I had to admit, the grounds were lovely. I don’t believe that I have a human aesthetic sense, but the trees were actually quite lovely, and the gardens were at least neatly laid out. However, the smoking ruins of a large mansion somewhat detracted from the natural serenity.
I stood looking at the former Bellvaunt estate for a while. Next to me, Irene was also staring at the ruined mansion, her face the very picture of shocked disbelief. On our walk from her refuge to the estate, she had been pestering me with questions about martial arts, all of which I ignored. Undaunted, the young woman had nearly tripped over her own feet trying to work out what I had done earlier, until I had to order her to calm down. Nevertheless, her good mood had continued right up until the walled compound of the Bellvaunt residence; once confronted with the admittedly imposing doors, she became much more solemn.
By that time, I had already realized something was wrong. I cannot see, naturally, and my other senses are not the best, but I had realized that there was no sign of life on the other side of the wall. Any life. No humans, no animals, no plants, nothing. There was obviously some sort of barrier surrounding the estate, but it didn’t have the feel of magic, either. It was… subtle.
No one answered when I rang the bell, so I knocked on one of the doors. Again, there was no response, so I knocked a little harder. As a result, the large door was blasted off its hinges and several meters away. Irene gasped slightly at the sudden burst of destruction, but quickly followed me across the unguarded threshold.
Inside, we both stopped abruptly. In my case, I could sense the presence of life within the walls again, but my sense of the outside world was blocked instead. It took me a moment to adjust to the change in environment, before I noticed what had grabbed Irene’s attention immediately: the Bellvaunt mansion had been completely destroyed.
-It seems that they fled,- I remarked after a while.
“Some of them, anyway,” Irene replied absently. “Whoever attacked them must have killed at least a few–”
-No,- I told her firmly. -No one has died inside that mansion anytime recently.-
She blinked. “You’re certain?”
-Of course. I suspect that this is the work of the Bellvaunts themselves.- I had a sudden impulse to stroke my chin, as if in thought, but decided it would seem too human. -Irene Bellvaunt. Describe to me what you see.-
“Um, OK,” she said with puzzlement. “I see the burning wreckage of a big house. I mean, it’s still smoking, you know?”
-Yes. That is interesting. So you believe the house burnt down?-
Irene looked at me oddly. “Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.”
-Have you seen a large structure burnt before?-
“Oh… No. I haven’t.”
-Indeed.- Moved by an unusual impulse, I decided to explain. -The pattern of destruction here is inconsistent with an uncontrolled burn. The structure actually shows too much collapse, while the surroundings do not show enough heat damage. Those trees, for instance, despite their proximity to the mansion, are almost completely untouched.-
“…Huh,” mumbled Irene with a perplexed expression.
-In my estimation, the structure actually collapsed inward first, with fires started later to conceal the actual method of destruction, or possibly simply by accident. Either way, no one died when the mansion was destroyed, so it had obviously been evacuated before the destruction began.-
“So you’re saying, this was part of their plan,” she said, brow furrowed in thought.
-Furthermore. You noted that the structure was still smoking.-
“Yeah, it is,” Irene said with a nod. “What about it?”
-Is the smoke rising above the walls?-
Her eyes widened. “Oh! We didn’t see the smoke before we came inside!”
-Yes,- I agreed. -It is barely possible that you were too distracted to pay attention, but there are plenty of people who live in this part of the city. And yet, no one has contacted the constabulary, or they would certainly have a presence here.-
I hesitated for a moment, before adding, -Almost certainly. It is possible that the constabulary is working with the Bellvaunts to conceal this matter. But I do not believe so. If they knew, Metricarisenikai would almost certainly know; and if he knew, he would have reported it to me.-
“So you do trust Miss Metria,” Irene said softly.
-He has a proven record of reliability. Although I am disappointed that he missed this situation.-
Irene’s expression twisted in a way that I couldn’t interpret. “I’ve been wondering this for a while, but … why do you always call Miss Metria a ‘he’? She’s a girl, isn’t she?”
You’ve got to be kidding me. -There is no point in discussing Metricarisenikai’s proclivities. It is unfortunate that the Bellvaunt family is no longer here to answer questions, but there is still the facility you were living in previously to examine. Perhaps there will be more clues there. Please show me to the entrance.-
Irene was quiet. I waited patiently for her to sort through her emotions, and was rewarded with a quiet voice saying, “Follow me.”
She led me behind the ruined mansion, through a small wood, and across a small bridge over an artificial creek. There, we found a building that had been a former stable, back when horses were more common in the city. Naturally, it had been knocked down as well.
“Damn it,” said Irene with a sigh.
-Is there a problem?-
“The entrance to The Project was in that stable. One of the entrances, anyway; the other one was under the mansion back there. I never saw that one, though. Anyway, it looks like they buried this entrance as well.”
-You are certain there were only two entrances?-
“According to my map, yeah. I didn’t think I’d be able to break through the mansion, so I escaped through this entrance. They didn’t guard it very well, though.”
-Oh, you have a map. May I see it?-
“Ah.” Irene suddenly flushed in surprise. “I, uh, I didn’t bring it.”
-Why not?- I asked, slightly irritated. My voice still sounded the same, though.
“You didn’t say that you were going to The Project …” she said, before trailing off into silence.
Well, yeah, I was expecting to rough up Caiaphas a bit and get the whole story. Guess it’s not her fault that went down the drain, though. -Next time, be more prepared, Miss Bellvaunt.-
“Sorry,” she mumbled, with a stubborn look on her face.
-No matter. Let us enter.-
“…Huh? But the entrance was destroyed…”
-Then it is simply necessary to reopen it.- I reach into a pocket, and pull out two mid-strength necrotic cores. With an invisible smile on my non-existent face, I crush the cores in both hands, releasing the necrotic energy within.
Within the collapsed stable, a sense of presence could suddenly be felt. Irene fell back two steps as the ruins visibly shifted, as if something hidden within them had started to expand. Tendrils of visible darkness began to creep out, displacing wood and stone as they twisted in the evening air.
More tendrils appeared as their movements became even more frenzied, and chunks of former stable started to fly through the air, revealing the eldritch form within. To me, it appeared to be a globe of darkness, its surface rippling with exertion as it cleared the area of random debris. To mortals, such as Irene, it appeared to be an endless pit of darkness with rampaging tentacles reaching out of it. As disturbing as it looked, however, it was completely under my control. Thus, none of the flying debris came anywhere near Irene or myself.
Within two minutes, the entire stable had been explosively excavated. Its work complete, the dark figure withdrew its tendrils into itself. It floated over to a large hole in the ground, and seemed to hesitate for a moment; then, it quietly faded away, as if it had never been there at all.
Technically speaking, of course, it hadn’t been. But that didn’t make it less effective.
I turned to Irene, who was once again in deep shock. -The entrance is open. Let us depart.-
- Always nice when mysterious things happen in your mystery story, right?
- New Powers As The Plot Demands? Probably. Explanations will be forthcoming, for what they’re worth. 😛