Excerpt for The Heartless (The Sublime Electricity Book #2) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






The Heartless



a novel

by Pavel Kornev







The Sublime Electricity

Book #2







Magic Dome Books





The Heartless

(The Sublime Electricity Book #2)

Copyright © Pavel Kornev 2017

Cover Art © Vladimir Manyukhin 2017

Translator © Andrew Schmitt 2017

Published by Magic Dome Books, 2017

All Rights Reserved

ISBN:9788088295556



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Table of Contents:


Part One. Moor

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8


Part Two. Lazarus

1

2

3

4

5


Part Three. Demon

1

2

3

4

5


Part Four. Heart

1

2

3














ONCE, THIS WORLD was dominated by the fallen. But humanity cast off their tyrannical rule and created a mighty Empire with colonies spread out across the globe. The power of the metropolis is stronger than ever before, but its past is dark and its future cloudy. Old secrets are capable of destroying in one moment that which took years to create. After all, nothing can save humanity from treason, not armadas of battleships nor bomb-laden dirigibles.

The key to one such secret, by happenstance and inheritance, has fallen into the hands of Leopold Orso, a former police investigator who now works as a private detective. His illustrious talent allows him to bring other people's fears to life. Unfortunately, though, it cannot help him extricate himself from the web of another's scheming. Defeat threatens to result in imminent death. Victory beckons with the ghost of a chance to escape with his life. His soul is plagued by painstakingly forgotten memories. And to think all Leopold ever wanted was to come into an inheritance that was his by birthright.











"NERVES, NERVES, MY HEART IS STITCHED OF THEE!"


From the song “Heart” by Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band)









Part One. Moor


Tempered Steel and Gelled Kerosene




1



NIGHT. DARKNESS. Speed.

Peril.

The engine blared out a heartrending bellow. The armored car was racing down a rain-slicked country road, every minute and even second threatening to fly off the shoulder and get stuck in the mud or, even worse, slam into a tree or flip over. Time and again, the tires bounced up on a bump, then plunked down into a pothole. The steering wheel was banging up and down, trying to break free of my hands. I had to grasp it with all my might or I risked losing control.

My first misstep would almost certainly be my last.

Speed. Peril.

My legs had long gone numb. My back was shooting with unbearable pain, and my eyes were constantly tearing up. But I was glad to be rushing off to my uncle’s estate in the middle of the night, relieved to be done with the formalities in the Chinese Quarter so quickly. Ramon Miro, on the other hand, had been complaining about our trip from the very beginning.

His normally red-tinged face was now nearer the color of cream. The former constable was splayed out like a starfish, afraid to fly out of his big seat on our next little jump, and clearly struggling against a bodily urge to vomit. He strongly doubted the possibility that the unknown strangler would be in front of us, and told me as much without end until he was finally overcome by nausea.

"Stop and clean the headlights!" He demanded.

"I can see the road just fine!" I retorted, not wanting to lose time.

"It's make or break time!" I repeated to myself mentally. Another of my grandfather's sayings. "It's make or break time, no looking back now!"

We had to make it. Make it or die trying!

Fortunately, now that we were outside city limits, the rain had become less intense. The country road mostly ran through fields, making detours around the little forest glades. All that was left for me was to look out for potholes and keep the pedal pressed to the floor, pushing the engine for all its horsepower.

It was crackling madly, just gulping down the trotyl granules. The unsecured cargo in the back was rattling loudly, as well. I couldn't even hear my own thoughts, but I did make out a question from Ramon.

"No!" I screamed back, not looking away from the road for even one moment. "I have no idea who strangled the Judean!"

But it definitely was no human. The hands of mere mortals could not cause frostbite, nor leave ice burn on the skin. Aaron Malk had been killed either by infernal beasts or an illustrious gentleman. It was probably one of the bank robbers who tried to work me over.

Who precisely was not important. What was important was beating him to my uncle’s estate.

The killer now knew for certain where to find the lightning-rune aluminum box and, if we didn’t get there first, Count Kósice would be parting not only with it, but with his very life. The last part, to be perfectly honest, wouldn’t have especially bothered me. The problem was that, if it came to that, the chance of us meeting the same fate surpassed all rational bounds.

If the illustrious gentlemen got their hands on the aluminum box, the malefics would come after me. Failing that, I'd have to keep running from the mysterious bank robbers. But if I had the box, I could take control of the game; my only real chance of overcoming my opponents was to make some more progress in the investigation.

Just then, a front wheel plunked down into a pothole. The self-propelled carriage lifted off the ground, then slid into the mud; at the very last moment, I regained control and straightened out the armored vehicle just before it drove off the shoulder. We came very close to turning over in a ditch.

Ramon made a convulsive gulp and moaned out:

"I hate you, Leo!"

I just snorted:

"Think about the three thousand..."

"I've earned it already!" My hulking partner cried out immediately in reply. "My job is done! But now, you've dragged me along on this long-shot adventure!"

"The hunt for the werewolf you also thought a long-shot adventure, right?" I replied, easily finding an answer.

But Ramon Miro wasn't quite as verbally adept. He stuck his finger into the loose seam of his blood-soaked cloak and asked in an accusatory tone:

"Do you think this is normal?"

I had nothing to parry his indisputable conclusion with, so I didn't even try.

"We need to figure out why all this started! If we find out what's riding on this horse, we'll be showered in gold!"

And again, Ramon was ruthlessly precise in his wording.

"That's you!" he declared. "Not me! You'll be showered in gold, not me."

"Don't worry. I won't leave you out in the cold," I promised him, noting a few flames flickering to my right and warning him: "We're past the station. We'll be there soon."

Ramon went silent.

Having thrown all the dogs and people nearby into a panic with its loud chattering, the armored car dashed between tenant’s farms, drove around an oak glade and finally rolled right up to the manor.

"We're almost there," I warned my friend. "Get ready."

"Turn off the headlights," Ramon advised.

"There's no use," I refused, not even so much because I was worried I would fly off the road, as much as because of the engine's clapping. Only a deaf person wouldn't have heard that.

Or a dead one.

That was the very thought flickering through my head as the armored car came to a stop before the closed gates of my uncle's manor. In the guard-post window, there was a dim light flickering, but the late old man didn't think to glance outside and ask why the police were visiting at such an unearthly hour.

Something wasn't right.

"Something isn't right," I said to Ramon.

But before my warning, he was already hidden behind the smoke-shrouded hood of the armored car, pressing the stock of his Winchester to his shoulder.

"What am I even doing here?" he moaned.

"You're covering me!" I reminded him, and got out of the vehicle. "Don't yawn!" I warned my friend, running around the self-propelled carriage, throwing open the back door, and tossing my cane in. In its place, I pulled out a semi-automatic carbine and a few cartridge pouches full of loaded clips.

"The glasses won't affect your vision?" Ramon then asked.

I lifted the smoky eyepieces and snorted:

"What do you think is better?"

My partner's reddish face lit up in the darkness with the luster of my shining eyes. He admitted:

"On. Put them back on."

I lowered my glasses back onto my nose and carefully walked up to the gate. Then, my rifle propped on a crossbeam, I commanded Ramon:

"Come on!"

My hulking partner jumped over the fence in a flash, undid the latch and opened the path onto my uncle's property.

"The guard-box!" he whispered, warning me.

"You first!" I sighed out just as quietly in response.

I didn't want to loudly announce my presence, regardless of the warning shot I risked from a manor guard.

Covering one another, we walked up to the cracked-open door. There, Ramon peeked inside and immediately recoiled.

"Dead," he said, adding: "Broken neck."

"Curses!" I swore, hesitating for a moment, then ordering: "Wait!" and hurried to the armored car.

I removed the steering wheel and threw it in the rear, then climbed in after it. I felt around for the box of grenades I had strapped down under the seat, took out two and twisted in the fuses. Then, I hung a massive padlock on the tailboard and returned to my partner, now much calmer and more put together, my knees not shaking in the slightest.

"We should call for backup!" whispered Ramon, greeting me angrily, having completely forgotten his recent dismissal.

I didn't stick my finger in the wound, though, just shook my head:

"I think we're too late."

"Where did you get that idea?" asked my hulking partner, growing surprised.

"The dirigible is gone," I told him, pointing to a lonely signal light on the docking tower.

The airship’s signal lights were nowhere to be seen, along with the white oval of its balloon.

"The murderer might have flown away on the dirigible," Ramon posited.

"All the more reason not to worry," I snorted and started off to my family mansion.

My hulking partner came behind me, but quickly stopped and declared:

"Either the Count or the killer flew away. There's no reason for us to go in!"

"Come off it!" I exclaimed, trying to bring my partner to reason. "We have to figure out what exactly happened here!"

"Why the devil do we have to do that?"

"In order to have an elementary understanding of who we're searching for! And also, if the Count flew away on the dirigible, the strangler must be somewhere nearby. What if we can get him talking?"

"No," Ramon cut me off. "That's a bad idea."

I looked at the silhouette of the mansion. There wasn't a single light on. Next to it, there was a stable and an overgrown garden that could have hidden a whole company of soldiers. I mentally agreed with my friend.

It really was a bad idea. Bad and very dangerous.

But I said otherwise out loud.

"Either we go together," I shrugged my shoulders hopelessly, "or you wait for me in the car. But know that, if I don't come back, the Judeans won't pay you a centime for the werebeast. Think about that!"

"Curses!" Ramon swore, wiping his sweaty face and nervously glancing at the darkened mansion. "Aw hell!" he relented. "Let's go!"

With a quiet chuckle, I went first down the path, stopping when I reached the fork toward the stable, but didn't turn down it, not wanting to waste time. The mansion was luring me in.

Luring? I caught myself on that thought and even slowed my pace.

My excitement faded as if I had crossed over some invisible boundary. The world once again acquired dimension. The silhouettes of the buildings and the trees of the garden no longer seemed like carved plywood theater props strewn carelessly about the lawn. The understanding rolled over me that this was all happening in the here and now.

My fear returned.

I froze in place, listening to the silence of the night. Without the sound of our boots splashing in the puddles, the silence would have been grave-like. The only other noise was the horn of a steam train somewhere very far in the distance. But it felt like it was coming from another world; all the armored trains of the Empire taken together wouldn't have been able to help us now.

"Leo!" Ramon whispered quietly. "What's going on?"

I shrugged my shoulders to settle my imagination's unwelcome playfulness, and walked on. My family manor grew up out of the darkness like a black titan. Soon we were able to see the door. It was thrown wide open.

"I'll be damned if that isn't an invitation!" Ramon sighed. "'Will you walk into my parlor?' said the spider to the fly!"

My laconic, hulking partner's strained nerves had loosened his tongue, and I found it necessary to reassure him, so I handed him one of my grenades.

"Take this."

"You just can't wait to blow this whole place up, can you?" Ramon joked, looking around apprehensively. "Maybe we should just burn the house down now and not waste time."

"Excellent idea!" I grumbled, slowly and carefully stepping up onto the veranda. "Cover me!" my friend called out, first to cross the threshold.

We stood in the entryway, looking around in the darkness, then I flipped the light switch on the wall, but the electric bulb on the ceiling didn't turn on.

I hung my carbine on my shoulder, took my Roth-Steyr from its holster and requested:

"Torch!"

Ramon handed me his pocket torch; its bright beam swept through the entryway and immediately picked out the body of my uncle's butler from the darkness. Also, someone's legs were sticking out into the hallway in a pair of badly abused ankle-boots.

After stepping over the night guard's body, we walked into the guest room. There on the sofa was lying the parlor maid with her head thrown back. The color of her bloodless face was now no different from that of her white apron.

"Damn it!" Ramon Miro sighed.

"Quiet!" I hissed at him, listening to the silence.

On the other side of the wall, there was a cricket chirping quietly, but that was all. I couldn't hear anything else.

"Follow me!" I commanded and started walking up to the second floor.

The bright beam of the torch danced and jumped from side to side, easily illuminating the dark corners. At the same time, I couldn't leave the thought that someone's cold eyes were watching us from the darkness.

Wishful thinking? Who the devil could say...?

We walked right past the second floor.

"First, let's check the Count's office," I decided, walking further up the stairs.

To my great surprise, I lost all desire to continue pursuing the unknown strangler; I was filled with the urge to turn around and run away without a second thought. And I don't even know what exactly stopped me from taking that shameful step, the left-over passion still raging in my blood or the fear of looking foolish.

I suspect it was more the second.

We walked up to the third floor. I walked into the hall and froze like a dead person when the I saw the flickering of a kerosene lamp in the flung-wide doors.

And a shadow! The shadow on the floor in front of the door was throbbing slightly, either crawling away in one direction or slinking away in the other. There was someone in the office.

The torch now off, I stuck it in my pocket and pressed my pointer finger to my lips. Ramon nodded, letting me know he'd seen the shadow, and was gathering strength for the fight.

I held onto my Roth-Steyr with both hands and walked forward. Walking soundlessly on the carpets leading down the hall, I stole up to the door and took a bounding leap into the office. Once there, I immediately stepped aside, making way for my partner.

I didn't shoot; I didn’t see any person. There was just paper strewn about, and filing-cabinet drawers snarling up at me from the floor.

But I made a mistake! Initially, my gaze just slid right over a figure sitting at the desk, as if it was just another shadow. The flame of the kerosene lamp was quivering behind the immobile man, turning him into a black silhouette like one of the slippery fish swimming thoughtlessly in the aquarium at the far wall.

I could only make out a cloak and a hat with a wide flat brim; nothing else.

Shadows, what a damned nuisance!

I drew my pistol, putting the stranger in the crosshairs, but before I managed – or got up the resolve – to pull down on the trigger, there came an unpleasant whistling half-whisper, just as ghostly as the shadows:

"It's no use!" The sentence echoed in my temples with a vile sting. I froze indecisively with my pistol raised. Ramon, though, didn't hesitate. His Winchester burst forth with a deafening thunder. Its dual spark tore the shadows filling the office to shreds, but the malefic wasn't moved in the slightest.

He made a theatrical pause, then looked at the bullet in his hand and said carelessly:

"You’re just wasting perfectly good cartridges."

Angry at the setback, Ramon clanked down the lever of his Winchester, throwing the spent casing onto the floor. But I stopped him, repeating the strangler's words:

"It's no use!"

The mysterious figure set the bullet down on the edge of the writing desk. Not only was it covered in frost, it was also deformed; the stranger's bony fingers had crumpled the aluminum jacket.

"Good decision," the malefic laughed. Then, with a magician's gesture, he pulled a box made of light-gray metal from thin air. I saw the lid. It was engraved with a jagged lightning rune. "I suppose this will be of interest to you, illustrious Mr. Orso?"

"Perhaps," I answered cautiously, guessing how to act.

Move from a position of power or show him how reasonable I could be? Attack first, or try to come to an agreement?

The bullet he crushed in his fingers made the first option seem futile; the ruthlessness displayed by the strangler had taken away all hope for the second.

So, what to do?

Ramon started walking in one direction away from the door. I went the other. The kerosene lamp was now not at the strangler's back but, even so, the dense shadows under his hat formed an impenetrable veil, hiding his face better than any mask.

"Guess where the Count is," the malefic commanded me calmly; he was stubbornly ignoring Ramon, instead turning to face me.

I made sure the desk was between us, and demonstratively holstered my gun.

"Even if the Count is in hell, I won't be too broken up," I answered, not especially bending the truth.

"Perhaps he is in hell," the strangler chuckled. "Would you like to take a look?" he asked, extending the box. He immediately pulled his hand back, though, as if teasing.

"Take a look?" I asked in incomprehension. Licking my lips, I asked: "Under what conditions?" I asked and immediately realized I'd just made an unforgivable mistake. Perhaps even a fatal one.

The strangler's relaxed demeanor was immediately replaced with predatory interest.

"You don't know what's inside, do you?" he asked, even taking a step forward. The flame of the kerosene lamp before his face forced him to stand up straight and move back, though.

For the first time, his whistling half-whisper did not cause a biting echo in my head, so I was able to formulate my answer more carefully in opposition to my previous, rushed bluntness.

"Do you?" I asked, watching a fiery moth wriggling on the window. "Do you know?"

"That doesn't matter," the malefic answered, and the shadows around him started moving like a constrictor wrapped around a circus performer.

One of the ghostly tethers slid up to Ramon and twisted around his ankles; my hulking partner froze half-step, and the barrel of his Winchester, originally pointed at the strangler, suddenly shook and began to turn in my direction.

With a fated sigh, I removed my dark glasses, but the glow of my eyes didn't throw the malefic off in the slightest. He just laughed:

"And just what do you think you're going to do, illustrious one? Scare me to death?"

"Take you with me to hell," I answered, and threw the lamp on the floor in a careless motion.

The glass immediately shattered. Kerosene poured out all over the office and caught fire. The flames reached the curtains almost instantly, flying up to the ceiling. The haphazardly strewn papers, turned over drawers and furniture then also caught in their turn.

Ramon threw his Winchester away and tore off his flame-ensconced cloak. He ran into a chair and started rolling on the floor looking like a human torch. The fire cut me off from the entrance door and chased me into the corner. But the strangler didn't lose his presence of mind. Or was it that he lost his mind in fear? In any case, he dashed toward the exit right through the fiery room.

I glanced at my timepiece, waiting for the right moment, but Ramon extended his hand to me and, begging, rasped out:

"Come on, Leo!"

Having decided not to test my partner's patience, I took the carbine off my shoulder and struck the aquarium wall with its buttstock. The water that poured out onto the floor instantly put out the puddle of burning kerosene and an impenetrable blackness took over the office again.

"Fires of hell!" Ramon whispered through his parched lips, peeling himself from the wall. "That hurt like hell!"

"Silence!" I hissed at him, walking over to the door and looking into the hallway, but the strangler's trail had already gone cold. I tried to listen for him, but the dense silence just rang in my ears.

Ramon stood next to me and whispered out barely audibly:

"Did he get away?"

"He got away," I confirmed just as quietly.

My hulking partner wiped off his perspiring brow and fell back into the armchair, sapped. He'd been struck by just a little echo of another's horror, but even still looked like one of the fish from the now empty aquarium.

"Will he be back?" Ramon asked when I turned on my electric torch and started studying the chaos I'd caused in the office.

"No," I stated confidently in reply. "But if he does come back, he'll see a burning house."

"How'd you do that?"

I just laughed:

"It’s all my talent, old buddy. Or have you forgotten?"

The strangler was afraid of fire; I noticed him jump back from that kerosene lamp. He was obviously scared. All I had to do was pull on that thread at the right time to turn the puddle of burning kerosene into a raging fire.

Can terror magnify a threat? Indeed!

The aluminum box glinted up from the floor in the light of the electric torch; I pulled on my gloves and picked it up, but the lock was broken and the box was empty.

"Curses!" I swore, not hiding my disappointment.

"What are you on about now?" Ramon shuddered.

"Nothing."

"Nothing at all?"

"That's right!" I snarled. In a fit of anger, I threw the box into the corner and walked around the office, but I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusion on who was responsible for all this mess: was it the Count, and he'd fled, or the malefic who'd come after his soul?

"Leo, we need to get out of here!" shouted my hulking partner, trying to hurry me along as I shuffled through the burned papers strewn about the floor, now wet from the spilled water.

"We do," I agreed with him and stuck the bullet the strangler had crushed into my pocket. "But first, let's check the house."

We went through the whole mansion, but there was no one on the third or second floors, and all the servants down below were dead. The strangler was enviably methodical. He hadn't left anything behind.

"Where is the Count's family?" Ramon asked as we walked into the guest room.

"His daughter's at a boarding school, and his wife's at the spa." I answered. "Continental Europe. Neither we nor the malefic will reach them now. Well, at least we won't. That much is for certain."

"Will you search for the Count?"

"What do you think?"

"It's your business," Ramon replied, not trying to convince me one way or the other. He then suddenly pointed to the body of the servant girl spread-eagled on the sofa. "Hold up!"

"What is it?"

"Point the torch at her neck!"

I did what he said, and immediately noticed two dark blue spots on the dead pale skin.

"Well, tear me to pieces!" Ramon gasped. "There was a vampire here!"

An unpleasant chill ran down my spine; I forced myself to touch the dead girl. The body had already gone cold, but unlike the other victims, this one had just started to get rigor mortis.

"What have you dragged me into, Leo?!" Ramon whispered in fear and anger. "Malefics and vampires, just think! Even in Europe, there are practically no vampires left. All the more so here!"

"Well, the werewolf flew in from the New World, so why couldn't this vampire have done something similar?" I muttered.

"What for? Why the devil would he do that? What's happening, Leo?"

I dismissed my partner's concern and hurried to the exit.

"Let's get out of here! It's getting light out already!"

"No, just a moment!"

"You just can't wait to get behind bars, can you?" I asked with a frown, looking my friend from top to bottom.

"Alright, we can talk later!" he decided. I just had to head for the exit, but he grabbed my hand and stopped me: "Are you sure the malefic was alone?" he asked and first looked outside, his Winchester at the ready.

"Why wouldn’t he be?" I asked, surprised.

"How could he get through so many people all alone?"

"The shadows," I reminded him. "He had the shadows helping him. You almost shot me because of one of them, remember?"

Ramon was clearly shaken by the unpleasant memory. He loaded another cartridge into the tubular magazine of his Winchester and muttered:

"In any case, don't yawn!"

I nodded and took the semi-automatic carbine from my shoulder. The strangler definitely wouldn't be hurt by a rifle, but vampires tended to surround themselves with mortal helpers. So, I had to be careful with the weapon in my hands...

The high veranda of the mansion faced east. At the very horizon, the clouds were already turning a shade of faint pink, and I said quietly:

"It's getting light out!"

My hulking partner nodded, letting me know that he had heard my words, but not lost vigilance; he didn't believe the legend that vampires could be hurt by sunlight. To be perfectly honest, neither did I. So, in no particular hurry, we walked back to the armored car, not taking our eyes off the trees and bushes near the path.

The birds had already begun their normal morning bickering. From the tenant farms, I heard a rooster crow. The risk of meeting a random passerby was growing with every minute. Approaching the gates, we threw back the latch and ran headlong for the car.

Ramon took a prudent look under the self-propelled carriage and gave a nod:

"All clear!"

Then, I opened the tailboard and threw my rifle in it and taking out the steering wheel in its place. My partner ran up and extended his Winchester.

"Take it," he said.

I accepted the gun and groaned out:

"Dolt!"

"What are you on about?" Ramon shuddered.

"The casing!" I screamed. "You left a casing in my uncle's office! Fingerprints!"

"Curse me!" Ramon exclaimed, going bed-sheet pale. But he immediately overcame his moment of hesitation, grabbed the wheel from me and got into the car.

"Let's go back! Now!" he shouted, affixing the steering wheel to the column.

"Start it up!" I called out, and jumped onto the passenger-side running board.

The engine chattered to life; to the jingle of its very frequent popping, the armored car drove up to the gates, easily tossed them aside and drove onto the grounds of the mansion. When it hit, we shook hard, and the self-propelled carriage even went off-road onto the grass. But Ramon managed to turn the wheel in time and get back on track.

A moment later, we had arrived at the mansion. There, Ramon sharply braked, jumped out of the cabin and ran at breakneck speed into the building. I ran around and sat in the driver's seat, turned the car around to prepare to leave and raised the front armor sheet, which had been down on the hood until that point. Driving at night with an obscured windshield wasn't possible, but now, it was getting light out. The villagers were all waking up, and the last thing I wanted was for some eagle-eyed tenant to describe us to a policeman

The front door slammed again, and Ramon ran fervently down from the veranda into the car.

"Drive!" he shouted.

"Did you find it?"

"Yes!" he replied, catching his breath. "Drive, I said!"

And so, we drove. We didn't stop until we reached the city, not even to pour water into the radiator. Eventually, though, we found a dark passageway in the back yard of a factory to park the vehicle in.

Ramon ran to a station on the neighboring intersection with a bucket, and I started pacing around the self-propelled carriage, massaging my cramped legs and looking all around. My back was in unbearable pain, my head felt full of molten lead, and my arms were shaking in exhaustion. I felt out of sorts, but not at all because of my personal wellbeing.

There was something else bothering me.

"What should we do with the self-propelled carriage?" I asked my partner after he’d come back with water. "Everyone knew the Count and I were at loggerheads; I wouldn't be surprised if they came to search my place today or tomorrow."

"Is that even possible?" my hulking partner asked in surprise.

"What do you think?" I furrowed my brow.

"No!" he waved his hand in annoyance. "What about the quarantine? How will they get inside?"

"Sooner or later, they'll find an illustrious person with immunity to the Diabolic Plague. The armored car is direct evidence. We left too many tracks at the estate."

"Get rid of it," Ramon suggested.

"Not an option," I refused. "We might need it again."

"Leo! This tin can could land us behind bars."

I didn't even listen.

"Your cousin from Foundry Town..." I snapped my fingers. "What if we brought the armored car to him?"

"Are you crazy?" Ramon's eyes grew round. "I'm not bringing family into this!"

"What about the coalhouse?"

The man began thinking, then nodded.

"You know, there are a couple other abandoned packhouses there," he muttered. "There's no way anyone will go into them before fall."

"Do they have separate vehicle entrances?" I clarified.

"Some do, yes," my friend confirmed. "Let's go!"

By that time, it had long been light outside and the recently-awoken people on the street were looking curiously at our police armored car, caked in mud from wheels to roof. Fortunately, there weren't many people in the outskirts near the coalhouse where Ramon now worked as a guard. Our only company was a pair of chatty mutts.

Ramon pointed at the set of gates, told me to wait and ran out. When he came back, he was holding a heavy keyring.

"Don't worry," he reassured me, undoing the rusty warehouse lock. That old drunk wouldn't wake up even if a ship's cannon went off next to his ear.

"Make copies during your shift."

"Of course."

The gates gave way with a ghastly screech. We had to put all our weight into throwing them open. I then drove the armored vehicle into the interior of the sooty packhouse. I turned off the engine and extended my partner a hand, all my energy sapped:

"Thank you! You really helped me out."

Ramon clenched my hand in his massive paw and asked:

"When will you be retrieving the reward for the banker's killer?"

"I'll deal with it this morning," I decided, looking at my timepiece and correcting myself: "Actually, it might be closer to lunch time."

"Don't draw it out," he demanded. "Alright?"

"Don't you doubt it," I promised, taking my cane and getting out of the cabin.

With our combined strength, we managed to close the warehouse doors, but only barely. Ramon put the lock back on, rubbed some coal dust on it and took a look at our handiwork.

"This will be fine," he decided.

It would have been good to take the right key off the ring now, but my weary thoughts got all mixed-up. My eyes were starting to close all on their own. The sleepless night and jitters had squeezed all the juice out of me. The only thing I really wanted now was to lie in bed and close my eyes.

So, I just waved my hand and headed home. Sleep.


BUT IT WASN'T so easy to get to bed.

Elizabeth-Maria knocked me off course. She examined me closely then declared in a tone that wouldn't bear objection:

"A glass of tea would do you good."

I looked at the reflection of my pale and peaked countenance, turned away from the mirror and nodded:

"Alright, make up a pot."

"You'll drink it in the kitchen. I hope that at least can teach you to come home on time!"

I didn't start a fight over it; I just wasn't in the mood. I silently hung my dusty jacket on a hanger, placed my cane in the umbrella stand, then got out of my mud-caked boots and walked into the kitchen.

I took a seat at the window, finished the hot sweet tea and stared thoughtlessly at the wet, black trees of my garden.

"I'm starting to see that coming back in the morning is a habit of yours!" the succubus noted pointedly as she lit the stove.

I stayed silent. I didn't want to talk, or move. Even the bed no longer called to me with the promise of slumber. It now seemed impossibly far away.

I sat at the window and drank tea.

Elizabeth Maria stopped trying to make me talk and set a thick cast-iron pan on the fire. She poured oil in, added spices, and the kitchen immediately filled with the smell of exotic goodness. A few minutes later, a glob of meat was slapped down on the red-hot metal, but I didn't pay the hissing and sizzling sounds the slightest bit of mind. Only when the girl set a plate of barely cooked steak before me did I express my incomprehension:

"Don't you think this is a bit rich for breakfast?"

"Look at yourself, you're all skin and bones!" the girl objected. "Also, I suspect this is not breakfast for you, but a late dinner."

"Where'd you get the idea I wanted to eat?"

"You smell of death," Elizabeth-Maria answered calmly, "and for a man, killing is but the prelude to a substantial repast. Even if you're killing something like yourself. It's an ancient custom."

"Like myself?" I asked, making a face. "Today, we killed a werewolf. A ghastly monster."

"Do you suppose you're so very different from him?" the girl couldn't resist joking back.

I squirmed.

"Yes, I do!" I threw out sharply. "I am very different. Is that clear?"

"As you say, dear," Elizabeth-Maria shrugged her shoulders and took a bottle of sherry from the drawer. "Yes, that reminds me! The red wine is still disappearing. You better bring your light-haired monkey to reason before I cut his hands off."

"The leprechaun and I haven't been able to find a common tongue recently," I shook my head.

To be honest, my childhood imaginary friend's trickery was now driving me totally crazy. I hadn't thought about the rude pipsqueak for many long years, and now couldn't get my head around why on earth he'd suddenly popped out of my subconscious. It scared me, because it meant I might lose control over my own gift. No nightmare I'd ever created before had stayed in the world for so long. No fantasy had seemed so real.

Elizabeth-Maria was just a clever succubus, but what was powering the leprechaun?

I had no answer to the question.

"That pipsqueak drinks like a horse," the girl complained, taking a seat opposite me with a glass of fortified wine and setting a dish of sauce before me. "Eat!"

I was about to refuse, but my stomach suddenly moaned out in hunger. And though I had never especially cared for undercooked meat – and when I cut into the steak, blood came out – I had to admit that it wasn’t at all bad. The spicy sauce had a flavor I couldn't place, but it was surprisingly subtle, and went with the steak perfectly.

"Have you ever heard of the Convent?" I asked the girl, cutting another bite of meat.

"The Convent?" Elizabeth Maria asked in confusion and sipped the wine, trying to hide her puzzlement. "Ideologues," she said after a pause so long I wasn't even really expecting her to answer.

"Ideologues?" I didn't understand.

"Typical malefics are simply happy to sell their pitiful little souls in exchange for a little bit of power and mortal prosperity. These are not like that. They tell tales of old. They want to bring those times back."

"Is that so?"

"That is precisely so," she attested. "And why do you ask?"

I just shrugged my shoulders, not telling her the dying werebeast's final words.

"Don't get involved with the Convent," Elizabeth-Maria warned me. "They're dangerous. Extremely dangerous. If you cross their path, they'll kill you and eat your soul."

"Where's all this sudden concern for my soul coming from?"

For a moment, from behind the imaginary exterior of a sweet-looking girl, her true appearance stepped out, revealing an infernal creature with the fiery red eyes of a hellbeast. They burned into me with unconcealed hatred.

"If they eat it, there’d be nothing left for me!" the succubus announced.

But it was very easy for me not to play along. I had a good understanding of fears and could say for certain that the succubus was afraid. And that she was afraid on her own account, not mine.

"Weren't you summoned from hell by a malefic?" I squinted. "Was he from the Convent?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You ran from him and he's searching for you. Is that right? What would happen if he finds you?"

"You won't manage to get into my head, Leo," Elizabeth-Maria said with a sweet smile. But I wasn't ready to change the topic.

"Perhaps he even put a bounty out on you." I posited, looking the succubus right in the eyes.

"You don't understand the first thing," the girl sighed. "Leo, you and I have an agreement. And that could only mean one thing..."

"And just what is that?"

"He is long dead," Elizabeth-Maria stated. "He pulled off his own head. You can't even imagine how great it was!"

"Please, spare me the details! We're at the table!"

"It wasn't I who started this conversation," the succubus reminded me dryly. "And no, he wasn't from the Convent. The arrogant twerp! Smart people choose devils and minor evil spirits as familiars. With them, you can do whatever you want! But he chose a succubus! The arrogant upstart!"

"But minor evil spirits don't give as much power, isn't that right?" I asked, surprised. "What's the good of that?"

"Power?" the girl laughed uncontrollably. "The source of power is the divine fire of the human soul. Familiars serve a different purpose."

"Please enlighten me, then."

But the girl had already finished her wine and gotten up from the table.

"Finish eating and go off to bed," she demanded. After that, she went over to the neighboring window, looked at the dead garden and suddenly stated: "Pain."

"What? Excuse me?" I asked, pretending not to have heard her.

"Pain," Elizabeth-Maria repeated. "This world is a constant source of pain, but when one's master casts a spell, that pain is multiplied ten-fold. Familiars absorb that pain. That's all. And not all the pain can be absorbed, just some. But even that causes unbearable suffering."

"Is that so?"

"Oh, yes! The burning tears your head to bits and pierces you through with hundreds of icy needles. Have you ever heard of Chinese water torture? The monotonous pain bears down on you and brings you to the level of an animal. When someone speaks to you, you can hear the words, but they mean nothing. In fact, you cannot even perceive that you really are hearing them."

"And are you suffering this pain now?"

"No, sweet Leo. Not at all. Thanks to this body," the girl said, turning away from the window and leading her hand from her chest to her thigh, "the pain left me. But it's around here somewhere. Look for yourself."

I nodded and got up from the table.

"Leo! Stay away from the Convent!" the succubus repeated. "Don't make them angry. Don't talk to them. Don't look at them, and don't even tread in their shadows. Just forget they exist. That's my advice to you."

"Shadows?" I perked up my ears. "Shadows with their own life force?"

Elizabeth-Maria didn't answer at all, turning away toward the window again.

I hesitated, but in the end, I didn't pester her with an interrogation. I just waved my hand and headed into the bedroom.

Malefics, their familiars and a strange burning. The dead Kira and her companion. The strangler's shadows. All these things could have been part of something bigger, but my weariness was stopping me from sorting it all out. The only thing I had the energy for was crawling up to bed, climbing into it and putting a pillow under my head.

Sleep!


2


I WOKE UP in a flash. I just opened my eyes and felt a clear presentiment of misfortune. I grabbed my Roth-Steyr from the bedside table and hopped out of bed.

I looked into the kitchen and caught my breath with relief. There was no one there.

A bad dream?

But then, I saw that my window had been left open. On the windowsill, there appeared the gaunt figure of a werefox; a bounding leap and she was already in the middle of the room.

"Long time no see," said the miniature-framed girl with a clear Chinese accent. Then, her smooth face stretched out into a ghastly snout. Her bared teeth shimmered back at me with a yellow glint. They were small, but extremely sharp.

That they were sharp I could be certain. And so, without any hesitation, I unloaded my pistol at the beast as she prepared for a jump. The bullets slammed full force into a wooden panel behind the fox's back. She herself leaped toward me, but even faster, I threw a hand forward and snapped:

"Enough!"

The beast evaporated. Just a stiff wisp of air remained, hitting me in the face, finally chasing off what was left of my dream. It was a nightmare, just a nightmare...

I subconsciously worried that the fox would try to get even with me, and my talent didn't delay in bringing that fear to life. Recently, my talent had gone totally out of control, no matter how unfortunate that was.

A knock came at the door; I unlocked it and let Elizabeth-Maria into the room.

"Another nightmare?" she asked calmly, having noticed the many bullet holes in the ceiling.

"Not at all," I objected, looking at the smoking pistol in my hand and shrugging my shoulders. "I was trying to draw her Imperial Majesty's monogram. That's all."

"At least you've got a hobby," the girl snorted and hid in the hallway. "Go to the range! You're a horrible shot!" she shouted, already down the hall.

Theodor came in to replace the acid-tongued redhead.

"Would you like me to fix it, Viscount?" he asked me, studying the mess I'd made.

"I suppose we could just hang a rug over it," I decided, taking out my extra clip. I then noticed that my Butler’s skin was looking abnormally pale and asked: "Is everything alright, Theodor?"

"Naturally, Viscount," my servant assured me expectedly. His face was noticeably upset, though. It was as if some power accessible only to twins had made him sense the death of his brother.

It would have been nice to tell him about his brother's untimely end, but I hesitated, not sure how my servant would react to the news. Did he really need all these tribulations now? I wasn't convinced.

"You may go," I said, dismissing my butler without having come to any definite decision.

At one point, I'd be sure to tell him everything, but not now. Some other time.

Cowardice, you say? Nothing of the sort. Simple tact, and nothing more. One mustn't simply up and dump that kind of news on one's butler! He must be prepared for it first. I'd have to think something up...

Alright, so it was cowardice. What of it?

Who among us is without flaws?

I reloaded my Roth-Steyr, got dressed and left the bedroom. I went down to the first floor and looked cantankerously at my reflection in the mirror. But my suit was fitting perfectly as if it had been sewn to my exact order. Surprising even, considering my tall and lank dimensions. Trying to buy a suit when you looked like I did was pure torture.

"Leo!" Elizabeth-Maria called out to me from the kitchen. "Let's go drink tea!"

"Not now!" I refused, looking at the clock on the wall. It was already two in the afternoon.

"Leo!" The girl raised her voice.

I gave a heavy sigh and relented.

"Let's try to pretend we're a normal family," Elizabeth-Maria suggested when I had taken my seat at the table and was staring out the window.

I still had the urge to answer rudely but, by force of will, I held back the inappropriate outburst and just noted:

"That would mean we should act like master and servant, then. That seems most appropriate to our situation."

Elizabeth-Maria put two spoons of sugar in her cup and parried calmly:

"Many families have just that sort of interaction, dear. The husband – sovereign and the wife – his rightless slave."

I grabbed a piece of toast from the basket and took off the top from a jar of raspberry jam. I scooped it onto a knife and shook my head with a bitter sigh:

"A succubus suffragette. Where is this world headed?"

"I cannot claim that we have equal rights in hell, but we are certainly more tolerant of others' faults, dear. You mortals could learn a thing or two from us."

"Ugh, no thank you!" I snorted, finishing my tea and asking: "What do you know about vampires?"

The girl tilted her head to the side and stared at me, suggesting I go on.

"It’s not such a hard question," I muttered, slathering my second piece of toast with jam. "You know, vampires! Fangs, pale skin, allergy to sunlight, an unhealthy obsession with others' blood. What do you know about them?"

"Are you planning a trip to Transylvania?" Elizabeth Maria joked.

Or maybe she wasn't joking, and was totally serious.

"Why Transylvania?"

"Remember our conversation yesterday about the burning?" The girl stared thoughtfully at a glass of tea, then pushed it away from herself and went to get some wine; she had stashed a bottle of fortified red in the grain drawer.

"The burning?" I asked in surprise. "What of it?"

"Malefics experience the pain only when they are casting a spell. And that doesn't happen so terribly often. They can either bear it or force a familiar to suffer along with them. Werebeasts experience torturous pain immediately after they turn back into humans but, even still, they are infrequent visitors to New Babylon."

I nodded, agreeing with her assessment. Elizabeth-Maria continued:

"Underworld natives arrive to this world in their natural state. They rid themselves of the pain by clothing themselves in the flesh of others, taking human souls and bodies. Other creatures, the offspring of times gone by, either run from civilization, or become degraded, losing the last remnants of their mind. Only ghosts and magical conjurations do not feel the pain. In fact, they do not feel anything at all."

"Where are you going with this?"

"No one can bear such pain for long," Elizabeth-Maria declared. "Vampires cannot deny their essence and go back to being normal people, even for a minute. Vampires are not like the zombies raised by Haitian masters. They can feel pain. But their bodies are dead, and dead flesh has no defense against the pain."

"How long ago were you called to this world?" I asked, having caught a sense of sorrow flickering in the succubus's voice.

"It doesn't matter!" she snapped back in annoyance, waving it off. I put my eyelids together, shutting in the fell light glowing up out of my eyes. "It doesn't matter, Leo. The most important thing is that not a single vampire would come to New Babylon out of good will. It's akin to the most intricate torture. Only threat of death could make them suffer it."

"But still, where might I find them?"

"In Transylvania, Romania, or Zuid-India. Among the Egyptians or the Aztecs. In Cuba or the African Colonies. In the Siberian taiga, the mountains of Afghanistan or the endless Asian steppe. Anywhere but here. Not in big cities. Even in the provinces, the burning is too strong..."

But I was still being haunted by the bloodless body of my uncle's servant girl with two precise wounds on her neck, so I kept insisting:

"Where do you think I could find a vampire in New Babylon?"

Elizabeth-Maria looked in reply with unhidden doubt, then with a careless look shrugged her shoulders, clearly having lost all interest in the conversation:

"The bottom of a hole. The deeper the better. If one really did come to New Babylon, it would be in a leaden sarcophagus somewhere in the catacombs beyond the city."

"A sarcophagus?" I asked in surprise. "And why lead exactly?"

"If you come across a vampire, ask. Perhaps you’ll even get an answer," the girl said with a detached smirk, now thinking about something else entirely. "What are your plans for tonight?" she suddenly inquired, twirling a lock of her red hair around her finger.

"I'm going to the circus," I said, standing from the table and removing the kerchief I’d stuffed into my shirt neck to catch dripping jam. "What of it?"

"I never took you for a circus aficionado."

And that was an accurate assessment; I didn't like the circus. Neither the circus, nor circus people.

Devil! If I really thought about it, there weren't many people on the planet, toward whom I didn't experience a certain antipathy.

Was I a misanthrope? No, more like a clinical introvert.

"A friend asked me to go with him," I explained. And when she came out after me into the entryway, in my turn, I inquired: "And the burning, what causes it?"

"The million-franc question!" the girl laughed, taking a little brush and starting to dust the shelves. "No one is sure, but in the time of the fallen, it wasn't around. Back then, the whole world belonged to us, and us alone."

"Yeah, yeah," I chuckled, going outside without a cloak or even a jacket.

The weather put a smile on my face. There wasn't even a trace of yesterday's tempest remaining. The sky was clear, though far off on the horizon there were clumpy, foreboding cumulus clouds gathering.

I started down from the porch and immediately was reminded by the discomfort in my leg that it was sprained. And even though it wasn't bothering me so bad today, it still seemed reasonable to go back home for Alexander Dyak's cane.

"You're fast!" Elizabeth-Maria snickered acridly on my return, not stopping her dusting.

"And you, I see, have really taken to housework," I replied, going tit for tat and looking with surprise under my feet, only now noting the bare floor. "What happened to the rug?"

"The rug?" the girl asked in surprise.

"Yes, the rug!"

"Leo, do you take me for a housekeeper? How should I know about your rugs?"

I frowned and raised my voice:

"Theodor!"

"Yes, Viscount?" my butler asked, having come to my call.

"Theodor, did you take the rug from the entryway?"

"No, Viscount," my servant answered dispassionately and said nothing further.

Elizabeth-Maria stared at me with lively curiosity. With a no-less-interested tone, I answered her:

"And you say you had nothing to do with this either?"

"That's right," the girl confirmed.

I'm not sure why, but I believed her. And that put me all the more on alert.

I walked through the guest room, looking carefully underfoot and soon noticed a long reddish-brown splotch on one of the skirting boards, as if someone had tried hastily to wipe off some spilled red ink. Or blood?

"Look," I said to Elizabeth-Maria.

The girl gave a graceful curtsy, scratched it with her long nail, licked her finger and, perplexed, drew out her words:

"How interesting!"

"What is it?"

"Blood," the girl stated her verdict and added: "It’s fresh."

Theodor's distant tranquility disappeared in a flash.

"Please!" he flared up. "Only the three of us have been in the manor. Others have no way of even entering! That must have occurred to you, Viscount!"

"And yet, the rug disappeared, and the floor is dirty with blood," I muttered, continuing to look around the room. At first glance, everything was in place. I didn't manage to detect any other traces of another's presence.

"Another one of your nightmares, perhaps?" Elizabeth Maria purred.

"I do not know," I replied, shrugging my shoulders and looking into the hallway. "Theodor, bring me a lamp!"

The butler carried out my order and, soon, the uneven light of the bat-like bulb hanging down from my ceiling allowed us to discover another few drops of blood, smeared and partially dry.

I pulled my Roth-Steyr from its holster and chambered a round. Someone had been in the house uninvited, and I didn't even want to think why they had rolled out the rug. However, the blood on the floor didn't leave me much room for imagination.

Someone had killed someone else and then covered their tracks.

But who? And most importantly, who did they kill?

Theodor armed himself with a poker from the fireplace. Elizabeth-Maria ran for the saber and we followed the bloody spots as if it were a trail of breadcrumbs. This person wasn't particularly precise, so it wasn't a difficult task to discover the reddish-brown spots.

We breezed through the pantry and closet, turned down the side corridor and Theodor hazarded a guess:

"The carriage-house!"

And he was dead on. The drops of blood extended right up to the door from the annex into the carriage-house; unlike many modern homes, my manor had a door directly from the living quarters into the vehicle storage area.

"Quiet!" I whispered, flinging the door open and stepping in with my pistol at the ready. Theodor quickly came after me and raised the lamp over my head, illuminating the dark garage.

The leprechaun, caught unawares, peevishly moved his accordioned top hat onto the back of his head, spit his rolled cigarette onto the floor and cursed:

"Bugger, what bad timing!"

And it was hard to disagree with him. We’d caught him with a fresh corpse laid out on a workbench, hacksaw in hand. It was, in fact, very bad timing...

"What the devil?!" I snarled and, ducking my head as not to hit it on the low door jamb, went down the stairs. "What the devil are you doing?"

The leprechaun didn't answer, though. He tore off his kitchen apron and skillfully leaped out an open window.

I stuck my pistol in the holster and walked up to the body. Its throat was ripped open from ear to ear. The cadaver was unfamiliar to me, but I could say for sure that it was not an illustrious gentleman. In his dead eyes, the bloody murk of the curse that enveloped my house had already taken hold. The body of an illustrious person wouldn't have capitulated to the Diabolic Plague so quickly.

"Do you know, Leo...?" Elizabeth-Maria said, drawing out her words with an incomprehensible look on her face, slowly going through the tools the leprechaun had laid out: a hacksaw, a hatchet, a set of utility knives, a small hammer and a chisel, "your fantasies are quite a bit darker than I supposed..."

I cursed.

"This isn't my fantasy!"

"Your nightmare, then?"

"Come off it!" I retorted with a wave. I then went through the cadaver's belongings on the floor.

He had a wallet with a few hundred francs, a pair of gloves, and a pen-knife, which didn't arouse any suspicion. But the mask with eye slits, set of lock picks, small crowbar and glass cutter spoke for themselves.

Someone had tried to break in. What could I say? He picked the wrong house.

"It occurs to me that the situation is not unambiguous," I muttered, sticking the money in my own wallet.

"Alright. If you want to think so..." Elizabeth-Maria grinned, amused at everything.

Theodor remained imperturbable.


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