written and illustrated by Iron Eater
I regret not corresponding sooner than this, & request your forgiveness in this matter, as my relocation to my new quarters involved a great deal of unexpected elements, delays, &tc., but I wish to firstly ease any concerns you might have for my constitution by including copies of my meal records for the period of time between when I left for the other side of town & when I penned this letter. These are enclosed within the smaller envelope. I anticipate another meal to-day in the evening after the students’ sundown lessons have concluded. It will be dutifully enclosed with my next missive.
Much as we both feared, my allergy has returned as a result of the change in environs. I am being certain to collect & label samples for the purposes of any future tests you may wish to perform upon them, & there are a pleasing number of bell-jars at my disposal here which make this task trivial. At this time I am ensuring ninety-five per cent of each allergic shed is incinerated to keep any unfortunate side-effects from compounding themselves due to the proximity. It is not as bad as my condition before I was entrusted to your medical expertise, for which I am grateful, but I am nonetheless certain to note down my sense of well-being with my meal records until you are next able to more directly measure my humours via methods chemical.
The food here is not to my taste but I take comfort in the fact that I am still able to have seasoned greens with my suppers & that I have little trouble brewing cups of the tea mixture which you have prescribed to me. I have less good fortune finding anything potable amongst the foul vinegars they claim to be wine. If it would not be too troublesome I would request a copy of the recipe for the very fine leek soup you make, that it might brighten up some of the dreariness of the palate encouraged by most meal-times here, & further enrich the potential temperaments of all who might partake of it. Please disregard this statement should doing so be more taxing than I suspected.
I have inquired whether the academy keeps a pianoforte within its grounds. I have yet to receive a straight answer, though I suspect I may be able to convince someone of the value of a dedicated music room should we be lacking one. There are many little song leaflets in my collection whose notes I have yet to attempt & I do not wish my middling skill to atrophy whilst beside-of-town.
I am fast discovering that I am ill-suited to the pedagogue’s calling, at least as far as it is dictated by the academy. Perhaps it is because in teaching fundamentals I must essentially puzzle out how to teach my students something that, to me, is no different from instinct functioning on the same primal level as the way a man might gasp when he is plunged into cold water. When it comes time for matters of rite and ritual I hope I shall be of more use to them. It is not by their will that they have been given a mentor who can scarce recall what it means to be youthful.
The young harriers themselves are still raw iron that dreams of steel. Each day after lessons I take care to remind myself that it is a fine experiment to which I have tasked myself & greatly more humane than that relative kindness I myself was blessed to know at such an age. Some days I know I am poorer at playing the school-teacher than others, as it has been many years since I was a shivering neophyte, & even then my circumstances were somewhat different from each of these hopefuls’ own. I strive to understand their strengths as best I can that I might hone my teaching skills to serve them best.
One of the apprentices in particular, young Banbury, has a perplexing fixation on my fingers. It seems he has not met a polydactyl of my character before & he cannot seem to decide whether he wishes to mock me or cringe back when I demonstrate the depths of my dexterity during a lesson. I suspect he is firmly in the camp of those society minds that view a person’s inner state as some sort of flaw of character which must only be expressed as a last resort, as opposed to the splendid bridge between pure thought and pure deed that it truly is, & it saddens me that there are still so many who shackle themselves to such outmoded modes of thought. We shall see if he still feels thusly once stretching exercises have been added to the regimen.
I do not feel like I have many comrades here. It is not quite so precarious as when I lived at the refurbished manor before I was committed to your care, which I hope means that the more I grow to understand my fellow instructors the less stand-offish I will be, perhaps even finding those I might proudly call peers. This feels unlikely to me, & yet I hope. Sometimes it is all that a man can do.
Your advice & thoughtfulness for my particular condition are sorely missed. I shall be grateful to hasten to your side once my ephemeral tenure has ended, that we may continue our joint research into the nature of certain society mysteries, & that I might enjoy the privilege of conversation upon complex matters once more. Should my letters trouble you, or my supplied record-copy lack detail which would aid your study, or another relocation require the use of a new given address, I need but a single response saying as much, & my future writing shall be amended.
With all fortune it shall be a swift & uneventful stay until the metaphorical glass has drained its last crumb of sand & we may once more discuss matters of the work in person.
I remain ever-faithfully,
Hugh Robin Wainwright
Instructor, Academy for the Pursuing Arts (honorary, temporary)
Hugh neatly organized the sheaf of documents, took up a bottle of the scent he’d been taking to wearing while away from home (it kept animals from being quite so frightened of him, he’d found, though he was careful to wash it away in the bath each evening), dabbed a tiny bit on the topmost letter, then bound everything up in society stationary with a big wax seal across the flap. He trotted through the empty halls of the academy to the bookkeeper’s office and gave the door a soft knock. A panel in the wood slid back to reveal a slice of one of the facility’s many secretaries, who regarded him coolly.
“These are meant to be delivered to Mr. A.O. Ward of the society, currently out of the night city at the indicated address, if you please,” said Hugh. As it was quite possible that the person on the other side of the door had no idea who that was, he added, “He is my handler and will be expecting medical records. I shall need to send them regularly. Is there a method your offices would prefer I follow when I do so?”
The door-face’s eyes glanced down to the society emblem Hugh wore at his neck, further down to the hand still holding the sealed parcel, then back up to his face again. “Don’t give us anything bloodied,” said the clerk, “and don’t try to send back little trophies unless they’re sealed up completely. I won’t be having devil stink get into the letters.”
“Mr. Ward prefers to oversee my blood testing locally. You shan’t be seeing any gore from me as much as I am able to help it.”
“Then these will go out with the midnight mail,” said the clerk.
Hugh affected a small smile to better convey his gratitude. He suspected his countenance had skewed more dour than the norm during his stay thus far. “I’m certain Mr. Ward will appreciate your swiftness, and I shall be certain to mention it myself when next I write,” he said. He handed the parcel through the slot to a beckoning hand.
The clerk’s eyes darted across the address before returning to Hugh’s. “Will that be all, professor?”
“Yes, thank you. Have a fine evening.” He was rewarded with the snap of the panel as it closed.
Most of the non-faculty staff at the academy treated Hugh with similar short courtesy. No one actor’s behavior was precisely identical to anyone else’s, as even the most faceless of scullions was still a unique human being beneath their work clothes, but he all the same felt the discomfort towards him beneath their carefully maintained distance. They were, after all, initiated society members themselves. They knew what he was.
Hugh sighed to himself, which echoed slightly in the emptiness of the hall, and returned, with somewhat less spring in his step, to his quarters.
A ritual master of his station—the rest of their nature notwithstanding—attracted books the way an old woolen coat called to moths, and in this regard Hugh did not deviate from his peers. Shelves lined the walls of his private room, each stuffed near to creaking with research materials he felt most relevant to his tutelage. A smaller shelf served as something of a night-table next to his bed; here lived the documents he felt most important to see first thing in the morning, and a packet of Mr. Ward’s unpleasant tea mixture to be prepared with his breakfast, and the novelty that was the novel he had picked up at the shops shortly after arriving from across town. Hugh had yet to make up his mind on how he felt about long-form fiction. The peculiar little tome at least gave him something to do with himself when the hour was late and he needed a rest from his usual books.
He sat himself down on the smaller of the two seats at his desk and rifled through some incomplete documents. One who had only seen his quarters yet never met Hugh in the flesh might have thought him a scribe, as he kept himself wealthy in papers and ink; the waxes, seals, and odd bottle of scent could just as easily be the tools of a busy steward as they were a homesick honorary professor. He was homesick, he admitted to himself, despite having spent a mere handful of days away from the mechanical house in the depths of the night city.
The place he’d left behind was technically the third such house he had called home, the first having burned down in a most dramatic fashion and the second being more of an auxiliary hiding place than a proper dwelling, and Hugh suspected there was a strong chance his current abode would not be the last of such structures he’d see. He hadn’t realized how accustomed he had become to needing to enact little puzzles to open up certain doors, or even entire passages through the house; here everything was as simple as keys and locks and doorknobs. It was just one of many scraps of banality that filled him with longing for his proper place, a-prowl atop the roofs of a city that never knew daylight.
After much rummaging-through of papers Hugh produced a piece of parchment that had been folded in on itself and sewn up with thread to make a little folio. On the front, in his own hand, read the words, “DATES of CORRESPONDENCE.” He turned it to the first page, glanced at the tall clock next to his overstuffed reading chair, and wrote down the date and what he guessed had been the time he handed the letter over. Once the ink was dry enough he closed up the folio once more and placed it next to his more sturdily bound meal record. Writing things down helped things feel more real even in these undesirable circumstances; more importantly, they gave him data points to share in later letters, though writing to Mr. Ward regularly was a pleasure he would not deny himself even if he had nothing but blank pages to convey.
Genuine pleasure was thinner on the ground those days, he had found. The academy felt like a place designed to quash any thoughts of joy that might kindle within its walls, but it could not deny him the comfort of providing information to his handler as part of the arrangement into which the society itself had bade him enter. He would share every thought he felt wise to write—Hugh had been a society man more than long enough to assume at some point someone would be reading his mail—and provide the clerks with new letters to handle every day, if he so chose, because doing so was a way he could connect with Mr. Ward even when they were boroughs apart, and this brought him great gladness in a way he was unafraid to share with any who might inquire after the matter. Let those who felt they could only function while yoked to denial do as they liked; Hugh would allow himself what happiness he could find.
The clock’s hands had scarcely moved since last he checked them. It would be a while yet until the sun set, and a while after that before sundown lessons concluded. Hugh was not teaching any of the latter that day, nor did he have any other designated duties until the following morn, and as such he was left with a slice of unscheduled time between the current hour and his supper. He could certainly think of a good use for it.
Part of Hugh’s demands for his quarters had been for very thick curtains on all the windows. The nasty effect direct sunlight had on his skin was his formal reason for demanding such; the informal reason was because he was a man who enjoyed, nay, needed to stretch regularly, and the society frowned upon such things made public. Nice, thick drapes helped preserve both his modesty and secrecy, even on the rare day when he left a window open a crack to air out the arcane funk that liked to build up around his books. Hugh ensured every curtain was in its place and that all the window and door locks were engaged before stripping to the waist and going through the little routine he’d devised for himself.
He first limbered up by twisting from side to side, touching his toes, and lacing his fingers behind his back to pull at the muscles in his arms. Simple lunges and deep knee bends were about all he felt wise to do while still wearing his trousers; his first few tries at private exercise had been fully unclothed, which had granted him an equally full range of movement, but the gnawing, illogical fear that he might be summoned in the middle of things kept him from fully enjoying himself. Compromise had been necessary to derive any crumb of satisfaction from the act at all.
The tensions of the day lessened their vice grip upon him as he moved. It didn’t matter how the staff glanced at him suspiciously in the halls, not when he could feel the crackle of his neck as he tensed it from side to side, nor when musing upon the comforting way his flesh churned when he willed himself to spread outwards. He inhaled deeply and exhaled with equal care. His spine telescoped outwards as the breath left his lungs, his ribs following suit as they bowed outwards to make room for another inhalation; the feeling of his innards nestling into new configurations with each fresh lungful was a sure sign that everything was as it should be. Hugh’s vision gained new depth as the eyes he usually kept closed opened to greet the lamplight. The snap of his teeth against themselves—and he had more of these on display than before, as well—was strong and bold, the arrangement of his eyes untroubled by the distension of his muzzle into the range of his binocular view. Upon completing his initial stretches Hugh paused to perform a self-evaluation. From jaws to navel, everything felt the way it was supposed to.
He uncovered his full mirror—a man of Hugh’s profession did not leave an exposed glass in the bedroom, as he could not guarantee anything might get out or in when he was unaware—to admire himself. In spite of his legs being comically small in this state the rest of him looked quite healthy, save for the subtle hints at where his skin was once more preparing to peel. Curse the society for insisting he drag himself from his usual tenebrous habitat! Their emblem might still lay against his collar bone, and their oversight might have saved him from a far more dreadful, and far much shorter, life, but it was certainly like them to push him into a terrifying new reality, only to attempt to haul him back once he had discovered he far preferred a stranger life. Were he a man more prone to conspiracy than mystery he might have suspected they had called upon him in malice.
Even with his half-ragged hide Hugh felt he cut a fine figure of a hunter. He had always been slightly more at ease with this aspect of himself than his old peers had been, or so he suspected, and so it had not taken much guidance on Mr. Ward’s part for Hugh to embrace it proudly. Instructing the students on how to properly understand such parts of themselves would surely be a worthwhile set of lessons. If the society took issue with it, well, the old adage of the frog and the scorpion came to mind; a frog knew a scorpion’s nature was to sting and the society knew Hugh’s nature was to revel in his own chimerical skin. They would have only themselves to blame if he behaved in the manner he himself had declared he would when first offered the position.
It was difficult to perform calisthenics while top-heavy, much to Hugh’s dismay, and so he settled for gentler, more methodical movements with less risk of toppling over. The tensions of the day gradually eased with every repeated exertion. How some of his ilk could go for days or weeks—perhaps even longer than either of those—without stretching so much as a finger was an utter mystery; even during the bleak days when he thought himself little more than a tool with a singular purpose, Hugh had rarely shied from taking the time to indulge his inner nature. It was like standing after being seated in a chair for several hours, similar to how when he ultimately returned to a more outwardly presentable appearance it brought with it the relief of sitting down after too long on one’s feet. He hoped at least some of the students knew this same comfort. They really couldn’t get to that part of the curriculum quickly enough.
When the clock chimed the quarter-hour, twinned with the distant boom of the academy’s bell tower, Hugh took it as a natural place to finish his routine. He gave himself one last crunch of the joints before adjusting himself to be able to fit into a shirt again. Back home this had been a purely optional step, but back home he had clothes for all occasions. Back home the sun never rose to vex him, either; worry might keep him from completely stripping down during his exercises, but the night belonged to men such as Hugh. The nights at the academy were only tolerable in that he could sleep in whatever dimensions he pleased; if some emergency might call him from his chambers at a late enough hour the society would simply have to endure him scampering towards the trouble on both two legs and four.
Hugh dressed quickly. Once more fit for reasonably public consumption, he checked his hair (mostly unmussed) and teeth (not too many) in the mirror before covering up the glass once more. Following this he took the opportunity to tidy up. He would never consider the state of his room a welcoming one, as he kept his hunting tools on open display and some of his trophies were quite dreadful things—and what a laugh it was that the society would permit him an array of grisly souvenirs but deny him too-large shoes, convinced that it was the latter that were more suspicious to curious onlookers than the former—but Hugh resolved to form good habits while away, and keeping things clean was one of them. If he managed to maintain such a routine by the time he returned home, perhaps he could surprise Mr. Ward with the willingness to help dust high places that longer arms were well-designed to reach.
It was not that the campus staff were unsuited to their work, as Hugh never wanted for food or cleanliness, but there was a cold, mechanical quality to their interactions whenever Hugh attempted to engage with one on any level beyond the most perfunctory. They were not interested in discussing philosophy, or inclined to share their thoughts about local goings-on, or prone to encouraging Hugh’s attempts at creativity, and they certainly were no replacement for Mr. Ward’s rare hints of a smile or the piercing clarity of his gaze. Expecting anyone but Mr. Ward himself to possess such was disrespectful to all parties involved. Keeping his hands busy helped Hugh not think about it quite so much.
By the time the clock struck three-quarters of an hour the place was as neat as it could be without actually unseating Hugh’s property from the premises. The carpets were swept, the furniture was dusted, and the towers of books only swayed minimally. Not a single seal of abjuration was out of place. Even the bed was turned down in the manner he’d picked up from Mr. Ward. Pleased with his work, Hugh chose a tome at random from a shelf of unspeakable occult materials and settled in for an evening of light reading.
I am forever grateful for your willingness to provide the recipe for which I asked & am pleased to report the kitchens here have entertained my request to reproduce it. Alas, they do not seem inclined to make it a regular addition to meals, no matter the time of day, & so I shall strive to treasure the days when they deign to prepare such a soup for we hunters. Such a day was this very evening, to my pleasure, which gave me the opportunity to sample the academy kitchens’ attempts at it. The texture & flavor was pleasing enough. It could not, of course, compare with the meals you have served as part of my treatment, but I shall take what small comforts I can, as it is far superior to relying entirely upon the cooks’ love of boiling most everything resembling a protein.
They have yet to send me out a-hunting since I arrived. I imagine this is to ensure I do not render myself unsuited to lecture, but if things continue at this rate I greatly fear I shall succumb to a fever of the mind more severe than any beast’s flailing claw. I am keeping up with my exercises & taking care to train most regularly in the facilities available. There is something lost in the act of leaping from one high place to another when one is neither pursuer nor pursued, nor returning from the resolution of said state. I shall surely find proper means for bleeding off this restlessness. I do not wish for harm to become anyone, of this you are already aware, yet every passing day with no quarry fills me with grand dispassion. Is this a sign of some coming risk? Should I consider myself a danger? I would appreciate your thoughts on the situation, have you any you care to share with me.
Ennui & restlessness are not the only things that fill my days. I must confess to being more prone to puckish behavior as of late, as a way to remind my fellow professors of why I was sent for & also as a form of proving a point, & I regret that I have perhaps delighted in the discomfort which my trained skills can engender in even others of my sort. I rally often for increased focus on the transmogrative element of the pursuing arts. The students should be tutored in how to make use of their protean natures, I argue, just as much as we train them with gun, blade, & similar tools, & I suspect if we can free the mind from fear of the body we shall steel them against the threat that lurks in the hearts of all we creatures. Showing them that they are still men & women no matter their silhouettes is key to securing their prolonged happiness. If they do not dread themselves, they do not build up the form of self-loathing that dissolves a hunter’s guts & turns them rancid, & thusly they are saved from such dreadful fates as those of the late Mr. P—. Better a thousand eyes without than a single eye within, always.
You may ask of me: How is this puckish? You would be correct in asking, as the way I have detailed it to you is in no way whimsical. What I have neglected to mention is the ways in which I have made my case. Allow me to elucidate.
The society insists that clothing fitted to a stretching individual would be troublesome, prone to question in ways that mere hunter’s garb is not. I have argued that the students at least be permitted aprons, tailored in such a fashion that they could be said to be garb for ritual cleaning, or perhaps livestock. I was challenged why I was so willing to clothe my students in horse blankets, & took satisfaction in my answer, this being: These are young people, all, & they cannot risk choking themselves on tight fabric when learning their natures, & in what way is it appropriate for youths of barely more than twenty summers to disrobe before a gentleman so much their senior when not in the interest of a medical exam? I urge you to imagine the expression this earned me, as it still brings me much merriment even with time between now and then.
Whether my whims bear fruit is as yet unknown, as it will be quite some time before the subtleties of the academy permit me to teach one of the society’s greatest truths. I shall, of course, write to you as soon as there is something to say.
Enclosed within the smaller envelope are my meal records, as always. I pen this much later in the day than usual & so there are slightly more than before. Keeping track of what I consume has been an anchor of familiarity to me in these trying times.
How fares the house? I sometimes pass the time seeing how many of its secrets I can recall off the top of my head, that I not forget them while I am away. Not a single chamber in the academy can only be accessed by aligning a hinged metallic shape to cast the shadow of a spider across a painting of a rose, & I find it irks me to no longer be challenged by my environs. Perhaps when they deign to return me to my patrol of the city’s shingles I shall be appeased. I may take to investigating the academy’s roofing on my own some future sundown, as aside from the fine practice I believe it would serve me well to know where & how one might move beneath the moon.
I think of you often. Every bowl of leek soup reminds me of your dedication to the work, & that the date of our continued collaboration draws ever-closer. I shall continue to incorporate our discussions into my lectures so long as it is pertinent to do so, as even when we cannot work in tandem, our duties remain in a scope ever-vast & in need of our attention. May the guidance you offered me enrich these youths in turn.
With all sincerity,
Hugh Robin Wainwright
Instructor, Academy for the Pursuing Arts (honorary, temporary)
The absence of Mr. Ward’s presence in Hugh’s daily affairs was an inescapable element of every day spent away from his normal routine. Mr. Ward was an entire army wrapped up in the skin of a single man, as by his hand was the house kept clean, the clothes kept tailored, the food kept fresh-cooked, the linens kept pressed, and above all else Hugh’s constitution kept under calm and unjudging observation. A man of Hugh’s nature needed a mix of solitude and socialization to best rejuvenate between calls to society business; Mr. Ward provided the perfect ratio. Now that ratio had been upset, leaving Hugh in the lurch. He admitted to himself he probably ought to talk to his fellow professors more, or at least spend more time not shut away in his room with his books and daily exercises, but that brought with it its own form of dread. Was it so unreasonable for a man to not relish the thought of having to explain himself time after time to people who should have been the most sympathetic? The society had set one of its own after him in what felt like the same breath as the one that had declared he seek the guidance of a handler. It was difficult to open up to people while wondering what shared intimacy they might use against him were they the next to follow him home.
Hugh shuffled in his bed. At home he didn’t mind the quiet of his own room; here at the academy it was too quiet, with the city-noise trickling in from elsewhere lacking the mad-eyed, unearthly edge to which he’d acclimated during his first months spent in that curious house on the other side of town. What night creatures walked those streets passing the campus were the usual assortment of animals and people with tasks to which they needed to attend. Neither group was prone to making the sorts of sounds his ears missed.
Being distressed by his current bedtime ambiance was not the entire truth, of course. Sleeping alone back home was a choice he could make for himself, rather than a necessity of distance, and Hugh was not keen to fill the void between the sheets with a stranger. He sighed. The sooner the students were trained, the sooner he could go back to where he belonged.
The weather was cool and balmy outside, which should have made for a cozy rest beneath the quilts they had brought in for him. What it did instead was remind him of how long it’d been since he’d last been able to sleep in the same bed as Mr. Ward, dressed smartly in well-made nightclothes that made him feel quite the proper gentleman no matter the state of the rest of him. How strange it was that he felt far more cramped when sharing space with fewer people! The academy’s bed had the decency to allow him the room to stretch out while using it—not a guarantee of places he’d lived before—which meant he’d resorted to his old habit of sleeping in the nude for the past two weeks. How could he not, if they would not permit him properly-sized garments? If they needed him to look a certain way at certain times he had to balance things out somehow, and while he could sleep without stretching he also had his own preferences. Nudity was simply a necessity of the situation. He knew Mr. Ward would be understanding were Hugh to make mention of it.
Too much dwelling on the handler-shaped hole in his routine forced Hugh to confront another duty of Mr. Ward’s which Hugh had been neglecting since arriving for the term. He sighed and rolled on his back. “Duty” was perhaps too harsh a word, though it was technically true, given that Hugh’s assignment to the mechanical house had been for a treatment of a legitimate medical concern, and Mr. Ward took his own humanitarian stance very seriously. Said stance was keenly invested in every aspect of Hugh’s condition, an exhaustively holistic approach which one could scarcely argue wasn’t effective. Hugh let his eyes—all of them—drift closed and mentally reviewed the process they’d agreed upon for a proper bath.
It was not that he was overly concerned with smelling foul, even with his allergy’s unwelcome return; men such as Hugh did not smell more than any other sort of man was capable. Devil stink, indeed! Hugh, however, preferred to keep himself well-groomed, even with no one to impress, as it imparted a level of respect for others if he strove to remain presentable, hopefully encouraging a sort of mutual courtesy, and it also encouraged him to be aware of his own body, which was an important element for someone in such a physically-demanding profession. Baths were also a fine way to ease off the strains of the day that such a profession brought with it. A clever hunter knew making good use of their down time would make them that much more formidable in the field, and so Hugh had thrown himself into refining that part of his treatment.
Nice warm water was a must, as was a tub of appropriate size; the academy had, again, done him a great kindness by ensuring he could fit into the one they provided for him without Hugh needing to contort himself to suit. A daily wash was a quick thing simply intended to clean the body, something that could be done with a bucket and cloth if necessary, but a proper bath invited elements of luxury to it, even if the only luxury available was time. Hugh owned books that spoke of the bathing habits of emperors, which were perhaps a bit too luxurious for his taste, though the way they spoke of asses’ milk and floating flower petals was inspiring for creating a mental exercise, particularly since if kept to the realm of thought they didn’t risk him worrying he was making himself into an enormous pot of tea.
Having already cleaned the dust of the day from himself and managed his shed as best he could, Hugh didn’t even pretend to be spending his time planning a future ablution. He shaped Mr. Ward from the ether. Perhaps there were details missing in comparison to the real thing, but who could mistake the iron gray of Mr. Ward’s bespectacled stare, the crispness of his frock coat, or the impeccable manner in which he tied back his hair? It was easy to recall the resonant nature of his voice. That same voice had guided Hugh every step of the way throughout the great and sometimes terrible turmoil of his stay in his new home, never faltering no matter how wretchedly he might have found himself. It was a fine anchor for the affairs of the evening. Shall we attend to business, Mr. Wainwright? asked the imagined Mr. Ward. Hugh nodded to an empty room.
If he kept his eyes closed he could imagine the practiced calm with which Mr. Ward would draw a bath, the precise care with which he sometimes added three little drops of scented oil to the water. The pleasing aroma would open Hugh’s sinuses and leave him feeling further refreshed; more important to Hugh was the way it would cling to his skin for hours afterwards, making him something of a giant pomander for Mr. Ward’s future enjoyment. Each new way Hugh found to be delightful to himself or others was a small rebellion against a life spent miserable outside of his chosen calling.
You must remember that you are a creature of pleasure, Mr. Wainwright, said Mr. Ward. You are happiest when you permit yourself the means to be happy. Do not force joy, but neither should you cling to meaningless abstention, and never shy from ruminating on your own human wants. Mr. Ward stood over him now, hands clasped behind his back, itself held straight as a plumb line. The bath steamed at his side. And what is it that you want this evening?
Hugh, as a rule, did not speak aloud when engrossed with his own fantasias, which gave him the freedom to imagine the perfect response. I wish to be touched, he said. The old Hugh would scarcely have believed how easily and confidently the words came. The old Hugh had not been a happy man.
Then touched you shall be, said Mr. Ward, and because it was a daydream of Hugh’s own creation Mr. Ward’s lip creased with one of his small and subtle smiles.
His imagined self was fully clothed, which would not do, and so Hugh unbuttoned his coat under the rarely-blinking supervision of Mr. Ward. Each piece of his outfit removed left him that much more vulnerable. He had not settled on how, exactly, he should appear in his thoughts, which meant knowing he had suits for all occasions at home a useful detail; it did not matter the measurements of the vest he removed, so long as it was on him before and was no longer on him after. In time he was as nude in his thoughts as he was in reality. Mr. Ward nodded in approval before gesturing to the tub. Hugh decided that it was a good day to experiment with thoughts of scattered flowers, and so he parted a modest collection of floating petals as he stepped into the water to drift like some modern Ophelia.
Are you comfortable? asked Mr. Ward.
Hugh decided that he was. He rested his arms along the sides of the tub and leaned back just enough to let a hint of his cock break the surface of the water, its current size as uncertain as it was unimportant. It’s very nice, thank you, he said.
Mr. Ward, who had spirited away Hugh’s shed clothing, nodded again. He placed his own coat over the back of a chair, tucked his gloves into one of the side pockets, and rolled up his sleeves. His fingertips brushed against Hugh’s half-submerged sternum. Then we shall divert the rest of this time to satisfying your desires, said Mr. Ward, accompanied by a partial smirk that Hugh had never seen Mr. Ward actually wear but which did not feel out of place. Hugh was getting better about not denying himself pleasures in the realm of the mind, as well.
He bit at his knuckle. Hugh’s teeth could be quite sharp if he permitted them to be; thankfully he had long since learned that if there were any accidents he would be able to regrow a severed finger in the space of a mere day or two, provided his allergies didn’t impede things. His other hand rested against his chest, with time creeping increasingly lower as the weight of the quilts simulated the warmth of the bathwater. Hugh’s palm moved in sync with Mr. Ward’s to wrap about his shaft.
Something was wrong. Hugh reviewed everything he had thought of up to that point, and when he came upon the answer he nearly groaned at its simplicity: Mr. Ward had the hands of a serving man while Hugh did not, and Hugh was so intimately familiar with his touch by that point that the mind rebelled when told to imagine one stimulus as another. This struck him as somewhat unfair, as on the occasions when he tended to his own needs in private he had little trouble bringing himself to climax no matter what he imagined. Perhaps the crux of it was that Hugh was trying to remember a specific hand, one denied to him for weeks now, which was a different scenario than the more abstract ones he devised for the rote masturbation in which he’d solely engaged since the start of the term. Had he not been so far into the scene he might have settled for some other imagery, but Hugh now ached for comfort, and many of the greatest comforts in his life stemmed from Mr. Ward. Hugh’s need for physical release was blockaded by a most unjust mental disconnect.
Thankfully, said disconnect seemed like nothing a bit of transfiguration couldn’t fix.
He concentrated and reduced the number of digits he had on his hand. The end result wasn’t quite right—six was still too many for someone like Mr. Ward, even if Hugh had adapted to it comfortably himself—but Hugh’s now-transfigured appendage was approximately the same size and texture as one of Mr. Ward’s, and approximations were more than welcome on a sleepless night. It was, after all, easy to remember the way Mr. Ward would touch him, first gentle and slow but rising in both firmness of grip and speed of wrist, never too much to be unpleasant. So long as he kept his eyes closed he could summon up memories of how Mr. Ward looked while kneeling next to the bath, and those became memories of Hugh’s preferred way to continue, which involved unfastening the buttons of Mr. Ward’s immaculate trousers and pulling forth Mr. Ward’s shaft—reliably hard by then, as it was a mutually beneficial agreement they had between themselves—to take betwixt teeth and tongue that Hugh might repay him for his ever-flowing font of kindness, and Mr. Ward’s temperament was such that he did not mind whether it was a cheek or a snout he stroked when Hugh came to him with need, and would in fact remain untroubled were one face to become the other and perhaps even back again during the act—
Hugh spilled into his palm with a sigh. Staring up at the patterned tiles on the ceiling helped clear his head, which even with its fog of pleasure felt more centered than it had in days. He’d survived worse, and it was only a few months spent apart, and merely across town, at that; it was not as though he’d been called up to captain a ship on the treacherous open sea. At least, he thought while washing his now-matching hands in his quarters’ side-sink, Mr. Ward would be pleased that he was still taking care of this part of his treatment.
I am saddened to hear that you have been feeling unwell as of late. Have you been allowing yourself sufficient rest? The household shan’t fall to pieces if left to its own devices for a mere day or two, & surely you will recover more efficiently if you grant yourself permission to break from your normal routine of maintenance to recuperate. If there are any supplies that would ease your discomfort which might be more easily acquired via a parcel sent from the academy versus the normal supply drops, merely say the word & I shall fly to the market with great haste, as it is the least I can do to repay my towering debt to you for all you have done.
Hearing that the night criers have been increasingly active fills me with longing. To think I might miss the timbre of those strident wails is laughable, & yet here I find myself, missing my own bed & the barks of the nightmares churning outside my chamber windows. I trust that even with your current state that the protections all about the place are in finest condition. Never did I feel safer than when within the grotesque-studded walls of the house, & I know that the many wards set in place by both your & my hand will continue to keep you protected against those things I am not there to consume.
Much as I chafe against my current habitat I still understand the need to be comfortable in my own body in every configuration it might offer. As noted in my reports I diligently maintain a proper balance of exercise, nutrition, &tc., which has been helping as best it can given the circumstances. Unlike when I was first placed under your supervision I have not been neglecting any aspect of a gentleman’s regular necessities. Your insistence upon my health in all aspects has not been forgotten. No matter the weeks that pass between us, I shall not forget our mutual dedication to cultivating my truth.
The students have had some hesitate success with embracing their own truths on demand, & they do indeed appreciate the modesty aprons which I arranged for them to wear during our exercises in doing so, though I regret to say that many seem to cling to self-loathing & fear of what lies beneath the skin. I have yet to show the full extent of my secondary majesty to them—mostly because the academy has yet to provide me an apron of my own no matter how many courteous requisitions I pen to the bursar’s assistants—& I wonder whether it would be comforting or dreadful to them to see the heights which they themselves might someday reach. If nothing else I take satisfaction in seeing how even the least proficient of their number can stretch properly when focusing on doing so, & that the time this takes to complete has been gradually declining. With luck I can continue to guide them all towards accepting, if not delighting in, the fullness of their personae.
I continue my personal goal of speaking compassion towards ourselves during my lectures. We of the society can so easily fall into despair due to our need to conceal who we truly are from the populace, & this is an indelible reality of all we creatures, yet I am forever emboldened by the conversations which you & I have had on this subject in the past. Our natures are not a fact the common folk need to know. Let the simple, honest people live their simple, honest lives without knowing our role in preserving that simplistic honesty; we do them a grand service by ensuring the veil is not lifted, nor that any wild thing slip past it to cause harm or despair. They need neither to know nor fear our truths for us to perform the work. We must embrace ourselves, proudly & without shame, for it is our own understanding of ourselves & the community we make with others who possess or acknowledge our gifts that grants us our greatest freedom.
Also important to me is imparting to the students that they can be one another’s greatest allies, even if we hunters are, as a rule, a solitary lot. I use myself as an example, as my history can support many valid approaches, be it the way we can feel trapped if we are forced to keep company with whom we cannot connect, or the manner in which our self-satisfaction can increase plentifully if we allow ourselves to accept aid from others who have been initiated into our ways, or most particularly how we hunters can connect with those who do not rush through the shadows & still find meaning in this connection. I hesitate to ask them all to find handlers of their own, as this would be unfairly assuming that such assignments would by default be of equal quality as our own arrangement; I am nevertheless swift to state that finding those who understand our gifts & tribulations & co-operating with them in productive ways is a major step in fully uniting what we so often view as two separate halves of a sublimely monstrous whole.
I do what I can to practice my own preaching. My shed, a sample of which is enclosed in the usual manner, has been at the top of my mind lately, namely in how it does not trouble me so when I am at home. You & I both know it to be an allergy, but I suspect it also an allegory. When I am unable to express myself in the honest manner to which I am accustomed, one might say my sense of self sloughs away not unlike the misfortune of my skin, & my discomfort at how unwelcome I feel contributes to this feeling of loss of agency. Naturally, when in the house on the other side of town I am free from both the eye of the sun & the eyes of man, & so I do not feel as though I am having to hull myself of anything to exist. Perhaps this is too on-the-nose, & I am reading too much into the matter? I should very much like to hear your thoughts on my hypothesis.
I continue to be restless with no prey assigned to me. In the absence of my preferred societal tasks, I have taken it upon myself to delve ever-deeper into occultism, it being a pleasant & refreshing pastime by which I may enrich myself whilst awaiting the call of the metaphorical hounds’-horn. Enlightenment does not come to a man unbidden. Of late I have been seeking out if there is some rhyme or reason to which of us are given the hunter’s eye & which remain untouched, regardless of one’s actions involving the society, & while I strongly suspect the answer is as simple as it being a thing that happens as it may, whatever I find shall grant me further insight into my own self. If it is not too forward of me to ask, might I question when you first became aware of those similar to myself? It strikes me now I have never thought to ask, even as I have inquired of your youth & previous exploits in the past. Foolish indeed of me to overlook such a source of potential wisdom.
Unrelated to either of our current states, I have been quite taken by the writings of Ganguly & Renwyck as of late, said writings detailing certain common threads between The Unspeakable Visage & The Book of Foul Blood, & offering exciting new interpretations of the curiosities cataloged by both texts. If you are in need of a way to pass the time while resting off your ailment, you may find copies of the aforementioned tomes & the aforementioned authors’ dissertations upon them in my study, & you are welcome to peruse them. I should advise you to peruse neither original book near an open flame, & The Book of Foul Blood is not to be left near food or drink you plan to consume, as its aura is prone to curdling things. Everything else requires no other special concerns beyond the usual. Do not trouble yourself with re-shelving them in their original places as the books sometimes move when not being observed. Simply leave them on the desk once you are done with them & I can organize things again upon my eventual return.
Each passing day means I have brought new knowledge to my charges & each passing day is one less between myself and the black skies of home. I will do my best to look forever forward. Perhaps in the stillness of life without a trail to follow will reveal to me some grand new thing I could not have perceived in the sound & fury of the work. Even if it does not, I shall persevere, & I shall do right by the students as you have done right by me. They deserve no less.
Eyes always without,
Hugh Robin Wainwright
Instructor, Academy for the Pursuing Arts (honorary, temporary)
“Would you please hit me as hard as you can?” asked Hugh, his hands folded neatly in front of him with their fingers laced together. He stood in the center of a well-reinforced fighting pit, itself sunk into the training hall maintained by the academy for purposes such as his. Most of the other students watched him from their perches among the risers all around the lip of the pit; the only exception was young Tilworth, who was down in the sawdust with Hugh. Unlike Hugh, Tilworth carried a cruel-headed axe in both uncertain hands.
“That seems unwise, Professor,” said Tilworth. “You’re unarmed.”
Hugh’s soft smile remained where it was. “Indeed I am.”
“I keep the edge of this honed,” said Tilworth, still riveted to the spot.
“Oh yes. I regularly inspect all tools stored in the armory, and take notes on their care, so I’m fully aware of its condition.” Hugh tilted his head. “I am not in the habit of humiliating those who honestly seek to better themselves. Do you think I would ask you to do something that would reflect poorly on your character?”
“Then please, if you’d be so kind. Strike me with ferocity.”
Tilworth glanced up at the other students, who still stared down at him and Hugh like so many hungry ravens, then back at Hugh. His hands tensed around the axe’s handle. Tilworth had a history of being neither a particularly keen nor particularly remiss pupil, but Hugh had never known him to neglect caring for his equipment; if he didn’t know better, Hugh would have suspected the young man was itching to use that axe of his on something a bit more substantial than wood and cloth targets. It was thusly no surprise that a glint of bloodlust shone in Tilworth’s eye as he raised the weapon to rest against his shoulder before bringing it down in a powerful two-handed chop.
With so many years of experience behind him there were many ways Hugh could have reacted. Instinct urged him to set up a vicious riposte, his hand itching to ram through Tilworth’s ribs to tear out something warm and vital, while a more defensive intuition knew how he could ghost safely out of the way in most any direction, and a third knack knew how he could contort himself to evade the blade. None of these would be helpful (or terribly polite) for students at this level of instruction. Hugh instead tucked and rolled to the left, opposite the axe’s arc. Tilworth’s weapon thudded harmlessly into the ground. The young man swung at Hugh a few more times in frustration, and each time Hugh moved out of the way with the grace he’d refined over dozens of nights sent on the prowl. Tilworth may as well have been trying to pin a shadow to the ground.
“Observe, students,” said Hugh once he popped back upright for the final time, none the worse for wear save for the sawdust on his clothes. “Mr. Tilworth’s form was excellent and his aim was true. Why was he unable to strike me?”
“Because you knew what he was going to do, Professor?” said one of the parliament of youths.
Hugh nodded. “Very good. Awareness is something which affects every single thing we do on a hunt. Our own awareness can save us from terrible injury, and if we evade the awareness of our foes we shall always be in the possession of at least one advantage.” He brushed off the worst of his coat’s coating. “Who can tell me other strengths of awareness when it comes to the hunter’s art?”
“Recognizing a mark means we can guess what it might be capable of?” asked another student from the gallery.
“That is correct,” said Hugh with a nod. “No two things we hunt are precisely the same, and yet they often follow certain forms and patterns. By learning these trends, we can create a framework upon which we can hang the details of each unique hunt we are assigned. How else might this recognition aid our work?”
Yet another voice spoke up from the crowd. “Would that help us gauge an enemy’s weaknesses, too?”
“Very good. Just as we must seek to understand our own limitations, being aware of how we can turn the tide against our quarry can easily become the sole bulwark between survival and defeat.” He gestured at nothing in particular. “Even something as simple as understanding how many legs a target possesses can influence how we approach it, as does knowledge of where its vital spots might be, or how said vitals might be accessed. Thusly, we—”
The back of Hugh’s neck prickled and he reflexively leapt to the side, once more evading Tilworth’s strike as it slammed against the sawdust with enough strength behind it to shear a beef carcass in twain. A few people in the gallery gasped; most did not. Hugh was pleased to see they were already developing the hunter’s necessary ruthlessness.
“Oh, excellent, that was really quite well done!” said Hugh, his voice full of avuncular pride. This time he did not turn his back on Tilworth. “Mr. Tilworth has demonstrated yet another key part of the lesson for us: A target that is not aware of us is one upon which we have the advantage, and a target of which we are aware is one to which we can potentially react. However, there is one thing we must never forget. If you’d care to strike at me a final time, please?”
Tilworth narrowed his eyes and took a fighting stance. Hugh’s eyes instinctively sought out the various openings in said stance, though once again he showed restraint by standing still and, at least outwardly, calm; it was surprisingly taxing to keep his actions within a very narrow band for the sake of instruction. As this would be the last demonstration for the day he had to make it count. When Tilworth rushed him this time, Hugh thusly placed himself somewhere that the young man was not.
One presumably did not have to hide a creature beneath their skin to be a practitioner of the pursuing arts as they were known to the society. Most uninitiated, however, lacked the ability to embrace the sheer wrongness of a supernatural act with every fiber of their being, whereas a person such as Hugh engaged in the impossible as a matter of instinct, making it that much simpler to defy the tenets of rationality. In this manner he consumed part of himself—he was never entirely certain what all was eaten by the process, simply that it was something internal and that he was capable of growing it back with little trouble—and quickened his steps until his every movement was like smoke. Save for fading flickers of his shape trailing behind them he looked no different from the fog that clung to the eaves outside. As long as Hugh remained in motion he could not be touched.
Unlike a conceptual object in motion, Hugh had no plans to remain indefinitely so. He boiled through the air around Tilworth until the perfect moment showed itself to him, at which point he rushed forward, solidified with his hands already where they needed to be, then wrenched the axe from Tilworth’s hands while driving his knee just forcefully enough into Tilworth’s stomach to knock the wind from him. Tilworth went sprawling. Hugh hefted the axe and rested it against his shoulder.
“Now, then. Was there any way Mr. Tilworth might have countered what I did?”
The gallery simmered with murmurs. Hugh waited, but no confident answers came; he kept half an eye on the still-supine Tilworth just in case the young man decided to try for a little extra credit.
“I admit this was something of a trick question, students. What he might have been able to do was know ahead of time that I am capable of becoming as tangible as incense, but how could this have stopped me from doing so? What if I knew some additional technique with which I might combine this action? To be truthful, one could say there was nothing Mr. Tilworth might have been able to do, save to expect there to always be one more thing, one new pattern to which we can do nothing but adjust. The unexpected is the only constant in our work. It is no more his failing to not anticipate my actions than it would be for one to be caught in a storm after a cloudless day.”
Hugh gestured broadly again with his free hand. He had yet to shed his habit of lecturing with his hands, no matter how much it belied his unfamiliarity with speaking before a group. “Every beast has its own nature just as we hunters are our own individual beings. There is only a hair’s breadth between ourselves and them, after all, and we must remember that we move among creatures that can equal, or even exceed, ourselves in terms of skill and cunning. We must never forget this. By being aware of our own limits when paired against the unfathomable variety of our prey, and by training ourselves to have as broad a range of skills to draw from as we can manage, we ensure that we will see each hunt through to its end, living to chase another day.”
He brushed a few lingering bits of sawdust from his coat before extending the axe, handle-first, to Tilworth, who had recovered enough to sit up by then. “You have been of great help, Mr. Tilworth,” he said. He helped the young man to his feet while handing over the weapon. “In exchange for being an example today, you may choose the first practice drill, and against whom you will be paired.”
The hurt look vanished from Tilworth’s face, replaced by a crocodile grin. If there was a hint at unnatural sharpness there it was surely the result of Hugh’s tutelage in the art of casual shapeshifting. “Do I get to take another swing at you, Professor?”
Hugh laughed. “Your spirit is commendable! For now, train against a peer and learn from each other. Keep your steel sharp and your mind sharper and you’ll get your second chance against me in time.”
There had been blessed few farming men in the last several generations of Hugh’s forebears, yet when he watched the fierce eyes of the students and the eagerness with which they clashed with one another within the pit he suspected he knew something of how the orchard-tender felt when looking out over their blossoming trees in spring.
Please forgive my enthusiasm & any untoward emotion in my missive, as I write to you to-day with joyous news: I have learned I shall be leading a hunt, at long last. It will be a simple thing, merely a supervised jaunt across the city borders and back, but the simple act of knowing I am not to remain a sword forever in its scabbard forever has brought with it great vigor of the heart, restoring that which I had not wholly noticed I had lost. I must thusly apologize for the great gloom which I suspect clung to my prior letters, as even with your sympathies towards my current state I still placed a great burden upon your shoulders which you could not easily ameliorate given our distance. My mouth waters already at the thought that soon I shall don my garb & go out into the wild places to see what might be found. I am a man made anew with this knowledge.
While I suspect this first foray shall mostly see me playing the part of the sheep-dog corralling a flock I am still most pleased at the honor. The students are prepared for it, I feel. This will no doubt be a far more efficient method of instruction than the older methods. Eagles learn to fly by being thrown from the nest, but I am no more an eagle than you are an ox, and the inhumanity of dashing to pieces those who have committed the sin of not being best or brightest is one I am keen to leave behind in the fetid annals of the past. If the society wishes to truly be a society in more than name alone we must never shy from attempts to do right by to-morrow’s hunters.
This visit to my oft-missed home shall last but the most fleeting of hours, as the academy’s overseers have, perhaps wisely, given me a strict curfew by which I must return. A falcon must be trusted to return to the falconer’s wrist. I have stated already that I am no eagle, & realize that this muddles the metaphor somewhat. Still, I shall stay no more than the hours I have been given, much as I might spend nights upon nights falling upon that which must not be. With fortune it will be uneventful. With greater fortune I might yet return with a full belly. Long have I missed the taste of that which I catch myself, & it cannot compare with all the leek soup in the world. Know that I say this less to diminish your fine recipe & more to convey just how vast my appreciation is of wild-caught game. It is truly a pity that no matter the outcome I will not end it by returning home to the warmth of the parlor to share word of my exploits while you see to the mending of my garb.
I have received little word from you since last you wrote of feeling out-of-sorts & I hope this letter finds you in finer spirits, as your well-being is always of great concern to me. In your honor, in fact, I have assigned the students to bring their pistols on this first excursion; I am keen on live-demonstrating all of the tools with which I have been trained to the students eventually, but a man has only so much time in an evening. Though I would hesitate to call any of them sharp-shooters I have overseen my pupils’ efforts enough that I believe they would not be a danger to themselves were they to bring such afield. There is a vast gulf between academic knowledge of a thing & one’s hands remembering how to use it, & it is far too easy to read of a device’s activation in a tome & become beguiled by thinking it overly simple. If they are not prepared to push themselves to improvisation in times of need then I will have failed them all.
Time passes & so do the days. Little has been said to me of how the winters are expected to fare, as while many a formal institution breaks for the semester that the students & teachers alike might make merry for the holiday, the academy is hardly a typical school. If I am to remain here for the duration, I should like to send you a token of my esteem. What gifts might benefit you? One of the few advantages of walking the daylight streets is that I have little trouble in going to-market. I would be pleased to acquire whatever you might wish, be it rare supplies, or interesting past-times, or similar. I am a thrifty soul outside my taste for wines & assure you that money is no object.
In spite of the gloom that so often suffuses my demeanor when not in anticipation of the chase, I have been making modest progress on my practice with the pianoforte in the closest thing the campus has to a music room. I find it is enjoyable to accompany my playing with the magic lantern owned by the academy whenever I can secure its use. Other faculty continue to view such pursuits as a frivolous use of my time; I have found that they are quick to change their ways when reminded that the only teachers in the academy with more successful tallies than myself are all significantly older, & if a recognized master of the hunt wishes to project flowers upon a screen while practicing variations on a theme, perhaps it is of no detriment to himself or his capacity for righteous slaughter. I should hope to be able to perform a nice piece for you when next I am able as proof of my continued attempts at expression.
Know that every step I am soon to take was secured by your selfless dedication to my well-being, & that each shot I fire from my pistol echoes the power of the sole time you, yourself, found need to use it. I may be a harrier of grant skill, but it is you & your deeds that have ensured I have not burned up like a candle lit at either end. The society has you to thank for it. I, too, shall never forget this.
With all gratitude,
Hugh Robin Wainwright
Instructor, Academy for the Pursuing Arts (honorary, temporary)
Hugh strode merrily into the auditorium, took his place behind the lectern, and thunked one of his hunting swords down onto the table next to him with an impact so loud it caused every one of his pupils to look up at him in startled unison.
“The night calls for heroes, students,” he said, beaming. “It pleases me to inform you that there shall be a practicum immediately following tomorrow’s lecture.”
Murmurs bloomed among the desks. One of the students, one Oakley, raised her hand, her expression straddling the line between enthused and pensive. “Professor, are we sincerely to believe we have spent so many weeks merely hearing of the darkness on the other side of town, only to have our first ever visit there thrust upon us with little warning?”
“That you are, Ms. Oakley,” said Hugh, still as sunny as yesterday’s sky had been. “Often we have little time to prepare, and so the society wishes to incorporate that element of surprise into your lessons. We are fortunate to have an entire day between now and then.” He attempted, mostly without success, to rein in his boundless cheer. “The purpose of the practicum is to introduce you to the whims and worries inherent in treading the boundaries from this side of the city to the other. Having transposed ourselves, we shall then perform a perimeter sweep, seeking out wards that are fraying or stray creatures with which we shall deal, after which we will once more return to the academy.
“We do not have a set mark assigned to us this time. Learning safe ways to move through, and survey, one’s surroundings will be the crux of the matter. Expect there to be bloodshed, students, but do not expect it to be the centerpiece of our time spent beneath that black sky. I have been requested to bring you all back before a given hour, after all.”
“How long would you keep us there if they didn’t tell you that, Professor Wainwright?” asked Tilworth.
Hugh chuckled. “I shall say it this way, Mr. Tilworth: outside of this time I spend as your professor, said period itself negotiated by the society in general and the academy in particular, I do not generally leave that nightmarish place.”
“You live there?” Tilworth’s pensive expression turned haltingly curious as he added, “Willingly?”
“Indeed I do, and I daresay I thrive. The hunting is simply magnificent.”
The students whispered among themselves at this. Hugh had never made it a secret that he had left the blue skies of day for endless nights of fog and screeching; then again, he had never actually conveyed this to the students so formally, as save for what information he felt necessary to justify his rank and title he tended to speak little of himself to others. There had almost certainly been rumors, as Hugh was even at the best of times charitably described as eccentric, so it would be interesting to see how those rumors evolved now that Hugh himself had given them a grain of truth. He idly wondered if any would mention Mr. Ward, and if so if they’d get any of the details right. He also wondered how many hearts might be emboldened by his successes to make their own turns from the sun’s unwelcome eye. With fortune it would be more than zero.
The academy did not employ him merely to be inspiring, however, and so Hugh guided things towards the subject of the day; it was important he justify his assorted peculiarities—such as starting a lecture with a percussive impact, which thankfully had not smashed the table—lest the students start to doubt or ignore what he had to tell them. Speaking at length of the night city was something he could do for hours even outside of an instructor’s role. Hugh had been looking forward to this particular part of the course even before the happy news of the practicum had arrived, and so as his lecture began in earnest he had quite the glut of notes from which he could choose.
Whether the students were as delighted by the city’s shadow as Hugh was was irrelevant so long as he had their undivided attention. He was glad that their occult coursework had already covered the basic concepts of metaphysicality, as it meant he didn’t have to concoct some explanation for charms or rituals beyond describing what they did for the hunter who bore them. Referring to such things as yet another element of a hunter’s arsenal seemed to work best; more importantly, it made room for the idea that they would be of varying use to varying individuals without outright saying he tended to go without them much of the time. He didn’t need a room full of young people deciding to spend their first visit to their rightful game-grounds attempting to outshine their teacher’s time-honed abilities.
Discussion of ways to enter the night city came before discussing the night city itself because Hugh was a firm adherent of providing a tactile concept as soon as he could in a lecture. Everyone in the room had been initiated so there was a basic understanding of what it was, even if the details were vague and uncertain. After a while Hugh could only speak so much about how one might draw out a door with chalk or wear a brass token to serve as a compass ever-oriented upon the bearer’s home, and so things turned towards the historical angle of the lesson.
Things went (at least to Hugh’s understanding, and he had certainly performed his shade of private research into the matter) like this:
There had not always been a night city because there had not always been a city, period, but there had always been places existing in the nooks of the world that were natural gutter-traps for the unspeakable. It was not unheard of for the mists of a swamp or the tangled brambles of a deep wood to house night cities of their own. The more people gathered and built, however, the stronger these traps became, and the more numerous. On the surface this was an objectively fell thing, as a typical person who fell afoul of such places was unlikely to return, and the longer said places festered the more likely they were to spill out into the sunlit lands to wreak havoc. The countryside was littered with empty villages from times of yore; some of these had been emptied by the ravages of plague, but some, held Hugh, had met a different fate.
It was impossible to stop the creation of such shadow places, so cutting them off at their point of genesis was not a viable option. Over time, certain persons found that with proper preparations they were able to stride across the gap. History did not say whether these persons were beasts first, or if exposure to the dark made them bestial, or if monstrosity was altogether unrelated, but it was ultimately found that creatures were best suited for the journey. Thusly, creatures like Hugh (who was careful to use terminology like “we” and “us” when discussing such topics, as solidarity was important) were found to be best suited for the task of hunting, and there was an agreement among the civilized places to protect their own from the things that wriggled obscenely just out of sight, and so with this goal in mind the society was formed.
The weapons they made were strange things prone to chemical reactions or hidden mechanisms, their vicious appearance mimicking the vicious things the society hunted. Those first noble souls had dressed themselves like knights in gleaming armor, though time proved this to be folly, as their targets all too readily could shred metals with ease no matter how true the steel. They learned that they could not dress the part of the romantic hero; one who moved quickly was one who often never was struck at all, and so the traditional garb began to take shape. It was also then that certain superstitions began to arise about what materials best suited the work. Hugh, who had tested the validity of such beliefs before, pointedly did not cover these. Magical thinking was best reserved for mysticism classes.
While Hugh was convinced his knowledge was limited—certain elements of the approved history still felt too convenient, and the society was nothing if not knitted from secrets upon secrets—he felt certain that whatever form of the truth he spoke was one that would serve the young hunters well on their own journeys of self-discovery. They needed to have a connection to history beyond the weight of familial rejection. It was important that they knew their kind had, to some extent, always been here. Surely this would bring some comfort to those in need as they wrestled with accepting the burden of the society’s duty along with whatever lay beneath their own skins! A hunter’s life was a lonely one and those tenuous bonds they forged between those they trusted were priceless when it came to the work.
He was happily extolling the virtues of hunting and the great social good they did from the shadows when Banbury interrupted him.
“You say we are supposed to keep the things on the edges away from the good people of the world, and we are the only ones properly equipped to do so. What happens when one of us decides they have no more use for manners, Professor Wainwright?”
Hugh had expected to have this conversation at some point during the course; even if the matter had never been raised by a student he felt addressing it a grim responsibility of his position. The society had requested he be a teacher and so he would teach. He reached to his pocket and drew forth a bit of mangled, half-melted metal to place upon the table beside his lectern. Even from a ways away the nature of the little trinket was clear, as when one wore the emblem of the society oneself it was impossible to mistake one for anything else, no matter how misshapen or ruined. He rarely left it behind these days.
“That is when we must clean our own kitchens, Mr. Banbury,” said Hugh, calmly.
“Would we truly…?” breathed another student. Hugh recognized them as an Ashcroft, one of the two in his current class. “Professor, it seems so barbaric.“
A bitter taste rose up in the back of Hugh’s throat. He could still picture the bulk of the emblem’s original wearer standing vast and malformed against the walls of a burning house. He would never forget that fire. It was hard not to imagine how close Mr. Ward had come to being cooked alive by those very flames, a careless casualty; they had been set to flush out more fearsome prey than the master of the kitchens. Barbaric was one term for it. Hugh reminded himself that he was speaking to novices, ones mostly untainted by the political machinations of the society or the grim necessity of putting down an associate gone feral. He would need to choose his words with care.
“We are monsters, Ms. Ashcroft,” he said. “We are at our finest when we dive headlong into what we are. If we deny it, then we become far worse than merely a creature we fear to see in the mirror. Our gaze turns inward, hunting for flaws in ourselves that we are too repelled by to tend to, picking at lies we cling to as truth because the alternative is too terrible. We take that which we see in ourselves and reflect it upon our surroundings like a broken mirror. If we become riddled with these eyes within, we have no option in the end but to turn upon those we must not, and they have no responsible choice but to end us.
“It is not a deed of glamour or glory. I hope that it is never something you are called upon to do. Remember, though, that when a wound turns foul and septic, we might still save the body by cutting away the rotten leg.” He rested his hand purposefully in the space between the ruined emblem and his weapon, the latter still opened up from his demonstration. “And beasts such as I do not shy from playing surgeon.”
This did not mark the end of the lecture, merely the point at which the students stopped asking questions in favor of exchanging uncomfortable glances amidst their introspection. Hugh didn’t like the idea of playing the bully to a collection of youths who were practically still children; it left a taste in his mouth worse than his memories of the fire. He didn’t apologize, however, as that would imply he craved forgiveness for something he had done willingly, and he knew he wouldn’t hesitate to fulfill that dreadful task again were the situation to demand it.
Jägermeister, they called him. Master of the hunt. He wore that title in every sense of its meaning. With luck, the students would never need to learn how accurate it was.
What had begun as a relatively jolly session ended on a somber note. Hugh was certain to mention what papers he expected to collect the second day after the practicum and to wish the class a fine day, yet a pall lingered in the air as though the whole classroom was a corpse in need of burial. He hoped he had made the right decision as he pocketed his trophy once more; perhaps it was for the best that things had turned grim when the students had been made to confront their own mortality. Too much enthusiasm to track their own kind might belie a sort of bloodthirstiness far more likely to call Hugh to collect another emblem than to protect those to whom they may as well have been invisible. It was better, he assured himself, that they learn not to be fearless, as that too often bred disaster, but to fear the right things. Hugh could accept being one such fearsome thing.
Acceptance was not the same thing as comfort, and so the unpleasant feeling followed Hugh to supper and all the way back to his quarters. A change of clothes—he had ended up eating while clad in near-full hunting kit, more accidentally than anything else—did nothing to lift his spirits. He didn’t relish the thought of stretching exercises, itself a sign that he was out of sorts, and his usual books either failed to capture his interest or enabled his thoughts to race around and around, amplifying the half-remembered faces of the students until he imagined a classical chorus of despairing faces filling the seats. His rational mind could tell that this was him expressing dismay over perhaps overstepping his bounds as a teacher. His emotional mind, already running bright and hot from the contrast between the joy of an impending hunt and the lassitude inspired by his extended separation from home, was still near to fits, and it was very much the louder of the two.
There were ways of dealing with emotion, several of which were even healthy (at least the way Mr. Ward defined it, which as far as Hugh was concerned was divine edict), and so Hugh settled on the most appealing of those available to him. He sat at his writing desk with a weary sigh. Some of Mr. Ward’s most recent letters still rested on the desktop, folded neatly; on a less trying day it might have been enough to reread some of them to revel in their crisp penmanship and measured patter as they inquired about matters of wellness. As Hugh was well on his way to wringing himself out like a dishtowel, more serious measures were needed. The top drawer was kept full of fresh paper in preparation for moods such as this.
Rummaging for a knife to sharpen a quill was the last thing on Hugh’s mind. He focused just enough to let his teeth adopt a razor’s edge before he nipped the tip of the pen into shape, afterwards willing his dentition to dull itself once more lest he forget and risk cutting his lip over the page. Thankfully the inkwell was still mostly full. A fresh pen could be improvised, but unless he partook in actions that would be quite worrying he had no way to refill the well without leaving his room. It was just as well. He had no interest in speaking to anyone, even for something as similar as a few drops of ink, and while he’d never experimented with the concept personally, writing a missive in beast-tinged blood seemed asking to attract the wrong sort of attention. The academy’s usual brown-black mixture would do just fine.
It was not the first time Hugh had written a letter to quell his passions. He doubted he would ever send them properly, as he had no illusions that there weren’t secret eyes upon even his most menial of letters, but the act of setting pen to paper gave him a sense of purposeful serenity that his current schedule lacked. The act could be something like bloodletting. He needed to write honest words, perhaps too honest, but it did not matter if they bordered on impropriety; he did not need to burden Mr. Ward with his flights of fancy once they were duly exorcised from his system. Choosing to write something but never mail it was freeing in its own peculiar way.
Hugh unfurled a new page, ensured his lamp had enough oil to last the night, and began to gather his thoughts into words.
I suspect you shall never see this missive for yourself. It is an indulgence I am taking to soothe a troubled mind, & if I am to be a creature of pleasures I must know when & how to indulge, & so I write this. A man of letters writes from the heart. I fear my heart is too swollen with dismay to write from it in a mannerly fashion, yet I long to speak with you as we do when we are together. So, again, I write.
At times I can convince myself that I can overcome the discomfort inherent in my stay away from the night city, that it is nothing more than a transient inconvenience. On days when my spirits are high I can believe this. Days like today, however, try my willpower & fill me with consternation. I am alone here. I am surrounded by my fellow hunters, my fellow creatures, & yet I feel no companionship among their company. I am too different, too much a monster for their liking & yet too much a hunter for them to write me off as a mad thing ready to be put down. I still feel this way when I am among strangers during my rare trips to the high street. They do not know me there but they can feel my alien nature & I know they distrust me no matter how pleasant my words & deeds. There are a hundred thousand slights like these that I bear each day, each one a reminder of how unfit I am for this world, even though I willingly lay down my life that it may thrive. I took too much for granted during my stay in the mechanical house. How did I live like this for so long?
Even within the broad domain of the society I feel hemmed in. I am no longer satisfied being a tool in a workman’s bag. They need me to be the knife in the dark, the red iron of judgment, & I am still these things, but I feel as brittle as my shedding skin when I try to exist outside of this mold. There is no room in their books for me to be a monster while still holding so many things dear, no room for a thing that consumes its hunts & also takes pleasure in crisp greens, no room for a beast of sublime & alien figure who still chooses to dress as a man. I am always hiding myself from something. At least when I would dance from gable to shadowed gable, all clad in hat & coat, I only had to hide my figure, not my self. Perhaps that is why I miss the night city most of all.
It is a noble sentiment, but we both know that is incorrect, do we not, Mr. Ward? The night city is my natural habitat, but it is not my home by myself alone.
The absence of you in my daily affairs is closing in upon unbearable. I miss the feel of your hands against me. This is an obvious thing, as you are quite skilled with bringing a gentleman joy through cunning touch, & yet I miss more than the way you grasp my most intimate flesh & bring me to a private salvation. I miss how, should we choose it, we might share a place to rest, trusting one another to perform no treacheries upon our still & sleeping forms while partaking in a single united warmth. I miss being awoken by a palm against my cheek. The calm acceptance with which you draw my blood for your experimentation & with which you study my varied shapes is an absence that gnaws at me. Here at the academy I am a dog kept half-starved, forever at arm’s length from all other things. I touch no one, & go untouched in return. Is this what the society has always been? Had I simply grown numb to it before, never questioning what I could no longer perceive? I shall forever be grateful for the thing that maimed me all those months ago & set off the long, strange chain of events which resulted in you entering my life. Through your guidance I have, at long last, the opportunity to thrive.
Ah, Mr. Ward, I sing your praises to peer & student alike & yet I know it could never be enough. You do so much for me with minimal concern for your own needs. You accept my feelings of fondness towards you without question, & oh, but I am gladdened that you permit me to fancy you. I imagine it is no simple thing to bear the romances of a monster, even one as civilized as you assure me I am. A herculean task has been set at your feet ever since you were first assigned to me. I would not be the man I have become today without you, of this I am certain. That I write this letter as all, uncouth as it is, is testament to your guidance. The heart from which I speak is troubled still, yet each scrape of my pen makes this burden a more bearable one. I ache to fully express how much this means to me.
I have kept your words close all this time. You say it is not a selfish act to consider the care of the spirit alongside the body & mind. You say it is also no sin to be selfish if this mindset is necessary to achieve some greater personal good. I shall be a selfish man, then, & ask of this letter what I never will in person. I know you shall never read it, after all.
Mr. Ward, might I kiss you someday? Might I embrace you in a manner above & beyond simple camaraderie, that I might tell you how dear you are to me, & hope against hope you might deign to tell me the same? It is nearly too much to envision demanding. You already offer me the rare brush of your lips against the edge of my chin, or the side of my snout, or upon my forehead, whether or not I am crowned with further eyes. You permit me the joys of both proximity & carnality. Why is it not enough for me? Why can I not be satisfied? I hate the thought of wanting what you do not choose to give. It makes me feel vile in a way exploring the realities of my variegated body never has. I want to beg your forgiveness, but I cannot stop longing.
Some nights I fear I am forgetting who you truly are in favor of some phantasm blended from my hours of solitude. When we meet again, will I recognize you? Far more concerning to me is this: when you see me next, will I be the same man who left? The thought that my time at the academy is making me into something different than the beast you knew & whose loyalty you accepted is a dreadful one. If I can no longer give you cause to show me the rarity of your smile, I do not know what I shall do.
Were you here now, I know you would urge me to center myself. I can hear your voice & imagine the way your spectacles catch the light as you incline your head, & I know you would ease my mind that I am not a weak, silly thing to be so bedeviled by emotion. I must remember that this stay at the academy is the first time we have been apart since we first came together. A man may be well-acclimated to a lifetime spent with the winter’s chill, but does he not shiver & suffer when he first steps from a fire-lit homestead into the cold? You are my fire against a world of winters. I have always been a man balanced upon a wire, & spent most of my life untroubled by its height; it only now feels as though I am suspended across some impossibly grand chasm because you have taught me to look down.
I will be walking the night city to-morrow, & that shall be a blessing. Even if I am to remain here when the semester breaks, I shall still be returning to you in a matter of months. I will wear the society’s emblem & I will do the work without question but I will not scrape myself down to the rind simply because I am nothing they have quite seen before. Let the academy whisper, let the society quake, for they know I am but the first of many who are unsatisfied. They may keep us apart but they cannot diminish the joy the treatment has brought me. They may shackle me here in my kennel but they cannot prevent me from imagining our reunion.
The shape of this reunion shall no doubt change as often as my own does, & I have little doubt that when it comes to pass it will be different still, but I trust you will allow me my whimsy. Today it is shaped much like when we first met, with a raging storm & me left upon the stoop with my luggage, & begins where I watch the ostentatious bulk of the front door open. You are inside, & you take my wet coat & cloak away, & once you guide me to the parlor’s hearth you are thorough in the way you dry me. The parlor is full of shadows that move with the dancing of the fire. You trace the bridge of your nose along the angle of my jaw & we both pretend it is an innocent gesture. I allow you to wring the water from my hair. You ask if I am satisfied in my students’ progress, & we discuss this for a time. Soon I ask how you have been. You tell me of your research & what you have accomplished without me to assist, & then state that my absence has been felt, & we both understand what you mean. I am mostly dry by then, & warm, & it will be no trouble for you to guide me to my knees & twine your fingers in my hair. It pleases me when you do this, have I told you as much before? I greatly enjoy the intensity, & in this fictional moment I am no different, & I unfasten your buttons to reveal your length in its entirety. It will be nothing to swallow you whole. You move against me, & I against you, & we do not stop until you have been satisfied utterly. When your moment of release comes I am swift to press in close to receive what you might give me, & I cherish the sound that you make. Soon you are done. You tilt my head upwards, my mouth still around you, your face lit only by the flames’ fierce glow, & you welcome me home. It is as it should be.
I have alluded to it through polite terminology in my past letters, & it shall be no different now, save that I will use unguarded language: I have been attending to the gentleman’s task during my stay, & have done so during the penning of this very note, & you are always on my mind. I miss the brush of your skin against my lips. I miss the weight of you against my tongue. I have said these things before & will continue to say them, for they are true, & I am unashamed of finding joy in their sensation. The day shall surely come when I may once again write a specific, familiar entry in my journal of things consumed. Perhaps, if you are so inclined, I might fill the rest of the book with it. Would it not be worth it to try?
Pleasures of the flesh are no substitute for balm of the soul, but this spent ink has brought me some of each. I am not wholly free of unhappiness, & I will accept this, & also understand it is not a thing of permanence. In the space of a day I will once more see my beloved black sky. I will not be able to stop by our house, as alas, my orders are restrictive ones & my set hunting grounds specific, but knowing that you labor still within the little fortress we have built together, & that you shall always be there in wait for me, brings me peace. When next my mood sours I shall read what I have written here in addition to the letters you send me yourself. I know you shall never see this, as I shall never send it, but I hope you might somehow know you have helped me all the same. I shall not fear the deep waters in which I tread so long as you shine your light from that distant shore.
I love you, Mr. Ward, and neither man nor beast nor hunter of both can change this.
As positive as his final written words had been Hugh still went to bed with a heart gnawed by worry, and a full night’s sleep and a day of preparation were not enough to completely lift his mood by the time his evening class arrived. The students were skittishly eager as they filed into the lecture hall; they all wore proper hunting gear, some more comfortably than others, though Hugh’s trained eye could tell it was all too new to have seen much action outside the controlled environment of the gymnasium. Perhaps they would be fortunate enough for that to change in the coming hours.
He could hear how excited they were as they spoke to one another in half-hushed voices. Hugh closed his eyes and drank it in; it was his responsibility to earn that excitement and to channel it into the unique joy that every one of his fellows took from the hunt. He thought of mist curling in darkened alleys and strange lights in the distance. He thought of shapes in the shadows, some of moving things that should not have lived and some merely those of the city’s blasphemous architecture. Soon he would see them all again. Somewhere in that puzzle box of streets was Mr. Ward; at this time of night he would be preparing supper, and if supper did not need his attention then he would likely be ironing. Hugh smiled. Focusing on something so normal and routine helped.
“Welcome, students,” he said, his eyes still closed. They answered in a patchwork greeting. Hugh let his lids slide open—including the central set, which he had not shown to them before—and regarded the young hunters fondly. “Today we shall see such wonderful things.”
Oakley, seated in the front row that day, furrowed her brow as she asked, “Are we expected to perform those wonderful things ourselves, Professor?” Her forehead flexed, and to Hugh’s amusement she appeared to be trying to open a tricloptic eye of her own. Given that she had yet to show evidence of such in their transformation drills this was unlikely to do much for her. Bless the initiative of the initiate.
“Some of them, yes, Ms. Oakley, but I assure you it has nothing to do with the current malleability of your form. Recall that I have been with the society for many years and only in recent months have I discovered many of the delightful options available to me. They are mine alone, and hoping to duplicate them precisely would disrespect your own unique nature.” He had said as much many times before, both during classroom hours and outside of them, and Hugh would continue to say as much until his final days at the academy. Expecting one creature to be identical to another when stretched out fully was like expecting them to share thumbprints.
He left his extra eye open as he continued. “Some of you may find it easier to express certain aspects of yourselves while we are in the night city. Provided you do not bring harm to yourself or anything that is not a nightmare thing, I encourage you to experiment. If you have been left wanting after our transmogrification classes, this shall be a splendid time to slake your needs! Of course, if you are not yet comfortable doing so, this is also fine. The purpose of the practicum is to acclimate you to bridging the gap between here and there. So long as you are all able to complete a simple circuit under my supervision, you shall receive passing marks. I simply wish to provide encouragement to refine all of the skills available to you as hunters.”
Hugh continued on in this manner for a few minutes more—if the academy had not wanted him to often wax philosophical about the casual side of being a monster then they surely would have found someone else to teach—before he dimmed the auditorium lights and cranked up the magic lantern, the latter of which he had convinced the academy propmaster would be a far better way to show the intricacies of the map than chalk on slate. The colors were certainly eye-catching enough. “Now, the route assigned to us is as follows….”
The closest entry point was, fortuitously, inside the campus grounds, and once they had all crossed over successfully Hugh was to lead them on a loop from campus up to the nearby hanging tower—so called both because of the gibbets that swayed from it and also how much of it did not seem to actually be attached to anything—then around the fountain yard and along the row buildings until they were once more back at the academy’s mirror self. It was a simple path, one which Hugh could have completed in a matter of minutes if luck was with him, and therefore one well-suited to students who had only ever run across rooftops that knew the kiss of daylight. It did not swing anywhere near the mechanical house, which Hugh understood but still dismayed. He assured himself it was for the best.
Tilworth and Banbury were both keenly interested in Hugh’s description of the hanging tower. Hugh was careful to stress that they would not be ascending said tower that evening, as that was a task better suited to a smaller group, and that it was important that they remain as unseen as possible during their trek. This earned him a question from a normally quiet student, one Hancock, whose taciturn nature Hugh had worried over in private a time or two.
“Professor, is it really our goal to be unseen even when in a place you say suits us so well?”
Hugh nodded. “Correct. The practicum is meant in part to teach you how to become one with the shadows. If we do our job right, we are no more noticed by those around us than a passing breeze, or the perfume of a freshly-opened flower.”
Hancock pursed her lips in thought. “How do the things we hunt know us to be defiant, then?” she asked.
“Because, Ms. Hancock, we are defiant simply by existing.”
“I don’t understand.”
It was yet another topic Hugh could funnel hours into debating, so he did his best to prune down his passions to something he could share without displacing the remaining parts of that day’s lesson plan. “Allow me to explain. You are aware of how many of our kind lived before the society, correct? Or rather, the many ways in which we did not?” Several heads in the audience nodded. Theirs was not a happy history. “One might look at this and think that we are, as a whole, fated to flare out, leaving not even ashes in our wake. And yet we continued to awaken among families with no known beasts coloring their bloodlines, we continued to be guided by forces we could not fathom and yet which, to those pioneers, still felt natural. Those of us who were not skilled in mystical matters already found ourselves drawn to those who were. We banded together to find strength in a world that dreaded us. The society should not exist, and yet it does. And yet we do.
“Every breath you draw is in spite of the efforts of the world. You do not need to be recognized by your prey in the same way you do not need to be recognized by the common people who live and work with nary a hint of what capers just beyond the metaphorical mirror. You must instead be recognized by yourself. You are a hunter, Ms. Hancock, as are we all, and it is your skill and pride that make you worthy of esteem. It is hardly vainglorious to be glad to be alive! Take pride in the sharpness of your teeth. You shall be glad for them when you learn how well they tear.”
This seemed to satisfy Hancock’s curiosity, or at least did not inspire further questions, so Hugh continued with the lecture.
Most of the remaining time went into reviewing their previous lessons on how amulets of navigation worked and the ways one might reload a pistol in times of need. There was no room for confusion when preparing to enter a place that, by its very nature, punished the unprepared. He focused on as many elements of safety as he could imagine off the top of his head; tools designed for slaying monsters were, after all, capable of slaying just about anything else.
Also important was discussing a quirk of the city that did not translate to maps as well.
“Trust where you have been and trust what you have marked, but do not always trust your eyes,” said Hugh. “Just as we change when we feel the need or desire, so does that strange place, and what you might believe is an alleyway may become a barricade-riddled boulevard, or vice versa. Learn to feel the city. Learn to recognize its parts. But learn, too, that it is never quite the same place twice, and this can be far more dangerous than any other element of our chosen hunting ground.”
“What good do landmarks do if everything is a potential illusion?” asked Southers, a student of middling ability but modest success with the written portions of the coursework.
Hugh had a great deal of experience in this regard. “Consider them anchors when the streets’ fearsome tides attempt to pull you astray. The more you hunt the more you will get a feel for which places lead where. If you become lost, you are most likely going to become found again if you can retreat to a known landmark and regroup.” He stroked his chin. “Perhaps you may discover a new pathway or two that will reliably reveal themselves upon further visits?” Hugh’s pleasant stay at the mechanical house had seen him carve out a whole warren-network of shortcuts that crazed their way through the city like cracks on a turnip. Between them and the odd case where it felt like the city shifted its buildings to better let him roam he’d rarely met serious incident within a good mile and a half of the house in a matter of minutes. Talking about how lovely it was to go roaming on his own terms would sadly need to wait for another day.
“Remember, too, that sometimes you may perceive things that are but so much smoke and mirrors,” he continued. “Corridors may hide from you, while beasts may surround themselves with images of persons they hope you will rush to save. You may dispel these phantoms with a wave of your hand, or a strike of a blade, but what is the strongest defense against illusion in general?”
“The perceptions of eyes without,” chorused the class with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Hugh scrunched all three of his current set of eyes closed with pride. “Very good, students. I am so very proud.”
At long last the last bell before nightfall arrived, which saw him fussing over each student in turn as they gathered in the sundown-painted courtyard. They would not be leaving until the evening hour chimed. Hugh still found plenty to keep himself busy.
“Are your weapons sharpened?” he asked as his eyes darted across the small arsenals the young hunters carried. He insisted they each present their tools in turn for inspection. “Are your pistols paired with proper ammunition? Have you all performed the necessary? I shall remind you that there are few places to powder one’s nose when on the prowl, and urge you to make the appropriate preparations beforehand. It is more important than you may think.” This earned him some scandalized whispers. Hugh had seen the dangers of assuming one could ignore nature’s call when in unfamiliar territory; he would rather the students gossip among themselves for eternity than meet the awful fates of certain late and careless peers.
One of the Ashcrofts—the one who wasn’t a young lady, this time—raised an awkward hand. “May I be excused to fetch my prayer beads from the dormitory, Professor Wainwright? I meant to pocket them before class but left them next to the box where I keep my silver-shot. I think I’d be more comfortable with them on my person.” They tried to pull their head into their feather-adorned coat like a turtle. “Please don’t think less of me.”
The timbre of their voice implied there was a history there. Hugh’s own history knew the value of small comforts in strange places. Who was he to say that the mind couldn’t remain pious while the heart and body evolved?
“You have time,” he said, simply. He raised his voice to continue. “This goes for all of you: until the clock booms out you may perform any final preparations you may have, formal or informal. When I return, we will be leaving. Am I understood?”
Ashcroft sagged with relief and split off from the group, along with a handful of others.
“Wainwright,” said the archchancellor, who had come to observe the class’s departure. Hugh had seen him arrive but still felt himself poised to startle.
“I thought it was made known that no students were to be left behind for this affair?”
Hugh kept himself hidden behind the mask he adopted when dealing with persons of vastly higher authority. “They will all be ready when the time comes, sir.”
“Some of the faculty might consider it unprofessional to not have them in ranks ahead of time.”
The mask stayed in place, though Hugh was tempted to let it crack around the seams. “Some of the faculty are welcome to let me know how they teach things once they are decorated masters of the hunt, sir.” He gave a stiff half-bow. “I myself have a last-minute task to complete, after which we shall proceed with all due precision and timeliness.”
“See that you do, Wainwright.”
The prickling glare of the archchancellor followed Hugh as he stepped back. Unprofessional, was he? Let them think him soft all they liked. Metal worked too hard would shatter on the anvil, and so Hugh’s was a gentle crucible. If they did not want him to teach as he did they shouldn’t have asked him to teach at all.
Besides, it wasn’t as though the last call was purely for the benefit of the students, either. Hugh palmed a sealed and scented envelope from his coat, checked the clock that looked down over the courtyard, and set off in pursuit of the mail office.
Please accept this small missive, penned by my hand before I return to the shadows for the first time in too long. I am unable to request any tokens of good fortune before I go, & shall instead seek them afterwards. It should be no different from any other hunt. Still, I am uncertain. I have missed your regular correspondence as of late & admit to some worry. In spite of this I shall do what I can to keep the students safe even as I once more roam the place I am meant to be. You are in my thoughts always.
Hugh Robin Wainwright
Instructor, Academy for the Pursuing Arts (honorary, temporary)
Traveling on foot to the night city was a skill Hugh had never fully appreciated in himself until he had needed to do so in the company of others, though he had enough experience with the latter that he was prepared for the inevitability of what it could do to the unseasoned. He had arranged their schedule for just such an event.
“Easy now, Mr. Yale,” he said, his voice gentle. “Let the vertigo pass through you and out. You will acclimate to the sensation over time, I assure you.”
The afflicted Yale said nothing, instead moaning between heaves as he leaned miserably against a soot-streaked wall. The curatives Hugh had insisted they all bring could do nothing for him. Yale was just as laden with charms of guidance as his fellows, and Hugh’s pathfinding had been flawless; Hugh regretfully accepted that sometimes lecture and preparation simply weren’t sufficient substitution for the real thing. He scanned the rooftops while Yale shivered through the remnants of his sickness. So far he spied no trace of anything that might have been drawn by the young man’s ejecta. They would need to leave the scene before that changed.
Even with the manifold responsibilities upon his shoulders, Hugh felt no small relief in once more standing beneath the darkened sky of the city’s other side. The air felt different here, not right, as the night city was inherently wrong in a way difficult to describe, but pleasant, as refreshingly welcoming as it was strange. He balanced atop a spike-topped fence to keep an elevated eye upon their surroundings as the students came to terms with being in a place they knew but had never seen; they had discussed their route in detail, but it fell to him to ensure said route aligned with how the city chose to build itself that day. It had been a long time, far too long, since he had strode into the darkness to get his bearings for an outing of any sort. He could still feel the horrid thrum of chaos in the shadows, as reliable and ceaseless as the tides.
If only for a few hours, Hugh was home.
Once Yale was fit to move without dizziness again, Hugh guided the young hunters up the side of a wall to huddle among some statuary. He was swift to catch those who weren’t quite able to find purchase during some part of their ascent. If there were fewer bodies to wrangle he might have led them through the streets instead; with so many in tow it only made sense to choose the more difficult, but less traveled, path. Hugh’s boots danced gracefully across the roofing. The academy buildings were a poor substitute for the real thing, to say nothing of how other faculty didn’t approve of him padding about like a cat after hours. If the students suspected he was having a bit of fun in how he kept scuttling up and down the building or perching atop things, they were wise enough to say nothing about it.
The hanging tower loomed in the distance. Hugh pricked up his ears and was rewarded with nothing out of the ordinary—a thought which gave him a chuckle, given where they were—which meant they had a guaranteed window of movement. He shepherded his charges onward in silence.
Moving from one part of the night city to the other was tricky enough when it was a single person possessing some familiarity of its layout; the lack of incident paired with their relatively low speed, which Hugh might have normally found dull, was a welcome relief as he supervised the class’s progress. He knew the academy had given him too many to chaperone at once and had said as much back when first discussing the practicum. The laws of nature demand we test ourselves, he recalled the chancellor saying, those words echoing those of higher society figures. We should not waste our energy on those already doomed to failure. A more callous instructor might have taken this as tacit permission to actively prune the ranks of the enrolled, or as preemptive forgiveness for otherwise failing to return with the same number with which they left. Hugh was determined to see everything through to the end, right down to the final assignment of performance marks. Spite could be a potent motivator.
They moved like a cloud of young crows across the shingles. Sometimes something would disturb the fog below them, which would require all of Hugh’s self-control to not immediately pursue, and he would wordlessly point this out to the students so they could observe the movements of a creature—likely the first many of them had ever seen other than themselves—in the wild. Hugh heard no gasps or cries of disgust when one such beast opened its mouth to lick its many tongues against the sky. This was a good sign, in his opinion; when he was still freshly-initiated he’d gone on a hunt with someone who had been paralyzed with horror upon seeing a beast’s full figure, and this inaction was the chief reason why said hunter had not come home after that.
The bulk of the hanging tower drew ever-closer as they went until ultimately they stood in its shadow. Glittering things caught the un-light from overhead. Hugh had seen unmentionable shapes be cut down from the tower and even kept a few of the treasures he’d harvested from them. Such treasures had not come alone. There were too many students to track in the event something came down that wasn’t so much rotten meat, so Hugh wordlessly discouraged anyone from getting too close. Learning to move and learning to watch for nightmare-sign would come first; raising arms against the wilier things in the city would be demanding the young hunters to sprint when most of them were barely able to crawl. After so long spent languishing in the pasture of academia he was unwilling to risk issuing a challenge to such a foe without the proper practice.
What locals they saw did not see them back, which was fortunate but slightly dull. Hugh’s stomach complained as he watched yet another thing limp away into an alley on many legs. How long had it been since he had supped upon something he’d caught himself? It was a dreadful practice, certainly, and as certain aspects of Hugh’s self were unapologetically dreadful it was necessary to ensure he was fully nourished. If he was to return as an honorary professor for another year he would need to make it very clear how often he needed to return to the city, on official business or otherwise. If the academy wishes to remain a thing for long it would no doubt need to make similar allowances for certain advanced students.
He was just about ready to swoop in to sneak a bite from the gory leftovers of some past clash when a worried hand signal caught his eye. The hand belonged to Banbury, whose worried eyes had trouble meeting Hugh’s own. This alone was concerning; Banbury had never lost his fascination with Hugh’s occasionally bespoke anatomy, though these days Hugh suspected said interest skewed far more towards aspiration than disgust. It had been a fruitful semester in many ways.
Problem? signed Hugh. He wasn’t responsible for teaching the silent communication parts of the curriculum and so could only hope he made himself understood. Simple signals would have to do.
Banbury’s gesturing was halting but clear: Body down there. He pointed. Sure enough, the hint of a leg wearing a boot in the modern fashion stuck out from an alley leading into the fountain square. The smeared blood trails leading into said alleyway told another chapter of the story.
Stay. Watch me. There were too many fledglings in the nest he’d been given, damn it all; if he had maybe half the current number he could have used this as a teaching tool. Instead Hugh scuttled down a drainage fixture to close in on the bloodied cobbles. He planned every step, plotted every subtle change of course, and while he passed dangerously close to a thing whose head lolled in the fountain’s uneven flow he remained undetected all the while. The night city was a place of a thousand traps, some the doing of nothing more than chance and others set by a deliberate hand, and even when he was out of sight (of both the shapes in the square and the students who might provide covering fire, he was quick to remind himself) he remained on alert for whatever tells he might find. If he triggered a deadfall or somesuch after spending so much class time speaking on the necessity of awareness, he’d deserve to never hear the end of it.
The scene was a wreck. Many parts of the night city stank of blood, but the alley stank of fresh blood, and while Hugh was no hound he could still sniff out that the death had happened within a matter of hours. He performed a circuit of the remains to see if whatever had killed the poor soul had bedded down nearby; only after verifying that he was alone did he check to see if the body was the sort that was prone to standing up again, which it was not. He ran his sword through its heart just in case before hunkering down to more carefully examine the remains.
Save for the fresh sword wound—which, Hugh noted, oozed slightly but did not gush as a normal vital strike would, further proving the incident was a few hours old—the body’s injuries looked typical of those one found on most persons who had wandered into that part of town unawares. Whoever it was did not wear a society emblem or carry the tell-tale tools of a vigilante, but they also looked dressed to navigate the city’s streets, which was not typical of how most of the sunlight city’s population clothed themselves. Upon closer inspection the body was clad in a society courier’s uniform beneath their cloak.
Couriers that operated on both sides of the city were not unheard of, as operatives in the field still needed regular supplies to perform their tasks proficiently. They were responsible for delivering the sackfuls of mail Hugh wrote, for example, and Mr. Ward would scarcely have been able to cook so much as a wan and reedy parsnip for their suppers were it not for regular produce drop-offs. Most couriers were as stealthy as hunters could be, some even moreso, so what had happened to this one to meet such a terrible fate?
Whatever had attacked and partially eaten the courier had not taken their bag, so Hugh helped himself after yet another check for traps. He took out a piece of specially-formulated chalk and scribbled some glyphs all around the body; the poor soul might have to rot in place for a while longer, but at least this way they would be protected from future scavenging. A recall attempt could be scheduled later, assuming his time wasn’t taken up with the paperwork side of the practicum. Ensuring missing persons were delivered home was the least Hugh could do whenever he found them on his rounds.
The courier’s bag he hefted over one shoulder before scaling up one of the alley walls and returning, in a roundabout way, to where the students still hunched. They gathered around him eagerly.
Treasure? signed Banbury.
Conspiracy? signed Tilworth. Hugh supposed if any of the students would be keen enough to learn such a gesture in their first year, it would be Tilworth.
Mail, replied Hugh. Not sure what. Stand back. They did so with little further coaxing. Once he had what he felt was a safe space between the novices and himself, Hugh opened the bag with care. As it did not explore or start spewing toxic gases he considered this a good sign.
Inside the bag was nothing immediately out of place. Based on the lack of foodstuffs, and the preponderance of letters, the courier had presumably been returning from this side of town to the other with notices in tow. The handwriting was generally unfamiliar. For not the first time Hugh had to wonder how many people other than Mr. Ward lived out there, each an isolated beacon of society influence in the wild and endless dark. He knew better than to tamper with any of the mail; even if he had not been a beast of proper manners he would have been wary of all manner of methods by which his lot kept outside eyes—those not appointed by persons of rank, at least—from prying. Further investigation would require great care.
Many of the letters were brown with blood. As a society courier’s bag was proofed against all manner of woe and weather this told Hugh that it had fallen open at some point after the unfortunate runner was accosted, and since the papers themselves did not seem to be tampered with or chewed on they must not have offered much to keep the murderer’s interest. Hugh furrowed his brow. They did not even seem to have been so much as pawed through, which didn’t sit right with him. Surely a hungry inside-out creature (or whatever had done the deed) would have looked for a crumb of pepper or flake of oats clinging to the inside of the satchel? Surely a greedy cutpurse would have hoped for coin or something to trade?
A single note, as blood-spattered as its neighbors but subtly more striking, caught Hugh’s eye. His heart sank. Unlike the others, this one bore countless traits he recognized. He knew the stationery because it was the sort many people in the society used, being prepared in certain subtle ways that made it useful for more than just exchanging cordialities. He knew the scent that clung to it because a bottle of it rested on a shared dresser at home. He knew the pattern pressed into the wax because it was the same pattern stamped on the outside of every letter he’d received from Mr. Ward since leaving for the academy.
Hugh broke the seal, unfolded it with hands he forced not to shake, and read.
I hope this letter reaches you. I write in a state of distress, and I do not care what other glances might fall upon my words, for there is a great truth I must say: I am in need of help.
The wards are failing. They have not yet broken, but I fear that they have weakened so greatly that it is unwise for me to remain in the house. I suspect there may be some greater reason for their wear than simple passage of days. I will not waste your time with my theories at this time.
I have another safe-house to which I can retire for now. My notes will remain safe, and are kept in duplicate as is my habit since the fire. I will hide myself as best I can as soon as I hand this message to the courier. You will know my secret by my sign.
I would request your aid as soon as you are able.
Master? Problem? signed Banbury. Hugh kept his teeth clenched tightly. He did not need to weep in front of his students; if they did not perceive him as in control of the hunt, it could put them at great unconscious risk, and he did not have the time to explain to them how dear his handler was, nor was he about to be so crass as to discuss their shared intimacy. What had become of Mr. Ward since pressing that insignia against the wax? The weight of not knowing shackled Hugh’s heart like the anchor of a galleon. If he had remained in the night city, could he have prevented this? Had enduring the hateful sunshine and far more hateful social sterility reduced his usefulness to Mr. Ward? He was doing a fine thing by teaching the next generation, but what good would it do him if he let all that he cared about fall into ruin in the process?
Hugh centered himself, his eyes still stinging with emotion but kept dry by sheer force of will. He first needed to follow his own teachings and see what the situation was showing him.
He was familiar enough with Mr. Ward’s handwriting to identify half a dozen tells that the letter was unlikely to be a forgery, even with the strange detail of Mr. Ward signing it with his first name; Mr. Ward had never not been “Mr. Ward” to Hugh, no matter how often Hugh had knelt before him, and while Hugh knew of Mr. Ward’s given name it felt wrong to think of him as such. Their usual correspondence was always signed with the crisp formality Mr. Ward pulled off so effortlessly, paired with hand-drawn sigils against the uninitiated in the event some common mail-thief intercepted Hugh’s medical records. Every single time but now there had been a uniform arrangement of whatever words lay beneath the waxen seal. Surely there was some reason Mr. Ward would break his consistency!
Mr. Ward himself had written he cared not who saw the letter, which struck Hugh as the sort of thing one might say to conceal some hidden meaning; a cipher seemed like the obvious choice. Hugh glanced at the date, which was not that day’s, nor the day before’s. Assuming his counting was correct this very important missive had gone unread since before the last letter Hugh had actually sent out, one full of cheer and jubilation. It was heart-rending to think that Mr. Ward might have labored helplessly for so long, forever wondering why Hugh—supposedly the faithful creature that would hie always to his handler’s call—had forsaken him, and yet.
And yet, if the letter was dated that long ago but the courier had been alive that morning, and since Mr. Ward usually handled everything but blind drops personally, was there something else going on? There was meaning to everything Mr. Ward did. It was clear that he trusted Hugh to be able to make sense of it despite the horrible trappings, which meant Hugh would need to focus. One of his students made to ask another question and Hugh waved them still. The symbols of concealment were present but different, which could not be accidental. Something was here. Something had to be here, he just had to know how to look. Something hiding in plain sight.
With a sensation like a key clicking against the lock of his mind, Hugh had an epiphany.
Students. Important detour. Follow, no questions. His hands were calm and certain, and he did not wait for them to acknowledge him as he left the route from which he had sworn not to deviate.
Hugh’s boots tapped against the roofing with steps as steady as rainfall. The wards were failing, the letter had said. Someone learning how to hide meaning in riddles might have taken this as Mr. Ward speaking about himself; Hugh, having lived and worked alongside Mr. Ward for some while, knew better. If the wards were failing that meant that there was no doubt outside interference at play, as Mr. Ward had found no trouble living by himself in the mechanical house—the first one, at least, which had been such a shame to lose in the fire—nor any cause for concern earlier in the semester. The wards usually needed little attention beyond regular upkeep, a task at which he excelled. Mr. Ward had written of feeling unwell in recent weeks, this was so, but mere illness would not keep him from his task. It was not unreasonable, however, that he might have slipped for a hair’s breadth on one such sick-day, and if someone else knew to look for it, they might have done damage as subtle as it was irreparable. How had the society persisted this long if it never stopped being a nest of vipers, even to its loyal own? It was a mystery at which even an occultist such as Hugh could only guess.
The devil was in the details, and as Hugh would hardly shy from being called a demon in certain company he felt it important to place his thoughts there as he hurried towards his destination, the students still trailing behind him like so many goslings. Treachery from within was hardly new, and Hugh had the mangled emblem in his pocket and the withering glares of other faculty as proof. Why Mr. Ward, though? Was it his compassion towards Hugh and Hugh’s kind, a gentleness which he encouraged them to share among themselves? Was it the nature of his research that threatened to shed light on creatures of the dark, bringing new understanding to their ranks? Did they simply wish to gut Hugh and see him return to the joyless man who only knew how to hurt people? None of these answers were acceptable. If his face were not concealed by his scarf Hugh would have spat.
Mr. Ward had clearly felt the need to slip from public view. That his safe place was compromised was a hateful thing, yet it was also an opportunity when paired with a half-occluded plea for help. If the letter was dated to have been sent earlier, upon learning of its existence the society might think him already lost, and neglect to tell Hugh of it, as they certainly knew the broad shape, if not the full spectrum, of his and Mr. Ward’s relationship. Mr. Ward would have made himself far too much a target if he had been more subtle. No, Mr. Ward needed to play dead while also leaving a very clear trail. You will know my secret by my sign. The sign was that the symbols of occlusion were subtly off, designed to reveal the bearer despite being concealed, their potency dissolved the moment Hugh touched the paper. How fiendishly clever he was! Were Hugh not busy navigating a darkened hellscape with the next generation of monsters in tow he might have swooned in admiration.
I have another safe-house, he had said. This was the troubling part. It would not be one the society knew because that would leave him vulnerable, but it had to be one Hugh could find or else Mr. Ward would be left at the mercy of the night city. Would it be a hidden nook in a larger building? Would it be a tower room that looked down at things passing below it? They had coded messages to pass between one another, but none of them related to places to hide. Hugh didn’t have the luxury of combing the whole of the quarter; even if he had time enough to do so he couldn’t very well attempt it with so many unblooded hunters in tow. Where—
The answer was clear as the bell that rang out through the mist. Hugh made for the charred remains of the first home they had shared.
It was closer than he expected it to be. Sometimes the night city reclaimed parts of itself that were destroyed, replacing them in time with new growth that was still impossibly old, but in the case of the original mechanical house it remained as much of a burned-out shell as ever. Hugh strained his every sense. Something was in the blackened courtyard. He caught the faint sheen of light off a round glass lens, heard the scrape of ritual chalk on wood, and knew that these, too, were Mr. Ward’s sign. When a shape the size of a horse rose its awful bulk from the ruins he could see it had noticed those same things.
Mr. Ward’s safe-house was not as safe as Hugh had hoped.
A falcon all in hood and bells still knew the shape of a mouse. Hugh didn’t signal to the students, nor did be bark a command; instead he fell like a stone from atop a statue of a grimacing fiend and struck the thing with full force. Months of repressed savagery bubbled joyously to the fore, and the thing’s mass simply meant there was more of it for Hugh to devastate. A single pistol volley revealed its weaknesses to him, which he tore into with abandon. It was over quickly. Somewhere above him he might have heard one of the young hunters gasp, though whether it was in horror or delight he didn’t bother to determine. He had needs to sate.
It took a moment for Hugh to remember himself once more. He straightened up to tip his hat. “Good evening, Mr. Ward.” Hugh smiled, red-mouthed and sheepish. “I fear I may have spoiled my supper again.”
“Mr. Wainwright. It is a pleasure,” said Mr. Ward, who aside from a stained bandage around one of his trouser legs (which Hugh suspected was the reason he remained seated) looked in rather good shape for a man thought dead. He produced a handkerchief and calmly wiped some of the flecks of gore from his spectacles. Hugh supposed he had come home caked in worse before. “I see you found my letter.”
“I feared the worst,” said Hugh. “I’m glad that did not come to pass.”
“As am I. I take it the courier met a fell end?” Hugh nodded wordlessly, so Mr. Ward continued. “Do not weep for him, Mr. Wainwright, as I believe he was diverting some of my letters to certain persons of authority. I suspected as much when you kept asking if I was well even after I wrote of my recovery. Thank you for the book recommendations, by the by, as they kept me entertained while abed.”
Mr. Ward straightened himself into a more refined sitting position in the middle of his circle of protective symbols. The now-slaughtered beastly thing had been dangerously close to ruining some of them. “You were to lead an expedition tonight, correct? Are they all here?” he asked.
The students had descended from the roofs while Hugh was busy slaking his particular thirsts, so he took the opportunity to perform a quick head-count. They kept at a cautious distance from him, which was fair, as none of them had seen him on the hunt before. Hugh had not earned his title by being reserved about handling his quarry. “Yes, thankfully,” he said. “I shall need to write them all commendations for keeping up with me, as I did not come here slowly.”
Mr. Ward nodded. If he was troubled by the still-cooling beast at his feet he showed no sign of it. “Good. If you had taken your original route I do not think that would be the case.”
Hugh frowned. “Why would that be?”
“Let us say I have spent some time documenting ways in which the society impedes itself, and that these ways noticed my attention.” He lowered his voice to the closest thing he had to a whisper. “You are a kind-hearted man, Mr. Wainwright, and I would prefer not to see you forced to catalyze a culling, nor subject to such a thing yourself.”
If the society wished to tear Hugh apart through cloak and daggers, that would be nothing new, and by that point almost pedestrian. Threatening the students was something else entirely. Hugh glanced at his charges as they milled about the courtyard, some whispering to one another while others studied what décor remained. A few brave souls shot secretive and hungry looks at Hugh’s prey. They were so young; surely Hugh been that age once, though he couldn’t remember much of it. What was wrong with graduating a larger class than a smaller one? Children, even those old enough to sire children of their own, weren’t meant to be judged simply for the right to exist. They didn’t deserve the society’s pointless politiques. They deserved to learn to hunt, and love, and live freely as the creatures they were, and most of all they deserved to be given the chance they were promised when the academy had first called them to its halls. Hugh would be no unwitting Lorelei. If he was to complete their schooling, it would be in a place with fewer internal dangers than external ones.
“This culling,” Hugh whispered back. “Was it to be done indirectly, by night things and hazards, or directly, by other agents?”
“The latter.” Mr. Ward tilted his head at just such an angle that the sheen of his spectacles obscured his eyes. “It would be a shame if someone, perhaps someone who deplores the society’s attachment to methods inhumane, intercepted their plans, and happened to be in possession of a duplicate.” He pushed at a piece of the rubble he’d originally used as cover, revealing a set of papers in a neat and familiar hand. Even folded as they were one was very clearly a well-marked map.
A small smile returned to Hugh’s lips. “A shame indeed. Perhaps the kitchens are in need of cleaning again.”
“You have always been a very tidy gentleman, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, and after endless days of making do with imagining his look of cunning approval, Hugh was nearly laid low by the real thing.
Hugh turned, still bright and chipper, to the throng of youths all smartly dressed up for the chase. His voice cut cleanly through the quiet fog. “Students, it seems we are going to have a slightly different goal for today’s outing than originally thought….”
The practicum, as Hugh explained it, was to now include a bit of mathematics, namely, how many neophytes did it take to overwhelm three veterans? With the element of surprise, and rather a lot of loaded pistols, on their side, the answer was sure to be an interesting one. If the society wanted to thin its numbers so badly, Hugh had quite a few ideas for how to do so. It was due to be a massacre. As the students nodded in eager agreement as he outlined each underhanded tactic they would be using to annihilate their unexpected foe, Hugh couldn’t have been prouder.
Moving Mr. Ward was a task best done by a single person, so Hugh sent the students ahead; so long as they kept out of the original route they wouldn’t risk being noticed before their time. They hand-signed to one another with excitement. Hunters were in their element when on the trail of monsters, after all.
Hugh knelt down to allow Mr. Ward to climb up pick-a-back, Mr. Ward’s arms draped over Hugh’s shoulders and the somewhat rumpled front of his suit pressed warmly against Hugh’s hunting coat. It took some conscious thought to not leap or clamber in the way Hugh usually preferred. Hugh didn’t mind it. Even if Mr. Ward hadn’t his injured leg he was hardly trained to walk the streets as a hunter did, and a man of Hugh’s abilities took a slow, burdened lope far faster than a normal man on foot. Mr. Ward guided him to the upper window of a manor house that looked out in the rough direction of the academy, and Hugh slipped inside with barely a sound. He deposited Mr. Ward on a dusty divan before pulling the curtains shut.
“Will you be safe here?” whispered Hugh. The air smelled stale enough to risk speech instead of hand-talk.
“For now, Mr. Wainwright. I should request I be moved once you and your little flock have taken your preemptive revenge. If the academy has any complaint about me sharing your quarters while I recover from this incident” —and he was not shy about curling his lip as he said this— “then they are welcome to discover that I have been researching a great many things indeed. I found I needed to adjust the scope of my work during your absence.”
Hugh sighed with relief. “I shall be quite happy to warm a bed for you again, Mr. Ward.”
“I look forward to that, though I also look forward to talking with you as we are accustomed. You have written a great deal about your habits at the academy. Perhaps I might sit in on a lecture, or appreciate your musical efforts? It gladdens me to know you spend your time in many ways, even in circumstances uncomfortable.”
“If it would not detract from my utility….”
“My dear Mr. Wainwright, is that the only worth you believe you have to me?”
Surely he hadn’t said what Hugh thought he did. That overly familiar letter hadn’t been sent by accident, had it? Hugh was thunderstruck. Mr. Ward had always spoken of how Hugh had value as a person, but that had, to Hugh, been a clinical thing, a distant nicety spoken by a physician. This went beyond the bond of handler and subject.
“I regret to say your feelings of fondness are spreading,” continued Mr. Ward. His voice was both stoical and warm in the way only he could manage, and the words themselves summoned goosebumps. He stroked Hugh’s cheek and was mostly able to hide his displeasure when his glove came away bloody. “I should very much like to see you return to me.”
Hugh found his tongue again. “I shall do my best, Mr. Ward. I rather enjoy being your research assistant.” Thoughts of the unsent letter bubbled to the surface again. Now was just as good a time as any. “Might I kiss your cheek, Mr. Ward? For luck?” said Hugh, filled with boldness. He was rewarded with a dab of a handkerchief against his mouth. This became a soft, purposeful press of lips against his own; even the distressed squint Mr. Ward affected as he wiped away the lingering aftermath of Hugh’s meal could not ruin the moment. Mr. Ward had kissed him, almost unprompted, and even knowing where he’d been. Had Hugh not been preparing for a spot of guided viricide he could have basked in the moment forever.
Distressed or not, Mr. Ward was still all business, even as he stroked Hugh’s cheek again. “Do not forget that you still have an obligation to the society tonight. Revel in red, Mr. Wainwright, so long as we see each other again.”
“Always,” said Hugh. He smiled over his shoulder, pulled loose his hunting sword, and vanished through the window towards a mess in need of cleaning.