From darkness into light. That rushing panic as you remember how to breathe. Your skin, pricked by the points of a thousand needles. Your heart, a supercharged piston pounding in your chest. A vise, loosened one turn from its tight grip on your nuts. And then, finally, after a seeming eternity, the basal senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. Yes, this is where you are.
The body lay by the fireplace, head canted at a bad angle against the hearthstone. The stone was blacker than it should have been, even in the dim light of the room, and in a final, near palpable click, the disparate streams of sensory input married back into consciousness. The acrid, metallic scent; the Pavlovian response on the back of my tongue; the Chorus shivering up my spine like a string of Chinese firecrackers: blood. A lot of it.
They hadn’t bothered binding me. Girard’s paralysis magick had been tight and effective. He had nailed me in the throat, and it had gone right down my back, deadening each vertebra like a cascade of falling dominos. And the other one—René, probably—had smothered me with a veil of darkness. It had been a good one-two punch: even though I knew something had been coming, I hadn’t been able to react.
I wasn’t in the bar’s bathroom any longer. They had moved me while I had been blind and dumb to the world. I was in someone’s home, lying on an old area rug in the living room.
Me, and the body.
The Chorus—the captive energy of the old souls that haunted me—twisted at my mental command, flowing into my sight, and the shadows retreated. The color of the lake of blood became a gradient from black to red, supernaturally bright and vibrant across the gash in his throat. He was middle-aged, death adding a decade to his face, and his eyes were still open. Video. I told the Chorus to energize the surface of his eyeballs, highlighting the image frozen there.
Streamers of pale fire. Sharp shine, like teeth. The rest was a blur.
Someone banged on the front door of the house. Short, frantic raps; metal against wood. Like the sort you do when you’ve been waiting for a while, when you’ve been polite and no one has answered. “Pierre?” The voice was muffled, but the concern was clear.
They’ve been knocking. The Chorus slithered along the far wall. The first knock had been what had woken me, summoning me back from the frozen limbo of Girard’s and René’s spells. Patience, starting to wear thin.
I pushed up to my knees, and noticed how far the blood had spread. It was on my hands and shirt—my coat was gone—and when I touched the side of my head, I felt a stiff patch of hair. Dried enough to be like mud.
“Pierre?” Insistent now. And more voices behind the first one. Exclamations and outbursts made into a wordless wave by the wall between us.
Moonlight bled around the curtains of the single window, and distantly behind the swelling wave of panic rising outside the house, I heard the lonely howl of the wolf.
And suddenly the last image on the dead man’s—Pierre’s—eyeball made sense.
This was the game, then.
I crab-walked over to the fireplace, detouring around the sprawled body. There was very little blood behind it; the natural slope of the floor had carried most of it toward the center of the room. The Chorus marked the dried spray on the nearby sofa, giving me a mental suggestion of how he had been killed.
I had been brought here after the fact. My new footprints were the only marks in the large stain. They had dumped me on the edge of the rug, so that the sluggish tide of the blood would soak me slowly.
The stones in the fireplace were black with soot; Pierre had been using it for years, and hadn’t been too fastidious about keeping it clean. I shook the Chorus into my fingers and grabbed for a handful of ash.
I had very little time and I needed an escape route. Something quick and dirty.
My teeth started chattering. The sight and scent of all the blood was like throwing out a chum-line for a shark. The Chorus, thrashing against my Will.
I started sketching the outline of a circle, my magick energizing the ash so it hung in the air.
# # #
“The town’s benefactor.” Bento noticed my appraisal of the grease-stained oil painting behind the bar. “Colonel-Major Louis-Henri Béchenaux de Mouleydier. A Grumbler in Napoleon’s Old Guard. Never promoted to general, and he survived Waterloo. The very definition of ‘righteous bastard.’” He laughed, and brushed back the ever-present lock of black hair falling over his eyes.
They were all pretty, but he was the one who paid the most attention to recent fashion trends. Antoine had the zenlike magnetism of the inscrutable. The twins, Henri and Girard, cultivated the lazy and unwashed look that somehow spelled S-E-X; and René overpaid at every opportunity he could, simply so everyone would know how little a fistful of Euros meant to him.
The indolent, rapacious, and charismatic next generation of the Watchers. Plus one: me. I was the scrappy little mongrel brought along for fun. The fool to the crown princes, the naïve foundling who doesn’t realize he has been sacrificed to wolves.
We were all Journeymen, early-stage initiates on the path of the Weave. We were aware enough to be Witnesses, and had demonstrated our aptitude and mastery of some of the magickal arts. We were young enough, dumb enough, and knowledgeable enough to think we knew something about the world.
René, for all his financial flush, had been the last to take the mantle of Journeyman, and we were celebrating. A two-car caravan, southeast out of Paris, a couple of hours into the mountains and forests of the Rhône-Alpes, to a little village that barely registered on the GPS in Antoine’s car.
“Béchenaux, eh? They named the town after him?” I asked.
Bento nodded, his fingers drumming on the worn tabletop. “Yeah. You saw the ruins on the way in? Used to be a little keep. He had the townspeople build it for him. This far into the mountains, they still believed. Saw Béchenaux as a war hero, even though there was backlash against the Republic following Louis XVIII’s return. Béchenaux, as the stories go, was one of the Old Guard who didn’t retreat when La Haye Sainte fell, but—” Bento shrugged, his lips creasing into a knowing grin. “—somehow he survived. Even when all the others were slaughtered at the farm, at La Belle Alliance.”
“Walked away from a prisoners’ camp near Waterloo,” Henri interjected. “While the English were busy celebrating and slapping each other on the back, the Colonel-Major quietly killed three men and—” He made a motion with his hand, like a bird gliding on a draft of rising air. “—Gone. Just like that.”
“Magickal, huh?” I said. “Just like that.”
“Anyway,” Bento continued. “Béchenaux settled in this area, and stayed off the radar for a few years. However, ultimately he found ‘retirement’ . . . constricting. If he’d been alive six hundred years earlier, he’d just have taken a crusade. But, without that option, he found a different outlet for his . . . aggressive moods.”
“He built a dungeon,” Henri said. “Under his castle. Hollowed out the whole side of the hill. Goes on forever down there.”
“I bet it gets real spooky,” I said.
Henri exchanged a glance with Bento, and they both laughed. The Chorus shivered along the edges of my back teeth, filling my mouth with that hot electric taste of blood and wire.
This place wasn’t a random stop. They’d been here before.
A random jaunt away from the Watchful eyes of our masters had seemed like a good way to celebrate our initiation into the outer circle of the Inner Mysteries, but I was starting to wonder if there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind our little adventure.
Raising my own beer—a bitter maibock, brewed locally—I used the stein as an excuse to look around. Where are the others?
I spotted Antoine’s blond hair on the other side of the room. He was listening to a pair of women who were trying to impress upon him that they weren’t clueless local girls. They were worldly, these two, and one of them was trying to do something with her foot under the table to demonstrate that fact. A Thai foot massage, or some such thing. Antoine seemed oblivious. But not to me. He caught me looking, and a violet light twinkled in the corner of his left eye.
“Do you know who he put in his dungeon?” Bento asked.
“Who?” I put the stein down, still looking. Henri’s brother, Girard, and René were unaccounted for. I tried to recall when I had seen them last. When we had arrived . . . but after that . . .
“During the last decade of his life,” Bento said, “Béchenaux dedicated himself to hunting werewolves.”