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Dozens of questions were instantly on the tip of Webb’s tongue, crowding their mind with a noisy static that intermingled with the murmuring buzz of the crowd. Glasses clinked; cutlery jangled. Some guy at a table nearby was talking far too loudly.
“Interesting,” they said after probably a beat too long, trying to reel back their fragmented thoughts. They pulled their feet up to the edge of their seat and hugged their knees, worrying absently at their lower lip with their teeth. “Well, I’m going to order appetizers for us, because I can’t deal with this on an empty stomach, and I feel like we’re going to be here for a while.”
“That’s fair,” Ariadne said helplessly.
The server came by. They placed their orders. Webb picked up their refilled pint and took another long drink.
“Right,” they said. In the time that had taken, they’d manage to thread their mental fingers through the tangled threads and spread out a more-or-less cohesive line of questioning. They noted with some distant amusement that both Faraday and Ariadne sat up a little straighter at Webb’s tone, like rowdy students who had been called on in class. “Let’s start chronologically. You said you left the Grimm clan. When, and why?”
Ariadne let out a breath. “I was turned about twenty years ago. Grimm found me when I was barely making ends meet, and, well—I didn’t have any better prospects. He offered me a place to stay and a job to do, and… well, a family.” She looked down at her drink as she continued. “I was kicked out of my home when I was barely a teenager, back when the valefication happened. The ground opened up, creatures of all kinds started pouring out, and I guess I had some latent demonic blood in me that got awakened.”
“Some great-grandma or other fucked an incubus once upon a time?” Webb asked dryly. “It’s been known to happen.”
Valefication—the moment when the gate between worlds opened and changed everything—had been about twenty-five years prior. Webb had been eight or nine at the time, but they still remembered that day with searing clarity. For some people, it was a time of absolute terror and upheaval. For others…
Webb remembered viewing it as an opportunity. But then, time changed a lot of things.
Ariadne huffed out a little laugh. “Yeah,” she murmured. “So I’ve got little nubby horns and claws and nobody wants to look at me anymore, and… well, becoming a lowly servant to a vampire lord was a better gig than what I had going on, you know?”
Ariadne seemed troubled to be recounting all of this, but she was relaxing a little the more that Webb continued to encourage her, nodding along. “I was with Grimm for about a decade,” she said. “It didn’t start off so bad. It was a small clan. We set up in some of the mountain towns. Ski villages. You’d get a lot of people coming and going. Tourists. Lots of people that were up for a good time with strangers and then didn’t stick around. And sometimes people would go missing on their hikes, and you know, nobody would think too much of it. But then it started… escalating.”
Webb grimaced a little, trying to stifle their visible reaction to the icy shiver that coursed through them. They rubbed their suddenly clammy palms against their thighs. “… it happens,” they prompted, a little hastily. The last thing they wanted to do was derail her. “Go on.”
Ariadne had started to chew on a straw, absently poking little holes directly through it. “Grimm was gaining in power and influence. He began to buy out some of the mountain resorts entirely. Elaborate chateaus with endless parties. His tastes, and the tastes of his followers, grew more violent. And more specific. Witch blood tastes better, you know. So he was particularly keen about capturing and putting witches or other magic-touched people under his thrall.”
“That’s how we met,” Faraday spoke up quietly. Webb almost jumped; they’d almost forgotten he was there. “I was held captive. Ariadne was one of my guards. We got to talking, and we ended up escaping together.”
Webb’s eyebrows raised at that. “… you managed that? Pardon my disbelief, but—”
Faraday tossed his hair over his shoulder—it was an actual thing that Webb watched him do—and smiled grimly. “Grimm was holding me in a very nice locked-up room. Fantastic threadcount on the sheets.”
“Also I had the key and punched a lot of people,” Ariadne whispered.
“Also, she had a key and punched a lot of people,” Faraday agreed.
“Right,” Webb muttered, rubbing their face. Their appetizers were dropped off, so they had the opportunity to muffle their incredulity in artichoke dip.
“So we bailed, and just tried to lay low,” Faraday continued. “We gave ourselves new names, changed our appearances—”
“One of us more than the other,” Ariadne interjected around a mouthful of beef carpaccio.
“—yes, dear, you did have quite the glow-up.” They had another one of their Moments, gazing at each other. Webb took all the olives off of Faraday’s side of the pita tray. “But we’d just been trying to live our lives. Until recently.”
Webb was liking all of this less and less the more they listened, but they were much too far gone to stop. “What happened recently?”
“I ran into a member of my clan,” Ariadne said softly. “It was at a night club. I hadn’t seen her since… since way back then. She knew I was a vampire, but didn’t recognize me, so I took the opportunity to… to see if I could learn a little about what everyone was up to. With a little, um… persuasion, she was more than happy to gush about how great things were going, and how I really should come back with her. No scrounging up blood bags for the Grimm clan, she said. Grimm had a whole pipeline set up where he was having magic users practically delivered to their door every week. Like DoorDash for bloodsuckers.”
An amorphous, unpleasant shape had been forming in Webb’s head for a while. They somewhat regretted having eaten anything at all.
“My clients,” they said softly. “This isn’t actually about me, is it? Grimm probably doesn’t even know or care who I am. But I arrange for people—usually magical ones, untrained, just starting out—to head out to specific locations. And if Grimm’s people got into that pipeline at any stage…”
“Then they’d know exactly where to set up an easy ambush to nab people they know would be worth the effort.” Ariadne nodded grimly.
Webb pressed their fingertips against their temples, trying to breathe deeply through the screaming fuzz in their ears, the ashen taste in their mouth, the rabbit-quick hammering of their heart.
“Which…?” Webb asked after a long moment, “which ones? I need to narrow it down…”
“We don’t know,” Faraday said softly, his perfect brows drawn together in such a genuinely sorrowful expression that Webb wanted to kick him. “Surely not all of them. That would be too noticeable. They wanted to keep this running…”
“I wager the Inquisitors are only after you because it’s been going on too long, or someone too high-profile finally got noticed—”
“But I receive a cut when the jobs are done successfully,” Webb protested. “I’d have noticed by now if a bunch of them weren’t getting done.”
“Not if the people paying your cut are in on it, I guess,” Ariadne suggested unhappily. “They pay you, you think everyone was fine, you don’t raise an alarm. They cover their tracks. It’d be normal if some of your clients didn’t come back to you again, right? Like they got other jobs somewhere else, or gave up on the gig…”
She fell silent as the server came by with their main course, flashing her a smile. Faraday and Ariadne made brief small talk while Webb tried to form thoughts through the static in their head. The food looked amazing, which was a fucking shame, given that Webb felt like they might not have an appetite ever again.
Ariadne dug in voraciously. Faraday seemed to be on Webb’s wavelength, listlessly moving some rice around with his fork and reaching out to put one large, gentle hand over Webb’s. Webb’s fingers twitched like a dying spider, but they couldn’t quite find the energy to pull away.
“We’re going to need to learn more,” Faraday said softly. “We didn’t… exactly have more of a plan past this. Ariadne managed to learn your name, and when I dug around for a bit more information about you—”
“That’s when we found out that the Inquisitors had picked up the trail. We figured… we had to move fast. Both because… well, I didn’t want someone innocent to get hurt. But also, you’re our best lead on figuring out who you know, who you work with, and who might be involved with Grimm’s plans, and that’ll be our best way to figure out how to stop them. Because if they lost you, they’d probably just start using someone else instead, you know?”
Webb tugged their hand from beneath Faraday’s, cracking their knuckles restlessly.
They hated basically everything about this, but the story, at the very least, sounded plausible. Webb didn’t think they were lying… but still had no proof except their word, and no idea what to do next out of the dozen equally unpleasant options that seemed to spread themselves out before them. They had contacts, yes, and they knew powerful people throughout the city, but… how many of those could they trust? And what could they possibly do against a vampire lord?
“You said…” Webb trailed off for a moment, looking up at the ceiling, as though its mysterious spiderwebs might have some kind of insight, here. “You said that you thought I wouldn’t deserve what might happen to me, if I were a good person.”
“I believe that,” Ariadne nodded, her expression sombre.
“I’m curious. What would you have done if you decided I wasn’t?”
Ariadne grimaced. “Honestly, Mx. Webb,” she said softly. “I sort of wish for your sake that you weren’t.”
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]