I was mistaken in believing I knew everything about the Lancaster's various businesses. I used my free access to Baudouin’s office to copy a few documents, including quarterly reports to the head of the Lancaster, in old English no less.
I knew about the plantations, the factories and warehouses. I knew about the inns and brothels. I knew about the slave and flesh trades. I even knew about the occasional contraband. Of course, they would hide something so that it is not taxed, and so I did not know about the blood sports.
New-Orleans’ landed gentry is proving to be an utter disappointment. Their unusual tastes have created a demand for the most horrendous of spectacles. Two to three times per week, men and sometimes even women, are given the opportunity to be freed of debt or punishment in exchange for a night of combat.
Should they survive, of course.
Ladies and gentlemen in expensive suits and domino masks travel by coach to one of Lancaster’s villas, walk through a cleanly cut maze of grass and sit with refreshments on the slope of a Greek-style amphitheater. An entertainer dressed in a toga and a full-face helmet loudly proclaims the night’s program.
The arena also employs a few prizefighters to guarantee some modicum of quality in the art of killing.
I breathe slowly. I do not need air anymore, but there is something in the cycles of breathing that provides the soothing rhythm I need to stay focused.
Inside, the log cabin has changed. It is no longer comically large, like I remember it as a child. The building is simply more spacious with some semblance of furniture. The cot has turned into a bed with a canopy that reminds me of my own, before I became what I am now.
The smell of wood smoke and fresh rain is just as prevalent as before. I let the light of the moon caress my skin from an open window and stare outside to endless fields of thorny trees. I do not recognize their essence and I know they should look menacing but I feel protected. Safe. Nobody will cross this expanse to harm me. They would be turned to bloody shreds in the labyrinthine forest.
I have not stepped outside yet. I am not ready.
I keep breathing. In and out. In and out. I just need to last a little longer. The Thirst will not make me throw myself against the bars. Never again.
I have been here for two weeks, and it only happened twice.
A clanging sound interrupts my meditation. Harold is opening the door to my cell. I can feel his hungry eyes on my body and I am once more thankful to Baudouin for his parting gift. He left clear instructions that I am not to be touched inappropriately, an order that the male vampire has yet to disobey.
When I kill every last one of them, I will be sure to make the human's death painless.
“It’s time.” says the brute.
I adjust my half mask and tighten the leather armor I wear. They are part of my public persona. I am, to the spectators, a Himalayan tribeswoman cursed with a taste for blood who fights without a blade.
How they swallowed this much nonsense, I shall never know.
We walk through a short corridor to the arena’s gate. Harold stays mercifully silent the whole time.
Just a few more minutes. I can do it.
The gates open and I cross the threshold. The night smells of sweat, arousal, sand, and stale blood. In front of me, a burly man in a kilt and ancient helmet wipes his wounded shoulder with a stained piece of fabric. The corpse of a starved wolf lies a few feet farther.
“Laaadies and Gentlemen! Demetrius won his daughter’s freedom, can he repeat the exploit for the rest of his family? Will you grant him your favor against theeeeeee Blood Beast?!”
I raise my eyes to the skies and find the purple shape of the Silent Watcher. The twisted heaven grows closer as I am made aware of its presence.
It does not judge. That is all I can perceive and at the moment, it is all that I need. I bask in the eldritch light and savor the simplicity of the eye’s intent.
The raging Thirst slides in the background, if only for an instant. My only valued companion is a gigantic eye in the sky. This says a lot about my current social standing.
“Five lives, I have five lives, who will give me a sixth? No? Five lives it is! May the gaaaaaaame, BEGIN!”
The man grabs a trident and I finally notice a discarded net lying around. Baudouin must have gone for the Roman angle, as I recognize the attire of a Retiarius. That would make Harold a Lannista, the master of ceremony in a Roman circus, and me an idiot.
The man charges me with a grunt and thrusts the trident awkwardly. I easily push the shaft aside and stab a claw in his shoulder wound before dancing away.
I lick my bloodied finger for all to see.
“And we are one life down already! The Blood Beast teaches yet another lesson!”
The man howls in pain. The crowd roars in approval. I want to consume the prey. He tastes so sweet. Fear does that, it brings life to the surface.
I must remain patient.
My opponents have “lives”. Instead of going for a killing blow, I am to merely hurt them until they run out of it. Spectators can throw money to purchase an additional life for a contender, or they can pay that same amount to remove one.
To win, they only have to draw blood.
For me, the game is slightly different. I could finish the fight in an instant by moving, however, I have two objectives: provide entertainment, and spend as little resources as possible doing so. If I rouse the spectators, then Harold lets me feed on the defeated a little bit longer. On off days, the cattle arrives a little bit faster.
If I am defeated, or if I am too fast or too brutal, pain and the Thirst follow.
If Harold punishes me for no reason, I immediately kill my opponent.
There is a balance of terror in our relationship. I successfully made myself too valuable to kill and too difficult to control.
The failed Retiarius finally recovers from the pain and grabs the trident firmly with two hands, like an oversized sword. He swings at me menacingly a few times but I do not move. I can recognize the most obvious feints now. Out of patience, the man swings at my head and I dodge down and forward to close the distance.
He reacts in an instant by dropping the unwieldy weapon and punching forward. He is much faster now, and I barely manage to block. The impact pushes me back. My arm stings a bit. He immediately jumps on me but this time, I was expecting it. I sidestep his bull rush and stab a talon in his side as he goes by. Not too deep.
The man and the crowd roar at the same time as I lift a finger high. I lick it again. Hmm. I cannot wait much longer.
“And that is two! Is hope quickly fading for Demetrius? Can he make the monster bleed?”
Monster is a code word by the announcer to tell me to slow down. Drag the fight. I am so Thirsty, surely they would understand?
As Demetrius stands up, a heavy object buries itself at his feet with a thud. Silence descends upon the arena.
Throwing objects, and particularly weapons inside is ground for removal, who would dare to…
A petite woman in a blue dress and a checkered mask waves her hand at me. Her crimson hair bobs up and down with her giggles.
The announcer recovers faster than me.
“Mistress! Do you grace Demetrius with your blessing?”
She waves lazily and sits down. The dismissal is so well done that all the attention returns to him and forces his hand.
“Very well! Demetrius, you have been given a second chance. Do not disappoint this noble assembly!”
I watch, speechless, as the gladiator picks up the massive knife and draws another one from his boot. So, not a Retiarius gladiator anymore. A Dimachaerus? Those are the ones who use two swords if I remember properly.
I fall back before my opponent. It is obvious that he knows how to use those. His posture is different and he feels so confident. I see no opening. I dodge a slice, another.
On the third, I try to grab his arm but his second blade lashes out. I barely avoid the bite. His moves are much more conservative and efficient.
Melusine broke the rules to make the fight more difficult and I know well that she will receive no more than a slap on the wrist for this transgression.
I slip to the side and sprint to my left. Demetrius easily keeps up with me, then I reverse course and rush forward. Caught off-guard, the gladiator stumbles. His weight makes it harder for him to change direction quickly. As I pass him by, he slashes the air. The blade slides against my armor with a scratch, a glancing blow that draws no blood.
I roll forward and grab the discarded trident. As he jumps at me again, I swing the massive weapon and smash it against his side. He crumples in a heap.
The crowd yells in approval, delighted at my quick thinking, such as it is.
“Oooooh, it appears that our valiant Demetrius still looks down upon the blood maiden! Three down, two left!”
I lick the outer prong. Very little blood. Not sharp. Soon. Have to wait.
“The trident is not yours.”
Once again, Melusine’s voice silences the intoxicated mob.
Oh no, she did not.
I am not to speak so instead, I tilt my masked helmet to the side, hold the polearm like a javelin and throw it at her.
Melusine’s eyes widen in disbelief behind her checkered mask. She barely manages to fall to her side and the weapon hits the stone behind her with a loud clang. I threw it shaft first, as a precaution.
Yup, it's yours now. Your move, you insufferable daughter of a hag.
Melusine shivers in rage but she already broke the rules twice for her own enjoyment. She is on thin ice, and she knows it. Fuming, she sits back down and I turn to the prostrate gladiator with a small scoff.
I make sure she notices.
Now that my anger dies down, the Thirst once more takes over. The wait is the worst. I am easily distracted from the craving but I do need something to focus on.
I walk a bit and when my preparation is done, I stand in front of the panting gladiator.
I wait. Perhaps I cracked his ribs?
It is always the same insults with them. No lily-livered wenches, no unable worms and three-fold fools. Has no one told them that variety is the spice of life?
“F-for my boy!” says he, as he stands up, quite audibly too.
The crowd erupts in cheers. The narration of the moment crystallizes in their sick minds.
Here is the criminal with the good heart fighting for his family's freedom. There, the cold maiden from the tribe at the dawn of time, the remnant of an archaic world where the fairer sex could wield blades as sharp as their tongue.
I care not. I am Ariane, I am my own. I will live, I will go home. All those who stand in my way, be they saints or criminals, I will devour.
The man rushes me again but he is slowing down. I easily dodge his slices by moving backwards and to the side. I leave my hands behind my back to everyone’s amusement. Finally, he corners me then overextends and I throw the net I was hiding that whole time.
There is an art to throwing a net. You have to make sure it is as wide as can be when it lands.
Demetrius recoils in panic and raises his hand in reflex. The net wraps around him beautifully and I draw a furrow in his left cheek with a talon. Yes. We are finally reaching the conclusion to this farce.
The crowd is silent now as the last act is about to open. The desperate man fumbles for a while and finally manages to get free. He immediately rushes me with a desperate roar. I stand my ground as the crowd watches with bated breath. When the knives reach me, I step backwards and grab both arms, let myself fall, put a foot against his belly and push.
That is a neat trick.
The big man is propelled like a derailed locomotive and crashes against the arena’s wall in a fracas of metal. I am on him in an instant. I lock one arm with a leg, the other with my right arm. I pull his head back and bite deep.
Wait. No, this is wrong! I know that stench! That Jasper ruffian used the same concoction! How…
A mage potion? How? When?
There on the ground, a glass vial. He must have drunk it as he was fumbling under the net. But who would give it to him?
I spit out. Livid, I turn around and point an accusatory finger at Melusine. She was bent forward in anticipation! I knew it!
“YOU WHORE! YOU TAINTED THE BLOOD!”
Whispers and murmurs break among the crowd, growing in a crescendo. How dare she! How dare she pollute the precious substance!
Pain from the bracer makes me collapse. Harold comes and picks me up before retreating to the corridor.
I need it. I need it, need it, need it.
When Harold brings me another prisoner, it takes all my self-control not to kill the whimpering sod on the spot.
Two weeks later
There are no signs of Melusine, and I can only assume that she was reprimanded for her idiotic display. Fights remain difficult but I am fed enough to remain sane. Mostly.
Three weeks later
The man facing me is an old French sailor with graying hair and nose flattened by repeated fractures.
“Non, you must move better. I show.”
Marius is quite popular with the crowd, especially when he uses a ridiculous harpoon as a spear. He fights dirty and I learn a lot from him. We have an off night and I want to pick up a few tricks. God knows I could do better. This is unladylike, but I will do almost anything to survive.
Four weeks later
Marius is dead. He was killed by a downed debtor who stabbed him in the back after the fight had ended. On a positive note, I got to drink the shameless prick dry. I had a new fighter, an Italian lout, show me how to use a knife.
Five weeks later
The Italian lout made a name for himself as “Benedetti”. His knife-wielding technique and rakish looks apparently made him popular with widowed female spectators. I am fighting a bit less as a result. We also picked up a coolie called “Long”. He calls himself a “Martial artist”. He moves well but fights too clean.
Six weeks later
I lost my first match in a while against a desperate fighter, a cavalryman of some repute apparently. He managed to stab my arm using a suicidal attack. The crowd loved it. I think he may even survive.
Seven weeks later
I wake up to a familiar ceiling of red bricks. There are four hundred and ninety-six of them, to be precise. Entertainment is sparse here.
The cell is made of three brick walls and one made of metal bars to allow my captors a full view of my quarters, such as they are. The only saving grace is that I do not need to visit the lavatories, nor is it difficult to keep clean. No sweaty armpit, no dead skin for this young vampire. No moon blood either.
Even my costume is cleaned after every fight by a terrified maid. There is very little cause for me to undress, and I have so far managed to clean myself at record speed and therefore avoided any spectator.
“I am Ariane, I am my own, I will survive, I will go home.”
I repeat the sentences every night, though my heart is not in it these days. I have achieved something I thought would have been impossible after waking up with no pulse.
I am bored.
I know, on an intellectual level, that I am in mortal danger. I also know that I am a prisoner, and yet my life has become routine. There are only a few variations. Sometimes, I am let out to practice with other gladiators as a reward for good behavior.
I learn to move better, I learn where it hurts and what my body can do, but that barely covers an hour. Sometimes, I fight, and although it can be entertaining it is over too quickly. The rest of the time, there is nothing to do.
I asked for a book and they brought me a bible. I suppose this was a crude attempt at humor. I remember the cross on the men of the order of Gabriel and their dreadful effects on me. However, when I opened my own copy, nothing happened despite the holy symbol on the cover.
I thought that reading this most august of works would shed some new light on the world, now that I am aware of the existence of unnatural creatures. Sadly I found little of interest. It appears that a lot of the content is about who begat who and which tribe camped where.
Two sets of footsteps approach my door. Harold comes into view, dragging a reluctant woman in a maid uniform. He opens the door and shoves her in. I approach slowly and she offers her neck, however as I draw closer, she seizes my arm.
I do not show any surprise and when we are done, she leaves without a word. I open the folded paper she placed in my hand to read its content.
Do not let him transform.
The message bears no signature and I do not recognize who wrote the blocky letters. A moment later, Harold returns with a fresh armor. No helmet this time.
“Put it on, and hurry.”
As I walk to the arena, I know something has changed. Winter is here. The air tastes colder and more quiescent, and the whispers and laughter of the crowd have fallen silent. When my feet tread the sand, I glance around in surprise.
The rowdy crowd has been replaced by my so-called benefactors. Lady Moor sits in the middle, in a comfortable throne. Baudouin and Melusine are on either sides. The redheaded hag is smirking gleefully and I am now convinced my opponent will be a difficult one.
Lady Moor glowers down at me.
“Let the mercenary…” she stops. Melusine leans towards her and whispers a few things. Moor considers her words for a moment before nodding in assent.
“You are correct, this is not technically against the rules. Inform Mr. Vauttier that he may start turning right away.”
Harold nods and crosses to the other gate. A moment later, dreadful cracks and groans emerge from the darkened corridor in front of me.
What in the world is happening?!
The abominable noises continue for half a minute and culminate in a sound that freezes the blood in my veins: a primal roar of utmost savagery. The sound reverberates in the closed space. Birds take flight in the distance and the world around me holds its breath.
A clattering of claws on cold stone announces the arrival of a creature of nightmare. Dark grey skin covers every muscular inch of a chimera between man and wolf. Even when hunched, it stands taller than me by half and its long and powerful hands end in claws that completely dwarf mine.
What in the name of God is that thing?!
I am supposed to fight that!?
The creature’s yellow eyes fall on me and in the same instant it jumps, and I move. I sidestep the beast, slide under its extended arms and rake my talons across its powerful sides.
It feels like carving into stone!
The monster’s hands grab air and before it can turn around, I rush from behind and kick its lower back. I used this move before to shove an unbalanced opponent into the wall with some success. Now? It feels like hitting a pile of bricks.
The creature turns around and slices the air where I was standing an instant before. It misses me by a breath. That thing is fast, almost as fast as me unless I move. That said, I am not giving a show anymore.
I am well fed, and I do not have to give quarter.
I draw into a deep part of me, the predatory aspect that ignores all rationality. The Lancasters fade away, the locked doors fade away. There is only me and the prey.
BIG, RESILIENT. INFLICT CRITICAL DAMAGE. NO DRAGGING OUT.
The monster rushes me, this time it stops beyond my reach and lashes out towards my torso. I move, using the same jump I used to hit the mage.
The enemy misses, but its arm brushes against my leg and I am propelled off course. I barely manage to swipe my target on the side of his head before ending up at its back again. This time, the creature howls in pain and reaches for the ruin of its left eye. I do not wait. I jump on it and dig both hands in its jugulars, then I pull.
To no avail.
My talons are stuck in the rock-hard skin. I fight and struggle in vain for an instant then the monster’s claws hit my midriff and throw me away.
There is a horrible shredding sound when my claws are torn from his arteries, and another when my body is sent flying.
Are those my guts?
Oh my God, it is, oh my God oh my GoD tHis…
ThiS is noT alRigHt.
In a panic, I try to pull my intestines back as fast as possible while the beast coughs and hacks. I am almost done when it turns to me.
Don’t think about it Ariane, don’t think about knowing what touching your own organs feels like. Gah!
The beast jumps again. So much blood! It killed itself when it wrestled me, slit its own throat.
I just need to last a little longer!
It steps forward and…
Hmmm, such a tantalizing bouquet!
I wilL paRtaKe of it.
The creature lurches at me, then strikes. I move for the third and last time tonight, dodging strike after strike with one hand against my stomach until eventually, I stumble.
I look down to my blood-drenched form. The wound is not closing at all. I am bleeding out!
Using my distraction, the monster grabs my left arm and pulls. The pain is renewed as I feel things come out that should have stayed in. So strong! I manage to lift my right hand so the beast’s other arm clamps on my torso instead.
The pain is almost enough to make me faint, only panic and my will to live keep me off the edge.
It opens a hellish maw, filled with serrated fangs.
Oh God! It is going to eat me!
I grab its lower jaw and pull it towards me. The beast’s mouth bites on my fingers and a new pain joins the other, but I had enough time. The creature did not expect this. No prey wants to get closer.
My mouth sticks to the gaping wound on its throat and I start drinking. The beast shivers, it is already too late.
A rush of power and life unlike anything I have ever felt crashes against my mind. There is no time to think about any cabin, no time to prepare. I am just washed away.
Night. The hunt. I see something on the vale under the light of the full moon. It is an abomination devouring a child! I shoot. It jumps at me. I run. I reach a house. I reach the cellar door. Something bites my ankle but I turn and stab it in the eye. I run in. The beast is too large to follow me.
Night. The hunt. Blood sings through my veins as I howl in triumph. The pale prey and their pathetic mounts lay dismembered around me.
Morning. Regret. Grief. Shame. Exile.
I push away from the carcass and take a deep breath in. This was incredible! It does not compare to my master of course, but it was the closest to have come to it. I hear a suction noise and look down. Under the grime and congealing blood, I am unharmed.
Silence reigns over the arena. Melusine’s face is a mask of stupefaction while Moor is contemplative. Baudouin is pale and sweaty.
“It’s not fair! My Lady, this is a draw!”
“Unless I’m mistaken, your candidate is a stiff. How is that a draw?”
“Enough! Do not argue in public. Melusine, do not be ridiculous. Take the loss and go.”
Lady Moor’s image blurs and I hear a loud smack at the same time as Melusine’s face moves back. She collapses in a heap and coughs blood.
Let this moment be engraved in my memory until the end of times. Melusine’s pretty face with the imprint of someone’s hand on it and blood dripping down her poisonous mouth. Whatever God favors us vampires, praise be to thee. Hah!
Torpor hits me like a hammer. I fed a lot and took a lot of damage in a very short time. I can barely keep to my feet. I look up to the Silent Watcher as I am dragged away.
“Did you enjoy it too?”
Pale light shines on the meadow. In the semi-darkness, everything looks the same shade of grey except for scarlet droplets. I smirk and shoulder the smoking musket. With a trail that obvious, who needs bloodhounds?
I stride forward with haste, lest my prey ends up in some other animal’s belly. It is a swamp rabbit of prodigious size! Wait until I show it to Papa. I will surely break his and Achille’s records. Ariane Reynaud, greatest hunter of House Reynaud, here I come!
The trail goes over ferns and through bushes, and I follow. In less than a minute I start to hear wood snapping and a whimper of pain. Hah, so close.
Here it is, my prey. Such a huge rabbit it is!
“No amiga, please! Do you not recognize me?”
I take out my hunting knife to finish it off humanely. One slice and it will bleed out nicely.
“No, Ariane, please, Ariane I beg you! ARIANE, NO!”
There, all nice and proper. I lick the blood a bit, because it tastes so divine. Not bad!
Now I just have to bring the carcass to the camp and weigh it. After I am done gloating, I shall allow Achille to gut and skin it for me.
There is just something most peculiar about its empty eyes, staring at nothing. It is almost as if…
By all the saints in paradise, what is it with these inane dreams! How awful. Who in their right mind would hunt at night in the bayou? Preposterous. Strutting around in the dark, in the marshlands is a sure-fire way to get bitten by an alligator and drown in some murky pond. I would not be caught dead doing something this senseless.
There is, of course, the small matter of the murder of my best friend. Unfortunately, I expect nothing else from those nightmares.
I lay there in relative peace. I am fully healed from yesterday’s fight and clean, and though my quarters are nothing comfortable, there is a pleasant feeling to just staying in bed.
Inevitably, the Thirst lets itself known and like clockwork, two sets of footsteps approach my cage. When my donor comes into view, it takes all my self-control not to jump in joy. I school my expression as the door opens, as the donor slips something with the glint of gold in Harold’s hand and as he leaves us alone. When I hear a shutting door though, I let myself smile warmly.
“Good evening Aintza.”
The Cadiz have finally made contact.