“Ma petite chérie, I am so glad to see you!”
I rush down the stairs and embrace her. She returns the hug, then steps back and inspects me with a serious face and smiling eyes.
“Mhhh but how you have grown! Any bigger and we shall have to trim you a bit.”
“Not funny!” I reply laughing. “I am thirteen, and when I turn twenty all of you will have to look up to me! I shall overcome even Papa!”
“Perish the thought!” She answers. “Your appetite would bankrupt us all.”
We chuckle for a while until her expression grows serious. I feel extremely awkward as I am now convinced of the reason for her presence, even more so because she left my cousins at home.
“We need to have a talk goddaughter, one that requires privacy. Should we retire to your room?”
I would like to pout and protest, but I’m a woman now and need to show patience and restraint. I lead her up the stairs to my room and claim the bed while she takes a chair.
“How I wish Diana could see you now, she would be so proud.”
I am instantly saddened.
“I am sorry ma chérie, I did not mean to make you sad.”
“It is fine, we both miss her.”
“Yes, and this makes it even worse. How I regret it, what I have to do…”
“Dear aunt, you exaggerate. I know discussing lady issues are a tad delicate…”
“Not that, this.”
Her hands grip my throat and she pushes me into the mattress. I cannot breathe! I struggle and fight but she is so much bigger and stronger.
My sharp nails dig into her arms to no avail. Red tears of regret mar her cheeks and her mouth distends to show serrated fangs.
Oh my God! I panic even more but already darkness creeps upon my sight.
“I am sorry chérie, this is the only way! He will claim your soul otherwise! I am so sorry, ma Cherie. So sorry…”
I grow more frantic in my struggle. Her fingers dig into my skin, draw blood until the pressure is too much. The pain becomes intolerable and with one grisly crack, my cervical bones shatter.
Something is wrong. I… What… Who? I cannot think properly, everything seems distended and cloudy. I feel the urge to just stay there, and wait, but I know something is wrong.
It smells like fire.
The thought of fire horrifies me, a visceral reaction of such intensity that it forces me up.
I don’t know what to do.
No, focus, this has happened before.
“My… name is… Ariane… I… Am my… Own.”
Slowly, painfully, my psyche stitches itself back together, fraying at the edge. Holding my mind together is like holding sand, and I know I need something. I desperately need it.
The Thirst hits me like a rock.
I bend forward and grip my stomach. Oh God, it hurts… I need it. I need it. I need it.
I NEED IT!
I need to find my master.
Then we will leave this forsaken place together.
But first I need to FIND HIM NOW.
I pull myself together and just walk to the door, carefully opening it. The smells hit me first.
Woodsmoke. Gun powder. Blood. Excrements.
The corridor is deserted but for two unmoving forms. The first one is a servant in a maid outfit. Her hands clasp a deep wound in her chest. They are so coated in red that she looks like she is wearing scarlet gloves. She is also quite dead. Tears trail down her face from half-lidded eyes.
The other one is a man in a black leather overcoat. His clothes are military without being a uniform I recognize. I see no wound on him but he is lying in a pool of his own blood, also dead.
I feel nothing.
A distant part of me screams that this is not right, that I have seen bodies before but never like this.
I care not.
The man is holding a gun, a pistol of good make with silver embroidery. I get closer and see that it is discharged. A basic inspection yields silvery bullets and a powder horn, which I take. I reload the weapon and cock it.
The woman took a bullet wound.
Whoever attacked this place, they care not for unarmed women. They did not even have the grace to give her mercy, instead choosing to let her suffer atrociously before she drew her last breath. I will not have the same fate. I have not come this far to fall to some brutish lout.
I need to flee the building. The smell of fire worries me. I dare not find Jimena, for if I know the woman, she will be in the heart of the battle if she still lives.
Fortunately, I know where to go. We are in one of the wings of the fortress and the exit should be on the “ground” level of the wing, quite close to the entrance to the dungeon.
I am quite certain that there are hidden ways given the builder’s strange tastes, but I am not inclined to look for them. I would rather risk a blockade.
The Thirst is killing me.
I go down one floor with all the patience I can manage and stop when something peculiar hits me. This is the floor where I first slept and the door to my first room has been broken open. Only one other room had its entrance forced.
Are they hunting the residents? If so, how did they know where to find me?
I reach the ground level and slow down. If the mysterious assailants are still around, this is where I will find them. As I finish this thought, a few footsteps echo from a nearby hallway and I hear Ogotai’s distinctive voice.
“…incompetent, I would never have agreed to this! How many men do you need to…”
Relieved, I step out of an alcove as Ogotai comes into view, taking care to hide my pistol at my back in case he proves himself to be too nervous. A gravelly voice retorts but I barely pay attention until his two companions step into view.
Both of them look like hard men. The older one has deep claw scars on one side of his face, barely missing his black eyes. The second one is much younger, with red hair and a sharp look.
Both of them wear the black overcoat of the intruders, enough weapons to start a small conflict and unexplainably, silver crosses.
We all freeze at the sight of each other.
I understand immediately.
I turn to run and Ogotai moves.
I will never make it in time.
And that is fine. A part of me that I do not recognize rises to the surface of my being. There is barely enough of me left to direct it and yet it is enough.
I move as well.
Just as the edge of his blade kisses my neck I lift the firearm and pull the trigger.
Point-blank range. A child could not miss.
Ogotai is so surprised at the sight of the muzzle, that I see his mouth form an “O” an instant before it is blown away.
I am not done.
The two men instantly pulled guns and are now firing.
I grab Ogotai’s body and use it as a shield. Two dull impacts make his chest shiver as I rush forward. I am barely thinking, something is taking over and I let it. I will live.
I will live.
And so they must die.
Ogotai’s body flies through the air to the older man who tries to dodge to the side. A pointless endeavor. The warrior’s body is too massive and the corridor too tight. With a grunt, he falls.
With a high pitched scream, I rush at the redhead until a flash of silver makes me dodge. Something flies over my shoulder. The corridor’s tightness now plays against me and I move to avoid another one.
My foe anticipates it and a third something stabs into my arm with a flash of blinding pain. A knife!? I hiss and barely manage to endure it. He is close, so close!
Something glows white and I am propelled backward by an implacable force. Swatted like an insect I bounce on the floor. No! No, this cannot be. I am too thirsty. I need it.
I NEED IT!
I manage to stagger back up in time to find the young man taking out another pistol from a recess in his vest and aim it at me.
As he fires it, I throw my own discharged firearm. It impacts his shoulder as he shoots and a massive hole opens in the wall next to me. I need to get closer, but I can’t! What to do!
Oh. Of course.
I rush forward once more as the man takes out a smaller pistol from yet another pocket. How many does he even have? This time he waits calmly for me to approach.
When I am but a few feet away I pull the knife from my arm and throw it at him. I care not about the pain. I only care about the deliverance he will offer me.
My awkward throw sends the flat of the blade to impact his nose and it breaks his concentration. As he recoils from the pain. I manage to move around him. I grab his neck with two fingers and push him down. At the same time, I bring one of his arms back and bite.
This isn’t close to what I had before! It simply will not do! I cannot take it in. It barely dulls the edge. I need more. I need him.
I NEED IT FROM HIM!
I… what? Nothing makes sense anymore!
Somebody cackles like a madwoman.
I stand up and grab a dagger. Ignoring everything else, I follow my nose to a draft of fresh air I feel. The air is tainted by smoke but this is the way out. I know it.
I will live.
In a daze, I leave the three bodies behind and walk past corpses of servants and soldiers as well as one inexplicable pile of ash to the scene from a battlefield.
A broken down barricade stands not ten meters from a half-collapsed wall. I count more than a dozen bodies of both sides strewn about, including a few women and quite the assortment of weapons.
It looks like the invaders stormed it and left no one alive. As I pass the barricade, the reason for their anger lies before me.
The entrance to this wing of the fortress has been blown open, yet the wall partly collapsed, creating a chokepoint and corpses of the invaders litter the ground.
Even in my dazed state, I am stunned by the extent of the destruction I am witnessing. What manner of fanatics would throw their lives away like this? What would justify such determination, or such hatred?
I cross the door and find trails of drying blood. Recent. Someone dragged their wounded out.
I stumble forward and find myself in a massive hall the size of a cathedral. The walls are natural. Is this some sort of cave?
Another set of doors faces me. The cave goes up to my left but the draft comes from my right. I walk in that direction.
This place is empty but for the dead. A handful of oil lamps provides enough illumination to see clearly.
This hall is barren and its sole purpose seems to be to instill a sense of majesty or dread. I cannot tell.
I quickly reach a set of massive stairs when two forms step down from it. I did not hear them at all!
The first one is a bearded blond man with pale grey eyes in a blue overcoat who frowns at my sight. The second one elicits a gasp of surprise from me.
I have seen many slaves and freemen, hailing from Haiti or the continent. They always have something about them while in the presence of many white folks.
Sometimes it is fear, sometimes, respect and quite often, it is defiance, but what they all have in common is that they never let their guard down.
Not this man.
Dressed in a beige leather ensemble and quite visibly armed, he has a sarcastic smirk on his face that shows that he fears no one.
Bar Master and my father, he is also the tallest man I have ever seen.
The two newcomers are followed by brown haired twin men and a black woman, respectively.
All of them exude the same cold aura I now attribute to afflicted, with the first two men being on par with Lady Moor and Lord Ceron.
I need to go up.
I NEED TO BREAK THROUGH.
No. They are stronger, I cannot leave.
The blond man steps towards me and before I can react, he moves faster than I can think and my vision turns white.
One moment I am looking forward, the next I am held above ground by five sharp things digging in my stomach. The pain is unbearable and the tenuous hold I had on my mind finally breaks.
It is too much.
I stay there, unmoving. I don’t have to struggle. I don’t have to breathe. Moving just means more pain. Better to stay and wait. Focus on fighting the fog. The last dregs of consciousness I can hold to. If I let go, it is over. I know it in my soul.
As I drift in and out I can hear fragments of conversation.
“…clear as day! Someone betrayed us and we know it cannot be a cattle!”
“… raving imbecile. She has been one of us for four days while this raid is weeks in the making.”
“…cannot trust his spawn! I knew it was a mistake to…”
“Bring her back up or we will never know. She fed and is still degenerating; she’s almost too far gone.”
Somehow, we are going up. We reach another grand entrance, this one made of wood. We walk through the burnt husk of a mansion. We walk through a garden. We are outside.
Finally, something shakes me from my torpor and I let out a weak moan.
It’s Him! My salvation!
His mere presence stitches more of me back together. Enough to follow what happens.
The blond man throws me on the ground. I curl up around my belly. I fight off the pain. I can do nothing else.
I will live.
I just need a few more minutes, and Master will save me. Just a little bit longer…
“Back so soon?”
“Don’t play coy, Lord Nirari, I am wise to your schemes!”
“I really doubt that little Gaspard, you do not even have enough fingers to count them all.”
“You! So you admit that this is your doing?!”
“This attack on us! You come here and not a week goes by and we are assaulted?! You expect me to believe this is a coincidence?!”
“Or it could be because of the long-awaited conclave. I would explain Occam’s razor and confirmation bias to you, Gaspard, but I lack the patience and crayons to do so.”
“Enough Lord Gaspard. If we want to know more we have but to ask the lass. Lord Nirari?”
“I admit that I am curious as well.”
Master grabs my neck. I do not need to see him to know it. His touch makes my body lax. Even the pain and the Thirst fade.
I find myself looking into his face.
Ah, those handsome features! This kingly presence! His noble beard! HiS eIghT fanGs.
Oh, my name on his lips! I am undone. I find myself smiling like a witless maiden. I love him so much!
The world gradually disappears as my body relaxes completely. The world fades away and at the same time, I regain perfect clarity.
Never since my awakening in this dark cell have I felt so focused.
“What did I ask of you when we first met?”
“Do not speak unless spoken to, address you as master, behave, obey Jimena in all things.”
“Have you spoken without leave?”
“Have you addressed me as anything but Master?”
“Have you obeyed Jimena in all things?”
“Have you behaved?”
“I… I think so? Yes, Master.”
“We shall see. Ask your questions Lord Ekon, and I shall relay them to her.”
His attention goes to someone else. No! Look at me! He turns back to me. Yes!
“When did you wake up?”
“ I do not know, maybe fifteen minutes ago?”
“At sunset then. Do you know of the raid on our fortress?”
“Did you help the assailants in any way, at any time?"
There is some commotion outside, after a while, He asks me more.
“Little Gaspard here thinks we were betrayed. What do you think, little one?”
Another commotion. Master looks pleasantly surprised.
“Oh? And why do you think so?”
“I saw Ogotai walk with two of the invaders. They were talking”
This time the commotion is quite loud.
“Tell us about it.”
As I relay the encounter to master, his smile grows wider and more malevolent until he laughs. The sinister sound sets my stomach aflutter.
“Ah, young Ariane, you have brought me something I would not have expected to find in this forsaken corner of the world: entertainment. Jimena, did my spawn behave properly?”
“Very well then, I declare that you upheld your end of the bargain. I am pleasantly surprised by this outcome! It is not every decade that someone manages to elate me so. As promised, you may draw my essence. May it be everything you hoped for.”
He slowly drags me up to the crook of his neck. I do not understand what he wants until he places my mouth against his soft skin. My mouth instinctively opens and he lets himself be touched.
I feel something thick and syrupy pass through my parted lips.
Even if one day I forget my name, even if I live a thousand years, even if I am robbed of every last shred of sanity I have, I shall never forget the moment I taste this essence.
I will go on blessed by the experience and cursed by the knowledge that nothing will ever compare.
Words escape me.
I die of pleasure a thousand times. The wave of agony and bliss burns through me again and again, lasting both an instant and an eternity, and I am carried on it helplessly.
After a while, visions like fleeting dreams appear to me.
I am in a chariot pulled by two horses. I let loose an arrow that flies true and buries itself in a man’s throat. My first kill, one of many.
A foreign princess prostrates herself before me, the blood of her brother still staining her dress. I utter a few words. With tears of humiliation rolling on her face, she unclasps the gown. It smoothly falls from her golden shoulders. I stand up.
An older woman sits at the heart of an intricate garden. Her beauty and wisdom are legends. She is writing an intricate spell on a square of tanned human skin. When she hears me, she looks up and smiles.
I lie on a bed stained with my sweat and blood. My hands grip the hole in my gut. The stench is nauseating. The same woman leans against me with a sad smile. She tenderly brushes my hair back. Her other hand brings a vial of black liquid to my lips and I swallow it.
I pull away with a gasp before the blazing potency makes me burn from within. My fraying mind is reforged at its sharpest and coldest. The power courses through me and invades every organ. I absorb it like a woman dying of thirst.
My name is Ariane Lucille Beatrice Reynaud. I have a father and an older brother. Family, friends, hopes and dreams. I came to New Orleans with my best friend for a short stay. I intended to talk to an acquaintance at a ball and met Master here. He…
No no nonononoNONONONO
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME, YOU! YOU!”
The monster laughs, he is filled with mirth! NO! This cannot be, it is a nightmare! No. I refuse to…
“What hAve yOu done? What am I? Why?”
“So much anger little one, do you hate me? Do you?”
How can I hate him when I love him so much and I hate him so much and love him so much and…..
“No? Then are you happy?”
“Tears? How very precious! No? Was it not your desire?”
“HOW! HOW DARE YOU! YOU VIOLATED ME, KILLED ME, TURNED ME INTO THIS!”
His hand slides from my neck to my throat.
“Tut tut, I will have no mouth from you little one. After everything I have done for you.”
He smiles disarmingly.
“You were so precious, a little peasant girl who dared approach me, as if we were equal. You even addressed me first, introduced yourself freely. I wanted to tear you apart limb by limb for your insolence, but then you started talking.
So many projects, so many dreams. This drive, this passion, I was so touched. You reminded me of someone I knew long ago. Like you, she reached above her station, however, she succeeded. Her deeds inspired a whole civilization. You were like her. You wanted it all, and you even wanted me! You asked me if I was married. Such presumption, such hubris. I had to see it through.
So here you are, little one, like me, a vampire. Free of the constraints of this barely civilized corner of the world. You can live forever. Time will not wither your beauty, nor will it dull your wit. You can get it all, and you can even get me. Show me how far you can overreach, little Ariane. Show me that I did not waste my blood and my seed on yet another failure.”
“You will not get away with this, Guh…!”
“God? Did you want to say God? There is only one God left for us. Look up.”
Despite my best efforts, I raise my eyes to the sky above.
A canopy of light and darkness. A canvas where some divine artist threw lights and shades of colors in some unfathomable pattern. I never knew the heavens could be so breathtaking, and I would stare in wonder were it not for a new celestial body.
Twisted clouds and roots of baleful purple enshrine an eye of black sclera and a slitted red pupil. It is absolutely massive. It dwarfs even the moon.
The sky has a gigantic eye. A demonic cat eye in a purple crown.
I stare, speechless.
It stares back.
I want to close my eyes but I cannot for Master bid me look. Sheer terror courses through my mind. It is alive. I feel a presence.
“Welcome to your journey of Black and Red little one,” Master says, “may it be everything you hoped for.”