Brooks slogged reluctantly down the cobbled thoroughfare. Though just a few streets from his frequent haunt of Troll Whiskers, he considered this a very different neighbourhood — one he strongly disliked. The houses sat too close together for their size, and despite their opulence, very few of their residents were wealthy. Anyone of means had moved away from Flinders Lane in the past 40 years. None of them could tell you why, of course. A feeling of unease, the inexplicable impression that the neighbourhood was somehow going downhill, everyone else of note was moving further north, so on and et cetera. Brooks had a more logical explanation, not that anyone would believe him if he were to share it. It sat at the end of the street, marginally the highest point in Flinders, against the old dwarven wall. It was three stories high, built of brick and enchanted to instill a mild dread in anyone nearby. A useful trick to keep travelling salesmen and overzealous clergy from your door, and if it also chased away your more privileged and inquisitive neighbours, then so much the better. There was unfortunately no exception for invited guests, however.
It was, in Brooks’s estimation, never a positive experience, being summoned to the Men of Letters bunker. On his most recent visit some three or four years ago, Dog had refused to accompany him further than halfway down Flinders Lane. Between that and the local park being completely unoccupied by wildlife and devoid of birdsong, Brooks thought to himself, not for the first time, that animals were likely wiser than humans. Steeling himself against the illusory fear radiated by the house and the very rational concern inspired by any communication from Sinclair, Brooks thumped his gloved fist on the door three times, declining to use the grotesque brass abishai knocker.
Quiet footsteps and a louder intermittent clicking approaching the door told him his host was answering her own door today. Though not yet out of her thirties by most human estimation, Sinclair had walked with an apparently ornamental cane since she’d first come to Whinebrass Heights. He suspected she used it primarily as a herald, announcing her presence when she deigned to walk among mortals such as himself.
The door swung inward, relieving the house’s unnatural aura somewhat and replacing it with an herbal scent Brooks thought might have been intended to smell like thyme. Or sage. Or something one cooks with.
“Good of you to come,” Sinclair said, her attempt at a welcoming smile quickly faltering. “Though you might have done so sober.”
As always, Brooks was struck by how little Sinclair had changed in the past few years, something he never quite got used to. She didn’t seem to be making any effort to cover her slightly pointed ears with her many-plaited hair, and her throat prominently displayed an ivory cameo that bore no resemblance at all to the Man of Letters herself. Otherwise, she looked exactly as she had however many years ago Brooks had first met her. Now with his fiftieth year behind him, it took an effort to not resent her for it.
Brooks waved his hand in a vague gesture at the house. “I needed a drink or two to work up the courage to approach your blighted haunted mansion. Any sane man would. Don’t see why we couldn’t have met at Troll Whiskers, anyway. It’s as neutral a location as one can find in the city.”
“Because it smells like beer, piss and tiefling,” she responded. “Not that this place’ll be much better by the time you’re gone. But under the circumstances, I’ll have to risk it. Please, do come in.”
The foyer had been redecorated since the last time Brooks had been asked to the Bunker, though the general feel and theme had been carefully preserved. Lots of polished wood and uncomfortable furniture punctuated with arcane-looking objects: a fleder skull on the mantel, an ancient spellbook on an end table, a gnarled staff sitting in the corner. Brooks knew from experience, however, that the staff was just another polished bit of wood. The spellbook was an old Onosyllian dictionary. And the skull was a plaster replica. The Men of Letters dressed their foyer for show to impress their few visitors and even fewer initiates, keeping the truly arcane locked away much more securely.
Sinclair led him down a slightly curving hallway before stopping at what Brooks idly counted as the fourth door on the right. After turning two numerical dials next to the door to “72” (Brooks filed the information away, though he’d likely never have cause to use it), Sinclair turned the knob and pushed the giant slab of wood inward. Brooks followed her into a well-lit room surrounded by concave windows. The only thing visible through them was blue sky and clouds. Having been called to several such meeting rooms in the past, Brooks was pleasantly surprised. The motif was usually that of an underground cell or cave. At a glass table surrounded by glass chairs (How’d they manage that? thought Brooks. Or why bother?) sat Renault Bulleit, paladin of Torag and the only other invitee to the meeting.
Especially next to Sinclair’s near-perpetual youth, the last few years weighed heavily on Renault, etching lines into his face and a strand or two of grey into his hair that would have looked more at home on a man 10 years his senior. His sense of style hadn’t changed, however; he still wore the same old-fashioned blue-and-white tunic and blue leggings favoured by many of Torag’s faithful. Another sharp contrast to Sinclair, Brooks mused. While she was a picture of sartorial elegance — some of her accessories and articles of clothing so new and fashionable that Brooks didn’t even know the name of them — Renault could have borrowed his wardrobe from a theatre specializing in medieval drama. “Brooks,” he said tentatively as he rose to offer his hand to the Hunter. “It’s been some time. But with things as they are, I hoped we could…”
Brooks took up the conversation as his erstwhile Hunting companion trailed off. “At least bury the hatchet? It’s long past due. Forgive me or not, it’s up to you. Even if we share a common goal, your ways and mine won’t ever be the same. I did what I thought best under the circumstances and can accept that maybe there was a better way. Who knows? But with Cormac gone, Whinebrass doesn’t need Hunters divided over a matter of semantics.”
“The life of an intelligent creature is never a matter of semantics!” Renault, quiescent until now, took a half-step closer to Brooks, bringing the two almost nose-to-nose. It was all Brooks could do to not roll his eyes at the display of chest-thumping masculinity.
A tap of Sinclair’s cane on the stone floor ended their brief staring contest in a tie. “Didn’t someone say something about burying a hatchet? This is too important for your squabble. And don’t involve me in it, either way.” She took a seat and gestured for the men to do the same. “And you’re wrong, Brooks; Cormac isn’t gone. At least, not as gone as he should be.”
Brooks sat down warily. “What do you mean by that?” He caught himself looking for a tankard or glass as he sat down, both as a matter of habit and as a reaction to what could only be imminent bad news.
“Renault?” Sinclair said, inclining her head slightly to the paladin.
“A few days ago,” began Renault, finally retaking his seat, “I had cause to defend a parishioner — Selwyn, a very successful brewer — who I believed was being pursued by hell hounds. I called in a team of Hunters to aid me, the ones you mentioned in your letter who have taken up residence in Cormac’s old house.”
“Yes,” said Brooks, his expression brightening in recognition. “A decent crew, if a bit impetuous. They’ve inherited quite a few of Cormac’s effects.”
“Inherited or looted?” asked Sinclair with a slightly mocking smile.
“In our community, there’s not much difference. I doubt that new cameo of yours came from your grandmother’s estate.” It was Brooks’s turn to smile as he watched Sinclair visibly suppress an urge to raise a hand to her throat to cover the jewelry as her own expression faded to neutrality.
“If I may?” Renault said somewhat impatiently. “They’re quite capable. We moved everyone else out of Selwyn’s estate for the night and set up a defense around him. Sure enough, at midnight, three hell hounds came to collect. But they weren’t alone. Cormac accompanied them.”
Renault paused for effect, but Brooks would have interrupted him anyway. “Impossible! Even if he weren’t dead, why would…? You’re mistaken.”
“It was his contract,” Renault said, shaking his head. “The devil you wrote me about, the one Cormac was rumoured to be after? The contract was with Cormac. And apparently it’s using him to collect souls for it now. A twisted, perverted mirror of his life as a Hunter.”
“Gods,” Brooks breathed, stunned. “Are you…?”
“Sure? Yes, they even found his copy of the contract. I helped them research it, and it turns out there was a clause that allowed that allowed the devil to collect Cormac’s soul if he ventured too far from where the contract was signed. Hence his disappearance in Tiande.”
“Damn. Always knew a vukodlak wouldn’t have been a match for him.” Brooks stood up and began pacing the room. “So what about Selwyn? He’s one of the better brewers in town. Will I have to find a new favourite stout?”
“Of course that’s where your mind would go,” Renault said, amusement warring with a sneer for control of his expression. “Cormac took him. I always knew I wouldn’t have been able to beat Cormac in a fair fight. He was obviously reluctant, but even though he’s still himself in some ways, he doesn’t seem to have much control over his actions.”
“The matter is being treated as a homicide,” Sinclair interjected. “The brewer was apparently beheaded — quite cleanly — so we don’t even have the usual ‘wild animal’ explanation that the hell hounds would have lent us. My contacts in the Watch are trying to cover any indication that Renault and the Hunters were there, but it’s possible too many people saw them entering the estate. We may not be able to keep a lid on it. Which would mean moving forward while under pressure from the Watch.”
Brooks, temporarily distracted from the conversation by what looked to be a flying whale passing by some distance outside the window, snapped back to awareness. “What moving forward? Cormac is on the other team now, and there’s no way to trap his spirit or free him. The best we can do is stay out of his way.”
“Not an option,” Sinclair said definitively. “Renault also learned why Cormac’s ‘inheritors’ are after the contract devil. Turns out one of his contracts is responsible for the surge in vampires around Elim lately. A termination clause that has a dread vampire creating 1,000 spawn to free herself and the fool who signed the contract. That’s not something we can turn a blind eye to.”
Sighing in discomfort as he assimilated the new information, Brooks stood and made his way to one of the windows. The creature he’d viewed earlier was nowhere in sight, and he was surprised to find that nothing else was, either. The concave nature of the windows allowed him an impressive visual radius — one that didn’t include any other structures or even the ground below. “Makes sense,” Brooks nodded understanding. “Everyone knew something was happening involving vampires, though I doubt that’s the whole story.”
“It’s a large enough part of it to warrant attention,” Renault countered. “And our new associates intend to bring it to a close. Apparently they have a history with vampires and a particular dislike for them. But the contract is fairly iron-clad; the only termination clause anyone can find is the aforementioned 1,000 spawn. So I’ve sent them to Saraneth. They already have the True Name and should be able to summon the devil.”
Sinclair picked up where Renault had left off. “Even that will only get them an audience under controlled circumstances — and not a very long one. Supposing that they could kill him, he’d just reform in Hell with a powerful grudge. You remember Kellan, 15 years or so back? He found out the hard way that killing a contract devil is worse than useless. The osyluth that caught up with him demonstrated that thoroughly.”
Brooks did remember but didn’t dwell on it. No Hunter ever died in his bed. Kellan had taken a risk, and it hadn’t paid off. “Doubt he’ll cancel the contract if you ask nicely. What are you proposing? Some kind of trade?”
“No one is proposing anything in specific,” Renault said. “I brought this information to Nora, and she thought that you, as Cormac’s closest friend, should know. And as something of an elder statesman among the Hunters of Whinebrass, you needed to be informed about new developments regarding the influx of vampires.”
Brooks noted the familiar use of Sinclair’s first name and wondered if there might be some significance to it. Her pragmatism and Renault’s idealism seemed like a poor match, but one never knew. Sinclair continued. “It’s up to your new associates how they handle this. Keep your ear to the ground and offer any assistance you can, but this is their fight, at least for now. The Old Men wouldn’t want me to interfere, and it’s not as if I have the resources right now anyway.”
The old Hunter quirked an eyebrow at her. “Where are Jakob and Wilhelm? Shouldn’t they be jumping at something like this?”
“Out west, investigating an invasion of fey. Though those two would ride across the continent at the mention of a pixie, so who knows how worthwhile it is. At any rate, it’s our place to observe and orchestrate. And this time, I want you to do the same.”
Still curious, Brooks surreptitiously used a detect magic spell to scan the windows. Nothing. So if it’s not an illusion… “An odd suggestion for someone who just said—”
“With you, options are usually limited to doing nothing or decisive and unyielding action,” she said, cutting him off. “Wasn’t it you who burned down Faith’s apothecary? Broke her gems? Those would have been invaluable in our hands.”
“They were trapped souls! You would have had me leave them like that? Her entire enterprise reeked of evil, and I did what needed to be done. You’re saying you knew about her and did nothing?”
“Faith was evil, but she was a lesser evil. And it would have been useful to know what she knew. That door is closed to us now, and while your time to be directly involved in this may come, I don’t need you slamming more such doors in the meantime. But you may be called upon to act against Cormac — or whatever he’s become — and I need you to be prepared for that. Withholding the information from you would have just made things more difficult down the line.”
From the decidedly neutral expression on his face and his uncharacteristic silence, Brooks could tell that Renault hadn’t been informed about the events leading up to the fire at Faith Healer or Sinclair’s prior knowledge of the apothecary’s nature. It was no mystery which side of the argument he would have come down on, and Sinclair didn’t need the paladin and the Hunter aligned against her on something. It was sloppy of her to bring it up in front of Renault and would undoubtedly lead to an unpleasant conversation between the two of them later.
“So I’m to be your pawn and wait until you’re prepared to move me?” he asked, sounding a little petulant even to himself.
“You’re to trust, as Cormac did, that I know what’s best for Whinebrass Heights,” she retorted. “You said yourself that your new friends are capable. A ‘decent crew,’ I believe? Trust them to handle the situation. Or at least to make its nature more transparent to us. Maybe they can succeed where Cormac failed and come out on the better end of a deal with a devil. It’s been known to happen.” Sinclair seemed about to say more but apparently thought better of sharing her full thoughts on the matter.
Brooks didn’t like the suggestion but had planned on standing back and letting younger Hunters handle the influx of vampires anyway. Now that a contract devil was involved, why should that change things? He’d never admit to a Man of Letters that she was right, but she wasn’t necessarily wrong. “Agreed. I’ll stay out of the matter for now and gather what information I can. But in exchange, you’re to keep me informed. And not,” he gestured to the unusual room they were sitting in, “here. Come down to the tavern like a normal person. Or hell, we can meet at the Temple. But what even is this place?”
Sinclair smiled, allowing her enjoyment of Brooks’s discomfort to show on her face for the first time that day. “Fair enough. I’ll call on you at Troll Whiskers if I learn anything new. It’ll do me some good to see Mac again, and the scent will likely wash out of my clothes. Eventually.” She rose and gestured to the door. “Gentlemen, if I may see you out?”
Brooks rose, muttering something about flying whales, and followed her to the exit. While he often repeated the truism that “no Hunter ever died in his bed,” it was to comfort him when a friend or associate passed. Personally, he was perfectly content to pursue that fate. Or at least he’d thought he was. Maybe it was his personal connection to Cormac or the apparently increased stakes that made this Hunt more appealing to him than anything else in the last 10 years. But for whatever reason, Brooks had found something that seemed worth risking his life for — if it came down to that.