Yesterday did not happen. Nope! It did not. Nothing embarrassing happened, at all. The blood on my chin and clothes? A hunting accident. I was hunting a deer. Yes, a deer. A vicious one.
I walk on a trail that skirts the border between Louisiana proper and the native lands. Despite yesterday’s excess, I already feel Thirsty.
I am also feeling a bit lonely.
I never anticipated this to happen. I have been on the road for only a week, yet a simple conversation with this human, Toussaint, reminded me of what I had forfeited. I want to talk to someone, I want to learn something new, discuss ideas. I do not want to turn into some sort of hermit.
I find it impressive that the mundane reasserts itself so easily. When I was attending the red-haired bitch queen, I wanted nothing but to be left alone. When I was in the gauntlet, I wanted nothing but entertainment, and now I want company. It is Humanity’s lot to always crave for more, and death has not made me an exception.
I sigh and shoulder my backpack. I now have exactly three outfits, with one being the battle dress with a hole in the chest. I should have brought a sewing kit…
I was too hasty when I skirted Mobile. I should have stopped and resupplied. The fact that I need no food blinded me and…
I stop on the trail. I have been walking in mostly forested land for two days now. Between the hills, the tree trunks and the occasional rock, visibility is limited despite my eyes.
I close them.
I hear the cracks and groans of living wood, distant birds, the wind.
Strange, I could swear that I felt something, not the auras I associate with magical beings but something weaker and less alive.
I start walking again a bit faster and leave the trail for the top of the nearest hill. My instincts have never betrayed me. Something is off.
I reach the top and look around, nothing but trees and silence. I climb the tallest tree I can find using my claws to dig in. Still nothing, and now my fingers are sticky with sap.
The feeling comes and goes again, both closer and stronger. I still have no idea what it could be, yet I can think of only one explanation. Someone or something is tracking me.
Should I run for it? Can I? Running makes me Thirsty and finding blood here will be difficult if I have to rush it.
Should I ambush them? That would be pointless if they know my exact location. Hum. Perhaps they cannot. I believe whatever is tracking me to do the magical equivalent of yelling to find someone in the forest, and the person yells back.
I need more information. I shall hide and wait to see what it is and at the first sign of danger, I shall be gone like the wind.
After half an hour, the feeling comes back. It is exactly as it was, that I can say.
Someone is hunting me, I am sure of it. However, they stopped.
I wait half an hour more without change. The feeling does no return and the implication scares me. It is likely, that whatever is doing this knows my approximate location. It decided to stop when it noticed me doing the same, and I finally understand why. Time is against me.
If they can track me during daylight, I am finished. Most vampires protect themselves by slumbering in fortresses defended by loyal followers. This was made obvious during the fortress raid. I have none of those defenses. My only advantage in hiding is that no one was looking for me, until now that is. There is no labyrinth, no rock formation that will hide me from whatever is out for me. It would be child’s play to find my body in some bear cave or abandoned shack and then dispose of me.
How did this even happen? I thought I was being careful.
Bah, it matters not. I must find what I am up against. My only saving grace is that it prefers to wait until I am defenseless, which means that it is not confident it can slay me in a fair fight.
I do not have a way to track it, however. How should I proceed?
I have superior sight, hearing, and sense of smell. I can use it. I also have my wits, such as they are.
I have been on the move for a week, mostly going North and now East. Whatever is tracking me must logically be behind. I need to retrace my steps. Secondly, whatever is tracking me has a high chance of being sapient. Indeed, I find it unlikely that a beast would have the presence of mind to wait for daylight to slay its prey. It might well have followed the trail.
I take out and load my rifle as a precaution, grateful that it has not rained in a while. I also make sure that Jimena’s knife is within reach.
The taste of tallow on the paper cartridge, I could have done without. Pah!
I walk back, stopping every three hundred steps. I close my eyes and listen to sounds, taste the air. I do not detect anything abnormal and continue.
I do this for a solid hour and it becomes increasingly difficult not to focus on the Thirst. Perhaps I should just drop everything and go to those small outposts Toussaint mentioned, hunt, and return? It would just take a couple of hours…
No! I am close, I can feel it.
I am so distracted that when the tracking thingie returns, I yelp in surprise. It is closer and stronger than ever before! I could just run around and…
No. Focus, Ariane, you can do this.
This was like a pulse, a ripple on the surface of a placid lake. Concentric circles going back and reflecting obstacles.
I still cannot tell where it comes from, it could be anywhere… I sniff in disappointment and it hits me. There is a new smell. I rush forward on the trail and I finally identify it, I just found horse dung.
I walk closer. I can tell that it is still very fresh. I kneel and stare at the ground. Here and there are the deep imprints of hooves with horseshoes.
I am no tracking expert, but I can already tell a few things. I am being hunted by humans because vampires and werewolves do not ride horses, at least not when they hunt. Natives do not use steel tips. Finally, there are more than one but less than a lot. That means the culprits are a small squad of either servants of Gabriel, or mages. Given that I am sure I am being magically followed, I shall go with mages.
That is extremely problematic. They may have ways to mask their presence or turn invisible. Mayhaps, they can even turn themselves into newts! And then, what should I do to find them.
I follow the tracks to a bend in the road where it disappears. I quickly figure out that they decided to leave the path at that moment. That must be when they realized I was not moving anymore. Time is running short, and so is my patience. I must find them before the cravings become unmanageable.
I follow the prints to a mass of rocky outcrops covered in pine trees and lose them on the solid ground. I am not sure what to do. I have never hunted without a dog before.
I sniff the air. The smell of pine sap is overwhelming and under it there is woodsmoke. Aha! A fire! I find the tallest tree I can and start climbing. Ignoring my ever stickier talons, I look around.
Nothing, absolutely nothing. There is not the red hint of a cooling ember. Not a single pop or crack of wood turning to ash. Not even a trail of smoke rising to the skies.
They are hiding.
What should I do, what should I do? I can walk around for all the remaining time I have before I turn into a ravening beast and they slay me in a well-prepared trap. No, wait, they cannot be far, I can just go from hilltop to hilltop and smell them. Arg, this will take too much time.
Ah, but I almost forgot.
They have horses.
I remember yesterday, I managed to scare the dog. Horses are prey, they should scare easily. I just have to do something to make them panic.
I could set fire to the forest.
No Ariane, this is the dumbest idea you ever had since you tried to deep-fry butter. You are not a creature of fire, no, you are a creature of the night.
So let us scare them.
That was beyond pathetic. I might have scared three bats and a squirrel. This is wrong. I am trying to act too human.
I close my eyes and focus.
Under the smooth lake of my thoughts lie the instincts that saved me so many times before. I call upon them now, I draw them out, helped by urgency and The Thirst.
I feel the slight wind on my face, smell the barest hint of woodsmoke. My blood sings in the night, this is my moment. They prey is cloSE. NO ONE TRACKS THE VAMPIRE. FIND. KILL. TAKE TROPHY. HIDING LIKE COCKROACHES. LET THEM KNOW. LET THEM KNOW I AM NO PREY. I AM THE APEX.
THE NIGHT IS MINE.
The terrifying scream erupts like a volcano, spreads and rolls over the valleys and the forests, filling every cranny, reaching under every root. Hundreds of animals freeze in terror as millions of year of natural selection reminds them of their place in the pecking order. It is fury made manifest, the screams at the dawn of time, back when the winner would eat its victim’s blood-soaked heart.
There, a neigh. PREY! Slightly to my left. They are so close!
I rush forward and then I slow down.
They know I am coming. Charging in against a mage has already proven to be stupid, and a few months of limited training has not suddenly turned me into an Amazon. I need to play this smart. OR CHARGE IN KILL DRINK.
I hear another subdued neigh, as well as the sound of hooves hitting the ground. They are just behind this tall rock.
I look around me. There is a colossal pine tree a maybe thirty steps away to my right. I carefully walk there. I drop my backpack.
Change. I wear the battle dress and I appreciate that someone would make something elegant and practical. It even has pockets! Imagine that.
I tie the dagger to my hip and the rifle to my shoulder and I start climbing. I am not entirely silent but I still manage to slither between branches until I reach the proper height.
There they are.
Three men sit in a secluded clearing surrounded by rocks. The only entrance is facing away from the road, which means that whoever follows them would have to go around the pile of rocks then circle back. One of the men is doing his best to control three heavily laden horses, another sits in a meditation position next to a smothered campfire and the last one is staring towards the entrance of the valley with a…
Is that a blunderbuss? Ah well, at least they are taking this seriously.
A circle of something surrounds them. It shines in my view in a white aura that makes the air shimmer as if it were heated. Despite the closeness, I cannot feel the colorful aura that I associate with mages.
I consider my options. I have to kill them quickly, but I can try it in several ways.
I could jump on them. That would let me kill one before the others retaliate, but I do not know what that strange barrier does. It could just prevent me from feeling them. It could also set me on fire, and would that not be unpleasant.
Or, I could try my brand new Talleyrand custom made fifty-six caliber breech-loaded rifle that I haven’t had the chance to try yet from the safety of a tree and bathed in almost total darkness.
The bullet hits the sitting man in the chest. Yes! He tips backward with a yelp of surprise.
The circle fades. The man reaches from something in his pocket with panic and takes out a strange object, he starts mumbling something while the man with the blunderbuss kneels by his side and aims in my general direction.
The wounded man points a finger and I let myself drop just as a storm of metal shreds my hiding spot. Never mind, close quarters it is.
I leave the rifle and rush forward with my knife in front. I jump up and down the rock face and land in their camp. The first mage is still mumbling and I freeze in shock. The two other men are from the order of Gabriel! I thought this was impossible!
A quick gesture wakes me up. The two hunters draw pistols while the mage takes out a sword, their faces are pale and drawn by worry. As they aim at me, I move forward. The man guarding the horse fires too fast and his shot goes completely off but the other one waits until I get closer. I push myself and rush the mage. At the last moment, I pretend to slow down, then move down instead. A roar deafens me as a bullet slices the air where my head was but a moment before. I dodge forward and slice the hunter’s extended hand, Unfortunately, my blade catches his hand at an angle and merely makes him drop the spent weapon. A quick movement makes me raise my hand and a silver dagger pings uselessly against my forearm.
Wait, this dress is armored? I did not know!
I return my focus to the mage, he smells delicious! I jump on him.
An incendiary snake coils angrily around my neck, I back off and slice it with all my strength. The blade cuts into it and the magical construct pops like a soap bubble.
I block another silver dagger from the hunter and move around the mage.
Silvery spines erupt from his back, easily avoided. I cannot touch his back without getting skewered, but I don’t have to.
I plant one foot in the ground, arm the second one and kick up with all my strength. My foot lifts off the ground in a shower of leaves and catches the mage square between the legs. He is launched up in the air and collapses in a miserable heap a few feet farther.
Thanks for the advice, Marcus. As you would have said, “Right in the jewels”
I ignore the look of unmitigated horror on the other two men’s face and rush the second hunter. The third one, the one near the horse, is brandishing a pistol like an amateur.
I move more slowly now. I can still accelerate but the Thirst is growing by the second and I am afraid to lose control. Against those foes, it would be a terrible idea.
I reach the expert hunter and try to stab him. He deflects my knife with one of his own, but it looks like I really hurt his hand after all.
“Run Gregoire, that's an order!”
The man with the horses hesitates but mounts a horse and gallops away. Arg! Must not…
The expert hunter uses my distraction to slice my wrist. I manage to move at the last moment and the blade slides against the dress’ armor.
This man is quite old, with a creased face and a gigantic scar on his cheek. His eyes are anything but dimmed though, and he harbors an expression of endless hatred.
In a quick movement, he throws his knife at me and I duck to avoid it.
“In the name of GOD!”
With a strange, silent explosion, I am propelled back against the rock wall. I barely manage to dive left when a bullet hits my right arm. With a scream of pain. I drop the knife.
The hunter is already drawing a third pistol.
I move forward, then to the side and grab the unconscious body of the mage to lift it. The hunter tries to circle me to get a clear shot I use my left hand to…
Time slows down as I move left. A burning line spreads to the side of my head.
It hurts! Dammit! Oh, just you wait.
My frantic hand finally finds what I was looking for as the hunter rushes me with yet another knife. His hopeful face falls when he sees what I managed to grab.
I cock the weapon, aim at his leg and pull the trigger. With a deafening roar, the hunter falls, clutching his leg. I do not leave him the time to recover. I jump on his back and punch his neck, but not enough to kill him. He collapses.
I breathe by reflex. I am alive, I won.
I need to…
First thing, I need to feed. The downed mage is bleeding heavily from a bullet wound to the head. Waste.
I put my mouth against the wound. Messy. Nevermind.
Ah, yes, this man did not use the potion to poison his own blood. This is amazing. There is much less vitality than in a werewolf but all this power...
I take my time to drink until the man dies. Ah yes, that was something. I stand up and roll my shoulder to my instant regret.
With all this action, I forgot about the bullet wound. The projectile punched right through, fortunately.
I soon feel my body start to heal itself under the influence of my recent feeding and despite the pain, I am quite alright. Good. On another note, one of my foes escaped, and that is not good.
I rummage through the men’s belonging until I find a rope and use it to bind the remaining man tightly. I then disarm him as best as I can. With that much rope, it would take a magician to escape anyway.
I will have some questions for him when he wakes up.
I start to race after the inexperienced hunter. Gregoire, apparently. I still have five hours before dawn and I have quite a bit of energy to burn.
The man is easy to follow. Deep imprints in the mud lead me forward until I pick up a pained neigh.
His horse is lying on the ground. One of its legs is bent at the wrong angle. The man left it to suffer here.
I look at brown eyes made frantic with fear and pain. It’s a beautiful beast. It is a shame.
“It was a good hunt.”
I stab it in the brain, it dies instantly.
“You rest now.”
I, however, still have a quarry.
Now, where did he go? I cannot follow his footprint as easily but he cannot be far. If I were a panicked and inexperienced human, what would I do?
Keep moving forward, seek shelter. He is afraid and tired.
I keep going. The ground of the forest is at an incline and I walk down. On my right, I see a large trace of disturbed soil, as if something had fallen heavily. I change course and see a few other clumps of disturbed earth. Thankfully, the ground here is softer.
I follow it until down the vale then up to a small wooden structure. I approach it carefully. I have already been shot twice tonight.
I creep closer and hear a voice.
“… Midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art...”
I silently creep to the door and immediately encounter a problem. There is a massive silver cross hanging to the door.
I cannot enter.
No invitation will let me step foot into this hovel. This is hostile territory.
Let us try diplomacy.
“Gregoiiiire,” I say in a singsong voice.
The man screams then keeps muttering his psalms. The sound grates my ears and sets my teeth on edge.
“Gregoire, let’s talk, shall we?”
I suppose I will have to be a little more convincing. This haphazard pile of rotten wood has suddenly been turned into a sacristy for some inane reason. Force will not help me. At least, not the kind of force I can apply with my bare hands.
I do have a bargaining chip, however.
I retrace my steps to the clearing. The mage is still dead and the servant of Gabriel still unconscious. I go to the pine tree to gather my belongings. With my hurt arm, it will be difficult to shoot through the walls and my dagger is barely better than my claws. I empty the mage’s pockets and I recover a very nice pistol with golden engravings, a bag of silver bullets and two throwing daggers.
I can get all the firearms I want now, hah!
There are a few magical knick-knacks but I have no idea what they are for and so I leave them here.
I also empty his pockets of a few Spanish golden doubloons. No point in leaving those to the wolves.
Out of curiosity, I grab the strange gauntlet all mages seem to have and fasten it to my hand.
“Spike! Shield! Seal! Firewhip!”
I spend a few minutes trying to shout incantations, imagine the effect, scream and yell. Nothing happens.
I raise my eyes to the Silent Watcher. Can a celestial body convey amused condescension? I believe it can.
Dejected, I drop the useless piece of junk, grab my prisoner and walk forward. We reach the small hovel and I still hear the blithering idiot spewing the holy Bible verse by verse. Pah!
“Gregoiiire, are you still in there?”
The man hiccups and the recitation speeds up. I have his attention.
“It is not polite to ignore a lady. Why, I believe I may even take it out on your friend here.”
I reach behind for a finger and break it. The older man wakes up with a scream of pain.
“Oh my God, no…”
“Ah, I knew you could hear me Gregoire dear. Now, let us talk.”
“Gregoire, listen to me, don’t tell her…”
Tch, your participation is no longer required, old man.
I reach in my backpack for the closest piece of fabric and shove it in the man’s mouth.
He looks at me in surprise, then in confusion.
I have a better look at this specific piece of fabric. It is white cotton with a nice line of frills and a little bow and…
I rip my underwear from the man’s mouth and promptly replace it with a sock. I look up to the Silent Watcher.
“This definitely stays between us.”
“I am serious.”
“Oh my God, oh my God!”
Ah, yes, right. To the matter at hand. Yes. This never happened. Nope! It was a sock from the beginning. Yes. A sock.
“Now Gregoire, I am going to ask you a few questions.”
“I will not speak to you, beast! Get thee behind me…”
“And every time I do not like the answer, I will break something. After I run out of things to break, I will drink him dry.”
“Let us start with a simple question. What is this man’s name?”
The bound man groans and shakes but he might as well wrestle a bear. Yes, this is the right way I can feel it. I will ask simple questions that cost him nothing. The more he replies, the more he will reply. I can take a little time here. I could…
I am sleepy.
The immediate danger has passed, so my body is shutting down. The potent blood of the mage can only carry me so far. Curses! I have to hurry.
“Are you members of the order of Gabriel?”
“Yes! And we shall strike you down, foul fiend! The Wrath of God shall…”
I think I liked him more when he was silent.
“ You seem too inexperienced to be out hunting vampires. Why are you here?”
Gregoire remains silent but eventually, he answers.
“I am an archivist. Father Perry asked me to come.”
“Did he now? And where is his squad?”
Gregoire hesitates. I am about to snap another knuckle when I figure out the situation by myself.
“Let me guess, you are short-handed since your disastrous assault on the vampire keep.”
“The… The warriors of God are legion! We are without number! Always, righteous men will answer the call and rise against the agent of Evil and…”
“Yes, yes, I understand now. What I do not understand is why the three of you would go to such an extent to hunt me down. And why is there a mage with you? I thought you hated each other. Are you not supposed to put all of them on a pyre and set it ablaze?”
“Nine fingers left.”
“I am weak, but I know that father Perry would rather die than have me betray the secrets of the order. I refuse to speak!”
Time is running short. I could always torture him but…
That could work.
“I have a proposal. You answer three questions of mine, and I will let father Perry go.”
“No, you lie.”
“I will swear on the Silent Watcher.”
“Suqqam Hayatu? Ah, the Watcher. Really? No, you are a devil! You are trying to manipulate me.”
“Tell you what,” I say in the tone that got me fifteen pence on the bushel at the Montfort market, “I ask three questions, you answer them fully. If at any point you think the answer is not worth your friend’s life, you can stop and I will kill him cleanly. If you answer all my questions, I will drop him on the front of the door, no more harmed than he is right now, and let you take him in. At no point will I try to harm him or you. When the door is closed and you two are secured, our truce will end.”
The man ponders while father Perry spits mumbled imprecations in my mud-stained sock.
There are no tricks, no places to wiggle. If I swear and he answers, this will end with both of my surviving enemies secured and away.
Father Perry screams in muffled outrage. Inside the shack, I hear the sound of furniture being moved around. The man remembers that I used firearms and thinks my end goal is to shoot them from the outside. He is building a shelter. I find his determination admirable.
“How come you are teaming up with a mage?”
“… It was Father Perry’s decision.”
“FULL answers, Gregoire. This was the deal.” I say with impatience.
“We did not have the numbers to track you down and you did not leave the trail of bodies we expected from a yearling, so we had to hire a mercenary mage to find you, despite our rules.”
“What made you go to such extent to kill me?”
Gregoire truly hesitates this time. I do not understand why this is so important.
“You killed his son, at the fortress. We figured out who you were from the New Orleans Saint Lucia hospital incident. We knew the victim was Ariane Reynaud, but with the Order evacuating we did not have the numbers to take you down. That’s why we did what we had to do. I owe the father my life, so I followed.”
I turn and take a good look at the priest.
The corridor in the vampire keep, Ogotai’s lifeless body falling. I throw it at the man with a scar on his face, his red-haired companion shoots me…
Oh my God.
I look in that pair of grey eyes, I see hatred beyond limit. I see a lust for vengeance that neither time nor distance will ever grind, no drug and nor love will ever smother. This man forfeited his hierarchy, his vows and his very values for the sole purpose of killing me. Scorn to defy God.
I am flattered.
“How were you able to track me?”
“The… The mage…”
“Full answers Gregoire. If any mage could track down vampires at will I would know.”
“A lock of your hair.”
“We used a lock of your hair from one of your father’s locket as a focus, it was well preserved and carried a strong meaning so the mercenary was able to use it!”
I feel my entire body freeze. My voice is deceptively calm
“Gregoire, what did you do to my father?”
“Nothing! We will never harm the innocent!”
I look at father Perry. I am not so sure…
“We got it from your uncle Roger, we said we wanted to add it to a memorial to victims of violence in New Orleans! I swear. Also, this was the fourth question, which I answered willingly but my part is done.”
Pah, he is right.
As promised, I drag the furious priest to the door and step away.
Gregoire opens the door and we take each other’s measure. He seems captivated by me as I stand here in my blood-stained dress, arms crossed against my chest. Then he drags his friend in, locks the door and they both take shelter in whatever fortified nest he managed to construct.
Our truce is over.
The discovery of Perry’s grudge and the risk he is for my father feeds slow-burning anger that pushes the torpor away. I calmly walk back to the clearing and find what I was looking for in the saddles of a panicked horse. I find more in their bags. After I have everything I need I head back to the shack.
I tear a piece of tissue from their spare cloth and wrap it around a stick of dry wood, then I splash lantern oil on it. I emptied the remaining oil against one of the walls. Set the torch ablaze with tinder and set it against the wooden frame. After it catches nicely, I throw the torch on the thatch roof.
This is not a church, but a sanctified hunter shack.
As I mentioned, it has not rained in a little while.
They last for fifteen minutes, but eventually, the smoke and heat forces them out.
They both still fight to the end.
I make it quick and painless.
“It was a good hunt.”
I drink a bit from both of them, and then I throw their bodies and that of the mage in the funeral pyre that the sanctuary has become. I add the magical item, including the tracking device to it. I leave their crosses on a standing post outside.
Later, I quickly find a cave and collapse, utterly exhausted.