The need for money invites men to terrible and foolish deeds, and makes kings of those who would commit such deeds for their own sake. It was among such company that Ethan Lyon found himself with greater and greater frequency as his need for money swelled with each passing month. The evening of August fourth, 1976, seemed at the outset unlikely to be any different from other such nights of deeds terrible and foolish.
Ethan trudged down the hall of the old London motel situated between Shadwell and Whitechapel. Perhaps it had a name, but to the hemos in the service of the Dahlia, it was known only as The Hole. It took only a single visit to understand why. The entire building smelled like a toilet overgrown with mold, and the repulsive condition of the carpets and walls could not entirely explain it.
After ascending a rickety flight of stairs lit only by a single lamp mounted in a rusted fixture, Ethan stopped at the door to 266. He looked both ways down the hall to ensure that he had not been followed. As usual, he found nothing but off-color stains and piles of refuse that had been swept up against the walls. The dusty light overhead flickered. The hum of electricity was nearly loud enough to distract him from the rhythmic thumping and muffled grunts of the nightly courtesans in the next door down. With a deep breath, he inserted the key, turned it until it clacked, and eased the door open.
Inside the room, he found a familiar sight. The bed had been overturned and pushed to one wall, making room for a half dozen folding chairs. Three were already occupied by men in dark clothing. Hemos. They were the types he’d worked with many times before, losing a bit more of himself on each mission. Ethan breathed a small sigh of relief. Even cut four ways, the bounty was still more than enough to liberate him. In front of the three men, a fourth stood with a commanding posture and tight-fitting white T-shirt. Ethan recognized the man at once as Sergio Talbot, one of the Dahlia’s hired dispatchers. Just the sight of him turned Ethan’s stomach.
“Close the damn door,” Sergio barked.
Ethan jumped in fright and settled the door to the room shut. The others snickered amongst themselves, clearly amused by how unprepared he must have looked. With their clandestine meeting safely hidden from the prying eyes of the addicts and the whores, he hurried toward the chairs and took a seat between a man in a black leather jacket and another in an ivory-white cowboy hat.
His tardiness seemed to irritate Sergio, who took to pacing along the wall. He propped his foot upon an unmarked crate by the vertical mattress. “Well, gentlemen,” he said. “It seems that four is all we’re getting. So we’ll get started if that’s no problem.”
That was immediately suspicious. A twenty-million scrip price tag should have attracted far more than four potential assassins. Perhaps the usual suspects were privy to information that had steered all but the most desperate away. That premonition very nearly chased Ethan from the room, but the need of money, of course, invited men to terrible and foolish deeds. And so he settled deeper into his hard, overly angular seat, trying to ignore the acidic brew in his stomach that bade him leave before it was too late.
“Let us get some introductions going. You lot can call me Sergio. I’m the Dahlia’s go-between for this particular mission. Think I’ve met at least a couple of you before, but let’s not let that get in the way of all due formality.” He nodded toward the right-most man, who sat two empty chairs away from the wannabe cowboy. “We’ll start with you. Name and stats.”
“Alex,” the man replied. His voice was thick with some European accent that Ethan could not quite identify. His blond hair was pulled into a rough attempt at a mohawk, which made him look vaguely avian. “I am a distant child of the Camellia. I am a knight, but two dozen Dahlia will vouch for my skill in the art of murder.”
Sergio studied the man. “Knight. My gut tells me I should tell you to get the fuck out of here. But your references checked out. Welcome aboard. Next.”
The man in the cowboy hat spoke next. “Stephan. Azalea. Ace.” His voice suggested he was a yank more than the hat did. He looked like the kind of man who shaved with a knife out of necessity, completely ignorant of the stereotypes surrounding American hemos.
Sergio’s lips puckered in disinterest. “Very nice. Next.”
Ethan was third in seating, and so he spoke up. “Ethan Lyon. Distant Thistle. Ace.”
“Mmhmm.” The man’s gaze lingered on him for a moment longer before moving on to the final man.
“Call me Roger,” the man on Ethan’s left said without prompting. He was clearly British and looked not a day over twenty years. “King. Dahlia, third generation.” He crossed his arms and grinned his smugness aloft.
Their dispatcher exhaled through his teeth and swept his gaze from wall to wall of their little war room. “We ask for the best aces, and we get a knight and a king. Fantastic. I won’t keep you waiting any longer than necessary. This is your standard contract, one target.” His malice was palpable as he unzipped a knapsack at his ankles. He withdrew a tightly coiled roll of paper from the bag, unfurled it, and stuck it to the wall. The image was a photograph, monochrome. It showed little more than a silhouette of a woman, all her features rendered indistinct by the unfavorable lighting. The enlarging process had not been kind to the subject, nor to the fabric of existence she found herself permanently frozen within. Ethan’s skin surrendered all of its heat to the hush that fell over the room. He knew the subject well. They all did. It was the only known photograph ever taken of her.
Sergio banged his fist on the photograph, and the wall shuddered from the force. “This is your target.”
A general sense of unease bubbled through the room.
“Descoteaux,” the American said, pronouncing the name like an American would. “You want us to take down Lady Descoteaux?”
A grumble came from Ethan’s left. “The Black Viscountess herself? Are you fucking mental?”
Sergio answered the question with a knowing smirk. “The Black Viscountess. The Shade of Marseilles. Choose whatever epithet you wish. Your mission is to kill the matriarch of the Hyacinth.”
Roger of the Dahlia sputtered an incredulous, venomous laugh. “There isn’t enough money in the whole of the Dahlia’s coffers to make me set foot within a hundred kilometers of that witch and her family.”
The American nodded his accord. “Yep. Not for your damned scrip, in any case.”
Sergio glared over the four of them. “Then you should not have come. I thought you were soldiers of fortune, not frightened little children. The ad requested the best of the best, and you’re afraid of, what? Urban legends and fairy tales? Bah! You call yourselves hemos?”
“This is madness,” Alex said. “The Viscountess has an entire army of servants, all accomplished hemos if rumors are to be believed.”
“And that is your problem,” Sergio snapped. “You believe rumors and not logic. Descoteaux is no more than a woman. An ace, perhaps, but a woman. She is no more powerful than any of you, save perhaps the kraut.”
“If she is just a woman,” Roger interjected, “then why a twenty-million-scrip bounty? No normal hemo deserves such a price.”
Sergio measured the man with his gaze. “Surely that occurred to you before you decided to take the job.” Roger went silent. With a small sigh, their emissary crossed his arms and let his posture slump. “I assure you the bounty is appropriate for the urgency of the job and is not based on the perceived power of your target.” His tone dripped affront at the cowardice in the room.
“Afraid you’re going to need to give us more information than that,” the American said. “There ain’t no way I’m gonna take your word at face value. Not now.”
Sergio, clearly irritated at the demand, took a few slow breaths before relenting. “The Hyacinth has created certain difficulties for the Dahlia as of late. And so the Tribunal has decided that it is necessary to eliminate their matriarch, as a warning against their activities.”
Roger scoffed. “What activities could possibly be worth twenty million to the family?”
“I don’t know, Roger. Perhaps you could ask the family if you are half as important as you seem to think you are.” The young man paled at the words. “Then again, if you were a true son of the Dahlia then you wouldn’t need to carry out wetwork to make a living. Or am I wrong? Third generation. Grow up, kid.”
The young man bit his lip, settled into his seat, and remained quiet. Anger rose off him like tongues of steam, but his pride had suffered a visible wound.
Sergio scratched his head and set the bladed point of his attention on Ethan next. “The Dahlia will surely have guards and servants, making this a high-level hit. You will very likely need to cut a path through hemomancers of various skills and styles. And that is why we are providing these.” Sergio banged the side of one of the wooden crates with his foot, and then sprung the latch. The inside held six factory-fresh M40 rifles. Boxes of ammunition filled the gaps between them. Ethan was all too familiar with the bolt-action sniper rifle. It was a common tool in hits that took no chances.
“And for those of you who lack subtlety,” Sergio continued, “we’ve got a few Kalashnikovs as well.” The second box sprung open, revealing two AK47s and matching ammo boxes.
Stephan whistled and removed his hat as if the weapons were his heads of state. “Now you’re speaking my language.”
Sergio answered him with a grin. “So, we give you lot twenty million and provide the hardware to kill absolutely anyone that stands in your way. You bring us the head of Descoteaux in return. Sound fair?”
“You can give us all the weapons in the world,” Alex said, his face paler and wetter than before. “It won’t matter once those devil worshipers get us in their sights.”
“Your superstitions have no place in the real world,” Stephan replied, his previous apprehension now dissolved. “No matter how powerful the Hyacinth stock may be, there ain’t no hemomancer alive that can survive a burst of rounds from an AK or a well-placed bullet to the cranium.”
But Alex’s horror only deepened. “No. You do not understand. I’ve heard terrible things. Her family may be hemos. But that woman is not. She is something worse. Something more powerful. If we go, we go to our graves.”
“If you’re too scared,” Sergio said, “then get out of here. We have no room for cowards. And it sounds like this one is eager enough to take your share of the pie.”
Alex looked at the rest of them. His face grew paler and paler until he looked like all his blood had left him. “God have mercy on you all,” he said. With that, he stood and stormed out. He vanished behind the slamming of the door, and then they were three.
Sergio cracked his neck and let out yet another of his ill-contented sighs. “Well then. Anyone else have any misgivings?”
Ethan said nothing. The matriarch of the Hyacinth. Rumors flowed like underground rivers to all ends of the hemomancer world. The Black Viscountess, the head of a bloodline that minced no words in their boasts of devil worship. Nearly all accounts held that the strange forms of hemomancy practiced by the Hyacinth were gifts from Kakrinolas himself; how frightening, then, must the gifts of the self-proclaimed bride of Kakrinolas be. Some rarer accounts held that the woman could kill with a glance, or that she possessed anatomical features that were not altogether human. Whatever the truth was, the legends had made hers a name that inspired awe or terror in every hemo that heard it.
What the hell was he doing? He was an ace, and a powerful hemomancer even ignoring the blessing of his blood type. But even if he were the strongest ace ever to live, he could think of no scenario that left room for his survival. They were only three men. If the numberless guards at Hyacinth Manor did not slaughter them, then the Black Viscountess herself would surely finish the job. And if she did not, and even if their foolhardy mission were to succeed, the best-case scenario involved him becoming a mortal enemy of the Hyacinth—the same Hyacinth that even the Rosarium feared, who had allegedly invented such frightening forms of hemomancy that they had been forbidden.
But Ethan knew he couldn’t refuse. The choice had been made for him when he and Sara moved to Bristol under the Dahlia’s protection. If he accepted the mission, it was nearly certain that he would never return home. But if he did not, it was beyond certain that the Dahlia would sell Sara’s whereabouts to the highest bidder. No matter what it cost him, he wouldn’t let that happen. He had to protect her, even if it meant facing the nightmares of the Hyacinth.
“I just need to know one thing,” Ethan said. “You can guarantee that the danger money will be paid out, even if the mission fails?” The question drew spiteful glances from the two men seated beside him.
Sergio exhaled through his nose, and the sound seemed to go on far too long. “You get paid on completion. The danger money is included.”
Roger laughed into his hand, not bothering to hide the derision in the sound. “Haven’t done this before? Better leave it to the pros, then.”
Ethan ignored him. He kept his gaze level with Sergio’s and tried to project an air of stoic resolve. “If anything happens, then my family will be in danger. I need to guarantee that the money gets to my wife.”
Sergio’s lips thinned. “Look, Lyon. Your track record doesn’t give you much room for bargaining. You’re a damn good hemo, but you’re far from the best killer. You should count your third on completion as a blessing.”
A deep breath in. “Then how about this. Pay me half what I’m owed, success or failure.”
Stephan sighed. “Christ, are you shitting me? Will you get a load of this guy trying to bid us the fuck down? Knock it off before I fill you with all these bullets.”
Sergio, however, considered Ethan carefully. He was staring right into his desperation, ripping it apart and rebuilding it into a more appealing form. “How about this, Lyon. You get a quarter, success or failure.”
Twenty million scrip, cut three ways and then quartered. The offer left him little more than a million and a half. A chill gnawed at his neck, and he felt the blood running from his face. “I can’t do that,” he said. “That’s not enough for…”
“What’s the matter? If you’re not confident that you can perform the task, then perhaps you should run away with your tail between your legs. You get a quarter, live or die. That’s the offer now. Take it or leave it.”
A scalding heat ripped at Ethan’s eyes. He suppressed the blur, lest the rest of the men think him weaker than they already did. Perhaps he was not as good at negotiating as he had believed. For him, the bounty had gone from being more than he could ever want to a mere loosening of the shackles. But Sara’s life was on the line. Even if it was not enough to completely buy her freedom, and even if it would be the fight of his life, he had to try. “Very well,” he said. “I’m in.” Deep down, he knew that he was already dead.
“Excellent.” Sergio’s grin made Ethan feel as worthless as a pile of excrement. “Then pick your weapons. We move out in two hours.”
The room felt somehow colder than it had before. Ethan’s cowardice, however, had stoked the embers of the other men’s resolve. Like children on Christmas, the two leapt from their seats and proceeded excitedly to the crates of weapons. Nothing spurred courage like another’s weakness, Ethan figured, and that was more salt in the wound.
“Don’t worry, Lyon,” Roger said over his shoulder as he pulled an M40 from its crate. “I’ll keep you safe. Just promise not to start calling me Mum.”
It made Ethan’s blood boil to hear a mere boy speak to an ace so; he was half tempted to declare d’sang against the kid for his share of the bounty. He knew he could wipe the floor with someone like him, but that sort of behavior would probably get him kicked off the mission team. With a sigh, he sank further into his seat, paralyzed by shame and financial woes.
The American greedily pulled an AK47 from its box and held it at the ready with a practiced grip. “Black Viscountess, eh?” He pushed a cigarette between his lips and grinned broadly around it. “Let’s see what the ol’ bitch can do.”
A charter flight carried them to Marseille, and after a day of plotting over a map of the compound and intelligence of dubious reliability, they arrived at the staging point in Niolon just as night had begun its descent. The trek to Hyacinth Manor was two kilometers into the mountains from there, which led them to a sprawling hilltop vista overlooking the sea.
There, an opulent three-story chateau gleamed bright in the moonlight. The main building was surrounded by a dozen smaller villas and structures, between which spread resplendent gardens lush with flowers and trees of all species. Its lighted windows peered into the night like burning embers in a long-dead pyre. Cobbled walkways and hedges led the eye to the centerpiece of the compound: a marble statue of a ravishingly beautiful woman adorned in flowing robes who held aloft an ornate imagining of a hyacinth in one hand and a pair of scales in the other.
Ethan could have spent days or longer studying every nuance of architecture, every artisan arrangement of topiary and sculpture, but there was no time to admire the manor. The three of them advanced with silent purpose under the cover of night, first to the outer hedge wall and then to the servants’ quarters behind the main building. Ethan’s gaze darted hither-thither with paranoia, scanning every lit window and night-washed walkway for signs of the guards that had to be crawling the Hyacinth’s jeweled heart. But he saw nothing.
After completing a reconnaissance sweep of the compound, they at last began their approach. They dashed between rare spots of cover, ducked behind hedges and sculpted walls. At each checkpoint, Ethan peered into the seemingly vacant guardhouses for a hint that they’d been spotted. And when they found the way clear, they continued on until the walls of the manor proper loomed above them, and the shadows cast by the full moon blanketed them in forbidding darkness.
Stephan was prepared to break the lock of the back door open, but they instead found it unlocked. That was the first sign that something was amiss, but Ethan did not mention anything about the terror nibbling at his sanity. He was already risking permanent damage to his reputation if word of his failed haggling got out, and that reputation was his only chance of raising enough money to save Sara. Roger and Stephan, however, seemed more distracted by the promise of cold hard scrip to think too long on the door being unlocked, and instead pressed inside. Ethan had no option but to follow.
They found themselves within a dark dining room packed with tables and chairs of mahogany. The only light was a dim orange glow that came from the halls leading from the room, but that light was enough to see the excessive luxury carved into each wall and fixture. Candlesticks of solid gold smoldered in the glow, and fine china dinnerware lay spread upon each of the four tables as though in preparation for a meal that had been forgotten.
“Steady,” Roger commanded in a whisper. He kept his rifle braced against his shoulder. Fear still clearly danced in his mind, despite the image he attempted to project. It made Ethan feel a little better about his own nerves.
“Left,” Stephan said, dipping his head toward the brightest of the doorways.
Roger began to slip forward, each step a silent and measured exertion. Ethan held his breath and followed, ears hyper-tuned to try and detect the sounds of waiting guards or hemomancers skulking in the shadows.
The walls parted and revealed a long hallway. Ethan knew from studying the floor plan that it ran the entire length of the manor. The whole first floor was outlined by four great hallways that provided circulation for the servants and denizens within. The parlor and the library, as well as a pair of suites, were not too far away. But Roger’s eagerness to lead pulled Ethan into mindlessly following as they proceeded in unison down the hall toward the south wing.
Oil lamps punctuated the walls at set intervals. Each was built into its own unique and horrifyingly sculpted grotesque of silver. Hounds, serpents, beasts of Asianic inspiration, something that was at once avian and arachnid. Each doorway leading inward was flanked by duller lamps that gleamed in unsettling colors, in blues and purples and pinks. Ethan wondered what the colors were meant to convey, and what could have been fueling the fires within those glass bulbs.
Paintings watched them from the walls. Portraits, dark and foreboding, depicted heads of the bloodline from ages past. Lords and Ladies, Counts and Countesses. All of them were frightfully similar: eyes as red as blood, skin as pale as snow, hair as black as the gulfs of space. Their features were long and sharp, as though chiseled out of marble.
Their cautious march toward the great spillage of light ahead made one thing stand out among all others to Ethan: the utter lack of life. At first, it was a passing curiosity that they’d been allowed to slip into the mansion without detection. But there was nothing. No servants bustling through the halls, no lookouts, no adherents to the Hyacinth’s devil-worshiping faith.
There was a stillness in the air that demanded explanation. Ethan’s nerves were beginning to fray. Something was very wrong. If the guards of the Hyacinth were nowhere to be found, then what were the odds that their target was even in the building?
As they continued creeping forward down the hall, a chill swept up Ethan’s neck. His mind took to constructing conspiracies. What if Descoteaux wasn’t really the target? What if the Dahlia had decided that they were tired of waiting for payment and had contrived this mission to exterminate him in secret. The mansion, a perfect reconstruction of the Hyacinth’s beating heart, was to be his tomb. No. The Dahlia could have him killed at any moment if they so wished. There would be no need for such an obtuse deception.
Were it not for Ethan’s intense training, he’d have jumped in panic when a chorus of misplayed piano chords cut the air in an abrupt clamor from somewhere deeper in the mansion. A rigidity immediately overtook the three of them. They stopped, weapons dragged toward the source of the sound. It came from the very end of the hallway.
Roger licked his lips. “About time,” he breathed. “Was startin’ to think this place was dead.”
What began as a seemingly random cacophony resolved into ominous diminished chords and a hailstorm of left-handed sixteenth notes that danced hellishly up and down the keys. Ethan’s breath paused. He recognized the song immediately as Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. The pianist must have possessed no small measure of skill to play such a piece. The strains now came clearly from dead ahead, echoing discordantly through the empty corridor. And so the three crawled closer, casting cautious glances behind at regular intervals.
Roger sidled up against the right wall and lifted his rifle. “Ethan, take left. Stephan, cover us.” He looked down the scope, teeth scraping his lower lip in excitement.
“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” the American said, voice thick with contempt, as he readied his AK47.
Ethan crept to the left wall and lifted his own rifle. His eye found the scope, and he squinted ahead through the seemingly endless hallway. His sight was at first obscured by solid violet, but as he adjusted his aim the room gradually revealed itself. It was an extravagant stateroom filled with luxurious furniture. He could make out a velvet couch and several chairs arranged around a long, low table. But the source of the sound eluded him.
“Nothing,” Ethan reported in a whisper that the chords of the song sliced right through.
As if in reply to the command, the pianist broke abruptly from Chopin and, with a chromatic flourish, began hammering into Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz with a vengeance. They resumed the advance, step by step, Ethan and Roger’s intersecting sights scanning for a target. With each step, the angle allowed Ethan slightly more vision of the room. He soon saw carved busts and tapestries along the walls, statues, paintings, more couches and tables and sculptures of glass. Then came a black geometry. A piano. And then, at last—
His breath caught in his throat. A woman, dressed entirely in black, was sitting on the bench, fingers dexterously constructing the song with a speed and accuracy Ethan could barely believe. Her skin was pale, almost sickly white. Her black hair was prim, folded neatly about an ivory hairpin. There was no doubt about it. It was the very same woman as in that infamous photograph. It was her. Lady Descoteaux of the Hyacinth, the Black Viscountess herself. He immediately halted, terrified that a single further footstep would alert the woman to their presence even with the sound of the devil’s waltz ringing through the manor. “It’s her,” he gasped.
“Descoteaux?” Roger asked. His smile was audible. “Then take the shot.”
Ethan peered down the scope and aligned the crosshairs with the back of the woman’s head. He squinted to discern the marking from her jet-black hair. His nerves were on the verge of collapse. It was only another job, he told himself. A high-paying job, but a job nonetheless. Half his debt would be erased with this bullet, which would put purchasing Sara’s freedom within arm’s reach. He held his breath, daring for a single moment to believe the rumors and legends of the Hyacinth to be mere delusions.
But as he tried to depress the trigger, a wave of pressure distorted his perception. His vision wobbled, bubbling and running like molten taffy. His finger froze against the trigger, defying all attempts to move it. It then snapped back against the joint of its own accord. There came the distinct sensation of solid material pressing and prying at his skin from within. Then came the pain of sharpened blades scraping at his veins and subdermal tissue. He gave a shriek of horror as he realized what was happening. His arm, a slave to the forming hemocrysts, raised itself to one side and let the rifle fall to the floor. The crash of the gun striking the tile was accompanied by matching agonized howls from his comrades. They, too, were in the midst of seizures, weapons held uselessly in rapidly contorting limbs.
Ethan clawed at his arm with the hand he could still control. But the infection was spreading. Pain soon pincushioned his entire body. Concealed spikes invaded his joints and locked his arm in position. He desperately bade his power to permeate the blood and melt it again, but the hemocrysts resisted any and all efforts directed against them. He began to hyperventilate. The world seemed to spin, and the sound of his own heartbeat thundered in his ears.
A slur of French flowed around them.
His gaze shot back toward the stateroom. The woman in black had appeared only two meters away from them. That fact alone was instantly more terrifying than the crystals solidifying in his veins; how could she possibly have traversed the distance to the stateroom before the last notes from the piano had faded from the air? He tried to hold back a desperate and helpless gasp but failed miserably. What resulted was a sound like a fish dying in the baking sun.
“Would my guests prefer I use English?” the woman asked, each word slathered in a thick, uncompromising French accent. “Yes, I think they would.” She strode a few steps closer, her posture dripping with an air of fearless superiority. Her appearance defied all expectations. Though her black gown was antiquated and lavish, and though the legends alluded to a legacy of nearly a hundred years, the woman was young. Her skin was lush and smooth despite its sick pallor, and her eyes glistened with a vitality befitting someone in her twenties. It made her presence all the more chilling and ghoulish.
Roger was the first to draw the Black Viscountess’s attention. A few heeled steps brought her right up to him. Her nostrils flared, and she bared her teeth in a scowl. “Ahh, yes. I’d know this scent anywhere,” she said, her vowels airy and high. “Dahlia. Distant in the blood, I think. But I suspect less distant in the spirit. You are here because somebody with more power or money than you wished it, I should believe. Tell me: who sent you?”
Roger gasped for breath. The skin of his neck bulged horrifically as the hemocrysts in his body grew outward. “I don’t know,” he said, voice choked and strained. “It was only a job. I—”
“Do you believe soft words will buy you mercy?” She gently traced her fingers along Roger’s jawline. “I shall permit you a final chance to indulge my curiosity.”
His eyes went as wide as saucers. “I-it was the Dahlia, they decided you were to be killed because you’ve become an obstacle to them. They offered the job, I took it, that’s all, I swear. It was never personal.”
The woman scowled. “There is nothing less interesting to me than a man whose convictions are for sale.” Her fingertips pressed against one another. She snapped her fingers, and the sound echoed crisply off the walls.
At the sound, Roger’s spine bent backward into an acute angle. Dozens of blood-red spikes exploded from his skin, some growing to more than half a meter in length. The man tried to scream, but the noise, too, seemed to crystallize in his throat. Not even a drop of liquid blood was left to run from the gashes and tears in his flesh. He looked like a crimson sea urchin, limp and half-eaten. In slow motion, Roger keeled over and fell lifelessly to the floor. On impact, the erupted spikes of hemocryst shattered into a million ruby shards.
The shaking in Ethan’s body had grown terminal. All warmth in the world receded beyond the reaches of this devil woman’s aura. How was it even possible to wield such power? Such a feat of hemomancy should have been impossible; even the mightiest aces struggled just to mildly influence the flow of blood in an uninjured opponent’s body. That she could have formed hemocrysts within the three of them instantly and from so great a distance reflected a power that bordered on the archdemonic.
“Now,” the woman sighed as she approached Stephan, “who might you be?” She breathed deeply, and her expression shifted subtly at some unknowable stimulus. “Hmm. This smell is a strange one. An American Azalea, I believe, no? Perhaps you would like to tell me something more interesting than this bastard child of the Dahlia.”
Stephan’s face was as white as hers. His stubble was damp with sweat. “I didn’t want to come,” he spat. “These two here forced me to take part in their scheme. I swear, I’d never—”
“I detest liars.” Again she snapped her fingers, and a forest of hemocrysts burst from the man’s chest. Like Roger, he crumpled and died, his oath of innocence erased by the song of shattering crystal.
Ethan’s heart was beating so hard it could have cracked his ribs to pieces. His lungs were constricted, and his head was swimming. Darkness crept in from the edges of his vision as he watched the woman in the black gown approach. He tried, again and again, to force his muscles to move, but it was hopeless. A statue had a greater chance of coming to life than he had of breaking the hemocryst skeleton holding him in place.
And at last, the Black Viscountess came to him. She leaned in close, nostrils flaring once more. Her aura froze him through to the bone. His arms and legs tingled with frigid needles from the lack of circulation. Doom lorded over him. He knew the moment was coming. The horrible feeling of the hemocrysts constricting his veins would shift, spread like an infection through the rest of his body, and then rip him apart from the inside. His thoughts were infested with regret; would he really die without seeing Sara’s smile one more time?
“You are not like them,” the woman said, her voice gentle and bemused. “Not at all.” She withdrew a step. Her gaze scraped him up and down, as if appraising his age and historical value. “I smell the Dahlia on you, among others,” she said at last. “But not in the spirit.” Her eyes glistened with something unidentifiable. She raised her hand, fingers pressing together. Ethan braced himself for the end.
Her fingers snapped sharply.
The hemocrysts filling Ethan’s veins liquefied at once, releasing the trapped flow. Blood rushed again to his extremities. Relief washed away the icy prickling, but without the bloodcrystal filaments his legs were no longer structurally sound. He toppled forward and struck the ground hard. The world spun. He tried to push himself back up, but his muscles were too weak.
“Stand,” Lady Descoteaux commanded as she strode casually away from him. “I would taste the passion in your spirit.”
The words shook his bones. Panic reignited the furnace in his chest, and he found his feet. The entire world was freezing, the air heavy with a wet, metallic scent. The Black Viscountess stood six meters away from him, her posture narrowed and sharp. Her fingers were clenched in uneven claws, her lips curled in something halfway between smile and apocalypse.
“Come,” Lady Descoteaux said. “Fight me as if your life depends on it.”
An invitation to attack? What was this? What purpose did it serve? He was already dead. He lived only as long as the devil in the black gown wished it. The frightful power she’d shown him was all the proof he needed that accepting the mission was pure folly. She was toying with him and, like a cat with its mouse, she would soon grow bored of him. When that happened, he’d be reduced to splinters of bloodcrystal on the floor, his dreams and hopes dashed to nothing.
But those dreams and hopes weren’t spent yet. Images of Sara flashed through his mind. Her gentle smile, her loving kiss, the softness of her embrace. There was no creature alive more different from Sara than the demon that now stood before him. He would not yield. He came here, into the maw of the Hyacinth’s den, to buy his wife her freedom. If he could kill the Black Viscountess now, he could claim the entirety of her bounty. He had a single chance, and he was going to take it.
Ethan let out a screech as his blood gathered and burst from his wrists. It billowed out in two streaming clouds before reconstituting into discrete coils that slithered through the air toward the woman in black. He willed the torrents to harden, forming two great spikes of hemocryst that plunged through the air like a pair of harpoons.
Descoteaux’s stance shifted subtly as the spears collapsed upon her. Ethan’s hemocrysts shattered into a thousand pieces, and his control over the blood in the air lapsed. He watched helplessly as Descoteaux scattered his attack into the ambient air. “Is that all? I expected more from a man with such a scent.”
He allowed his mind to expand, picking up and gaining control over his shed vitality. But as he did, something disturbed him. When his pulse of influence spread over the Black Viscountess, nothing in her body responded even slightly. How was that possible? For her to have shattered his attack so easily, she must have, by necessity, been an ace. But if that was true, then her blood should have yielded to him. That it didn’t bespoke a sinister secret, a corroborating shred of proof that the tales of the Hyacinth’s forbidden hemomancy were well grounded.
Ethan threw himself forward, swinging his arms about and bidding his blood into crystallizing whips. The attacks clashed with something intangible that exploded from the woman’s bosom and twisted his tendrils until they broke. But Ethan was ready for that. He expelled a great wave of force from his mind, blasting each fragment of hemocryst in the air forward like shrapnel. The wall of blood-buckshot broke against another unseen barrier.
Desperation clenched Ethan’s teeth. He swept his arms again and sent two more bolts of blood streaking toward the woman. They moved with a terrible velocity and crystallized so quickly that a deafening crack split the air right before they reached Descoteaux. The blades stopped mere centimeters from her chest, impeded by a far stronger force than Ethan could have ever mustered.
“Impressive,” she sang. “Few can conjure such powerful attacks of their own blood. But I wonder, then. What should you do were you to be driven onto the defensive by an opponent you knew you had no hope of conquering?”
The question barely had time to sit in the air. She again shattered his hemocrysts into plumes of blood unbound by gravity. A wound drew itself along her porcelain-white wrist, and a ruby blossom unfolded. It took only a fraction of a moment for the blood to form a crystalline blade in her hand. And then she was moving, devilishly fast, nearly immaterial, prancing from side to side and closing in on Ethan.
The panic receded in a single moment of supreme oneness with his fate. He felt the movement of blood in the air and bade it come to him. He shifted to the side and leapt laterally. Hemocrysts and loose droplets alike fell toward him, collapsing into the blade of the Black Viscountess. She appeared as if from a wall of crimson smoke, her strike deflected by a ringing blow from the hail of crystals.
Ethan’s hemocrysts exerted an incredible force that rent the nerves behind his left eye. The impact parried Descoteaux’s attack, opening her core. The roiling liquid blood hanging between them congealed into a fresh blade that he snatched from the air and drove toward her exposed midsection in a single fluid motion—
Only to find that she had receded half the hall away when the attack should have pierced her.
“Magnificent,” she boomed. “This is not a man whose convictions are bought and sold for scrip!” She swept her arm, and from thin air there appeared two whirling scythes of blood.
The spinning blades dove toward him, but his own blood reacted in the blink of an eye, again lancing through the air and clashing with the woman’s weapons. Hemocryst ground against hemocryst. It took the entirety of his willpower to keep his own blades from cracking under the assault.
“Fantastic!” Lady Descoteaux shouted. “Truly, this is the passion of a man in the teeth of his last! Your heart beats with something living!”
Just as abruptly as they appeared, the whirling blades vanished into nothing. Ethan’s own hemocrysts shifted and ruptured against one another. He swirled the unleashed blood into a coil around him, prepared for the woman’s next attack.
But to his surprise, none came. Instead, she turned around and began walking casually back into the stateroom. She clapped her hands once and hollered something in French. Like a horde of ghosts summoned by a medium, three servants appeared from another hallway, relaxed and attentive. She exchanged a few words with them and then looked back to Ethan. “Come,” she said. “I would speak with you.” She then turned and resumed her stroll toward the pair of couches nearest the center of the room.
For a moment, Ethan stood there utterly perplexed, his stream of blood still spiraling around him. Was this some kind of trick? Was she baiting him to let his guard down? She seemed to have let her own lapse. This was his chance. One final attack, aimed right at the base of her skull, would buy Sara’s future. Right before he could commit his blood to the strike, however, a pang of apprehension talked him down from it. He knew full well that the Viscountess would never allow the attack to land. It would only seal his doom faster and more horrifically.
So, then, what was he to do? He could use this moment to run screaming from the manor. He could tell of the slaughter within and live to take another job, assuming the Dahlia allowed him the opportunity. But he knew, too, that he would never escape alive.
“Please,” the woman said from where she sat upon the couch, “come and sit. There is nothing for you to fear.”
Nothing to fear. Psychological defeat grinning malefically from every wall, Ethan beckoned the cyclone of blood back into his wrecked wrists and sealed the wounds with a layer of mental bandaging. With no other recourse, he followed her beckoning and approached.
As he neared, Lady Descoteaux pronounced a fluent barrage of guttural consonants and ethereal vowels at a pair of the servants. Ethan’s French was long past its expiry date, but he thought he made out the words take them. His clumsy translation was verified when the servants swooped over to the corpses in the hall behind him and began dragging them away—to where he dared not imagine. To the third servant, she pronounced something that sounded suspiciously like wine, and he fled the word with a remarkable haste.
Each step Ethan took only amplified the dread. The will to survive that had stirred the embers of his resolve was cooling, freezing. The perfumed air and distant tones of conversation—where had they been when the three of them had entered the manor?
At the woman’s gesture, Ethan lowered himself to sit on the couch opposite her. The velvet tried to swallow him into its luxurious surface. She then clapped her hands adoringly. “There. That is better, no? Now, I do hope you can appreciate Bordeaux Blanc.”
As if on cue, the servant returned, an unopened bottle of wine in his hands. With a few words of pomp and ceremony, he placed two crystal-clear wine glasses on the table, uncorked the bottle, and filled the glasses halfway each with a nearly colorless fluid.
“You must forgive me,” she said. “It is nothing too fancy, I am afraid.” When the servant had finished, she gracefully lifted her glass and offered it in toast. “Cheers.”
Baffled, Ethan could only stare at her. A minute ago, the woman had been at his throat with blood magic that exceeded even the savant aces of the Rosarium’s reach. And now she was toasting? Though certain he had fallen under some kind of mesmerism, Ethan forced his hand to move. Keeping the woman waiting would be rude, and even if he was hallucinating it seemed unwise to show such a woman ill manners.
He lifted his own glass. “Cheers,” he said meekly.
They both sipped of the wine. Ethan allowed only a small portion of the drink to enter his mouth. His entire sensory existence was filled by a dry, fruitily aromatic flavor that was chased by the characteristic taste of white wine’s lingering alcoholic vapors. The taste dispelled any notion that this was some kind of illusion. He swallowed, not at all disliking this Bordeaux Blanc thing, but immediately set the glass down upon the table. He was still on guard, and wouldn’t drop it over a show of hospitality so cheaply bought as a bottle of wine.
“Now,” Lady Descoteaux said, “I would know more about you.”
The request stunned Ethan. “What?”
“I would know more about you,” she said again. “Who you are, from where you come, what it is that brought you here.”
“I… My name is Ethan Lyon.”
Descoteaux hummed. “Lyon. I know no hemos by such a name. Not any longer. From what bloodline do you hail?”
“A distant branch of the Thistle.” Even discovering that much had been difficult.
“The Thistle?” She clucked to herself. “How interesting. It is rare for the Thistle to produce offspring with all three elements.”
The word was unfamiliar in this context. “Elements?”
“In your blood. I believe in English you would say that you are an ace, no?”
“Oh.” The translation made sense. “I was not aware that we were so uncommon.”
“The stock of the Thistle is weakest among the twelve bloodlines, I think. Why, I do not know. Perhaps you should count your blessings that you are, as you say, so distant to their line.” She sipped her wine slowly, studying Ethan over the rim of her glass. When she’d swallowed, she swept her arm in invitation. “Go on! Drink! You have earned it.”
He eyed his glass but made no move to drink any more.
The woman breathed something akin to a gasp. “Do not tell me you do not trust me! I could have killed you at any moment I pleased, but still you breathe. Poisoning you would be largely pointless, no?”
“No. It is not that.” It was only a half lie. There had to be unspeakable things the Hyacinth could do to someone by forcing them to imbibe, things far worse than murder. The threat posed by this sudden show of hospitality was more subtle, not so easily deciphered.
“Do you know why you are still alive, Ethan?”
The question startled him. He wouldn’t have expected her to ask so bluntly. “No.” His heart was beating rapidly, and he knew that she could feel it.
“It is because you are different than those two who came with you here.”
“I know the smell of their kind well. The Dahlia always owns such men, for that is all they can buy. They are men driven by one thing and one thing alone: greed. Avarice. They are men who know only the love of money, believing it will help them buy…what, precisely? Status? Power? Time? Such things are fleeting. Yet their precious scrip is to them a god, and in chasing that god they will do things blindly, unthinking, like a dog performing some trick just to eat out of another’s palm. Such men do not interest me. Were I to throw a brick of their priceless scrip between them, they’d have turned on each other just as fast as they took up their guns against me.
“But you are different. I could taste it from the first, and you showed it to me again when you wielded such immaculate hemomantic prowess. Yes, your heart beats with something rare among those who serve the Dahlia. There is a passion there, a fire that burns bright and hot. Those who take up arms against the Hyacinth must have either avarice or conviction in spades, and I can tell at once that you are of the latter. And I wish to know what this passion of yours is, the cause of this inferno in your heart. Tell me: why did you come to kill me?”
His lips moved of their own accord. “I needed the money. I owe the Dahlia a lot.” Admitting even a phantom of loyalty to the woman’s reviled Dahlia was a death sentence, he knew, but lying surely incurred a more horrific death if the fate of the American was any indication. “And taking this job was the only way I could get enough before they…”
Without even a shadow of malice, the woman eyed him expectantly. “Yes? Before they?”
Peter Atkinson’s horrific smile flashed before Ethan’s eyes. The mockery dripped down the man’s face when Ethan forked over his last meager payment of Dahlia scrip and British pounds. The memory snatched the hope from his chest as heartlessly as Peter had snatched the money from his hand. “I… My wife is a nought.”
Lady Descoteaux’s eyebrows arched toward the vaulted ceiling. “Which is to say, blessed of none of the three elements in the blood?”
He nodded slowly. “I went to the Dahlia for help. They arranged for her to vanish, but they wanted more than I could pay. I gave them everything I had. But it wasn’t enough. So the rest became debt after our disappearance. And… I’m running out of time. If I don’t pay them the next installment soon, they said they’d sell the truth to the highest bidder. And you know what that means.” The only uncertainty about such an outcome was whether it would be the Rosarium or the Orchid Veil that killed her.
“And so to protect your beloved, you agreed to go to war with the Hyacinth? With a bloodline swarming with tales older than the sands? Even knowing what could happen to you? Even knowing the powerful enemies you stood to make were you to succeed?”
He saw a flash of hemocrysts exploding from the other soldiers’ chests like the fractals of a snowflake. “If I… I don’t care what happens to me. But I refuse to let her die without doing anything.”
Her lips twitched, and a satisfied smirk appeared. “So, it is not greed but love which drew you into the grip of the Dahlia vipers, which bids you strike at the heart of the Hyacinth. That, my dear Ethan, makes you a very interesting man. Will you indulge me another question?”
He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t very well refuse, and so he surrendered a nod.
“What do you fear above all else?” she breathed, her words skittering up his spine like a horde of spiders.
The answer was clear: harm coming to Sara. That was what he had toiled to forestall, what kept him awake until the witching hour with visions and nightmares of the unthinkable. The shadows themselves concealed assailants from the Dahlia, ready to extract what they were owed without regard for honor or humanity. But if he spoke as much aloud, what would befall her? What would the Black Viscountess do with such knowledge? Instead, he let his mind follow a different, tangential thread back to its source. Lips quivering, he spoke a truth so unacknowledged that he at first thought it to be a rank lie. “The Dahlia,” he said.
“Is that so?”
Ethan couldn’t speak. His thoughts had been ensnared by the sinister visage of Peter Atkinson. No, it was no lie. It was the Dahlia who held his wife’s life in their greedy claws. Were it not for their ever-escalating demands for payment, Ethan would have nothing to fear from the likes of the Orchid Veil and the Rosarium. The Dahlia was the catalyst for the threat those two giants posed.
“You have killed many people for them, no?”
The question drilled right into his heart. “Yes.”
“How much more do you owe them?”
“Three million scrip.”
She cringed a little. “I do not understand scrip. What is that in francs?”
He tried to calculate it in his head. One scrip was just over half a pound, last he had to buy it. The exchange rate of pounds to francs was unstable as of late, but it was hovering around one to eight, or so he thought. He let out a blustery sigh and shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps twelve million?”
“I see.” Apparent remorse weighed her cheeks and eyelids. “That is no small sum. I shudder to imagine what they demanded you to pay for the privilege of a peaceful life. You must despise them.”
“Of course I fucking do!” he snapped. The mere thought of the loan sharks and money changers of the Dahlia made his blood steam and froth. They were predators that could not be sated even after extracting every drop of material wealth from their victims.
“What would you say if I were to offer you the money you need?”
Ethan’s chest thudded. “What?”
“Small sum or not, a man such as you should not be fettered by the likes of them. Your story has moved my heart, Sir Ethan Lyon of the Thistle. I will give you the cash you require. Twelve million francs. A pittance to buy a man like you your deepest desire.” She clapped her hands and spat something that sounded linguistically inviable at the servant by the door, who vanished in a flash.
“Why? Why would you do that?”
She shrugged a little, as though his confusion was itself a baffling reaction. “You require cash. I have it. I should hate to hear that the Dahlia were unsatisfied by the promptness of your payment and did something…dare I say Dahlia-esque to your beloved.”
Ethan’s growing suspicion ignited. “You expect me to believe that you’re doing this out of the kindness of your heart?” he demanded. “After you killed two men like they were nothing? Like I’d believe that! What’s in this for you?”
“Nothing at all. This is a gift.”
“No,” he said, despair replacing suspicion as the dominant specter over his soul. “I don’t think even that will be enough. I’m afraid they’ll never be satisfied. They’ll find ways to chain me to more debt. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve broken their oath.” He realized at once how his words must have sounded. “I do not mean to sound ungrateful. Nor do I wish to request more cash than that. But things are…more complicated. They very well might believe that I killed those men myself. And then I…”
She sent a rueful glance toward the hallway before returning it to him. “I understand. Then perhaps I can offer an alternative.” Ethan found his gaze held fast by hers. Her blood-red irises glistened, her pupils inviting him to relinquish his reservations and trust her kindness. “Serve me,” she said.
Demons danced in his peripheral vision, and serpents slithered underfoot. “What?”
“Such men as those who accompanied you are all the same. A man without true conviction is a waste. But show me a man who is scared, alone. Show me a man who will sell himself not out of greed but out of desperation. Show me a man who sets out on a mission, which he knows to be suicide, for something—anything—that is more material than money. More pure than the pursuit of power. Now that is the type of man I desire. A man worthy of more than he has been given. A man who, given the right environment, can thrive, can surpass and exceed the limits invented by ignorant minds. And should such a man desire,” she said, her tone falling into a comforting tenor, “the Hyacinth would welcome him with open arms.”
The Hyacinth. Demoniac worshipers of the devil that legends said begot the twelve bloodlines. Those rumored to still practice blood-drinking and other blasphemous arts condemned even by the Rosarium. How could he even entertain such an idea? Quite easily, he was terrified to realize. He had witnessed the woman’s power firsthand. She had frozen their blood instantly at thirty meters—an impossible feat at an impossible distance. But even so, accepting such an insane invitation would mean surrendering all that remained of his humanity. He licked his lips, the nervous tremors returning with a vengeance. “But… I… The Dahlia will—”
“The Dahlia will not bother you, nor will they harm your beloved.” Her expression went rigid as stone, framing a dark glower. “That I can promise you. I shall see to it that they would not dare to speak her name aloud, not even in hushed whispers hidden by stacks of their precious scrip.”
The confidence ringing through her voice quieted the quaking in his shoulders and arms. He forced himself to breathe. “You can do that?”
“Surely you do not believe I have become so reviled by the tsars of the Dahlia for want of influence. There is a reason they fear me so. And they will fear you as well, should you wish it.”
There was a clear reason in her words. Beneath the wing of one wielding such singular and frightful power as the Black Viscountess, Sara would have nothing to fear, even if the Orchid Veil and the Rosarium came looking for her. It was wrong to trust such a woman; but was it foolish? The devil in her eyes and the corpses in her halls cast doubt over every floral word. But Ethan believed her. If she sought only able hands and sturdy shoulders, she’d have had the three of them bound to blood-signed contracts with only mercy for wages.
But the voice of his humanity was quick to condemn him. That he should even consider becoming an ally of the Hyacinth and their cult to Kakrinolas spoke of his desperation. His stomach curdled, the air once more poisoned by the hanging scent of blood. Demoniacs, devil worshipers, blood drinkers, murderers. He wasn’t like them. He may have been a hemomancer, but all he’d ever wanted was to live a life removed from the fires of conflict. “No,” he breathed, panic returning to his exhausted and encumbered heart. “This is mad.”
He rose quickly to his feet and started toward the hall leading back the way they’d come—back to the dining room, back to the chateau grounds, back to the hills of Niolon and to the relative safety of the full moon’s light.
“I am saddened by your answer,” Descoteaux said from where she sat. “I wish you the best.”
A furious haste fueled his retreat. But a few moments later, when his footsteps reached the very threshold of the stateroom, he stopped. He needed to leave, to put as much distance as possible between himself and the woman in black. But he couldn’t. His mind was paralyzed, torn between two equally horrific truths.
Behind him, Lady Descoteaux just sat upon her velvet couch. He could barely make out the sound of her wine glass clinking back upon the table. “Is there something the matter?” she asked.
Ethan was quiet for an agonizing moment. “You’re really going to let me go?” he finally asked.
“If that is your desire.”
He stood, thinking, trying to balance the scales in his mind. He knew that if he allowed reason to carry him another step down the hall he would never get another chance.
“Why do you hesitate?” She rose effortlessly to her feet. “You are free to go. Nobody shall stop you on your way out.”
Ethan rounded on her, washed her from head to foot with a probing glare. “This is a trick. You’re trying to manipulate me.”
The woman’s cheeks sagged in earnest disappointment as she slowly approached him. “No, Ethan. It is you who are manipulating. You are wishing for me to threaten you, to say that you are a prisoner here, that you will serve whether you want to or not. Because you want me to take the choice out of your hands. But I will not do that to you. And I shall not lie to you either. Ours is a dark path. And you must decide for yourself if you would walk it. Some say that to join hands with me is to make a deal with the devil himself. You will see horrors far greater than what you witnessed this night. If it is necessary, you will bleed for me, kill for me. But we shall pay you very well, not in the shit money of the Dahlia, but in what truly matters to you. Your passion shall become all of ours, and ours yours.”
What sounded at first to be unbridled madness began to ring true. It resonated in the core of his spirit. His heart began to pound not with fear, but with something he had never thought he would feel again. “I understand.” He gasped for breath. The air no longer tasted like blood. It was clean, perfumed by lavender.
His thoughts now orbited an inescapable conclusion. He knew it was wrong. He knew it made him a traitor to his own kind and to humanity. A monster. But for Sara, he knew he would pay any price, become whatever monster was necessary. And though the Black Viscountess may have been a devil, that made her no less trustworthy than the Dahlia snakes whose ransom he may never be able to pay. “You can truly protect her?” he asked, steeling himself for his damnation. “Promise me. Promise me only that, and I will serve you to my dying breath.”
She raised one hand, manicured nails curled daintily over her palm. “On the honor of the Hyacinth bloodline, I swear to you that no harm shall come to your beloved.”
The desperate hope welling in his heart bloomed brighter and hotter. His legs weakened, and he did not fight gravity’s lure. He sank to his knees and fell into a deep bow before the Black Viscountess. “Then I swear to serve you,” he said. “Until death, I shall be yours.”
As the words left his mouth, he felt a great weight evaporate from him. Tears swam in his eyes. For a shining moment, his entire being was one with the hope and the promise. He hadn’t felt anything like it in years.
“A sacred covenant you have sworn,” Lady Descoteaux said. Her fingers brushed his shoulder. “Now quit this formality. Rise. There is wine to finish, and preparations to be made.”
Want more? The story of the hemomancers continues in All Bleeds Through: Ten Stories of Hemomancy and the World it Shaped!