Among the apprentice Inquisitors, the trainees, there was a sort of game played between them called the flinching game. It was a terribly simple game, with no real strategy or finesse to it, beyond skill in storytelling. The rules were quite simple though and that made it easy to spread as a way of passing the time when there was nothing else left to do. First there was something put up, usually a shift on chores or covering a watch. Then, each person told a story. It had to be a true story – true stories were the best ones to tell, anyways, one could tell when someone was exaggerating this sort of thing just to win the game, and then The ones who flinched the most at the tales, when it was done, lost. Even the most novice of the lot had seen a thing or two, but Ana rarely lost. Her stomach had grown accustomed to that sort of thing long before she even started in that business.
Still, they were memorable stories. Most of the Inquisitors willing to teach were quick to find a case that would inculcate an idea of the seriousness of the work. There was one game where three of them – Shena, Eletsikh and Ana herself – all played a round. Shena told a rather mundane tale. It was a case of mass hysteria around a dreary incident. People swore that the killings were so horrible as to be impossible for it to be something so simple as murder, that it had to be witchcraft. Shena and her teacher arrived to find three dead. A father had killed his wife and his son who lived with him before shooting himself through the head. No witchcraft needed.
Eletsikh said he had been put over the mountains into Agora for knowing the language. Deep in the range, they found a coven of witches who had been practicing a foul form of sorcery. They had made a scare-crow thing, tall as a man, and turned it into a watcher with the bones from robbed graves with the intent to rob others. All wicker and twigs and cloth tarp. It was an intimidating enough sight that most of the people who met it gave up their valuables immediately. The ones that didn’t, though, were killed with great cruelty. It had been imbued with a sorcery that could make the skin and muscle brittle as pottery. The bodies they found were strewn about, shattered half by the brute and half by the force of their own muscles.
Ana, though, she had won that round. She told them about the first time she had seen a dead body. It wasn’t terribly grisly, all things considered. She hadn’t known his name, but he was a homeless fellow who just couldn’t seem to keep away from drinking. All yellow around his edges and blistered lips and grubby fingers under grimy cloth wraps. He haunted the same places that Ana had in her youth and one gray winter morning she found him impaled in three different places by a spiked fence. Whether he had fallen or jumped, she never knew, but the clincher, the thing that made them flinch, was mentioning she was only fourteen at the time.
Now, though, she was certain that she had a story that would have won every round. Nonya’s guts had thoroughly fell out in her hasty retreat and in the brief moments therein Ana had spotted the interior of her belly. It was almost like pits in the interior of a pomegranate dotting her womb – or perhaps some kind of egg-sac? – from which yet another tick fell as she dashed out of sight. The gray-carapaced ticks now thoroughly carpeted the street in a blanket of scuttling limbs. The washerwoman fled down a back alley without another word, leaving the three of them to face down the vampire and the plague of arachnids.
Ana and Sol began to do the rational thing – the near-instinctive thing, when faced down with vermin. Ana at once raised her foot, and brought it down hard on the first one to reach her. Its noise had scaled with its unnatural size, squealing as it crunched under a sturdy shoe. One pawed at her ankles and tried to pierce her skin with a sharpened proboscis. Ana kicked it away and retreated from them. For all their intimidating size, they weren’t particularly fast.
Meanwhile, Bena had taken the initiative. He swung high at Korel with the antler, then low in an unbalanced stance. At once, Korel kicked him in the crotch. Seemingly unfazed, he stabbed Korel in the arm. Korel howled for a moment before the wall of ticks took Ana’s attention again. Even with more stomping, the ravenous little things didn’t seem to have much space for brains, and they threatened to totally overrun them and force them back down the alley. The respite was that some of them didn’t seem intelligent enough to focus on her and Sol. Some crawled toward open window-sills and towards cracked doors. Others down the alley where the washer-woman had run.
Ana fretted momentarily as she brought her foot down on another one. She doubted any of them could take so much blood individually, but if they attacked a child, a baby-
There was no time. Better to kill as many now to stop as much harm as possible later. She briefly considered fire, but that was far more risky. Houses and tenements were further apart here but even still one going ablaze risked the entire neighborhood catching with it. She quickly made a fist around her bracelet and let a small blast down at the swarm. A troop of the ticks scattered; the one at the center was dashed against the wall of a bakery. She tried to get her bearings as she cleared away another grouping of them.
All the while, Korel had done a great job of trying to keep the vampire occupied. He was a little worse for wear, certainly – the wound on his arm seemed nasty, but the vampire looked equally bad, if not worse. Sol was struggling. A raw panic had filled up his face and they were near to cornering him down at the wall of a house. Ana covered him, placing another shattering of green light near him just as one lept from the stones to the cloth of his pant leg and drove down its proboscis like an awl.
Much to Ana’s relief, the pain seemed to be an antidote to the panic. At once he kicked it away and stomped down the next one to come close. Ana struggled through the lot of them, alternating between tamping the ticks down and kicking them away from herself. She took the opportunity to draw her sword. Soon there was a sensible sort of rhythm to it, and she managed to make her way down the alley to Sol, now some twenty paces from the vampire and Korel. The swarm had loosened and whatever low cunning that the ticks had made more and more of them avoid their tramping feet. Only the bravest nipped at their heels and crawled to the hem of Ana’s dress to find purchase. The rest hovered and waited for even the slightest sign of weakness, not much thinner in numbers than before. At first, Ana had thought them entirely eyeless, blind, but after a moment’s observation she realized that they did have beady little eye spots that sat far apart on their bodies, not their black heads. Some scurried even from her looking at them.
Like a scolded child, thought Ana.
It was not moments later that a cry came from Korel again. There was a popping, a sudden blurring of the shape of reality in the space where he was. His arm pulled away at an unnatural angle, forced by some combination of the prong of the horn and mana and blood filled the air. Then, like that, a raven sailed away to the top of a sign that hung over the bakery, before the man perched there again. His arm wasn’t broken, but it hung limp, and the new wound looked far deeper than the previous.
Bena looked up at him. Somehow, Korel had gotten in a shot at his jaw, and it looked far worse than what Korel had sustained. The left of his lip had been ruined, revealing shiny white teeth and blood-red gums. Of course, it was only an illusion of injury. At worst, he’d take two weeks to recover, and he wouldn’t even carry a scar. He snarled like an animal up at the wounded figure. Korel rebalanced on his three good limbs.
Ana took the opportunity. She ran over to the beast and stuck him in the breast with the sword before relinquishing it. It soaked the fine white of his shirt before she slashed at him again, and this time he caught the blade in the prong of the horn before leveraging it to throw her to the side. He was terribly strong and before she could even think, the vampire had made the movement to just the prong into the back of her arm. It had been sharpened at its points, and for a brief moment, the pain spiked unnaturally as it entered her flesh. It was as if the bone itself had become alive again and was now trying to grow into her.
At once, she retreated to a distance, bringing her sword back to the ready. It was too late though – the ticks had sensed a moment of weakness and fell on her calamitously. One bit leapt to her thigh, another to a higher part of her dress. She tried to bat them away with the tip of her pistol, shattering one and spreading its glassy yellow blood on her dress. The other scuttled around a moment, harsh legs digging deep into her flesh until its mouthparts found their home in her leg.
She yelped, stumbled, then steadied her stance to receive a bullish charge from the vampire. Thinking on her feet wasn’t fast enough. The vampire showed no caution in impaling himself on the blade to reach her like a boar to a spear. It pierced his belly until he could make a swing at her throat, one she only narrowly avoided by taking a step back. She felt the blade slide against a bone, a vertebra or rib, and eventually she managed to pull it free. She pushed herself further back, to a safer distance. The deer-mask and low light made his face seem dark and intimidating, and his eyes carried an awful glow like that of a cat – an inhuman predator ready to strike. He moved forward again, and this time Ana let the azure mana to spark in the sword. This time, when he tried to make the same move, he found himself pinned by the blade too far to reach her, the hilt having extended itself to meet him.
Finally, there was a moment to think, to recall the order of things. These wounds to his organs and bones were meaningless, though he struggled and wailed like a stuck pig. A stake to the heart or incineration, that would do him in, but incapacitation of his limbs was the safest way of keeping him out of the fight. They had only a little time before the Inquisitors would finish their fight with their quarries and clear the house. Not to mention that there was Maya in the mix – it was safest to presume she was alive. You could get more blood out of a living man than a dead one, and more than that Ana hoped that she would live. Meanwhile, the vampire took the time to complain and try to extricate himself from the blade.
“Ugh. A spear? Really-”
He gasped and his breath faltered. Perhaps she had punctured a lung.
“-Do thou think I’m an animal?”
He threw the mask away, and with it all the pretenses of modern civility. It scattered on the ground as he next took out a hairpin to let long, black hair loose. With one last mighty backstep, he pulled himself free. Ana let the hilt recede and took the opportunity to scrape one the ticks from her calf with her foot. Ana’s heart incensed itself, and heated even further at the next words.
“Nameless, faceless villains. Pushing the innocent and pure into the ground. I will not die like my father had, waiting for a death while being tortured on the gallows.”
Villain. An old monarchist term for a disobedient peasant. Ana breathed out, holstered her pistol, and threw away her own mask. Cool air brought goosebumps to her face.
“I’m sorry you missed out on the fun seventy years ago,” said Ana, “Let’s give you your rightful inheritance for your homecoming.”
She kept half an eye on Sol. He was moving quite carefully, avoiding the ticks where he could, aiming the wand. Their gazes met briefly.
There was a green flash from his hands and the earth itself seemed to rebel against their feet. The ticks scattered and crumpled into the cracks in the stone as it came back down into place to crush them. It avoided Ana though as the paving stones uprooted themselves and formed crude cuffs around the feet of the vampire. Ana lunged again, this time aiming for the sinews in the vampire’s chest. She brought the blade down on his shoulder with all her might, and carved a path through to his breast, shaving away clods of flesh and fabric. She could have aimed for the eyes, but that was a more difficult target. It didn’t seem to take, though. He leveled the hand out and aimed the pin that was clutched in his fist until a cruel light emerged from it. It felt as if she was being stabbed in the eye even looking at the damn thing, and when it struck Korel again, he fell to the earth with a shriek. Ana gasped.
In an instant, there was more blurring, and a glimpse of something enormous, feathered, twice the size of a man and many-limbed before a woman emerged from the loose folds of the unreal sight. Vella charged out of the spell and got in close, grabbing his hand and wrestling the pin from his hand. The stones faltered, giving for a moment before Sol altered his aim to meet where the vampire was standing.
The vampire gave Vella a vicious backhand to the stomach, unrestricted by any human constraints on the force that a muscle could exert. Ana covered her retreat, extending the hilt once more and stabbing deep into the space above the vampire’s knee joint. He tried to tear the limb free, and in doing so tore up his ankle as well before taking another plodding step free of the stone and gravel. Some of the ticks arrayed around him, trying to gum up the works of the wand. It was enough space for him to move, and he took the opportunity to charge at Sol. Ana lunged for him a moment too late. There was a light blue glow, and the sharpened antler expanded and grew like the branches of a tree, a bush of bone and spines, wailing it against Sol’s upraised arm.
He was cornered – literally up against the walls of a brick tenement. Ana and Vella moved to intervene-
With a flick of Sol’s wrist, a brick wrested itself from the house, shattering the wreath. He took fist to the chest from the vampire but held fast, grappling with him till they were at the same height, then dodging his head down.
Another brick was flung from the wall, straight into the side of the vampire’s head. It stuck there, brown-grey stone staining red, and with another flick of Sol’s wrist, there was the horribly distinct sound of a skull shattering at the weak point in the temporal bone. He staggered away dumbstruck, trying to pull something from his coat pocket as he moved. His hands shook before he fell to his knees, smashing a tick beneath one of them in the process. One half of his face twitched and seized; the other half went totally limp and expressionless, without any semblance of thought. He fell to the earth bleeding and frothing at the mouth.
All of them breathed a sigh of relief for the moment of respite. Vella seemed to breathe more in pain than anything. Her arm hung limp at the shoulder, and something seemed slightly off about it. Whatever the pin had done, it had narrowly missed her chest, leaving her bleeding from her other shoulder.
There wasn’t any time to waste. Ana took care around the ticks before wresting the antler out of the vampire’s clenched hand and stowing it in one of her pockets. She placed another stab into the back of the thing’s bad leg. She made a butchery of the surgery, but Ana didn’t feel particularly bad about mutilating a monster. It almost filled her with a little pride. She stared up to one of the sturdy laundry lines where some white linens sat.
No, she thought, Too much effort to give him a peasant’s death. The Inquisition will be nipping at our heels soon.
Sol looked a little worse for wear. The antler wreath had scraped his cheek and arm, but more than that he looked faint, suffering from the intense effects of the verdure.
“Are you staying upright?” Asked Ana.
“I’ll manage,” said Sol, “Feel worse than I am. Thanks for covering for me.”
“We need to find some wood, sharpened up. Or burn him safely, but I don’t think we could do that without risking setting some of these houses on fire.”
The vampire released an incomprehensible moan. He scrabbled against the paving stones with his nails, rolling back and forth.
Vella simply muttered an incomprehensible series of slurs before composing herself. She gingerly touched her limp shoulder before cringing again.
“I think it’s dislocated. Hurt a lot to fly on.”
“We need to move,” said Ana, “They’ll catch-”
Almost as soon as she tried to give reassurance, the scrabbling hands of the vampire found some sense and grasped the brick, pulling it from his skull. He rose bit by bit, and now Ana could see the full extent of the wound. It had shattered most of the left side of his skull, a dent so deep that no mortal could have survived it. Bits of brain matter and skull stuck to the removed brick, and Ana could see straight into the bloody remainder of his mind.
“Fucking… peasants… foreigners… taking my country…”
“Shut up,” said Ana, stabbing him in the knee again, “Edam’s people will be on us soon. We can track the, uh, mother.”
The vampire crumpled and gurgled in pain once more.
Ana pointed to the way she went. Some of the ticks had started to disperse in that direction, and the bloody trail and bits of the gray womb-ootheca that had been discarded made a clear path.
“Oh,” said Vella, “I – agh – we can move. My legs still work. Flying is going to be out of the question though.”
Then, there was another noise – distinct from the little panic that was spreading throughout the neighborhood and the groaning of the vampire. It was jangling, slow and steady, with a sort of odd rhythm to it. Ana turned to the darkened alley where they had come down.
Manguyaat emerged from the dark. She was using her ring-stave as a walking stick, three rings clanking against each other like little bells.
“She’s right,” said Manguyaat, “They’re clearing out the house as we speak.”
She stepped between them, and placed the end of her stave to the vampire’s throat.
“This one is mine, understand?”
There was a tone to her voice – steady, but hardly contained hatred sitting just beneath. She looked at each of their wounds, and there was an understanding that if she so desired, she would fight them for the right to kill this man. Sol said something very quickly in what sounded like Sondi, and then there was a change of register to Gveert.
Manguyaat moved her head to the side quizzically, and responded in kind, equally fast.
Sol nodded and smiled before waving her goodbye and moving towards the bloody trail. Ana and Vella followed shortly behind, trodding over the ticks as they went.
All of their shoes were ruined. They were so covered in the blood of the arachnid, and they stank of something vaguely coppery, not quite that of human blood. She’d have to get rid of them and get new ones. And so much for renting out the dress clothes. She wasn’t sure how she’d pay for them now, but they were certainly useless to the poor tailor, so stained with blood and that same sticky, honey-like vermin fluid.
The trail, though, was clear enough, and that kept her head straight and away from thoughts of the future. Once they were a safe distance away, they found a resting spot, and Vella braced herself against the wall of the alley. She looked up at Sol and Ana resentfully before presenting the dislocated shoulder.
“Alright, get it over with,” she said as she stuffed the cuff of her shirt into her mouth.
Sol grimaced, and took her arm up until it was at a more sensible position, then readied himself.
“On the count of three. Three, two,” he said, not waiting for one as he pushed the joint back into place with a single swift motion. Vella grunted and spat the cuff out.
“Why did you-”
“Gets it over with quicker,” said Sol, “Apologies for the poor manners, but it hurts worse if it comes when you’re anticipating it. Keep moving.”
They made pace through the streets, the yelling and murmuring of the scared people now further behind them. Ana kept her head down at the sight of windows. Occasionally a prying eye would peer through. She didn’t need her face to become too well known. The ticks occasionally would entreat them from dark corners or unexpected angles, far from the swarm before but still an annoyance. She batted one from Sol’s back; another had to be scraped off of Vella’s arm after it jumped on from a windowsill, leaving a clean, circular wound there. At times the trail ran thicker, or thinner, but it was ever present – no amount of bandages could ever stem the flow of a wound that size.
“There’s a blueblood in among them,” said Ana, “We need to be careful. Retreat is always an option.”
“Agreed,” said Sol, “It seems like there were at least two groups here. They were headed back to meet with another, but it was interrupted by Edam.”
“That’s a good assumption,” said Ana, “We could be leading ourselves to Maya.”
“Or right into a trap,” added Vella, “There’s no doubt that they’ll be ready for a fight. Even with most of these vermin thinned out, they’ll be a threat…”
She trailed off, thinking.
“No, you’re right. If we can, we should get into this hypothetical second hideout surreptitiously,” said Ana.
There was an air of agreement between them all, and soon enough the trail came to an end at a menacing, forlorn wooden house. It was modern, but old enough that it was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The gutters had started to grow green, and there was a faint smell of wood rotting. Disrepair was going to visit it soon enough. The trail led up to the door. Sol took the point, and led them around to the back, beneath the stoop where another door sat. He tried the handle, which had also grown green not with plant life but with an unpleasant verdigris. It rattled, but didn’t budge. Ana thought quickly.
“Vella, do you still have that pin?”
Vella nodded and handed it over. Ana took the point, and put her ear up to the door. As soon as she put her ear to the flaking paint, she heard the thunking of a deadbolt undoing itself, as if by some invisible hand. Then another thunk. Then another, even lower than the last, and finally a locking mechanism undoing itself gear by gear and pin by pin. When she placed her improvised lockpick into the hole, it was already done, and after fiddling with it for a second in mock, she turned the knob smoothly and opened the door without a sound.
Someone was talking a few rooms over. Two women, and a rustling like that of papers being shuffled about. The home was more well cared for on the inside than out, its walls well-furnished with art and the floor had been swept recently. It was dark, though – Ana was certain that the dirtied windows provided very little purchase for the light during the day, and now that night was encroaching all the walls seemed black as pitch.
They all stopped, uncertain of what to do.
Ana made the first move, creeping in bit by bit. Vella took the form of a crow, slowly creeping through without even a hint of fluttering, and Sol followed, still keeping things as quiet as he could. At first, the words were all mumbled and without much sense to be made of them, but quickly she was able to get the gist of the conversation. One was definitely the formerly-pregnant vampire.
“…Mother, he’s my husband. We can’t-”
“We’re leaving, Nonya. We’ll get you a new one soon enough.”
A stomping on wooden boards. More fluttering, shifting paper. They made a turn down into a kitchen which was an odd combination of high and low class. The pots and plates were all iron and simple wood, but the utensils were made of gold. The natural preference for vampires, since silver could give them a more permanent scarring.
“Mother, I have waited for him for nearly sixty years! You can’t do this to me.”
“I can’t do this to you? Look at what you’ve done to me. Left me childless-”
“My babies count!”
“They do not. For the last time, they do not count. It is not my fault that-”
The other voice went into a low whisper as they turned another corner. For a second, Ana felt confused. The layout of the house didn’t make any sense – the hallway that led left was a simple dead end to a darkened corner. They ignored the oddity of the architecture and started down the opposite hall. The voices went quiet for a short while before starting again, a little more muffled. Then, Ana heard it – a soft, muffled crying from down the hall. Someone was alive down there. Gagged.
Ana steeled herself. They were leaving. They just needed to hunker down for a moment and find the woman, and they could leave after.
“But what shall we do with the peasant girl, mother?”
“Dispose of her. But first, I believe we have company to greet.”
There was another shuffling, and now the whole thing clicked in her mind. It wasn’t papers. Her eyes met Sol’s. He had realized too.
They turned just in time to see the darkened corner shift and warp under its own musculature. It wasn’t a corner at all, but flesh – the dark and leathery flesh of a vast wing. Ana’s heart skipped a beat as the room was revealed to them, twin pale faces ready filled with wrath.
A blueblood, in the flesh. Ana steadied her breath and drew her sword again. She had trained for this. All that needed to be done was execute on the plan.