Kouji's attention shifted away from the mouse he was trying to coax out from under the wardrobe in his bedroom when he thought he heard the old-fashioned ringing of a distant telephone. He furrowed his brow and dropped the rice cracker he was using to entice the suspicious rodent, sure that his ears were deceiving him, when he heard the ringing again. The sound was louder and more distinct this time, as he was concentrating on it.
How long had he been in this house? Seven weeks? Almost two months now, and he had no idea that there was a working phone on the premises. Granted, he wasn't allowed to call anyone, since he was supposed to be dead and buried to his mortal friends and family, but it still would have been nice to know that there was a phone. Kouji was beginning to believe that the vampires were never going to trust him.
The phone did not ring again, so Kouji guessed that someone must have answered it, and since he couldn't pick up even the slightest hint of a conversation, no matter how hard he concentrated and strained, he assumed that Isaac was speaking to someone. Jacob was always loud and boisterous, so he would be easy enough to hear, and Julian didn't like to keep secrets, so Kouji was sure he would be less guarded as well. Only brooding and distrustful Isaac would take every precaution to ensure that Kouji couldn't eavesdrop, though Kouji was left to wonder who on earth would call intent on speaking with Isaac.
Kouji had a nagging sense that the news was probably not good. Something had been going on for most of the last week, causing Julian to sit and stew in silence until his tea grew too cold to drink. Isaac paced and glowered out the window like some sort of caged animal waiting for a good opportunity to pounce. The two of them frequently slipped away from Jacob and Kouji, which had initially bolstered Kouji's schoolboy notion that the mismatched pair might actually be having some sort of affair, but as the mood hanging in the air had continued to worsen over the past few days, Kouji was more convinced than ever that his two elders were worried about something and had much to discuss.
None of that explained why Jacob seemed to be left out of the loop, unless he had no knowledge of the subject. Kouji found that hard to believe, since Jacob had been Isaac's partner for several centuries and seemed every bit as well informed as the other two. Of course, Jacob could be sneaking off for chats with Isaac, too, and Kouji would never know the difference. He had been largely ignored for the last week, left to his own devices to entertain himself by wandering the dusty halls and exploring behind the myriad closed doors in this derelict mansion. He was a bit nervous that he was already boring his new companions as they left him to spend more and more time alone, but in the face of growing evidence that the vampires were preoccupied by other concerns, that seemed a bit less likely now. Maybe he wasn't so paranoid, and something really was brewing.
Kouji stood up and dusted off his knees, looking down to find that his cagey little mouse had stolen the bait while he had been distracted by the unheard phone conversation. Sneaky little thing -- at least he would be well fed tonight. Something deep down in Kouji's insides lurched a bit at the thought of food. He knew it was time to take Jacob up on his standing invitation to join him on an excursion into town, but that sliver of him that still clung to his human nature and morals struggled to resist that urge, even for just one more night. Kouji was still troubled by the idea that he and Jacob would leave the mansion to hunt and feed on some unsuspecting human in the town below, though his revulsion was noticeably shrinking with each passing nightfall. He was gradually becoming a more complete vampire, despite his doubts to the contrary.
With a long sigh to steel his nerves, Kouji crept out of his room, padding carefully and silently down the hall, winding his way in what he believed to be the general direction of the telephone. He was sure the phone wasn't in the parlor that they all used so frequently, nor in any of the rooms overlooking the overgrown garden, but it had to be somewhere in this direction. If anyone caught him snooping, he would just claim to be looking for Jacob so they could make plans to go into town together, which was true enough, though not the whole truth. His curiosity was killing him, and while he hoped that wouldn't be a literal death, he really wanted to know what big secret was preoccupying his hosts.
He paused every few feet to listen intently, trying to pinpoint his fellow vampires. He relaxed and closed his eyes briefly, reaching out with his preternatural senses as Jacob had taught him, trying to hone in on any other being in the vicinity. Julian seemed to be in the parlor as usual, but Kouji had no sense of where Jacob and Isaac might be, which didn't come as much of a surprise. He was still new at this, and Jacob and Isaac tended to obsessively mask their presences. He hoped it was just their usual caution, and not some desire to hide from him, that removed them from his radar tonight.
As Kouji crept ever closer to the main living quarters, he felt a prickling across the back of his neck, like icy needles warning him of impending danger. He slowed his pace and glanced over his shoulder more frequently, worried that he looked like he was up to no good, but more intent than ever to find out what was going on in this house. He slipped past the brightly lit parlor by sticking to the shadows in a side room and back corridor, though he was quite sure that Julian and the others must know he was in the vicinity. After all, he had no idea how to hide himself from them, so all he could do was repeat a sort of mantra over and over in his head, willing himself to remain unseen. He had seen that trick in a movie before, and though his experience proved that movie vampires had almost nothing in common with the real thing, he decided that almost anything was worth a shot right now.
He stopped to listen, keening his ears toward any sound that might be a muffled voice, or even the hum of electricity through a phone line. He didn't think that he heard anything out of the ordinary. A few drips of water, the eerie groan of the settling house, some scampering mice feet, the faint clink of Julian's teacup against its saucer. Kouji peered into the darkness ahead of him, not sure what room lay beyond the next corner, when an exhale of cold breath across his right ear spun him around, shrieking and flailing at the sudden explosion of shivers cobwebbing through his flesh.
"Did you really think you could sneak up on us?" Jacob taunted through his lopsided grin. "Silly little boy."
Kouji found himself nose to nose with his new friend, not really shocked that Jacob had taken him by surprise, but a little dismayed at his own reaction. Vampires weren't supposed to scream like startled children every time something went bump in the night. After all, vampires were the creatures that were supposed to be doing the bumping. He still had so much to learn.
"I wasn't trying to sneak up on you." Kouji heard the words rush out of his mouth before he had the chance to edit them into something that didn't sound like such an outright fib.
"Really?" Jacob purred with an expression of exaggerated surprise lifting his eyebrows. "Because I've done a lot of sneaking in my day, and that's what it looked like to me."
Kouji opened his mouth to plead his case, but thought better of it. He turned his gaze to the knotted floor beneath his bare feet, feeling his shock fade into chagrin. He caught a glimpse of Julian standing in the doorway behind Jacob, his shoulders shaking gently with his silent laughter, before he turned and drifted back into the parlor. Kouji was sure that Isaac was near, drawn by his uncontrolled outburst and eager to scold him for his childishness and inexperience, not to mention dole out any possible consequences warranted by his snooping.
"You need a lot more practice, because you suck at this. You'll never catch a meal on your own if that's the best you can do," Jacob teased, chuckling a bit as he pulled himself back to his full height and towered over Kouji again. He threw an easy arm around Kouji's slumped shoulders and led him back to a familiar seat on the parlor sofa, before perching in his own wooden chair by the fireplace.
Julian was already seated on the other end of the sofa again, scowling a bit at a sip of the cold dregs from the bottom of his teacup. He abandoned the cup on the table at his elbow and turned his attention to Kouji, who glanced around the room and breathed a slight sigh of relief that Isaac was nowhere in sight.
"We didn't tell you about the telephone because we feared you would be tempted to contact someone from your former life," Julian explained without the usual courtesy of a proper greeting. "I hope you can understand that."
"I do," Kouji said with a genuine nod. "I know that I can't call anyone, and it's not like I wanted to order take-out or anything."
"No one will deliver out here," Jacob interrupted with a wink.
"Right…" Kouji replied, glad that no one seemed angry with him, but a little bothered that Jacob might have been more interested in the prospect of ordering a delivery driver than he was in pizza or chow mein. "So you're not mad?"
"A bit surprised, actually," Julian replied, "but not at all angry. You've obviously noticed that we have been a bit preoccupied of late, and I honestly expected your curiosity to get the better of you long before now."
"I have been curious about what's going on, but I wasn't sure it was my place to ask," Kouji offered.
"So trying to sneak up on Isaac seemed like an better option than just asking me?" Jacob interjected before Julian could offer a more refined reply.
"Well, when you put it that way, no. Not so much," Kouji grimaced. At least he knew for sure that Isaac was indeed the recipient of this mysterious phone call. "I know that I'm new and not really a part of the group yet, and at first I thought that you might just be tired of dealing with me and my questions all the time, but then it seemed like something was bothering all of you. It was just too awkward for me to ask, you know? In case it was really none of my business. But I think it's getting worse, and I just want to know if it's something that I should be nervous about, too."
"That's all perfectly understandable," Julian mused. "And while you are a newcomer, you are also a part of our society, so you have as much a right to know as the rest of us, especially in consideration of your present company.
"We've recently gotten word of a bit of a situation," Julian continued vaguely. "At some point, it may be of concern to all vampires in general, but at the moment, only a few of us are directly involved. I have a reputation for my scholarship and investigative efforts, and you are familiar with Isaac's formidable skills."
"Mine, too," Jacob announced with a smirk at Julian. "Don't make it sound like Isaac is the only one who can handle himself in a fight, and I just chase after him like some pathetic groupie."
"I would never dream of discounting your prowess, Jacob, but this is hardly the time for chest-thumping, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I guess. Go on then."
"Thank you," Julian acknowledged, returning his full attention to Kouji. "Yes, a bit of a situation. Where should I even begin to try to explain all of this to you?" Julian muttered, more to himself than to Kouji. He removed his rectangular framed eyeglasses and cleaned the lenses absently, furrowing his pale brow as he sorted out his thoughts.
"I'm afraid it's going to be a rather long story, unless you are well-versed in accurate vampire history, and it has always been my experience that humans are never well-versed in the accurate history and lore of our kind. You've gleaned most of what you knew before your making from fiction, correct?" Julian put his glasses back on and peered over the tops of the wire frames at Kouji.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," Kouji paused, confused. "I mean, before I became a vampire, I thought that everything about vampires was fiction, so I guess I don't really know the difference. Are there books and stuff about us that aren't fiction?"
"Some are more factual than others, but I suppose that everything the average human would have access to would be mere fiction. Unless you've somehow had access to the archives at the Vatican or the British Library?"
"That would be no."
"Of course. Access to such collections is strictly controlled and limited to only a handful of scholars, so there's no surprise that most people are oblivious to the existence of such archives. The Vatican denies access to even its most elite and trusted members. The documents are largely hand-written and only exist as single, original editions, so virtually no one actually handles them. The utmost care must be exercised to preserve such fragile parchments, papers, and bindings, not to mention the…"
"The Pope knows about vampires?" Kouji interrupted, too intrigued by the notion to let to pass.
"Pardon me?" Julian asked, wide-eyed. Apparently, he was too obsessed over his precious rare archives to have anticipated such a question.
"Sure, the Pope knows about vampires," Jacob smirked. "They have for centuries. There was a small war, you know."
"A war?" Kouji parroted, and this time he was the wide-eyed one. "A war between vampires and the Pope?"
"Just a small one. And the Pope didn't personally swing a sword – not really his scene. He had the Templars for that."
"The Knights Templar? The Holy Grail guys?" Kouji sputtered, his pitch of his voice rising with each revelation. He wondered if Jacob was just kidding him, but a bewildered glance at Julian showed him no correction.
"The Templars never had the Grail. They always get the credit for that, but they never really had it. Long story. Remind me sometime, and I'll tell you about it. Anyway, small war. Vampires versus Templars. And we won," Jacob smiled broadly. "It was one hell of a good time, too."
"You were there? You personally fought the Templars?"
"Of course. It wasn't even all that long ago. What is it, Julian? Eight hundred years? Almost nine hundred?" Jacob paused while Julian nodded in agreement. "I'm way older than that, Kouji. Do you want to know if Cleopatra was really as hot as everyone claims she was?"
"Gentlemen," Julian interrupted firmly before Kouji could stammer a reply. "The tale of the matter at hand is long enough without bringing up the entire history of our kind, don't you think?"
'I'll tell you later,' Jacob mouthed at Kouji, winking again before folding his arms across his chest and slouching down in his chair with his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He looked for all the world like a bored high school student and nothing at all like a vampire warrior ready to face the Templars in armed conflict.
Kouji suppressed a giggle and obediently returned his attention to Julian, who was shaking his head at Jacob's reaction.
"If I bore you so much, you are free to take your leave and pursue some more exciting endeavor instead. Perhaps you could go into town and start a bar brawl or some other more stimulating, trivial waste of your abilities," Julian advised in a mock sweet tone that accentuated the obvious scorn in his words.
"Uh-oh, the Professor's mad…" Jacob grumbled. "Come on, Julian, would it kill you to lighten up? We all know this is serious, but that doesn't mean that it's life and death right this second. And I don't see why you have to give a full-on lecture about millennia of vampire history to explain this. It doesn't have to be this hard."
"Without the proper background knowledge base, Kouji won't fully appreciate the situation. There are subtleties beyond the grasp of one who does not comprehend all the forces at play."
"So just hit the highlights."
"But that barely scratches the surface, and in all honesty, it would make vampires sound like rather silly and petty creatures, chasing after superstitious nonsense…" Julian was forced to trail off as Isaac suddenly swept into the room, stopping directly in front of Julian.
"She's coming," Isaac announced in a matter-of-fact and unreadable tone.
"Abbey?" Jacob breathed, sitting upright in his chair with his mouth hanging slightly open.
"Abigail," Isaac corrected in the same flat tone. "She's coming."
"When?" Julian asked, sounding far less composed than usual.
"Now? What the hell do you mean 'now'?" Jacob demanded. He stood up and tossed his long braid over his shoulder, fists clenched at his sides.
Isaac turned and cast a stony glare in Jacob's direction. "She called from a mobile phone, to advise us of her approach. She had the house in sight, so she will be here shortly, which is why I said 'now'. Never question me, boy, and mind your tone."
The room fell tense and silent as Isaac turned on his heel and squared his shoulders to face Jacob. Kouji had never heard Jacob snap at Isaac, nor had Isaac ever threatened his comrade. Kouji watched nervously as the two glowered at each other, and he was immediately anxious about who or what this Abigail was, if mere mention of her impending arrival could cause tension like this.
Jacob was the first to look away. He exhaled heavily and waved his hand in front of his chest in a vague sign of surrender before he sank back into his chair. "You're right. Sorry, Isaac. But this is sort of a big deal to just dump on us as a surprise, you know."
"I only found out about it myself, and I'm no more pleased than you are," Isaac admitted.
"Abigail is coming here?" Julian murmured from his stiff pose on the edge of the sofa. "Why?"
"She said she would explain," Isaac answered. "But I'm sure we'll be on the move soon. I think she's found something that requires our attention."
"Could it be something so serious that she would come all the way here? What could they have possibly found so quickly? Their expedition only began two weeks ago…" Julian sounded incredulous, and seemed to be talking to himself as much as to Isaac, as he was making more eye contact with his own wringing hands than he was with the goliath in the middle of the room. "They had so little evidence… They weren't even confident that they were on the right path, or that this is even the correct timing. I find it so difficult to believe that she could possibly require our assistance in such short order. Surely she gave you a bit more to go on, Isaac?"
"She seemed hesitant to discuss it over the phone. We have to assume it is an urgent matter."
"Perhaps… But all records suggest that each clue would lead to another, with each successive step growing more and more involved and difficult." Julian furrowed his brow deeper, pressing his index finger to his lips and stroking his thumb underneath his chin. He rose from the sofa and paced silently past Isaac, shaking his head. "It's just not probable that they've already found something. So many of us remain convinced that there is nothing to find."
"You thought they would find something."
"Yes, of course, Isaac. Of course I did. But you know that my opinion was in the minority. Samuel argued most passionately in opposition, and his view was more popularly supported and believed than my 'quaint little notion'." Julian seemed to choke on the last three words, as though they pained him.
"But I know you, Julian," Isaac offered in the most gentle tone Kouji had ever heard him use, rendering his forceful growl into little more than a reassuring purr. "Your opinion was based on more than dusty old books. I know you, and I trust your instinct."
"Thank you for that, my dear friend, but Samuel is equally well researched, and he has the support of so many…"
"He stands against you solely to discredit you. His arrogance will never overcome your instinct."
"But if I misunderstood even one small detail… Even the most seemingly insignificant bit of trivia… I had no margin for error, you know, and I was working in such haste. A mistranslation, or a failure to consider some hint…"
"Do you think you're wrong?"
"Well, no," Julian sounded perplexed. "Of course not. I could never argue in favor of a theory I doubted or knew to be so flawed. I have my reputation to consider, so I could never perpetuate such a fraud."
"And do you really think Abigail would come all this way to tell you that you were wrong?"
"No…" Julian mused, sounding much more like himself with each word. "Of course not. Abigail may have her flaws, but she has never been overtly spiteful toward me. In fact, she has told me that she holds my work in quite high regard.
"But if they have truly found something already," Julian continued, an edge of wonder creeping into his voice. "Do you know what this could mean? The power at stake? It could be a pivotal discovery – or a terrible threat."
"This is no time for speculations, Julian. We should wait for Abigail."
"What about Kouji?" Jacob asked. The question was sudden and off-topic, but Kouji was relieved that his friend had voiced such a concern. As intriguing as this conversation was, it saved him the trouble of asking himself.
"What about the boy?" Isaac replied, casting a brief, expressionless glance at Kouji.
"Does Abbey know about him?"
"Yes. I had to justify why we were staying here when we could be needed elsewhere."
"And what?" A hint of impatience crept into Isaac's tone.
"You know Abbey has no patience for fledglings. Given the circumstances, I'm not sure we can trust her."
"Too late," Isaac shrugged. "She's here."