Lydia Deacon glared at the creature in front of her. It looked like an elderly, elegant woman. But her porcelain skin and otherworldly eyes told her that it was really something else. She quickly went through the possibilities in her head. The paleness suggested she could be a vampire, but she seemed to be perfectly fine in the sunlight that streamed through the windows. So not a vampire. Perhaps some sort of spirit-being made flesh, then. Or even a god.
Well, whatever she was, she had just broken into their home. That was certainly a sign that she was up to no good. Lydia aimed her gun steadily at the woman.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” she asked.
The woman simply smiled. She had he hands up as if in surrender, but the smile indicated that the gesture was mostly just for show. Or perhaps to mock them.
“Gaius,” Lydia said to her brother, who immediately woke up from his shock of seeing a woman materialise into their living room, “Check what she is.”
If she actually wasn’t anything supernatural, they could just stun her, wipe her memory, and dump her somewhere. Lydia highly doubted it was that simple, however.
Gaius moved his wand and mumbled a few phrases. Then his eyes widened.
“Its energy is… weird. Too natural.”
Lydia grunted in surprise. Too natural meant either a nature spirit – which she doubted seeing how the woman definitely didn’t look like one – or…
“An anthropomorphic personification,” Lydia said, “Am I right?”
The woman smiled wider.
“Well, aren’t you clever,” she said. Her voice was misty yet sharp, “I am Fate.”
Well, that certainly was even more surprising. If this thing in front of them was speaking the truth, anyway. Usually anthropomorphic personifications tried to hide their true identities among mortals. Not that Lydia hadn’t expected a personification to come knocking after she had come in possession of Death’s gemstone. She had just expected someone darker. And more macabre.
It was of course also possible that this creature was here just to mess with them and had nothing to do with the gemstone. According to what Lydia and Gaius knew about Fate, she occasionally liked to do that sort of thing. To play with humans. Possibly with tragic results. The bitch.
“What are you doing here?” Lydia repeated. Fate made a move to lower her hands, but Lydia gripped her gun tighter. Silver bullets – or any bullets, really – would probably not do much against someone like Fate, but it was still a way to make a point, “Don’t do anything stupid!”
“Really? Are you going to keep playing this game? You must know that is not going to hurt me.”
If you’re lying about what you are, they might. And even if they don’t affect you, at least some of the wards we’ve set up all over the house will, Lydia thought to herself. Next to her, Gaius shifted nervously, but kept his wand trained on Fate. Good. Gaius may have been a big softie when it came to some things, but with magic he was efficient and merciless.
“Yes,” Lydia said, “I am going to play this. In fact, why don’t you sit down? Hands still up. And if you try anything, I promise you it’s not this gun you have to be worried about.”
“Well, that is a relief,” Fate said, “At least there might be something to worry about, then.”
She sat down on the couch behind her.
“Now then,” she said, “Are you happy now?”
“Not until you tell us what you’re doing here.”
“Fair enough,” Fate’s lips curled into yet another smile, “I was simply curious. You have stolen something rather valuable. From a place that is usually not accessible.”
So it was because of the gemstone. Figures.
“So Death sent someone to find it, is that it?” Lydia said, “I’ve read that your kind doesn’t usually fix each other’s messes this directly.”
“You should not believe everything you read,” Fate sighed theatrically, “But I do admit; I am here of my own volition. And yes, I had planned to take the gemstone back, but now I am interested to see what you are planning with it.”
“Really,” Lydia said warily, “Why should I tell you anything?”
“No reason. I just thought you might humour a lonely old woman.”
Lydia almost laughed at that.
“After you broke into our home? Right. Not very likely.”
She glanced at Gaius. It was a pointed glance, one that had “Ready the offensive spells” written all over it. Gaius – sadly not the most subtle person – nodded eagerly and raised his wand again in preparation.
“Would you have let me in if I had told you who I was right away?” Fate asked, “This place can be ever so hostile towards us. Do not bother with your spells; you must know that beings like us are not that easy to get rid of, even with magic. Your father certainly learned that the hard way.”
Gaius’s eyes widened.
“You know what happened to dad?” he asked, and Lydia glanced at him in annoyance. Now wasn’t the time to get caught up mourning the lost zombie army, “Was the Grim Reaper really there?”
“Why, of course he was.”
Gaius tugged at Lydia’s sleeve, almost throwing off her aim. Lydia gave him another glare, but it didn’t seem to work.
“I told you Death’s onto us! And Death killed our zombie collection!”
“Oh, yes, he is slowly closing in,” Fate said, “But I would not worry too much about that. He is mostly just making a fool of himself in his human form and constantly forgetting about his search.”
“Why are you telling us all this?” Lydia asked. Godlike beings rarely did anything out of the goodness of their hearts. Fate had to have an agenda.
“Why indeed?” Fate said, “Perhaps I am simply tired of this game that has started between you and Death. Perhaps I just want to know why you did it, and it seems you are not willing to tell me unless you trust me. Or perhaps I genuinely want to help you.”
Lydia didn’t say anything for a while. Fate smiled and stretched her arms while still keeping them above her head in a parody of surrendering.
“Still nothing? Well, can I guess, then? Perhaps someone is after you, and rather than getting rid of them you decided to rob Death itself? Or is it because you wish to get your family name back into glory in the magical community after the necromancy scandal tarnished it? Or would you use it to create a mighty legacy and to be there to survey it? Is it simply to carry on where your father failed in cheating death? Perhaps you too wish to resurrect your mother? Or perhaps,” at this point she looked solely at Lydia and her smile was so sharp it probably cut the air molecules in front of her face in half, “it is a way for you to show that you are the mightiest of them all despite being the first Deacon in nine generations to be born without the gift of magic.”
Lydia gritted her teeth.
“It is the last one, isn’t it?” Fate asked, “Or perhaps a little bit of several of those. Well, this should be fun.”
“Get out!” Lydia said in her most chilling voice. Usually it made everyone in business meetings tremble with nervousness. It didn’t seem to work on Fate, but it did make Lydia feel a bit better.
“Very well,” Fate shrugged, standing up and beginning to glow.
Lydia had to use a considerable amount of self-control to not fire her gun.
“It was lovely to meet you two.” Fate said, “And worry not, I think I might keep your whereabouts to myself. Although, Death already knows who you are, so he might find you sooner than you think.”
But Fate was already gone in a faint crackle of energy. Lydia slowly lowered her gun.
“Gaius,” she said.
“I know, I’ll check the perimeter to make sure she’s really gone.”
“Do that. And after that, we’ll have an emergency meeting in the lab.”
The Deacon siblings weren’t the only ones who were having an emergency meeting. There were thousands of such events going on around the world, but only one of them was important for the story at hand. The other relevant emergency meeting was happening in the Sprigg household. After managing to get her mother to stop her overly enthusiastic birthday planning for the night and to actually sleep, Amelia had settled down to wait for her guests to come back. Soon after that, Tad had returned, and then Novak had walked in wearing some new-ish second-hand clothing Amelia hoped wasn’t stolen.
Now they had all gathered into the living room, and Amelia had nervously explained that her mum wanted to throw a big birthday party for her, and that it would probably mean lots of people. In the house. With them.
The thought seemed to make both usually rather unflappable people very nervous.
“Great. So that puts our search on pause for at least three days,” Novak sighed, “I mean, sure, I can just ditch this place and keep looking for the Deacons, but… look, I’d just rather keep moving.”
“I told you it is no bother,” Tad said, “I think you are making too big a deal out of this all. It is just a birthday, after all.”
“Although, I am not sure if I am comfortable with the idea of… talking to so many people at once. I do not want to mess things up.”
“Don’t worry,” Amelia said quickly, “I can teach you. Think of it as another lesson!”
That usually helped when Tad was nervous about something. Novak rolled his eyes.
“You guys are weird. Just don’t expect me to stick around for the party. I don’t want to draw attention to myself, and…”
Suddenly he fell silent, his mind clearly working intently on something.
“Wait a minute… hey, that’s not a bad idea!” he suddenly said.
“What?” Amelia asked.
“Um… yeah? What about them?”
Novak seemed to be itching to open his laptop again.
“Well, these Deacons are rich philanthropists, and that sort of people usually attend to lots of fancy events because of course they do. If I can intercept some invitations… or get a hold of some correspondence, we might have a chance of finding them when they leave their hideout! You know, unless they plan to be totally dead to the world, but again, I doubt that.”
“That sounds good,” Tad said, “You… do what you need to do. Intercept… correspondence. E-mailings. All that.”
Novak looked at Amelia.
“So you haven’t planned on giving him lessons in electronics too?”
“I have a tendency to break them,” Tad said a bit sheepishly, “I do not know why.”
“Shame. You could have switched that acoustic guitar I saw through your window to an electric one.”
“Because death metal. Oh, the possibility for puns.”
“Oh? If… if you say so.”
“Why do I even bother?” Novak sighed, “Well, I’ll look into the party-stuff tomorrow. You guys have fun with your… humanity lessons and all.”
“Good night, Mr. Sanguine,” Tad said, and Novak raised his hand as a response on his way to the stairs.
Amelia crossed her arms.
“Well, this should be… something,” she said, “It’s great to see people again. And maybe a little party is what we all need.”
“Yes, a celebration of not dying this year seems indeed appropriate after the mild danger, I suppose,” Tad said thoughtfully.
“Come on, Tad. Birthdays aren’t just about that. They’re… well, I mean, yeah, they’re about not dying, I guess, but… you know, it’s about celebrating the person too. For being there.”
“Yes. Of course.”
Tad seemed a bit worried again. Amelia tried to smile.
“It’ll be fine! Novak will surely find something about the Deacons, and hey, you can look for them too while I prepare the birthday with mum. And then… well, we can relax and have fun, just for a while.”
“Right. It is just…”
“You’ve never been to a birthday party?” Amelia guessed.
“I have,” Tad said defensively, but then he looked down at his shoes, “Well, only the tragic ones.”
“Oh, right,” Amelia cleared her throat, “Well, this will be the first non-tragic one, then!”
“But I think we have to talk more tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”
“Yes. Good night.”
Amelia got up from the couch and headed towards the stairs, wondering if she had enough energy for a quick shower before going to bed. Tad’s voice stopped her in the hallway.
Amelia turned. Tad looked rather unsure about himself again. Like he wasn’t certain if what he was about to say was appropriate.
“Um… what would you like for your birthday? As a gift. From me.”
“Oh, you don’t have to give me anything.”
“But it is a part of the tradition, is it not? And getting gifts is nice… I suppose.”
“Well, yeah, it is nice,” Amelia admitted, a wave of excitement making her forget her tiredness for a moment, “That moment right before unwrapping a gift is just magical! So full of possibilities and anticipation! And not to mention it’s so nice to give gifts as well, and… But, uh… you really don’t have to stress about it. I mean, you don’t have money yet, and you’re busy with the theft and all.”
The corner of Tad’s mouth twitched as if he was trying to smile.
“It still baffles me that you seem to think I am in a hurry. When have I ever indicated that?”
“Well, I just thought… Oh, fine, if you insist…” Amelia smiled tiredly, “I suppose arranging a talk with my dad would be out of the question.”
It was meant as a joke – well, for the most part. Amelia’s tired mind remembered too late that Tad was terrible at understanding jokes.
“I am sorry,” he said, “But he is already beyond my reach.”
“I was kidding!” Amelia said, “Seriously, any thoughtful gift is good. And you’re good at being thoughtful.”
“Oh? Thank you.”
Tad went for a walk that night. He picked up stray souls and let them flutter through the night and his garden to find their way. The streets were quiet at this hour. Riverview was such a small town that it didn’t seem to have much of what people called nightlife. Tad didn’t mind. The peace was welcome, and he let himself focus on it and forget about the noise he heard in other corners of the universe.
He had a lot to think about again.
Amelia had said she had been joking when she had wished to meet her father again. But it wasn’t a joke. Not entirely, at least. Tad was happy to note that he had become at least slightly better at reading people. Especially Amelia. Amelia could hide her worries so well when she really wanted. Sometimes Tad forgot that she was still maybe a bit broken and definitely afraid. That the slightly younger, crying woman he had seen in passing when he had come for her father was still underneath the smiles and the warmth.
She may have been joking, but there was a genuine wish under the joke. Tad was sure of it. Amelia was happy and positive and embraced life and its surprises, but she also longed for certainty in many things. For safety and closure.
He tried to remember Mr. Sprigg. Alex. That was his name. The man had moved to SimNation from Spain in his youth and met Julia soon after. When he had died, he had done so in peace, and had lingered in Tad’s garden for only a moment.
Tad noticed that he had ended up wandering to the old stone formation near the shore of the river. The river was so quiet, with only the deaths of underwater life breaking the peace every once in a while. But even that was usually peaceful. A fulfilled food chain, a sudden and quick injury, or a sneaky sickness. Tad sat down on one of the stones and watched the small ripples in the water. They grew and changed the river. Just like they changed reality.
He remembered the gifts the people of the past had brought here. No, not gifts; sacrifices. Bribes. Tad hated bribes. Yet they were the only kinds of gifts he ever remembered getting. Which god had the sacrifices here been for? Probably for one of the many gods of harvest. Or more than one of them. Most of them had been almost forgotten after the group calling themselves the Jacobans had started spreading their own religion and later purging the “non-believers”. That had been a busy time for Tad. But now the Jacobans had been mostly pushed aside as well here, and Peterans, non-religious people, and Neopagans had taken the centre stage. Nothing was constant. Well, almost nothing.
Where was I? Oh, right. Gifts.
He really wanted to give Amelia something. It would be a nice gesture, and she definitely deserved it. She had put up with him for so long already. Not only that, but she had helped him, befriended him. Accepted him. But really, what could Death give to a mortal? Well, that was a stupid question. A more accurate question would be: what could Death give to a mortal without messing up the order of nature? Tad supposed that he could make something for Amelia, but what? She didn’t seem to need anything, and he didn’t like the idea of pointless gifts. However, nowadays it was apparently a popular alternative to give experiences rather than material goods. Theatre tickets, hot air balloon rides, skydiving. All things that would leave a good memory. Unless they happened to end badly. Tad had had to collect some unfortunate people after a gift-giving gone wrong. Still, he liked the idea of experiences as gifts. It was more abstract, more fitting for someone like him.
He sat by the quiet river and thought about gifts and experiences and Amelia’s wishes. Then he thought about Alex Sprigg and the garden. About Amelia’s fears and how he could help them.
He was what she feared the most, after all. It was only fair that he helped with that.
Slowly the thought crystallised, and he knew what he wanted to give Amelia. He faded into his garden, and looked around for a while before he raised his voice so that everyone in the garden heard it:
“Did any of you happen to meet a man named Alex Sprigg – died almost two years ago, cause of death: heart attack – while he was passing through?”
He waited for a moment before someone stepped forth with a fearful expression on his face.
“No need to be alarmed. I would just like to ask you a favour.”
The ripples in the river grew again. As did the ones in reality.
One could say that Death was making waves in the world by taking a human form and planning birthday gifts to his friend while he should have been looking for the gemstone that had been stolen from him. One could also claim that Fate had now started doing the same by showing herself to mortals. It was all true. However, it wasn’t what had started it all. It had started with the theft, or perhaps with the making of the gemstone. Or perhaps it had all started when humans had developed enough sentience and ambition to strive for immortality.
Whatever the start was, it had created the ripples what turned into waves. And one thing about ripple-waves was that they didn’t go in just one direction. They took other waves with them and changed their course, sometimes little, sometimes drastically. In life, they usually crisscrossed with each other, leading into interesting results.
One of the waves that had started from getting Novak Sanguine involved in this all was now reaching something interesting.
This time it took the form of Finn Cubic. He was – like quite a large minority in Bridgeport – a vampire. He was also employed by one of SimNation’s many criminal organisations. And that was what had brought him to Novak Sanguine’s – or as he knew him as: Brent’s – doorstep not too long ago. He had been told to drag the lying bastard out of hiding and back to the boss. Or, if that didn’t work, to just kill him. Finn had liked both options, mostly because both included violence. He was quite good at it. He was also good at playing cello, but that was something he kept to himself. Despite Finn’s skills in violence, however, that bastard had managed to get away. It wasn’t Finn’s fault, really. Who would have guessed the guy was informed and paranoid enough to keep sunlight in his pocket?
In any case, now Finn was in a hurry. He had to find his prey before the prey got too far away. The boss definitely didn’t like failures. And Finn had a good thing going for him as a member of the organisation. It would be a shame to lose his job. And to possibly be staked as punishment.
Finn had followed the man’s scent to the local library, but after that it had got trickier. Now, however, he had picked up the trail again, and realised with glee that the man had indeed sought help from that architect he had been told to take care of earlier. He quickened his steps and easily found his way to the familiar building. The night sharpened his senses and made the blood around him sing. He was in his element.
He took the lift to the floor where the architect had been. The office was dark, and the trail went cold around it – probably because of the incense that seemed to permanently make the whole floor smell like coconut and roses. Finn wrinkled his nose in disappointment. However, the woman who had set up shop in the architect’s place could have seen something. It wasn’t exactly advised to attract attention or cause unnecessary collateral damage, but at this point Finn was – as already mentioned – in a bit of a hurry.
Good thing the woman lived in the same floor where her office was. She had probably rented half the floor, which had become vacant after the architect had been killed. Finn remembered that night fondly. The man’s blood had been quite tasty.
He walked across the hall to the door of the woman’s apartment. He read the name on the door. Honeyrose. How appropriate for someone who ran what seemed to be – at least according to Finn’s quick research – a dating service.
Finn smiled to himself and let the tip of his tongue touch each of his fangs.
It was going to be a dangerous night for Miss Honeyrose.
Well, at least if she didn’t cooperate.
Like a gentleman, Finn rang the doorbell.
He heard soft footsteps and could smell lily-scented soap that mingled obnoxiously with the coconut and roses. A stunning redhead opened the door. She smiled a cute, contagious smile.
“Evening,” she said, “Sorry, I’m not buying anything, and the office is closed. Even I need some me-time.”
“I just have a couple of questions,” Finn said.
“Uh-huh. Sure thing, cutie! Come back right in the morning! Or call me, or message me. It’s all good.”
“It won’t take long,” Finn stepped towards Miss Honeyrose, who instinctively stepped back. Before she had noticed, Finn had backed her into the apartment and closed the door behind him, “It’s just about this guy who was in your office a couple of days ago. Do you know where he was going?”
Miss Honeyrose shrugged her shoulders. The light pink satin top of her pyjamas left her arteries very exposed.
“That’s not very specific, you know? And anyway, I don’t just give away customer information like that. Confidentiality and all that stuff.”
She clapped her hands.
“But you know, I’ve got plenty of guys in my database, so I can set up a date for you the first thing tomorrow!”
Finn felt his patience thinning.
“He was around my height and build,” he said, “Possibly wearing a beanie, and carrying a backpack. Reddish brown eyes. Ring any bells?”
Miss Honeyrose’s smile shrunk considerably.
“I told you, darling: I’m not just giving away info. Especially to creeps who barge into my home.”
Finn sighed irritably.
“Look, Miss Honeyrose… We can do this the easy way…”
He grinned and exposed a couple of gleaming fangs.
“…or the hard way.”
Miss Honeyrose’s eyebrows rose.
“You can show me your teeth as much as you want, big guy, but I’m not, like, going to be intimidated.”
We’ll see about that.
Finn could explain this to his boss afterwards. He was getting angry. And hungry too.
He opened his mouth, and attacked.
Miss Honeyrose gasped.
All became quiet for a while.
Then, a rather high-pitched shout of pain was heard.
Afterwards, Finn wasn’t sure what had happened. He just remembered that he’d been kicked… in a place he’d rather not be kicked, and then something sharp had hit the door.
There were many questions Finn would turn around and around in his head in the lonely moments just before he fell into a daily vampire trance. The questions about this night were mostly about Miss Honeyrose. Because it was one thing to own a handmade, old-fashioned bow and arrows – there were collectors, hunters, and nerds who liked to have those in the house – but it was another thing to somehow get to it faster than Finn could see. Not to mention the fact that the crazy bitch also seemed to own arrows tipped with what looked like actual vampire-killing stakes, and she definitely knew how to use them.
Finn scrambled away and fell when he had to dodge an arrow that narrowly missed him and disappeared into the staircase of the house.
“Alright, that’s it!” Miss Honeyrose snapped, “Who do you think you are, attacking people like that?!”
She towered over Finn, and her hand rose to get another arrow from the quiver she had managed to throw over her shoulder in a split-second as well. She was actually quite scary.
“What the hell?!” Finn managed to sputter right before Miss Honeyrose’s too-bright green eyes narrowed.
“Get out,” she said, “Or I’ll do something you’ll regret.”
She laughed when she saw Finn’s incredulous expression.
“Oh, I won’t kill you, of course. But you know, with just a couple of words, I could make sure that no one loves you ever again. You’d be all alone with your miserable life.”
She lowered her hand and put it to her hip. She looked like a model at the end of the catwalk. The pyjamas and the medieval weaponry ruined the image somewhat, though. The look in her eyes hardened enough to make diamonds feel soft and cuddly in comparison.
“Because you don’t mess with dating agencies, you son of a bitch! Now GET OUT!”
Afterwards, Finn would explain that he’d been taken by surprise, and that the situation had escalated too quickly to be handled in any other way. Because that was pretty much true. Though he definitely wouldn’t mention this to his friends. Ever.
He especially wouldn’t mention how he had clumsily got to his feet and run until he was outside, where he only took a moment to try to understand what the hell had just happened. Then the thought of his boss’s wrath made him run again.
He’d find his prey’s trail again. This time hopefully without running into more crazy people.
After fetching the arrow she had fired into the stairway as a warning shot, Philippa Honeyrose returned into her apartment. She put her weapons away and slowly walked to the couch, not bothering to switch the TV back on even though it had seemed the film she’d been watching had such a delightful happy ending just around the corner.
She leaned to her knees and sighed.
“Oh, dearie dear… what a mess.”
Author’s Note: Aaw, Lydia, don’t send Fate away! She goes so well together with your living room’s decor! 😀
It seems my main characters are just chillin’ while excitement happens elsewhere. Though I like writing those more idle moments SO MUCH so I don’t mind. And I promise I’ll get them into the action too! Soon, in fact (and no, I’ve never said that before… *shifty eyes*)!
So… I was planning to have the birthday-stuff concluded in this chapter, but it all just really friggin’ got out of hand and I had to split it in two chapters. I’m not even sure what happened. But here’s yet another subplot/detour/character relationship-development thing to distract from the gemstone-plot (which, to be fair, started out as an excuse plot I’ve been desperately trying to make coherent and functional). Bear with me, guys. Or don’t.
I don’t know. I’ve been alternating between having serious doubts and being pretty lost with this story, and having bursts of inspiration. Well, I hope you like it.
I also did a really dumb thing and deleted the only save that had Philippa’s office in it! So I had to make an apartment for her (or more like turn a readymade apartment into more of her style). I’m pretty happy with the results, though, so no harm done, I guess.