Edam was home again. The kitchen. The garlic was drying on the sill in the sun. The air was soft and greasy with the smell of food, though she couldn’t see anyone cooking. She turned her head, and there was a woman, standing away from her in the doorway. Dark curls hid her head, but she knew. Edam stood at once and ran to her to hug her.
With shut eyes, she felt only cold air. She was gone before Edam could even hug her. She opened them to the empty hall.
Her mother was gone. She shrunk in place, confused.
The hall rippled like the gut of a snake, wood creaking and shaking under impossible weight and pressure. She was in the belly of the earth – she was certain. She looked back to the window-sill and saw the holy earth jut in. It was a cliff face, stale and crumbling granite harshly cutting off the kitchen.
Again, the rippling – the worm-like peristaltic motion of the hallway drew her in, the floorboards alive beneath her feet. She had to move carefully to not lose her balance. The only way was through. That was how it always was. She walked towards the prayer room. The ancient stone intruded upon the house as the hallway stretched on. Soon no wood remained except for the distant door to the prayer room. She heard a whispered question echoing through the hall, in Kolet and Agoran.
“Are you not a woman?”
“Śanura sa badh celes?”
Her lips moved without a sound, but she knew what she was saying.
“I am. I know.”
The stone changed and shifted. Alcoves formed themselves into the living rock and limestone formations, and between them the bones of saints. The relics and vestments of their station shone like golden lanterns in the dark. Hollow eye sockets watched her passing without passion as they whispered to her again.
“Why are you so unwilling?”
“Su psira badh coneha dach?”
Edam looked around fearfully. The skeletal figures raised their hands in signs of blessing.
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“And your sins?”
“Ce śech itua badh?”
“I’m not like that anymore. I repented.”
Her feet followed their own orders, an eternal march towards the prayer room. There was silence for a long time, her footsteps echoing in the empty air. The alcoves filled bit by bit with flesh. The saints became more whole, first with fat and organs and then with skin and more vagaries of the idea of flesh. Eventually they hung in place as broken as the day they died. Martyrs, all of them – their bodies so bloodied, twisted and disassembled that Edam could scarcely look at them. They writhed in tune with the shaking of the earth.
She flinched, then continued until it echoed her way again. Every time it came her way it stopped her in her tracks. It came in time with each wave, dragging her further and further down until the way forward became a way down; until she scratched and grasped against the ever-shifting floor like it was a cliff face.
Crack. Crack. Again and again, until she was running down towards the door and she could barely stand the sound, the saints all dancing around her and speaking again.
“Did you not sin against the priest?”
“Śavam sa badh itua an eniscidh?”
Edam shuddered at the next crack.
“I- I hadn’t-”
Like that, she was at the door. Everything else was gone and done.
She slowly put her hand on the knob, and hesitated. Another crack spurred her forward and all the noise in the world stopped as she walked through the door.
It was sunset. Not a golden sunset, either – a crimson sunset that made the blood on the floor seem like little dark spots of shadow. There, at the center of the room, was the scarred thing. Scarred man. He had grown since she had last seen it, muscles intruding in on the scars and the bone. He stood, and his shadow grew long and crept up the wall to leer over her own.
The scarred man unhinged his jaw like a snake as he spoke. The scars cracked and broke to accommodate his command.
“Kneel,” he said.
There was no resisting him. Edam knelt. It began to pace around her. She kept her eyes on the ground.
“What did you do?”
She knew what she did.
“I pretended to be sick. I lied.”
Slowly, he turned over his hand, and rolled his head back, and forth. He shook like a man in the depths of fever, back and forth, back and forth, until there was another hideous crack.
Edam looked down as he held out his hand. In his open palm was a whip. Seven long cords dangled down, still black with blood.
“Use it. It’ll make you feel better.”
The whip fell from her shaking hands, and the scene shifted. Time itself shifted. She saw herself, outside of herself, like a mirror or a puppet. It was strange – she was dressed very well. A long red white robe that reached down to her calves. She could feel it, soft and silky on her skin. Around her waist was a little ribbon-girdle. It felt wrong, immodest and unfitting on her, but she recognized it through the haze of sleep. Her skin shifted like stained glass.
Like a saint. She looked like a saint, in a stained-glass window.
Somewhere she could not see, the scarred thing spoke once more.
“So you refuse punishment?”
Another crack of the whip, another flinch. There was a sound like the trickling of water and the buzzing of insects. She felt a twinge in her chest.
A rough hand grabbed her shoulder and bore her down before she could speak. Her back arched and twisted. Her bare arms were torn by invisible teeth. A heat grew in her chest – an awful invisible fire that scourged her up from her belly to her breasts to her neck. She twisted like a cloth being wrought of water; her legs shook and splayed, her jaw clenched so tight she could feel her teeth grinding on each other.
She felt the wounds in her chest open, and the dress stained. A drop of blood made its way to the floor.
And like that, Edam awoke. For a moment, she lost track of where she was. Her bed was foreign to her. Then, she remembered. They had made it to Kallin. Her chest ached with a raw, itching pain. She fumbled in the dark of the early morning, pulling apart her night clothes until she reached the bandages. Welts of heat covered her head and neck. She tore apart the bandages, and finally she felt as though she could breathe again. The itching faded.
Gingerly, she touched her chest and belly. Old scars guided her fingertips to the fresh set of seven on her breastbone.
Edam wanted to cry. She wasn’t wholly certain as to why she did. The nightmare had been frightening, but it was nothing new. She had certainly seen and encountered worse on the job. The welts on her chest were different but they disappeared with the bandages, the cool air soothing them. She took a few breaths, but her lungs refused her. It took a moment for her to gulp down a deep breath before she gasping like a fish.
She wouldn’t cry. She had no reason to and her cousin was sleeping one room over. The walls here were thin enough that he might hear her, and if he did he’d worry.
The next breath came easier. She managed to retrieve her clothes in the rising sun and put herself back together into something presentable. Her jaw popped as she unclenched it. The windows gave just enough light to see a view of Kallin. It was by far the largest city she had ever seen. Her mind turned over the sight again and again, the countless rows of stone and wood. If it were to be stacked into a single tower it would touch the stars. Instead, it sprawled out over many miles, running up against the murky waters of the Teper and the ocean. The thin orange slivers of light were a small comfort. She knew she wasn’t dreaming anymore.
She felt, at long last, that she had to do it. She had the time to make sure it could be done. She walked out to the thin hallway of the cloister first, down to the room where her cousin was staying. Gently, she opened the door. The bed was empty. He had said that he would be leaving early, and that he might not be back until noon.
Edam scurried back to her room, and took out the diary from the place she had hid it in her trunk. She found her way to the private living room that they had provided. The primary quarters for the inquisition in Kallin were already full, so they had made do with the charity of a local church that had the rooms to spare. She put a few logs and tinder into the soot, and found a flint and steel. She sparked it, once, twice before it caught and began to burn. It wasn’t long until the fire crackled into a small blaze.
She flipped through the pages, through the memories. She had started the diary in Agora, shortly after her cousin had left for schooling. She lingered on the first page, on her uneasy scrawling there.
“I got this diary on advice from a friend, Terna. I had told her a while back that I had too much of a mouth sometimes, and she told me that she had a diary where she wrote down things that she couldn’t say aloud. I considered it for a while, and then saved up for the empty book.”
Terna had been an acquaintance of hers. They had both gone to the same church for a long time, and while they didn’t have much in common besides that they did talk.
“My uncle is getting very strange with my cousin away. I think he’s just getting old, maybe. He keeps fighting with my aunt, but I’m glad that he doesn’t want to fight with me…”
Edam flipped through days, months, years; through immature teenage musings and complaints and sensibilities. Her first experiments with sorcery, her apprenticeship and joining the inquisition, before traveling to Koletya. She had copied down her personal formulae for foci, her methods and her means in case she ever needed to reproduce them. Then, meeting Ana.
The thought of her still hurt. Her spine shivered as she curled closer to the book and the precious pages, until she found the one that she was looking for.
“I called her peron today. I didn’t mean to say it. She did not seem to know what it meant, and I am thankful for that. But now, I am without recourse in my feelings towards her. There is no safe realm of retreat where I may say that I did not enjoy her company more than I ought to have. I now only have the question and the potential comfort that she feels the same way – and I cannot say it! I cannot break this oath. If I were to take that comfort, I would surely die, or at least it would feel like it…”
She felt the edge of the page, then took her fingers to its base where she prepared herself to tear it. The paper felt silky now.
Like her hair.
The meek voice roused her from her task suddenly. She turned to see Akham and shut her diary at once. She had scarcely recovered since they had left Larena. They’d clothed her, fed her and she’d bathed, but she still looked like a sickly, scared girl. They’d gotten her to speak some – saying that she was only eighteen, that she had lived in Larena her entire life and that she had absolutely no desire to return to her family. Edam had taken charge of getting any information from her on the vampires, but both sides had been reticent. Akham was clearly still sensitive to the topic, and Edam had no desire to hurt the poor girl further.
Still, Edam had to try. They were going to face the enemy shortly. She put the diary down by her side.
“Akham. Is everything fine?”
“I think so,” said Akham, “I hope so.”
She walked timidly to Edam, and sat beside her. She stared off to the side. Edam started to couch her questions.
“It seems like your mind is somewhere else, Akham. I know you said that things are fine, but you’ve seen a lot. More than most. It’s okay to talk about it with me, if you feel like it.”
She hesitated before putting a hand on Akham’s.
“I mean it.”
“There are things on my mind. Things that are hard to say.”
“I’m not here to get you into any trouble. I will keep it a secret to my grave if that’s your wish,” said Edam.
“I know it’s improper. But I’ve got my reasons for leaving home. I just – I am– I’ve had these feelings.”
There was a quaver in between her stutterings. Edam felt that she was going to say something else before switching to her final statement, but she didn’t press on it. It wasn’t the right time.
“I’ve had feelings – strong feelings – about other women. And I’m afraid I’ve never had any want for a man. Or a child. And my family didn’t think it was proper, and I still don’t feel that it’s proper. Not virtuous.”
Edam nodded and gently rubbed the poor girl’s hand. It wasn’t the area of her expertise. She had always held some interest in both men and women, and she found it strange that the girl showed no interest in men. Still, it wasn’t really a sin, per say. She slowly came to a conclusion in her advice.
“I think most people are attracted to women,” said Edam, feeling fairly confident in that assessment, “Though the amount varies. And you having some homosexual inclinations is not improper. It’s absent of virtue, but it isn’t wrong.”
“But if I leave no heirs-”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Edam, “Having a child is a virtuous and honest thing, but this is not a bad thing.”
She had resigned herself to this fact years ago. Edam had considered it for a while. Her plan was, at the time, to become a mother and a schoolteacher. She had the education for it but it didn’t appeal to her like sorcery had. Once she made her first focus, she knew what she had to do.
“I will never have a child, and I still try my best to live a virtuous life. I wouldn’t worry about it so much.”
It didn’t feel right to say so, knowing what she knew and having done what she had done. Still, Akham needed to hear it.
“I- I’m sorry for bothering you with it. My mother had talked a lot about how I was going to have children one day, how I was going to be this and that and the other thing, and when I disagreed she wasn’t always amicable.”
“Not a bother at all.”
Akham took her hand out from under Edam’s and slowly warmed it against the fire. Edam got up, found the neighboring pantry and looked for a pan, two bowls and two eggs. Silently, Edam cooked a small breakfast for each of them, which Akham ate up greedily. When Edam was finished, she felt like it was the right time.
“Akham, I’ve been very careful with questioning you so far. Being in captivity does bad things to the mind, and I didn’t want to exacerbate or worsen that wound in you.”
Akham shrugged uncomfortably.
“I’d like to ask you a few questions about what happened at Larena. Is that okay?”
“I knew you were going to need to ask sooner or later,” she said, “Go ahead.”
“Alright. The first thing we’d like to know are names. We got a few from the letter, but anything more could help us.”
She shook her head very suddenly.
“No, no. They didn’t use names around me. When I asked, they said I didn’t deserve it. I couldn’t see them.”
They were clever. The immortals were rapacious and intemperate in the extreme, but they were not stupid. Not most of them, at least. The one she met in Larena did seem a little touched in the head. Maybe he did have a spark of intelligence, but Edam figured that it had been snuffed by his pride a long time ago.
“Details? There was one that was a warrior, obviously, the tall fellow. He had a bit of a low voice. Do you remember him?”
“Yes,” she said, “He- he liked to insult me. I think he liked it. He did it a lot.”
Edam put her hand over Akham’s.
“You’re safe. Just say what comes naturally to you about the others.”
“There was a woman. One was… strange. She kept talking about her babies, but there weren’t any around. She was the one who-”
She gasped, and her face shifted downwards. Edam squeezed her hand lightly, urging her onward. Akham took the moment to breathe.
“The way she fed on me. I can’t – I can’t say. I don’t know how to begin. And she whispered to me the whole time. She kept thanking me. Said that I was one of the best-tasting she’d had.”
Her hand trembled and shook.
“And then the last one was the one who- I met him. He said he knew what I wanted and they could help. And I thought that it was just a week. He was blond, I think. It feels hard to remember.”
The one that Imera had gotten to. The man had gotten away like a thief in the night, according to him. The woman, on the other hand, was little more than a blasted wreck in the center of the town. What wasn’t burned had been pierced by the spears and arrows of the villagers. It was good providence that they even had the chance to retrieve the letter in the first place.
“You can stop if you feel like it,” said Edam.
“No, I – I remember other things. The woman with the babies. She once came to me and put my hand to some part of her. I think it was her belly. She might have been pregnant. I felt something shift in there. It could have been a baby kicking.”
Edam nodded slowly. Imera didn’t mention anything about the woman being pregnant, but perhaps she had been early in the pregnancy. It was unusual for a vampire to bear a child, but certainly not impossible or unreasonable. Or the poor girl didn’t know what she had felt.
“Did you see the woman?”
“You didn’t – I guess you didn’t see it. They had somehow welded my eyelids shut. I was blind for-”
She shuddered and went very quiet. Her eyes caught onto the middle distance and fixed themselves there.
“That’s enough for now. You were very helpful. Maybe you should go back to your room and lie down for a moment?”
“No,” said Akham, “I like it by the fire. Can we talk about something else? I need to distract myself.”
“Absolutely,” said Edam, “What would you like to talk about?”
“I don’t know. What do you usually talk about with friends?”
That was a loaded question. When she talked with Ana, she usually talked theology, or else about how she was feeling, about town gossip, about the latest cases. She was a friend – more than that, she showed Edam respect as a friend. The gossiping church women and schoolgirls back home would gladly talk behind her back. Most of them were Machevins, but they weren’t as pious or well-organized as her family. They saw the scars that dotted her arms as shameful, and more than that, ugly.
“Oh, well. I don’t have many friends,” said Edam diplomatically, “But I have been meditating on the idea of providence lately.”
“Yes,” said Edam, “I mean – how unusual is it that we were to walk into town at almost the exact same time that a fellow was murdered? Sure, if he was to be murdered anyways, some other inquisitors would have come along but it was us, on that day, at that time.”
Akham nodded, seeming to grasp what she was getting at.
“It’s like a coincidence.”
“Or a plan,” said Edam, “The divinity of the Godhead shows in all things, including the coincidences. The world, at times, manifests the perfect opportunities for great deeds of virtue. And that is termed providence.”
“Mm. And when it provides opportunities for great evil?”
Akham turned to stare at the fire again. It was turning pale as the logs went from a solid, singular substance to ash.
“It’s… an opportunity for virtue as well. Whenever a great evil arises, it is a way to show discipline and power and goodness in the face of it. When the Empire of the Three Immortals rose, that was a great evil. The Sepulcher rose to face it, and they killed the First Saints for their goodness.”
“Well, yes,” said Akham, “But it doesn’t undo the awful things. I’m not the best with history, but I remember a little. The scourging of the Horned Lords. The empires they built didn’t die with them, did they?”
“But they did fall eventually,” said Edam, “Even here.”
Akham nodded in resignation.
Even as she said it, it felt callous. You could draw a straight line in the history books between the Three Immortals to the Gyetyean warlords to the vampiric pagans that followed. To say that it was a mere opportunity wasn’t exactly true. Then the war came. The people turned towards the Church of the Sepulcher for aid, and the Church answered with guns and inquisitors and foreign soldiers to help them. And between then and now, more suffering than any human being could make an accurate account. In the scheme of things, the Kolet Revolution wasn’t even that long ago. Edam did the arithmetic in her head.
Akham’s great- or great-great-grandmother easily could have suffered under the reign of the vampires. The one before that would have spent an entire lifetime under them. The same went for Ana; for everyone in this city.
Edam silently cursed herself for screwing up talking so badly. This was the other reason why she never was good at making friends. She always ended up talking about something serious too quickly.
They waited for nothing in particular as the fire continued to sputter into soot and ash. Eventually, Akham took it upon herself to retreat to the room where she was staying, and Edam was alone again with a fire too small to even safely burn the paper in. She returned the diary to its place in her chest
Eventually, her cousin returned, and it was time to leave. It was not an unpleasant day, considering her unpleasant night. There was a light breeze, and clear skies. The streets fell into a rather orderly grid, unlike the cities in Agora. They already knew where they had to go – the Upper Quarter. It was one of the richest places in the nation, and only a short walk across the bridge from some of the worst squalor in the nation.
On the way, Imera briefed her and Danza.
“Spoke to the head of the watch and our local comrades. They had no idea this was happening, but they’re letting us take the case for now. Ready to back us up if it gets uncontained.”
“Anything new to learn from them?” Asked Edam.
“The watch said a man was murdered in Blackwood,” he said, “Last night. Dragged him out from the river.”
“It’s nothing new,” said Danza, “Same as last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. The only difference is the amount of dead, and how rotten they are by the time authorities get to them.”
Danza spat the word same like she had heard it ten-thousand times before. Blackwood’s reputation preceded itself, even for someone who lived that far out in the heaths.
Eventually, the came to their goal – the palatial home of a Mr. Allatsha. The letter had included a ticket of invitation to the place. It was a strange and very ugly thing, all ostentatious stone decoration and rose-bushes. Some of the Kolet architecture she could genuinely appreciate, but this was far too much. It didn’t help that most of the decorations looked pre-revolutionary.
The guards at the iron gate saw the black coats and the heptagrams around their neck and opened the door before they could even say a word. They walked in uninterrupted. Danza kept her hand near to her hip – where her gun was.
They had discussed it throughout the week. There was a non-zero chance that Allatsha knew about the nature of his guests having some ties to the old nobility. Caution and care was necessary. Servants looked away from them as they walked in, deferring their gaze. They all knew that the three were not good news. One led them down the gilded halls to a small office. Inside was a well-put-together man. He was hard at work at some kind of accounting, arranging a ledger.
“Is my office a public commons? I hope you’re quick because-”
He looked up from his work. Beady eyes met Edam’s, then shifted to the other two.
“Ah. Inquisitors. What can I do for you three today?”
“We have some small questions about your guests for the upcoming party,” said Imera, “If you’d be so kind, a list of them would be very useful.”
Allatsha shook his head.
“You have to understand, these guests of mine – they’re very private.”
“Then I’d like to remind you that as ecclesiastic officers and enforcers of the law of the Sepulcher, we have the right to breach privacies when severe crimes are afoot. Murder, heresy, witchcraft,” said Danza, in a tone that was just a little too polite.
“In this case, it’s murder involving a vampire. And perhaps a greater conspiracy for further murder. We could haul you back to the court and then request a release of that document, but that would interrupt that party of yours, wouldn’t it?” Asked Edam.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as she mentioned the interruption. Neither side of the argument wanted that – it could tip off their quarries.
“Alright,” he said, carefully pulling a document from one of his drawers, and handing it to Imera, “But you can’t be arresting my guests at the party, alright? It’s very important that it’s not interrupted. There are foreign dignitaries here, after all, and we wouldn’t want this to become a diplomatic incident, would we?”
“Of course not,” said Danza, “We just need some names and perhaps a little more aid.”
Edam craned her neck to look at the list. The most recent ones were mostly pedestrian – a Gveert man and two unnamed guests that had been added at the end. Then, they found what they were looking for.
“The Erkhas – that family. You know them?”
“Yes,” said Allatsha, “Reputable folks-”
“Not quite, according to our investigations. Was one of them a pankratist?” Asked Edam.
“Yes. Din Erkha was a pankratist. Why do you ask?”
“He’s dead,” said Edam, “And he was a vampire. We need to talk to the other Erkhas on this list. Do you know where they’re coming from, exactly?”
Allatsha looked rather uncomfortable in his padded chair. Edam put on a smile.
“Because, you did send invitations to them, correct?” She continued.
“Yes,” said Allatsha, “I did. I knew nothing of a murder, but I did send invitations to them.”
“Then, where did you send those invitations?”
“Sondi. Some of the Erkhas were displaced a few generations back, to Sondi. My family kept touch with them. But I knew nothing – and I emphasize, nothing – of this vampirism matter. I assumed that they had abandoned that tradition. You can investigate me all you want. I am clean.”
“Then, you wouldn’t mind us coming to this party of yours?” Asked Imera.
“Well, the guestbook is already full,” he said. He lightly pulled at his collar.
“Well, not all of us have to be present at the party. Just being present in the building would do a good bit for us. We could surreptitious about any surveillance that we do,” said Imera.
“One of us on the ground, incognito,” said Edam, “I already have a mask ready. And two of your guests are indisposed at any rate. My comrades could stay somewhere upstairs, somewhere private.”
Allatsha looked out the window.
“You promise that you won’t make a mess of this? I’ve heard stories. You lot aren’t exactly subtle.”
“We have our methods. I’ll assure you that if you give us the access we need, we’ll be able to make any and all arrests outside of your home. Perhaps even on another day entirely,” said Imera.
“There’s an attic you could use to hide in. And if you don’t keep your promise, I can assure you that you’ll not have many friends here in Kallin.”
The threat had a sudden force to it. Danza looked at Imera and Edam. It was a short glance, but telling. He wasn’t bluffing about his connections. That was sure.
“Then it’s agreed,” said Edam, “We’ll keep things quiet.”
“I think I ought to help with organizing this party of yours,” he said to Allatsha, “I’m going to spruce up the decorations. Care to join me, Danza?”
“Of course,” she replied, smiling back.
“We’ll be taking our leave,” said Edam, “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Allatsha.”
One by one they filed out of the room. The maid that had led them in hastily retreated out of sight to a side room.
“You think he’ll tip those Erkhas off?” Asked Edam.
Danza shook her head, and gestured to the vast show of wealth around them.
“If he does, he risks losing this. Unless he’s somehow slavishly loyal to them, he’d be giving up too much.”
“We have them in the jaws of the trap,” she said, “Now we just need to spring on them.”
She rolled her shoulders and readied herself mentally. It was a distraction from their real objective here – finding Ana – but it would do some good. She’d focus on one thing at a time. This, then her, and then she could be done with it.