Authors: Mae Ronan
s Anna had rightly predicted, the monthly banquet fell upon the following Wednesday. The thirty inhabitants of the manor poured together into the dining room at approximately nine o’clock, settling themselves according to custom at the great table, beside the dark windows and beneath the glowing chandelier. The light from its golden sconces fell shimmering over a floor of polished black oak, where the many footsteps quickly ceased to vibrate, as all the chairs at the table were filled.
“Good evening, my children!” said Ephram, as he reached out to take the hands of those nearest him (Valo on his left, and Anna on his right). Beside Valo was Ari; and beside Anna was Greyson. Then there came, in no specific order which had much of anything to do with their place or rank, the remaining five-and-twenty members of the household – all of whom we will not go to the trouble of naming, as most of them will never have even the slightest impact upon this narrative.
“McGee and Sons” (as you have no doubt inferred by now, was not their real name at all) arrived that very afternoon with the delivery. They tipped their caps to Ephram, who stood as always to oversee the process; and then carried the great packages of meat into the kitchen, where the servants were waiting to prepare it. Not to cook it, no – but merely to lay it out on shining platters, from which the members of the house would dine with knives and forks of polished silver, just to feel that much more civilised.
All down the centre of the gleaming wooden board there were laid dishes filled with boneless, lukewarm, bloody meat. Both sides of the table laid their napkins neatly over their laps, took their utensils up in their hands – and went to work like ravenous tigers.
There was a generous quantity available that night, and everyone ate their fill. There were even several instances, after quite all of the meat had been cleared from the trays, of the table’s leaning heavily back in their chairs, to place contented hands upon their full stomachs – and the scene was very similar, to that of the aftermath of a large Sunday-night pot roast, with which we inexperienced humans are doubtless more familiar.
Greyson gave a deep and happy sigh, as he nudged at Anna with his elbow. “How about that?” he asked. “This month might not be so difficult!”
Anna made him no answer, for she was staring very intently down into the puddle of cold blood which lay on her plate. She could just see her eyes, reflected in its smooth scarlet surface.
Her stomach surprised her very much, then, by giving a fierce growl. Even Greyson seemed to hear it, and afterwards to look at her oddly.
“It’s just settling, I suppose,” she murmured.
The table held together for perhaps twenty more minutes of conversation, grown considerably raucous in the wake of such a satisfying meal. Now and then there was an instance of a finger dipping down into the soupy red remnants, only to be brought up directly to a pair of smacking lips. There could even be seen an entire plate or two lifting into the air, to be tipped back, and emptied into the mouth of an exultant diner.
When finally the group began to break up, Greyson rose with Anna, and asked whether she “fancied a game.” However, she answered no – and the very uncommonness of this response made Greyson eye her again quite strangely.
“I feel a bit restless,” she offered in explanation. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”
She had not intended for him to do so, of course; but it seemed that Valo overheard these last words of hers. In an instant he was standing by her elbow, with a very chivalrous smile upon his face. A forgotten Ari – whose golden hair, it seemed, had been curled and fixed that night, specifically for the purpose of Valo’s enjoyment – hissed indignantly, and marched from the room. But Valo seemed not even to notice.
“Shall I come with you?” he asked Anna.
“It’s kind of you to offer,” she said hastily, “but I don’t think so. I’d make very poor company tonight, I judge.”
“Doubtful,” Valo said cheerfully. His eyes flashed the colour of emeralds, as he ran a hand through his spiky black hair, and smiled just as broadly as he was able. He towered more than a foot over Anna, but looked down at her so that, somehow, his face managed to come too close.
Anna continued, as politely as she could, to decline his proposal; much to Ephram’s apparent disdain. For the moment, however, she paid that very little mind. She only wished Valo goodnight, pressed Greyson’s arm, and proceeded to exit the dining room.
She issued out into the wide entrance hall, her boots clicking loudly across the hard tile. She passed the foot of the staircase, and made instead for the front door, beside which there was a servant standing. His name was Hyro, Anna knew, and he was a timid little fellow, on account of having been hit over the head so very many times with Valo’s hard oaken walking stick. But when he saw Anna – who had never been known to show him unkindness – drawing near to him, he rose a little out of his slump, and even ventured so far as to smile thinly.
Perhaps you would like to know at this point, that just like all of the other servants, Hyro was a Narkul.
He was dressed in a drab uniform of the most sombre shade of grey. He was rather gaunt and sallow-skinned, and possessed only a small tuft of hair, which had been cropped extremely close to his head. His shirt lay open at the throat, and exposed there a shining silver pendant, which was attached to a tight choker – which was in turn locked round his neck.
That little dangling piece of silver, it should be noted, was identical to the amulets worn on occasion by the Endai. It was called a Turin; and was about two-by-two inches tall and wide, with a very small, round bloodstone inlaid at its center. To one side of the ruby was depicted a human figure with a warning hand outstretched towards the opposite side; where there stood a wolf with head bowed in concession. So long as an Endalin or Narkul was wearing the Turin, it was impossible for him to assume his wolfen form. So long as he wore it, so long was he human.
“Good evening, Anna von Wessen,” said Hyro, with a persistence of his nervous smile. He opened the front door, so that Anna might pass.
“Hello, Hyro,” she replied absently – thus sending the poor wolf into a terrible tailspin of confusion. He shivered; his lip trembled; and he looked for a moment as if he might cry. In the end, though, he simply broke into a smile – a smile quite different from the one he had worn previously. This one was bright, and joyful, and made his face shine pleasantly. His wan cheeks seemed almost to glow; and his sunken eyes seemed almost to gleam.
Though Anna had never struck him, you see, or spoken to him a cruel word, neither had she ever spoken to him a kind one. She knew far better than that. It was her custom merely to nod, and sometimes to let just the smallest trace of a smile play round her lips, when Hyro addressed her. This night, however, she
him! Perhaps she did not
she did; but she did nevertheless.
And so Hyro was left, awe-struck, staring after her as she passed out into the courtyard. He stood for some time in the open doorway, looking into the darkness, even after she had disappeared. But finally, he smiled once more, and shut the door.
As Anna walked along, she felt a relentless twinging in her legs and feet, which made it impossible for her to slow her pace. It seemed as if she were actually flying from Thayer Street, past the comfortable houses which sparsely bordered it, and on into the slums of the city. Despite the fact that there was no one about, she knew that she was moving too quickly – more quickly than any human could ever manage to move. Yet she strode on, and on; and after a little
on, and on; and after that began to shift indiscriminately through the air, from one street corner to the next in the blink of an eye.
As she went – whether you will believe it or not – she was stricken by hunger pangs. What she had eaten earlier seemed somehow to have already burnt away, and was sitting now as nothing but a few scattered crumbs, over the hard rock bottom of her stomach.
How was it possible? Well, it had not been unknown to happen on occasion. Probably Valo, whose appetite was akin to nothing so much as a full-grown swine, would see nothing unfeasible in it. Strange, yes – but not unfeasible.
As she criss-crossed from street to street, the pulse of people to either side of her seemed to grow steadily thicker. She drew her hood over her head, so that the smells wafting round her were not so strong; but the discomfort grew only more severe, till finally she was overcome with hunger. She looked every which way, and saw billows of human breath pouring out into the winter night; spied soft throats in the moonlight, the bare flesh of arms hanging unsuspecting in midair. And she could smell the blood just beneath, the blood that ran under the skin. White skin, yellow skin; red skin, brown skin, black skin; it would all taste the same. She licked her lips, and felt her teeth begin to hone to jagged points.
She spotted a young man, then, standing on a dark corner. He held his leather jacket open with one hand, and with the other offered something to a small boy who stood just before him. The boy snatched the something from his hand, gave him money in exchange, and then ran away.
Anna lost no time. She flew forward like a loose cannonball, and pulled the young man into a narrow side alley. She had not time to make out even the slightest detail about his face or person, before she tore him quite to pieces, and devoured every last bit of him. The only things left were his clothing; a wallet, stuffed with cash; a pistol; and several small bags of white powder. Anna gathered all these things up off the ground, and tossed them into a nearby dumpster.
Wiping the blood from her face, she made towards the mouth of the alley. She glanced down at herself, and was glad to see that her black raiment betrayed nothing. Yet there was an inevitable odour clinging to her, which surely would not be noticed by any of the passers-by – but which most certainly would be detected, by the first Lumarian nose which encountered her. Therefore she spent no more time walking, but simply shifted from the alley, and into her own bedroom at Thayer Street. She shed her clothes immediately, and hid them away for later disposal. She used the remaining contents of a pitcher of water on her bedside table to scrub her face and hands, then walked all round the room, smelt every corner – and deemed it passable.
Feeling intensely wearied, she lay down upon her bed. She closed her eyes, and saw behind their lids the image of a blood-strewn alley, littered with shredded rags where their wearer had recently lain: the small things she had collected, and disposed of, which were a testament to the fact that he had existed.
Now, this was by no means her first kill. Many times before she had done the same thing – though only a very long time ago, when her youth could be proffered as an excuse for such transgressions. She knew very well, now, how dangerous it could prove for herself and her household. Forty years and more ago, perhaps it had not been so clear. Such a space of time, too, made the act seem as an entirely new thing; and she could say with no little certainty, that it was a messy and complicated thing. She much preferred the method of McGee and Sons.
It was not, however, any guilt that she felt. No – it was far from that. The miserableness of human nature made remorse a hard thing to come by. They killed themselves off, with their animal-like ways of violence and destruction, far faster than the Lumaria could ever hope of dispatching them. They beat, raped, and stole from their own. Hoodlums sold white powder to small children from the lining of their jackets.
What had Anna to feel sorry for?
The House of Adrian Ilo
he woke late next morning, after a deep and dreamless sleep. The sun shone into the room, as a single wide yellow beam; the birds sang loudly in the trees; and the sky was a vast and unbroken sea of powder blue. The air, which flowed in through the half-open window, was cold and fresh. The smell of blood in Anna’s nostrils had dissipated.
And yet, in spite of all this, she felt mightily strange. It was an odd sensation that had woken her in the first place, and presently she felt it again. It was a feeling almost of warmth, spreading all across her ice-cold skin. To add to it there was a sharp twinge persisting in her chest, at the left side, where she thought her dead heart to be. It was quite as if – albeit very slowly and thickly – it were trying to beat.
But these things, of course, were impossible. A Lumarian’s heart does not beat, first because it does not live; and second because it has no blood to circulate. A Lumarian’s body is like a block of cold, dry marble; and yet if you were to shear the hair from its head, it would grow back just as it was before (quite as its arm would, if you were to lop it off at the shoulder).
Lumarian lungs do not breathe, for they need no air. A Lumarian can remain underwater, therefore, for any length of time. It must sleep, just as it must eat; and also it must drink to assist in the digestion of food. With no liquid, too, there eventually starts up a very unpleasant sensation of painful dryness in the back of the throat, and all down the gullet. The strange necessities of immortal creatures!
Both a Lumarian’s food and drink linger for a time in its stomach, much longer than in ours, until simply burning down to nothing, and leaving no remains. A born Lumarian can never shed tears; and one who has been transformed loses the ability after a few months. It does not sweat. Its only fluid is its saliva, and the poison which it can secrete at will. This is called
, and is the ancient secret of the immortal curse.
No – a Lumarian’s heart does not beat. But still Anna could not dissuade herself from the idea that her own heart was attempting, in some way, to move. She shook her head in bewilderment, and got out of bed. She had not, at the moment, the perspicacity of mind it required to think out such a thing. Rather her head was very muddled, and very heavy. It felt almost as if it were weighing her down, and trying to flop to either one side or the other, as she walked out of the room.
She passed the day as she would any other. But always there was lurking in the back of her mind, the thought that things were not quite right, not quite as they should be; and she had considerable difficulty humouring Greyson, in his many different desires for activity. She caught him looking at her, several times, in that same odd manner he had adopted the previous evening at table. But it was far beyond his power to see into Anna’s thoughts; and therefore he was silent on the subject.
Yet they were both distracted, that afternoon, by an order from Ephram to go hunting. It was a large pack, this time, and all of the house would have to take part. They were to shift at eight o’clock.
“Where are we going?” Anna asked Ephram, in the short time that they sat together in his study that evening.
“First we will go to the house of Adrian Ilo,” answered Ephram. “He knows where the pack is hidden. It is nearly three hundred strong! We will merge with Adrian’s people, and attack together.”
“Adrian Ilo!” exclaimed Anna. “Why – I never thought I should meet him.”
“Probably you wouldn’t have, my dear, if it were not for the Narken.”
“Where does his house lie?”
Maine, directly upon the coast. The pack, he says, hides only about thirty miles from him. They have been planning a siege, he thinks – and he wishes to strike before they do. He has requested our assistance.”
“How large is his house?”
“Well! Together, then, nearly eighty.” She smiled. “Did you say only three hundred wolves? No doubt we’ll be back before midnight.”
“Ha!” shouted Ephram, as he rose to place his hand on Anna’s shoulder. “That’s my girl!”
Less than an hour later, the house was gathered together in the entrance hall, armed to the teeth, and waiting for Ephram’s signal to depart. He stood at the head of the group, with Anna and Valo behind him, and Greyson and Ari on their left-and-right flanks. These were the five who, as always, headed the battle crowd; the dining table; and quite everything else. Anna and Valo had earned their places by way of their superior fighting skills, with weapons and without. Anna herself presently stood with her sword in its scabbard, and a bolt-gun (further details about
little gadgets will be given later) holstered opposite. Ari’s acrid temperament, disagreeable in every other circumstance, played a large hand in rendering her strong and fearless in times of conflict; but it must be said that Greyson, whose skills were indeed no more marked than those of any of the others (were even, perhaps, somewhat deficient), had gained his place mostly on account of Anna’s particular fondness for him (and partly on account of something, which you will hear about at a later time).
Finally, Ephram held up his fist; and the house shifted together from the room. Mere seconds later, they looked about them, surveying the location to which they had been directed by Ephram’s thoughts.
They stood grouped into a handsome, sizable apartment, which was no doubt meant to serve as a main drawing-room; but which was, indeed, nowhere near so grand as the great cherry-panelled drawing-room at Thayer Street. Still everyone smiled, and nodded approvingly – for they saw that Adrian Ilo stood directly before them. Ephram stepped forward to take his hand, and the room was silent, staring rather in awe at those two indescribably regal and noble individuals.
Adrian Ilo stood at what seemed a whole two inches higher than Ephram (an accomplishment few could claim).
His shaggy black hair reached down to his shoulders, and his thick beard touched nearly to his collar. He looked a fierce warrior in his rumpled uniform, with a long sword shining at his belt – quite the antithesis of Ephram himself, whose elegance was unparalleled, what with his carefully oiled hair, cleanly shaven face, and silken sable suit.
But appearances were deceiving. Though surely none in that room would have dared to come up against either of them (so assured were they that such boldness would result in immediate death), there was no question as to Ephram’s superior strength.
Still clasping Ephram’s hand heartily, Adrian Ilo turned towards the newcomers. “Hello, all of you!” he said gruffly; in what was obviously meant as an exclamation of welcome, but which came as a stern bark that made several of the “welcomed” start back in alarm.
“You know why you are here,” he went on. “I’ll waste no time with pleasantries –” (surely he did not seem the sort) “– so follow me now into the front hall, where all my house is awaiting you.”
Their footsteps thudded like those of a marching platoon, as they crossed the drawing-room, and exited through a tall archway into a wide, dark corridor. They had gone perhaps a hundred yards, when the dimness began to abate, and there glowed a bright yellow light just ahead. This light was cast by a great wrought-iron fixture which hung from the ceiling, and which illuminated the black-and-white checkered floor of the front hall. They were surrounded by shining wooden walls, with more archways at each hand, leading all into seemingly large, shadowy rooms.
But it was as the head of the house had said; and all his people were gathered into the hall, in two long, orderly rows. They straightened up at the appearance of Adrian Ilo, and ceased their chattering. They looked ahead, curiously and interestedly at the approaching house of Ephram. Several of them nudged one another, began to speak again in low whispers, and pointed at Ephram himself, as if he were some sort of fabled legend in whom they had not known whether to believe. And, in all reality – Ephram was just that, from the border of New England to the Spanish coast; all the way round to the shores of Asia, and back again to the Western United States. Once the fearless, dreaded father of the English Lumaria, he was now the lost King of Lumarian children’s bedtime tales, who had once overthrown the rogue empire of the traitorous Dreius Rivkin, and who had saved Queen Ursula’s Poland from Worgach, the Narkul King.
Ephram’s friendship with Adrian Ilo was old; but they had not seen one another for long years. Each had their own business; and most times they looked at things very differently.
“As I told Ephram,” said Adrian; “the wolves are not far from here. We ne
ed only cross the woods on the North-hand, till we come again to the shore. They have made their den there.” He looked to Ephram, and asked, “Is there anything more you would know, my friend?”
“I think not,” answered Ephram. “That is – unless you can enlighten me as to the nature of that sound.”
Ephram cocked his
head, and pointed towards the North wall with the fingers of his right hand. “
sound,” he said.
But Anna heard it before Adrian did. It was there – a prodigious amount of scuffling, shuffling and tripping in the surrounding underbrush.
“Do you hear it?” she asked Valo.
“Yes,” he answered.
“There are trees on three sides of the house,” Ephram mused aloud. “They will come from those directions. We must go down to the shore, and await them there.”
“Would it not be better to form a perimeter?” Adrian asked.
“I cannot tell you what to do with your own people,” Ephram rejoined; “but I am taking mine down to the shore. When the wolves attack, we can retreat into the water, where we have the advantage.”
Adrian nodded. “I will follow you, Ephram.”
In a flash, the seventy-some-odd soldiers shifted from the hall to the shore. They formed a single line before the lapping waves. A harsh cold wind blew from behind, and there was the sound of crashing footsteps in the forest all around.
“Brace yourself, my boy,” Ephram whispered to Valo.
“Get ready,” Valo said to Anna.
“Don’t be afraid,” Anna said to Greyson, who looked indeed as if he would faint from fear. Never before had he faced such an onslaught. Never – unlike Anna – had he wished to.
“Dirty dogs,” hissed Adrian Ilo. “Why don’t they come?”
“Because they are ignorant beasts,” returned Valo.
“Do not underestimate them,” warned Ephram.
“You are right in that, my lord,” whispered Evin Osha (who was on some occasions Valo’s duelling second; though Valo did not always favour either his presence or his opinion, and seemed sometimes to find definite enjoyment in abusing him) with a somewhat terrified look upon his face. Three months previous he had had his right arm torn off by a Narkul, and had lain screaming in his chamber for rather more than two weeks while it grew back.
Valo clapped him on the shoulder, and grinned. “Good man, Evin.”
After this brief string of exchanges, all the party was silent once again, and fell to searching the tree-lines, with eyes that glowed yellow in the dark. It was Droya, of the house of Ephram, who spotted the first wolf bounding from the North-hand wood. Immediately after him came a long, thick line of beasts, pouring like angry bees from a hive.
An array of swords, glinting in the silver moonlight, whipped forth from Lumarian belts. Wolfen paws could be seen, being severed from furry arms the size of tree trunks, as they reached to descend upon the soldiers. Heads of both Narkul and Lumarian went rolling, before the Lumaria shifted suddenly from the spot, and dragged with them into the lake all the wolves they could lay their hands upon. Some were drowned; some had their throats ripped away; some were skewered by swords.
In the middle of the fray were Ephram, Adrian Ilo, Anna and Valo, swords swishing left and right, felling a wolf with every chop. Greyson huddled near to Anna, relying on her to save him from his own poor swordsmanship, each time his aim missed the mark, or proved not strong enough to sever the thick neck of a Narkul. Ari fought near to Valo, just as she somehow always managed to do, usurping the place which was rightfully Evin Osha’s.
Ephram’s plan proved successful; and a mere half hour after the battle had begun, it ceased, as all the Narken who survived wrestled themselves from the grip of their enemies, and fled the lake. Several were felled by Adrian Ilo’s gunners (this, indeed, was the first instance thus far in the evening that firearms had been made use of – the encounter had been too close, and Anna herself had never even taken her bolt-gun from its holster) as they ran for the trees, but a considerable host managed nonetheless to escape.
“Should we follow them?” Anna asked abruptly, as she slayed her last wolf.
“Do you wish us to go, Father?” inquired Valo.
“No,” said Ephram. “No – let them go. We have lost enough. They’ll not come back.”
He placed a hand on the shoulder of Adrian Ilo; and together they two led their clans from the water. The slain were gathered up into arms and onto shoulders, and carried back to the house whither they had probably expected to return in a much different fashion.