Everything about the woman is predatory. Her walk, her posture, her mouth, they all speak of danger, but also of elegance. I am convinced that many men would deem her worth the risk.
“Who… Who are y--”
The man does not finish his sentence. The newcomer unsheathes a dagger and with a casual swipe, slices his throat open. She did not even grace him with a look.
I can see the tubes, and smell the fouled liquid. How vexing.
I can barely perceive the woman passing by. So very tired. Just need to close my eyes for a moment.
“Stay with me, young one.”
I blink my eyes open as something straddles me. The woman is here! She rubs her thighs on my stained dress, making herself comfortable. Then, she extends one hand and digs inside my chest.
“Shhhh, look at me, follow my voice.”
I stare in chocolate brown eyes twinkling with mischief. She is doing something, but I am too weak to act.
“Nothing hurts, it just feels like you are surrounded by fluffy pillows.”
Something pulls on my stomach, but I feel no pain. A moment later, the strange woman is inspecting a silver ball held in a blood-soaked hand. She whistles.
“Nice catch, darling!”
Is it? I frown.
“You are comfortable, yes?”
Am I? I guess I am. I feel like taking a nap, but something is holding me conscious. How peculiar.
“So, did you know Jasper, the tracker?”
“I guess not, sweet cheeks. I’m talking about that mage who almost killed you. I assume it is he, seeing that the head is mostly gone. Nasty man. He had a habit of hunting monsters and people for sport, regardless of guilt. This time, he bit off more than he could chew. Pun intended.”
“Hmm you are too quiet, my little honey pot. Let me help you.”
She takes out a small canteen from her jacket and empties some of its content around my mouth. The burning sensation I had forgotten is simply washed away. She dabs at the damp spot with a clean tissue. I tentatively lick my lips. I am still sluggish, but now I can talk.
The woman looks dumbfounded before exploding into laughter.
“Aaaah my little duckling, so precious! I am Naminata, but you can call me Nami.”
“So, why are you here anyway? I assume you were not tracking the Tracker.”
Talking is tiring. I slightly turn my head to the broken chair and the corpse besides it.
“Oh, that swine. You are the one who killed him, yes? Well done. I could not have entered this house otherwise.”
She leans forward. The distance between us grows intimate and when she licks her lips, I shudder.
“I know you don’t want to stay with those Lancaster bastards. You want in with us? One word to Kouakou and he will marry you. We could use une autre go, ma petite chérie.”
Now that my gut is free of bullets, I can feel my body struggle to heal itself. The torpor is receding a bit, replaced by pain and a renewed Thirst. I still cannot do more than shake myself a little.
“Never… again… Gggh! At the mercy…of another.”
The smile falls from her face, to be replaced by regret and a little bit of shame. I recognize her now that my mind is clearer. She was with the representative of clan Ekon when I escaped the fortress. She stays silent for a while. We do not move. I am starting to drift.
A hand pats my head softly. The sharp claws brush through my hair with a gentle touch, parting the strands without snagging them. The effect is so soothing that I shiver and relax.
“Ssshhh, alright little one. I am sorry. I forgot. Very well, I shall let you go with a little gift. As an apology for my tactless offer.”
My eyes are closed but suddenly I can smell something. It is a fragrance like wet earth and spice, an exotic scent, something to dance and sing to.
“I wonder how it feels. Come on, bite!”
I feel soft skin against my lips. The perfume grows hauntingly strong. I am so Thirsty. This is not exactly what I need, but it will help.
My fangs pierce her skin.
This is so different from a human. There is no rush, no ecstasy of life. I barely get any energy and whatever I obtain feels sluggish. No heartbeat drives vitality into my aching body. What I get instead is power.
If life is the thing that perpetuates my damned existence, what I get now is the essence that lets me do impossible things. I can feel myself growing noticeably more powerful. I suppose that I am so weak now, that every little bit counts.
There was something similar with the mage.
Drinking from magical creatures makes me stronger.
I finally understand the reason why the other spawns are so much more dangerous than me. My Master feeds them the blood of powerful things, and possibly his own. Their quick growth must ravage their mind and turn them into the natural disaster that they are made to be.
Baudouin said that vampires grow in power with age, implying that the Devourer and his spawns draw power from the things they feed on, much more so than the other bloodlines.
I am not quite sure that this is common knowledge. I am however certain that no one knows how significant that is, here in Louisiana, and I fully intend to keep it that way. I am afraid that some would cull me before I become a threat, if they found out.
“That is enough little one,” says a sultry voice. I obediently lick the wound clean. This experience was far too intimate for my liking. I fear that Nami stole my first kiss, or whatever the vampiric equivalent is.
“Aaaaah, I so love to walk on the edge! But enough of this, ma chérie. I shall recover Mr. Jasper here, and I will be on my way. A bientôt!”
With Nami’s departure, something snaps and I immediately lose consciousness.
“No, please Achille, please…”
“I told you sister, it won’t help.”
A ghastly wind blows through desiccated sugar canes, throwing ash and dust into the air. The sky is so darkened by smoke that I cannot tell the time.
“Please… I am so Thirsty! Please…”
Achille carries the only flask of cold water around. He drinks from it from time to time. I can almost feel it on the tip of my tongue, so tantalizingly close.
“It’s all your fault, you know? If only you had died correctly, we could have had closure, but even this you could not manage.”
A blast of air blows embers on my tattered dress. The red dots settle on me and smoke starts to rise. I can already feel the heat burning my skin. I struggle, but I am restrained. My arms are held up by chains attached to a wooden mast dug deep into the ground. The familiar log cabin taunts me with its safety but it is so far, I can barely see its charred walls. They still stand.
“You do not believe me. Very well. Try it yourself.”
My brother approaches. His wide shoulder and muscular body used to be a sign of comfort, but now it is a threat. I feel like he would gladly shatter bones and bruise flesh with strikes from his meaty hands, but he does not. Instead, he brings the canteen to my parched lips. Yes! At last!
The cold liquid rushes past my mouth, finally. It tastes like fresh mountain water. I gulp greedily yet nothing happens.
“I told you, I told you it would not work. Only pain and misery will sate you now, you horror wearing my sister’s skin. Have it then. Gorge yourself on it. Monster.”
Achille takes out a hunting knife and slowly places it against his jugular.
“Wait! Achille, No! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”
The knife slices down and a veritable geyser of blood splashes all over me and the ground. He is going to die if I don’t… I don’t…
I need it, I need it so much. I am hurt, and so very…. THIRSTY!
Ah, the pain! What? Where is my respite? Where is my minute of introspection?!
I cannot move.
I crack open my eyes. I am attached to my bed by thick ropes that twist around me and the mattress. I am still wearing the remnants of yesterday’s dress under the layers of twine. It smells ripe. My face is coated with dried blood that cracks as I move.
This is amateur work. I can free myself in a few minutes and hunt someone to drink dry. I squirm and the pain redoubles. My stomach lances me so much I could believe I have been shot once more.
Ah, this is it. I must not have healed completely from yesterday’s ordeal. If I had been alive, such a wound would have killed me within an hour. I would have gasped my last in a pool of my own blood and offal.
There are some benefits to this cursed life after all.
I hear footsteps just as I manage to sever the first knots with a talon. The door opens to reveal Lady Moor.
She looks just as majestic as always, scrunching her nose in displeasure. How I hate her and her misplaced arrogance. She would smell like entrails and stale blood too if she got her dainty hands dirty, instead of parading herself in this barely civilized swamp like a peacock and letting others labor for her achievements.
“Is that defiance I see on your face, fledgling?”
This is no time for confrontation. I will escape, and much, much later, I will wipe that expression from her face.
I will not let arrogance destroy me. I realized yesterday that mortals are fortunate when it comes to pain. There is only so much damage a person can take before one’s body gives up, unless they are under the care of a particularly talented torturer I suppose.
Vampires, on the other hand, can take so much abuse. Enough to drive one insane.
I may be stronger than yesterday but I am still a sparrow to Lady Moor’s eagle. I need much more time before I can even compare. I shall be patient. I must be patient. I will be feared like Master, even if it takes me a thousand years.
I will see that pretentious wench broken before me.
“Baudouin had assured me that you made yourself useful. However, I now believe that you played him, you filthy little trollop. He does not know your kind as I do, too used to dealing with mortals, I suppose. Now, you will tell me all the dealings you have had with Clan Ekon.”
“I have no arrangement with Clan Ekon.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. None whatsoever.”
“Then how do you explain that Naminata was seen exiting the building we found you unconscious in?”
“This was the first time I saw her since the fortress.”
I explain what happened yesterday with the exception of my increased strength, such as it is.
“You said that you killed this Jasper man? Alone and unarmed?”
“I was not entirely unarmed. I used his throwing knives.”
She scoffs, her carmine lips twisted by disdain.
“Picking up a mortal weapon like a beggar with no dignity? Now this story is suddenly more believable.”
And whose fault is it that I ended up in harm’s way equipped with a shawl? Bah! This woman would not know intellectual honesty if it slapped her in the face with a rotten catfish.
Did she just imply that she cannot recognize lies from the truth? That is tremendous news! It means I can hide my little conspiracy from her. I still have to be careful, for she would not have survived this long without being crafty. Not with that attitude, at least.
“But to expect someone of your lineage to be honest? You must think me daft, girl.”
“I assure you that there are no arrangements between Clan Ekon and myself! I even refused Naminata’s proposal.”
“Hah! I knew it. And what proposal would that be?”
I did not mean to say that. My anger got the best of me yet again.
“To marry Lord Kouakou.”
“Hah! Hahaha, how it must have been tempting, you shameless harlot! Freedom at the tip of this savage’s member? What stopped you? The perspective of only being the second wife?”
It appears that Jimena was wrong. Vampires are racist, just not to each other’s face.
“Indeed, it appears that I was mistaken to believe you crafty enough to make such an arrangement. You certainly possess some form of low cunning; however, it is not enough to successfully plot against us.”
I remain silent. I finally see the end of my torment. I just want the insufferable woman to take her leave so that I may hunt in peace.
“A betrayal is not to be borne however, no matter how small. I am quite certain that your addled brain came up with some scheme, and I shall hear of it now.”
“You have a plan to escape. You must have, and I will hear it when you are ready to share. Not to worry girl, I brought some light reading to entertain myself while we wait.
You must understand that in my veins runs the blood of kings. Those who have been brought up in such high spheres know the best tools to achieve the intended result, without ever having to sully their hands. In this specific instance, the tool is patience; and so we shall wait.”
Lady Moor ignores my protests. She sits on my chair, at my own desk and takes a book from a small bag, which she then proceeds to read.
I shuffle in discomfort. My stomach is still quite painful, if not as much as before. My Thirst, however…
It starts from the chest, at the height of my arm. It spreads up and down until it reaches my throat and tummy. It is an itch, a burn, and a craving. There is nothing like it, and no human experience can quite compare.
When I was a child, I held a heavy plate for as long as I could. At first, it felt easy, then uncomfortable, then painful until finally, it became almost unbearable. If I held longer, my entire existence had to be limited to the task.
The situation is somewhat similar, in the same way that being stung by a bee is similar to being stabbed by an enchanted silver dagger.
After a few minutes, I would roll around and fight the bindings openly, the pain in my stomach forgotten. I could not help myself.
After half an hour I was hissing and grunting. Lady Moor had heavy chains brought by a smirking Charlotte , and I was held up like in a cocoon.
After that, I lasted only a few more pages before starting to beg.
“Anything I want?”
“Yes! Yesssss. Just, please. PLEASE!”
“Your arrangements with Clan Ekon, I would hear of them now.”
“THERE ARE NO ARRANGEMENT YOU--ARG!”
“But you do have a place to escape.”
“Yes! Yes, damn it, I do. I have a plan.”
“And what is that plan of yours?”
“I have money put away! I will take it and go!”
There is barely enough sanity in me left to throw away my most desperate plan. I will use it as bait, as a sacrifice.
“You STOLE from us?”
“N-no Mistress, I took money from your foes. The people in the warehouse! The swordfish gang, the rapists and the dodgers. I took their money!”
“Pfff! Hahaha oh, a war prize? Oh, this is just too precious. Very well, you might be slightly more cunning than I gave you credit for, but I must ask, how did you expect to survive the following manhunt?”
“Well, there is enough money to take a night coach. I would run afterward.”
“I was referring to the bracer you hare-brained bumpkin.”
“I was going to cut off my arm.”
“Oh. OH! This is just getting better and better. Why, I should thank you for tonight’s entertainment my dear, I have paid fortunes and laughed less. You seriously, seriously intended to mutilate yourself?”
“I… I know we can regrow limbs!”
“That is technically correct, and also completely irrelevant, as expected of you. You simply fail to understand the reality of your existence. You are no true spawn of The Devourer, mad with power and Thirst. You are just a lost fledgling abandoned by her sire who thinks herself tough enough to do what it takes to escape. You are not, and since I am a benevolent Mistress, I will educate you this instant.”
She walks to me and takes out a wicked dagger from a recess of her robe. The weapon is terrifying. It is black as obsidian and strangely curved. I have never seen such a thing before, yet one look at it is enough to know it was designed to slay humans.
She raises it and I flinch but she just frees my hands, and then removes the shackles. The rest of my body remains trapped.
“Well, I had almost forgotten your stench. I only have myself to blame. In any case, take it."
She gives me the dagger hilt first and I grab it before thinking. I could just cut the rest of the rope and get some blood…
“Cut off your arm here and now and I shall let you drink someone dry, then I will give you your freedom.”
“You heard me. Should you successfully cut off your arm, you can leave. This is my blade. It can cut through metal. Even an untrained mortal could decapitate a foe in two strikes using it, so slicing through an arm is a small matter.”
Doubt assails my mind through the numbing Thirst. Could it really be this easy?
“There are no traps. Go on. Try it.”
I extend my left arm and brandish the blade and I realize the issue.
I am terrified of pain.
I have suffered a lot in the past few months and one would think it would make me used to it. It does not. I do not want to be hurt. I do not want to bleed.
But I must try. I have to. This is my best shot at freedom. I turn my eyes towards the master vampire at my side. She has a patient and slightly condescending look on her face. She seems so certain that it is impossible for me.
I will show her.
I take a deep breath, grit my teeth and move to strike with all the speed and strength I can muster. I will hack down and slice before my brain can register what I have done.
My hand falls down and begins to quake.
Oh. My. God.
Can’t move. Can’t think. Hurts. Blade grates against the bone, buried deep.
I keep screaming and holding my arm, with the knife still in it, for some time. The agony washes my mind free of anything but the blinding pain itself. The world turns white. There is only suffering.
Eventually, another voice pushes through the dry sobs.
“Well, you managed to reach the bone. Here, let me help a bit.”
A hand pushes the blade down in a resounding crack and I lose consciousness for a few moments. When I come to, the knife is halfway through my arm. Blood slowly seeps on the stained sheets. The only sounds are my whimpers.
“You are halfway there, though arguably this was the easy half. Well, will you continue? Take your time.”
Too much pain. Too much pain and too Thirsty. I should continue, but I simply cannot. It hurts too much.
I am not some hero out of a story, who can just ignore pain and adversity. I am not strong enough.
I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to feel this torment.
It will have to be the Cadiz.
I am only lucky that Lady Moor forfeited a full interrogation in favor of humiliation. It seems that being looked down upon remains my greatest asset, for now. I would feel sorry about myself, but I am in too much agony for even that.
“Should I take it out?”
I nod. Yes, God please, just make it stop. Make everything stop. I feel like crying but I will not let go of the shreds of dignity I am still clinging to.
Lady Moor removes the knife and to her credit, she does it cleanly. The wound does not heal and I vainly hold my mangled arm to prevent more of the precious liquid from flowing away. So Thirsty. I can’t take it anymore.
She drags me to the cattle pens and I feed on two victims one after the other.
I notice that the sky outside of my mind refuge has turned dark. I should perhaps be worried, yet how could a vampire find daylight soothing? This is no more than I deserve.
After we are done, Lady Moor drags me back inside and throws me on the carpet. I can hear a snicker from Harold who watches me from the stairs. Those jackals are ever eager to witness someone else’s humiliation.
“My devoted Melusine tried to turn you into an acceptable courtier; however you preferred to be with the dregs. Now, unless you want to help with the gauntlet, you will work in a position that suits you better. More specifically, on your back.”
“Gauntlet.” I croak.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Gauntlet.” I repeat with more conviction. Whatever it is, it is still better than the fate she has in mind right now.
If Lady Moor is angered by my refusal, I see no trace of it.
“Very well. The Gauntlet it is.”