where exactly I fucking was. Romania, apparently. It was a little obvious when I thought about it - Romania has always equalled vampires, really. Some cliches are cliches for a reason.
At the bank, the transaction took place in English, thankfully. I don’t think my Russian would have stretched to haggling over transaction fees. The teller glared down his nose at me as he handed over a couple of notes. Turns out all my worldly funds amounted to about a hundred and ten leu. I’m pretty sure the teller had waived a fair chunk of the transaction fee just to get rid of me, which I could definitely accept. If I was figuring it right, the total was just about equivalent to twenty pounds or so. Probably enough for what I needed.
I left the bank and managed to hunt down a second hand clothes store. There’s one in pretty much every town with over a hundred residents. The older woman working there didn’t speak a word of Russian, sadly, so we got by with my rudimentary German and a lot of descriptive hand gestures.
She was incredibly helpful, once she figured out what I was looking for. I kind of got the impression that she mostly dealt with hordes of teenage girls hunting for something 'vintage', and the sheer novelty of someone wanting clothes that would stand up to heavy wear was kind of a relief. She sent me off to the changing rooms with a stack of mostly intact jeans, and when I came back she was grinning ear to ear and waving a worn brown oilskin vest which I immediately fell in love with. It was designed for hunters as near as I could tell, and it had a number of pockets. I love pockets. You can carry so many interesting little things in them, spell components and shotgun shells and the like. It fit perfectly.
Another ten minutes search turned up a plain black tank top and a blue flannel shirt in much better condition than my current one. The woman didn’t bother to ring up the purchase, just took the handful of notes I held out and handed me back what I’m sure was far too much change. When I frowned at her, she just shrugged and gestured me towards the back of the shop. Warily, I followed her through a beaded curtain and came out in a small back room with a teeny kitchenette.
She put the kettle on to boil and spooned instant coffee into a pair of mugs. I hovered in the doorway, uncertain. As helpful as she’d been, I’d known the woman for twenty minutes, for fuck’s sake, and we could barely speak to one another. I didn’t think our brief acquaintance really warranted a nice gossip over coffee.
She grinned over her shoulder at me, and moved to lift down a small wooden box from a nearby shelf. Plunking it down on the folding table, she flicked it open and nodded down at the contents. I glanced inside - black boot polish and brushes. Finally understanding, I snorted and glanced down at my boots. They were admittedly filthy.
‘Ok, point made,’ I said dryly in English.
I sat in one of the folding chairs, pack leaned against a table leg and started to unlace my boots.
‘You are English?’ the woman asked me in heavily accented but clear English. I lifted my head to stare at her.
‘No, I’m Welsh,’ I said slowly. 'You can speak English?'
She grinned, setting the coffee mugs down on the table. ‘A bit,’ she said calmly. ‘I worked in England for a while, before the war.’
‘If you can speak English, why did we spend the last half hour inventing some new kind of sign language?’ I asked plaintively, hauling off one boot. The laces were fraying horribly. Great.
‘You were doing so well,’ the woman replied. ‘I didn’t want to ruin it for you. I am Ioana.’
‘Nesta,’ I said, bending to remove the other boot. As I straightened, a packet of bootlaces landed in my lap. A pair of balled up socks bounced off my head as I jerked back, startled. ‘Oh dear gods, stop ,’ I almost wailed. ‘I’m pretty sure you undercharged me as it is! You can’t keep just handing me stuff!’
‘Watch me,’ Ioana said coolly. I glanced at her. She was older than me, maybe in her late forties, with threads of grey winding through her coarse dark hair. Her face was lined and weatherbeaten, but her grey eyes were steady as she met mine. I frowned. There was flicker of something familiar in her face...
‘You’re a witch,’ I said slowly, finally catching on.
She smiled. ‘So are you,’ she pointed out calmly. ‘The witch the princeps has brought in to fix his progeny, yes?’
‘How do you even know that?’ My heart was beginning to pound restlessly.
‘So that is a yes. You see, me? I have known the princeps all my life. I know he cares for those in his line, and I know it pains him to have to keep them caged as he has since the madness took them. He is kind to the witches in his territory, kinder than most. So when his young ones went mad, we all tried to lift the curse. We could not.
‘And then when his advisor, the Nord Kainen, said that he would be calling an outsider to fix the mad ones, I worried. I worried that he would call some stuffy mage from the Aetherium, who would see a vampire and turn up his nose. Or another prissy Englishwoman like Miss Ashbridge. A decent enough girl, you understand, but soft. All smart suits and stupid shoes.’
She laughed a little and took a sip of her coffee. ‘But you! You walk in here with boots that I wager carried you through the war. With dirt ground into your clothes and calluses on your hands. Next to nothing in your pocket and asking for clothes that will hold up for hard work. Whatever did that girl send you to wear?’
I let go of the tension that had been building. I do hate being wrongfooted. But Ioana honestly seemed like my kind of woman. I ventured a slight grin and reached for my coffee. ‘A very nice suit and pearl earrings,’ I told her. ‘And shoes I would likely break my neck in.’
Ioana barked a laugh. ‘You see? Very sweet, but not a clue of the sort of thing a working woman requires.’
Sweet? Katie-dear? Okay, if you say so, lady. I’d believe it when I saw it.
‘To be fair,’ I said dryly. ‘It was meant to be for the interview.’
Ioana shook her head. ‘No. The princeps, he was a soldier once. Still is, really. He has little time for people who present themselves as something they are not. Better to turn up looking like yourself than some other version that Katherine Ashbridge deems appropriate. He will respect you more.’
‘Sounds like the boys in my unit,’ I surprised myself by saying. The familiar ache sprung up at the thought of them all, lost so long ago. But it seemed dulled here in this little backroom, drinking cheap coffee with a woman I hardly knew, but instinctively liked. To cover my sudden confusion, I lifted one of my boots into my lap and got to work detaching the sheath holding my backup knife from inside it.
Ioana didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow as I set the sheathed blade on the counter, just handed me a cloth to wipe the worst of the dust off the worn leather.
‘Treat him as a fellow soldier and you will not go far wrong,’ she advised me, leaning down to retrieve my other boot. She utterly ignored my half-hearted protests and got to work dusting it down. I gave up and cracked open the tin of boot polish.
The smell of the polish immediately brought back sense images of the first foster home I’d ever been placed in. Old Mrs Lewis had polished her ancient button boots every Saturday night, shining them mirror bright for church in the morning. She’d taught me how to do this when I was barely big enough to hold the brush steady in my teeny hands. The memory, a pleasant one for once, brought a faint half-smile to my lips.
‘So,’ I began, dipping a little brush into the dark gunk in the tin. ‘What can you tell me about whatever the hell it is that’s going on here?’
Ioana shrugged, hooking the tin over to her with one hand and unlacing the boot in her lap with the other. ‘It started about six months ago. Just little things at first. Sofia, one of the youngest, lost her temper during an argument with one of her friends and struck her. Laid her face open to the bone. But she was but newly turned and as young as she was, nobody really expected her to have perfect control. She was given punishment work in the castle archives. She is also not one of the princeps own direct progeny either. Fourth generation, I think.
‘And then Andrei nearly drained one of the bleeders up at the castle. He was well past his transition, but still fairly young. The boy he nearly killed was saved, but everyone was shocked. It was very unlike him to lose control so.
‘Soon all the young ones had to be supervised when they fed. It was very strange, and the princeps was beginning to grow concerned. He and some of the older ones of his line smelled something strange when the younglings lost control during feedings. He sent out a request to we local witches then, asking that we might be present at a feeding to see if we could tell what was happening.’
She sighed gustily and took a gulp of coffee. ‘I went,’ she said quietly. ‘It was Gabriela whose feeding I oversaw. I had known her for many years and I count her as a friend. As I watched, she turned into somebody who I did not know at all. Some thing , really, a beast of hunger and rage. The princeps had to pry her off the bleeder who had volunteered for the experiment and give him some of his blood afterwards. I swear I saw bone in the wound, she had bitten so deep.
‘I cannot break curses. It’s not a skill I have ever had, and I have precious little talent for weaving them either. But I know magick when I see it, and Gabriela was under the hold of some powerful spell. She did not return to herself afterwards, as the others had done until then. She is imprisoned now at the castle, in hope that her condition may be reversed. Along with many of the others.’
Ioana sat quietly for a few moments, staring down at the half-cleaned boot in her lap. She blinked rapidly and then carried on. ‘That was two weeks ago. And then, last Friday, Horatiu went to that club and killed all those people. He is twenty years past his turning, Nesta, and of the princeps own direct line. There is no way he should have lost control like that. By then Kainen had already cast the working to call help to us, but we had hoped that it would arrive before the situation worsened.’ There was no condemnation in her voice, only sadness.
Still, I felt a sharp sinking feeling in my gut. ‘Ioana, I might not be able to fix this,’ I warned her quietly. ‘I worked with contact curses, traps, sometimes MEEDs during the war. Simple shit. This could be any one of a dozen things. I might not even be able to recognise it.’
‘Anything you can tell them is more than they have now. This curse, Nesta. It is affecting older and older vampires as time goes by. It is getting stronger. If it becomes so strong that it can affect the princeps or one of his lieutenants, all hell will break loose in this region. If the Elder Council finds out that some witch has been cursing vampires…’
I shuddered. ‘That would be very, very bad,’ I muttered. It was one thing being angry with the vampires for sitting out the war. Having them directly targeting witches, regardless of allegiance, would be an utter nightmare.
‘It would be a disaster,’ Ioana stated baldly. She set the now-polished boot she’d been working on on the floor and stared straight into my eyes. ‘We would be all neck deep in a war ten times worse than the one behind us. With far greater consequences. Vampires hold grudges for a very long time.’
‘Ugh,’ I said sourly. ‘But no pressure or anything, right?’
Back at the borrowed house, having promised Ioana to drop in later in the week, I ran myself a very hot bath and settled in for a good long sulk. Ever since I’d wandered into this town, events had been spiralling out of my control so quickly I hardly knew which way to turn. First Katie-dear, then Kainen with his fucked up mind magick… I’d never been rolled so quickly in my life and thinking of it as I lolled in the scalding water, I felt a very real prickle of fear.
Kainen worried me. As amiable as he’d been about my nearly killing him, I’d noticed a sort of coiled readiness in him the whole way through our little interview. He reminded me of the few Black Ops guys I’d run into during the war. My every instinct screamed that he was dangerous. I would have to step very very carefully during this job. And if I failed… I would have to run very fast and very far to escape that one, not to mention the angry vampires that would no doubt be after me too.
And just to cap off the sheer fuckery, I now carried with me the weight of Ioana’s hope. Not to mention any other witch in the area, who’d doubtless be targeted first if the Council found out about this mess.
I didn’t know if I could fix this. I’d a lot of experience with primed death curses but this sounded like something else entirely. It had been a very long time since the Academy. Would I even be able to identify whatever was affecting these --
I stopped myself suddenly, realising something. I’d just been about to think of the afflicted vampires as “kids”. Except they weren’t, were they? Likely most of them were older than I was. And also a great deal more deadly. I wasn’t entirely sure if my personal wards, mostly shaped to protect me from backlash from triggered curses, would actually hold up to an angry vampire. I might be able to bleed off and negate the force of an explosion, but a furious super-strong metahuman trying to twist my head off? That I wasn’t nearly so confident about.
I let out a frustrated whistling sigh and glared up at the ceiling, nearly invisible through veils of steam. There were no easy answers, not yet. I didn’t have nearly enough information to make any kind of plan. Maybe it would be an easy fix, maybe it wouldn’t be. I’d just have to go to this bloody interview and see what happened.
‘Finally showing some sense there, girl,’ said a dry, whispery voice next to me.
I snorted and didn’t bother to look around. ‘Showing up when I’m in the bath is just creepy, McConnell.’
He laughed wetly. I could picture clearly just what the torn mess of his face probably looked like when he did that and felt a little sick. ‘It’s not like I haven’t seen it all before,’ he pointed out. ‘I’ve stitched you up often enough that you’ve got no secrets left.’
‘Such a charmer,’ I scoffed, picking up a washcloth and slathering it with some kind of spicy scented body wash. ‘Lillian’s doing well, by the way. I called her when I was in France. The girls are growing like well-watered weeds.’
‘That’s good,’ McConnell said softly. He’d carried a picture of his wife and their two little girls all through the long years of the war. After the LT died and I’d blown that curse with disastrous results, I’d first woken up in a lumpy cot in the hospital camp and he’d been in the bed next to me, smoking quietly and staring at the tatty-edged photograph. When I saw what I’d done to my hands, he’d staggered out of bed and held me as I screamed and screamed.
I shuddered painfully, clenching my hands around the washcloth as the memory sparked off a cascade of phantom pains. McConnell blew out a plume of smoke and waited til I’d gotten a hold of myself.
‘You can’t run from this one, Nesta,’ he told me quietly. ‘The stakes are too high.’
‘I’m not even sure I’ll be able to help,’ I pointed out grumpily.
‘At least try. You’ve been drifting for too long. Time to get back to work, girl.’
I made a face. Hallucination or not, McConnell had always had the annoying habit of calling me on my bullshit. I missed him so fucking much. ‘I’m sorry I got you killed,’ I whispered, sudden tears stinging the corners of my eyes.
But he was already gone.
I dressed in the bedroom. I couldn’t stand to look at the spot on the floor next to the bath where McConnell had sat. Having dragged on my layers of well worn second hand clothes -- the vest was just as awesome as I had imagined -- I dug through my pack until I located a handful of small devices that might help identify the curse. I’d been carrying them around for years after the war, more out of habit than any real need. I squirreled them away in the pockets of the vest, tied my hair back in a half-assed ponytail and sat down to drag on my boots.
I’d just finished lacing them and adjusting the position of the holdout knife in my left boot when Katie-dear’s driver knocked on the door.
She’d sent a fucking limousine.
I stared at it, as the driver in his snappy suit and ridiculous hat stood alongside me. ‘Why?’ I lamented hopelessly. ‘Why?!’
The driver let out a startled laugh, clapping a hand over his mouth as though he hadn’t meant to let that slip out. He was a tall, lean young man, who would likely be very attractive once he’d grown into the sharp bones of his face. A few years of weathering would do him very well. Right now, he gave off a vague sense of incompletion, as though some rather talented sculptor had taken a lunch break and would be back shortly to administer the last polish. Beneath the terrible hat, longish dark hair had been slicked back and merry whisky-brown eyes gleamed with wicked humour in the fading light.
‘It is a sign of respect, Ms Merrick,’ he told me in accented English, trembling with suppressed mirth.
‘I am not fancy enough for that car,’ I told him flatly. ‘I’m riding in the front. I have the remains of my self-respect to consider.’
He bit his lip. ‘You’re really not meant to, ma’am,’ he pointed out.
‘Doing it anyway.’ He laughed and followed me to the car, pointedly opening my door for me. I rolled my eyes, but let him get away with it. I was already screwing with his usual routine, I could afford to make concessions. I did give a sarcastic little bow before I got into the car. There are limits to my magnanimity.
We chatted on the way up to the fecking castle. I was going to a castle to discuss a job. Ugh.
Anyway, the driver’s name was Sorin, and driving various dignitaries up the castle was funding his midterm break. He’d be going back to the University of Bucharest in a few weeks. He also disapproved of the silly hat, which was an opinion I could get behind. We spent the entirety of the ride discussing the upcoming defense of his dissertation. It was a marvellous distraction. I very nearly didn’t mind that we were driving through thick woodlands, and I had no idea where exactly the castle was located or how to get back. And I only had a knife.
Eventually though, the castle itself actually came into view, rising above the surrounding trees. I trailed off in the middle of a sentence and made a deeply disturbing noise. Sorin laughed at me as I gawked up at the almost comically oversized building in abject horror.
Sorin eased the car around a sharp turn in the road and a huge wall loomed suddenly along the side of the road. I craned my neck hard enough for it to cramp, catching glimpses of elegant towers rising above the towering mass of grey stone. Sorin laughed at me and I regretted every single life choice I could possibly have made that led to this moment. We followed the road as it curled around the wall and came to a gatehouse. Sorin brought the car smoothly to a halt at a painted line on the road, a couple dozen feet from the lowered portcullis.
There was a fucking portcullis. Seriously. How was this my life?
A tall, stern-faced young woman in body armour stalked towards the drivers door, a heavy assault rifle cradled in her capable hands. I might be a pretty crap shot myself, but I could recognise the look of somebody who knew their shit. I tensed up.
Sorin noticed. He was quite a clever little thing. ‘It’s ok,’ he said softly, curling his gloved hands loosely around the wheel. ‘This is routine. Just don’t leap for her throat screaming “Death to the wampyre!” and it’ll be fine.’
I swallowed, very conscious on the knife in my boot. Very conscious that it was all I had to defend myself, beyond a handful of tricks and my own native wit. All my greater wards required time to charge up and all the lesser ones would be blown to pieces in seconds by that cannon she was carrying. Basically, if this went poorly I was screwed.
Sorin rolled the window down and exchanged a few phrases in rapid-fire Romanian with the heavily-armed woman. She leaned down and peered into the car at me. I could feel cold sweat springing up along the line of my spine. Despite the sense of Sorin’s advice to sit tight and wait, a terrible compulsion was building in me lash out against the threat and run. It didn’t matter that I was here on invitation. This woman was an unknown element, holding a very large gun. I was so very not okay with this.
The woman snapped out something cranky sounding. Sorin replied in soothing tones. I could hear the smile in his voice. Was that little shit flirting ? Right now? Did he have to do that right now ?
The guardswoman stepped back with a loud scoff, half-snarling something that sounded like a threat. But I could hear the faint undertone of suppressed laughter under the growl. Interesting. My stress levels eased back a little. It was a lot harder to be irrationally terrified of someone who hid what had sounded like pleased laughter when dorky, charming Sorin, who made terrible puns about ecological processes and had repeatedly tried to 'accidentally' burn the terrible hat to death, flirted with her. I bit the inside of my cheek to hide a smile as Sorin started the car and pulled forward.
‘See?’ he said cheerfully, glancing over at me with an impossibly sweet smile. By the Cauldron, he made me feel old. ‘I told you Milena would be okay. Though you really were meant to be riding in the back, see.’
Before us, the portcullis rose slowly, soundlessly. The gears must be well maintained, I thought distantly. ‘Oh, was Milena worried that I might be up here threatening you or something?’ I asked innocently.
He laughed quietly and drove forward under the rising gate. ‘Actually, yeah,’ he admitted sheepishly. ‘She says that I am too nice for my own good. Me, I don’t think so, but what do I know, eh? She thinks I will pick up some traveller on the road and be horribly murdered.’
‘I would suggest avoiding that fate,’ I said dryly, peering around me with growing worry. We were driving though what was very clearly a killing ground between a pair of very high walls. Another gate waited at the end of the field. It was shut, which did nothing for my anxiety. ‘If nothing else,’ I continued, fighting hard to distract myself, ‘death by random hitchhiker would be horribly cliched. Hardly worth the effort.’
‘Yes, I suppose if one has to die early it should be for something appropriately heroic. Like some kind of grand sacrifice or something, so that other people can live.’
I felt cold. ‘No, those are pretty shit too,’ I said miserably. Today was not my day. Sorin glanced sideways at me and something in my face made him clam up. Probably a sensible decision.
Milena back at the first checkpoint must have called ahead, because the gate pulled up smoothly as we approached. We carried on up a series of sloping roads, each with their own anxiety-inducing gatehouse until we finally emerged onto a broad paved courtyard, the castle itself looming overhead.
Sorin set the handbrake and gestured off to a wide path leading down one side of the building. ‘The main courtyard is down that way,’ he said quietly, soothingly. Apparently my twitchiness on the ride up had not gone unnoticed. Oh, goody -- I do adore evoking pity in the general populace. Really, my most favourite thing. Yes.
But the lad was still talking, I could hate myself later. ‘I can’t take the car any further, but Miss Ashford said she’d wait for you there.’ He quirked a sudden lopsided grin, fierce and wicked and utterly infectious. ‘I don’t think she could manage the cracks in the paving to come down here and get you straight from the car. Her shoes, you understand. Very pretty but ah, perhaps not so practical .’
I laughed, entirely despite myself. That little shit. ‘I honestly have no idea how she kept from falling over in town. I mean, I saw her do it, but I’m still pretty sure it involves some kind of demon-pact.’
‘She was very determined to present the correct impression,’ Sorin told me confidingly. ‘I picked her up just around the corner from the house and she spent the entire ride back rubbing her toes and muttering. Forgot that the speaker had not been turned off.’
I outright cackled. Sorin sat there with the smuggest expression. Mission accomplished: the weird old lady was happy again. All in a day’s work for Sorin Albescu, unwitting ambassador to the princeps . I had been seriously considering begging him to drive me back, grabbing my bag and running for the hills. I’d survived one war, however narrowly. Surely I could have survived a second one?
But now, bolstered by the ridiculous image of Katie-dear suffering for fashion and the happy anticipation of just what she’d have to say about my outfit, I stepped out of the car and saw Sorin off with a cheery wave. I strode off down the pathway (something rather difficult to do balanced on a pair of knife-blades, I would imagine), my neatly polished boots scuffing easily across the cracked paving, a shit-eating grin plastered across my face.
This was going to be fun.
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
Enter the boys.
In which the perils of annoying small woodland creatures are substantial, friendship is magic and dogs are the best things ever. Also there is a necromancer.
I’d be the first to admit, my life is not particularly normal. But still, hanging upside down in a tree, being taunted by a cloud of miniscule faeries was something new. A new low. Or high rather. The ground was quite a ways away.
A tiny naked female with a blur of diaphanous green wings thrumming behind her as fast as any hummingbird poked me in the cheek with a small but terribly sharp little sword. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot here.’
She screamed at me, displaying a mouthful of small but terribly sharp little teeth. I wasn’t especially happy having dentistry that impressive so close to my eyeball. I sighed.
‘Ma’am, I truly didn’t mean to disturb your nest. I don’t want to have to compound the insult by doing anything untoward, okay. But you poke me again, and I’m going to have to set you on fire. I really don’t want to leave any of my blood here.’
The vines holding me up in the tree suddenly tightened around my chest and legs, crushing the breath out of me. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ I wheezed. ‘Can’t we discuss this?’ The vines clamped down tighter.
Well, shit. I really didn’t want to have to hurt the angry little buggers, but I was starting to get a little lightheaded from the lack of oxygen. It was now or never, I supposed. Still, there was surely a better way to handle this than fiery death. I clenched my fists and started hunting around for a corpse. Some kind of cat or possum or whatever would probably do it.
Before I could locate a suitable body, however, there came a sharp bark of laughter from beneath the tree. ‘Niko, what the hell have you gotten yourself into this time?’
Ah, yes, Alistair. I’d forgotten him for a bit there. Tall, charming, golden Alistair. My best friend since youth, battlemage extraordinaire, erstwhile travelling companion and more importantly, the man who would never, ever let me live this moment down.
‘I thought you were going to answer a call of nature, old bean,’ he called up to me. ‘That doesn’t usually end in a declaration of war from the local Fae.’ As I twisted about, trying to glare at him, I caught a brief glimpse of his wide grin and groaned. I would be hearing about this for months .
‘I may have inadvertently pissed on their nest,’ I blurted with the very last puff of breath still lurking about in my chest cavity. May as well get the humiliation over with all at once. ‘Help!’
He manfully choked down his laughter (for now), directing his attention to the sparkly horrors menacing me with their little swords. ‘Fair lady, I’d like to barter for my companion’s miserable life. Surely we can come to some kind of a deal.’
At the magic word “ deal” , the vines around me loosened somewhat and the green winged female darted away. As I hung there, gasping, I could hear Alistair murmuring below. Haggling no doubt. Fae love a bit of a dicker.
‘Alright then,’ Alistair declared after a moment. ‘A bargain, m’lady. Let him go.’
And they did. The vines slithered away in a heartbeat and I fell, head first, a good ten feet to the forest floor. It hurt quite a bit.
Alistair hauled me off the ground with brisk hands fisted in my jacket and dusted the leaves off me. ‘Nothing broken? Good. Now say goodbye to the nice lady.’ The green winged Fae screamed into my face one last time and then darted away into the hollow beneath the tree that I’d accidentally peed into.
‘Sorry,’ I called after her.
With an admirably straight face, Alistair suggested that I may want to tuck certain appendages away and zip up my jeans. And then he collapsed into hysterics.
I was still red as a slapped arse by the time we both made it back out to the road. Alistair was still laughing at me, because of course he was. Wheezing slightly, he leaned against his bike and shook with mirth.
‘Oh, come on,’ I muttered, fiddling with one of my saddlebags. ‘It wasn’t that funny.’
‘You, you pissed on a pixie nest,’ Alistair chortled. ‘I paid for your life with a handful of quartz points. Tiny swords. You fell out of a tree with your bits hanging out!’
I buried my face in my hands and groaned.
Eventually, Alistair managed to get a grip on himself and subsided to the odd smirk. He poked at the tiny wound on my cheek, pulled a couple of stray twigs out of my hair and just generally went through the usual motions of assuring himself that I was still in one piece after my latest cockup. We actually had a routine by this point. That probably said something about my life.
I perched on the seat of my bike when he was done and rolled a smoke. Alistair dug out the map. He’d been checking our route when I’d wandered off the road for my ill-fated piss break. Apparently he hadn’t finished up before deciding I’d been out of his sight for too long and had clearly found some kind of trouble to blunder into. The sad part of that was he was usually right.
‘I think I technically own you now, under Fae law,’ he mused absently as he folded the map to the correct bit. I snorted.
‘What’s the price of my freedom, O Lord and Master?’
‘Smoke would do it.’
I rolled one and chucked it at his head, vaguely offended. ‘I can’t believe you value my insignificant life so little, Esteemed One. Seriously?’
‘Smoke and you’re in charge of booking the rooms at the next hostel. You should be doing it every time, really. We’re here on your grand journey of self-discovery, you may as well learn a bit more of your native language.’
I fidgeted a little, feeling a faint pang of embarrassment. ‘You know I’m shite at languages. I am trying.’
He glanced up at me, warm brown eyes softening. ‘I know you are, mate. You’re doing fine.’
And there’s Alistair in a nutshell. Champion of the weak, confused and disaster-prone, guardian of my shitty self-esteem and all around decent bloke. It was a wonder I hadn’t hated him at first sight. Well, to be fair, I kind of had. Until he opened his big gob and started going on about the containment sigils on my arms and how cool they were. That really got my attention, considering most people cross the street when they catch sight of the bloody things.
I’d met Alistair on my first day at Eton. Yeah, Eton. I was kind of horrified too. I’d gotten in on a King’s Scholarship, and from the moment Sister Dilys dropped me off at the main office I’d been seriously reconsidering my life choices and had come to the conclusion that I was a complete idiot.
These poncy little bastards were going to eat me alive. What good was their frankly rather excellent Applied Sagecrafting program going to do me after I’d been hazed to death?
So, there I stood, completely out of place in my old jeans and t-shirt, waiting for one of these posh little bastards circling about to descend upon me and tear me a new one. And then the human equivalent of a Golden Retriever bounds up to me and starts babbling on about containment wards. The circling Hooray Henries backed off a bit when they saw one of their own apparently enjoying a good old natter about power inhibitors with the poor kid.
And that basically summed up my life at Eton. Rich kids start getting snerky and Alistair springs into action to serve as my human shield. I’m fairly sure I would have died there if it weren’t for him. Gods know some of the other King’s Scholars were treated like absolute shit.
All through my school life, Alistair was beside me, and eventually towering over me. The utter bastard cracked six foot before Forth Form. Tall, athletic, brown eyed and golden haired, with the kind of wholesome good looks that pretty much exemplify the entire Aedelburth clan, complete with the famed nose.
Yeah, my best friend is from one of the original Seven families. It’s horrifying to me too.
I, on the other hand, am from places and family unknown. It was a tad bit jarring, going from the all encompassing bosom of the orphanage - where nobody knows where they’re from and don’t care much either - to a place like Eton, where family is everything. The snooty stares I garnered whenever I admitted I didn’t have a clue who my parents were, were only really mitigated by Alistair’s unwavering support and the slack-jawed confusion every time I bested my well-bred betters on the dueling courts. That was always fun. And something else that would probably have gotten me beaten to a pulp if Alistair hadn’t made it clear that fucking with his court jester was not a good idea.
I’d like to state here that my position as court jester was entirely involuntary. I tended to wander into trouble with a regularity that was downright uncanny. Over the years I had managed, through a combination of inattention, disinterest and sheer bad luck, to accidentally join a cult to the Destroyer, get abducted by a cadre of Separatist fanatics, become a Person of Interest in several murders (which I did not actually commit) and tear a grand total of fourteen gateways to the Lower Realms. There was also that one time Alistair came back from a family holiday in Southern Italy to find me cohabiting with a naga, who apparently had originally intended to eat me, but was by then wavering between the more standard devouring and adopting me as some kind of amusing pet. That one at least was fairly easy to solve. Alistair simply explained that he had first dibs and pawned her off with a handful of shiny trinkets and a stern reminder that her Majesty’s government did not appreciate random consumption of the citizenry.
Yeah, the thing with the pixies was not the first time Alistair had had to buy me back with whatever he had in his pockets at the time.
Alistair claimed that he enjoyed such random interludes. He said that his life amongst the rarefied Seven families had been terribly boring before I wandered in, trailing various disasters in my wake. He seemed to find the sheer fuckery I found myself embroiled in from time to time rather amusing, really. It still bothered me that I was such a hassle. I really didn’t intend to be.
Alistair sighed and folded the map back up and I shook myself out of my reverie. ‘Well, we’re on the right road, at least,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Another hour or so and we should reach a town. Can’t pronounce the name, but there should be a hostel there. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to camp out in these woods.’
I made a face. ‘Yeah, no shit. Unless you wanna be eaten, of course.’
He slanted me a quick grin and tucked the map away in a saddlebag. We strapped our helmets back on and settled down on our bikes. As I pressed the starter button and felt the chunky Triumph Tiger rumble to life beneath me, I heard Alistair’s soft voice in my ear, transmitted through the helmet’s headset. ‘Well, we’ll get to the Unpronounceable Town around lunch. So you’ll be able to continue your passionate affair with the local cuisine,’ he teased.
I laughed. Alright, this trip might not have sparked the instant familiarity I’d been hoping for, but at least one thing had slotted nicely into place: I fucking loved Romanian food. It was heavy on the smoked meat and cheese and hearty vegetables, perfect comfort food. I’d had a different kind of sour soup in every town we’d crossed the border and in this one little place in Moldavia this amazing lady gave me some kind of sweet, cheesy pastry thing that I would happily murder for. Well, maim anyway.
Alistair couldn’t talk anyway: he’d been addicted to cabbage rolls since entering the country.
We pulled out of the narrow service ditch beside the road and rode off towards the west. The sun was faintly warm on the back on my neck as we travelled. It was heading into autumn, and there was a sharp nip in the air in the mornings that made me almost grateful that camping out wasn’t a possibility in the nigh endless forests we travelled through.
Alistair and I chatted idly as we rode along. For a decent stretch he helped me practise my faltering Romanian. Not for the first time, as Alistair patiently coached me through a tricky series of unfamiliar syllables, I felt myself almost overwhelmed with gratitude that this ridiculously kind man had looked at my scrawny, hostile, thirteen year old self and thought, Yep, I’ll take that one .
I wouldn’t even be here without his help. I wouldn’t even know that this was the place to look. About six months back, as we finished up the last few weeks of our degrees, Alistair had dragged me out between exams and took me to see a visiting Seer in Oxfordshire. She’d looked back along my timeline until she managed to pick out the nationality of my absent parents, and a flicker of the place where I’d been born. Romania. Transylvania, from what the Seer had pieced together of the background magic in my faint recollections of infancy.
She’d encapsulated the memories in spellwork and gently merged them with my active consciousness. I had an internal photo album of my parents now, a bit blurry because I’d been very young when I’d been left at the orphanage, but still a hell of a lot more than I’d had before.
I looked a lot like my mum, from the images I had of her narrow face, crowned with masses of unruly dark curls. Her mouth quirked at one corner like mine and our eyes were the same shape, narrow and slightly tip-tilted. Hers were a deep brown, almost black. I got my strange, changeable greenish blue eyes from my father’s side, along with the high cheekbones and the straight blade of a nose. I had only a few faint impressions of him from my early years. He must not have been around much.
After we’d been to see the Seer, I’d damn near bombed my exams, preoccupied with obsessive research into my newfound country of origin. Alistair had prodded me back towards my studies with the grim determination of a sheepdog. As he’d put it before forcibly shoving me into a shower the morning of a major Evocation practical, ‘We can figure this shit out later, you idiot. Right now you need to worry about passing. Like hell are you wasting five years of work because you couldn’t focus for a week.’ And then he jammed my head sideways under the pounding spray before I could finish spluttering that I was still fully dressed, for fuck’s sake.
Alistair gets a little tense during exam season. I blame the intravenous expresso, personally.
And then after we’d both graduated, brand new qualified mages with all our awards and all the fancy letters after our names, after we’d partied harder than either of us particularly wanted to and slept most of a week away recovering from the hangovers, Alistair had unceremoniously banged into my bedroom in our little shared flat in Oxford, flopped down next to me - taking up more than his fair share of the bed - and dropped an envelope on my face.
‘Wake up, loser,’ he declared. ‘We’re going to Romania.’
I wasn’t awake enough to deal with Alistair’s random acts of mad generosity just then, so I’d grumbled, ‘No, we fucking aren’t,’ and pulled the blankets up over my head.
It had taken fifteen minutes of prodding and a cup and a half of Alistair’s terrible coffee before I was willing to even look at the tickets to Budapest, or listen to Alistair’s rambling description of the strings he’d pulled to organise a couple of touring bikes on loan from a friend of a friend’s older brother (Alistair gets terribly claustrophobic in cars).
I’d been choking back tears by the time he got on to a slightly confusing account of the weirdness that is the Romanian tourism Visa and how I needed to sign a bunch of papers so he could drop them off to the embassy before our flight left on Friday. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I managed to force out in a wavery voice.
He’d gone terribly still, peering up at me from where he sprawled on top of the covers at my side. ‘You’re my best friend,’ he said slowly. ‘You idiot. Did you really think I wasn’t going to help you find them?’
I’d bit down on the inside of my cheek to avoid the imminent gross sobbing. ‘Shouldn’t you be looking for a job?’
He’d just rolled his eyes. ‘We just finished uni, Niko. If I go straight into work, my sister assures me, it’ll give some kind of impression that the clan’s in need of money or something. House politics, you know how stupid that shit is. Really, you’re doing me a favour. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with myself for the next six months or so. Oh, and before I forget - I was talking to old Brennigan the other day. He mentioned that he might have work for you on the next Inquiry. I forget the details, but it was something about the effects of residual Unseelie energies on the people of… somewhere. You’ll have to ask him about it.’
‘Rickarton?’ I’d asked sharply.
‘Yeah, that was it. But they’re still in grants hell, so Brennigan said it’d be early December before kick off. So we can go to Romania, have a nice old holiday and see if we can track down your family while we wait. Sound like a plan?’
I’d stared sightlessly at the far wall for what felt like forever, my fingers clenched tight around a cup of cooling coffee, Alistair’s shoulder a warm pressure against my hip. ‘I don’t know what the hell I ever did to deserve you,’ I’d said eventually, my voice a distant rasp in my ears.
Alistair scoffed. ‘Boot’s on the other leg, old bean,’ he’d said breezily, sitting up in one quick motion. ‘My family would have driven me clear round the bend years ago if it weren’t for you. You keep my life a nice level of demented, and that suits me just fine. Now get up, we need to get those papers signed or we won’t be going anywhere.’
Nearly two months later, and we’d roamed up and down the east of Romania, eating delicious food and sleeping in the ubiquitous hostels. Alistair had picked up Romanian with his usual creepy proficiency - this would be his eleventh language - and had taken to chatting about recent history with the locals while I struggled to order coffee. It didn’t bother me too much; I was well used to Alistair picking up the slack for me socially. I generally made up for it down the line.
The last couple of weeks we’d spent near vertical, crossing the Carpathians through a series of narrow passes. We were finally on our way to Transylvania, my birthplace. Alistair had restrained himself, with some effort, from making terrible Dracula jokes. I’d only had to remind him a couple of times that Vlad Tepesh was a real person, and that said real person effectively controlled the entire district we’d be living in for the next three months while we hunted for my parents. Vampires seldom have much of a sense of humour when it comes to their reputation, and I had no intention of our accidentally started a feud with one of history’s most famously touchy Darksiders.
We reached the Unpronounceable Town shortly after lunch, as Alistair had predicted. It was a charming little place, tucked into the one piece of flattish land in miles of craggy mountains. I haltingly negotiated for rooms at the local hostel, while Alistair nodded encouragingly beside me. There’s a state funded hostelry in pretty much every village in Romania, part of the Compact negotiated between the government and the Fae Courts. There’s too many old and rather creepy things living in the forests to make camping out a possibility. Better to avoid any awkward headlines regarding blood-splattered tents and missing hikers. In return for the government’s generous outlay of squillions of camping alternatives, the Courts protect the roads and provides escorts for sanctioned multiday hikes and research crews and the like. From what I’ve been able to figure out, it’s all working out quite nicely so far.
It’s been pretty handy for the rural economy as well. After the war, there was an entire generation of people who’d grown up without access to proper schooling as they ran from camp to camp, trying to stay ahead of the front. Once the treaties were signed and the world calmed down a bit, there were all these people with few skills beyond surviving, which seldom translates well into a work environment. So the government rolled out a few thousand training programs and hired the younger generation to build and work in the hostels. It didn’t stretch to everyone - a large number of disenfranchised younger Romanians did join the hordes of drifters and veterans wandering aimlessly across the continent - but it did have a significant effect. Romania’s population steadied much faster than most of the rest of Eastern Europe.
Alistair and I stashed our bikes in an old stable and went for a wander around town. There was, as always, an awesome little cafe along the main street. Alistair ordered yet more cabbage rolls, because he is boring, and then proceeded to steal roughly half of the awesome cheesy bread stick things that came with my soup. Because he is an awful human being.
We were just packing up to head back to the hostel when I was stopped just outside the cafe by a skinny blonde kid with a dog. He said something to me in a cheerful voice, in a language I didn’t understand, but which seemed oddly familiar.
‘I, I’m sorry,’ I stuttered nervously. ‘I don’t - I, just… Alistair, help .’
But when I glanced desperately over at my friend, he was frowning as well. ‘I don’t think I know that one,’ he said apologetically. ‘It’s not Romanian.’
The kid grinned, not at all bothered by my awkward response. He was obviously a Drifter - one of the many displaced people left wandering Europe since the war - but he seemed pretty happy despite that. He was a tad grubby and his layers of clothes were tattered, but his clear blue eyes were cheerful enough as he peered down at me through his tangled dirty blonde hair.
The dog leaning up against his leg was a tan and white pitbull, which was an odd breed for this part of Europe, but alright. She smiled up at me, her expression near identical to that of her owner. I had an irresistible urge.
‘ Vã pot mângâia câinele? ’ I asked hopefully.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake , Niko!’ Alistair wailed, and the boy burst out laughing.
‘Of course you can pet her!’ he said in accented but perfectly understandable English and my day was complete. I sank to my knees in the street and happily engaged in ritual acts of dog worship while Alistair muttered dire things about my patchy grasp of foreign languages.
‘He can order coffee, and ask to pat people’s dogs and that’s it,’ he moaned sadly. ‘That’s it. That’s all I have ever been able to teach him. What the actual fuck.’
‘Well, at least he’s got the important things covered,’ the boy replied calmly. I twisted around to grin at him and the dog licked my ear. Dogs are the best . ‘Her name is Maisy,’ he told me. I proceeded to inform Maisy of her general awesomeness and how she had the best name and was clearly a prime specimen of epic doghood. In English, which she likely didn’t understand even slightly. But that didn’t matter because dogs don’t care if you can’t speak the right language - unlike pretty much every person I’d met on this trip. This is why dogs are clearly the superior species.
‘Sorry, we didn’t actually catch what it was you said before,’ Alistair said, steering the conversation away from the excellent Maisy. I really thought I’d taught him better priorities, but every person must have their flaws, I suppose.
‘Oh, I was just asking if you were heading for Mosorel. I hear that’s where the tribe is right now, and I wanted to let you know that road between Davidești and Vultureşti is washed out. You’re probably going to have to detour through Voroveni.’ He smiled happily as he imparted this incomprehensible advise.
‘Why would we be going to Morosel?’ Alistair asked slowly.
A flicker of confusion entered the boy’s bright eyes. ‘For the gathering?’ he offered tentatively. He gestured down at me with one hand. ‘I thought - well, the eyes are rather distinctive, yes?’
‘My eyes?’ I said blankly. ‘What have my eyes got to do with anything?’ They were weird, I knew that much - they occupied a spectrum between deep green and a hazy blue-grey depending on mood and lighting but - Wait. Hang on. ‘There’s a tribe of people with eyes like mine here in Transylvania?’ I said sharply.
The boy grinned, relieved that I was finally on the same page as him. ‘Yes. Yes, that’s it! A Roma tribe - the Shuvii. I thought you were one, I’m terribly sorry.’
‘I might be,’ I said absently, glancing at Alistair. ‘We were over here trying to track down my family. Is there anything you could tell me about them? Anything at all?’
The boy hesitated, his head tilted to one side. ‘Well, there is a tendency in the tribe to breed witches, I know that. And there are… rumours that their magick is usually of an interesting sort.’ He seemed a little worried about offending me, and I saw his eyes flick down to the tattooed sigils on my forearms.
I was far from offended - instead I felt a dizzying surge of triumph building in my chest. ‘An interesting sort?’ I enquired. ‘Like say, perhaps having a bit to do with, oh let’s say - necromancy, maybe?’
Alistair made a sound like he was dying of shame. He’d tried to teach me about patience and careful phrasing and all that nonsense, but I’d never seen the point really. I’d rather state something right out than spend an hour beating around the bush. And thankfully the boy seemed to appreciate that. ‘Yes,’ he said simply. ‘I am sorry, sir, I didn’t want to offend you if it turned out they weren’t who you were looking for. A great many people would be annoyed at being called out as…’
He trailed off again and I finished for him with a grin, ‘A necromancer. It’s okay, I made my peace with it a long while back. And you are a bloody godsend. We could have been wandering around Transylvania for months without finding the slightest hint to where we needed to go.’
I gave the delightful Maisy a last quick pat and stood, a mad grin stretched across my face. ‘Besides, I could hardly get stroppy at someone with such excellent taste in companions,’ I added, nodding down at the smiling pitbull. I’ve never understood how that one breed of dog could smile like that, but it was, as ever, absolutely delightful.
We left the Drifter boy and Maisy at the cafe and headed back to the hostel and Alistair’s waiting pile of maps. I was damn near jittering out of my skin. This was a lead - our first solid lead since we’d gotten off the plane in Bucharest.
‘We’re going, right? Alistair? We’re going?’
He grinned as he held the door open for me. ‘Of course we are.’
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
In which Nesta meets a legend and is deeply sarcastic about it, aggravates the posh secretary and discovers that she is most definitely out of her depth.
I loped alongside the castle, keeping a respectable distance from the night-blooming roses on the side of the path. It was pretty doubtful at this stage that anyone was going to come leaping out at me from the bushes, but it never hurt to be careful.
The pathway soon opened up into a wide courtyard, bordered on three sides by the looming bulk of the castle. I slowed to a lazy saunter, flicking my eyes across the dimly lit courtyard. Statues lurked in the gloom, a shadowy garden stretched out to my left. Very pretty, I’m sure, but not exactly my problem right now. A few flood-lights illuminated an ornately carved door halfway down the wing of the castle to my right. Probably that was where I was meant to go, despite the fact that it looked like the poorly concealed trap in every cheap action flick ever.
I ignored the heavy brass knocker and shoved at the door. It swung open smoothly and silently at the slightest bit of pressure.
I blinked. This was a vampire’s castle, for Cerridwen’s sake. The least the door could have done was creak in an appropriately bonechilling manner. I felt rather cheated. It was like the architecture was not at all aware of what was expected of it. Rude.
I put aside my irritation with the uncooperative door and shoved my way inside. And stopped dead.
Somebody had actually gone through all the effort of lighting the three great chandeliers dominating the cavernous hall. I’d once lived with a cranky old biddy who’d insisted on me climbing a ladder every day and lighting the sixteen candles in her dinky old cast-iron one. I stood transfixed in the doorway, staring down through the enormous, candle-lit hall and all I could do was distantly pity the poor bastards in charge of keeping these bloody great monstrosities lit.
This room was just too fucking fancy to exist. Seriously. There was gold leaf on the fucking ceiling. Gold. Fucking. Leaf. A small African country could probably feed, house and clothe every single citizen with the value of just one of the intricately carved marble pillars holding up the vaulted ceiling. And have change left over. There were sixteen of them set in pairs down the length of the hall.
Between the columns, long windows looked out into the night. A number of small plush benches were set beneath them. I could just imagine some prissy lady of the manor sitting there during a party, waited upon by any number of young idiots.
Parts of the ceiling were painted in a deep glowing blue. I remembered reading once that that particular hue was achieved by crushing lapis lazuli and mixing it into paint. The ceiling was painted with crushed gemstones. Rich people made stupid financial choices.
The floor was marble in various shades, arranged into an intricate pattern. It made quite a musical sound underfoot, echoing up to the high ceiling. I knew this because Katie-dear was stalking across it towards me, her pretty heels beating out a toccata in Pissed-Minor.
She did not look very happy.
'What the bloody hell are you wearing ?'
Wow. I didn’t think I’d heard anyone sound so very English since the last time dear old Lizzy addressed the troops. I grinned, relaxing finally. I may not really know how to behave in a place like this, but winding someone up? That I could do...
'Clothes?' I replied blandly. For a moment, as Katie-dear’s eyes bulged with hastily suppressed rage, I honestly thought the poor girl was going to have a stroke.
'I sent you clothes,' she hissed angrily. ' Appropriate clothes!'
I smiled, poisonously sweet. 'I wasn’t aware that I was supposed to be applying for a secretarial position,' I informed her. 'Had I known that was what you intended, I would have been sure to explain things for you.'
'You can not meet the princeps dressed like, like a common -'
'Witch?' I suggested mildly. 'I was under the impression that your princeps was hiring me to sort out what was happening to his progeny. Not to model the very latest in business casual attire.'
'You are quite correct, Ms Merrick,' interjected a smooth accented voice, cutting off Katie-dear’s sputtering retort. 'That was not my intention.'
Ah. Enter the princeps.
He was taller than I expected. That might seem a little trite but people have gotten taller over the centuries, as resources and living conditions improved. The few vampires I’d ever met of any real age had been barely bigger than I was. But despite the weight of years he carried with him, years I could feel as tangible pressure against my consciousness, the princeps fairly towered over me. At least six feet, I thought dryly, probably more. He must have seemed a giant to his subjects back in the day.
His shoulder length hair was as near true black as makes nevermind and his eyes a clear penetrating golden brown, set beneath fierce black brows. His face was a study in angles, high cheekbones, strong jaw and straight nose. Half hidden in a thicket of dark stubble his elegantly carved mouth was quirked in a lopsided smirk. Apparently the battle of wills between Katie-dear and I was amusing to his high majesty. Good for him.
I flicked my eyes over the rest of him. Tall, as I’d noticed before, and well proportioned. Long legs, broad shoulders, the works. For all Katie-dear’s obsession with appearances the princeps himself was dressed simply in dark slacks and deep blue button-down Oxford, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Ironic.
I took note of the old scars on his hands and forearms - Ioana had been telling the truth about him being a soldier once. A commander, one who led from the front, I thought in a sudden burst of insight. I may be no Sibyl, but I catch things from time to time. I tucked the information away. It might be useful later.
Something was bothering me. I stared up at the princeps for a long moment, a frown puckering my brow. Just as Katie-dear drew breath, most likely to deliver some kind of blistering setdown regarding my manners ('Don’t just stand there gawking at him, you uncultured swine!'), I finally got it.
'You’re a Daywalker.'
A flicker of surprise showed in his strange golden eyes. Katie shut her mouth. 'And how could you possibly know that, Ms Merrick?' the princeps asked coolly.
I snorted, which probably wasn’t good manners. Whatever. 'You have a tan , Your Wondrousness. It’s not a huge stretch.'
The smirk widened slightly, teetering on the verge of becoming a proper smile. 'It could be fake,' he mused aloud. Some newbie vamps did that sometimes, trying to make their peers think they’d acquired the rarest of vampiric gifts during their Turning. But the princeps was no baby vamp frantically trying to look interesting.
'No,' I said flatly.
A long tense moment stretched out between us. Katie-dear barely breathed beside me. And then suddenly the princeps laughed and the world started ticking along properly again. Katie breathed out, I relaxed muscles I hadn’t even realised I’d tensed and the princeps swept out an arm like some kind of demented playactor.
'Welcome to my home.'
'Lovely little place,' I said with heavy irony, flicking my eyes over the closest gilded column. 'Are there going to be introductions now? I’m running low on snappy internal nicknames for you.'
Katie-dear looked like she was going to implode. It was hilarious.
'Vlad,' the princeps introduced himself. He turned and began to head down the gallery, Katie and I trailing along behind. I rolled my eyes.
'If the second part of that is Tepesh,' I muttered, 'I am going to throw something.'
'Not that vase, please,' Vlad tossed over his shoulder. 'It’s older than I am. If it’s that important to you, we can probably have some chipped crockery sent up from the kitchens.'
I let out a deeply pained sound and, having already committed myself to this lunacy, followed along behind Vlad Tepesh - the Princeps of Wallachia, known through time as the Impaler, Son of the Dragon himself, the most famous of all of history’s vampires, bloody Dracula - as he led me and the posh secretary deeper into his comically oversized castle.
Why was my life so stupid?
Vlad - Dracula! - led us briskly through a maze of elegant rooms and corridors. We saw no one, though I sometimes felt the presence of others, and I was thoroughly lost by the time we went through a heavy oak door and emerged in a richly appointed study. Thick rugs gave gently underfoot as we moved towards the heavy oaken desk set back near a set of floor to ceiling bookcases. Vlad gestured to a pair of comfy looking chairs before the desk.
'Have a seat,' he suggested. 'I need to go check on one of my men. I’ll be back shortly.'
Halfway out the door, he swung around and called back, 'Try not to kill each other.' And then he vanished. I probably wouldn’t have guessed that Dracula was such a little shit. Well, we all live and learn. Figuratively speaking.
Rather than sit, I wandered over to one of the narrow windows. Peering through, I could just see a courtyard garden down below. We were a couple of floors up, and the garden itself wasn’t well lit, so I couldn’t make much out.
Katie, meanwhile, sat herself down primly on one of the chairs. She’d regained her perfect frosty Ice Queen persona during our march through the miles of castle corridor. A shame, really. I’d much preferred her wrong-footed and stammering. Ah well.
She eyed me coldly. 'That… display in the entrance hall was entirely unnecessary,' she murmured. 'You could have simply contacted me to make other arrangements.'
I turned back to window, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. I am not a teenager. 'I’m sorry I made you look bad in front of your boss,' I replied, with vast insincerity. Okay, I might not be a teenager, but I was apparently perfectly capable of acting like one. Katie annoyed me.
I could nearabout hear her grinding her perfect teeth. 'That is hardly the point,' she snapped. 'I am supposed to be supplying your needs while you’re dealing with the current crisis. If you felt that the choice of attire you had been provided with was inappropriate, then I would have been happy to find something else.'
I swung around and stared at her. She was ramrod stiff in her chair, fairly vibrating with suppressed irritation. 'Okay, one - no, you wouldn’t have. You had a clearly defined idea of how this meeting would proceed and how I would slot into said proceedings. Dressed and shod as you deemed fitting. Any follow-up offerings would have likely been along the same lines, and therefore unacceptable.
'Two - I am not the hired help.' I cut her off as she started to protest. 'My work for the military was paid, yes, because the government prefers to keep things on a strictly mercenary footing when it comes to that sort of thing. It saves on awkward moments later on. This is different. I approached the military in that case. In this, you people have come to me asking for help. That makes this circumstance a bargain under the old compact and I most definitely know my rights in that regard. It involves being treated with respect, not as an erring child.
'And three - I’m thirty-two years old, sunshine. I’m quite capable of dressing myself.'
Frosty silence ensued. And continued until Vlad came sauntering back in.
He eyed us both with obvious amusement as he took a seat in the worn leather chair behind the desk. Katie-dear smiled a cool professional smile. I raised an eyebrow. He sighed. 'Well, no one’s bleeding at least,' he murmured, and then fixed his tigerish eyes on me. 'What do you know about our problem so far, Ms Merrick?'
'Nesta’s fine, Your Wondrousness,' I said. May as well get things on the correct footing to start with. I may have never bothered much with compact deals before, having gone into the military straight out of school and then being in no condition afterwards to deal with anybody else’s problems, but I had seen bargains struck now and then. And I had always preferred to deal direct. 'I spoke with a woman in the village. She gave me a pretty good overview.'
'Ioana?' he asked. I nodded and he seemed a little relieved. 'Good, she knows the situation better than most. It’s worth mentioning that I have six young ones restrained in the dungeons. Horatiu is the worst, but the others are no more rational. Some have been there for weeks with no sign of improvement.'
'I will need to examine them,' I said, trying very hard to sound like I knew what I was doing. Living curses were not my department.
He nodded grimly. 'Of course. But first we need to come to an agreement.' His eyes were very serious. At least I knew how this went.
'I will require your hospitality for the duration of my inquiry,' I said, automatically slipping into parade rest as I faced him, locking my hands together behind my back, feet apart, my gaze steady. 'I will need safe passage throughout your lands and properties and free access to the afflicted. If the curse is revocable - and there is no guarantee that it is, by myself or any other - then any materials required for the ritual will be your responsibility to acquire. In the event that I cannot remove the curse, I must be allowed to leave freely. There will be no monetary compensation for my aid. '
He nodded slowly. 'Worthy terms.' The faint accent had thickened slightly. 'In return, I must request that you treat my progeny with fairness and speak to no one of any secrets that you may uncover during your stay in my lands. As you will not be harmed during your time here, so must you not harm my people.'
'Self-defence?' I shot back.
He sighed. 'It will, hopefully not come to that. But if your life is truly in danger then you may of course defend yourself. These are uncertain times. The house that you stayed in last night is yours for the duration of your stay. Anything that you require for your inquiry will be provided to you. Ms Ashbridge will handle the particulars.'
I kept the chagrin from my face with an effort. I had not expected to be stuck with Katie-dear. No helping it though, I supposed. I’d worked with obnoxious people before. 'Am I granted free reign to investigate?' I asked cooly. The last thing I needed was some baby vamp clamming up over some embarrassing incident that might be at the heart of this. I’d known men in the army who contracted curses like STDs, with often the same physical process being the cause of both. One did not cheat on a witch without consequences.
Vlad nodded crisply in reply to my inquiry. 'Of course. Have we an accord?' he asked. He offered a scarred hand over the expanse of his desk. I walked over and clasped it.
'We have.' He seemed freakishly warm for a technically dead man, I noted absently as power stirred and filled the room.
'Witnessed,' Katie-dear said shakily, next to me. She apparently wasn’t used to the feel of magic, even magic as old and commonplace as contract power.
Witnessed , murmured a dead man’s voice behind me. I didn’t flinch. Trust McConnell to chime in, even when it was hardly any of his business.
I let go of Vlad’s overly warm hand and resisted the urge to scrub the residual heat away on my jeans. 'Now, show me to your dungeons, Your Wondrousness,' I demanded, a nasty grin tugging at my lips.
The fancy gold-leaf everything ran out as soon as we started down the winding stone staircase to the dungeons. The stairs were stone, the walls were stone, even the broad landing before we embarked on the second staircase was stone. I found it a little comforting, actually, despite my carefully controlled trepidation at willingly walking into an antique jail cell with a bunch of vampires. The grandeur upstairs had been unsettling to my bog-poor sensibilities. This was more my speed. You know where you stand with plain stone walls.
I tried not to think about how my head would go squish if practically any of my companions decided to throw me at them.
Vlad had been joined by a pair of somewhat younger vampires as we journeyed through the fecking miles of corridors leading to the endless staircase we now trudged down. Their names were Mildred and Harriet, and they got my undying respect for not changing them to anything more vampire-y after their Turning. Mildred was a solid six feet of pure muscle with a calm, friendly smile while teeny tiny Harriet gave off such a palpable feeling of menace that I could actually feel it on my skin. I was pretty sure there was a story there.
But that wasn’t any of my business, I reminded myself firmly. People who went sticking their noses into vampires’ private lives tended to get them snapped off sooner or later. And I was quite fond of my nose. It had character. Better to keep it to myself.
We reached the bottom of the staircase before my internal monologue could turn too ridiculous, thankfully. Vlad led us all down a surprisingly well lit corridor, past a series of heavy steel doors. We stopped finally at yet another door. Even through the heavy steel, I could hear a faint snarling. Delightful.
A guard stood to either side of the door, dressed in full flak gear. Each held a sawed off shotgun, glowing runes inscribed on the shortened barrels. More runes adorned the lowered visors of their riot helmets. I was pretty impressed, despite myself. Too often guards are prepared for either material assault or magickal, not both. Vlad certainly had his head screwed on straight.
'What are those loaded with?' I asked, nodding towards the nearer guard’s shotgun.
'Rock salt and silver,' Vlad told me with a lopsided smile. 'The hallway’s too tight for incendiary rounds.'
I raised an eyebrow. 'Progressive.'
Vlad snorted. 'You know what kills my kind, Ms Merrick? An inability to adapt. It might be hunters or fanatics or even one of our own kind that wields the blade, but in the end, every time a vampire falls it can be traced back to their inexplicable certainty that what they’ve done for hundreds of years will suffice. Stagnancy. ' The disgust was palpable.
He broke away to speak quietly with the guards in rapidfire Romanian. As we waited for the first guard (who I immediately named Thing One, because I am a child) to enter a very long code into the door panel, I couldn’t help but notice that Katie-dear had gone really rather pale. As the door slid back with a soft hiss, I squinted at her thoughtfully and therefore caught the quick flinch when the young man clamped to the wall inside the cell howled furiously at the sight of us. The brief flicker of expression vanished near immediately, replaced with the coolly professional stiff upper lip I’d seen so often back in college. Usually masking complete and utter terror.
Well, that was rather interesting, wasn’t it? McConnell - who was standing just behind her, because he is awful - raised his remaining eyebrow, peering curiously down at the poker faced secretary. Leave it , I thought aggressively at the bleeding shade. I do not need to hear your views on the fucked up situation I am currently neck deep in, okay?
He grinned at me, the fucker. Given that approximately half of his face was missing, the effect was a little disconcerting. And then, thankfully, he disappeared and I felt free to focus my attention on the rabid vampire snarling at me from the other side of the little room.
Here’s the thing: I am not a brave person. Yes, I have faced my own death, over and over again. I’ve fought, I’ve killed people, for fuck’s sake. But I’ve always done it terrified, or furious, or desperate. I’ve never really chosen it, never walked into a horrifying situation cold. Just been dropped in the shit and expected to fight my way free.
Taking the first step was disgustingly hard. For some reason, keeping my eyes on Vlad made it a little easier. He stood next to the open cell door, watching me with steady golden eyes. Things One and Two politely stepped clear of the door to let me pass, but Vlad didn’t move an inch as I brushed past him.
I grimly ignored the odd twisting in my gut at the sensation of his arm brushing against mine. He was warm, even through the layers of both our clothes, a side effect unique to Daywalkers. The flash of heat against my arm was unsettlingly reassuring as I moved towards the snarling young vampire.
I refused to think about that. It was cold down here, that was all.
The cell was quite small, its brushed steel walls only six feet apart. Standing just inside the doorway, I was only a few steps away from the growling young man clamped to the wall with heavy steel bands. He thrashed furiously, his wide eyes fixed hungrily on my neck. Lovely. His dark hair was long and tangled, and he had several weeks worth of beard growth on his lean face. He was damn near emaciated, his thin hospital scrubs draped loosely along his sunkern chest, pants barely clinging to his thin hips. I really, really hoped they weren’t going to slide down. I had my limits, and a full frontal show I hadn’t signed up for fell well past them.
'Who is this?' I asked steadily. Fake it til you make it, Nesta, my girl.
There was a stirring behind me, and then I could feel Vlad’s unsettling aura of warmth against my back. He was standing just behind me, damn it.
'This,' he said quietly, 'is Horatiu.'
That drove all idle thoughts of maybe asking the older vampire to step back a bit right out of my head. ' What? ' I hissed, swinging around to stare up at the princeps . 'It can’t be! That bloody Nord said the nightclub was only three days ago!'
Vlad gazed down at me, calm and steady and utterly implacable. 'It was.'
Then how the hell was the younger vampire so badly starved? 'Was he bled?' I asked somewhat desperately. I was beginning to feel very, very out of my depth. A curse that could waste a vampire down to skin and bones and savagery in just a few days? I didn’t even know where to begin.
'No. We restrained him at the club and brought him home. It was perhaps an hours flight. By the time we landed he was like this. Feeding brings no change.' He looked at his progeny, his golden eyes infinitely weary. 'The others are much the same, though their wasting was a matter of weeks rather than hours.'
'Bloody hell,' I muttered, turning back to the restrained Horatiu. He snapped at me, primary and secondary fangs fully extended. Ugh. 'I’m going to need you to hold his head still,' I said to the hovering Vlad. 'I need a good look at his eyes.'
He moved past me and caught Horatiu’s head neatly between his hands, holding him still with no discernable effort. ...Which meant that I had to duck inside the circle of his arms in order to get a good squiz at the demented vampire. I was not terribly impressed with the necessity of this. I ducked under the nearer arm, my arms and back prickling uncomfortably. Straightening, I was immediately trapped between the slavering young vampire, who was glaring death down at me as he gnashed his horrifyingly sharp teeth; and his uncomfortably warm grandsire. I didn’t dare move one way or the other.
Well, when one is trapped in a deeply uncomfortable situation, one must simply ensure that one can get out of it as soon as possible. Or something like that, anyway. I put a little steel in my spine (figuratively speaking, of course, I’ve come close enough to the reality a time or two that even thinking the phrase gives me the jitters), and stood on tip toes to gaze intently into Horatiu’s eyes.
His pupils were like wide dark pits into some private hell, so grotesquely dilated that barely any of the iris showed at all. Creepy as fuck, that, if I’m being honest. I may be a little bit of a hardass, but weird eye stuff has always freaked me out. And when you’re dealing with curses the weird eye stuff can get pretty fuckin’ weird.
Still not as bad as the disembodied eyeballs following Private Hull around though. They were his, in case that isn’t clear, and he could see perfectly well. Just shunted off a little to the side, as it were. I’d been so glad that solving that clusterfuck hadn’t fallen into my own, at the time rather inexperienced, hands.
But I digress.
I dug around in one of my many, many pockets until I finally came up with my makeshift detection lens. Now, Aetherium sponsored curse breakers all had one of these fabulous little doohickeys as part of their standard kit. Theirs tended to be state of the art technomagical wonders, bestrewn with all manner of switches and dials and little blinking lights. A direct window into the Astral Plane, capable of discerning every trace of spellcraft that had ever touched a person, as well as read their blood pressure, their surface thoughts, what they’d had for breakfast that morning… You get the drift.
They were also the size of a large suitcase and buggy as all hell. Sometimes the spirits that powered them got shirty and you wound up with a possessed magickal device that knew how to peer into your soul. And sometimes their operators looked a little too closely and found themselves faced with the Absolute Truth of the universe and spent the rest of their lives in little padded rooms with an assortment of burly smiling attendants hovering over them.
The makers of the Aetherium’s detection lens regularly assured us all that the bugs would all be taken care of very soon now. And that they really weren’t liable for any injury operators may incur as a result of their malfunctions. As was clearly stated in their five hundred page disclosure agreement.
I wouldn’t touch one of the bloody things with a fifty foot pole.
My detection lens did not come with bells or whistles. It was not powered by spirits, I had to do all the heavy lifting myself. I’d cobbled it together from an antique quizzing glass McConnell had dug out of the ruins of some posh bugger’s estate in southern France and a chunk of rock crystal I’d had to learn gem cutting to shape. And blood. Rather a lot of it, and all of it mine. I did not hold with bleeding other people for a boost, willing or no. If you lacked the necessary venous fortitude to get the spell done yourself, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Simple as that.
I ran my thumb clockwise over the deeply etched runes in the lens gold frame. Had to give McConnell credit - he’d found me a lovely example of early Georgian goldsmithing to desecrate. The gold was so pure it’d split like butter under my knife when I scratched at it. The runes lit up under my thumb, glowing the aching blue of a clear sky in October, and the slight cloudiness of the crystal cleared immediately. I focused my power through it, lifted it to my eye and peered through at the snarling young vampire.
Dark smudges of magic lay thick over Horatiu’s chest and limbs, inky smears that seemed to suck all the light out of the room. Out of the boy himself. I frowned. That… was not the level of detail I expected to see through my lens. Especially after mentally talking the damn thing up like that.
I pulled back and prodded another of the sigils etched into the rim of the lens. The blue glow jacked up to painfully bright and when I looked through it again, the smudges on his arms had resolved to some kind of rope or vine. That was the finest setting my lens had. And it still wasn’t good enough. The curse was shielded somehow.
Ah, hell. I was going to have to do this the hard way.
I pulled back, nearly bumping into Vlad and deactivated my lens, shoving it back into my pocket. Fuck me, I hated doing things this way. But I needed to know what I was dealing with and that meant getting a good squiz at the thing.
'What are you doing?' Vlad asked quietly behind me. It was only through the grace of the goddess I didn’t leap forward at the rabid young vampire in front of me. I was close enough to the older vampire that I’d actually felt his voice rumbling through his chest. My bubble was beyond violated.
'I need to connect with him directly,' I explained. I was probably a little disproportionately proud of myself at how steady my voice was, despite the frantically galloping heartbeat that utterly belied it. Which Vlad could definitely hear. Fuck it. 'My lens is only picking up a surface impression. I have to get a good look at the full structure of the curse before I can even think about breaking it.' A quick search of my many lovely little pockets turned up a small jar of vile smelling goop, which I applied in thick lines around my eyes. Vlad made a sound of utter disgust behind me.
'Is that really necessary?' he asked in a pained voice. Despite myself, I couldn’t help sympathizing with his plight - if the stuff smelled terrible to me it must be a thousand times worse to his inhumanly sensitive nose.
'Unfortunately, yes,' I muttered. 'We don’t have time for the nice-smelling way, I’m afraid. The longer we leave this thing on him, the worse off he’ll be. Now hold him very still, please. I do not want to end my career as an entree.'
And before I could talk myself out of it, I leaned forward and applied the goop to the snarling Horatiu’s face, one quick splodge between his eyes and a swipe along his cheekbones beneath them. He howled and tried to snap at me. I saw Vlad’s fingertips go white with the strain of holding him still.
Gods but I hated every part of this situation. Seriously, how was my life so awful?
I capped the jar and put it away, wiping my befouled hands on my jeans. Urk, that stuff felt gross. But it was effective, that smelly mixture of herbs. I could already feel my spirit trying to pull free of the meat sack that usually contained it. I locked my knees and stopped fighting the drag, following the course the charmed salve had built for me, down the winding path away from the material world and away to the realm of spirit.
On the Astral Plane, where all magic is visible, the boy was a mess . The dark vines curled tightly around his body, plunging deep into his flesh at various points. His eyes were completely gone, leaving only ravaged sockets oozing rusty coloured blood and thick pus. And if he’d seemed painfully thin in the material world, on this side he was downright skeletal.
I was genuinely horrified. Vampire or no, this was just cruel.
I searched for the point of origin, the place where the curse had first hit. Usually the impact site will give you some kind of hint as to the shape of the whole. But there didn’t seem to even be one. Which was just… wrong. On a number of levels.
Utterly out of my depth, I kept searching, feeling any hope I’d had that this might be an easy cure draining away.
I focussed on the vines buried in the boy’s pale flesh. Something about them was bothering me. Something about draining . Slowly it dawned on me. They weren’t vines . They were tubes. Feeding tubes. Siphoning away the life from him, the vitality, taking it all away back to…
As I became aware of it, the creature that had been hiding a ways behind the stricken vampire slid gracefully to its feet. And lunged.
The spirit-construct powering the curse was a fucking nightmare to fight. Impossibly fast, its assumed form of a giant half-rotten bear/mountain lion/squid had one hell of a reach and the claws tipping its massive squidgy paws were not to be fucked with. I pretty much spent a depressingly short while running in circles around the stricken vampire screaming, 'Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!' at the top of my lungs.
And then, inevitably, it caught me.
Now, I myself am no stranger to pain. I have been shot, stabbed and beaten to within an inch of my life. I’ve melted the flesh off my own arms, for fuck’s sake.
But I had never felt anything as agonizing as when that construct sank its tentacles into me and began to feed. Gods but it was awful. I could feel the life drain from me drop by searing drop. I screamed and screamed until my voice gave out. I begged. I fucking begged for it to let me go. I’d never begged for a godsdamned thing before that moment, but I would have done anything - anything - to make the pain stop.
And then, just as I felt my heart start to slow, back wherever it was that I’d left my body - McConnell turned up.
And gods he was pissed .
He tore the construct’s tentacles right out of me - which did not feel particularly pleasant, I might make so bold as to mention - and went to town on the bloody thing. As I sagged, panting, onto my back, he set to work tearing great chunks out of the monster with his bare hands. It was fucking beautiful to watch.
But I couldn’t loll about gasping and admiring my persistent hallucination’s handiwork forever. I had to free the kid. Because I didn’t think McConnell could kill that thing, at least not permanently. Which meant that the second I left, it would latch onto him again to try and recoup the energy it had lost during the fight. And given what a mess Horatiu was already, it would most likely drink him dry.
I didn’t screw around with any fancy spellwork. I didn’t have the energy and I’m not any good at it at the best of times. I just crawled across the disturbingly spongy ground until I reached the vampire, hauled myself painfully to my feet and yanked the feeding tentacles out of him with my bare hands. He screamed and screamed, hideous howls with barely any reason left to them. I had endured that horrifying pain for mere moments. Horatiu had been in this state for nearly a week. I wasn’t even sure he’d be sane after all this.
Once he was free, I slammed my shields over the both of us. The construct howled in absolute fury and tried to turn away from McConnell to rush us. But he grabbed it and held it fast.
' Go!' he yelled. ' Get him out of here! '
I wavered. 'Will you be okay?'
'Fuck’s sake, girl, I’m already dead! Go!'
I crashed back into a body that absolutely hated me. The screaming was entirely involuntary. As was the thrashing and writhing about like a landed fish. Attempting to punch Vlad in the face when I opened my eyes to see him hovering over me was also rather a knee-jerk reaction, and not a very clever one, if I’m honest.
To his credit, the princeps was kind enough to not tear my head off for the attempted assault - as he would have been fully justified in doing - and instead calmly pinned me to the ground until I ran out of breath and energy and sagged back. I lay there, shaking convulsively under the weight of roughly two hundred pounds of overly warm vampire, frantically trying to figure out just what the fuck had happened.
'Is she okay?' I heard Katie-dear ask shakily. She actually sounded rather concerned - that was kinda sweet. I craned my head to peer up at her. She was terribly pale, standing just inside the door with her fingers clenched tight around the jamb.
‘I’m alright,’ I rasped. My throat hurt, ugh. How long had I been screaming for? 'The kid?'
Vlad let go of my wrists and twisted around so quickly my eyes couldn’t actually track the movement. One second I had a giant vampire sitting on me, the next Vlad was up and across the room, gently lifting Horatiu’s head. 'Okay then,' I muttered, gingerly trying to sit up. My arms were weak as overcooked noodles. I could barely raise myself up on one elbow. Fabulous.
Help came from an unexpected quarter - Katie-dear stepped forward, wrapped her expertly manicured hands around my free arm and hauled until I was sitting, panting, on the cold stone floor, my legs stretched out before me. When she let go, I started to keel over, humiliatingly enough, so she shrugged and sat down next to me. What the hell, Katie? I had you nicely pigeon-holed, girl. How dare you show compassion where I have to see it? I leaned into her side anyway. She wrapped an arm around my shoulder to steady me. I was going to feel terribly embarrassed later, when I had the energy for it.
A cracked voice rasped something incomprehensible over on the wall and then Horatiu started crying. And I… I was done. I’d had enough of vampires and curses for the time being. I tucked my head against Katie’s shoulder and went away for awhile.