The town of Montfort where I grew up is about two-thirds of the way between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It took us a day of riding to come here, back when I was alive. Tonight, it only took me two hours of running to reach the outskirts.
I should have died. Even if my heart was barely clipped and my head still mostly attached, the grievous wounds I suffered should have been the end of me. Instead, I was given a few swallows of blood so potent, so incredibly strong that it amplified my healing and is even now carrying me forward.
I have run before and any exertion quickly led to Thirst. This time, I ride on the wind of boundless energy, a well of vitality that just goes on forever. Even now, I feel sated.
I do not understand what I was given; I only know that I had never heard of something similar. Whatever I was gifted, it was both rare and precious. One more debt to add to the pile.
I slow down as I recognize familiar houses. At this time of the night, the roads are completely empty and with clouds covering the night sky, even someone staring out of their windows would be hard-pressed to notice me. I still walk through fields and copses of trees to reach the back entrance of my house. I do not want to take any chances.
I reach the first of my family’s cane fields. Winter is almost here so they lie empty and desolate. I keep walking. Wet earth and trees give me the peculiar smell I associate with home and I stop.
I have done it. My primary purpose, the goal I aimed for since I woke up under the fortress has been fulfilled. I held to this feeling, this idea of freedom and heading home to keep my sanity and determination in situations that could have broken me and left me helpless. I now realize that I have no idea how to proceed now that I have achieved those priorities. Those were not plans that could be implemented, they were ideals without follow up.
I sit down on a tree stump.
What do I want?
I am a monster. My family will know sooner rather than later, should I try to go back to my old life. Worse, the news of my return would spread far and wide and I might as well just send a missive to the Lancaster and the order of Gabriel to show up to my house with a sharp blade and a silver spike.
I do not want to stay. I still want to know how my father and brother are faring. They need this closure as much as I do.
I do not want to die.
I do not want to be a slave.
All those are negative desires. They are an absence of things. They are not goals I can strive towards.
At a loss, I decide to read Jimena’s letter. She might have provided some good advice. I take out the heavy envelope from my larger backpack and open it. I note in passing that it is coated in something, to protect it from liquids, no doubt. They really thought of everything.
The first line is a series of strange runes, all wedges, and sharp angles. It looks like someone stabbed the paper and the ink is black blood seeping from the wound. I blink and the meaning becomes obvious.
Blood sister, if you can read and write the tongue of Akkad, please use it from now on in our correspondence.
I do not even question how the knowledge ended up in my mind.
The rest of the writing is in English. Jimena’s letters are identical and evenly spaced. The paper does not have a single blot, which is no less than I expected from that straight arrow of a woman.
“My dear Ariane,
The first thing you need to do upon reading these words is to get away from the city. Avoid the entire region around New-Orleans like the plague, and give Baton-Rouge a wide berth! You must not attract the notice of our peers, at least for a good ten years. Do not let our efforts be in vain, for I will be unable to rescue you a second time.
The second thing I need to tell you is to be careful if you head home. I do not blame you, for we have all done it. May the experience be kinder to you than it was to me. For the same reason, be careful not to be noticed and for the love of all you hold dear, do not try to live your old life.
You cannot trick the humans for long and if the vampires do not notice, the order of Gabriel will. Do not be fooled by their failure at the fortress. They are an efficient and ruthless lot, and they have been the end of many a fledgling. Underestimate them at your peril.
Now that I assume you are safe and away, I would like to impart a few notions upon you. Your first priority is to survive for another year and a half. As a new fledgling, you require a lot of sustenance. You will need to drink deep every night and finding the blood is not easy. You may feed off lone travelers, outlaws, and escapees with relative ease. Small villages may offer a hunting ground, but only for a single night.
You must remember this. Wherever you go, you are and will be an outsider. You will attract attention and attention is not your friend. As a vampire, you are more dangerous than most individual entities of the world. You are also isolated, at least for now.
Do not let yourself be discovered and cornered. Do not let yourself be tracked down. Be always one step ahead of others and your life will never be at risk. Let the crowd learn of the thing in its midst, however, and you will die. A hundred may fall before you but still, you will die, for nothing.
The only place where your presence might be properly hidden is within the anonymous multitude of cities. Even then, you will be at constant risk without the support of a master. At least until you gather allies, you should stay on the move.
For obvious reasons, you should avoid territories belonging to the natives as a lone white woman at night will always be too noticeable.
You may go where you wish, I would still advise you to stay well enough away from the two other vampire communities on the continent. One is in Charleston and the other in New York. Avoid them if you can.
Onto more practical matters, here is a list of advice I wish someone had given me when I first set out:
Create a fake identity and make it believable. Stick to it. The more familiar you are with it, the less people will think you lie. Remain consistent. Changing name and persona in every village will not protect you from the Order, or vampires tracking you. It will only make slipping more likely.
Always drink before you need to or the choice to spare a life will be taken away by the Thirst.
You must find a place to spend the day at least two hours before daylight. If the sun reaches you as you slumber, you will never wake up again.
Do not try to pet dogs, cats or any other animals. They can tell what we are.
Always keep a clean set of clothes, and if possible, clean socks as well.
Do not forget to wash behind your ears for the errant spot of blood.
Do not use pigs set on fire as a distraction; it will never work as intended! The same goes for boars and bulls.
When people welcome you with a smile, it means they assume you to be a fugitive and a member of their house is already on his way to the constable.
And last but most important
Hide the bodies.
I close the letter with a sigh of regret. Jimena’s words are directions and warnings, there is no indication on what I should do with my life, besides surviving. I have only been delaying the inevitable. As much as I hate it, I will have to do some introspection.
What do I want?
I want to create something for myself and then nurture it. When I was younger, I wanted to build a stable and later a distillery. It is most likely impossible for now according to what I understand from Jimena’s letter. I might be able to do it later. I will never be too old to start a new project, after all.
If I cannot build then at least I can travel. I could go to Florida or Texas, or even visit the Anglos lands in the North. I could even go to Canada! Or, Paris! London!
No, that seems like a terrible idea. I would need to cross the ocean and even my Master would not risk it without preparation. This would also put me in contact with other clans. No Paris, no Barcelona, no Berlin for this lone vampire. I shall make the New World my own.
Yes. I can travel, I can discover things and meet people, and eat them too! As soon as I am done here.
Suddenly my mood plummets. I ran all the way here, and now I am wasting time making inane plans that may never reach completion. I am…
I am scared.
There, I said it. I am terrified by what I will find. What will I do if they try to kill me? What will I do if they are dead?
No, no. They cannot be dead. I will not accept it.
I stand up in a rush and stride towards the mansion, I am almost there.
The log cabin.
I slowly step to the place of my childhood.
It is burnt to the ground.
Black soot clings to the stone foundations and the few surviving beams. The charcoal is dark and shiny, its surface made smooth by a season of rain. The small hearth is half-collapsed and there is nothing left of the furniture. I step forward and kneel. I grab a handful of dark dust.
What happened? Why is it gone, and why is it so small? My log cabin is tall. Large and strong, with a canopy bed! This pale imitation, this pathetic excuse of a dump cannot be the place of my childhood! I cannot accept it.
Is this a joke? Is this some sort of trick? Is there a hidden place farther away? Perhaps I remember it wrong, this has to be a shed and the real thing is farther away?
I am crying.
I silently dab the tears away with a clean tissue. I am so terribly affected by the loss of this place. Why? Why am I so sad? I look up to the Silent Watcher and suddenly, my mind reaches my refuge.
The sky is still dark and cloudless. Staring into it gives a feeling of immensity. I look down to the solid walls that would shame the ramparts of a Roman Oppidum and step in.
The gate opens before me, unbidden. The interior is warm and clean. The bed occupies the middle of the room, surrounded by furniture and the odd trinket, each a symbol of a significant memory. A fire roars in the hearth and the wood pops and hisses contentedly.
I step out and end up sitting in wet ashes.
So that is what it feels like, the death of innocence. It has been six months and the world moved on. It did not wait for me.
I stand back up. No. This is nothing. This is just a building. I will not let such an event shatter me. I refuse.
I keep going, after a while my childhood home comes in sight.
It is a two-story colonial house, the wood painted white. An outside patio leads to a grand entrance. I know every room in it, every nook and cranny and yet there is a major problem.
I cannot get in, at least not without an invitation. I need Papa to invite me.
I walk away to his bedroom window, on the side of the second floor. I jump up. I easily grab the sill with both hands and dig my talons in it, then I look down.
Impressive, I will have to remember to jump up to avoid pursuers.
Turning my attention forward, I face a shutter. Of course. I slide my index finger forward and the wood gives way with an audible crack, and I lift the lock. The shutter opens with a shriek from its rusty hinges. Inside, a dog starts to bark.
I stare through the window and drawn curtains. Surely, Papa heard me? He should be up and waving around a massive iron poker while bellowing threats at whoever dares do disturb his property and his rest.
The door slams wide and a female figure with a small dog comes in. I duck and let go.
“Roger, someone opened the shutter!”
“Damn it woman, I told you to wait for me.”
“Dad? What’s going on?”
I stay where I stand. Curses, this is my aunt and her family. What are they doing here? And where is my father?
“You stay there, I’m going to look outside.”
“I said, stay there.”
He is going to step outside, voluntarily? How convenient.
Roger leaves the house with a lamp, the dog and a loaded musket. The small white thing keeps barking until it catches my scent.
Then it starts shaking.
I jump down from the patio and land behind him in perfect silence. I grab the man’s neck between two talons. He freezes and drops everything to grip my hand. I let him frantically struggle for a few seconds, then I increase the pressure.
“I have some questions,” I say in a low voice.
I stop dead. I cannot believe it. Did he recognize my voice? Roger and I were never close, we had not spoken since last May. How? How could he?
“Ari, is that you?”
“Ari, what happened to you? We can help--”
“Silence! I do not--no! I ask the questions. Yes. And you answer. Now tell me, where is Papa?”
“Ari I am sorry, we had to--”
“WHERE IS HE!”
“In the dependence!”
I can’t stand this anymore. What the FUCK is he doing in the dependence? Those are the servant quarters! I turn Roger around and slam him against the wall.
“Why is he there? Why not here? THIS IS HIS FUCKING HOUSE!”
“I can tell you!”
“Please don’t hurt my daddy!”
Both of us turn to a small child, my nephew. For the first time, Roger’s voice shows true panic.
“Please… Lucien, no. Go home.”
No this is wrong, this is all wrong, this should not be happening!
THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE! THIS IS THE NEST! SLAY THE INTRUDERS, DRINK THEM DRY, DISPLAY THEIR CORPSES AS WARNING FOR THE OTH--
This is my family. This parody of life has already robbed the human Ariane of her life, it will not take her family as well. I refuse. I am no slave, not to the Lancasters, not to Him, and certainly not to my own instincts. This will not stand.
I release the old man who collapses on the ground. Lucien looks at me in wonder. Curses, he must have seen the teeth. Now they know. I should kill them just to be on the safe side, I can easily get rid of the bodies.
What is wrong with me?
I need to leave.
“Tom’s old house. Wait!”
I stop but do not dare to turn around and face them.
“He had a hard time handling your disappearance.”
“Then why is he not in his bedroom where he belongs?”
“He drank too much, he burnt down the resting cabin, almost burnt down the house too. He moved out. We are taking care of the slaves and his investment while he, well, wastes away.”
“… I see.”
“Ari, what happened to you?”
“You did not see me, uncle. You never saw me here. I am dead. Do you understand?”
“We love you, Ari, we are your family. Just stay--”
“No! I cannot. I really cannot. I would endanger Lucien and Sara. I would endanger us all.”
“I understand. Is it farewell then?”
“Then, I wish you the best and I am sorry.”
“Bye Aunt Ari, take care.”
I sprint forward to a group of small houses. It only takes me a few seconds to find the right house and knock on the door like a fury. It takes him a long time to answer, long enough, in fact, for other people to wake up. I care not.
Eventually, he opens the door and we stare at each other in stunned silence.
It is him, it is really him.
“Let me in.”
“LET ME IN, DAMN IT!”
Astonished, he makes the barest of move and that is all that I need. I push past him and he closes the door behind me. Only a small candle provides light around us.
His place is a hovel, filled with rickety furniture and empty bottles. It reeks of alcohol, digested alcohol, and sweat.
We stay silent. I do not even turn to face him. I jump when someone knocks on the door.
“Mr. Reynaud, are you alright in there?”
“Yes. I am fine. Please, leave me be.”
“As you say, sir.”
We both turn at the same time. I wear a winter traveling garb complete with a cape but my head is bare and my hair free.
I am the exact copy of the woman who left his house back in July, down to the hair length. He, however, is but a shadow of his former self.
His sickly skin is drawn taut over a skeletal frame. His blue eyes are sunken and devoid of their usual spark. His shoulders are slumped, he is hunched and even his proud blonde beard is matted and messy. I find the irony tragic. I am the one who was left behind but he is the one who could not let go.
“Is that really you, or is this some sort of cruel joke?”
His voice is cold but his face shows an ocean of suffering, constant grief without end that even the bottle failed to blunt.
I hesitate, then I decide to go for honesty.
“I am so sorry, I do not know.”
I start bawling like a child. God, how pathetic I am. The proud vampire who reigned undefeated over the Gauntlet reduced to a quivering mess. My father takes me in his arms and hugs me. I lean into it.
We stay like this for a while.
God, I wish this would never stop.
After a while, I push him away. He lets me go.
“You cried blood on my shirt, daughter.”
“It was filthy anyway.”
“Tell me what is going on.”
I start talking and I do not stop. The tale of what happens comes out in a messy jumble. I talk about being cursed, being dead, needing blood, escaping, my friend Jimena, how I first met her, fighting in the Gauntlet, running errands, the big eye in the sky. It just comes out in a big pile of nonsense and never does he interrupt me.
After a good hour, I putter out like a wet pistol. He dries his wet cheeks with a tissue as I wait for something, a verdict I suppose.
“You believe that my daughter died in that basement?”
“I think so," I say with some hesitation, “I do not think I am human.”
“Did she suffer? Did she call for me?”
I look at him. His face is a mask. Should I say the truth?
He would never believe a lie.
“Yes. I did.”
He sits down and cries again. We have cried quite a bit this past hour. I even stained the front of my dress.
“I never expected you to come,” I say.
I sit down.
“There was nothing you could have done. This is unfair, I know, but I can tell you this: even if you had found me, you would have died as well.”
“I failed you.”
“No, you did not. You made me happy. For those past nineteen years, you made me happy. This is what you were supposed to do Papa. Killing millennia-old monsters was never part of the deal.”
“If I had known--”
“But you could not.”
We sit in silence.
“Do you really have to leave?”
“Yes. I just came by because I needed closure. We both did.”
“Where is Achille?”
“Closing a contract in Houston. He has come to terms with your death, I believe.”
“I expected no less from my practical brother. How is Constanza?”
“She recovered, but her face is scarred. She was followed by a nice doctor from the city and they are getting married in April.”
“That is good to hear.”
We stay for a while in comfortable silence. I do not believe I have ever stayed awake for so long since I died. I am dimly aware that I will need to find shelter for the day but right now, I cannot bring myself to care.
“I must leave Papa.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.”
His eyes suddenly widen in shock and a silly smile lightens his features. I feel myself mirror the expression. It is so good to see life come back to him if only a little.
“Hold on! Before you go, I have your birthday gift!”
“What? You do?”
And it finally occurs to me that I turned twenty in August. I was so focused on running errands and surviving that it never occurred to me to celebrate.
Excited, Papa runs to his bedroom and rummages through various belongings. I hear him mutter and curse, then with a triumphant “Aha!”, he returns with a long leather holster.
“Papa! Is that?”
“Indeed! I had Talleyrand make it for you. Try it out!”
I open the cover and take out a brand-new rifle.
“Oh my, oh my! It’s wonderful!”
I jump excitedly and I touch the smooth polished stock of red-colored wood, the silver engraved firing mechanism, and the long barrel. The weapon is a work of art and love. I aim and it is as if I have had it my whole life. It is perfectly balanced and quite light, although I suppose I can thank my new strength for that last part.
“Incredible! It is as if it was made for me!”
“It was. Talleyrand used your exact measurements”
“Oh Papa, this is such a great gift! Thank you, thank you!”
I jump and hug him again, laughing all the time.
“But wait, I haven’t told you the best part yet!” He replies with amusement.
For a while, my father goes to great length to explain how special the gun is. It is a more recent design that uses paper cartridges and is loaded from the gun’s breech instead of the muzzle. The barrel is even rifled for increased accuracy. Truly, the wonders of science know no bounds.
After that, it is time to say goodbye.
I shoulder my backpack, the leather cover and pocket the bag of ammunition in silence. Father holds my shoulders then gives me one last hug.
It is the first time in six months that I embrace someone I will not feed from.
He backs up a bit then a rugged thumb caresses my cheek.
“I remember that you told me you are not my Ariane, but you were wrong. You still carry the same spirit, the same aspirations and God forgive me, the same love for unladylike things that go boom.”
“Shhh, hahaha, let your old man finish. You think that being human is what made you my daughter. It is not. Being you is what made you my daughter. You have always changed and grown, this particular change is just the latest and the most dire. Do not despair and do not let go of your past and our time together, yes?”
“Don’t make me cry again!”
“Haha, it is fine.”
“The same goes for you!” I reply between two hiccups, “You better clean yourself, mister. Don’t make me feel ashamed.”
“Oh, believe me, I will.”
I turn and step to the door before I lose every last bit of self-control I have. I am so emotional tonight, more so than usual. This strange blood might be to blame yet I feel no regret. I think that I needed it.
“Take the key to the Saint Landry warehouse. You can rest there today and, Ariane?”
“You have enemies. Give them hell and no quarters. I refuse to lose you again, you hear? You are forbidden from dying before me.”
“Good, now go, and don’t forget to write!”
I leave Montfort at a dead run, feeling light as a feather. I did not expect everything to have gone so well. I look up and exchange a glance with the Silent Watcher. Its gaze feels softer tonight.
“I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.”
The road forward lies open.