A timid knock came from the door.
“Enter,” replied the deep voice on the other side.
The door creaked open, and a portly man in a fine black suit and tie stepped into the room. He shuddered, and then immediately hoped his master hadn’t seen. A butler in this house was to conduct himself in the proper manner at all times. Such has been the rule since the manor’s founding, and the servants who broke it were seldom given second chances—or ever seen again.
Still, the shudder was only natural. The moment he stepped through the door, the temperature had immediately dropped at least thirty degrees. The fire roaring in its hearth at the far side of the room seemed to give off no heat whatsoever, and the portly man’s breath rose from his mouth in small clouds.
“Jensen,” his master greeted him. The old man was seated before the fire, his back to the door, staring into the flames with a focus so intense that the butler was surprised he’d even heard him knock.
“Master Jacob,” Jensen said, giving a quick bow, “there is—”
“What do you make of this, Jensen?” Jacob motioned toward the fire.
“S- Sir?” the butler asked.
“So large. So bright. A catalyst of both creation and destruction. And yet…” He peered at it, leaning in so close that for a moment Jensen thought he would burn the eyebrows off his face. “And yet, so empty. Come closer, Jensen.”
Jensen obeyed, even though every molecule in his body was screaming at him to run. He knew what his master was capable of, and he knew what sort of things he didn’t tolerate. He came to stand behind Jacob’s wheelchair, his customary place.
“What do you see?” Jacob asked, his voice soft and almost wistful.
“I see the fire, sir,” Jensen answered. “Is there…something in particular you—”
“Yes, yes, but what is inside the fire?” Jacob cut him off.
“Inside?” Jensen echoed. “There is nothing inside the fire, sir. Not that I can see at any rate.”
Jacob sighed, nodding his head with eyes closed. “As it ever was. As it shall always be, I fear.”
“I don’t understand,” Jensen said, growing more confused—and thus more afraid—with every word out of his master’s mouth.
“Never mind. What was it you came to tell me?”
“Ah, yes.” Jensen straightened. “Master Jacob, a visitor has arrived for you.”
“A visitor?” Jacob feigned surprise without looking away from the fire. “At this time of night? Well then, show him in.”
Jensen bowed again and left, saying a silent prayer of thanks as he made for the foyer. A minute later, he returned, this time with a filthy young man in tow.
“Your visitor, Master Jacob,” he said, ushering the newcomer in. He stayed in the hallway, ready to escort the man back out again, respond to any requests his master might have…or summon the cleaning crew, if the worst were to come to pass.
Jacob drew in a long breath through his nose without turning around. “Mmm, yes. Dennis, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” the young man said. “That’s me.”
He was dressed in a shirt and pair of pants that looked like they had been pulled out of a dumpster, and a ragged brown duster that had more holes than cloth in it. He wore no shoes, but his feet were black with dirt and mud. Jensen made a mental note that he would have to scrub every floor this disgusting transient stood on.
“What do you want, then?” Jacob asked. “I dislike having company at this hour.”
Dennis swallowed, the danger he had put himself in by coming here slowly dawning on him. “I- It’s about my hunting team, sir. It’s our job to find walkers.”
“Did you come here to remind me of your job description? The job that I personally gave to you?”
Jensen felt his heart sink. It was looking like he would need to call the cleaning crew after all.
“No, sir!” Dennis said quickly. “It- It’s just that…we found a walker, sir. Two of them, actually.”
“Very good.” Jacob’s voice grew darker. “Then where are they?”
Dennis hesitated. “We…I don’t have them.”
Still not looking at him, Jacob folded his hands contemplatively, but said nothing. Jensen resisted the urge to inch away from the door. Though Master Jacob didn’t show any outward sign of emotion, Jensen had worked for him long enough to recognize his mood at all times.
And right now, he was extremely annoyed.
“I’m waiting for an explanation, Dennis,” Jacob said at last.
“It’s not my fault,” Dennis protested. “We had a trap set for one of the walkers, but then the other—and we didn’t even know about this one at first—showed up and killed one of our guys.”
“It is not unheard of for our prey to fight back now and then,” said Jacob. “So, am I to believe you killed this skinwalker in retribution, and that is why you don’t have it?”
Dennis cringed. “No, I…the rest of us…we retreated when we saw him die.”
Jacob didn’t reply, but Jensen could feel the temperature in the room grow even colder. Frost began to form on the windows.
“But we followed them!” Dennis was talking quickly now. He knew he was on thin ice. “The walker joined up with another walker—that is, the one we were hunting to begin with—and a human, and they all went out into the forest. When night came, we attacked and…”
His voice trailed off.
“And?” Jacob demanded.
“And they…killed the other two. I’m the only one left.”
“They were using fire!” Dennis insisted. “They couldn’t have known about our weakness unless—”
“Come here,” Jacob commanded him.
Jensen sighed and fought the urge to close his eyes. With tentative steps, Dennis crossed the room to where Jacob was sitting, still entranced by the flames. He stopped, standing beside the ancient, chairbound man.
“Are you right handed or left?” asked Jacob.
“R- Right, sir,” Dennis answered.
“Then give me your left.”
Dennis did as he was told, raising his hand even as fear shone in his eyes.
Jacob moved faster than Jensen’s eyes could see. Turning his head to face Dennis, he lunged forward, taking three of the filthy man’s fingers into his mouth, and bit down. Blood exploded from his hand as if it were connected to a firehose, and Dennis howled in pain. He fell to the ground, writhing, while Jacob watched impassively from his chair. After a moment, he swallowed all three fingers whole.
“Get up,” he commanded as soon as his mouth was empty.
Whimpering and clutching his hand, which only had his thumb and little finger still attached, Dennis got unsteadily to his feet.
“Stop your crying,” Jacob sneered, the contempt plain on his face. “You know they’ll grow back!”
Not until he feeds, Jensen thought with a sick feeling in his stomach. He had deliberately kept himself as ignorant as possible about his master and his…friends…but there were some things even he couldn’t fully ignore. Such as, if his master or someone like him were to eat a human being once a month, any wounds they had suffered since their last feeding would be healed. But if they missed their meal by even a day…
“I am going to assign you a new hunting team,” said Jacob. “You are going to find the skinwalkers who killed your brothers, and you are going to make them pay for what they’ve done.”
“Y- Yes, sir,” Dennis said through gritted teeth.
“Tonight, you are a disgrace to our kind.” Jacob drew back his lip in disgust. “If you don’t redeem yourself by the next feast night…”
He leaned forward, his eyes abruptly glowing with putrid yellow light.
“…I will make you wish they had set you on fire too.”
Dennis gulped, but nodded frantically.
“Jensen, see our guest out.”
“Yes, Master Jacob,” Jensen said, stepping into the room. Dennis gave him a venomous look, but Jensen knew he wouldn’t touch Jacob’s personal servant. Not without express permission. He bowed to his master, then turned to lead Dennis back to the entrance.
“Oh, and Jensen?”
Jensen stopped. “Yes, Master Jacob?”
“Wake the cleaning crew. I seem to have made a mess.”