Vampire thrall can perhaps most usefully be considered as a kind of hybrid of hypnotism and sedation. Its effects vary depending on the individual vampire involved, as well as the victim’s susceptibility, but in general one can expect to experience analgesia, euphoria, diminishment or total loss of consciousness, and—afterward—total amnesia of the space of time between the initiation and withdrawal of influence.
And complete and utter obedience to any suggestion made while under that influence, of course. Someone under a vampire’s thrall will happily walk off a building if instructed to do so by the vampire. Most often this facet finds its use in the replacement of memories lost during the event: You will remember only that you left the club because you had a headache, and will return home as usual.
For Greta, there was absolutely nothing between hearing the voice behind her—Excuse me, miss, I wonder if you could help me—and being on her knees, in some dim enclosed space, with her hands tied behind her and the unmistakable smell of blood heavy in the air. It was a mental jump cut, and she recognized it at once—she’d experienced it once or twice before, when she’d voluntarily undergone thralling.
This time she hadn’t given consent.
Everything went cold and clear and slow, as it had done once before in the front seat of her Mini, with a poisoned knife held against her throat.
The chamber was some sort of cave, lit by hanging lamps that did not flicker, though made to look as if they should. They must be in the catacombs somewhere—this wasn’t a cellar, this space was cut out of the living rock. The walls were hung with some kind of dark rich woven stuff. Underneath her knees the floor was covered with Turkish carpets layered on one another like the scales of a moth’s wing.
And in front of her, on a huge, high, dark, carven chair—a chair clearly meant to resemble a throne—sat a vampire. He was very definitely a vampire. If the bright-red eyes hadn’t given him away, the black flowing hair with a defined widow’s peak would have, along with the pale hands steepled in front of him, their long colorless nails filed to a point. Or the way he smiled at her with his mouth slightly open, so that she could see the elongated canines resting on his lower lip. One of them gleamed silvery-bright.
Also, he sparkled.
It was just a little bit, here and there, high on his cheekbones, the planes of his throat in the open V of his shirt collar, but he sparkled, and Greta—despite her daze—thought: Body glitter?
Other people registered in her peripheral vision. More vampires. More sparkly vampires; all of them were wearing fancy clothes, velvet and chiffon and leather and lace. None appeared to be older than their mid-twenties, which didn’t actually mean much—but one of them, a girl with improbably red hair, couldn’t have been more than a teenager when she was turned. There was a lot of jewelry. The smell of incense and perfume hung in the air, thick and cloying, underneath the coppery stink of blood.
The vampire on the throne leaned forward, looking at her over his steepled hands. A ruby ring the size of a kumquat glowed on his right ring finger. His leather trousers creaked.
“Dr. Greta Helsing, I presume?” he said in English. In slightly accented English.
“Who are you?” she said, and thought somewhat hysterically, I am being held captive underground by a vampire wearing body glitter, with the remains of a Yorkshire accent and apparently no sense of irony at all.
“I am Corvin,” he said grandly. “And you are my guest. My special guest. It’s a great honor. Isn’t it, Lilith?”
He turned and beckoned, and a woman came out of the shadows to stand beside his throne and stare at Greta with undisguised dislike. She was stunning. Her hair was paler than Greta’s own, a true platinum silver-blonde, and dressed in long, lush ringlets partly caught up in a knot that glowed with scattered jewels. Her skin was absolutely marble-white, under the faint iridescent touch of glitter, and there was a lot of it on display; her gown, a complicated and thoroughly engineered affair of black silk and lace, left her shoulders bare and her bosom—that was a bosom, no doubt about it—just barely on this side of decency; a necklace of rubies shone like vast drops of wine, or blood, around her snowy throat. In this light it was difficult to tell, but Greta thought she might be wearing purple contacts; her eyes were certainly made up with a great deal of care, and her mouth was a perfectly drawn masterpiece.
And then she opened that mouth and said in a kind of elongated whine, “Do we have to keep her here?”
A flicker of irritation crossed Corvin’s face. “Of course,” he said. “I let you keep your toys, don’t I?”
“That’s different,” Lilith said. “My boys are beautiful. This one’s ugly. I don’t like her.”
“We will discuss this later, Lilith,” he said with an edge in his voice, the accent more pronounced, and Greta thought, Sheffield? “As I was saying,” he continued, turning his attention back to Greta as if he had realized the scene was losing its dramatic focus, “you are my guest, and will remain my guest for as long as I choose to keep you here; and I am afraid your friends will find no trace of you, dear Doctor. No matter how hard they might try.”
She was conscious of the hard hammering of blood in her ears, the fine sweat of adrenaline standing out on her skin. Everything was still cold and clear and slow, and she still had no idea why the hell she was down here.
“No words for me?” Corvin said, dripping with condescension. “Don’t you appreciate my hospitality?”
“It’s a bit different from the Hotel Le Meurice,” she said, unable to stop herself, and then wondered if she was going to end the day by having her throat torn out by a bunch of idiots somewhere under Paris.
Corvin’s face hardened. “Take her away, Grisaille, and see she is accommodated appropriately.”
Strong, narrow hands closed around Greta’s shoulders, and she was lifted effortlessly to her feet—and held, while her legs decided they wanted to try bearing her weight again. “As you command,” her captor said, and she recognized the voice, well-mannered, accentless, I wonder if you could help me, and thought of red eyes in the dark.
“This way,” he said, behind her, and she was actually grateful for the support of the hands around her upper arms as he propelled her along a corridor, away from Corvin’s audience chamber. “I’m afraid we haven’t got the ensuite marble bathrooms, madame, but one must expect certain privations whilst traveling in foreign parts.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“That would be telling,” he said, and she heard in the voice a kind of amused self-mockery. It felt familiar; the phrase was a quote from some old TV show she’d watched with her father, wasn’t it? The Prisoner. She was almost sure, and flying on adrenaline and lack of any useful options, she gave him another: a line she remembered from the show, but also a question she wanted answered.
“What do you want?”
He chuckled, turning them down another passageway, this one less brightly lit. There were… bars, set into the wall. Bars and a door. It was a cell. An actual cell. He stopped; let go of her with one hand to turn a massive, ancient iron key in its lock; and dragged open the door.
Greta didn’t try to pull free—for one thing, the hand around her other arm felt like iron itself, and for another, she had absolutely no idea which way to run. Not to mention that her hands were still tied behind her back.
He let go of her entirely, and then gave her a little push between the shoulder blades; she stumbled forward, into the cell, and turned to face him for the first time. It was the man from the Opera, all right; the dim light caught his dark silvering hair in a waterfall of narrow dreadlocks down his back, and she could see his scarlet eyeshine. If he was wearing glitter, it wasn’t visible.
He pushed the door closed behind her. “Information,” he said, and now it wasn’t an answer, but simply quoting the scene.
“You won’t get it,” she said, meaning it in both senses, and she could see him smile without a great deal of humor.
“By hook or by crook,” he said, almost regretfully, and turned the key with a screech of ancient metal, “we will.”
* * *
At about the same time, a hundred feet above and a few miles away, Alceste St. Germain got up from the table he’d been sitting at for the past hour and a half, and walked out of the bar.
He was sufficiently tall and broad that very few people took the time to point out to him that Alceste was a girl’s name. His mother had seen Molière’s Le Misanthrope shortly after its premiere, and it had apparently left an impression; and the young St. Germain had very quickly attained a size and stature that dissuaded people from saying anything about it where he might overhear.
Born in a small village in the province of Gévaudan, he had, in fact, grown so large and strong that his parents had had him quickly apprenticed to the local blacksmith in hopes of channeling that strength into something more constructive than getting into an endless series of embarrassing scrapes. St. Germain had taken to the work at once. In the forge he was able to make things, not just useful things but beautiful things—although a properly balanced blade was a thing of beauty in its own right—and his masterpiece showed an uncommon facility for rendering a kind of delicacy in the medium of iron.
He had set up his own smithy in the neighboring town, and had enjoyed a career of about nineteen highly satisfactory years before, one night, encountering something in the woods that had yellow eyes and a great many teeth. The eyes—two lamps of yellow, in the dark—had been the only thing he’d remembered very clearly for months, while he tried to climb out of the hole of black madness that had followed the werewolf’s bite; but he had climbed out, and he had learned, slowly, to be a person again.
A person with a tiresome but permanent condition. One that meant he had to be very careful of certain metals and metal alloys, and that one week out of every month he had to be extremely cautious who laid eyes on him; but all in all, those were not such drastic or terrible handicaps. And he liked being the wolf. There was a certain profound and simple satisfaction in knowing that you could bite directly through somebody’s femur without so much as loosening a tooth; and few people stopped to argue with an animal that stood about four foot six at the shoulder, with implacable amber eyes. It was also of use that he could, when he put a little effort into it, render himself nearly unnoticeable to ordinary human eyes—except in bright sunlight, when the shadow he cast remained visible.
St. Germain stalked through twilit Paris with his senses idling, not on alert. He could never switch off his nose: that was a constant, even in human form. The intense barrage of sensory input had been the hardest thing to learn to bear in the beginning, but now he could compartmentalize.
He knew every inch of this city—had been here for a few hundred years now, watched it change, watched parts of it rot, and burn, and fall, and rise again.
He had come to Paris just before everything really went to hell the first time, before Necker’s dismissal and Camille Desmoulins’s impromptu and incendiary speech on a café table; and he had been here ever since. Through the revolutions, through the famines, through the Commune and the wars and the occupations, St. Germain had been part of the city, taken it into his heart, spent his time walking its streets and keeping an eye on things—helping where he could, preventing harm where it was possible. Slowly the supernatural community of Paris had recognized in him both a resource and a protector, and these days he was known as the unofficial guardian of the city. Every big metropolis had at least one, even if he’d been a little distracted just recently by the manuscript he was working on, a popular history of Paris he’d been meaning to write for about thirty years and had finally begun.
Which was why, right now, he was in a foul mood. If the woman had decided she couldn’t make it to their meeting, or didn’t want to, for whatever reason, fine: but she could have had the basic courtesy to call St. Germain and tell him not to wait for her. He’d spent the evening sitting alone at a table and looking steadily more ridiculous as time went by, nursing a single beer; he could have been home hours ago and might even have finished the third chapter of the goddamn manuscript by now if Greta Helsing hadn’t wasted his time.
Peculiar things you should probably know about, she’d said. It had been a phrase designed to capture his attention: he’d agreed at once to the meeting, which he might not have otherwise, not with the manuscript waiting for him at home. Peculiar, in the sense of supernatural, things were exactly what St. Germain needed to know about—although he supposed that rudely standing up a friend of a friend after requesting to meet them could be classified as peculiar. He’d called her back, half an hour after she was supposed to show up, and it had gone straight to voice mail—which he hadn’t bothered leaving.
He crossed the river and headed west through the gathering darkness toward his flat in the 8th arrondissement, thinking about the part of the chapter where he’d left off earlier in the day, turning over phrases and imagery in his mind. He could still get some work done tonight, even if he’d had to waste several hours already; the night was still young.
By the time he passed the Tuileries, Greta Helsing and whatever her problems might be had completely faded from his mind.
* * *
“That was a werewolf in a nasty mood,” said Crepusculus Dammerung, raising his eyebrows.
He and Brightside had been strolling along the edge of the river, discussing where to go for dinner and whose turn it was to pay for it, and had easily recognized the large man walking purposefully across the Pont Saint-Michel. The recent case wasn’t the only time St. Germain had had recourse to their professional services over the years. Brightside liked him very much: he was sensible, which was a quality in short supply in general, and he always paid at once and in full.
And right now he didn’t look like a well-satisfied client. At all. It wasn’t like him; St. Germain’s other distinguishing feature, besides being large and well endowed with common sense, was his good-natured amiability. At the moment he looked as if he might snap at anyone who got in his way.
“He’s annoyed about something,” Brightside said, leaning on the parapet with his elbows and watching St. Germain stride off into the distance. “Annoyed, or maybe worried. I wonder why.” He couldn’t quite help feeling a flicker of professional uncertainty—an unfamiliar and uneasy sensation in itself.
“We could always ask him,” said Crepusculus.
“We could, but I think I’d rather have another look at that haunting location first.”
As he said it, Brightside realized he’d made a decision of sorts: that morning, in the café, he’d been trying to convince himself there wasn’t actually anything sufficiently strange about the haunting to warrant further investigation, but he couldn’t get it to sit right in his head. Especially when coupled with the city guardian’s visible displeasure. He needed to make sure they hadn’t somehow made a hash of the job—and more than that, he needed to work out what if anything they had missed.
The mystery of why the ghosts should suddenly show up several hundred years after the initial disposition of their bones was—well, having considered it, he could think of a couple of answers to that one; people must be sneaking into the catacombs under the city all the time. It stood to reason that eventually someone would have disturbed some of the bones neatly stacked down there and triggered some kind of spectral response. What was odd, in fact, was not that the ghosts had shown up at all: it was that they hadn’t been showing up regularly over the past couple hundred years. If nothing else, the reorganization of the catacombs and the decorative arrangement of the bones in the early nineteenth century should have resulted in any number of hauntings, and neither he nor Crepusculus could remember ever having been called in to deal with this particular issue before. It was possible that some of the other outfits who did similar work had handled the problem, but Brightside was fairly sure he would have heard something about it at the time.
“You want to go back there?” Crepusculus was asking, dubious.
“No, I don’t particularly want to, but I think we ought. There’s something I’m missing.”
“What sort of something? Wait.” Brightside watched him tap his fingers on the stone parapet, thinking. “There’s got to be a reason they showed up now. Right? Some factor we didn’t take into account?”
“It can’t just be disturbance of the bones,” Brightside said. “If that was the only cause, one or both of us would probably have been here several times by now. There has to be something else, something I didn’t notice while we were working, and I don’t like missing pieces.”
* * *
As soon as the vampire’s footsteps had died away, Greta pulled at the rope binding her wrists together, testing the tension. There was some give: not a lot, but probably enough; enough that she thought it was worth trying to get free.
She bent double, arms stretched behind her, straining the rope between her wrists as far as she could manage—and, fingers rapidly going numb, managed to get one foot and then the other backward over the rope. It hurt like hell, her shoulders and wrists on fire, but when she straightened up in the dimness, her hands were bound in front of her.
At least it wasn’t completely dark in here.
She could have borne that for a while, but only a while. Now, with the faint light from the corridor falling into her cell, she was at least aware that the space around her was not closing in, that nothing was about to creep up on her in the blackness and tear off her head. At least, not without her getting a look at it first.
She peered at the knots in the dimness, once the pain had died down a little. Whoever had bound her wasn’t going to win any prizes for their technique. She’d have at the very least used a surgeon’s knot rather than a granny, or bothered to do a couple more throws; as it was, a few minutes of picking and twisting had the rope freed. Greta rubbed at her wrists, marked by red bracelets that were probably going to come up in spectacular bruise colors, and stretched, popping various things in her shoulders and back that had gone wooden-stiff. She hurt all over. The wrists were the worst of it, an ache like a rotten tooth.
How long was I under thrall? she thought. How long have I been down here? What time is it?
She had nothing in her pockets. Her handbag and phone were, of course, long gone, even if she could have found any signal underground. She couldn’t even reach Fastitocalon for help: in Hell, he was far out of range of their tenuous connection. There was no way to contact anyone. She had, very effectively, been disappeared.
She was trying to think clearly, through the sour adrenaline and the background terror, and it wasn’t working. Once before she had been lost in the darkness, with no one to find her, and it struck Greta as vaguely hilarious that she should be doing it all over again. At least this time there weren’t mad monks with poisoned knives running around looking for her.
This time there was just a vampire coven.
She hadn’t actually encountered one before; not like this. The sanguivores she’d treated tended to be singletons, for the very good reason that the larger the number of vampires in any given area, the greater the likelihood that someone would notice them. It was good sense to maintain a separation of territory, but the ones who had kidnapped her didn’t seem to be long on sensibility.
That ridiculously oversized ring their leader was wearing, for example, and the body glitter. Really? And the leather pants. Unironically, leather pants, with a velvet shirt. Not to mention Lilith’s whole Queen of the Undead outfit, which Greta thought you could probably buy online at the kind of shop that sold coffin-shaped handbags for fifty quid. And there must have been a good sixteen or seventeen vampires in that cave, which meant that Paris must be experiencing a noticeable rise in the incidence of acute idiopathic anemia. She was absolutely sure that this lot didn’t go in for the conscientious catch-and-release kind of feeding, either. There had to have been deaths.
Greta thought again of St. Germain, and wondered what other problems he might be aware of, and how long he’d waited for her at the bar before realizing she wasn’t going to show up.
He had her number, though. Her phone was probably in some storm drain somewhere, completely dead, but he had her number, and maybe when he couldn’t reach her, he might try calling Ruthven; they were friends, she’d mentioned his name—
And the hotel, the hotel would absolutely try Ruthven, assuming they could even reach him out in the wilds of Perthshire; it was his black credit card that had reserved the suite for them. It would be his problem if his party failed to check out at the required hour, but that wouldn’t be until Monday morning; she was booked through the weekend. What time was it, how long had she been down here already, was it still Saturday night? Had she been out for a few hours, or more than a day?
Greta made herself take a deep breath, fighting off the first bubbles of panic. She knew the symptoms that would accompany having fasted for a significant length of time, and she didn’t have them yet: no cold sweat, no watery weakness in the knees, no nausea or tremors, just a distant ordinary hunger. She couldn’t have been out for very long.
The hotel would absolutely be able to reach Ruthven; it was simply a question of when. She could hope that St. Germain might try to get in touch with him first. It was possible. Someone would get hold of Ruthven one way or another; and when they did, he would just as absolutely be on his way back over here to try to track her down. It was up to her to stay alive until he did.
She straightened up. She was good at staying alive. She’d had almost thirty-five years of practice. There was nothing to do, nothing useful she could achieve at the moment, except perhaps to get a better idea of where exactly she was being held.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dimness, and she could make out that it was a roughly rectangular chamber, deeper than it was wide. The side walls were carved right out of the white limestone, but at the back of the chamber—
The sound of footsteps startled her, and she turned, expecting to see the vampire with the dreadlocks coming back—he would undoubtedly tie her up again, and she had a feeling he’d be better at tying knots than whoever had done it the first time—but these were the sharp tap-tap of a woman’s heels on stone.
Greta stayed where she was, watching; and it was a little surprising to recognize the youngest-looking of Corvin’s coven. She could remember this one from when she’d woken up from thrall on her knees in front of Corvin’s throne, with all the vampires standing around watching; she’d noticed her simply because of her apparent youth. Can’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen when she died, Greta thought again, looking at the girl. And when was that?
She was wearing a black velvet mermaid skirt and vinyl corset, opera gloves, and more glitter than might strictly have been advised. Her hair was the particular shade of burgundy-red that you got out of a bottle, and her eye makeup called to mind Tutankhamun’s golden mummy mask, only a bit less tasteful. And she was standing there, staring at Greta, shifting her weight from one patent leather platform six-inch heel to the other.
“Can I help you?” Greta said after a moment. At least it didn’t appear that she was about to be tied up again. That was a small flicker of relief.
The girl went on staring at her for a little while longer before saying, too fast, all at once, “Are you really a doctor?”
Her accent wasn’t Sheffield, but neither was it Parisian; she sounded like a thoroughly ordinary upper-middle-class Londoner. “I am,” said Greta. “Why?”
“You’re a vampire doctor?”
“Among other things. I treat anyone who needs my help, no matter what species they happen to be.” Greta tilted her head, looking at the girl, her curiosity piqued—and thought to herself that she had seldom seen anyone look quite so uncomfortable in her life.
“Is—” the girl began, not meeting her eyes, very obviously making herself ask something she wasn’t sure she had the nerve to ask, but just then both of them heard voices down the hall, and she took a sharp step back away from the bars.
“Sofiria?” said somebody. “What are you doing out here?”
“I came to look at the human,” said the girl. “Lilith’s right, she’s terribly ugly.”
“Come away from the nasty mortal, chérie, we have work to do; Corvin’s asking for you.”
Greta caught her very brief and fleeting glance, before she turned and stalked away down the tunnel, her boots clicking and tapping on the stone floor. That one’s new, she thought to herself. That one is very new.
And perhaps still reachable. If I’m clever about it. If I’m careful.
She thought of Ruthven, bleak in the brightness of his kitchen back home in London, telling her about the baby vampires he’d found over the centuries, how he himself had been turned without the perpetrator sticking around to help him through the misery of the transition. How he’d been half mad with it, killing indiscriminately, and survived only by sheer luck and the kindness of strangers.
She imagined what he would say, having seen Sofiria and her eyeliner.
I have to try.
She had no idea how, or if she’d have an opportunity to make the attempt, and thinking about it threatened to bring on shaky hopeless despair—so Greta very firmly redirected her thoughts to her immediate surroundings. When there was no longer even an echo of footfalls, she turned again to the corner of the cell that had caught her attention.
Greta moved nearer, eyes wide, straining for every bit of light there was. She couldn’t make out details, but the wall wasn’t a solid face of rock. Running her fingers over the stone, she could trace the edges of individual blocks, irregular in shape, resting tightly on one another.
She bent closer to the stones, and could feel a very faint touch of air on her face. Cool air, damp and dank—there was a space behind this wall. The stones were not cemented together with mortar, just stacked, an underground dry-stone wall—good fences make good neighbors, her mind popped up, with a kind of unsteady amusement. If there was a space, that meant she might be able to get out of here—but what lay beyond was completely unknown, and she had no light, no way of making light, and who knew when the vampires were going to come back to find her digging away in the traditional and time-honored fashion of prisoners in durance vile? Greta was absolutely sure that Corvin would not look with favor on escape attempts.
She turned to rest her back against the wall and slid down it to sit on the floor, eyes shut, trying very hard not to despair. She could feel the edges of her self-control beginning to craze and splinter, threatening to bubble up with mindless acid panic, and made herself breathe deeply until she had some control back.
That faint breath of cool air touched her face again, and suddenly over the slowing thud of her own heartbeat, she could hear something else on the other side. Something like movement. Like rattling.
A hollow, scraping kind of sound, where no sound should be.
It slipped a finger of ice all the way down Greta’s spine. She had thought she was too tired and sore and miserable to move quickly at all, but that faint hollow rattle coming from behind the wall was enough to get her on her feet and stumbling all the way across the cell to the farthest corner, near the door, where the light from the passageway actually fell on her face.
Greta tucked herself as tightly as she could into the corner, her back wedged against solid stone; drew her knees up, wrapped her arms around them, buried her face against the dusty fabric of her once-respectable conference-attendee suit. Whatever was behind the wall would have to come all the way over here to get her, into the light, and she thought it would probably take long enough to get through that she would have time to scream for help. She might even receive it.
That thought was enough to let her relax despite her physical discomfort, and she found herself falling helplessly, headlong, into shocked and exhausted sleep.
* * *
The Place Joachim-du-Bellay was ostensibly a perfectly normal city square, with two rows of trees planted at its edges and a monumental fountain tinkling away to itself in the center. Only the name of the fountain, and the name of one of the streets bordering it, hinted at the original use for the space: the Cimetière des Innocents, one of the most notorious hazards to public health in eighteenth-century Paris. It was the oldest cemetery in the city, dating from the twelfth century, and had been used for mass graves almost since its beginning; when they started running out of room to put dead people in, the bones of previously buried individuals were excavated and stored in charnel houses built along the cemetery’s walls to free up space.
Conditions had steadily deteriorated, as one might expect with what amounted to a series of semi-open pits full of decomposing corpses, and businesses in the streets nearby had suffered as a result. There were accounts of dyed cloth changing color if exposed to the putrid air for prolonged periods; wine merchants’ wares, stored in cellars close to the cemetery, turned to vinegar. Finally, after an unusually rainy spring in 1780, a cellar wall in an adjoining building collapsed and an unspeakable torrent of mud and decaying flesh filled the room. Later that year further burials in Les Innocents were forbidden—but it took another six years before remediation, in the form of exhuming bodies and moving the bones to the old disused gypsum mines under the city, took place.
Once it had been cleaned up, the space was paved over and used for a market; and today it was a pleasant, quiet place, the trees and fountain providing a restful atmosphere, with no hint of the horrors that had once festered there. No obvious hint, at least. Even the psychically sensitive didn’t report perceiving any distress while present in the square, and—somewhat improbably—no recorded episodes of ectoplasmic manifestation were known to have occurred.
Crepusculus and Brightside strolled around the perimeter of the square as the last of the twilight faded into full dark, the stars bright above them. Brightside was smoking a Dunhill in a holder, and the burning tip of the cigarette’s glow and fade was like a slow-blinking orange eye. He didn’t need light to see by; neither of them did. Nor were their presences remarked upon by any of the evening’s human passersby; as soon as they’d stepped into the square, both of them had made themselves unnoticeable. The effect did not render them completely invisible—but nobody who did see them would be able to remember having done so. It was the most common of the tricks they used in passing through the ordinary world.
“They were over by the Rue Berger side last time,” he said. When they were here last, the ghosts—there had been about thirty of them, all told, counting all the missing bits—had been milling around, plaintively demanding where their legs or arms or heads had gone; the lack of a head did not much incommode a ghost’s ability to complain. Luckily it had been about three in the morning, and the few people who were out and about at that hour tended not to be in any frame of mind to give credence to occult manifestations.
“Yup,” said Crepusculus. “Mostly. One of them was wandering around—or through, actually—the fountain. I had to go and fetch her separately, but that was an easy job. Hardly had to exert any energy at all, as I remember: I just sort of—nudged a bit, and they slipped right on through to the great beyond.”
“I am wondering,” said Brightside, “if it wasn’t too easy.” They didn’t generally have to work very hard at their jobs, but he, too, remembered how little effort it had taken with each ghost: one by one, taking them in his arms, leaning on the cobweb-tangle of metaphysical field lines surrounding the dead until they parted and let the soul slip between planes. Sometimes the tangle was difficult to unsnarl. These… hadn’t been.
And why now?
“That doesn’t sound ominous in the least,” said Crepusculus, and looked down at the stones under his feet, taking a deliberate step and then another one, and another—and stopping.
“What is it?” Brightside asked.
“Come here and feel this.”
Brightside sighed and went to join him, and he, too, stopped suddenly. It was like walking into a cold room all of a sudden: the air felt different, and there was something like the faint creak and squeal of rock heard in a tunnel where the ground was uneasy, although Brightside wasn’t exactly perceiving it with his ears.
“Sour ground,” said Crepusculus. It was an apt descriptor, often used of places that had seen bad deaths and hasty burials; you got sour ground surrounding abandoned gallows, and patches of it all over battlefields. “This must have been the location of one of the mass graves,” he went on, shivering. “I didn’t notice it last time. Did you?”
“No. Emphatically not. I would have remembered.” Brightside took another measured step forward, and the smell hit, unmistakable and familiar: rotting flesh. He made a face, but kept going, and after about eight more steps the smell and that uneasy faint squealing sound faded out again like a radio signal beyond its transmitter’s range.
“This is weird,” said Crepusculus. “Very weird. Let’s see if there are more patches of it.”
Over the next two hours, he and Brightside covered the entire space of the square. They discovered that there were several irregularly shaped areas of sour ground scattered around the space, which Brightside was absolutely sure had not been there a week ago when they’d first arrived to sort out the ghost problem.
“I bet you anything they correspond to the biggest of the mass grave pits,” Crepusculus said. “Give me one of those Dunhills?”
Brightside took out his case and handed him a cigarette. Crepusculus lit it with the tip of his forefinger and blew out a pale plume of smoke. “Thin places,” he said. “Between the living world and the next one. Right?”
“Or thin places in time,” Brightside said, not liking the option one little bit. Temporal attenuation—or worse, temporal overlap—was almost always a sign of something larger and more difficult to repair than a simple haunting. “Old horrors showing through. Echoes of the past.”
“Why are we getting echoes now, when we didn’t during an actual manifestation episode? I could have sworn none of this was here a week ago.”
“So could I, and I also can’t think why these disturbances have only just begun; there’s enough of a mess down there to have set up a chronic haunting all the way back to the end of the eighteenth century, and neither you nor I have heard of anything strange in this neighborhood until now.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “There’s got to be something else. Some catalyst, maybe. Another variable that wasn’t in play until now.”
“Something that’s weakening the boundaries between planes,” Crepusculus said. “What could do that?” He wrapped his arms around himself as if the mild spring air had dropped thirty degrees. “I mean, other than—oh, wizards fucking around with mystic artifacts stolen from the dead, or something.”
“There was that thing last year in London,” Brightside said slowly. “We heard about it afterward, remember? That wasn’t a haunting; that was a remnant.”
“A nasty one,” Crepusculus agreed. “Which—hell, would have had to bore a hole through the planes to get into this one and muck about with it, right?”
“That was taken care of, though.” It had been a bad little episode as far as he could remember: a remnant, a shred of unwanted creation with a voracious hunger for fear and hatred, had taken up residence in some abandoned air raid shelter under the city, and made a serious nuisance of itself by taking over the minds of the susceptible and turning them into murderers. In the end, the Devil had had to sort it out in person, and presumably had mended the gap in reality that the thing had burrowed through, but the fact that it had happened at all was slightly worrisome. Interplanar boundaries were the sort of thing you did not want to have weakened; passing between them, between planes of reality—between worlds—was supposed to happen only in specific and controlled ways.
Brightside shivered, feeling chilly himself. “I think at this point we’d do well to talk to someone who might have more information about recent disturbances in reality. Who’s the demon stationed here? There’s always a demon.”
“Irazek, I think. Either him or Chordeiles, and I think Chordeiles is in Lisbon these days.”
“Let’s go and bother Irazek in the morning, then,” said Brightside. “I don’t think we’re likely to find out anything more at the site tonight, and right now I want a drink.” The repeated immersion in sensory perception of decay had been quite unpleasant to experience, even for someone as used to it as they were—and the gathering suspicion that something larger was going wrong had unsettled them both.
“I want more than one,” said Crepusculus, “and I spy with my little eye a bar not so very far away at all.”
* * *
The vampires were having a party.
For the first time since seeing Ruthven on the Opera stairs, Corvin felt satisfied: truly and simply content about the state of the universe. He had Ruthven’s human friend bottled up neatly in his dungeons, and perhaps he’d allow himself to sample her—although he couldn’t take too much, a dead hostage was useless—well, perhaps. Perhaps later.
He sat on his throne and watched his people enjoying themselves. They were very beautiful, in their black and crimson finery, all alight with iridescent sparkle; the humans he’d had brought down to supply the festivities were also beautiful, even if one of them was already dead. An aesthetic object, even past its usefulness. He’d have someone go and dump the bodies before morning, like he always did.
The newest of them—of his children, he liked that, he was going to use it, children—was still more than a little awkward, but clearly willing to please, clearly loyal. So young: she would be barely nineteen for the rest of forever. And very lovely to look upon, with her hair freshly colored deep red, contrasting well with her alabaster skin. Corvin thought to himself, not for the first time, that if Lilith did simply become too much of a liability, he would not have to look very far to find her replacement. Not very far at all.
Corvin swirled the red liquid in his goblet, careful not to spill. It was a broad, shallow, almost oval bowl: creamy off-white, with a branching silver base and stem attached to it by tiny jeweled rivets. The individual who had made it had even sealed the faint squiggly lines where the individual pieces of bone fit into one another with clear varnish to prevent leaking. It was in every way a gorgeous object, and he was very proud of it, even if he hadn’t personally been responsible for the death of its original owner; it stood for the skulls of his enemies, a symbolic representation.
He swirled the wine-and-blood mixture again, and took a sip. Delicious. He could feel the strength it was giving him. Soon Ruthven would come to him, attempting to rescue his little friend, and then Corvin would have satisfaction at long last. He let himself imagine those silver-white eyes widening in fear and understanding, that pale patrician face twisted in a grimace. Imagined him begging. Please, I entreat you, spare me.
Ruthven, of course, had been the cause of the platinum fang. It still hurt sometimes when the weather changed—his entire face hurt, old fracture lines in the bone aching dully. He could remember with excruciating clarity the last time they’d come face-to-face, back in London, years and years ago now, and the look of resigned, condescending irritation on the face of the older vampire would probably never quite leave Corvin’s mind. He’d ruined everything. Back then, Corvin and his coven had really been enjoying themselves, taking whatever they wanted, drinking from the city’s cup with gleeful abandon, stalking the night streets in a short but glorious reign of terror and intrigue and really stylish haircuts, and fucking Ruthven had popped up to spoil all Corvin’s fun and instruct him not to kill people.
But you’re one of the Kindred, Corvin had said, staring at him. You’re above the humans.
Ruthven had said a lot of extremely offensive and ignorant things, and then he had hit Corvin so hard in the face that he’d broken not only his cheekbone but three of his teeth—one of which had had to be replaced completely, and hadn’t that just been a lovely little experience, six hours of work in a French underworld dentist’s surgery for which he’d had to be largely conscious—and thrown them out of London. To say that Corvin resented this treatment with profound vigor would be somewhat of an understatement.
He thought again of Ruthven begging for his life, and half closed his eyes in pleasure. “Not a chance in hell,” he said under his breath. Beside him Grisaille, who had been leaning against the wall with his arms folded, watching the celebrations, straightened up.
“What was that?” he asked. Corvin scowled.
“Nothing. I was talking to myself. Why don’t you go join the party; you’re kind of bringing me down just standing there—what, isn’t this scene hot enough for your taste?”
The sneer in his voice was almost as good as the one on his face, and he was pleased to see Grisaille flinch. That was better. His lieutenant had been insufficiently subordinate of late.
“Sorry,” Grisaille said, and detached himself from the wall. “Fantabulosa party, Corvin. Like yours always are.”
Was he imagining things, or had there been just the faintest hint of sarcasm in that last statement? Corvin scowled. “Go away,” he said, “and tell Lilith to stop doing body shots off that body, I desire her presence right here and now.”
Grisaille simply nodded, and slipped away into the crowd; and Corvin sat back on his throne, with his goblet in his hand, and thought again, Soon, Ruthven. Soon.
* * *
It took Grisaille two attempts to get Lilith’s attention over the music—Corvin was into techno these days, turned up far enough to get the occasional shower of bits of stone to fall from the ceiling—but eventually, pouting and unsteady on her feet, she was persuaded to rejoin Corvin. Grisaille watched as she climbed into his lap, straddling him on the throne, and covered his face with somewhat inexact kisses.
What a good thing somebody invented indelible lipstick, Grisaille thought, turning away from this edifying sight, and went to get himself a drink. Three of the humans were still alive, he was relieved to see; dead blood had a particular aftertaste that some vampires enjoyed, but he found it unpleasantly metallic.
They’d draped the naked victims over dining tables, groggy both with thrall and with a sizable hit of something euphoric to prevent them from struggling, and Corvin’s people were enjoying the buffet. Black and red and violet silk rustled, leather creaked, lace whispered as they wandered from table to table, biting indiscriminately in between dancing to the pounding beat and feeling one another up in alcoves.
At the last table Grisaille found a young man with pale wavy hair and very long eyelashes, curves of gold catching the light where they rested against his cheeks. He was lying curled on his side, face slack and peaceful, as if he’d simply fallen asleep. This one had been given a good going-over, judging by the number of bite marks, but Grisaille felt for the pulse and thought there was probably enough left in there for one more.
Without a lot of delicacy, he lifted the young man’s wrist and bit it, sharp and quick, and rested it over a goblet to catch the blood. If he’d been out hunting alone, he would have enjoyed the process of drinking directly from the vein—there was something profoundly satisfying in the feeling of warm skin against your lips, life, brief and brilliant and fragile, a pleasant little memory—but he didn’t much go for being watched while he fed, and so Grisaille waited for the young man’s slowing heart to fill his glass.
When he’d finished, he lifted the wrist again and held it to his mouth, pressing the tip of his tongue against the wound he’d made until he could taste the change as the clotting agent he was secreting went to work. Most of the others hadn’t bothered to put the stopper back in after they’d had their fill, but Grisaille disliked wasting resources, even if the human was already nearly dead.
He added a splash of vodka from the forest of bottles on a side table and went to lean against the wall and watch the party. The newest vampire was faring a little better this time than she had at the last of Corvin’s celebrations, when she’d made a right mess out of one of the victim’s necks—embarrassing not only herself but the vampire who’d actually made her. Now she’d clearly gotten the hang of biting cleanly, even if she still looked awkward as hell and not even slightly confident.
Someone must have actually bothered to teach her something, he thought, and about damn time.
He didn’t much like the way the entire business with the kid had been handled. Nineteen was just too young to turn someone; they hadn’t finished learning how to be a person the first time around, and making them into something else just got you an unstable and unhappy vampire who needed a great deal of supervision, which this one had not been getting. He could clearly remember the week right after she’d been brought down here, when she’d done a lot of screaming; one of them would have to thrall her practically every hour to get her to calm down. Not smart, ducky, he’d told her maker, a tiresome creature called Yves, at the time. Not smart at all. And nobody, to Grisaille’s knowledge, had volunteered to take the responsibility of actually teaching the girl how to vampire.
You could have, said a nasty little voice in the back of Grisaille’s head. It was technically correct: if he hadn’t minded breaking every single unwritten rule in Corvin’s rarefied version of society, if he hadn’t minded the consequences of establishing a highly inappropriate teacher-pupil relationship between the leader’s second-in-command and the lowest-ranking of the entire coven, he could have done it. He could have done it quite well, if briefly; that kind of thing would have served as a highly efficient method of getting himself killed. But he could have done it.
And I didn’t, so how about that? he told the little voice.
You’re good at not doing things, aren’t you? Got a lot of practice.
Grisaille took a swig of his drink, trying to ignore the voice, and closed his eyes for a moment as the heady richness of spiked blood warmed him from the inside out. It wasn’t as good as hunting, but it was pretty damn pleasant all the same. There was a kind of cold shaking weakness that came on after you hadn’t had anyone to eat for much too long, and that first sip of blood breaking the fast always felt like swallowing sweet fire, racing through your veins, driving back the chill—which was, of course, nothing more than the natural chill of a dead body. The first taste of blood tonight felt a little like that reawakening, and Grisaille concentrated on it, trying not to think about the past.
What a lot of things there were that you could have done, over the years, said the voice, matter-of-fact, implacable, and chose not to. Victor, for example. You could have stopped Victor from doing unspeakable things; he might have listened to you when he wouldn’t hear anybody else, and guess what, you did nothing, and look what happened, how well that turned out for all parties involved! How very responsible of you.
Sod off, he thought wearily. I’m not supposed to be the one responsible. I’m not the one in charge. I’m Number Two.
That you are, said the voice, and of course it was his own voice; of course it was, he knew that, even as he reached for the vodka bottle to top up his glass. It had always been his own voice, even back when he’d been alive, and it had chased him across countries, across continents, oceans, carried along with him wherever he went.
* * *
In the abandoned hotel suite, something very hairy clambered in through the window, as it had done once before. It liked people who smelled right, and the woman who had first screamed at it and then stopped screaming and petted it properly had smelled right. Most people didn’t.
It stopped, sniffing the air, and then the faceless head bent to snuffle at the carpet, following a trail to the bed—it hopped up on the bed, yes, this was where it had slept, all right, but there was now no warm body in the bed for it to curl up against. There didn’t seem to be anyone there at all, not even the cold man who had been there last night with the woman.
The night breeze sent the curtains flaring and rippling. It was cold in here now, with the window open, and the hairy thing whined softly: something wasn’t right. When it had first climbed into the room, nobody had been there, either, but there were lots of things that suggested they’d be coming back. There had been a big, complicated, stuffed-full-of-things handbag, which it had quite enjoyed investigating: all kinds of smells were in there, some of which it had never encountered before.
Now, when it jumped down to the floor and set about sniffing intently, all it could find was a closed suitcase, and in the other room where the cold man had been, there wasn’t even that.
It whined again, pushing its non-face against the suitcase. That belonged to the woman, it could tell, it had her scent on it—the things inside smelled of her, too. But nothing else was there.
Eventually it curled up on top of the suitcase, in an almost round knot of limbs, and went to sleep; and when a knock on the door in the morning roused it, all the maid found when she came into the room was a scatter of long, inexplicable, silky auburn hairs.