Fifty-Five

Jun. 20th, 2013 11:37 pm
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the water here at the hermitage won't show the same signs of contamination as that in town, or else there would be no reason for anyone from here to go into town each night to draw it out.

Still, I am determined to be thorough. If the water here is tainted... well, it might betoken anything for what's become of Father Toma, but it might mean that we have read too much into the signs of the wagon tracks.

I draw water from the well and examine it. It's... water. No feeling of dread, no preternatural clarity.

"The wagon tracks lead into the barn," Bel says.

"That hasn't escaped my attention," I say.

"Are we going to investigate?"

"By and by," I say. "But carefully. The thing is that most sources agree that vampires find sunlight disagreeable, but they differ on whether or not they are completely incapacitated during the day."

"Then you should probably bring that water," Bel says.

"Why? If it was running at one point, it's stopped," I say. "Vampires don't fear ordinary water, otherwise."

"It's a priest's well," she says. "He might have blessed it."

Fifty-Four

Jun. 18th, 2013 11:34 pm
The sun blazing overhead is quite a present comfort as we arrive at the hermitage. The place is quite a bit bigger and more elaborate than I'd expected, but just as rustic. There's a sprawling lodge or cabin and a couple of outbuildings, a barn with aspirations of being a carriage house and a wood shed.

"Is it just Father Toma here?" I ask Bel. "No novices, no assistants?"
"
"I don't believe at the moment," she says. "Sometimes pilgrims stay, but mostly I think it's big because he's always building onto it. There's something holy in labor."

"Let's hope his more recent labors have been as holy," I say. "Where'd he get his water from before, I wonder? I can't imagine he hauled it from town. Topography's wrong for a creek..."

We find a well in back of the shed. It's a smaller, ruder affair than the one in town. There's a leather satchel on a rope to serve as a bucket. There's water in the well, but the leather is bone dry.
The ground we walk is well-traveled, a path laid less by intention than by habit as the multiplication of hooves, feet, and wheels turned tracks through the woods into a trail, which became a wide-spreading road. It's verging on noon when Bel indicates we must turn from this to a newer and narrower path, albeit one scarred with deep ruts from wagon wheels.

"Does this path lead anywhere beyond Father Toma's dwelling place?" I ask my lovely guide.

"If you kept walking I'm sure it would eventually, but I've never heard it called anything but the way to the hermitage," she says.

"Well, even a hermit likes company, I suppose."

"Determined company, at that," she says. "To drag that heavy wagon... whatever load it may be carrying... without any horses."

As she says this, I see what she sees... there are no hoof prints or other passing evidence of horses on Toma's track.

"Something just struck me," I say. "About what you said earlier, when you were telling me what you know about Father Toma."

"What's that?"

"You said he doesn't drink," I say. "But of course you didn't mean that strictly literally, what you meant was that he doesn't drink wine or beer or whiskey or other drinks with alcoholic spirits in them. All of which is a rather long way of saying..."

"He only drinks water," Bel says.

"If he were already tainted when he attempted the blessing, that might go a long way towards explaining why it didn't work," I say.

"You think he's the one pumping water at night?" Bel asks.

"Well, it would explain the delay between sundown and showtime," I say. "He can doubtlessly cover this ground much faster than we have by himself, but if he's hauling a wagon and barrels... I don't understand why he would be a full vampire now while everyone else is just looking a bit anemic and sun-shy, though. And I don't yet know why he would be stockpiling the tainted water."

"You said vampires don't make evangelists," Bel says. "But what happens if an evangelist became a vampire?"

Fifty-Two

Apr. 25th, 2013 11:24 pm
"You haven't come this way before," my companion observes.

"No, I haven't," I say. "That's why you volunteered as a guide. I've never been through these parts before."

"Before you arrived."

"That's right."

"Which way did you come from?"

"You must've seen me, I strolled right past your shop," I say.

"I don't believe you came in through any road I know," she says. "But the funny thing is, you walk like you know the way."

"It's like the apples," I say. "I've never been on this exact road, but I've seen enough similar ones."

And in truth, there's little remarkable about the road or the countryside... which is not to say that it isn't special in its own way, as all such lands are, but I tell you the honest truth, dear one: there are more lands than there are truly and wholly original ways to be special, and most of the latter aren't particularly pleasant.

There are days where you want a sky of red or amber over a crystalline landscape or a forest of living mirrors, but those things can take you in entirely the wrong way if they creep up on you. Give me a fair day under a blue sky in a lightly wooded country with good roads, and I'll seldom find reason to complain.

Fifty-One

Apr. 24th, 2013 11:27 pm
"I notice you left your pack behind," Bel says once we've left the walls behind us.

"There are things in that pack," I say. "Things I would rather not risk falling into the wrong hands."

"Ah," she says. I think I sounded downright portentous, verging on ominous, but she's a hard one to impress. "I thought they might be useful things."

"Useful... they are," I say. "Terribly useful. But not enough to justify the risk."

"There aren't many bandits on this road."

"I wouldn't worry about bandits," I say. "It would take more than your typical bandit's lifetime to even begin to work out what they had, much less what to do with it... but a vampire, a vampire's got nothing but time, time and hunger."

"I wondered about that."

"What?"

"Hunger," she says. "When I said I was putting together provisions for the road, I half expected you to say 'Oh, don't bother.' You being a traveler, and all. I guess your dangerously useful things don't leave much room for victuals, then?"

"Well, there's an apple in there."

"An apple? One?"

"Yes, but always one," I say. "It's more useful than you might think, if you happen to like apples."

"Do you?"

"Not anymore," I say. "It's a very long story and it might not make any sense."

"If I traveled along with nothing but apples to eat, I wouldn't care for them, either... but you seem better fed than that."

"Generally, the road provides... but I'd gone through a period of extreme and extended privation, and when I speak of extended privation, I mean extended. After that I got in the habit of carrying rations of dried beef and hardtack with me... if you want to talk about useful and dangerous, there you go. You can live on it for months, but you wouldn't want to."

"And after that, I suppose an apple sounded good."

"An apple sounded great," I say. "So... when I happened to have the opportunity to free a very old, very powerful friend of mine from a condition of bondage, I was offered a boon. Anything I wanted, anything that was within their power... and believe me, there were a lot of things within their power."

"And all you wanted was an apple."

"It was all I could think about. Well, I'd asked for it, and there was no taking back or amending it, but I don't know if my friend felt sorry for me or embarrassed to be granting such a poor wish, because I have an apple... and I always have one?"

"Is it the same apple every time?"

"It's similar."

Fifty

Apr. 23rd, 2013 10:38 pm
Somehow, against my wishes and my better wisdom I do fall asleep... I must have, though I do not recall it. But sleep is a necessary precondition for waking up, and the fact that I perform that latter action is my first awareness of having done the former as well.

"Blast!" I say as I take in the implication of the cold gray light streams through the open shutters. "I'd meant to be away with the dawn."

"You missed it, but not by much," Bel says, nudging me with the toe of her boot. "Come on downstairs and we'll get some provisions for the road."

"Will 'we' just be getting the provisions or will 'we' be sharing them on the road?" I say.

"Do you know the way to Toma's retreat?"

"Do you?"

"I know how to get there," she says. "Though I've never been. I know the countryside."

"You don't need to convince me of your worth, Bel," I say. "I merely wondered if we would need to seek out better directions before we go."

"Wonder not, Wander... I can get us there."

"Don't you need to mind the shop?"

"I am minding the shop," she says. "I'm minding that anyone will be around who's hungry for bread a month or so. I'll just need to put up a sign."

There's no shortage of grain, so breakfast is a sort of porridge. Bel leaves me stirring the pot while she goes outside to see to her sign. I don't see her handiwork until we're leaving.

"'Closed due to sickness'?" I say.

"It's broadly true," she says. "I can't say closed due to vampire infection, can I? I live here. I work here. You think Tyrol will still buy bread off me if I push his town to the point of panic?"

"You might have put the cat among the pigeons, anyway," I say. "Right now, everyone knows something is wrong but no one's saying what. A boarded-up shop with a sign speaking of sickness... there's a lot of fear swirling around looking for something to latch onto."

"If not this, then it will find something else," she said. "I can't stay closed on a holiday without a reason."

"Don't you own your shop?"

"Yes, and I own debts, and contracts, and duties," she says. "If I closed without good reason, I'd lose half my customers in a heartbeat. Everyone but the foot traffic."

"Are you sure you won't lose them anyway?" I ask, feeling guilty.

"It's covered, I took care of things while you were sleeping. I only mention it so you appreciate what I'm doing by coming with you."

"I do, Bel," I say. "Believe me, I do."

Forty-Nine

Apr. 22nd, 2013 05:13 pm
With the business of the night concluded and nothing more to be done until daylight, I find myself in the position of having nothing else to do except sleep.

Which is not the same as saying that I do sleep. You must understand that while I have learned to steal precious moments of restful slumber whenever and wherever they may be found, under even the most dreadful of circumstances... but after having heard the fearful testimony of the baying hounds and knowinng what had been abroad in the night, I did not want to close my eyes.

If I have learned to take my rest as I can, so, too, have I learned to go without it for short periods of time. I pass the long, slow night aimlessly roaming the front of Bel's upstairs apartment while she sleeps soundly in her bed, more accustomed to the state of affairs. "Normal" isn't just relative, it's infinitely flexible. The nightly performance I bore witness to has become normal to her, though with luck it will not remain so.

I know what you are thinking, my treasured reader: a beautiful woman, a restless night spent trapped indoors... but who could think of such a thing at a time like this? Well, I could, in truth. I could hardly not. But as I said, she sleeps soundly while I fidget with the tool of my trade, working mild charms for alertness and against intrusion.

There's very little to worry about. The downstairs is naturally warded against the undead by virtue of those many garlands of garlic, and the smell of the stuff permeates the upstairs as well. But I am an efficient worrier with a lonely night ahead of me, and I make do with what little I have.

Forty-Eight

Apr. 1st, 2013 10:30 pm
"Well, if we're not going to see anything more, let's shut these windows," Bel says, and we do.

"What's it all for, then?" she asks. "I mean, vampires crave blood, not water. Can a vampire feed on another? And if they could, would the water be enough?"

"I don't know," I say. "That is an awful lot of water, but I'd think trying to get sustenance from it would be like trying to extract gold from seawater. If we weren't dealing with a full-fledged vampire, I'd suspect some venal human who's caught on and is trying to achieve immortality by chugging it, but that display was pretty compelling evidence that we have the genuine article.But what would a vampire want with infected water?"

"To make more vampires?" Bel suggests.

"I think it could do that on its own," I say. "On a smaller, more intimate scale than the water might allow, but vampires don't tend to go for mass conversions anyway. Evangelists don't tend to last long. Their own kind will wipe them out before they upset the ecosystem. Plus, if anyone wants a massive vampire uprising, all they have to do is wait for the town to succumb. I don't see how drawing water out of the well can improve on that."

"Tainting another town's water, then," she says. "Or possibly it's a brewer or a vintner, trying to make a drink with an extra bite?"

"If someone did want to convert the town, there would be some sense in tainting the alcohol supply," I say. "Worth thinking about. We're getting more pieces of the puzzle now, it's just a matter of figuring out how they fit together. One piece that's still missing is Father Toma... I'd like to know why his blessing didn't destroy the one in the well. Even if he can't clear that up, he could be an effective ally."
"But why?" she continues. "And why all this? It's a public well, anyone can just go up and use it, day or night."

"If this happens every night, it would be a bit obvious, wouldn't it?" I say. "Everyone else is nervous about the water, but here comes someone in the dead of night, night after night, filling up buckets or casks with the stuff?"

"I don't think a creature who can control dogs and summon clouds of fog would have much to fear from the people of Peram," she says.

"Exposure, maybe," I say. "They obviously don't care if everyone knows that something is happening, but they don't want anyone to know what. Or maybe who. It might be that our vampire has a face people would recognize."

"Can you part the fog the way you quieted those dogs?" she says.

"That depends," I say.

"On what?"

"On how you feel about letting the vampire hiding in it know that they've been spotted," I say.

"Well, can you peer through it without giving the game away?"

"Not reliably," I say. "I was able to stop us from hearing the dogs without silencing their barks, but if I try to block the fog from sight it will just look like darkness. There are ways of scrying through it, but it would pit my wits against their will to avoid being noticed back... and if this is a new vampire, it's an unusually strong one. This is lord-of-the-castle level stuff it's pulling down there."

Forty-Six

Mar. 29th, 2013 01:37 pm
There, hidden behind the baleful din of the baying dogs... there is another sound. I first catch it at a time when the uneven cacophony dies down a bit quicker, and thereafter I am able to almost pick it out in successive outbursts.

I draw my wand from its hidden sheath in my walking stick, and with it weave a web in the air to catch the voices of the dogs before they can reach our ears. I have to weave a few additional strands to trap the ones that are markedly higher or lower in pitch than the main, but it's quick work and when it's done only one sound remains.

It is a truly hellish sound, an unholy screeching shriek that no living beast's throat could possibly form. I know this for certainty, for I know that no living beast is making the noise. I heard it earlier in the day, in broad daylight, as I stood in the square myself.

"Someone's pumping water," Bel says.

Forty-Five

Mar. 28th, 2013 12:28 pm
The barking starts soon after, echoes funneling down the narrow streets of Peram from all directions. Like the fog, there is a distinct sense that the animals are funneling towards the square.

There are lampposts in Peram, but I have to imagine it has been some time since any lamplighter plied the trade. I brave the night air enough to thrust a lantern out the window. The fog glows pearlescently, scattering the light, but I glimpse a furry body and a few other hints of movement in places where its perpetual swirling briefly thins it.

The loudest cries in the chorus are those of frustration, of those animals who are chained or penned or otherwise incapable of joining in the noctuurnal revels.

Those are the last cries, as well. Gradually, the rest of the barking subsides as the pack that has assembled in the square. A terrible stillness settles over the square, not so much disrupted by the intermittent eruptions of sound elsewhere as much as punctuated by it.

Then that, too, ceases.

When all is silent, the howling begins. It is not the proud, mournful howl of a wolf, but the baying of dogs of dozens of mixes, with all the variation in vocal instrumentation and lung capacity that implies.

The children of the night, what horrible racket they make. What makes it all the worse... and more obviously unnatural... is the tempo of it. They don't all manage to start or end on exactly the same mark, but there's a clear attempt to all be howling at the same time.

The din is incredible.

"How do people sleep?" I ask.

"It doesn't go on like this all night," she says. "But Wander, you said to take it as given that the fog is concealing something. Doesn't it seem likely that the noise is doing the same?"

"You're right!" I say. "Perk up your ears and listen... just listen. See if you can pick out something behind all that racket."

Forty-Four

Mar. 27th, 2013 10:59 am
The fog does roll in a bit after midnight, and "roll" is the right word for it. A fog can spring up anywhere there is sufficient moisture, but when one things of a rolling fog, one generally pictures somewhere distinctive for it to roll from.

Fogs can roll in off the ocean or from a river, they can roll down the sides of a valley. It's an eerie sight indeed to see it simply roll down the street of a city like a cloud that desires a night on the town.

As Bel said, it rolls past her bakery in the direction of the square. There's enough moonlight to see that the other streets that terminate in the open area are also pouring forth their own streams of vapor.

It is clearly an unnatural mist, both in its density and its clear sense of purpose. The air is still up at the second floor. It must be something other than wind that drives it onward along the ground, especially since it's clearly being drawn to a location rather than being pushed forward in one direction.

"I've heard that vampires can turn themselves to vapor," Bel says. She had been uneasy about unshuttering the upstairs windows, but decided to stay beside me on my vigil regardless.

"That would be standard," I say. "But it would have to be one big vampire."

"Or many smaller ones, acting in concert," she says. "Or one very diffuse one."

"The whole town's infection, emerging at night and acting as a single entity?" I say. "That's almost too terrible to contemplate."

"That's not the same thing as being impossible."

"No, and at any rate, I'm not in any position to say what is and isn't possible in this case," I say. "But the same vampire who may assume a mist form may also have some command of the weather. Summoning a thick fog for concealment is common enough."

"Concealment of what?" Bel asks. "If anything were hunting, it would be better off sticking to shadows. The fog gives away that there's something unnatural in the night and chases prey indoors."

"Let's take it as a given then that something is happening that someone doesn't want to be seen," I say. "The fog is just setting the stage for whatever comes next."

"I can tell you what comes next," Bel says. "But you'll hear it for yourself shortly."
Well, I shan't bore you overmuch with the details, dear heart, not when there's so much thrilling tale left untold.

In the end I decide to present my delectable hostess with a simple concoction of stewed sausage and vegetables served over wild rice. I reason that most nights she has bread for her starch, and while she obviously must have some love for the stuff, a little variety must be appreciated as well or else she wouldn't have a cache of the grains.

The ingredients available to me are humble in their composition and origins, to the point that I find myself wishing it were safe for me to pop out in search of some fresher fare. But is not, and I can see that the food is humble because it does not need to be anything else, for it is the seasonings that carry the day.

Oh, such a treasure trove of fresh and dried spices Bel has procured for herself. I've made a point of staying away from garlic, warranting that she's probably had enough of that of late. A bit more wouldn't likely be of any measurable benefit to her, anyway. But I am liberal in the application of other flavorings.

When I am finished, I present it to the waiting Bel with a flourish. I do not serve myself yet, I wait to see her reaction.

She collects a bit of broth with her spoon, sucks it into her mouth, then after an appraising moment, spoons up a mouthful. She tastes cautiously.

"Acceptable," she says, and then falls to the task of eating in a more casual way.

"Is there something more I could have done to raise my offering's value in your estimation?" I ask.

She snorts.

"Do you have a lifetime?" she asks.

"I have dozens," I say.

"Well, I have one, and I don't have time to show a traveling clown the way around a kitchen," she says. "But you did alright. About what I expected, verging on better."

"Verging on better," I say, standing up a little straighter. "There are worse places to find oneself, I suppose."

"Find yourself a bowl and eat up, you preening fool. It's likely to be a long night."

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theonecalledwander

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