This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in the book are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2016 by Devin Graham
All Rights Reserved.
Cover design by Devin Graham
Cover image Copyright Anchiy and Copyright Geraldas Galinauskas, used under license from Shutterstock.com
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Table of Contents
Book One, Part One
This book is dedicated to you, reader, for giving it a shot. Thank you.
Please note that this is part one of four parts which, together, make up the first book in the BONDFORGERS series. I will publish each consecutive part monthly.
Once Book Two of the series is completed, I will combine all four parts into one complete manuscript making up Book One.
Find a mistake that slipped past me? Or just didn’t like the way I handled something? Feel free to contact me via the contact form on my website at: and perhaps find yourself in the acknowledgments of the full-length Book One.
Without further ado, happy readings.
NIGHT HAD LONG SINCE FALLEN and the one flickering streetlight did little to illuminate the long, narrow street, still damp from the previous night’s rainfall. A strange chill was carried on the breeze, intermingling with the summer heat, and the foul stench of decay pervaded the air all around, clinging to the atmosphere just as the humidity caused the hunter’s clothes to cling to his body.
The hunter removed his bowler hat, welcoming the slight breeze, which played among the strands of his matted hair. He tilted his head upward and closed his eyes, concentrating on the smell of rotted flesh. Breathing deeply of the fetid air, his nose instinctively crinkled. That smell, strong as a pelt to the gut, might have made any other man fall to his knees. But not the hunter. He was accustomed to it, after so many years. That was, he was as accustomed to the stench as every other man was forced to become accustomed to his own waste.
His nose ever sniffing, the hunter turned in place, making a complete circle. He continued, as though to make another full circle, then stopped suddenly.
The hunter cracked a smile. His particular line of work—if one could truly call it a line of work at all—did not allow for many smiles, and so he had learned to take them wherever he could.
He lowered his head and opened his eyes, finding himself facing the tenebrous mouth of an alleyway. The putrid decay wafted out from that baleful opening just slightly stronger than it was anywhere else. Staring into the interminable darkness of the alleyway, the hunter frowned. He was not at all fond of going into shadowed corners of any kind when hunting a demon, especially when the hot, near-palpable odor of decomposition was contained to the area, trapped by the walls of the narrow passage.
Derelict buildings loomed lopsidedly on either side of the alley, many of their windows boarded up, making them seem abandoned. They were not all abandoned, he knew, from the little snatches of flickering candlelight he caught wanly shining from behind some of the boarded windows.
An alleyway somewhere in the middle of the slums, such as this, was even worse. He was not afraid of the danger; he was afraid of where his thoughts went in the silent dark. No, the hunter had grown bored of danger a long time ago.
The man replaced his bowler hat atop his head, then rested his hand on the hilt of his dueling sword fastened at his hip—which he had only just learned this night was not fashionable for a lord to wear at balls; canes were the fashion now. He could never keep up with the trends of the nobles, as often as they changed.
With his other hand, he felt at his revolver pistol, hidden in a holster beneath his suit jacket. He probably would not use it. Too loud. But he liked to know it was there. It was a gift, after all.
A murderous demon in a dark alley, the hunter thought. Fun. He started forward and was quickly enveloped by the shadows.
The alley was narrow and cramped with trash and questionable puddles, but the way remained straight, with no branching paths nor doorways through which the demon could have gone. Forward was the only direction…for the most part.
The hunter paused at a large heap—more a small mountain, really—of trash clogging the way, like a pile of logs might dam up a river. A particularly smelly dam, the hunter thought, frowning. Looks like, for now, the way is up. Planting one foot as firmly as he could in the heap, and finding as well a grip as was possible with his hands, he began a sloppy ascent. As he climbed, he hummed a soft tune to himself—something he had heard on a phonograph recently; music was another thing changing almost as quickly as high society’s fashion, becoming more lyrical and strumming than instrumental—in an attempt not to think of what things laid carelessly tossed into the mountain of garbage to which he clung.
Rusty needles? he thought when his footing was knocked loose and he scraped his palm against something sharp, as he was searching for a handhold. Grumbling a curse, he slid down a foot or so, before finding his grip again and pulling himself back into a climb.
Pitsville truly was a trash pit of a city. It was a city without many of the funds for the technological advances of other, larger—and wealthier—cities. But it did not exactly take an advancement in technology to build a fire and burn down its mountains of trash every so often. That was merely a lazy disposition.
When the hunter reached the top of the trash heap, he slid down the other side, not even bothering with handholds. Once again, he found himself consciously trying not to think of what things laid just beneath the trash’s surface, which probably did even less to take his mind from it. Glass? he wondered, then nearly laughed at himself. He would chase a demon through an alleyway in the slums, but place some broken glass in a pile of trash and it would give him pause.
The hunter reached the bottom a moment later with the click of his heels upon the cobbled street. He stood up straight and patted off his tailcoat and breeches with his hands, his mouth turning downward in a frown. Though it was dark, he suspected his suit was ruined with grime. And…yes, there it was, a rip in his sleeve. A true shame it was, since this was his best suit—his only nice suit, in fact. He would have to buy a new one.
The thing just had to make its presence known in the middle of a flaming ball. He had actually been having a grand time, too. However, even grand times did fall a bit flat when the decaying body of a demon jumped from a ballroom balcony, brandishing the severed head of the event’s host amid an audience of squeamish nobility like some moralless loon. It had been a demon, so a lack of morality was to be expected; but had the thing really needed to flaunt the deed?
“It could have killed the man in secret,” the hunter muttered to himself, advancing slowly through the alley, making as little sound as was possible. He had already made quite the raucous climbing his way over the heap of garbage. I would have found out about the death anyway, and after the fun. But, of course, there is no such luck for me.
Lord Placent, the host of the ball, had been a kind man—even for a lord and probably because he had only been a baron, and not so corrupted by the thin air the other nobility breathed in regularly from their towering pedestals—and it truly was a pity he had died this night. Even still, the death was at a flaming inconvenient time.
The hunter’s eyes slid over the gloom, moving from shadow to shadow, searching. He could not completely trust his eyes in the dark; every mound of blackness could be just another pile of trash, or it could be the demon. Added to that, the stench of the trash did well to mask the stench of decomposing flesh, so he could never be sure if he were still a distance away from the demon. Or standing right over top of it.
He leaped to the side as something to his right fell to the street with a hollow clink, a sound like a rolling glass bottle following after. He already had his sword drawn and pointed toward a shadow hunkered up against the wall.
“Please, sir,” the figure, shrouded by shadow, begged in a rasping voice, slowly scooting on his backside along the wall, away from the hunter. “I don’t have nothin’. Just a beggar.”
In the wan moonlight, the hunter caught the beggar’s eyes flashing hungrily to his pockets, then back to the tip of the sword he had pointed toward the beggar’s throat. All thoughts of stealing vanished from the beggar’s eyes in an eye blink.
The hunter flicked the tip of his sword in the direction from which he had come.
“Leave,” he commanded in a harsh whisper. The beggar was already scrambling toward the trash heap the hunter had only just slid down from. The grimy, skeleton-of-a-man seemed to care a lot less about what laid beneath that garbage, as he pulled himself up and over as though he had done it a hundred times before.
Sheathing his sword, the hunter turned from where the beggar had been atop the mound and started on his way again. He encountered little more than the eerie sounds of night—the occasional pattering of feet, belonging to no one he could see, or the loud scraping of a pipe dragging the ground somewhere in the distance—as he walked.
The noises could have been placed in his mind by the others, of course. They did enjoy picking the strings of his mind, making already ominous settings all the more terrible for him. The others could do no more than manipulate the sounds of his surroundings—occasionally the images, also. Other than that, he had pretty good control over them.
They were a necessary burden, which sort of came with his line of work.
The hunter stopped suddenly, a soundless shadow scurrying across the way before him, into the deeper shadows. The overwhelming reek of rotting flesh hit him like a punch to the gut in that moment, nearly causing him to gag. He would have thought that smell would have no affect at all on him by now. But, then again, something so foul could never become pleasant, no matter how accustomed he grew.
The hunter frowned. Had I really been so much in thought that I missed it? Well, it was too late to be inconspicuous now.
The hunter stood rooted for several moments, watching for any movement from the pool of shadows, into which the thing had scurried. He thought he saw something within the deep darkness, but it could have just been his eyes playing tricks on him.
“Skin Crawler,” the hunter said as one might call to a pet, taking a slow step forward. “Here, boy. Or…girl.” A shadow, just a little darker than the shadows behind which it hid, seemed to stir.
“There is no use hiding, little demon,” the hunter continued. “You know I’m here, as I know you are here, as well. You seriously caused a mess back at that ball. Why reveal yourself like that, to people who don’t want to be reminded that demons still exist in their world? You’ve allowed them the right of denial for decades now. Why raise questions of your kind again to them?”
To himself, the hunter thought, Is it sloppiness? Or is there a purpose behind it?
The shadow of the demon stirred again. This time the demon crawled closer to the edge of darkness, its pallid, rotting, human face peeling out of the shadows. A Skin Crawler. A demon with the ability to possess any living creature, by infiltrating the body and killing it from the inside.
It stared at the hunter with eyes devoid of emotion. Dead eyes. Its face, however—with its dangling bits of sinewy flesh, revealing glimpses of the stark white bone of the skull beneath—, did contort into an expression that was clearly anger.
It did not move to attack, but remained hunkered like some feral creature, half shrouded in shadow. Wary. Who was this man to chase a demon?
“And murdering a perfectly respectable nobleman only to waste his body…?” the hunter began again. Slowly, the hunter grasped the hilt of his dueling sword once more. The demon extended a talon-like hand, its flesh barely knit together, and crawled forward a step, humming a growl. “Why? I can smell you, after all. You must be needing a new body by now.”
Aside from a terrifying smile tearing across the demon’s rotted face, its growl was his only answer. I hate you, the hunter thought almost reflexively. Every last one of you.
“No answer?” The hunter shrugged and forced a smile for himself. “Truly, I don’t care why you did what you did.” Blade scraped against scabbard, as he unsheathed his sword.
“You…will…die.” the Skin Crawler said in a distorted growl through a barely functioning mouth.
The hunter nodded, simply. His smile faded, replaced by a grim expression, which he willed into another smile. Hunting demons was his mind’s only solace; it was his happiness. And, so, he had to smile.
“You are quite right, little demon,” the hunter replied. The creature leaped for him in that moment. He waited as its flight brought it closer, then feinted right, when the demon was mere inches from slamming into him, slashing upward with his sword. The blade severed through an arm, already barely attached, but the blow did send the thing off balance in its bounding leap and it crumbled to the ground, leaving behind a trail of rotting flesh upon the cobblestones as it skid to a stop.
“We will all die, one day. But I will not die now, in this place,” the hunter cringed at the sight of flesh smeared into the cobblestones, “by your hand. I won’t die until your kind is wiped from existence here, in my world.”
I hate you, he thought again. He brought his free hand up to the side of his tailcoat, feeling at the revolver holstered beneath it. The gift. I hate you.
As the demon struggled to its feet, the hunter found himself almost disappointed. He had expected more of a fight. This demon was already finished.
It tried to take a step forward, but instead its leg collapsed beneath it. A flimsy banknote might have given more support than that leg. The demon stood upright and tried, again, to take a step, but this time the thing’s leg hardly moved more than a couple inches.
“Oh dear,” the hunter said blankly, “you seem to be paralyzed.”
The demon bemoaned a shrill and deep wail all at once, two separate voices echoing out into the night. The hunter doubted it would matter if anyone heard. In the slums, people did not seek out sounds of distress, and the constabulary were sluggish to respond.
“What is this?” it cried. “What have you done?”
The hunter held up his blade, wiping the meat and flesh and what little blood was there from it with a cloth he pulled out from his suit pocket, before sheathing it. He tossed the cloth aside. He was silent for a time, but eventually he spoke.
“Poison, Skin Crawler,” he said. “It targets the nervous system. Blocks whatever part of the brain it is that controls your movement from sending your muscles messages—so I was told. You know, a doctor used something like this on me once? Or, rather, I thought it was a doctor, at first.”
The demon only growled in response, its limbs twitching as it struggled against the poison.
“Anyway, you may not be of the body you’re in, little demon, but you still have to use it in the same way the human owning it before you had to. With the same muscles…the same nerves.”
Its disjointed mouth twitched into what the hunter thought to be a smile, but might have been a grimace. Then, the body fell limp onto the damp street abruptly, all signs of even the slightest struggle gone. The hunter looked at the body’s eyes, visible enough in the thread of moonlight, and found them completely without perception, rolled back to show the whites.
Trying to escape on me, are you?
Quickly, the hunter strode closer to the body, until he loomed over top of it. He did not move for several seconds, in thought. Most humans—or most of the few who even acknowledged the existence of demons anymore—assumed a demon could disappear and reappear in some place halfway across the world in the blink of an eye, and so, in most situations such as this—there were almost none who would end up in this situation; though, in the case they did—, a human would leave, in search of the demon elsewhere. Dim as most demons seemed to be, they would understand this human tendency, also.
The hunter, however, knew better. Demons were not omniscient, despite the common belief—they had to travel, just as every other living thing did, by mundane means. Something about being without a body for a long period, however, pushed demons into a state of near-insentience. Being so, they could not travel far without taking a new human host.
This demon could not just disappear and it would likely expect the hunter to be like most humans and simply wander away, believing it had. The hunter lingered, betting the demon still had yet to leave.
He glanced up at the moon, a thin, silvery beam shining enough into the alley to illuminate the one-armed corpse. Although, the narrow beam was quickly fading as the moon inched across the night sky.
Quick at work, he positioned himself between the silver glow and the limp body, so that his shadow was cast over the body. Blade sang against scabbard as he, once more, drew his sword, peering down on the two shadows cast over the corpse.
Now, which shadow was his and which one was not?
The moonlight was fading already, as the silvery disk passed over the gap between the buildings of the alleyway. With it, the two shadows were steadily fading. The hunter lifted an arm above his head, suddenly. Both shadows moved, but one was slightly off key. Demons, in their natural form were not shadows, but they were semi-amorphous and so they could imitate the shadows. But they could not read minds, and their movements showed this.
The light ebbed further, the shadows hardly distinguishable from the general darkness now. The hunter slammed his sword toward one of the shadows. The shadow moved to flee, the light faded completely just as he heard the tip of his blade break against the stone, and the demon disappeared somewhere beneath the hunter.
The hunter stood unmoving, heart thumping wildly in his chest, pressing his sword down against the stone with both hands. The silence seemed to last an eternity.
“Demon-Eater,” a hiss like the whisper of the wind finally sounded from the darkness at the end of his blade. There was a slight tremble of fear and realization to the voice. Demon-Eater. It was the name by which the demons knew him. They had given him the name. He found himself forgetting his true name at times, these days.
Your name is Demon-Eater, the others whispered in his mind.
I am the hunter… he reminded himself. I am Gabriel Hall.
“You cannot kill me,” the demon went on. It was almost a question.
The hunter, Gabriel, remained silent, but knelt down, still gripping the hilt of his sword, with one hand now. Demon-kind were immortal, as far as the hunter knew, but he wished he could kill them. They deserved death, every one of them.
He leaned in toward the ground, until he could see the dark mass of the demon’s form, just slightly darker than the night. He had never fully understood how they could be so formless, yet still be impaled by a sword. He leaned still lower until his face was nearly touching the monster beneath him.
They could not physically harm anybody in their natural forms—unless one considered possession physical harm, of course. He did not know why, except to guess that it was because they did not belong to his world, but to another. After years of hunting demons, Gabriel still felt like he knew nothing about them.
And that was well with him.
“I will find a way,” he said to the demon after a few moments. He kept telling himself that.
The demon laughed. A slow, deliberate cackle, lacking all humor. Gabriel frowned.
“You know, laughing is an odd thing for a demon to do when facing me,” he said.
“Yes,” the demon said, sounded oddly amused. “The great Demon-Eater. He who has yet to actually rid any of us from this place. We are still a part of your world, still among the people. Through you.”
Gabriel’s frown deepened.
“How many of us are inside you?” the demon asked. “A hundred. More. Why, I would bet you are more demon than you even are human anymore. What is it in that head of yours still keeping you from being just another monster—because, that is what we demon-kind are right, monsters, Demon-Eater?”
“Don’t call me that!” An image flashed in his mind. Of a long, pallid corridor, and a demon wearing a ring. A memory. A reminder of why he did what he did.
I am Gabriel Hall, he told himself. The hunter. The human.
No, the others whispered in his head, the way a mother might correct a mistaken child. You are Demon-Eater now. You are no longer who you were. You are new. You…are…Demon-Eater. The others began to chant the name over and over again in his mind.
He did his best to suppress their chanting as he opened his mouth as though to yawn. Only, instead of exhaling, he breathed in. Not of the air, but of the demon below him. He did not know how he did it; it was as if a completely different part of him was breathing. As though the sinister darkness that made up the demons was this different part’s oxygen. Its life force.
“How many more of us can you take, before you are the monster?” the demon whispered in a strained, breathless wheeze, barely audible above the others’ cries inside of Gabriel’s head. He continued breathing, until the demon disappeared below him.
A new voice was added to the chanting army in his mind. Demon-Eater! Demon-Eater! they cried like an angry choir.
Another voice, suppressed somewhere deeper than the others were in his mind was nearly drowned out by the fervent chants. I am giving up on you, Gabriel, it said.
“I will kill you,” he whispered to the voices, setting his jaws as he climbed to his feet and sheathed his sword.
I am giving up on you, the other, singular voice whispered behind the cries of the others again.
“I will kill you all.” Gabriel turned away from the rotting corpse, toward the alley’s entrance, and started back the way he had come.
If anyone should find this journal, there are a few things you must know about demons.
Firstly—and I believe this is the first thing anybody should ever know of their kind—, being immortal beings, not from this world but now a part of it, one cannot end a demon’s life by any means. No weapon or device can banish them from existence. One may shred the “matter” making up the form of a demon with a sword or otherwise, so much so that it would take quite a while for it to regenerate its body. But it would not die.
For this very reason, along with the obscurity of their origin, I have found the existence of demons to be a tricky one to understand. After all, if Father Truth had created them, why had he not uncreated them, after the demons had begun killing humans? Why had he not given man a tool to defeat them?
Although, the more I consider this last question while progressing in my studies of demon-kind, the more I think Father Truth had given man a tool.
The cup of tea rattled atop the saucer, set upon the pull-out tray in front of Gabriel, as the steam-engine locomotive worked its way along the Great Railroad. The railroad stretched all the way from the southern town of Kapo to the city of Summerton, just inside the Northern Region. Gabriel was somewhere between the two.
Briefly, he looked up from his book and to his teacup. Any more rattling and there would be an empty cup atop a flooded saucer, he noted idly. He hardly paid it any mind, however, as some of the dark liquid sloshed over the saucer’s shallow brim and onto the tray, so consumed in his own thoughts.
How many more of us can you take, before you are the monster? The Skin Crawler had asked the question more than a week ago and, still, he could not force it away.
Frowning in his thoughts, Gabriel took up the cup and sipped a bit of the bitter tea—what remained of it, that is. On any other day, he would have called for more sugar. After all, when playing a lord, one had to act the part. Today, however, he found himself less than motivated. There were more important things on which to dwell than pretending to be frivolous grouser. At least the drink was warm.
Replacing the teacup, Gabriel turned back to his book. Or rather, he turned to the loose paper he had hidden between two pages. It was a sketch—not a particularly talented one—he had done of a woman. One with no face.
He had the outline of the face, yes. The correct angles, strong contours that were yet feminine, and an accurate enough portrayal of the short, wavy hair, which flared slightly outward once it reached chin-length and framed the face perfectly. That much was all clear in his memory. But he could not, for the life of him, sketch the actual features making up her face. He recalled beauty and strength, but little more of the woman he sketched, and he felt those few details beginning to elude him as time pressed onward. He did not even have a name for the woman. She was…her. The reason he hunted the demons.
“Who are you?” he whispered to the faceless sketch. Gabriel remembered loving her; that constant ache in his chest could not be undone from his memories. And he remembered that she was now gone, taken from him by a demon. She was her, and she had been his. That much, he held on to with a fervency he hoped could not be taken from him by the others.
Gabriel turned away from his sketch, staring unseeingly into the tea-filled saucer on the tray. His thoughts lingered back to the alley in the slums of Pitsville. Back to what the demon had spoken.
Even as he sat there in his silence, he could hear the soft chanting of the others in his mind. Never ceasing.
How long will it take? he wondered. This could never truly turn me into a monster, could it? Consuming demons? I have control. They can do no more than try and frighten me with nonexistent sounds. Brief visions. Although, in the beginning, the others had not even been able to do that much, had they? He brought a hand up to the side of his head, massaging his temple with two fingers. It did feel cramped these days, his head.
After a moment, Gabriel brought his hand back down and shook his head, shoving away his unsettling thoughts. The demons are just trying to get under your skin, he told himself. Remain vigilant, keep your wits about you, and—by Father Truth, Himself—you will find a way to make them bleed. You will make right the wrong they—
Thrust from his thoughts, Gabriel snapped his book closed and turned his attention in the direction of the cleared throat. His grim mood lightened up almost immediately, as he took in the two glittering sapphires that were a woman’s eyes, just outside his train cabin. The woman’s skin was fair and soft, and her fiery hair—straight, sleek and cut short, as was becoming the fashion—fell just below her jawline, curling up at the ends, as though to cradle her chin. Freckles lightly dusted her cute, slightly turned-up nose and cheeks.
She stared at him, expectant. Gabriel found the sharpness behind those eyes of her’s quite alluring. Yes, she would be a perfect distraction from thoughts of the faceless woman and the demons.
A bright smile alighted across his face. Gabriel had never known himself to be a charming man, until only about a year ago, when he had realized it was the most essential asset for one to possess when fooling others into believing he was someone of actual import. And, oh, how he had grown proficient at the most important part of charm. The smile.
“What can I do for you, madam?” he asked, taking her in with his grin. It was not enough to be a fake lord in his line of work. Tracking demons required piecing together a lot of rumors overheard from the higher-ups in society; rumors not even the media knew to share, but that those with enough status passed along to one another, as a kind of “ammunition” for their never-ending social warfare. And charm was the most useful tool he had to use in order to gain certain accesses he would have not been granted before, even as a lord.
Of course, there were also his hunches to follow, when he was at a dead end.
Charm was more than just a necessity when it came to gathering information. It was, also, a means by which to pretend—in moments such as this—that he was a normal man, with a normal life. Even if the charade lasted for a mere moment, that was one moment of distraction from the doom-and-gloom of what was quickly becoming his everyday life.
Absently, he patted the cover of his book with his hand. And from her.
“Oh, I do hate to be bothersome, sir,” the woman began in an apologetic tone, smiling in kind, “but all the other train cabins are taken and, well…” She nodded toward the empty booth across from where he sat.
“Of course, madam.” He gestured to the booth with his hand. “Please, sit.”
The woman did so with a curt nod, smoothing out her pristine white dress as she sat. She was exquisitely beautiful. The kind of rare gem who could stand out in a crowd of diamonds.
“I do apologize for having inconvenienced your peaceful reading,” she said, removing her cloche, which had a ribbon matching her dress, and setting it on the seat beside her. She huffed out a breath, seeming flustered.
“No inconvenience at all,” Gabriel said. “I was coming to the end of my chapter anyway. Not to mention, I was only reading because there was no one to keep me company.”
The woman gazed out from the train cart’s window, twirling a strand of her hair around her finger.
“That’s good then,” she smiled faintly, glancing his way with those piercing eyes. “I do hope you mean it. I had reserved s single-seated cabin just up the aisle a bit for myself, but someone had already taken it—a lousy train-hopper, no doubt. I told the man he had taken my seat, but he only just ignored me.”
I cannot see how that is even possible, Gabriel thought.
“I even told one of the attendants,” the woman continued, still looking out the window, “and the attendant had the moxie to ask me to move to another seat. After I had paid extra to reserve that one.” She sighed. “Anyway, I suppose it happens. Still, the train attendants really need to manage the rules more strictly, I think.”
Gabriel raised an eyebrow at the end of her little rant, rather amused by the woman. She certainly had a fire in her.
“Oh, but look at me,” she said, turning from the window finally, and toward him. “A complete stranger going on about her troubles. You must think me an unrestrained woman.”
Gabriel shrugged. “Should I take it that unrestrained is a terrible thing to be, then? I, myself, find that sort of thing refreshing… May I have your name, at least, before deciding what to think of you?”
“I’m Anna. Anna Thornrose.”
“Ah, pleasure…Missus Thornrose.” Gabriel paused, briefly. Where had he heard that name before? Thornrose. After a moment, he shrugged inwardly. He had heard many names in his travels. “I’m William Baryon,” he lied, extending a hand toward Anna.
Baryon was his alias for the Southern Region. He needed no alias for the Northern Region. Where the South lived somewhat strict to its traditions of a tiered society, with the nobility at the top, the Northern Region—with its mayors and less-than-spectacular politicians—was more negligent. His business rarely took him to the North, anyway.
Although, in the South, it was much easier getting into important places when one were the supposed half-brother of a viscount—Gabriel, with the help of the viscount himself, even had falsified documents stating he was Viscount Tulius Baryon’s younger half-brother, to make it official. Tulius had owed him a favor, and probably still a couple more.
The woman, Anna, took his hand in her own and shook it. Her grip was surprisingly firm.
“Ah, a lord,” she said, sounding impressed. “It’s a pleasure, Mister Baryon. And, please, call me Miss.”
Gabriel drew his hand back, a clever smile creeping across his face.
“What is it, Mister Baryon?” Anna asked, brows furrowed.
“I was only just thinking on what you said a moment earlier, about being an unrestrained woman for expressing your opinion of the train service and whatnot to a stranger…” he began. Anna nodded expectantly when he paused. “Well, I have indeed resolved to make a decision on my thoughts about you. Now that I know your name, of course, I can make these judgments, see?”
“Can you now?” she asked through a grin. Abruptly, her face took on a serious expression—too serious not to be exaggerated. “All right…” she said, the way one might say it when bracing herself for a doctor’s diagnosis. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. After a few seconds, she opened them again and nodded. “I’m ready.”
Again, Gabriel found himself amused by the woman. It was not often that he was able to have an actual fun conversation with one who was so clearly part of the upper class.
“You see,” Gabriel began, “I have witnessed many tell fellow acquaintances of their deepest, most troubling problems. If we, then, had not been strangers at the time of your…distress…telling me of your disdain of selfish seat thieves and train attendants lacking in proper authoritative standards would be a rather fitting conversation, actually. But, being that we were complete strangers at the time and you are a…er—”
“Woman?” Anna guessed, a slightly dangerous tone behind her voice. Gabriel cringed inwardly. The seat below him began to fell nearly like eggshells.
“Right,” he said, beginning to rethink having said anything at all. “Things being how they are, I have concluded, my dear, that you are quite the unrestrained woman. Although,” he added quickly, as Anna raised a deadly brow, “I do tend to fancy the unrestrained soul above the rest.”
Both sat in uncomfortable silence—at least, it was uncomfortable for Gabriel—for several seconds. Brow still poised high, Anna leaned back in her seat, pursing her lips in quiet scrutiny of him. With a dangerous stare—a woman’s stare—, she looked him up and down. For a reason he could not understand, his mind kept being pulled back to her, the faceless woman of his ever-fading memory.
I should have thought this conversation though a little better, Gabriel thought, suddenly questioning the charm he thought he possessed only minutes before. That was the problem when it was a learned attribute and not a natural one; when something was false—charm, lordship, normality—he never felt as though he was doing it right. His guise felt unstable, as though he had cast a sheet over his head in the middle of a crowded room and expected nobody to see him standing there. That was the price when playing the role of someone who was not himself.
Fortunately, as Anna finally lowered her arched eyebrow, her lips turning up in a devious smile, it appeared her growing criticism of him had been only an act. A cruel act. It seemed she had cleverly played on his discomfort. He spent his time hunting demons, and one arched eyebrow from a lady had him questioning his ability to act in a role he had been playing for more than a year?
That’s a woman for you, he told himself.
“We should get along just fine then, Mister Baryon,” Anna said, finally, her grin broadening. “And all that might be changing in the coming years—the expectations impressed upon us gentlewomen by you men, who seem to basically be able to say whatever you please. Common women are not held to nearly as lofty a standard, you know. And the women in the North…well, you can hardly tell them apart from the men, I hear. I, also, heard rumor of a group of gentlewomen banding together in Harlun, asking people to sign their petitions against this treatment.” She laughed out loud, as though she had said something funny.
“Unrestrained, indeed,” Gabriel said.
“In truth, Mister Baryon,” Anna said, her smile fading, “I believe there are more important things for the people of this world to worry about. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Gabriel frowned slightly.
“Yes,” he said, after a pause, “I think there are.”
There was a span of thoughtful silence between the two, as though they were both thinking of a specific thing. Gabriel’s mind went to the demons. It seemed to him, the demons were planning something. Placent had been the second lord to be killed within the month and demons almost never targeted people so high up in the hierarchy. They were drawing attention to themselves. Which could be a very bad thing.
Gabriel shoved the concerns away. He was not supposed to care about that. At his side, hidden beneath his duster jacket, Gabriel became aware of the weight of his revolver, Retribution, in its holster there. A gift, from the faceless woman’s murderer. The demon who had taken her…that was his only care.
He studied Anna’s unseeing eyes. As to where her thoughts had taken her, Gabriel could not even guess.
“If you don’t mind my saying,” she began again, breaking the silence, and blinking away whatever ever her mind’s eyes had been seeing, “I didn’t exactly peg you as the type who would care much for literature.”
“I’m sorry?” Gabriel asked, before realizing she had gestured toward the book in his lap. Changing the subject, he noted.
“Right,” he said, looking down at the book. The worn cover was unadorned and a rather bland shade of brown. He did enjoy the occasional book, but, at the moment, he was more interested in the sketch hidden between its pages. “You find all the good stories in books. But, now I’m interested: What type did you peg me for, exactly?”
Anna’s cheeks went red.
“Well,” she began slowly, “drawing from my very first impression of you, I’d have guessed your interests would extend more toward…women.”
“Well, yes, I suppose there are good stories to find with women, also.”
“Mister Baryon!” Anna said, gaping. Then, she laughed and shook her head incredulously. “But, Mister Baryon, as we’ve been speaking, you have become sort of a mystery to me, in honesty.”
“How so?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“There seems to be so many different personalities hidden behind that charming smile of yours, it is simply impossible to know for certain what you care for. I know we’ve only just met, but I am usually pretty good at pegging types. If I could be more certain, I would say you aren’t exactly who you display yourself as being.”
“Really?” he said, carefully.
“For one,” she said, “true charmers are not inclined to let themselves get too close to any woman for too long a time. Woman do tend to be mere passing…experiences…in the charmer’s life; and very rarely are they made important to that life. You, however, were once married.”
Gabriel felt a chill run the length of his spine.
“How did you…?”
“Your hand keeps moving to the ring finger of your left hand, as if to twirl a ring that’s no longer there,” she answered, smiling knowingly.
Gabriel glanced down at his hands and separated them. He had not even noticed he was doing it.
“And,” Anna continued, “she must have been one of the most important things to your life, considering you have been doing that for the better part of our conversation.”
“That’s…” Gabriel shook his head, in true awe of the woman, “…very keen of you. How did you learn to do that?”
“I took a profiling class in school,” she said, glancing out the train’s window. “Wanted to become an investigator.”
“What happened, if I might ask?”
Anna seemed to hesitate.
“Family issues,” she answered, after a few moments. “They are taken care of now,” she added, then rather abruptly leaned in toward Gabriel, looking over the pull-out tray with the teacup and at the book in his lap. “Keen Eyes and a Crimson Pool, by Wayne Philgrim,” she read aloud, tilting her head to see the book’s spine. The title and author’s name, in their silver lettering, were all the decoration the book bore. “Mystery?”
“Horror,” Gabriel answered distantly. This woman was, perhaps, a larger mystery than Gabriel. “Or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be, I think.”
Anna cringed, leaning back in her seat.
“I never cared much for scary stories,” she said. “Too gruesome for my liking.”
“I find they make the real world seem a little bit of a better place to be,” Gabriel said. “Do you enjoy reading?”
“I try to keep myself at a distance from books,” Anna replied, then sighed. “My father already has me nearly drowning myself in a very particular topic of nonfiction—which could be easily confused with horror, if you ask me. Yes, indeed, horribly boring.”
“I do like your spirit, Miss Thornrose.”
“I like your acceptance of it,” she said. “It’s not often a woman meets a man with whom she can freely express herself.”
The two of them sat smiling at one another for quite a few seconds. Then, the train released a cringe-worthy shrill and jolted Gabriel forward, as the breaks were thrown and it began slowing to a stop. Amazingly, his teacup, and the saucer atop which it sat, seemed to maintain a better grounding than he did.
Gabriel glanced out the window, finding a weathered sign, reading: Pleasant Station. His eyes turned back to Anna.
“It seems I’ve reached my stop,” he announced, pushing the tray aside and standing.
“What a coincidence, Mister Baryon,” Anna said, standing also and placing her cloche back on her head. “This is my stop as well.”
Gabriel grinned, then gestured toward the corridor outside his cabin.
“In that case, after you, madam,” he said.
She moved past him, into the corridor. He placed his bowler hat atop his head and slid his small book into one of the pockets on the inside of his duster, before—clutching his small suitcase in one hand and a polished mahogany cane in the other—following a step behind.
“I’ll have you know,” Gabriel began, as they made their way toward the exit, “I will be attending Duke Bawdlin’s ball tonight. If you should find yourself confined by the restraints of society, perhaps you would like to join me there.” Confined by the restraints of society? Flames, I’m getting good at this lord talk.
In front of him Anna laughed.
“And so you would have me cram myself in an entire building full of the gods of restraint?” she asked.
“Well,” Gabriel said, as they both stepped out of the train and onto the wooden platform which made up much of Pleasant Station, then faced her, “I did say I would be attending said ball. Perhaps, we shall show the other lords what’s what, eh?”
“I might have taken you up on that offer, if I were not here on business already,” she said. “Perchance, I will see you another time, Mister Baryon. It was lovely speaking with you.”
“Was it the charm that made it lovely?” Gabriel raised a brow and smirked.
“No.” Anna shook her head. “It was the fact that I could never tell whether you were lying or not, even with the simple things—such as the genre of your book; I still can’t be sure whether it’s a mystery or horror. You are the first true mystery I have encountered in a number of years, Mister Baryon. A lord in a duster coat.”
Anna Thornrose turned and started away, toward a coachman who was waving her down, while another was loading the coach with a large trunk which he presumed was her luggage. Gabriel frowned as he watched her leave, uncertain how he should feel about her words.
Rejected, he thought. And she basically said my words couldn’t be trusted. Hmm.
He turned his attention back to the actual station—a small building set near the center of the large, wooded platform—, then his eyes swept across the platform. It was busier than he remembered it being, when he and…her, the faceless woman…had come here many years before for… What had they come here for?
She had loved the quiet of the place. The way it seemed separated from the rest of the world. He remembered that much, at least.
And she had loved the trees… Gabriel’s frown deepened. Where were the trees? The station was built on the edge of a small wooded area, which separated it from the town of Pleasant. Or, rather, it had been. It appeared the trees had nearly all been cleared and a wide, dirt path cut through where they had once stood.
A couple, thick, grey billows of smoke plumed into the sky about half a mile’s distance away. Factory smoke.
More and more, the quiet towns of the Southern Region were becoming like the cities in the North. More and more, her memory was fading from the South and from his mind. It appeared that expansion had finally found its way to Pleasant.
Gabriel’s boots pounded against the platform, as he made his way down to the dirt road. Fixing his eyes on the billows of smoke in the distance, and sighing to himself, he started forward.
The air was thick and humid, making him rethink his decision to wear his duster.
If there were trees to shade the path, he grumbled inwardly, I might find some solace. Truthfully, Gabriel liked the heat. It kept his mind from the constant, dull roar of the others—the demons—in his mind. What he disliked, however, was change. It was change that slowly tore her memory from him.
His eyes strayed from the road occasionally, to the empty, half-finished husks of wood and concrete that would become one type of building or another once they were finished. He had not yet reached the town, but he was already feeling as if nothing about this place was the same.
I’m not even thirty. Should everything be changing so quickly?
A few coaches passed him by along the way, the coachmen and their passengers sparing him no more than brief glances—sometimes, not even that. They most likely did not even suspect Gabriel was supposed to be a lord. He should probably work on his presence a bit more. A lord in a duster, as Anna had called him, was not exactly the sort of attention he wanted to draw to himself.
Briefly, he considered taking off his duster, but quickly decided against it. The coat was a tool—a more personal tool—, he used to separate himself from the nobleman he pretended to be. When one spent his time acting as a certain type of person—during the moments he was not actively hunting a demon, of course—it could be difficult not to incorporate the ideals of that person—fake or not—as his own. And so, sweat beading along his forehead, he continued along the road.
Eventually, the shouting of street vendors cut through the silence, and the heavy smell of industrialism, perfume, and musk settled down around Gabriel. It was actually a welcome smell, considering he spent much of his time chasing the stench of rotting flesh.
To his right, a large sign read in curving white letters, Welcome to Pleasant.
You should not enter this place, a single voice, somewhere beneath the constant hum of the other demons, whispered, so faint Gabriel questioned whether or not it had truly been there. You should not enter this place, it repeated.
Gabriel paused. His instincts, his hunch—he used to call it his Demon Radar, before deciding it was a ridiculous name—told him he would find a demon here. And those he worked with in the underground—those not afraid to admit the existence of demon-kind—had confirmed there was evidence of demon activity in Pleasant.
He was not exactly sure how they were able to pinpoint the activity of demons—he thought, perhaps, they somehow followed trails of unexplained disappearances, and even that, finding anything using those sorts of leads, seemed far-fetched. Nevertheless, they in the underground were almost always accurate and Gabriel was smart enough not to ask questions. The people making up the underground of any city were not the type to take well to questions about the way they operated.
Leave, the voice continued.
Gabriel shoved the voice to the background, deciding it was probably only one of the others trying to mislead him. Follow the demons, find her murderer. Eventually. It was not much to go on, he knew. But, with demons constantly having to change bodies and no way to track one using any form of identification, it was all he had to go on.
He continued onward, passing the sign. Below him, his boots clomped softly as the dirt path gave way to a cobbled street.
I’m giving up on you, the voice whispered. Gabriel shivered, but ignored the words.
His mood lifted slightly as he took in the large town, not quite a city. Although they were not the mighty pines the once-wooded area had consisted of, there were a few trees here, lining a cobbled streets here or there. Dainty trees, bearing pretty blossoms of pink and white, but still trees.
Gabriel looked about him as he walked. Though many of the citizens of Pleasant were busy haggling with street vendors or listening to an a cappella group singing on a nearby street corner, a few stared at him as he passed them by. Despite its expansion, the people here knew a stranger when they saw one.
Gabriel ignored the few stares, his eyes searching the signs of the many businesses, blossoming in this progressing era like flowers in the springtime, as he strode along the street. It was not long until he caught sight of a sign composed of flashing amber lights in front of a large, two-storey building. Evening was only just arriving, yet the dimly glowing lights were still enough to catch any passerby’s attention. Electric bulbs were one of the newer advents of the era. Pleasant was certainly advancing, indeed.
The flashing bulbs—probably set on timers—making up the letters of the sign ran vertically, reading, Grand Theatre. Gabriel had seen grander. He started toward the lights.
The moment he entered in through the bronze-edged double doors, a man standing behind a podium with a ready smile on his face called, “Welcome to the Grand Theatre, good sir! May I see your ticket, please?”
Gabriel tilted his hat politely to the man.
“I’m not here for the show,” Gabriel said. “I’m here to see the man who owns this fine theater. A Mister Barnes. Do you know where I might find him?”
The custodian shook his head, his smile not fading a bit. “I apologize, sir, but I am not permitted to let anyone pass without a ticket in hand. However, you may purchase a ticket from me here, if you wish.”
“Not even a lord can pass?” Gabriel asked.
The custodian seemed to hesitate at this and Gabriel started forward. He paused as the employee stepped out from behind his podium, hesitantly. Gabriel raised an eyebrow. Although, he realized, he looked nothing like a lord in his current wear. Gabriel, himself, would certainly be unconvinced.
“I-I’m sorry, sir,” the man stammered, “but I really can’t let you pass without a ticket. The last guy who let someone pass without a ticket—as a favor to a friend—got dusted. Please, sir, I can’t get fired too.”
Gabriel screwed his mouth up tightly, then sighed, giving the man a thin smile. “Very well,” he said in a lofty tone. He might as well act like a lord. “Will you, at least, go fetch Mister Barnes for me? Tell him Lord Baryon is here to see him.”
The man wavered briefly, before turning to another employee, who was sweeping the floor nearby. “Parkens, you take over my position for a minute. I’m going to get Master Barnes for…Lord Baryon.” The man eyed Gabriel, still obviously unconvinced. Gabriel lifted his chin haughtily.
The younger lad complied with a smile—were the smiles permanent for the employees here?—, while the other man went away. Gabriel watched him go until he rounded a corner, then moved aside to sit at one of the benches in the reception area. Setting his suitcase on the bench beside him, he pulled his book from its place in his duster and opened it.
He actually tried to read the words this time, as he waited. With the constant rumble of the voices in his head and his own thoughts constantly digressing to the faceless woman, however, his focus was quick to stray. He soon found himself leafing through the pages, until he reached his sketch.
The woman whose face he could not remember enough to draw. He could not even guess the color of her eyes. Yet she was important. He always felt as if he remembered her better the previous day, than he did the current one. Each day he awoke, there seemed to be something about her that was missing from his memory.
What is your name? he wondered.
It was her memory—or lack thereof—that drove him to consume the demons, breathing them into that part of himself he could not begin to understand. It was her who kept him human, at the core of it all. Yet, what more was she now, than a dead wife he could not remember?
Only snatches of recollection remained of the time before the last two years—his hunting years. There was a bank and…blood. Aside from that, he knew almost nothing of who he had been, of who he was. Gabriel hardly even remembered his own parents. She was the last remnant of his life before, and she was little more than an outline of a face, and the flashing image of a corridor, at the end of which stood the demon who had taken her life.
In truth, and what scared him the most, was that he did not want to remember more. Those memories held too much pain for him. That memory had broken him once before. But, he did not want to remember less, either.
Yet, day by day, she slipped closer and closer to the blackness.
Gabriel reached inside his duster and brought out a pencil. She had no face and she had no name, but she was more than those things. He placed the tip of his pencil to the paper, within the blank space of her face.
She liked the trees, he wrote. She was my wife… He leaned back on the bench, pressing his brain for more information.
“Ah, Lord Baryon,” came a deep, aging voice.
Gabriel shut his book with a start, tucking it back in its place within his duster as he glanced up to see two approaching figures. The custodian, along with Lannister Barnes, who was a tall, slender and slightly greying man.
“I’ve been expecting you,” Barnes said. His voice was much older than his face.
Gabriel extended a hand to Barnes as both men approached him. Barnes took his hand in a firm grip. Gabriel did not allow the handshake to extend past a couple seconds, before withdrawing his hand. Noblemen were hesitant to touch commoners for any length of time—apparently, they thought them unclean. However, a brief handshake was in order for any lord meeting a renowned businessman, such as Lannister Barnes.
“So I told your little employee, here,” Gabriel said, shooting the custodian a sharp glance. The poor man seemed to be sweating. Sorry, I have to act the part. Gabriel turned his eyes back on Barnes. “It is a pleasure.”
“Likewise, my lord,” Barnes said, excitedly. “Please, follow me. If you wish it, my employee here will take your…” Barnes glanced down at his one suitcase and cocked a brow, “thing…from you.”
Gabriel shook his head. “Many thanks but I shall carry it myself.”
Barnes frowned as if to say, You are not a very convincing lord. Was it really necessary to be convincing at all times, especially when speaking to one of the underground’s leaders? Gabriel did look forward to those brief, increasingly rare moments where he could just be as close to normal as was possible…before taking up the role of the demon-slaying nobleman again.
With half a mind, Gabriel wondered if the underground bosses paying him to kill demons would start paying him less if they found out he could not actually kill them. Or try to kill me…
“Very well, sir,” Barnes said, after a moment. “Right this way.”
The older man strode away, down the main corridor, then turned right—along a dimly lit, much narrower corridor—mid-way through. Gabriel followed behind, warily. He could never bring himself to fully trust any member of the underground, being that their business consisted of a lot more than just getting rid of demons; and those things were mostly of an illegal nature.
And to think, I wanted to be a lawman. Gabriel paused. I wanted to be a lawman?
He shook his head and continued behind the man. Whatever business the underground was involved in, Barnes was an invaluable informant, having business connections with much of the aristocracy across the Southern Region.
Barnes came to a stop at a large, windowless door and took a second to pull out a set of keys. Finding the right key, he unlocked the door and opened it to a narrow expanse of stairs ascending beyond it. The man started up these, Gabriel following behind.
These stairs ended at yet another door, which Barnes unlocked with a key he had hidden in the inside pocket of his suit. He opened the door and gestured Gabriel through before him. The floorboards creaked beneath Gabriel’s boots as he stepped inside, eyeing the man as he passed.
“This is to be your room, Lord Baryon,” Barnes said, still keeping up the charade.
Gabriel nodded, looking over the cramped space. A small bed, taking up an entire third of the room, was set against the far wall, under the only window—which was little more than a foot in width, as well as height. His was not a glamorous line of work.
“It’ll do,” Gabriel said. “Thank you for your kindness, Barnes.”
Barnes grunted. “If you really want to look like a lord, you should have given the custodian your suitcase. Lords rarely carry their own things. And you could invest in a little more in the way of possessions, also.”
Gabriel sighed, turning to face Barnes.
“I have all the faith that you employ some of the finest individuals here,” Gabriel said. “But, honestly, I don’t have the luxury of trust, especially when it comes to the handling of my personal affects.”
Barnes just shrugged in a way that said, Being stupid is your choice. Gabriel waited for the man to exit. Barnes remained where he was by the door, however.
Right, Gabriel remembered, payment. The underground bosses paid him to kill demons, while another robbed him of half of it for a room the size of two closets and a party invitation. Reaching into his duster coat, he retrieved a rubber banded bundle of bills. The price for getting one invited to a ball was a hefty one, indeed. Apparently, even when they’re the ones employing you, Gabriel grumbled inwardly.
Barnes reached for the money and Gabriel withdrew the bundle slightly, making the man pause. “Before you’re off,” Gabriel said to the man’s agitated stare, “answer me this: Why do you help? Why do your people expend some of your funds paying me to hunt demons? I can’t see how it helps you, seeing as nobody knows.”
“We love this world as much as any, Lord Baryon,” Lannister answered. “It is by cheating it that we are paid, after all. Using a portion of our resources to eliminate any potential competition secures our own business.”
“Competition?” Gabriel asked. “From demons? I doubt they’re interested in the things the many undergrounds do.”
“I did say any potential competition.” Barnes raised an eyebrow at Gabriel’s still-questioning look. “Our money primarily comes from the wealthy—lords looking to upend another, merchants trying to rid their rivals of supplies—, and we get paid by making those things happen. If the demons are killing the lords, essentially our money, then we in my business have a major problem. Now, I think I will have my money. Or have you anymore question regarding the business?”
There was a dangerous edge in Barnes’s eyes and Gabriel was quick to hold the money out for the man again. Lannister Barnes accepted the money gladly and turned to leave. He paused in the doorway, however.
“You would do well to work on thinking more like a noble yourself,” the man said over his shoulder. “I think you’d find many of your questions answered, merely by using another person’s head.” With that, he left Gabriel to himself.
Gabriel leaned his cane against a wall and set his suitcase down on the squeaky bed, unclasping the fastens.
Time to save a lord.
Tall lampposts stood on either side, illuminating the cobbled drive leading to the Bawdlin mansion. The even-glowing electric lights were far more practical than the oil lamps still used by some of the smaller towns. Being still a relatively new technological advancement, electric lights were often the center of conversation among the nobility. Pragmatic as they were, how anybody managed to hold entire conversations about the things was beyond Gabriel.
Gabriel paid little heed to the lights as his coach made its way along the drive. Although they were quite intriguing, he found that change frightened him more than he would probably ever admit. His coach rounded the circular drive before the mansion, giving Gabriel a view of the massive structure from his seat in the coach. He looked out the window, raising an eyebrow. The Bawdlin mansion towered three storeys high, beautifully designed statues erected from the corners of the building at each storey.
Gabriel reached to push the coach door open as the coached rolled to a stop, then pulled his hand back. Tapping his cane impatiently against the floorboards, he waited as “his” coachman—or, rather, the coachman provided him by his underground contacts—came around to open his door, then stepped out. It was difficult being a lord; after all, one required a great deal of patience when waiting for others to serve him.
Gabriel had long ago determined he could never endure the task of being a full time lord. There was simply too much waiting involved.
He stood rooted for a moment, tall and regal…lordly…, before strolling forward, his mahogany cane clicking against the cobblestone beneath him. Lords liked to carry canes, even when they did not need them. He had only just discovered this at his latest ball at the now-deceased Lord Placent’s.
Regardless, he quite liked the new fad, as it allowed for him to bring a rapier, concealed in the sheath of his cane along with him—of course, the previous fashion had been wearing an actual sword. It was short-lived, apparently making the lords, with all their enemies, nervous. Still, many of the noblemen probably did the same as Gabriel, concealing some kind of blade or another in their canes.
Gabriel strode up the few steps and into the colorful limelights, which were fixated upon the rooftop to shine down on the entrance. On the front patio, a few nobles stood to the side chatting amongst themselves. The one noblewoman in the small group—probably the wife of one of the men, by the wedding ring she wore—fixed hungry eyes on Gabriel and smiled innocently. Then, not so innocently, she perked up her breast and gave him a low curtsy, revealing an egregious amount of skin, her plummeting neckline doing little as far as concealment was concerned.
Perhaps, not the wife of one of these noblemen, then.
Gabriel—or Lord Baryon, as he would be called this night—ignored the woman as he walked past the chatty nobles, two guards opening the towering entrance doors as he approached. He had a feeling the glimmering ring she wore on her finger meant very little to her. This time, he caught himself reaching for the wedding band which was no longer on his finger and stopped himself.
Shaking his head to himself and drawing himself up with a lordly haughtiness, Gabriel strode in through the doors, pausing as a man stepped in front of him, performing a sweeping bow. His plain grey waistcoat and white-gloved hands marked him as a steward.
“This way to the ball, my lord,” the steward said with as much poise as his bow.
Gabriel followed the man through the impressively capacious antechamber and into the even more extravagant ballroom. Moonlight and limelight alike beamed in through the skylights above, illuminating the bustle of the floor. The smell of perfume, sweat, and scheming dusted the air.
Gabriel had only recently begun finding it interesting to see diversity even among the aristocracy, for he had only recently realized it existed. When looked upon briefly by one of lower birth, nobles would all most likely appear to be the picture of perfection and poise expected of them. However, when one dwelt among their ranks for a time it became clear that—just like any other—, when compared to the poshest of nobles, there were a group of nobles that would seem rambunctious among their class. Drunkards and slackers existed among nobles and non-nobles all the same. Noble drunkards merely slurred larger words, and in a more refined manner.
“And who may I say has arrived?” the steward asked, drawing Gabriel’s attention from the floor.
“Lord William Baryon, of the noble House Baryon,” he said, handing the man his overcoat. The steward hesitated, eyeing his cane in silent questioning. Gabriel frowned. Why would he want my cane? Sweeping his gaze across the ballroom, he noted, with dropping spirits, that only the old or crippled seemed to be bearing canes around. He cringed inwardly when he noticed a few of the younger nobles eyeing his cane with amused expressions. A few of them laughed to each other.
Gabriel leaned in closer to the steward. “Tell me,” he said in a low voice, “are canes no longer…in.”
The steward flushed, his eyes flicking nervously to the side. He looked as though he suddenly wanted to be away.
“Of course, they are quite fashionable, my lord,” the steward said. Was he supposed to correct a lord, after all?
“You can be honest with me,” Gabriel pressed, giving the man what he hoped was a disarming smile. The steward looked as if Gabriel had revealed a mouth full of fangs.
“Well…er…they are quite fashionable…mostly for elder folk, I believe, my lord,” the steward finally stammered out. “Pardon me, my lord.” The steward flushed again.
“No harm done, good man,” Gabriel replied, handing the man his cane with some hesitation. It’s been a week and already they changed the fashion? Nobles, Gabriel thought with a sigh. Little more than very tall children with constantly shifting tastes. He still had Retribution, at least, tucked away in the hidden holster built into his suit jacket. Although, in this place, he would never be able to hide the fact that he was the one to fire a gun. That was, if he managed to catch the demon before it was able to take another host’s life.
“What,” Gabriel began again, “is considered fashionable now? You’re always around nobles, so I’m betting you know. They always change things on me, these other nobles.”
The steward laughed awkwardly, obviously unsure of how he was supposed to respond. Was Gabriel toying the steward for his own gain, somehow? The poor man looked on the verge of faint. “Cravats,” he squeaked. “I believe it’s colorful cravats, my lord.”
“Cravats,” Gabriel said with a wince. “Why, that’s absurd. Who could conceal a wea…er…a well deserved bottle of liquor in a cravat?”
The steward stood in confused silence, sweat trickling down the sides of his face. Apparently, this man was not accustomed to having a lord engaging in any sort of conversation with him. His eyes flicked to Gabriel’s cane in his hand. His expression said: And you can hide a bottle of liquor in this?
Gabriel shrugged as if to say: I have my ways, then patted the steward on the head. “Thank you, friend. I shall allow you to get back to your announcement of me, before you soil yourself.”
Gabriel turned back to the commotion of nobles again—the steward announcing his presence in a stumbling voice—, noticing the bright cravats around the necks of nearly every nobleman, for the first time. Fortunately, Gabriel wore a dark green cravat with his black suit—a white shirt underneath—, the buttons of his tailcoat a gleaming gold…fake, of course. His cravat was not nearly as bright and extravagant as the others’, but at least he was wearing one.
And I still have my looks to get me through the night, Gabriel thought as he started forward, quickly taking in his surroundings as he sauntered among mingling clusters of men and women. The room was circular with a lofty ceiling, from which three golden chandeliers, with a myriad of crystals, hung. Their many electric lights did little to illuminate the massive space, that duty left mainly to the skylights, but a rainbow of colors did reflect off the crystals of the chandeliers and bounce around the space.
Tall, narrow windows circled the entire room, set into the wall higher up. Although, these were more for decoration than anything else, with beautiful designs painted on them in intricate detail. The place was, indeed, filled with enough color and light to send one into a daze.
Balconies jutted from the wall in a few places, on which the most important of nobility would be conversing. Undoubtedly, the host of the ball, Hort Bawdlin, would be on one of them now. Duke Hort was one of the most powerful men in all the South. It would prove difficult for Gabriel to get close enough to the man to protect him.
He took a seat at an empty table, waving for a steward carrying a wine tray. A glass of sparkling red wine was set in front of him a moment later, the liquid sloshing back and forth like blood. A few drips were carried over the brim, trickling down the side of the glass. Three crimson droplets fell to the white tablecloth.
Like… An image flashed in Gabriel’s mind. The smallest fraction of a memory. Of a bandage stained red. Blood.
Gabriel shoved the image away, clenching his jaws. He could not let his head affect him this night. There would truly be blood shed at this event, if Gabriel was unable to get to the host in time. It was always the host the demons slaughtered, as if to make some kind of show of their murder. Two lords had already been slain, and whispers of mad lord-killers had begun to buzz throughout the Southern Region already.
No one wanted to speak aloud the existence of demon-kind. They wanted to forget about them completely. Most these days were probably completely unaware of them ever having existed. People ignored the demons and the demons’ discreet killings were written off as “undeterminable deaths.” Or, at least, that was how it had been for as long as Gabriel could recall. So why would the demons suddenly want to draw attention to themselves?
Gabriel sat back in his chair, wineglass in hand, musing over his plan to get the attention of those atop the balconies. How had he decided he would gain passage to the balconies? He sighed. Right, there is no plan. I must have forgotten to think that part up. Sounding off his gun would certainly get their attention—perhaps even get the nobles to clear the entire place, thus saving the duke—, but it was not necessarily the sort of attention he was looking for.
Save one man, to get hanged later for firing a weapon in a room full of nobles? he thought. It was absurd. Even if he could get out of being hanged—and, being a fake lord, he probably could—he definitely would not be invited to many balls after such a stunt. Which meant, in the future, he would have a flaming difficult time saving the targeted lords.
Let the lords die, he thought. I’m hunting demons, not hero points.
He paused. That seemed the wrong thought.
Gabriel took a sip of his wine, watching the couples dance on the slightly raised dais at the center of the room, designated for the purpose. He closed his eyes and listened to the song of the musicians, who were sectioned off in their own area near the dais. For a moment, he could imagine they were playing a faster tune and he was dancing the haymaker’s jig. With her. She had loved to dance.
She’s dead, voices hissed at him. He opened his eyes, looking around for the voices, before realizing it had come from the others. He did not like to call them demons once they were inside his head—or wherever they actually were. He found that his control over them seemed a great deal more fragile, when calling them demons.
Do you remember how she died? the voices went on in unison, a hundred whispers coming together to form one low groan of thunder. Tell us, the others said in pleading voices. Oh, tell us how she died, please! Tell us, Demon-Eater. Tell us!
The music of the ball faded, until it was no more. He heard footsteps in the silence, pattering passed him on one side, then the other. None of the nobles were near him. One eye-blink later and the ballroom, with all its denizens, was gone, replaced by a long, narrow, sheer-white corridor. Gabriel stood on one end, facing a door which seemed a mile away.
Figures dressed in white scuttled to and fro, moving around him like water around a stone. Gabriel found his breath choked up. The brightness of the light, the people all clad in white, the door… He did no want to be here.
After a few moments, like an echoing shout in an empty building, the people blurred around the edges, faded to near transparency, then disappeared from the corridor. Gabriel’s heart drummed heavily as he stared forward, into dead eyes. One man stood before him, all clad in white, wearing a mask covering his mouth and nose. Gabriel felt sick.
The man folded his arms, taking Gabriel in with those stoic eyes. The fingers of one white-gloved hand drummed against the man’s upper arm. He wore a ring on this hand. Why did he wear a ring over his glove?
“Give us more blood,” the man said in a steady tone, his voice muffled by the mask.
Gabriel felt cold and suddenly very weak.
“Give us more blood,” the man said again. “We need more blood.”
More blood, Demon-Eater, the voices inside mocked.
“More,” the man continued. “We always need more. To make her better.”
Gabriel squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. I am in a ballroom, he told himself, trying to gain control. There is music playing.
More blood, the others growled in defiance of him.
I am in a ballroom. I’m here to save the duke, Hort.
No, the others said. You are in the place where she died. You are facing her murderer! What are you going to do, Demon-Eater? Tell us.
I am in a ballroom! he shouted in his thoughts. There is music playing. I am here to save Duke Hort.
Tell us, Demon-Eater. What are you going to do?
Stop it! I am in control. You are trying to break me, because you fear me. But I am in control. I will breathe in every last one of you. I will find a way to make your kind bleed. And I will wipe your existence from the face of my world.
A fleeting weight lifted from his mind at once, and he opened his eyes to the sound of music and the sight of dancing. He looked down at his hands, realizing he was clutching the side of the table in a white-knuckled grip. He forced his hands to relax and released his pent up breath. Carefully, he swept his gaze about the ballroom. None of the other nobles seemed to have noticed anything had gone amiss with him.
Gabriel leaned back in his chair, breathing heavily.
Come and get us, Demon-Eater.
He cracked a smile. That was a challenge he wholly accepted.
First thing’s first, however. He needed to get information about the duke, before trying to talk his way onto whichever balcony Duke Hort was on—research he probably should have conducted before the ball.
No time to waste, then, he thought, rising from his chair and taking a gulp of his wine. He picked a path leading to the other side of the ballroom and began zigzagging his way between small groups of conversing noblemen and women. He made sure to skirt close enough around the groups so that his ears could pick up snatches of conversation.
“…haven’t found poor Placent’s killer yet,” Gabriel heard as he passed by one group.
“You know, I am acquainted with the fellow who patented these light…” another was saying.
“…a demon shrine?” someone in another group laughed. Gabriel paused, his ears perking up. “That’s what you heard the Great Railroad was built around?”
“That’s why it splits into the eastern and western tracks for no other foreseen reason. Or, that’s what I heard. And they could not say for certain who the shrine was to. And, anyway, who can really say with utmost confidence that there is truly even a shrine there.”
Gabriel frowned and continued on. A demon shrine?
“This is certainly one of Hort’s better balls,” Gabriel heard as he drew close to another group. “I wonder what’s got him so busy, he can’t even mingle with the other lords.”
Here we are.
“I heard the duke’s making quite a few deals tonight,” Gabriel lied, as he slowly made his way past the group of four noblemen. From his periphery, he saw them turn there heads to regard him, and he slowed to a stop, turning around and facing them.
“Well, that is no news at all,” one of them, a tall, just-greying man replied, then chuckled softly. He was a pretty fellow, despite his slightly crooked nose. “Why, Duke Hort is always making deals. And—terribly sorry—, but I don’t believe we have yet met…”
“William Baryon,” Gabriel said, giving the man a cordial nod. “I am Tulius’s brother—or half-brother, rather.”
“Oh yes,” the man said, half-grinning, “the viscount… I am Thadias Lockre, the count of Lemrich and those few small towns surrounding it. This is Jimothy Booker, Stial Hessen, and Mahre Sep.” Thadias pointed to the other three in turn.
“I heard the entire reason for this event is so Hort can see to it his daughter finds a suitor,” Booker, a shorter, hard looking man, said. “Perhaps, the duke is merely using his time to speak with the potential suitors himself.”
“Suitors?” Gabriel said, thoughtfully. So Duke Hort wanted to see his daughter find a potential husband, then. Perhaps that would be enough for him to use to get onto whichever balcony the duke was on.
“The duke has been growing anxious in that pursuit of late,” Thadias nodded.
“Placent—Father Truth rest his soul—told me only just a few weeks ago that the girl simply refuses to marry,” another nobleman—Mahr?—spoke up. “He will likely choose for her tonight, if he does not give her another chance to choose for herself.”
“Yes,” Thadias said, sounding amused, “she is quite stubborn. Everyone I know says so.”
“Where is this daughter of the duke’s?” Gabriel asked and four amused eyes turn on him. They seemed to imply Gabriel’s motives for him.
“Just look for the table encircled by swooning noblemen, good man,” Thadias said, wearing that half-grin of his again. “There are many seeking to romance the young lady this night.” His tone seemed to say, Many from greater houses.
Thadias nodded his head in the direction just over Gabriel’s shoulder and he turned to see a flock of young men gathered around a table which was set apart from the rest, like vultures. Between the nobles, Gabriel caught a glimpse of the one young woman sitting at the table, her stewards surrounding her like an honor guard might the king.
Gabriel only had a glimpse of her, but—with her chin resting atop her hands as though to keep her head from banging against the table—she looked miserable.
“And her name?” Gabriel asked, turning back to Thadias and the others.
All four of them cocked brows nearly to their hairline, looking dumbfounded by the question.
I really should do more research, Gabriel told himself.
“That is the Lady Renette,” Thadias said, eventually in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Thank you.” Gabriel gave the group one last nod and started away.
“This should be interesting,” one of them said from behind, as he strolled toward the table set siege by noblemen.
Gabriel skirted around the outside of the crowd of hopeful noblemen, all speaking to one another in haughty, overly-loud voices about their feats or financial holdings or—quite simply—their eligibility, in an attempt at capturing the attention of Lady Renette. Gabriel peered between the other lords, catching another glimpse of the wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked lady, who was doing well to look everywhere but the crowd built up before her.
She ran a hand though her raven black hair, which had partly fallen loose from the bun it had been styled in, before adopting her poised posture again. With tired eyes, and a bored expression on her face, it seemed keeping her back straight and her head up had become quite a task. She looked undeniably stressed, bored, and not open to conversation at all.
Inside, Gabriel cringed.
Tick-tock, Demon-Eater, the others whispered. Tick…tock.
Gabriel set his jaw. He would have to be blunt, then.
He took a calming breath, as he maneuvered through the mass of assembled noblemen, choking the air with the scent of their perfume. They all stood a short distance from Lady Renette’s table, but none of them approached, for to do so without being called forth by one of her servants would be highly improper and offensive. Gabriel had never really been one to follow lordly tradition—which was acceptable, being that he was a fake lord—; however, to ignore it now could save Duke Hort, or—if Renette was offended and turned him away—could lock the duke in his ill fate.
Gabriel approached the table.
The lady’s stewards looked to one another with disbelieving expressions, clearly unsure what exactly they were to do if a lord broke protocol. Of course, being stewards, they did no more than continue with their incredulous stares.
Lady Renette frowned deeply, somehow managing to take on an even more rigid posture. She was rather pretty, despite the fact she had not yet quite grown into her woman’s body.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said in a firmness that seemed to contrast her youth and petite figure, “but I do not believe you were called for.”
“No,” Gabriel said, trying to think out his next words carefully. “However, there is something rather pressing I need to discuss with you, my lady.”
“You do realize, you are perhaps the half a dozenth person to say that very thing tonight,” Lady Renette said. “Admittedly, you are the first one to have the gall to say it to my face, instead of through the ears of my servants.”
A slight smile touched Gabriel’s lips.
“If it weren’t important,” Gabriel began, “would I have risked my image of propriety and bypassed your stewards?”
The lady pursed her lips at him, looking him over. Then her eyes passed to the crowd of noblemen behind him.
“Sit,” she said, finally.
“Thank you,” Gabriel said, taking a seat.
Lady Renette cracked a sly smile. “No, thank you.”
Gabriel furrowed his brows. When, after a few snide remarks, the lords began to disperse from the table, he realized he had been used to ward off the other hopeful nobles. To them, Lady Renette had made her choice and it had not been them.
Father Truth, Gabriel thought, she’s known me for less than a minute and she has already used me for her gain. A true noblewoman, indeed. He found himself more amused than upset.
She stared at him for a few moments, but did not immediately move to send him away, and so Gabriel relaxed a bit.
“I am William Baryon of House Baryon,” he said, glancing back at the still dispersing assemblage of noblemen, some of them turning their noses up indignantly toward him. Very tall children, indeed. He turned his focus back to the lady, Renette.
“I am Renette Bawdlin of this very house,” she said bleakly, as though the words had been rehearsed again and again, until they no longer held any meaning. “I suspect you will want to speak of my father’s estate, Mister…William did you say?”
Renette seemed to be trying—poorly—to hide a particular emotion beneath her forced expression. Annoyance. Gabriel’s smile broadened.
She doesn’t believe what I said, he realized. That I actually have urgent news.
“Perhaps,” one of the stewards began, sidling closer to the table, “my lady would like to call a guard to escort the lord away…?”
Gabriel flicked his eyes toward the steward, then narrowed them on the man.
Demon. His blood ran cold as the steward—who was no more than a suit of flesh for the Skin Crawler possessing it—, stared at him with dead eyes. To be certain, Gabriel searched the steward’s neck. He knew not the reason behind it, but Skin Crawlers always possessed through a slit they had made on one’s neck, into which they could slither in. Sure enough, he found the scar after a moment, thin and partially masked by makeup.
“No, I can suffer a short conversation,” Renette said, completely oblivious as to what she was speaking to. “After all, he did help scare the others away for me.”
There was a demon among Lady Renette’s servants. Did that mean there were two planned victims this night?
Gabriel leaned across the table, closer to Renette.
“Actually, I was honest in that I needed to speak with you, my lady,” Gabriel said in a soft voice. “But, perhaps, we should speak away from…prying ears.” Discreetly, Gabriel eyed the demon.
I dare you to move against me, he thought.
Renette laughed out loud.
“You can’t be serious, Lord William,” she scoffed. “We are separated from absolutely every potentially prying ear, right here.”
“Not every prying ear, my lady,” Gabriel said, turning his eyes on her. Pointedly, he glanced to the demon disguised as a steward once more. She seemed to understand his meaning this time.
Her amused grin gave way to a frown. She looked worried.
Good. Gabriel stood suddenly and held a hand out to her.
“Shall we dance, my lady?” Gabriel was already bringing up the Memory of Hámon Givonni, a once-professional dance instructor, who had been possessed during Gabriel’s earlier days of demon hunting. Shortly after discovering his ability to breathe in Skin Crawlers, he discovered, also, his ability to take Memories of those the Skin Crawlers had possessed.
Consume a demon who had possessed a lawman, and he could acquire snatches of Memory pertaining to the skill of gun fighting—and learn the skill for himself. Consume a demon having possessed a dance instructor, and he became rather competent on the dance floor.
Lady Renette, however, did not move to take his hand. Her frown deepened.
“Lord William,” she said, after several seconds, “if you hope to procure a meeting with my father by charming me in a dance…there is no need. I have no such power over my father. However, I will discuss the nature of his business to you, freely—as I have done for nearly every other lord of some impuissant house, seeking to better their position with a union. Rather, those I have not pointedly tried to ignore. There is no need in pretending to bear with you news of grave importance, and looking to my servants as though they were—”
“Lady Renette,” Gabriel interrupted, cursing inwardly. He flicked his eyes in the direction of the false-steward and his heart sank, when he saw the man raise a curious eyebrow. Was he piecing together who this William Baryon actually was? The false-steward smiled so faintly anyone else might have missed it.
In his head, the others cackled gleefully.
Unexpectedly, Gabriel felt a thrilling anticipation buzzing through his veins. His fingers twitched, itching to reach for his revolver pistol, hidden in his suit jacket. He was supposed to consume every demon and one of the creatures stood a mere few feet away.
But…he was, also, supposed to save the nobles the demons were targeting. Gabriel assumed there would be another demon somewhere near Duke Hort, being that he was the host of the ball and those were always the presumed targets. Starting a fight with this demon might do little more than quicken the duke’s murder. Not to mention, if he did it in the open for all to see, he would have a flaming difficult time getting into anymore balls.
Gabriel took his seat again, running a hand through his lengthy, sandy brown hair. He sat where he was a moment, contemplating. Then, he reached a hand into his suit jacket, pulled out his revolver, cocked back the hammer and shot the false-steward in the face.
The bullet dug a hole where, a millisecond before, there had been a nose and exploded from the back of the demon’s head. Blood and brain and meat splattered onto the nearest stewards. There was a pause of complete silence throughout the entire ballroom, save for the ear-ringing echo of his gunshot.
I’m not here for the flaming nobles, Gabriel growled. I’m here for vengeance.
The body of the possessed steward went rigid as the paralyzing poison, which laced the bullet, began working its way throughout the body. Before Gabriel could take his first step toward the thing, however, the body went suddenly limp, collapsing to the ground at odd angles. Then, the screams started.
Gabriel cursed, as a roiling mass of blackness darted away from the body, taking on the shape of the nobles’ shadows, escaping along with them. None of the nobles seemed to even notice it. Every horrified eye was on Gabriel, even as the nobles ran toward the exit. Some did not even run, merely hunkering low beneath their tables.
Lady Renette, her already fair skin having gone even more pallid shade, had not moved from her chair. Her wide eyes were fixed on the bloody corpse lying just next to her table, unmoving.
“Where’s Hort?” Gabriel snapped, too harshly. He would not leave until he had gotten at least one demon.
“What…” she breathed, with eyes still planted on the body, “…something came…out…of it.”
“Yes,” Gabriel said more softly, walking to Lady Renette’s side. “And another one of those things will have already killed your father if you don’t keep your wits about you and tell me what I need to know. Now, where is he?”
Lady Renette blinked, then shook her head as if breaking from a trance. She pointed a trembling finger to a balcony on the other side of the room. Atop it, Gabriel spotted two figures leaning over the balcony railing, regarding the spectacle below. One was smiling.
“Stay here,” Gabriel said to Renette, then sprinted toward the balcony.
A group of guardsmen with brandished swords stepped up to block his path. They did not carry firearms into balls, being that it made the nobles uncomfortable. Not a very competent choice in moments of actual distress.
“Halt!” one guard at the front called, pointing his sword straight at Gabriel.
“Get out of the way!” Gabriel shouted, still running. “He was an assassin! They’re after the duke, for Father Truth’s sake!”
The guardsmen hesitated and the guard at the front lowered his sword a fraction.
None of them did anything to stop Gabriel when he ran right past them. It was not like any nobleman to act so out of character; nor was it like a nobleman to assassinate his rivals himself. In Gabriel’s case—being presumed Lord William—, the guards were likely to believe him. He heard the sound of following footsteps shortly behind him.
“To the duke!” one of the guards bellowed.
You truly can get away with a lot when you’re a lord.
Just ahead, stairs jutted out from the wall, leading up to the balcony. Gabriel rounded the stair railing and dashed into a upward climb. He reached the top well before the guards did, to see a rather portly man—whom Gabriel guessed to be Duke Hort—, with long mustaches drooping down either side of his lips, held before a withering old man like a human shield.
The old man had his arm hooked around the duke’s neck, tightly enough that Duke Hort’s face had taken on a ruddy color and his eyes bulged from their sockets.
“Lord Charles?” a voice that was little more than a whisper came from behind Gabriel. Gabriel spun to see Renette, along with the guardsmen, climbing the last few steps onto the balcony. She looked too shocked to even scream—or do anything else, for that matter. She just stood there, wide-eyed and pale-faced.
Father Truth, this girl, Gabriel thought with an inward sigh.
“Sorry, child,” the old man said, a smile tearing across his face as the duke struggled vainly to break free of the man’s iron grip, “but this was a long time coming.”
“Safe,” the duke gargled as the old man’s, Charles’s, grip around his neck constricted. “Safe…”
Oh dear, Demon-Eater, the others hissed. Are you going to let her watch this?
“You,” Gabriel spun on Lady Renette again, “run! The rest of you, stay out of my way.”
“No offense, my lord,” the same guard that had held his sword up at Gabriel said, striding past him, “but best let trained men take care of this.” In a lower voice, to himself, the guard muttered, “All right, Duke Hort, you know what to do.”
The guard charged toward the old man, sword at the ready. The duke threw his elbow up and slammed it into Charles’s face. When the duke brought his elbow back down, blood streamed down the old man’s face and his nose was smashed flat, but Charles was unfazed. Only because Charles was no longer Charles. Not anymore. And Skin Crawlers felt no pain when in their vessels of flesh.
The guard faltered in his charge. He had obviously expected the man he thought was just a man to loose the duke. Before the guard could think to break off his charge, the demon simply backhanded him. The force of the blow hurled him several feet back. The guard slumped to the ground and did not get back up. The rising and falling of his chest meant he was alive, at least.
Renette found her scream, finally. Inside, Gabriel groaned.
“I told you to run,” he snapped at her, before turning to the frozen guards. “Evacuate those who remain in the manor,” he ordered and they snapped into action.
Gabriel whirled back around to face Hort and the demon strangling the life from him—he seemed to be waiting for a fight—, and sprang into action.
Sprinting toward both of them, he leveled his sights on the demon as best he could while moving and pulled the trigger. An echoing bang exploded from the end of his barrel, and a few more cries of panic rose from the floor below.
The bullet ripped through the air too quickly to see, but the Skin Crawler leaped to the side, managing to evade the shot. Demon and duke crashed to the ground and thrashed about, as Duke Hort tried to wiggle his way out of the demon’s hold. The struggle did not last long as Duke Hort seemed to fall out of consciousness.
“Safe!” the duke choked out again, suddenly, as he came to. “Find…” The rest became a gargle and his eyes slid shut.
Gabriel growled, trying to make his legs move faster. Hold on, Hort. I’m going to save you. Just hold on a little—
The demon jerked his arm tighter in a sudden motion, and the duke fell completely limp. His head dangled forward, held in place by flesh alone. Another wrenching scream came from behind Gabriel, and his heart lurched sickly in his chest. Renette. Why had she not run?
Demon-Eater failed! a sudden clamor of hissing, whispering, and laughing arose from his head. He’s failed! Demon-Eater, the failure!
“No!” Gabriel screamed, sending a barrage of bullets toward the demon. The possessed body moved with an unnatural deftness, leaping away from the bullets and dragging the limp body of the duke with him like a rag doll.
The Skin Crawler looked to Gabriel, his dead eyes almost flickering with an emotion as its lips peeled back into a grin. A challenge. Gabriel aimed his gun as he feinted toward the demon, finger tightening around the trigger. I am not a failure! I will kill you all. I will—
Click. Gabriel cursed, throwing his gun aside and continuing toward the demon.
The Skin Crawler, eyes never leaving Gabriel, drove its fingers into the sockets of Duke Hort’s eyes with a sickening squishing sound.
“No!” Gabriel screamed again, stumbling in his dash a bit at the sight.
The flesh and the tendons beneath the duke’s neck stretched taught, as the demon pulled back from the sockets. The skin around the neck started to rip, blood trickling—then pouring—to the balcony floor. Gabriel steeled himself against the sight.
Tendons connecting the neck to the chest and shoulders snapped like rubber bands. Then, the body dropped to the floor. The Skin Crawler leaped onto the balcony railing, still holding the severed head by the eye sockets, an eerie look of blissful disdain contorting the demon’s face. This time, however, there was little audience remaining for it to flaunt its deed to.
Gabriel growled his fury. I was supposed to save him!
You failed, the voices of the others said. Another house left fatherless, because you lost.
Something inside of Gabriel felt horribly wrong. Perhaps, it was the fact that he cared little that another man had died—that another family was left without a father—, and more that he had, again, lost to the demons. With each nobleman they killed, it was as though they were planting yet another flag of victory, despite his efforts. It was to say they were better than him. And he needed to be better than the demons, if he was going to kill them. He had to stop losing.
And that mindset, too him, felt horribly off. Yet completely right.
“Shut up!” Gabriel roared savagely, reaching the railing upon which the Skin Crawler crouched.
The demon turned toward him, his smile twisting up further. “Well, Demon-Eater, it seems you’ve los—”
Gabriel grabbed hold of the demon with one hand, lifting it up off the railing and slamming the wide-eyed monster onto the floor. Vaguely, he realized he should not have been able to do that to a demon-enhanced body.
“Stop saying that.”
Before the demon could escape its vessel, Gabriel pulled free the dagger he kept hidden in his boot and slammed it through its gut and into the floor, where the the weapon stuck.
He should not have been able to do that either.
The demon’s face contorted with rage and fear and confusion all at once. Wailing, it reached to pull the dagger free. Only, Gabriel pinned its arms down, putting his weighed on the legs so the thing could not use the body to buck free.
A chorus of voices rose from inside him. Demon-Eater, they chanted, declaring the name they had given him. The name of a monster. Demon-Eater, Demon-Eater!
I am Gabriel Hall, he told himself, leaning in close to the demon’s face. My name. I will remember it always.
No, you are Demon-Eater! Our Demon-Eater!
“How can you… You’re still only human,” the Skin Crawler sputtered. From his periphery, Gabriel saw Renette rushing to kneel beside the headless corpse of her father. The demon flicked its eyes that direction, also, and struggled against Gabriel with renewed fervor. “The girl. I need her!”
Gabriel managed to hold the demon fast.
“You’re still only human!”
“Shut up and die,” Gabriel hissed, then opened his mouth.
Demon-Eater, Demon-Eater, Demon-Eater…
Duke Hort’s body lay in a crimson pool, his blood staining the polished marble red and streaming over the sides of the balcony onto the floor below. Renette knelt over her father’s body, weeping. Another body lay on the balcony as well, over which the mysterious lord knelt. A dagger pierced through this body’s gut. At first the old man had tried to fight back, with the blade still through his gut. Now, he lay still.
Anna Thornrose watched from her crouched position near the top of the stairs. The guards had tried to make her leave, but she had had business here. The guards’ corpses now lay hidden in some random closet she had found. She hated killing.
Anna had taken cover when she heard the gunshot, then had followed this mysterious lord to the balcony. By the time she had reached the top, the duke was already dead and the lord was slamming the dagger down into the old man.
She had not attacked the lord. She thought the old man could handle himself; after all, he had a god inside of him.
Currently, as Anna watched a mass of blackness, glimmering with flashes silver and white just beneath it like the constellations of the night sky, moving from the old man and into the lord, Anna’s stomach lurched nauseatingly.
What is this man? she wondered, watching in horror. She had seen many things no other human being could have ever possibly seen, yet never had she witnessed a man—no, monster— able to consume a god.
As the last trail of blackness disappeared into the man’s open mouth, he climbed to his feet and turned to Lady Renette, looking to the girl with solemn eyes. Anna’s heart nearly tore from her chest once she saw the man’s face for the first time. She recognized him.
This lord lacked the charming grin and bright eyes of the man she had encountered on the train, but she was sure it was the same man. William Baryon. The lord. The monster.
She found herself truly shaken by the revelation. And disappointed in herself for not being able to realize the man was a fraud in the beginning. He had seemed like a sincere man and, now—the way he looked down to Renette, visibly torn as to what he should do—, he seemed a caring one.
And she would have to kill him.
Sincere or not—caring or not—, this William man…this monster…was consuming, and possibly killing, gods. Although, how did one go about killing something that could devour the divine? Would a mundane weapon work, or would it require something else?
Anna looked down at the bloody throwing knives in her hands. It was not worth the risk, she decided. Still crouching low, she crept to the bottom of the steps and dashed soundlessly out of the abandoned ballroom, through the antechamber, and into the night. The grounds were already as empty as the ballroom.
She stood rooted in place, still reluctant to leave. Her eyes swept about the shadowy, silent grounds, then drifted up to the glittering blanket of the darkling sky.
The sky did not change as the life below it did. If another, somewhere else in the world where it was yet night were to look up at the sky, that person would see nearly the exact same image as Anna. The sky was a realm of constants. Each day, she could awake with the confidence that there would be the sun in the sky. And every night, she could count on the moon and stars to be hovering above, glowing silver—even if they were obscured by clouds or the moon was darkened my its new moon phase, she could know they were still there.
Below, however, on the ground, the world was a place riddled with variables. People changed, rules changed, the landscape changed. It was a world where every person aspired to newness, difference, and eccentricity. Change. Every change was a supposed advance; every change brought humanity closer to the possibility of being their own gods. Yet, in every change, chaos abounded. The human idea of change—or advancement—inspired envy, and envy eventually caused hate, and hate bred war, and war brought famine and death and everything destructive to the planet.
Mankind and their change was killing the planet. And they were all so blissfully unaware of the fact.
What if the ground was like the sky? Anna wondered. Surely the world would be a better place if everything was constant. We would not be able to feed the chaos, then.
But the ground, unfortunately, was not the sky. And soon, mankind would push the planet to the brink. Dalin Thornrose, Anna’s father had spent his life combating the chaos, and the gods had given him a chance to see it end.
Bringing only a small number of the gods over, however, had required a heavy cost. Her father’s legs…and arms…and head. Paralysis, throughout his entire body. And so his task had fallen to his only daughter.
Anna would help the gods bring the rest of their kind over. She would help bring order to chaos. Save the world. And the gods would heal her father.
Her eyes moved from the sky and looked about until she found her awaiting coach in the darkened drive. The horses blew snorts out through their nostrils and clomped their hooves impatiently upon the cobblestones below.
A man stood rigid at the door—or a god in the body of a man. The vessel would not survive long with the full glory of a god dwelling inside of him and his flesh would eventually begin to break down in rot, but in the short time the man was blessed by the presence of a god, the vessel would experience enhanced strength and boundless knowledge. And, though it may not have been his choice, this man, inside of which a god dwelt, would be contributing to the salvation of the world.
Anna made her way to the coach.
“You do not bear the girl with you,” the god spoke through the vessel.
“There was a…disturbance,” she said, looking the god in the eyes. “A man. He could…consume your kind…” She searched the god’s human face for any indication that her words meant something to the god. His eyes, however, did not flicker with any emotion that she could see.
Why did the gods have to be so unreadable? No amount of profiling classes had prepared her for guessing the emotions of a being which seemed incapable of emotion.
Eventually, she shook her head in frustration and opened her coach door.
“Anyway, she is safe,” Anna said, climbing into the coach and seating herself. She went to shut her door, then hesitated, looking toward the mansion. Light streamed out from the open door. I hope.
“Did the man know?” the god asked.
“I can’t be sure,” Anna said honestly. “I believe his only concern was the duke, however.”
Outside, the god grunted. Anna felt the coach shift as he climbed up to the coachman’s seat. He was a god, but he played the part of coachman tonight. Regardless, it felt unbelievable that a god was acting as her coachman.
I left Renette with a monster, she thought to herself. She would kill the man and get her back. Soon. But not tonight.
She looked to the mansion one last time, before closing the door.
Before she did anything else, she needed to consult her father. There were things the gods were not telling her.
She liked to dance… Gabriel stared down at the newly written words within the blank space of her face on the crinkled paper. He folded up the sketch and replaced it in his jacket pocket.
“You are certain this was all that was in your father’s safe?” Gabriel asked, skimming through the strewn mess of miscellaneous papers, ledgers, legal documents, and banknotes—but strangely no money—on the table, which was in the manor’s extensive library, for perhaps the half-dozenth time. It appeared Duke Hort had had quite the interest in books. Gabriel might have gotten along with the man quite well…had he not been dead.
He glanced at Renette, sitting frail and hunched over in a plush chair set several feet from where Gabriel sat, as though he were plagued by some contagious disease. I did consume a demon right in front of her, he told himself. She was frightened of him and he did not like that, but he could not resent her for it.
His eyes wavered on the young woman a moment.
With her tear-streaked face drained of color, and her reddened eyes fixed on some distant point in front of her, she looked almost like a plaintive ghost in a trance.
Or just a mourning daughter, Gabriel told himself, eyeing her blood-stained hands and ballgown. She did not even seem to notice the blood.
“Everything,” she whispered, finally, in a voice which was barely audible. Gabriel frowned as he looked at her—this person who had seemed so strong for one so young when they had first spoken, but who now looked so very small. The frown was directed toward himself, however.
I expected to care more, he realized, turning back to the contents from the safe.
In truth, he was troubled by the duke’s death. Troubled that the demons had, again, outdone him. If he could not save even one nobleman, how was he ever going to succeed in killing hundreds of immortal monsters? Tonight he had only succeeded in adding another voice to the rumble in his head, and he still did not even know where to start to look for a way to kill them.
Perhaps, there is no way to kill them, he thought. Even through his doubts, he knew the thought was a lie. There was a way to kill the demons. He did not know how he knew it to be true, he only knew it was. The answer, whatever it was, felt like it was just out of reach, like an object laying right in front of him, over which his eyes had passed multiple times already. And he was getting no closer to seeing it.
Gabriel glanced over at Renette once more, realizing his mind had strayed from the dead duke and back to killing the demons almost just as soon as the duke had entered his mind. It felt…wrong…that he should care so little about a man’s death.
She is fatherless now, he told himself. He felt nothing.
Gabriel forced the shame away, delving deeper into the stack of papers, pulling from it a large envelope. It was addressed to no one. How had he missed that in all his searches?
Is this what he wanted me to find?
Gabriel ripped open the envelope. Perhaps, he would uncover something useful inside. Something that could help him find a way to kill the demons, hopefully. After all, there had to be a reason the demons were after the nobles. Maybe they knew something everyone else did not.
Gabriel reached inside, pulling out a passport and a folded piece of paper. He tossed the passport aside onto the table, turning his attention to the folded paper. It felt heavier than it should have been and when he unfolded it a smaller, wax-sealed envelope fell from within. He picked up the wax-sealed envelope in one hand, then skimmed over the cramped writing on the paper in the other.
To my dear little Ren,
If this letter should still be intact, then it will have meant I have been killed. You must be confused as to why I have been killed, or why I had expected it. Suffice it to say, things are in motion and other noblemen will continue to be assassinated by…things. So far Petars and Placent have been killed, and I believe these “things” are targeting specific members of the aristocracy. I cannot explain why I think this, because I do not want you involved in the things we have gotten ourselves involved in.
I am sorry, Renette, for leaving you behind.
Take a few of the guards and depart from our manor as soon as you are able. My good friend, Charles Tharker, will be happy to take you in. If something should have befallen my friend—Father Truth forbid—, go to another acquaintance of mine in the Northern Region, who goes by the name Grey. Grey is not civil in the way you are used to, but will keep you safe.
Furthermore, you have no need to worry for your mother. I have seen to it that she will be well taken care of upon my death.
The address to Grey’s is written below—if that should be the route you take. And, of course, you know the way to Charles’s. I have provided the necessary passport required for passage into the Northern Region. There is, also, another envelope for your eyes only, my daughter. Whatever happens, never let it out of your sight.
Being dead, I have no other choice but to trust that it is you, my daughter, who holds this letter now. If it should be another, know that it is crucial in the utmost that you see my daughter to safety. I ask that you respect a dead man’s wishes and ensure my daughter receives the sealed envelope. More is at stake here than you could possibly understand….
With all my love to you and hope in Father Truth,
Gabriel leaned back in his chair, more than a little disappointed at the vagueness of the letter. At least, now, Gabriel knew the attacks on the nobility were not so random after all. Even so, he was still in the dark about the why of the matter. Were the demons killing these particular nobles, because they were looking for something? Did whatever was inside of the sealed envelope pertain to that?
If the demons are looking for something, Gabriel thought, then why are they making such a show of killing the nobility? Why aren’t they killing in secret?
Gabriel consciously forced the questions away. He was not an investigator. Whatever the demons were planning, it was none of his concern. He did not want it to be. His goal was not to save, it was to kill. And the questions distracted from that. Besides, if he could hunt the demons down, find a way to kill them, the nobility would have nothing more to worry about anyway.
Gabriel looked to the sealed envelope, having fallen from the folded letter. The wax seal did not bear the insignia of House Bawdlin. This insignia—two, overlapping circles, forming a sideways eye where they overlapped—itched at Gabriel’s memory.
For a moment, Gabriel was in that terrible, bright corridor, white-clad figures in face masks bustling about him. He squeezed his eyes shut and it flickered away.
Taking a deep breath, he turned his attention back to the sealed envelope. He pressed his thumbs against the seal, preparing to break it. Perhaps he would find answers inside. But he wavered. As he stared at the seal of the envelope, the voices of the others had become eerily silent. He found it strangely uncomfortable.
After a few moments, he breathed out a breath he had not realized had been pent up.
No, he thought lifting his thumbs from the seal. I don’t want those answers. Whatever was inside was for Renette’s eyes, anyway. He had gone numb to death over the years, but he had not lost his decency. Still…
Gabriel slipped the envelope into a pocket on the inside of his tailcoat. I won’t open it, but—whatever it is—it’s safer with me.
He rose from his seat then, swiping the passport and letter up from the table. He paused, his eyes drifting toward Renette, still sitting with her eyes fixed on that distant point. Upon her lap, her bloodied hands trembled. Hort wanted his daughter seen to safety.
Come and get us, Demon-Eater, the voices started up again. Challenging him.
She’s not my problem, he thought, then started away.
I’m giving up on you, a single voice whispered. Gabriel stopped. I’m giving up on you, because you forgot.
Gabriel turned back to Renette. Her wide eyes drifted his way, finally moving from whatever they had been fixed upon, and remained on his. Reddened and swollen from her previous crying, her eyes were surprisingly firm, fixed on Gabriel now. Her eyes were…
“Her…eyes…” Gabriel whispered to himself, as Renette’s gaze slid down to the floor after a moment. He pulled out his sheet of paper from within his tailcoat and set it down on a nearby table. He got out a pencil and began to sketch out two sideways ovals, over the words he had written there.
When he was finished, he set the pencil aside. The faceless woman stared up at him. His sketching was not beautiful, for he was no artist, but it was accurate. True. And, now, the faceless woman had eyes. Her eyes were unwavering and kind all at once. Her eyes were knowing and penetrating and lovely. And Gabriel remembered them.
He turned back to the young woman, Renette.
“She has her eyes,” he whispered. Then smiled faintly.
“The older man,” Gabriel began slowly, “the one who… That was Charles Tharker?”
The young woman looked up from the floor. She nodded. That eliminated him then.
“Your father wanted you safe,” Gabriel continued, walking toward Renette. She flinched as he outstretched a hand to give the passport and the duke’s letter to her. She eyed the letter, eventually taking it, and the passport, with reluctant slowness. “He mentioned in the letter that he arranged for your mother to be taken care of. Is she…not well enough to travel with you?”
Renette shook her head.
“Well, she will be safe here, then,” Gabriel said. “Guardsman,” he called, causing another flinch from Renette.
The guard—the one who had charged the Skin Crawler—entered into the library a second later; he had been standing just outside the door. Clearly unsure as to what protocol called for when standing before someone like Gabriel, the guardsman gave an awkward salute.
“Sir?” the guard said in a firm voice. Gabriel thought he must have be hiding how shaken up he was rather well.
“You’re all right?” Gabriel asked.
“Yes, sir. Only a nasty bruise.” The guardsman rubbed the side of his face, his left cheek a swollen circle of purple and black. “Brute had a nasty backhand,” he chuckled hollowly. His eyes took on a distant look. “It was supposed to work. Lord Hort breaks himself free long enough for me to fell the sorry sap trying to hold him. We practiced it dozens of times. It was supposed to work…”
Gabriel laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. He felt the guardsman go tense at his touch.
“You did your best,” Gabriel said. “Better than most against one of those things.”
“And what exactly was that bloody thing? Er…my lord.”
“Just another kind of monster,” Gabriel said. “Listen, I think it’s better we leave some monsters forgotten about.” Especially if it’s attention they want.
The guardsman shook his head, blowing out a heavy breath. “Lord Hort was a good man,” the guard said. “He didn’t deserve to be… Not like that.”
The filthiest criminal does not deserve to be killed by one of those things, Gabriel thought, removing his hand from the man’s shoulder.
“I was supposed to be there,” the guardsman continued. “I failed—”
“Guardsman,” Gabriel interrupted, “you can’t afford to think about what happened, and you can’t afford to blame yourself. The duke wrote that he wanted his daughter seen safely to an acquaintance of his in the Northern Region. Somewhere in Summerton, the address said in the letter. Grey will be his name. Can you do that? Can you escort the Lady Renette to safety.”
The guardsman wavered. “I couldn’t even touch Lord Charles—or, the monster…whatever he…it…was. If something like that comes for—”
“Listen to me,” Gabriel said in a stern voice. He glanced over toward Renette—who did not even seem to notice them—and continued in a lower voice. “Those monsters won’t be after Lady Renette. I have been following their movements. They go after the hosts of random balls and…well, you saw it. They will be after some other lord throwing another ball—if there are any left who are brave enough to do so—, by now. You have a duty to this family, guardsman. And the daughter is still alive and well. I ask again: Can you get her to Grey’s?”
The guard stared hard into Gabriel’s own eyes. For the first time, Gabriel paid enough attention to the man to realize the guardsman was probably several years older than himself. And he was speaking to him as though he were a boy.
“It was never a question of duty, lord,” the guardsman said. He nodded after a few seconds. “I can do it. I’ll gather up a small team of men and we’ll see her to Grey’s. I’ll see her to everywhere she goes.”
Gabriel smiled wanly. “Good,” he said, then turned his attention back to Lady Renette. Frail Lady Renette. “I know it is soon for you,” he said to her, “but you really must make haste. Your guardsman here will—”
“No.” Her voice was hardly more than a whisper and Renette seemed surprised herself that she had said it. “No,” she said again, in a stronger voice. “I will not go.”
“Renette,” Gabriel said, “it’s not me, you know. It was your father’s wish for you to—”
“No,” she snapped, shooting him a glare. She shrank back, face going pale, when she realized at whom she had snapped. Gabriel wished she was not so frightened of him. Looking into Renette’s wide eyes—her eyes—, it was almost as if…she…were fearful of him. “I will go nowhere. Not until my father is buried.”
Gabriel sighed, but he did not particularly fancy arguing with a mourning girl.
“Fine,” Gabriel said. “But we bury him tonight. And then we’re off.”
Renette opened her mouth, looking as though she were about to argue. Then she closed it and merely nodded.
“Sorry, sir,” the guardsman began. “You said we’re off?”
Gabriel nodded slowly. “I might as well ride along with you. At least, for a short while. Just in case.” Gabriel looked down at his hands when he noticed himself searching for the wedding band that was no longer there, then pulled them apart. Just in case.
Gabriel started toward the library exit.
“I hate you.”
He paused. Strangely, Renette’s words pricked him inside. Somewhere too near to the heart.
“Or, at least, I want to,” she said in a softer voice. “I’m sorry.”
Gabriel kept his eyes planted on the library door.
“Let’s get digging,” he said, then pushed the door open and walked away.
Lord William Baryon, the man who apparently made it his business to kill servants and steal souls from old friends, shoveled the last of the dirt onto the mound which was now her father’s grave.
Renette’s guardsman, Riggins, drove his own shovel into the ground, where it stuck. Standing rigid beside it, he stared down at the grave with a solemn face. He shook his head.
Renette had never asked the man how he came to be one of her father’s personal guards, but it had always been clear to her that the guardsman had been indebted to her father somehow. She turned her eyes away from Riggins and to the lord, William, whose face was equally solemn. Unlike Riggins, there was no hint of pain behind the lord’s solemnity. It was only grimness, as though the look befit him.
What had he lost this night that she was not seeing?
What is the man’s game? Renette wondered. Why kill my servant, then try to save my father?
William raised his eyes to meet hers and she quickly glanced away, down at her father’s grave.
Why had her father even been… She could not even think the thought. She was too numb to even cry anymore. And by his oldest friend?
None of this entire night made sense to her. It was all just madness. Madness which was, as far as she could tell, brought by William Baryon. It was not right to place all the blame on Lord William. She knew that. However, she needed someone at whom to direct the anger she felt beneath the numbness.
What about yourself? she asked herself.
The ball had been thrown for her, after all. If she had only just done her duty and found a suitor, without throwing a tantrum every time it had been mentioned to her… Perhaps my father would still be alive.
“How?” Renette asked the question before she even realized her lips were moving to say the word. She glanced up toward William, who seemed to suddenly tense. The lord began fidgeting with his hands, then looked down at them and pulled them apart.
“How…?” he asked after a few seconds.
“How did you know my father was being…targeted…tonight?” William’s demeanor relaxed a bit at the question. He had been expecting her to ask something else. Renette frowned. How could he steal souls? “And how did you know my servant was a assassin—as you called him?” she asked instead.
“I’ve been tracking these assassins, these…”
“Monsters?” Renette finished. “The one that…did something to Charles’s body.”
“Yes,” William nodded. “I’ve been tracking these monsters for quite a while. I assume you’ve heard of the past two noblemen to have been killed while hosting events such as this?”
Renette nodded, feeling shocked. “The mysterious murders,” she said. “They were done by…?”
Again, William nodded. “They take over a person’s body, and cause him to do whatever they want him to do. A de…a monster had taken your servant.”
“Why do you not name the monsters?” Renette asked. “It’s clear you know what they are.”
“Some things are best kept secret, Miss Renette,” Riggins answered, instead. “I think the lord’s got the right idea. The less we’re involved, the safer it will be for you. That means less answers for the both of us.” At that, Riggins gave Lord William a hard look.
“Yes,” William said, “less answers.”
“How do I know it was not you taking control over Charles and my servant?” Renette asked. “I mean, I saw…I saw you…his soul.”
William tensed again.
“You will just have to trust me, I suppose,” he said.
Renette furrowed her brows. Then, her eyes trailed back to her father’s grave. He was gone. She was alone, never to hear his voice again, never to share the day’s events with him, never to laugh with him. She felt her anger seeping through the numbness.
“Will you continue to track them?” she asked, setting her jaw.
“To the ends of the world,” William said, his expression growing even grimmer.
“Can I come with you?” She knew it was a foolish question the moment she asked it, but she did not care. She wanted to see the monsters who killed her father in pain. She wanted to cause the pain. Images flashed in her mind, of things so violent that they frightened her. Things she wanted do to the monsters. Things she had not known herself capable of thinking. She was supposed to be a lady.
“No,” William said, at the same time Riggins said it.
Both men looked to one another, as though trying to decide on which should speak first.
“I dedicated my life to protect this family,” Riggins said, taking the lead. “My oath does not void because your father was… Anyway, I must think of your protection above all else, at all times, Miss Renette. Going with the lord would be suicide.”
“He is right,” William said. “What skill would you have against these monsters?”
Renette was silent. She knew they were both right.
“I can promise you,” William continued, “that, though I could not save your father, I will avenge his death for you—and every other man or woman dead because of them. I will put an end to them.”
Renette found that she believed him.
“Now,” William said, pulling a pocket watch out from his suit jacket and checking it, “we really must be getting ready. The morning train leaves within the hour.”
Renette looked toward the horizon, the pale light of dawn painting the sky an eerie grey. Had so much time really passed already?
“Leave me a moment, please,” she said, looking back to the mound of dirt at her feet. “I would like to give my farewells.” From her periphery she saw William check his watch again.
“All right,” he said, “but try not to be too long.” Renette heard the rustling of the grass as Lord William started back toward the house.
“I will have one of your servants pack your things for you, Miss Renette,” Riggins said. Then, he was following behind Lord William.
Renette watched them go, until they were inside, and then she collapsed to her hands and knees. She could not cry, she could not even make a sound. She merely closed her eyes, drove her nails into the packed mound of her father’s grave, and waited for the incessant aching to leave her chest. It remained, however, just as strong as it had been atop that balcony, as she knelt beside her father’s headless corpse. Perhaps even stronger now.
Rage and despair and emotions she could not quite name hurled themselves at her wave after wave, crippling her very ability to move. It was a physical pain she felt in her heart. She wanted to claw both the pain and her heart from her chest, but she just knelt where she was. Frozen by emotion, just as she had been on the balcony, when her father had been helpless.
“I could do nothing,” she was able to croak out, finally. “I am sorry, father, I could do nothing to save you. I could do nothing. I could do nothing. I could do nothing… Nothing. I could… I’m sorry. There was nothing I could do. I’m sorry.”
I could have tried, she told herself. I could have done more than scream. I…
Renette lowered her head, until her forehead was pressed against the dirt. “Father Truth, please stop the pain. Please.”
Get up, a voice that was not her own told her. She used to speak back to it, until what had happened with her mother… Get up.
She usually ignored the voice, but this time she listened and forced herself back onto her feet. She needed to get to Grey’s. Her father had wanted her to go there. And, there, she might be able to find answers as to what exactly her father had gotten himself into. She needed to know that much, at least. And she had to move in order to do that. She could not allow her emotions to freeze her up.
She looked down at her dress, stained with dirt and blood. Her hands were the same, and trembling. She clenched them into fists.
Get up, the voice said.
“I’m up,” she whispered back to the voice. “I’m up.”
Continued in Part Two…
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Sometimes the monster lurks closer than you think... The people of Capernia live in an era of progress, and, as such, during a time where much of the past is left to rot, including its horrors. Although, the world may have to face past horrors sooner than it realizes, as demons begin slaughtering the nobles in public, threatening the tiers of society set by man to keep the chaos at bay for so many years. In Part One of The Demon-Eater, there are two whom we watch . . . The Hunter: plagued by a past he cannot remember; tormented in his search for the â€œfaceless woman'sâ€ murderer. And the Daughter, set on a course to save her father by any means necessary. A course that will break the world, or save it. NOTE: This is Part One (of four) of the first book in the BONDFORGERS series.