A leafy canopy covers the forest’s ground in shadows. I dart around trunks as large as carriages, doing my best to avoid the sunlight that stabs through here and there. The coverage is not perfect, and my skin is already covered in blisters. The cruel rays go straight through clothes as if they were not there.
“Ahh!" I scream and hiss, as yet another gust of wind moves branches and I am exposed to the cruel touch.
“You should give up; you are only delaying the inevitable.”
I want to make Him shut up, but he stands in the light, mocking me. Here, he looks human and regal with his thick brown beard and noble posture, a true king of old.
“Your peers reject you; the humans reject you. Even the sun itself wants you gone from this world.”
I dodge and sprint, time is running out. The sun is already going down. The shadows lengthen.
“The nail that sticks out gets nailed down, after all. You are only prolonging your suffering."
I need to keep going. I just have to reach the house. I will be safe inside.
“You think your family will welcome you? Idiot. You are not Ariane, though you stole her name for yourself. She died, that night, alone and broken. You are just the final insult to her memory.”
“You lie! I am me!”
“How can you be so sure? Have you seen yourself in a mirror?”
The sun is closing to the horizon, but I will never survive to twilight. The forest parts to expose me. At the last moment, I dive behind a tree and feel the bark to my back. The murderous rays start to twist around the trunk, and I yell when they reach the edges of my arm.
“You will forever be a pariah, spawn, no matter how much you beg or bow.”
I start screaming. Several voices join the chorus calling me an outsider then there is only fiery death.
I awake and quickly repeat the now-familiar sentence. I have been here for two months, two months of playing thug and errand girl. I am even building a bit of a reputation.
I wonder why I have so many nightmares, and if the others do as well. Unfortunately, I would sooner stab myself in the foot with a rusty meat skewer than share this detail with anyone here. My questions will therefore remain unanswered, for now.
The phantom pain coursing through my body ruins my meditation. I wish I could cry, but this is a function of the body that I find myself unable to force. I endure the memory of burning to a crisp for only a minute before it is replaced by a more powerful imperative.
I wonder if older vampires treat the Thirst as an old friend, or if they are all driven mad by it. Baudouin confirmed that fledglings consume more, especially the very young ones. I can only hope that I maintain a healthy self-control, at least long enough to grow out of “infancy”.
Like every night, I take the time to bathe and dress properly. I battle the Thirst with every bit of self-control I can muster to take the time to care for myself and my appearance. I even bought a comb.
After a quick detour by the cages, I reach Baudouin’s office.
“Ah, Ariane. Come in, come in.”
“Good evening. I am ready for the meeting.”
“Ah yes, well, unfortunately, you will not be attending.”
I freeze immediately. During my time here, I took my role as a spy quite seriously. I have listed all their warehouses, their banks, and business partners. Every key ally, every lie and every weakness I have religiously catalogued.
A sentence overheard, a confidential document left lying around, an unexpected visit, every activity is an opportunity to discover more. I have made reports that I have hidden well. If they fall in the hands of the Cadiz, they will be able to strike those degenerates down with deadly accuracy.
Hit them where it hurts the most: their pride, and their wallets. Has Baudouin discovered my stratagems? I thought I was careful… I even have an escape kit ready, hidden under the destroyed belfry of a derelict church.
I found the irony delicious.
Baudouin eyes me nervously. He does not know. He assumes I am mortally offended.
“This is not a punishment, in fact, I have something of a reward for you. Today, we had a situation. One of our whores made the unfortunate decision to laugh at a customer’s privates.”
“On Delore street?”
“No, the Red Veil, unfortunately.”
This is the Lancaster’s high-end brothel, and that means the offended party is rich and powerful.
“The issue is that the man, a Simon Henley, took justice in his own hands and carved her up. That will not do. He is in his estate now, with half a dozen guards.”
“You expect me to go there and intimidate him?”
“No Ariane, I expect you to kill him. He made some very public statements and demanded reparations. I cannot let this stand.”
“How do you want this done?”
“Do what you want. I will burn down the house when you are finished. The militia knows to avoid this place tonight.”
“Can I get a gun this time?”
“No Ariane, my opinion hasn’t changed, we do not use guns.”
Neanderthals. I harrumph, then make for the exit.
“Then I will be on my way.”
“Do enjoy yourself.”
As I exit the office, my eyes are inevitably drawn by a figure going down the stairs.
Lady Moor does not belong here. This land is young and rakish. Its wealth is stolen from native tribes and torn from the earth by the labor of countless slaves, brought here against their wills in floating coffins.
It is no place for complicated intrigue and veiled threats, at least, not yet. Her appearance reflects this. Even her dress is too warm for the suffocating weather.
She ignores me and soon crosses the threshold, followed by a smug Melusine and Lambert the ever-bored. They will attend a meeting with the representative of clan Ekon about some flesh market issue.
I should have been there as “muscle”. It would have been an opportunity to meet them and perhaps know what the Cadiz have been up to. Well, there is always a next time.
I go back to my room to get changed and don a provocative attire with a shawl to hide my shoulders. Now I look like a streetwalker. If Papa would see me…
No! I must wear this as an armor. My appearance is both a weapon and a bait. Simon Henley expects some reparation from a bordello and this is what he will see, a suitable emissary. I will preserve my dignity according to my own rules and clothes are no longer a concern.
I leave the house with the bracer and a heavy bag, keeping to well-lit streets.
I have enough stashed away to run for a while with what I picked during my errands, the problem is that I would be hunted down and eliminated even without the bracer. I need a clean escape.
Since we are going to an expensive side of town and a woman alone would draw unneeded attention, A carriage has been made available. As we drive on, I am for once thankful for my cold body. Without it, the enclosed space would have been stifling.
After a quarter hour or so, we stop in front of a manor and the carriage leaves. The Victorian style house is without much embellishment, but the garden is impeccably maintained.
Papa always said that understated signs of wealth are the mark of good breeding and I have trouble reconciling the tasteful residence with the image of a man who would disfigure a whore because she laughed at his manhood.
Perhaps this was built and maintained by his father?
I cross the deserted entrance and arrive in front of a pair of wooden doors. At this time of the night, there should be lights and servants about, but the place is suspiciously silent.
I find myself growing wary.
I knock on the door and it opens immediately. A rough-looking man with a scowl inspects me in silence. I curtsey. They are expecting me, it seems.
With a grunt, the man invites me in.
This is it. I could start killing right away but something stops me. The guard is armed with a truncheon and no other visible weapon. He is no danger to me. Something else is.
Just like vampires have a cold aura, I feel something bright and colorful and it comes from deeper into the house.
I am curious. What could it possibly be?
I follow the guard into a modest ballroom covered with a plush carpet. Large windows adorn the wall opposite the entrance and there is only one door, the one I came from. On my left, a few seats have been gathered and four hard men stop their game of cards to take a gander at the newcomer.
On my right, next to a piano of good make, stands the master of the house. He sits atop a leather throne that was brought here for the occasion.
A flagon of spirits rests on a small coffee table to his side and next to him stands a bodyguard who immediately captivates me.
He is tall and muscular with a trimmed beard and wears on him enough weapons to take over a small town. I count no less than two pistols and seven daggers at first glance. He even wears a helmet, indoors, like some uncouth savage.
The colorful aura comes from him.
Our eyes meet and he gives me the most peculiar of smiles.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” asks Simon Henley, pointing to a modest chair in front of him. He is dressed in an expensive shirt and jacket that do little to hide his gut. His pale skin is the worm-flesh white of people who do not leave their house during the day, it is also covered in clammy perspiration. His grey eyes do not meet mine. He is scared out of his mind.
Everything is wrong.
The thugs should be leering or indifferent, not wary.
Henley should be smug and arrogant, not terrified.
The last man does not belong here.
My instincts and intellect unite in the firm belief that this is a trap. Worse, the bodyguard probably knows what I am and he is convinced he can take me on. I remember the followers of Gabriel assaulting the keep. They, too, had a plethora of arms and the training to use it. They did not have an aura.
This man is a mage.
If I take this seat, I am dead, again. This will not happen.
I step towards it and kick it into the pair. The mage easily dodges but Henley takes it in the face and collapses with a muffled scream. I move back, and not one second too soon.
A white light erupts in a circle where the chair used to be and misses me by a hair. The room erupts in chaos and yells.
The mage takes out a gun and fires it at me. I finish my movement by falling on the floor. The bullet misses me.
I end up at the feet of a stupefied guard. I stand up and claw his throat in one movement. The geyser of blood distracts the other three.
His blood stinks, there is something wrong with it. I hiss and grab a second guard to use a shield. An instant later something bites into my side.
I stare down in disbelief. There is a large gash on my waist. The dress is torn apart to reveal shredded flesh seeping dark red blood. The man I used as a shield screams, dying.
The mage shot his own ally!
Something pings on the floor and I instinctively look at it just as it detonates. A thunderous explosion, and a white light blind me, deafen me. I drop the man to grab my maimed eyes.
HURT, need to escape. Can’t see.
Behind me, cover. I move backwards and grab the edge of the poker table. With a grunt, I flip it and jump behind. I move to the side as something roars. Someone bumps against me and falls. I find a shoulder, a throat. I slash it open. The blood smells wrong again.
The bottle of wine that was on the table smells wrong too. Something they drank?
I can hear better now but my eyes still hurt. There are windows. Escape. I grab a body and blindly rush to the wall. Can find. Can break through.
“None of that! Seal!”
Something bumps against me. It does not hurt but it pushes me back with incredible strength. I crash against the table and it breaks under me. A shard stabs into my back. It hurts. So Thirsty. Can’t stay here.
I crawl away from the mage. Waist hurt. Back hurt. Bleeding. Need blood, but it all smells wrong.
Ah, I can finally see again.
I turn myself as a throwing knife whistles past my shoulder and buries itself in the carpet. Finally, a decent weapon. I remove the shard of wood in my back. It did not go deep.
The mage throws more daggers and once more I use bodies and the table to dodge and block. I grab one blade in each hand, then I throw a third one at him. It pings against his armor.
The man is still smiling, he unsheathes a saber and a short blade and rushes me. I manage to stand up to meet him in the middle of the room.
I realize very soon that this was a mistake. I may be faster than the mage but in everything else, he has the advantage. His reach is longer, and his technique superior. He deflects my strikes with precise and conservative movement.
I am completely outmatched.
Soon, I have a new long gash in my wrist, and I drop a blade. I cannot move my hand! I am not healing at all, and I am so very thirsty. I cannot get out!
The pain becomes too much. I have one last quick move in me but after that, I shall be helpless, I have to make it count and--
What is that delicious smell?
It comes from Henley! I need to--
A red snake twists around my useless hand. My flesh immediately starts to smolder. I scream in agony and lash out with the last knife I have. Fortunately, whatever made his blades so painful also breaks the spell.
I collapse on the ground shrieking.
I can’t stay there, I need to move, but...
it hUrts so muCh.
“Aaaah, that backlash was nasty. You cunning bitch! Though I must say, I am rather disappointed. With all the talks about vampires being century old apex predators, I was really looking forward to a good fight. Yet here you are, a brute relying on her speed rather than technique. Sloppy, and pathetic.”
PredAtoR saYs. YeS, viaBlE plaN. ImpLemEnt.
“Well, guess I have to find a knight next. Now, I was told that piercing the heart will incapacitate your kind. At least I can put that theory to the test.”
YeS, prey, cOme closer…
“I dare say killing that werewolf turned out to be more--AAARG!"
I move. I stay low, grab a knife and bury it behind the knee. Weak point. Now spring up his back, grab around with my claws.
Something propels me backward and I smash into the coffee table and Henley’s inanimate body.
“Aaaah, you BITCH! Ah, Heal! HEAL! Dammit.”
“You’ll pay for this! I was going to make it quick but now I think I’ll burn you alive. Ah. Shit! Just you wait!”
I am feeding from Henley, my back to the mage when something happens. I can feel all of my fangs pull. The strength I draw multiplies tenfold, a hundredfold. This time there is no bliss. This time, there is only life, and the strength I need to survive. This time I do not feed.
It takes less than four seconds for Henley to die. As the last of his life force is torn away from his body, I feel a temporary burst of power. The pain is still there, as is the Thirst. It just does not matter so much anymore.
So this man is a hunter? He thinks I am game?
I am no beast. I am a vampire.
I pull myself up and find the mage applying bandages to his wounded leg. His disbelief turns to horror at the sight of my face. Blood is still dripping. I give a ghastly smile.
Then I throw the corpse at him.
I put my hips into it and the body flies. The mage swears and ducks.
I jump and fly with claws forward. I crash against him and send him on his back.
I claw and lash, trying to reach his face. His armored bracers stand in the way but I manage to score hits in unprotected places.
None of that. I use one hand to push both of his arms towards me and stab a finger in his cheek. I rake his face. Blood flows. Still smells wrong.
I am weakening.
I can feel him struggling to get something. I can’t fight much longer. My strength is already waning.
He pulls something that roars. I feel cold punching through my stomach.
I ignore the armed hand and deflect the other. I put one thumb against his eye and push. With a ghastly crunch, the eyes pop and I bury my fingers to the hilt in his skull. Fluids splurts on my face. The blood in them is…
It smells horrible but there is so much power in there.
It is fading quickly.
I bite deep and take a swallow. The blood is potent, it is also laced with something that ravages my throat. The balance is barely in favor of the blood.
I punch his face, once, twice, three times. The pain catches up to me and I collapse on the mangled corpse. Everything hurts. I have not felt this bad since my death.
Then, all feelings fade.
I feel strange.
Pain is a distant thing and so is the Thirst. I expected to turn into a ravening beast, but it appears that I am, in fact, sated. Wounded, but sated.
I can only draw strength from the red nectar so fast.
The edge of my vision is growing darker and I remember. This is what dying was like, back when it happened the first time. The sensation of slipping, of letting go.
“Nom de Dieu, c’est un cauchemar!”
I remember now, we only killed three of the four guards, the mage and I.
“M… Monstre! Démon !”
The last one must have cowered in some corner. I do not blame him. He is growing a spine now, though. He took a knife. He is getting closer.
I absolutely cannot move. I am… So cold.
Slumber calls to me. I could just close my eyes and… forget, and yet dying is a once in a lifetime experience.
Well, twice in my case.
I would rather not miss it.
And now somebody knocks on the ballroom’s door. The guard squeals and jumps like a scalded maid. Heh.
A black woman walks in. A vampire. She is dressed in leather pants and a tight white shirt. How unladylike, although to be fair, she is not baring her midriff to the world like I am.
“Well, color me impressed,” she says with a fanged smile.