Procuring the drop phone had been a surprisingly simple affair, taking little more than half an hour’s time.
The much more difficult and time consuming part of her morning was finding her way to their appointed meeting place in central London.
Westminster Abbey was a massive Gothic style church adorned with some of the best remaining examples of High-Gothic Victorian architecture still standing in the world, its gold-leafed white spires rising high above the rest of the city and serving as a point of reference to help guide her through the chaos of the crowded streets.
Inside the Western entrance a sizeable crowd had gathered around an enormous black marble plaque which had been set into the floor; forcing herself to resist the urge to glance back over her shoulder she plunged headfirst into the throng of tourists skirting between feet and flowers and breaking into a sprint the moment that she came out the other side, darting around a corner and down a set of stairs to the floor below.
The Crest Mark was hidden beneath the shadows of the white-stone bust of some historical figure that Kennina didn’t recognize.
On the other side of the archway formed by her Crest was a windowless room lit only by the torches hanging in the aged brass brackets mounted to the walls beside a number of thread-bare dust ridden tapestries bearing the symbol of the Guild. The setup of the place was fairly reminiscent of a lecture hall, the numerous stone stairs circling the room like the rings on the trunk of a tree leading downwards towards the depressed center floor where there stood a sturdy round table; seated around it at intervals were the other three members of her team.
“Aye, there’s the Lass.” Abban’s gravely voice echoed up to her as it rebounded off the steps and walls. “Get lost, did ya Kennina?”
“I think that I’ll be getting lost here for quite a while,” admitted with only slight embarrassment as she reached the bottom and seated herself in one of the many empty chairs. “Sorry about the wait.”
“Forget it; we didn’ get ‘ere all tha’ long ago ourselves.” Though the cut on his cheek had been sewn shut the injured side of his face was still swollen black and blue beneath his shock of wild flaming hair. None of this, however, served as deterrence to the continued presence of his near-permanent grin. “Ya brough’ the phone?”
“Yeah,” leaning over to reach into her purse, Kennina removed the small black flip phone and set it on the tabletop for them to see. “It’s beyond archaic, but there’s no chance that they can trace it back to any of us even if they tried following the line back from his phone; I was told that we’d be sending something to New York?”
“We will be, but first you need to tell us exactly how much it is that you know.” Morrigan told her. “It’s likely that both of us have information that is, at the very least similar to that of the other’s; it’s important to understand where it overlaps to avoid any redundancy.”
“I understand.” Sitting back in her chair with a creak, she folded her hands carefully in her lap. “I had applied for a promotion some days before in hopes of rising through the ranks of the Guild, and had received a request that I meet with Lord Kharon after a routine hunt, but apparently he’d forgotten that he had something scheduled because when I got there he was already entertaining...other company. ‘Veles’ was his name, and during what little that I overheard they mentioned some very interesting things, among them a strange sounding word: Dhampir.”
“And after hearing it you went looking into what it was.” A grim statement by the raven as the other two let out resigned sighs. “And they found out.”
“Yes, they did, though I’m not sure how with how careful I was. Then they sent me here.”
Morrigan looked over at Abban; though he sat quietly and maintained a calm expression a faint flicker of some emotion, fear perhaps, could be detected in the dark depths of his eyes. “So it looks like you were right about it.”
“It?” Kennina repeated, raising an eyebrow.
“They don’t mention it to the likes of us-the human weapons who are sent to the front lines to fight-but they have a process for disposing of potential leaks.”
“They call it ‘Red Linin’’; markin’ any potential problems fer death.” Seoirse told her, his expression falling into sadness for the first time that she had ever seen it. “Most who’d hear tha’ think o’ us as paranoid loonies but we know that it’s real. It happened to me an’ Abban’s Pa when we were little.”
“We’re from a Hunter family Lass; one o’ the last with the Slayer’s Guild in their blood.” Abban said. “Oor Pa was a good man. A good warrior. He took his oaths serious-like the three o’ us do, and like you do I’m sure-an’ tha’s what ultimately got ‘im into trouble with them; the Dhampir. He stumbled on an’ abandoned room, much like this one, filled with documents and books all o’ which they wanted kept hidden fer various reasons. He took some o’ them with ‘im,” he motioned to a number of letters sitting on the table, “an’ they found out, but by the time they figured out who had taken them an’ moved to do anything about it he’d already passed them on to us.”
“I managed to find a book on the founder of the Order, predecessor to the Guild, hidden on the shelves of the New York Public Library; after translating it out of Latin I found some troubling information on the connection of the former Lord AshHand to the Dhampir.” Kennina reported. “I’ll be honest with you, to me it seemed dubious-nothing fit quite right-but it was a start. Something to go off of. And if they’d gone through all of the trouble of hiding it there must have been something in it that was true. When I left New York, I left the book and its translation in the custody of my former team.”
“What connection was it,” the ravenette asked. “There definitely is one, but the one you read might not be correct.”
“The book claimed that Eros AshHand created the Dhampir.”
“An’ there’s the massively distorted kernel o’ truth; ‘Eros AshHand created’ is the only part o’ that sentence which is a reality Lass. Eros AshHand created and led a sect o’ the Dhampir known as the Thyone; they wanted nothin’ but death and destruction and didn’ last long after his death. As for his madness...whether it was really due to power lust or from somethin’ else altogether, tha’ knowledge is lost to the ages.”
“We do have reason to think that it was something else, though! That letter written by ‘im 547 years ago this Thursday!” Seoirse quickly added. “‘I fear retribution fer the death o’ BleakHeart.’; ‘I’ve sent my family away.’; ‘The Legions are comin’ ov’r the rise.’; ‘I fear tha’ I won’t live ta see the dawn and can only hope Cerdic’s leadership will be enough ta see our forces through this’. Eros was a hero for most o’ his life, and at the end o’ things he wasn’t in his right mind. We can’t forget that if we’re goin’ ta be carrying on his legacy.”
“Yes, well, what we do know is tha’ the Dhampir an’ the Malformed are two very differen’ things; one far outclasses the other in terms o’ power and intelligence an’ we’ve not the slightest clue what to look for. The other, well...we’ve all dealt with the Malformed.”
“Saying for argument’s sake that what we know about the Malformed is all true,” Kennina said, “they’re humans who have been transformed into monsters by the bite of another Malformed, they’re unintelligent in and of themselves but-according to suppositions on our part on account of what we’ve seen-are possessed of a hive mind and seem bidden to answer to the will of something more powerful and more intelligent than them.”
“And we assume that that ‘something’ is a Dhampir.” Morrigan supplied.
“By that same coin could we then consider the possibility that the Malformed Taint in fact originates from the Dhampir?”
A moment passed before Abban nodded, his brother lunging across the table for a notebook and pen to quickly jot down a few notes on the matter. “It would fill in a few o’ the bigger holes in the Guild’s explanations on the matter; how there can be so many o’ them, where they come from an’ why there doesn’t seem ta be any end ta them.”
“But why would the Slayer’s Guild hide the truth about them, tha’s what I never understood.” Seoirse announced loudly as he turned the page with much more force than was necessary, nearly tearing it free of the rungs. “Do ya think they have some sort o’ deal with the things?”
“From what I overheard in Kharon’s office, I’d say that it’s much more likely that the Dhampir are controlling things from behind the scenes,” she replied darkly. “In fact, something that was said by Veles makes me thing that Kharon himself is a Dhampir.”
“That would mean that it wasn’t his ancestor that killed Eros, but Kharon himself,” Morrigan said. “It would certainly explain how the AshHand-likely a Dhampir as well, as he’s described in the second letter as ‘Thyone Vampire Lord Eros’-could have been defeated in one on one combat.”
“Tha’ would also have ta mean that the entire upper echelon o’ the Guild, at the very least, is made up o’ the Dhampir; it’s the only way they could have made it so tha’ no one noticed he isn’t agin’.” Abban pointed out. “It would also mean tha’ they don’t suffer from the same weaknesses as the Malformed; tha’ they can withstand sunlight an’ walk on hallowed ground. We can’t be sure wha’ their limits are.”
“We can theorize, for now, that their physical weak points at the very least are the same-the heart and the head-and test it once we hunt down the bastard that’s responsible for what’s been going on in this city.”
“I agree with oor beautiful Yankee Rose; I like the sound o’ the hands on approach much better than all this sittin’ an’ supposin’.” Seoirse pushed the notebook away from him and it slid across the table top with the quiet hiss of its spiral spine. “Now, don’t ya think we should be gettin’ into contact with her friend back in New York?”
“Ma brother has a point abou’ the phone call. Lass, if ya wouldn’t mind?”
Kennina nodded and picked up the phone. “I’m not sure if he’ll answer an unknown number; I think that I succeeded in making the two of them rightfully paranoid with my explanation before I left, however vague that it may have been.” The hollow ringing echoed from the phone as it went unanswered for almost a minute before finally being picked up.
“I’m sorry, but I think you might have the wrong number.” Even expected as it was given the situation, hearing such a cold defensive tone from him felt strange.
“Alaric, don’t you dare hang up on me.”
She couldn’t keep the small smirk off of her face when, after a moment of surprise, he responded with a splutter of “Kennina? Why...I didn’t...What number are you calling from?”
“An untraceable one, obviously. If this were just a social call, well...I wouldn’t have made just a social call under the circumstances but-.”
“I get your meaning.” He sighed, suddenly sounding very old and tired. “Even if it’s only been three days since you left, since we last saw you, I’m glad to know that for now at least you’re still alive.”
“I wouldn’t be overly surprised if that’s changed by this time next week.” She told him. “How have the two of you been holding up? Did they assign you a new team member yet?”
“We’ve been benched, Kennina. Put on paid leave for an indefinite amount of time. We’re not sure why, but I figure that they’re on damage control mode and it’ll probably last until your situation has been resolved.” The quiet creak of the floor as he moved, presumably to check the window. “I don’t know about Etain-we’ve broken off contact with each other beyond the necessary for safety reasons-but I have a car on me; it’s unmarked, but I’ve been seeing the damn thing everywhere that I go.”
“A car?” immediately the black hearse-like stretch and it's strange cloaked driver came to mind. “What does the driver look like, do you know?”
“I can’t tell, the windows are too darkly tinted.” Alaric replied. “If this isn’t a social call, is it checking up?”
“No, I wouldn’t quite call it that either. It’s more describable as a business matter; I’m going to put you on speakerphone, so just give me a second.” Locating the correct button on the tiny keypad after a few moments, Kennina set the little drop-phone back down on the table top. “Can you still hear me?”
“Loud and clear,” his response came through slightly distorted by the harsh crackling of static.
“Alright; this is going to be a little bit of a conference, so...my new team is going to talk with you about a few things pertaining to the documents.”
“You mean the ones that we’re strictly forbidden from touching? They’re still with the cat things, in case you were wondering.” Alaric snorted. “It’s a good thing that I sprung for the unlimited long distance plan, because something tells me that this is going to take a while.”
“So yer the Support on the Lass’ former team?”
“I am. I’d assume that you’re the squad leader on her new team?”
“Aye, the name is Abban.” The older MacanBairn shifted forwards in his chair to bring himself closer to the phone. “Listen’ boy’oh, an’ listen well, because this’ll probably be tha’ only time we get to talk; all four o’ us are in the same hot water an’ things ‘ere in London are goin’ ta shit. I can’t tell ya to completely disregard wha’s in the book Kennina left with you because I’m nae entirely sure wha’ all is in it, but a package ‘ll be comin’ to ya in the next few days containin’ a number of historical documents the accuracy o’ which can be much more confidently trusted; I recommend tha’ ya prioritize them.”
“I assume that this package comes with the same ‘laissez fare until post doomsday’ policy?”
“Tha’ they do,” he replied, “though it won’t be long after ya receive them-if nae right away-that it’ll be ‘post doomsday’.”
“We can’t give you any details but no matter what happens don’t trust any of the superiors, especially Kharon.” Kennina warned him. “As a matter of fact, you’re better off avoiding anyone ranked above the two of you all together whenever possible.”
“Let’s put it this way, just ta make it easier ta understand,” Seoirse said as he left his seat to perch himself atop the table instead, “don’t trust anyone unless yer 100% beyond a doubt sure tha’ they’re human.”
“Why is it that I suddenly have the very distinct feeling that this entire tabacle isn’t going to turn out well for anyone involved?”
“Because it isn’t,” Morrigan responded flatly.
“How long, about, will this package take to arrive and should I let Etain in on the matter?”
“Should take abou’ a week, ov’r direct air mail I’d say. As for involving yer other friend,” Abban glanced over at Kennina who shook her head.
“You told me earlier that the two of you had purposefully broken off contact for the time being; it would seem awfully suspicious for you to suddenly go running off to meet up with her.”
“I guess that that’s true,” a curious mew in the background as Sergio, likely attracted by the sounds of the phone conversation, ambled in to investigate what was going on. “I’ll let her in on things whenever it comes time to make use of what you’ve left us with. We’ll do everything that we can to put a stop to them, Kennina.”
“So will we.” Cutting off the call, she snapped the phone closed with one hand before leaning her weight against the sturdy table and letting out a heavy sigh. “I don’t like this at all. There’s gotta be some better way to go about this than to play ‘pass the Dragon’ until one of us gets picked off.”
“I think that we all wish there was, but for the moment that really is all that we can do.”
“Maybe yer friends will fare better than we have.” Sliding down from where he’d seated himself cross-legged on the table, Seoirse sauntered over and held out a hand to help her up. “Abban an’ Morrigan will see abou’ sendin’ the package to yer friend. How abou’ you an’ I get somethin’ ta eat an’ see abou’ teachin’ you the basics o’ some useful charms?”
“Alright, why not?” it’d be something to distract her from the doubt that she had begun to feel; the beginnings of the realization of just how futile their efforts really were. “Are we headed to the same place as yesterday?”
“Nae the same place, no. It’s closer by.”
“Nae tha’ little dive bar, Seoirse!”
“Taking a woman to a hole in the wall is hardly a good bet for a first date.”
“Agh, Morrigan! Who said anythin’ abou’ a date?” he demanded, voice cracking up an octave as his face blazed red behind its pattern of bruises. The older two laughed as they headed away, letters safely hidden away in Morrigan’s bag, leaving the furiously blushing Seoirse and Kennina alone together on the street outside of the Abbey.
“So, where is this ‘hole in the wall’ exactly?” she asked him with a snicker.
“A few blocks away,” he replied, keeping his blue eyes averted as he scrapped the toe of his shoe against the pavement. “An’ it’s nae...like tha’. Don’ get me wrong Yankee Rose, yer an amazin’ woman-very small but wit’ a belly full o’ fire-an’ if I had the time, believe me...but there’s no use startin’ somethin’ when there won’t be any time ta finish it.”
“Don’t worry, I know; I’m only teasing you Seoirse.” His blush lightened somewhat but didn’t fade as they started towards their destination. “If it makes you feel any better, a romantic relationship of any sort with anyone is far from on my bucket list.”
Seoirse shoved his hand into his packets. “From the way tha’ yer talkin’, it almost sounds like yer ready ta die.”
“No one is ever ‘ready’ to die, but...I conceded the reality that I lived with death as a raven on my shoulder the moment that I decided I wanted to become a Hunter when I was 12 years old, to avenge the deaths of my family.” Kennina told him. “And now that I’m living on borrowed time? I’ve made peace with it.”
“Religion helps too, I’d suppose.”
She stared at him for a few moments and then snorted. “Religion? I don’t believe, Seoirse; I haven’t for a long time.” Stopping on the corner Kennina peered up at the clear blue expanse stretched above their heads. “If you ask me, there’s nothing up there but a big empty sky. How else could such creatures as Vampires be allowed to exist?”
“Abban doesn’t believe either, but me?” Seoirse stopped beside her and looked up as well. “I can’t say wha’ it is, but I figure tha’ there’s somethin’ up there.”
“Well, science has recently proven the existence of something called ‘Outer Space’.” She snarked.
Seoirse snickered and shook his head as he started walking again. “Have things your way Yankee Rose; let’s keep goin’, we’re holdin’ up traffic.”
Their ultimate destination was a small, shabby little pub by the name of The Dusty Bell; the interior was dark and hazed with the smoke of cigarettes that mingled with the cheap beer and hard liquor that that thickened the air. The stools were beginning to fall apart-the faded red leather tops torn and oozing chunky bits of butter-yellow foam and the metal pieces rusting-and the clear finishing had rubbed off of the bar and tables in places, but despite the scruffy appearance the establishment was very clean.
They sat at the bar, Seoirse leaning his elbows on the wooden top as he signaled for the bartender-a bear of a man with a mane of wiry black hair-to come over.
“That you, MacanBairn? I haven’t seen you here since July.” His small black eyes, set deep into a wind-tanned face, shifted over onto her. “Who’s the flower? I didn’t know you had a woman.”
“Oh, she’s just a friend an’ colleague an’ nothin’ more ya asshat! ‘er name is Kennina, an’ she’s from New York.” He replied dryly, rolling bleached denim eyes. “I’m ‘ere ta give ‘er a taste o’ the best fish n’ chips this city has ta offer nae ta listen ta yer bullshit!”
“What can I get for the two of you to drink with than order, then, if I can trust your company as the type to allow a man to order for her.”
Kennina’s peridot eyes flashed slightly in the dim light. “I’m no shrinking violet if that’s what you’re trying to imply, but I’m also not the type to disregard the culinary recommendation of a local. So I’ll stick to what he suggested and I’ll have it with whatever beer you suggest.”
Now the bar keep raised an eyebrow at the carrot top. “Told her I don’t bother with the legal age limit so long as my customers pay did you?”
He shook his head. “Nae, the Yankee Rose jus’ supposed.”
The man grunted, going to grab a pair of cups. “And you’ll have your usual, then?”
“Ya know it.”
The sturdy mugs were slammed down onto the bar top in front of them, the foam head erupting from the rich brown ale the color of strong brewed tea to trickle down along the sides. “I’ll have that right out for the both of you.”
Snatching his mug immediately off the top of the bar Seoirse raised it high. “A toast; to good ol’ fatalism an’ whatever Fate might have in store!” The thick glass clacked loudly, more pale foam and dark liquid sloshing over the sides in a malted tidal wave; the brew, though cheap, was hoppy and bitter. Seoirse’s hearty laugh rang out brightly through the pub when she lowered her cup with a small cough. “Nice beer mustache.”
“I could say the same thing to you!” She snorted, slugging him playfully in the arm with one hand and raising the other to wipe the foam from her upper lip. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a lesson included in this somewhere, ‘oh all mighty self appointed teacher of Enchantments and Charms’ Seiorse MacanBairn?”
“Aye, I’m gettin’ there.” Reaching across her he pulled a handful of napkins free of a beaten dispenser before producing a ballpoint pen from one of his pockets and clicking it open. “Right then, there are two types of Magic in the world tha’ we know of; Enchantments an’ Charms. Charms require an interaction between a physical artifact-like a Crest-an’ an incantation in order ta work. Enchantments only require an incantation to work, an’ their incantations tend ta be shorter than those o’ Charms; one or two words usually. The more concise they are the more powerful. You can use symbols with them, ta more effective still, but it isn’t necessary.” Setting the pen to the thin paper of one of the napkins he quickly scrawled out five different symbols which, to Kennina, formed little more than a series of meaningless lines. “You go all the way back in history ta the star’ o’ the Order, back before the Guild, an’ ya find the five symbols-Runes, they were called-tha’ were the original sources o’ Magic power. One each for the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth an’ Air and then the fifth one. A gift ta Eros from the Angel Michael along with the blessed blade Cenusa, the thing tha’ made ‘im a Paladin; a man, mortal, who wielded Heaven’s fury. The Rune o’ Light.”
Even as enigmatic as the five symbols were, they held a unique and graceful beauty and their magnetic draw was undeniable; her hand traced over them lightly, feeling the coarse cheap fabric of the napkin and the smooth indents left behind by his pen. “What are their names?”
He shrugged, now. “No one knows, anymore; they fell out o’ centuries ago, just after the Order’s reformation into the Guild.”
“Out of use? Why?”
“They collectively refer ta the four Elemental Runes as Primals for a reason; they’re forces o’ nature. They were extremely dangerous ta wield; a single miscalculation an’ they could cause explosions an’ windstorms.” Placing his pen down, Seoirse leaned so far back in his stool that for a moment Kennina was afraid he’d topple off. “An’ as for the Rune of Light...Eros was the only one strong enough and pure enough ta wield it. After a number o’ Hunters were incinerated tryin’ ta subjugate its power, they gave up all together. But didn’ I say tha’ I’d teach ya a concealment charm?” she nodded and he once again took up the pen as he grabbed a fresh napkin. “The name o’ the Concealment Charm is ‘Celare’, an’ like most spells in a supportin’ role it originates from the Wind Class.” Seoirse scrawled it out quickly, large and easily discernable, in the center of the napkin; a nest of curling smooth lines and sloping angles. “The incantation for activating it is ‘Abscondissem me Fortisan ab Oculis’.” He transposed this beneath the charm as well. “Carve it directly into the blade o’ your weapon so tha’ you can use it whenever ya feel tha’ ya need it.”
“Thank you, Seoirse.” Kennina told him, taking the napkin when he held it out to her and slipping it into her pocket. “I’ll make sure to use this as soon as we get back.”
Their food arrived a few moments later, plastic baskets lined with wax paper stacked high with house made chips and large fillets of breaded fish.
“Ya ever had fish n’ chips before?”
She nodded, breaking the first fillet in half to let it start to cool before beginning to look around in search of the familiar red bottle. “A few times; I wouldn’t go so far as to compare it to the hamburger, but it’s popular.”
“An’ wha’er ya lookin’ for?”
“Ketchup,” at his snort she turned on him. “What, exactly, is so funny?”
“This is London, Yankee Rose. We don’ do Ketchup.” He told her with a small smirk, picking up a nearby bottle and holding it up for her to see. “I think ya ought ta save the proper English experience at least once before we all die. Try this.”
The paper label crackled slightly beneath her hand as she took the glass bottle from him. “Malt vinegar? On fish?”
“Aye.” Unscrewing the lid for her and popping it off. “A’ least try it.”
The strong tangy scent emanating from the open top curled her nose and she leaned slightly away. “How much of this am I supposed to use?”
“A sprinkle; don’ oe’r do it.” He set the little lid down on the top of the bar with a small click and plucked a curled golden chip-still hot and sparkling with grease-from atop the mountain on his plate. “I can tell from yer reaction tha’ you’ve noticed ‘ow strong it is.” A slight tilt of the bottle, careful to allow only a few droplets of the amber liquid to fall onto her plate before setting it down again. “Well, wha’ do ya think?”
“It’s not bad,” she told him, carefully setting the hot fish down and picking up a napkin to clean the hot grease from her fingers, “but it’ll definitely take some getting used to.”
“Ah, but tha’s wha’ they say abou’ a lot o’ things; Black Peppermint, for example.” Seoirse told her, draining the contents of his mug. “Abban an’ Morrigan ‘ll call us when they need us; wha’ do ya say tha’ we spend a few more hours before work on the town?”
Kennina smiled and nodded. “That sounds like fun, actually.”
“Tha’ it does, Yankee Rose.” Seoirse returned her smile with a massive one of his own. “Oi, bar keep! We be in need o’ some more ale o’er ‘ere!”