"All right! We've got them pinned down inside the burning building! Which was set on fire! By us! So right now I'm going to go in there and hit them hard! In fact, I'll hit them like the impact of the imperial knights at the battle of Wissenberg, as the man pretending to be a bishop said to the mother superior of the nunnery! And that man was me! Rrraawr!"
– Markgraf Blitzhart von Zerbst
"You know the saying 'I'll just go slip into something more comfortable?' This? This is not more comfortable!" the plaintive complaining arose over the night's chill. Louise's breath was steaming in the cold. Cattleya's was not.
The two sisters had slipped out of the window and made their way across the icy grounds of the de la Vallière estate, to where the minions were waiting. Small goblinoids swarmed around, putting on her armour by consensus. There was a distinct aroma of roast chicken around the place she had left them, which just made Louise hungry. She really should tell them off for stealing chickens, but frankly she had more important things to worry about at the moment.
"This is the opposite of comfortable! I can feel the cold metal through my padding! And I'm just glad that there's padding... well, I'm always glad, because I'm sure it would rub me raw if there wasn't, but now I'm doubly-glad because this? This is freezing!"
"Poor you," Cattleya said sympathetically, watching as the minions helped fasten up the buckles and straps on their mistress' plate armour. Louise's older sister was wearing a long hunting coat which had been passed down from their mother, fastened up tight, as well as a broad-brimmed hat which had to be twenty years out of fashion. Louise had been worried about what she was going to put on when she had vanished into her changing room, but for once her worst fears had not come to pass. Although she wasn't quite sure where the hat was coming from. "I'd give you a hug and warm you up, but... uh, I'm about as warm as the outside air which is fine when I'm in my warm room, but isn't so good here. Still, Anne used the spare water for a hot water bottle, so I'll pass it to you once it's done."
"That's a... no, you stupid beast, put down that fireball! Put it down right now! I don't want to be warmed up like that!" Louise drew a breath, after remonstrating with her underling. "That'd be lovely," she said, thankfully, before narrowing her eyes. "I'm sure I remember you having warm hugs before, though."
Her older sister blushed under the light of the red moon, rising up the east. "That would... uh, be two... well, three things," she admitted. "It took a few years for me to lose all body temperature. But after that, it was a mix of hot water bottles under my clothes and the fact I get a hot flush for a few hours after a large feeding."
"Oh," Louise said, as her pauldrons were fastened up. Well, another childhood memory ruined. "So your lovely warm hugs were..."
"... built on hidden hot water bottles and cow's blood, yes," Cattleya said. "I hadn't even had a mouthful from Anne before you interrupted, so it's gone by now. It's a shame. I was looking forwards to that for days. I daren't do it when mother or father are in the house."
"Well, that explains how no one else could be the same," Louise said wearily, ignoring her sister's haemophagia. "It was... ow, drat you! Watch my hair!"
"Oooh, mistress is gonna get you in so much trouble later," one of the reds said, nudging the unfortunate blue who had got a lock in a clasp. "Helmet, mistress?"
Louise coughed. "I'll... I'll just hold it for a while," she said, gathering up the piece of cold metal. "I... I don't want anything to obstruct my vision or hearing while we're trying to avoid the guards."
"Oooh!" Cattleya said excitedly. "I could knit you a little hoody to wear under it. And it would be all snug and keep your ears warm."
"That'd be nice," Louise said, gritting her teeth as she, clanking somewhat, worked her arms. "Loosen the left pauldron," she commanded. "I can't move my arm properly and... tighten it a bit... okay." She bent down and picked up her staff. "Right!"
Cattleya cracked her knuckles. "Right! Or was I meant to say left? I don't know... you're the one with the experience at this whole 'evil menace' thing. It's awfully fun, isn't it!"
Louise shot a dirty glare at her sister, and then felt slightly guilty about it. Cattleya didn't seem to get out of the house much. She always had been nicer than Eleanore, but Louise did have to admit she was rather childish; probably because she hadn't been able to go to the Academy because she was i... was a vampire. And she had a nice warm hunting jacket on, not cold metal armour. She probably was enjoying just getting out of the house.
"First thing we do is we make our way – silently – to the secret garden," Louise said. She crossed her arms and stared at her minions. "Let me make this entirely clear. There will be no looting, no pillaging, no accidental breakages, or anything else which shows any signs we were there. Anyone who does that will be tortured to death, brought back, tortured to death again, brought back again and..." she took a breath, "... will have all their loot taken from them. And the loot will be destroyed so don't even think of pinning the blame on someone else so you can get their loot!"
There was a squeak from Cattleya. "You've got cold, little sister," she whispered.
Louise looked momentarily confused – well of course she was cold, couldn't her sister feel the weather? - and then shrugged. "Catt, they're minions. Violence is the only language they understand." She paused. "Well, obviously not the only language, but it's the one they speak the best. Pass me the hot water bottle, you stupid things."
"How can you do that?" Cattleya demanded.
"Oh no," Maggat interjected loyally, "overlady is right. We minions. We understand violence real good. Threats are real good for inn-centi-vicing us. Better that way. When a minion try understanding com-ple-cated words, we end up with Maxy, and no one want another Maxy."
"We have po-et-ry every day if that happen. More than we can face."
"In fact," Maggat continued, sucking up for all it was worth, "overlady a very good overlady. She not sit back in tower and laugh; she come with us and start with the fire and the lightning. It wonder to us all. And she wonderful moe-tea-vay-shun-al speaker. She understand balance of threats and rewards and she not some bloody vampire who drain us dry and not have us bought back." The minion blinked and remembered what he was talking to. "Naturally I clear you uh... very nice vampire who not kill me in any way at all and who even if kill me make sure I can be bought back and so that be the end of that."
"Yes, Catt, that. Look," said Louise, glowing with pride at the approval of her underlings, "they don't think of death like we do. Most of them would rather face death than poetry. I mean," she added to general shuddering, "just ask them if they would prefer to be tortured to death or made to listen to all of Le Morte d'Brimir in the traditional long form."
"Death is but a sleep," Igni contributed. "It only last a short while before someone kick you in ribs and tell you to wake up, you lazy sod. Poetry can last for hours."
"I do the kicking!" Scyl said cheerfully.
"Well," Cattleya said dubiously. "I mean, if they're happy with it... but it all seems rather strange!" Cattleya paused and she looked at her now-armoured little sister. "And… Louise! You're adorable! So spikey, in a cute way! And your tailor is wonderful; that surcoat makes you look like you have curves! I wonder if I can get them to make some things like that for me, because they have to be really good to do that!" The older girl paused. "Which is of course perfectly natural because you're still growing and Eleanore was the same and I'm afraid I think it's the vampirism which gives me this figure. Which is bad of course, because it's a curse."
"Let's just make our way to the secret garden," Louise said firmly.
The enlarged group's passage through the de la Vallière estate was considerably easier than Louise's way in. Some of the reason for that was that they were not going near the house, which was where the majority of the patrols were, but it was more likely that the real reason was that it was getting late and it was bleedin' cold out here and knowing that the master and mistress were away, the guards were mostly in bed or in other warm out of the way niches.
The clouds were parting and the light of the blue moon joined its red sibling in the sky, casting the frost-covered garden in two shades and painting each shadow twice on the sparkling lawns. The dark lady, the vampiress and the horde of malevolent goblins tiptoed their way to the side of the lake, to the waiting boat.
Which was not there.
"Oh... darn," said Cattleya, staring out across the water at the boats pulled up onto the shore on the island. "Sugar, sugar, sugar. What's that doing over there? Well, I can't help. It's flowing water. I can't even turn into a bat and fly across. I hope you've learned some kind of dark and forbidden magic which could pull the boat back, Louise, because... what are you doing?"
"Blues, go swim over and pull the boats back," Louise said, a little smugly as she gestured with her gauntleted hands.
"This is serious!" Cattleya said, one hand going to her mouth. "The boat shouldn't be over there! Only mother and father go over there for when they have to check on... on him, and the boat is only there because the wards zap anyone who tries to levitate over! And there should only be one boat! What's going on?"
Louise glanced at her sister, concerned. "When was the last time mother or father checked on the... the vampire person?" she asked. "How long could there have been other people over there?"
Cattleya looked uneasy. "Mother has been... distracted since you disappeared," she said awkwardly. "And then there's been the political mess with the arrest of the princess, and the peace treaty with the Albionese Republic – she was livid about that, but father said it made strategic sense, because the Germanians were still furious about the whole fiasco with the princess – and then the death of the comte de Mott. She loathed the man, you know? She very nearly smirked when she heard he was dead."
She licked her lips. "But yes. Mother has been... mopey since then. When she's not been in the capital, because she's been summoned there several times. Which means that when she's been around, she's been staying around the house getting on the staff's backs and making them clean everything and she started a redecoration of the gardens on the north side and got rid of the old obsidian altar and generally she's been shouting at people. Father has been out hunting more, too... I think to get away from Mother. It hasn't been fun to be in the house since last spring."
Over from the lake, the distant sound of "Swim harder! We do what overlady says, even if current fights us!" could be heard. As well as "Oooh! Fishie! Here fishie fishie lunchie fishie!" And "You stupid! This dinner, not lunchie!".
"Well, they're having fun," Louise said flatly. "This'll probably take a while."
"Why are you so calm?" Cattleya hissed – and it was a proper hiss – at Louise. The older girl blanched, the dull red glow which had flared to life in her eyes disappearing again. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she said hurriedly, "that really wasn't me. I'm just so... so dratted nervous. And..."
"Catt," Louise said, "... listen. Are... are you sure you want to be doing this? You can go home back to your room and not have to do all this. I'll be fine; I'm actually a fair mage nowadays now that I've found some spells which come naturally to me, and I have a horde of evil, foul-smelling minions who're probably raring to... to steal Louis de la Vallière's cape or something. And..." she paused, not quite sure how to say it. It wasn't that she didn't trust her sister now that she'd found she was a blood sucking fiend who sometimes – like just then – seemed to have a predatory side which she'd never seen before...
... wait, she'd sort of lost where she was going with that sentence, because as it stood it was a pretty good example of why she shouldn't trust Cattleya around her. But it was Cattleya! Her sister! Her kind, sweet sister who... who always had advice for her and hugged her and kept her safe and... and... and was a vampire, yes, but she was trying to be a good one, and was innocent and... well, innocent-ish, even if she was sometimes naughty and drank the blood of the living and... uh. Um.
"I don't want you to have to face some of the things I might have to do," she said, trying to avoid explaining all that out loud.
Cattleya grinned bravely, showing just a hint of fang. "That's adorable, little sister!" she said, with a slight wobble in her voice. "But really, I want to do this. I'm helping you not only for you, but for me. I want to see that... that utterly, utterly horrid man torn to pieces and killed and never ever ever ever coming back! I want to see him dead for the way he went for me when I was ten and left me... me like this! I'd really like to make him suffer for completely and utterly ruining my life, but above all, he has to be dead!"
Louise took a step back. "Catt, the sword!" she said nervously. It was making whistling noises as her sister waved it around in her agitation. She quietly filed this under the growing list of reasons she had avoided mentioning, but didn't say anything about it. It clearly meant a lot to Cattleya. Although... "Catt?"
"Mmm?" her sister said through clenched teeth.
"Uh... how do you feel about fire? I mean, you are a vampire and..."
"I really don't like it. At all. It's horrible," Cattleya said, clenching her jaw. "When I was eleven, I leant too close to a candle flame and melted off half my face. It took me almost three cows worth of blood to teach myself to heal. Do you have any idea how hard that is? When I was alive, my body would just scab over naturally and then heal. Father had to give me anatomy lessons before I could do that. Which admittedly did help with the whole 'aging' thing, but still! Fire bad!"
"It's just I use a lot of it and..."
"Louise, you're not talking me out of this and that's final," her older sister said, in a tone which both of them would normally have more associated with their mother. She emphasised it by crossing her arms under her breasts, and trying to look stern. It was ruined somewhat by the peculiar blend of ineffectual softness, blood-hungry predator and mindless fear at the thought of fire which flickered across her face,
"Oh, fine," Louise said, slumping down and checking on the blues, who were by now rowing back. "But... oh, look on the bright side. He's a vampire too, so he should be extra flammable."
"That is a cheerful thought," Cattleya agreed. "Uh. I won't be able to help with the rowing, you know. I won't be able to move at all when we get over the water. It's almost as bad as me and lemons. And don't let me fall in. Really, really don't. I'll dissolve like a sugar lump."
"I have all these strong minions to help," Louise said smugly.
The rather overpacked boats were loaded and slipped silently into the water, pulled by blues swimming alongside. The silence was only broken by the splash of oars and of course the customary babble of minions.
"Now, last time we went on boat, I got shut up," Maxy began, "so I continue from where I get cut off. Ahem. 'From hornies, that plague like this!/ Why look you so?' – With my musket/ I shot the... ow!"
Maggat thumped him again. "Row, row, row the boat," he sung, joined by the others, "Her ner ner ner ner!"
"Oh, for Founder's sake," Louise sighed.
"If you see a river dragon, kill it stone cold dead!"
"You too, Catt?"
The tomb of Louis de la Vallière was a pale, beautiful shape in the night. Up close, it was made of a fine white marble which almost resembled ice in its sheen and translucency. There were carvings and gargoyles and the like, which were exquisitely crafted and – now Louise got a better look at them – not something she really wanted to see up close. The recurring theme of 'un homme empallé sur un pic' with subnotes of slaughters of innocents, pillage, terror, fear, panic, and manifest unpleasantness made her rather happy she hadn't eaten anything recently.
"Can you see any signs of place we need to go?" she asked her sister.
"Probably down that staircase," Cattleya said, pointing through the half-open door. "I'm not sure how far down it goes; I've never been here before, but father said that there's rather more underground here than there looks to be."
"Just wonderful," Louise sighed. "No, of course it would be too much to expect that his tomb might be nice and simply inside a small chapel." It was slightly hypocritical of her to complain about extensive underground complexes, she momentarily considered, but it wasn't at all the same. She wasn't a vampire who'd gone for a ten year old girl. Quickly, she cast a lesser version of her fireball spell; enough for a thin wisp of pink flame to appear on top of her staff. "I'm sorry Catt," she said to her sister, who had retreated almost all the way back to the boats, "but I need to be able to see here. You can stay here if you..."
"It's fine," Cattleya said. "Just... warn me when you cast fire spells. You... you do have it under control, yes? Yes, it's under control. I don't need to worry about it. You're my sister. I can trust you with fire. You can control it. I don't need to run away or turn into a bat or wolf or mist to keep away. It's just my sister."
Now Louise was feeling vaguely guilty. "You can go first," she said. "You'll see better than me, and I promise… wait, you don't have something vampirey happen if you're hit with lightning? Like, by accident?"
"I don't think so," Cattleya said dubiously. "I mean, it'd probably hurt. Possibly quite a lot."
"I will try not to hit you," Louise said reassuringly. Or at least what she hoped was reassuring. From behind her, she heard Maggat cough, and turning she noticed him lifting the scrumpled up 'loot-sack'. "Minions," she said, "I want everything of value from this place. He doesn't deserve a pretty resting place after what he did to my sister." She was rewarded with a sunny, fanged grin from her sister.
Stone grated and something shifted in the earth below, releasing a dry, musty smell. A flock of bats came pouring out of the tomb, seemingly from the walls themselves. Louise flinched and covered her face, but they seemed to avoid her. Cattleya merely leaned out of the way of their flight, one hand darting out to grab a single one by the ankles.
"Look," she said once the flight had passed, stroking its back carefully. "Look at this." She offered the bat for Louise to see, fingers professionally locking its jaw in place. "The eyes."
"They're glowing red."
"Yes." Cattleya squared her jaw. "That means they've been drinking vampire blood. Or more likely they've had it fed to them."
"That doesn't make sense," Louise said, frowning. She glanced back over the water. "How could they fly over that."
"Because they're not vampires. They've just been drinking the blood, without dying," Cattleya said. "They haven't been drained. But it makes them easy to control, obedient, allows the vampire to see through their eyes if they focus – like a mage with a familiar, really. In fact, that's basically what it does. It turns them into fake familiars for the vampire."
"So… he knows we're coming?" Louise asked, with a sinking feeling in her heart.
"Not necessarily," Cattleya said. "You need to focus to see this way; it's not something you know all the time." She paused. "At least according to the books Father had me read," she added hastily.
"It's a good thing you know these things," Louise agreed. "Forewarned is forearmed, yes. And," she added, towards her minions, "that does not mean anyone has four arms. And you can't get extra arms by giving warning of things. Do I make myself clear?"
Together, the two sisters and the minions entered the tomb, descending a spiral stone staircase which led down into the bowels of the earth. Louise tried her best to damp the sound of her footsteps – oh yes, her helmet had warmed up since she put the hot water bottle in it, she should probably put it on – and not feel jealous about how quietly Cattleya was moving. Outside the tiny ball of pink light which surrounded her, she could only track her sister by the faint red glow of her eyes. Which meant that often she simply couldn't see her at all as she picked her way through dusty hallways of lavish marble.
She was also having problems seeing the minions, but she could still sense where they were. Some of it was probably because of some mystical power of the gauntlet which let her track her followers, but in all honesty it was more due to the fact things were being smashed wherever they went. A constant stream of gold, silver, gemstones-from-the-eyes-of-statues and other such minor fripperies was being presented to her, to be absorbed by the gauntlet and transferred to her treasury.
It was probably wrong that she was mentally occupying herself by trying to convert the value of the objects into improvements to her tower, but it occupied the time when Cattleya told her to stay where she was while she looked ahead.
"My lady," Gnarl whispered to her, his voice wheedling, "I have found something most ingenious and cunning. As you know, I have been looking into the means by which Scarron was bound, and I am sure I have found something of use in our current situation."
Louise wasn't so sure she had known that, actually. "Go on," she muttered cautiously, keeping one eye open for Cattleya. She was her sister, her kind, beloved sister, but she was also a half-undead thrall-vampire thing whose eyes were glowing a faint red in the darkness. And… uh, had been for all the time she'd known her. But this was different! Now she knew, and now Cattleya's eyes were glowing!
The fact that Louise's own eyes were glowing a pinkish-yellow was not something which she cared to think about at the moment.
She heard Gnarl clear his throat. "Blood of his blood. Scarron is bound by his descendent, conceived using one of the two weighty jewels in which he had invested much of his power. The same applies to the Bloody Duke. You are his descendent, and you master the tower heart, a fraction of which keeps him trapped. Blood controls blood; it is one of the most basic bits of magic there is. Well, Evil magic at least, but that's what you're wicked at. I do believe it would be possible to twist the binding your parents imposed on him, and enslave him to protect and serve you, and act in your best interests. Oh, it would please me greatly to see a vampire grovelling before me! I spent eighty years up in that cage!"
"I see," the girl breathed. "So… he would serve me?"
"Oh, indeed, indeed. You could probably have him licking your boots, if you felt that way inclined. And the floors. Which given your obsession with cleanliness in the tower, would be a saving indeed and would reduce the number of maid outfits we have to procure for chosen minions."
Any further discussion was interrupted by Cattleya's return, looking somewhat disturbed. Her expression was strained, and one eye was twitching. "You know how we were expecting traps?" she said, uneasily.
"No," Louise said.
"Oh, you have to have traps! They're in all proper tombs. But how there haven't been any yet? Well. Uh. I found one and it had already been triggered. By someone who hadn't left it. Um… when I lifted the stone block off, he was fairly dead and very flat. I… I think he was a peasant from the way he was dressed, but… um. It was hard to tell!"
Louise licked her lips nervously. Somehow Cattleya's explanation made matters worse than seeing it. "How… how long had he been in there?"
"At least a week; the blood was dry," Cattleya said confidently, her lips parting in a half-smile. "But not too long, because he was still a bit squishy. Well, certainly, the legs poking out from under the block were. The bit under the block was more… flat. But a few weeks would match up with the people who had fallen down the spikey pit, and I had to rescue a few of your adorable little minions from a bit of floor which tilted and threw them down onto a pile of bodies about that old. Peasants mostly, but one down on the spikes had a wand so I think they were a minor member of the nobility."
The overlady stared at her sister, eyes burning under her helmet. "I thought you said there hadn't been any traps!" she said, her voice rising in pitch.
"Oh, that? Well, yes, there haven't been any worth paying attention to. I mean, I just broke the mechanisms to make them safe." Cattleya coughed in a slightly embarrassed manner. "There were a lot of books on deathtraps and the like in the family library," she explained, with a slight twitch.
"I've been walking over deathtraps?" Louise said, sounding horrified.
"I made them safe!"
"… once this is over, you and I will need to talk," Louise sighed. "Let's just keep moving. From now on, you tell me where I might be in danger from traps." She paused, looking around the dark hallway. "And you probably should tell the minions too," she added. "So it'll at least be their fault if they set off a trap and I can have them punished for it."
"It's not only that," Cattleya said.
Louise's hands tightened around her staff, the flame on top flaring brighter and making Cattleya flinch. "What now?" she asked.
"I looked far enough ahead to find the main chamber," her sister said. "It's a big hollow cave-place with lots of bats there. There's a smaller tomb in there… his one. And… there are other vampires. Commoners, mostly. He's not alone. I… I think we now know why the boats were there. And…" her hand lashed out serpent-quick to seize Louise's wrist, holding her staff-hand in a steely grip which made the plate protest under the force, "… he wants to see you. I'm so sorry, Louise! I… can't say no. To him. He… he told me to tell you…" a drop of blood trickled out of her left nostril, "… that… th-that the only way to stop me taking you to him is to kill me, so you won't do anything with those 'useful little servants' of yours! And… and I don't want to but… I can't help myself! He... he makes me do things! And he's been calling all his blood to him!"
Cattleya's lips moved in a silent "help".