Stunning did not cover half of what Ana saw in Edam. She was stunned, certainly, paralysed by her sudden appearance so severely that she could not think straight. It seized up her hand and as she tried to move her finger from the guard to the trigger proper it jerked, her eyes refocused, and her aim landed on Manguyaat. Edam did not waver a single inch. A practiced shooter’s stance kept the barrel pointed at Ana’s chest, one eye locked shut, the other glimmering balefully. The pagan was unfazed by the gun being leveled onto her.
“You,” said Edam.
It was a single word but Ana heard more of it. It was muffled by the mask, but nothing could muffle the sentiment behind it. The word explicated itself like a mountain vista. Ana clung to it, to its meaning, to its feeling – a hollow echo of any affection it held before. Now it was more spite, more fear, more uncertainty. A petty part of her hoped that there was regret in that sentiment, but Ana was not so certain that even factored into it.
It seeped in like pus through her mask, through the itching of the dress and cut at her heartstrings.
Sol kept to the plan. If he noticed what had been said and what hadn’t been said, he didn’t show it.
“Ladies,” said Sol, “I apologize for interrupting your evening. But there’s business that must be discussed and the other venues simply seemed inappropriate. So let’s all politely discuss and not turn this into a killing spree, shall we?”
Glances were exchanged. Eventually, Manguyaat broke the silence.
“Who’s paying you?”
“Who do you think?” Asked Sol.
Edam shifted her fingers on the pistol, keeping it at the ready.
“I won’t lie. I’ve made enemies,” said Manguyaat, “But I know you. I recognize you. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get a shot in at either of you. I assume it’s the teacher that’s after me for skipping my lessons at the fencing parlor?”
The innuendo was clear enough. She had figured them out.
“She did have a good reason for being angry with me,” added Manguyaat, adjusting the grip on her knife, “But if it gets back to Allatsha that one of his guests ended up dead under such suspicious circumstances with you around, it’d be unpleasant, and vice versa for myself. We can take any bloodshed elsewhere.”
“I’d agree with you,” said Sol, “But before we lower our weapons, I think some things must be established, because you didn’t just skip out. We’ve reason to suspect that your sparring buddy was killed by you, or some of your Dzhima associates. I saw you palling up with them earlier, Edam, if that’s your name.”
“And all of you working together, setting up those hexes, it’s troubling,” said Korel, “We need to figure out who killed this man, and where his sister has gone, and all of you are prime suspects.”
Edam was as silent as death, and her judgment cowed Ana into not speaking. With the carved mask she was looking the part as well. Her wrath, a simmering anger that laid somewhere under her tight pupil, somehow redoubled her beauty. It was a rare sight, at least being on the receiving end of it. The wild tresses of her hair bristled and seemed as vipers, her whole body tensed and ready to release enough venom from a single tooth to kill the entire room. All of her was ready for combat, Ana could smell it in the air, taste it in her cheek and see it in all of her countenance. It was an aura of total annihilation.
Ana swallowed, and felt afraid that Edam’s glare would rip the spit straight out of her throat. It perished thought itself. What self she could collect managed to not cry out, to ask Edam to take her back, to arrest her and execute her if only it meant more time together, if only it meant a moment of closure. The low animal brain in her scolded herself. She had made the choice to live and survive. She would make good on it.
“I think a bit of truth would be of use to us all,” said Edam as she took a rattling breath, “Yes, there is a woman who may be of Darean descent among them – Nonya Erkha. A pregnant woman, I’m sure you’ve noticed her. Where did this murder happen?”
“Blackwood,” said Sol.
“And was the body exsanguinated?”
Korel stepped from one foot to the next.
“He- he might have been. Most corpses are pale, but he was more than-”
The connection sparked in Ana’s head. Before the revolution, Blackwood was a hunting ground. If a vampire wanted something that actually nourished them and their worms were already spent, they’d use places like Blackwood as a pantry. They were poor criminals that would not be missed, or political undesirables, or simply the unlucky. These days, the vampire partisans stuck to the far countryside, the mountains, riverways and the heaths where they could disappear just as quickly as they struck. A city was a place where they could be boxed in if they got caught.
It had happened before, too. When the reached its fever pitch in the revolution, the cities flooded with the rag-tag militias and the barricades locked in the nobility in their holes. Palatial homes not unlike Allatsha’s were put to swift sieges and eventually when the Shemarat dogs and the unruly ones had surrendered or been put down, they dragged them into the street. The trials were swift but fair. Ana had studied the cases for a long while.
It simplified things. Now all she had to do was make history repeat itself and find Maya. The difference was that their militia numbered only three. A former chaplain, a jealous witch, and a street urchin.
It wasn’t that far off from how rag-tag their predecessors were.
Edam, on the other hand, complicated things greatly. Standard procedure would say that she would drop everything, inform her comrades and begin the manhunt proper for her. She was a traitor, and more than that she was a liability. Even if they had no reason to suspect that she would leak information about their prisons, about the Antipodes, their movements and their methods, the mere potential of it was too dangerous to ignore.
Ana was starting to regret not fleeing the country while she had the chance.
“We’ve reason to believe at least five vampires are in Kallin right now,” said Edam, “One blueblood, several more redbloods and a blackblood. I think we’re looking for the same people.”
Sol clasped his hands together as he made the same connection. Korel nodded in agreement, confirming for all of them that it was the most plausible explanation. In the corner of Ana’s eye, she saw him smile under the half-mask.
“Excellent. Our goals are aligned. Again, I must apologize for the rudeness in accusing you, Miss Manguyaat. With that settled, we can put our weapons away and act a little more civilized, can’t we?”
“No,” said Edam, breaking her silence. It was quiet, hissed out.
“This woman is a wanted fugitive. And I will not be moved until I have answers from her.”
Another round of exchanged looks. Sol, worried. Manguyaat, puzzled. Korel, intrigued.
“My comrades will notice your interruption soon. They might already be on their way. The only thing saving all of you from a bullet to the chest is the length of the hallway,” said Edam, “We don’t need Allatsha’s approval. So you can get out, or this can be a bloodbath and nobody wins.”
“I feel like you must be mistaken,” said Sol.
“I know the sword on her hip. I know her voice. And I would not do this if I thought I was making a mistake.”
Ana interrupted Sol’s objection.
“Sol. It’s fine. This has been coming for me for a while now,” said Ana. Her shoulders slumped, and she set the pistol into her lap and moved the flint back to an uncocked position. Manguyaat put away her knife, slowly. One by one they left the room. Sol was last. He looked back as she left. His eyes took an affect that was very soft and worried.
And then, they were alone. Edam finally let her eyes relax, but kept the pistol in the same position, poised for a killing shot. Ana swallowed again.
“It’s too late to apologize,” said Ana, “But I’ll say that I’m sorry for hurting you anyways.”
She hung her head in shame.
“I know I’ve made you miserable. It was never my intent. I had hoped that it would be better if both of us never saw each other again. But the plans of the Godhead have brought us together again.”
“What providence,” said Edam again, “The same place, the same night, working on the same case.”
Ana’s voice cracked as she laughed. It made her giddy, being in the same room as Edam again. That, or it was the rush from facing down a loaded pistol.
“Just like we used to.”
“I feel like we both know where this is going,” said Edam, “Kneel.”
Ana shook her head.
“It doesn’t have to go like this.”
Edam was silent again. She inched forward, carefully placing a hand on Ana’s chest. For a moment Ana felt it too. Three heartbeats, evenly spaced. Her hand was gentle. It felt more awful than any knife.
“I’ll make a note that you didn’t kneel. By the law and authority of the Ecclesiastic Court-”
“Edam,” said Ana quietly, “I’m begging you.”
“-I find you guilty of the breach of the oath of an Inquisitor, in the first degree-”
“Don’t do this, don’t do this to yourself Edam, you have a right to kill me but do you want to?”
Edam droned on. She was trying to keep her voice monotone – Ana could feel it. Her eyes were somewhere else in the middle distance.
“-By the law and authority of the Ecclesiastic Court and the Church of the Sepulcher-”
“You will regret this for the rest of your life, Edam.”
She didn’t falter. Instead, she pushed the barrel into Ana’s chest.
“-I sentence you to death by fusillade, and by my authority as a Inquisitor, I hereby begin the proceeding of this execution. I have counted your heartbeats. Do you have any last words?”
Ana looked at the pistol again. Edam’s finger wasn’t on the trigger.
It was never on the trigger, thought Ana, But it’s poised right over it. She’s breaking from the protocol, even now.
“If you’re going to kill a woman who loves you, don’t hesitate,” said Ana, “Don’t hesitate, Edam.”
Edam’s hand shook.
“That’s what I thought.”
She pointed the gun away from Edam, towards a fireplace, and seemed wholly prepared to scream with rage. Ana felt guilty for even saying it, but it had saved her life. When she finally did speak, it was another hiss.
“Godhead damn you, Ana.”
Ana shook her head and let it hang low.
“No need. I’ve already damned myself.”
“Yes, I suppose you have,” said Edam, “I suppose you have. I just don’t understand why.”
“Why?” Asked Ana.
“The betrayal. The deal with the devil.”
Ana nodded. She wanted answers. It was the least she could do for Edam’s sake. To give less would be unfair to her.
“It seems foolish to say that I did such a selfish thing for your sake, but I did,” said Ana, “At the time, I knew I was going to die. And I couldn’t bear the thought of you finding me dead. A devil offered me life, so I chose to live.”
Edam trembled and Ana trembled in sympathy. When she spoke again, she felt the anger behind her voice.
“I understand that, but why- how could you have hurt me like this? I would have died for you, Ana.”
A low flame erupted in Ana’s mind. It wasn’t anger or frustration, or disappointment, but a midpoint between the three. It grew into the words that she didn’t have the strength to say before.
“And I killed for you. I lived for you. When I woke in the morning, I lived for you, and when I went to sleep I lingered at the edge of my dreams just to watch you a little longer. I clung to life when it seemed impossible just to see you again. I risked damnation for your sake. I am still risking it.”
Ana stood. Edam looked up at her, locking eyes. There was a moment of understanding between them. Ana knew she had to drive the point home.
“I could not be a martyr. I would not be a martyr. I will not hold it against you that you must now make best efforts to kill me. But you should know that I was trying to do what was best for you. I could not die for your sake, one way or the other.”
“And what was best for me injured me greatly,” said Edam. She broke eye contact, and stared again at the door.
“Yes. And I am sorry for that. I truly am,” said Ana, “And I still love you. And my offer still-”
“Don’t tempt me,” said Edam, “I am a virtuous, honest woman, and I do not have the right or the desire to love you, and I will not associate with – I cannot associate with-”
The words stung, but she understood them.
“It’s okay,” said Ana.
“I would, if only I could.”
Faintly, hope sparked. Ana put her pistol back in its place and extended a hand to Edam’s shoulder. An arm’s length became an inch. Her fingers extended, then clasped the soft, exposed skin. Edam looked up at her. She felt her chest shift, her shoulders loosen like she had when they had embraced.
Instead of reciprocating, she brushed Ana’s hand away, and stepped back.
“I can’t. I have my duties. You know that. And you would keep me from them – I can’t even keep to my oath to kill you when I’m face to face with you. There are people that need protecting.”
Ana nodded. She thought of Seonya, of Maya, of Ishka. Justice needed to be done and they both had their own promises to keep.
“Tonight, it looks like we’re aligned in that. What’s the plan?”
“What plan?” Asked Edam.
“Don’t act dumb,” said Ana, “If you’ve got five vampires, you’ve got a plan. I’ve got my reasons for wanting one of their heads too. So either we work together, or we crash our ideas into each other like idiots.”
Edam huffed. It was an adorable thing, even when she was frustrated, even when Ana knew that it was her that caused the frustration. She wanted to reach out again, but refrained. Half of her said that it wasn’t the right time – the other half said that it might be the last time. Eventually, she just fiddled with her own hands, hoping desperately that Edam might take them and fulfill her desires.
But she didn’t.
“Fine. You don’t have to be so insistent. Let’s walk out of here like we’re supposed to be together. I don’t want my cousin catching us.”
She pushed her own pistol into her handbag and walked out into the other waiting four. They walked out towards a back hallway, and she led them towards a back staircase. The four followed her and Ana’s lead. The path she took felt very intentional – Ana scanned the hallway, but there were no more of the hexes that had been placed around the upper floors in this corridor.
“I’m the bait,” she said as she walked, “A potential bodyguard. Or mark for eating. I’m not sure which they’ve decided on. Two others will trail me and them through the streets back to their hideout. At least, that’s the hope.”
Ana’s heart leapt up into her throat. Even if she was armed and capable of handling herself, the idea of Edam being in harm’s way so directly still made her quite anxious. Edam turned to them all. She had put the mask of confidence back on. There was no more uncertainty in her voice.
“None of you three will interfere directly, understand? Take spoils from the house after we leave, catch them as they flee, but you will not fight them with us.”
She was speaking to all of them, but the message was for Ana. Don’t blow her cover. Don’t make it messier for her than it already was. She felt it in her bones. Ana nodded.
“Korel can keep an eye on things. Let us find what we need. Right?”
“Right,” said Korel. He had agreed that he’d act as a way of surveilling the city from above, if they needed it.
“We’ll be discreet,” said Sol, “It’s a specialty of mine.”
“Alright then. We’re agreed. Don’t get in my way.”
With that, Edam made her descent away from them, into the party once more. Manguyaat eyed them all with suspicion before doing the same. As soon as they were in privacy again, Korel’s stance shifted. Ana already knew what was going to be asked.
“So, you two know each other?”
“It’s a long story,” said Ana.
“Who’s she with? City watch? The military?”
“The less you ask, the happier you’ll be,” said Ana, “Let’s just say that getting involved with her would probably be bad for your health.”
“Do I need to be worried about you living in my house?” intoned Sol.
“No, Sol. We… I think we’ve come to an understanding. I hope we have.”
Ana really did hope so.
The sky darkened as the party wore down, and provided perfect cover for the little, beady-eyed raven that fluttered high above them. He was an inky shadow in the setting sun, leading them through the maze of the garden, through the ordered maze of the streets, returning time and again to give them a little closer direction by pointing his beak. Sol kept close to Ana, watching their flanks and their back as they advanced through the street.
The shops were closing, one by one, shuttering their doors for the night. Houses glowed with the low light of fireplaces, candles and lamps, bureaucrats and politicians and rich merchants alike burning a little longer so that they could work on their papers into the night. It was very silent, in spite of the sheer mass of people that was all around them in the houses and the buildings. Even here, Ana felt out of place. She wasn’t even rich enough to beg out in this part of town.
Then again, if she was out of place, the raven was even further. Seagulls and feral pigeons seemed to be the primary carrion-eaters in the city, congregating in great flocks outside of the butcheries and fisheries. The raven was by far more wild, made with fringed feathers and a sharp bill to pierce the hides of the dead. He ranged far away from them again to scout out their quarries.
Eventually, Ana spoke up.
“Doesn’t that unsettle you? An animal acting like that?”
“He’s not an animal, he’s a person.”
“I suppose,” said Ana.
“And he’s on our side.”
“I guess that’s a good thing, yes. Just unsettling, that’s all.”
“I’d be more worried about people that act like animals than animals that act like people,” said Sol, “Of the two, people are far more dangerous.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Ana listlessly.
“I need to ask again…”
“It’s fine. I can give you a good explanation as to who she works for and what her aim is when all of this is over, but she’s – she’s a complicated case. She has to hunt me, but I don’t think she wants to find me again,” said Ana.
It was a shame, too. Some part of Ana wanted to be found by her. Now that there was a little distance, all the longing and sadness of leaving Edam had been reignited in her in full. Seeing her in action – that had only made it worse. She felt that Edam was by far the better of the two. She had the strength to keep to her duties, even when they meant so much pain. Ana felt like a coward in comparison.
The raven roved back into sight once more. There was a loud popping noise in Ana’s ear, and as she blinked the raven was a man once more.
“They’ve stopped,” said Korel, “It looks like they’re at a short house, on the right a block from here, but two of them dodged off. That Edan lady couldn’t make them stay. They’ve stopped in an alleyway a while from here. I think they’re about to-”
A gunshot echoed over the paving stones, muffled by the distance, then two more. There was a howling like that of an animal. The city itself seemed to rustle and rouse from the conflict, murmurs and yells filling the streets from the houses.
“We need to make chase on the other two,” said Korel, ”Let’s move.”
Ana felt glad that she had chosen a dress that was roomy enough to run in. She still felt uncertain about how practical it would be, and it itched her skin, but it would have to do. She set a hand on the pistol hidden in a pocket on her hip, the other to the blade on the opposite side as they ran. Two turns and a thin strip of paving stone later they found themselves on the scene of something grisly. Blood trailed from the alleyway to the half-light of the next street. A wild, furry beast shivered in the red wetness, spread a set of leathery black wings and sprung up from the earth, flapping away into the night. At first Ana tried to step over the blood, but it quickly became clear that it had mixed in with a muddied puddle, and that in it there was some unrecognizable internal organ.
All the while, a sound filled the air. It was soft at first, almost like that of a piece of cloth rustling in the wind. It back swifter, wetter, as they advanced step by step down the alley. Sol produced a wand from his coat. Korel took out his metal ward and a bird totem. Soon enough, Ana became convinced that it was not the sound of wind but that of sawing through flesh.
They turned the corner. At first, Ana could not properly parse what she was seeing. She focused instead on the sensible, orderly things first. A washerwoman cowered on a stoop on the opposite side of the street, unable to look away and unable to move from sheer horror. One of the vampires, a tall man with a deer’s mask, shifted his gaze to the three of them as they turned the corner. His shoulder bore another bat, chittering away into his ear.
The rest could only be comprehended by inches. The woman that had been pregnant, the one she had spied with Edam at the party, was kneeling down over a pile of open entrails. Ana tried to spot a sensible body through the haze of gore, but nothing could be made of it. Instead her eyes were driven to the woman’s opened belly.
She had slit herself open like a fish. Shreds of dress and stretched, bloodied skin had fallen to the ground. And the knife – the knife still sawed away, ripping open her insensate body. She looked up at them, and then to the washerwoman, and tore away the mask with one hand, revealing her face in full. There was some horrible lithic thing in her – not quite a stone – it lived and pulsed like an organ yet looked at the same time hard, a roiling gray-red ocean of flesh where her entrails ought to have been. Dark circles ensconced her wild eyes, which rolled back like those of a dog. As if on cue the washer-woman cried out and vomited as the woman angled her knife further into her belly.
She stared over to the woman’s stunned distress before laughing with a perverse glee, a high-pitched, unnatural cackle. Ana knew at once what she was – a redblooded vampire. Nothing else could explain it.
It was one motion to move her pistol from its position at her hip to the ready. Another to cock the flint. Another to pull the trigger. It happened so automatically that Ana did not even think to consider what the vampire’s goal was in cutting her belly open.
What happened next was equally hard to process. The powder-smoke blew away in the evening breeze as the vampire-woman writhed on the street, twitching and spitting. The gray sac of her belly seemed to twitch again around the still-smoking hole in it. Then, it deflated like a skein of water being emptied. A beady black head emerged from the open wound before stubby chitinous legs and a bloodied proboscis, and more emerged from beneath her where the bullet had exited. Dozens of them. Some were so small as to only be little black dots, coated in a wet amniotic fluid; some so large as to be the size of a man’s clenched fist.
They were ticks. All of them were ticks. They swarmed over the pavement in a sticky black cloud, inching closer on stubby legs. She clambered to a standing position before cutting the rest of what remained of her belly loose, her legs and skirt thoroughly soaked in gore. She rolled her neck as if this was some kind of routine for her.
“No manners,” she yelled across to them, “Not letting me introduce you to my children myself. Oh well. I hope you enjoy playing with them!”
As the arachnids advanced, the woman turned tail and began to run, no longer weighed down by her offspring. The man took the antler from his mask and wielded it like a blade in one hand, before bearing down on them, just as sure as the vermin.
One thought on “A Celebration of Lesser Evils 3.6”
immensely fucked up – i dig it