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“I think it’s probably smarter to go into the balconies upstairs first, then straight into the heart of things later, if we don’t find what we need,” Webb said slowly. “It’s much easier to be loud after being quiet rather than the other way around, right?”
Faraday nodded. “It’s early in the night, too, so it’s maybe more likely that those we’re looking for are still in their rooms, at least until the party is really getting started.”
“I can also sneak around a little,” Lore pointed out quietly. “To help cover ground more quickly.” They paused. “You could always try to stay out of sight and let me do all of the snooping…”
Webb shook their head. “Absolutely not.”
Lore’s cheeks puffed slightly, and they exhaled smoke. “Why not? I can go around without being seen…”
“One, we’re on a time limit. What’ll we do if Jenny was safely in one of the rooms, but before you get to her, the vampires decide to kick it up a notch? And two—” Webb faltered slightly. “We’re in this together. And I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Also, I don’t think there’s any place that’s necessarily any more safe than anywhere else,” Ariadne pointed out lightly. “Not up here.”
“That really makes me feel better, Ariadne, thank you,” Webb said dryly.
“By the way…” Lore trailed off, looking around. “Why… are there scratches all over the gondola?”
“Giant evil birds,” Webb said promptly. “Big white-feathered things with seven eyes and four wings. Ring any bells?”
Lore looked very concerned. “Not… really, no,” they admitted softly. “That… doesn’t sound very vampiric, though, so…”
“So either a random act of nature—unlikely—or… other involved parties deciding to come out to make themselves known.”
“Why, though?” Ariadne murmured, looking thoughtfully out the window, her breath fogging up her reflection. “Is it just that they’re still after you? The same… situation? After all this time? It seems a little…”
Webb felt their anxiety rising like steam in a teakettle again. They shifted restlessly, feeling claustrophobic and pinned under the weight of their three companions, the glass walls around them, and the inescapable sense of being trapped—emotionally, physically, and otherwise.
“I don’t know,” they said roughly. “And I don’t—I don’t think dwelling on it right now is going to help anything, so let’s just… let’s just not, alright?”
Ariadne looked worried, but just nodded. Faraday gave Webb’s leg a firm squeeze but shifted back, as though he’d picked up that Webb wanted space.
Lore started to unravel themself, fading back into shadow and weightlessness. Webb felt a light touch against the back of their neck as Lore seemed to attach themself to Webb’s shadow again, close enough that their soft voice could still be heard.
“Let’s just keep an eye out,” Lore murmured. “Whatever we do… you’re not alone.”
Webb knew that should feel reassuring, but once again, remembering that they had people to lose this time rarely brought them reassurance.
“Look,” Ariadne murmured, nudging Webb and pointing ahead. “There it is…”
In the distance but rapidly getting closer was a sprawling multi-storey chateau, lighting up the peak with warm lamplight pouring out of its many arched windows. It looked both cozy and grandiose—rustic, even—with log beams and pointed peaks.
Webb stared up at it, then back at Ariadne. “Do the vampires… night ski?” they asked slowly.
Ariadne made a face, nodding. “Sure, sometimes. There are some slopes all lit up, but on a moonlit night, vampires don’t need more than that. Others go out during the day in full gear and helmet, like I do when I’m riding.”
“What about the windows?” Webb asked, not because they really wanted to know, but because they were somehow offended by the idea that vampires might be hoarding a view like this and not even using it.
Ariadne shrugged. “You get a pretty nice view at night,” she said softly, then wrinkled her nose. “Also, curtains? You learn to be pretty creative when the sun makes you go up in smoke.”
“Seems pretty rough,” Webb said dryly. “Unfortunately, I didn’t bring the sun with me.” A little pause. “Or a silver weapon, for that matter. Fuck. Do crosses work?”
“Only sometimes,” Ariadne said. “Not on most. Why, did you bring a cross?”
“As much as I hate to interrupt this thrilling conversation,” Faraday murmured, “we’re just about here…”
Webb grimaced, making a face as Faraday and Ariadne positioned themselves to either side of the door, but didn’t protest. They knew by now to just give up on trying to stop them from trying to play protector. They just hoped nobody would end up regretting that by the end of the night.
The blast of cold air as the gondola doors slid smoothly open made Webb shiver. They tugged their hat down a little further over their ears and cautiously followed Ariadne and Faraday outside.
As Lore had reported, nobody in particular seemed to notice or care as they stepped out onto the wooden platform. Partygoers were quickly sweeping away up the cleanly-shovelled wooden walkway towards the entrance of the chateau. Even from this distance, Webb could see revellers mingling on covered balconies under the canopies of cheerily blazing space warmers.
“It looks so… normal,” Webb murmured as they fell into step beside Ariadne.
Ariadne shrugged. “Vampires are normal,” she pointed out, unoffended. “We just also, you know. Drink blood.”
“And host elaborate parties with captive human bloodbags as entertainment?”
Ariadne sniffed. “That’s not because they’re vampires, it’s because they’re assholes. There are humans like that too, you know.”
“Point taken,” Webb whispered back.
The walkway continued up to the front doors and the entrance hall. As the doors opened to allow other partygoers inside, Webb could see a roaring fireplace, a curved wooden banister, and dozens of people chatting, dancing, laughing…
An unpleasant sort of bitterness curled in the pit of their stomach. Glancing at the others, they saw that feeling reflected in Ariadne’s narrowed eyes, the hard line of Faraday’s mouth.
“This way,” Ariadne said softly. “The walkway continues in a perimeter around the chateau.”
“It’s busier than I thought it would be,” Webb muttered. “And… better lit. Are we sure the balconies are the best bet?”
“There are back doors, too,” Ariadne said. “Probably locked, but between us, I’m sure we can get in, especially if Lore can scout ahead to make sure the path ahead is clear.”
“I can scout,” Lore agreed quietly. “I can pick locks, too.”
“What can’t you do?” Webb grumbled appreciatively.
Lore, of course, didn’t bother to answer that one, but Webb felt a whisper-soft brush of lips against their neck. Webb shivered, not from the cold this time, but felt a little better about things.
The woods were thick and dark, even up closer to the peak. Webb kept an uneasy eye on them as Ariadne led the way around to the back of the sizeable chateau. Somehow, the bright lighting and the sound of chatter and clinking glasses from inside made the forest seem even more foreboding.
They caught that thought as it crossed their mind and let out a soft laugh.
Faraday glanced over at him, raising an eyebrow. “Hmm?” he murmured. “Something funny?”
“I was just thinking,” Webb said. “We’re sneaking into the den of one of the most feared vampire clans, and here I am getting nervous about trees.”
They gave Faraday a wry grin, but Faraday didn’t return it. He looked thoughtful, gaze scanning the woods, before he slowed his steps a little to walk closer to Webb.
“I’m nervous, too,” Faraday said quietly. “Something feels strange in the air tonight.”
That didn’t make Webb feel better, either.
As they approached one of the back doors, keeping an alert eye out, Webb felt their hair stir as their shadow elongated, stretching out towards the doorknob. A moment later, Lore seemed to vanish in, reforming with their hand against the keyhole, hair swaying as if caught in the cool breeze.
With a soft click, the door eased open.
“The coast looks clear,” Lore murmured after a moment, slipping in through the gap. “Quickly, now.”
Exchanging a look with Ariadne, Webb gave a little nod. They scanned the line of trees one more time, then stepped into the chateau after Lore.
The hallway they were in seemed to be some kind of back hall for staff. Several heavy coats hung on hooks near the door, next to a shovel propped up against the wall. Around the corner, they could hear the banging of pots and pans, and the occasional burst of chatter.
Lore had swooped on ahead, their shadowy form solidifying halfway up a narrow stairwell. “This way,” they whispered, beckoning. “Quietly…”
Ariadne took the lead, with Webb behind her and Faraday carefully taking up the rear.
“Once we’re up in the area with the guest quarters,” Ariadne murmured, “let’s still try to stay out of sight, but if anybody sees you, just… pretend like you belong. It’s not like everyone knows who everyone else is, here.”
“Classic strategy,” Webb agreed under their breath. “And when in doubt, make out?”
Ariadne bared her fangs in a grin. “Yeah.”
Although their heart was still beating like a rabbit’s inside their chest, Webb found themself slowly relaxing as they quietly made their way through the halls, following Ariadne’s hazy recollections and being mindful of Lore’s instructions to pause or stop or duck out of the way.
More than once, Lore heard someone coming and ushered them all into an empty room until the person had passed. At a few unavoidable intersections of people, they had to take Ariadne’s advice, chattering brightly to each other as they walked along like hotel guests who had simply decided to take a friendly little detour and were absolutely where they meant to be.
“I’m shocked that worked,” Webb muttered.
“Were you?” Ariadne demanded under her breath. “Why did you decide to do it, then??”
At Ariadne’s prompting, they headed up to the top floor. “Grimm always liked to keep his… guests… close by,” she whispered. “So his rooms will be up here, as well as some of the suites. They’re not guaranteed to be here, of course, but…”
“It’s a good place to start,” Webb agreed, then frowned. “Will there be guards?”
Ariadne nodded. “At least a couple wandering around, at least in this area.”
“Between us, I’m sure we can deal with them,” Faraday said. “Quietly,” he added after a moment to Ariadne. “Leave it to the rest of us unless necessary, love.”
Ariadne wrinkled her nose, but seemed to find this sensible, and didn’t object.
The air seemed cooler up here. Webb wasn’t sure if it was simply that the halls weren’t as well-heated this far from the central rooms, or if they were imagining some sort of ominous miasma the closer they came to danger.
“There’s two guards around the corner, here,” Lore whispered. “On either side of a really big door.”
“Grimm’s chambers,” Ariadne murmured.
“Before we deal with them, Lore, can you check to see if there’s anybody inside?” Webb whispered. “There’s no point in us busting in there if To Grimm Or Not To Grimm is just waiting there with his dick out…”
A bit more smoke than usual poured off of Lore before they folded it back into themself. “I’ll go,” they agreed. “I’ll be right back.”
They vanished. A few moments passed. Webb tried to count the seconds, but their heart had begun to beat so quickly and so loudly that it kept interrupting them and they lost count.
Abruptly, they heard two soft thumps from the hallway ahead, then heard Lore call out: “Come on. The coast is clear.”
Webb immediately beelined around the corner to find the two guards slumped against the wall, deeply unconscious but visibly uninjured. Lore stood in the open doorway, peering out with earnest curiosity.
“You said you were just going to scout…!” Webb hissed.
“I made no such promise,” Lore said with gentle, passive stubbornness.
“Help me drag these two inside…” Faraday muttered to Ariadne, who looked slightly put-out, but obligingly helped Faraday haul the guards inside the rooms.
“Be gentle with them,” she said softly. “I was Unnamed Guard #1 once upon a time. You never know what anybody’s going through, you know?”
Grimm’s suite was lavish and grandiose. On the far wall, peaked floor-to-ceiling windows were covered by dark, heavy velvet curtains. The main area was an elaborate sitting room with gold chandeliers, currently dimmed, hanging from high beamed rafters. The stone was a cool, mottled stone, and plush throw rugs sprawled in front of the enormous, unlit fireplace.
“Lore, try to keep an eye and ear out from the hall,” Webb suggested quietly. “Faraday, Ariadne, let’s split up and try to take a look around. We’re looking for anything to help identify this guy, if he isn’t Grimm after all. Papers, electronics…”
Ariadne nodded. “I’ll take the main room.”
“I’ll go to the left,” Faraday said. “Seems to be an ensuite bathroom. I’m not great with that type of sympathetic magic myself, but if there’s a hairbrush, that could come in handy…
Webb took the opposite side of the room, peering into what seemed to be the bedroom. Like the rest of the suite, it was lavish and stately in every way. There was a huge four-poster bed with a mattress unimaginably larger than king-sized, piled high with red and gold pillows. Somehow, it still seemed appropriately-sized for the room, which said an uncomfortable amount about its dimensions.
A rack full of wine bottles lined one wall; several shelves of books lined another. Webb let their gaze pass over both, then headed towards the far corner where they spied a television larger than some cars, a plush seating area, and most importantly, a computer monitor on a vast mahogany desk. Behind it was another floor-to-ceiling window with deep red curtains, heavy and still.
“Oh, just great,” Webb muttered under their breath, running their fingers lightly along the desk. The cords that would connect the monitor to anything—presumably a laptop—lay unplugged on the desktop. They crouched to test the desk drawers, but found them locked, rattling them quietly with frustration.
Rising up, Webb turned back towards the door, intending to go grab Lore or Faraday to deal with the locks—and stopped short, a sudden chill prickling at the back of their neck.
The room looked exactly as it had moments before, but they still scanned it uneasily. After a long moment, Webb realized that they were feeling an actual chill coming from the window behind them—they heard, after a moment, the dull flap of the curtains shifting in the breeze, and saw their next exhalation come out, frosty and visible.
“Oh, no…” Webb breathed out. “Fuck you. I’m not turning around.”
A laugh came from behind them, bright and cold, and Webb knew they’d been caught—but that alone wasn’t what turned Webb’s blood to ice.
They knew that laugh.
“Oh, I did miss how you made me smile,” said Jasper—who, as Webb’s long-dead ex, really shouldn’t be standing behind them right now. “But come now, let’s be reasonable. After all these years, you’re leaving me again already?”
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]