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A note from Mecanimus

6234 words for you my lovelies. Enjoy your weekends, and see you on Tuesday.

It has been three nights since I fought the renegades of the Order and I keep thinking about my experience. This truly was a good hunt. The enemy was strong and cunning, and I managed to fight better and outsmart them, the predatory part of me used in service of a well-executed plan. This is as it should be. Grégoire, Perry and you the unnamed mage, may you find rest in the afterlife.

 

Between hunting parties, patrols and the occasional lone traveler, I have stayed well-fed without draining anyone dry. That includes tonight.

 

I am crossing a meadow when suddenly, something attracts my attention.

 

Not too far to my left, I feel a powerful aura that does not come from a person, but a spell. This one does not track or warn, it is a sort of polite invitation.

 

How curious. A call in the middle of nowhere?

 

I cannot perceive any malice or any compelling effect in the working. It is, in fact, the equivalent of a merchant hawking his goods at the top of his lungs in the marketplace.

 

Although there appears to be nothing amiss, the prudent call would be to continue forward. Curiosity killed the cat after all, and a vampire has only one life...

 

I am also growing increasingly bored. I should have packed a book, a good romance filled with moneyed gentlemen and impoverished yet witty women. Ah, but alas, I was so worried about my physical well-being that I failed to account for the mental one.

 

It is probably nothing too bad.

 

Just a quick look.

 

I walk towards the obvious origin of the magic. Whoever designed it made sure that it could not be missed. I still make some effort to walk off the path and keep close to the edge of the copses I come across. After a few minutes, I reach the edge of a vast open field.

 

This is the largest valley I have seen in a while. Despite the overcast sky, I can see for a good mile in any direction, and so I do not miss the strange construct that sits thirty paces away from me, nor the three natives who approach it.

 

The construct is a wooden pillar covered in carvings from top to bottom. I identify several human and animal heads and body parts covered in garish colors. Branches have been drilled to form limbs that hold a variety of objects including a spear and a drum. This is the magic beacon.

 

The trio eventually stops before it. They are quite the group.

 

The first man walks with a strong limp and is helped forward by the two others. I am not familiar with native customs but his clothes seem haphazardly put on, as if he had opened a drawer and just piled on what he could find. Despite the variety of cuts and fabrics, he still manages to have parts of his chest bare in temperatures that approach freezing.

 

He is also drunk as a skunk.

 

The second man wears a mix of Western and native clothes, glasses and a bowler hat. I can appreciate the care that was invested in making the arrangement stylish. He looks scared.

 

The last man is a warrior. If the eagle feathers, spear, and javelins had not given him away, his scowl and musculature would have made it obvious. His expression is that of a man who has utterly run out of patience and is one wrong word away from a tussle.

 

Mesmerized, I observe them. What are they doing here so late? And why?

 

The drunk man falls on his knees before the statue and starts muttering and shrieking imprecations in a language I do not know. His lunatic ravings reach a crescendo that ends in a sentence that he screams at the top of his lungs.

 

“Come and partake.”

 

What!?

 

WHAT?!

 

Did this buffoon actually… Impossible. Implausible. This is surely a coincidence?

 

The man quickly proves me wrong. He grabs a bowl from some recess of his cloth, stabs himself in the arm quite viciously and soon enough, the recipient contains a few gulps of blood. He then kneels and presents this offering towards my general direction.

 

The warrior is at the end of his patience, he is about to intervene when the man with glasses holds him back. They start arguing between themselves, gesticulating and pointing at the kneeling lunatic, the statue and wherever they came from.

 

The scent of the blood reaches me and despite being fed, my fangs come out. This man’s blood contains powerful magic. Drinking it would be extremely beneficial, not to mention delicious.

 

It’s here, cooling in that bowl.

 

It would be a shame to let it go to waste.

 

With a last inspection of my surroundings, I leave the safety of the woods and silently approach the madman. My instincts tell me that it is safe, that the supplicant should not be ignored.

 

Yes, this is right.

 

A moment later, I drink the bowl and lick the wound close. The lunatic looks at me with brown eyes full of wonder, and I realize that he is much younger than I thought. He waits for me to release his arm and smiles toothily.

 

That is not the reaction I expected. Regardless, the beacon and offerings mean they have a proposal, and now I am interested in hearing it.

 

“You may speak, supplicant.”

 

The two others jump and yelp as they finally notice me. The warrior immediately points his spear in my direction before realizing something. His eyes go from furious to afraid and when his companion pushes the weapon down, he does not resist.

 

As I wait without a move, the lunatic places his head against my leg and sighs. I abhor physical contact from strangers, yet his gesture is so innocent and harmless that I decide to tolerate it.

 

I place a proprietary hand on the young man’s head.

 

“Well?”

 

The pair look at each other and the hatted man lifts his hat and addresses me in French.

 

“Good evening madam, I am Iskani, of the Choctaw people. We invited you here because we humbly request your assistance.”

 

He grips the hat nervously. I signal him to go on.

 

“Our tribe is hunted by a giant cursed alligator. It is said that the beast is as long as three men and black as the night. It comes out every month to eat a man or a child. We cannot let this continue.

 

My chief Minco,” He points to the warrior, “led several hunts against the creature, but they were not successful. It stays hidden and turns a deaf ear to the challenges of brave hunters.” The warrior crosses his arms as if to dare me to deride his efforts.

 

"Our shaman Nashoba had a vision. He said that a pale one would be willing to help, maybe.” The man swallows in fear. He knows what we are capable of. He also knows that he stands without a weapon or a plan on an open field.

 

I am curious about the beast, however.

 

I was informed by Baudouin that vampires cannot feed on animals and indeed, beast blood lacks this vitality I crave so much. With that said, I successfully fed from a werewolf and I am not quite confident that a seven feet tall fur-covered wolf hybrid still qualifies as homo sapiens.

 

He was technically a cursed human, of course, but with that form…

 

Could I perhaps feed on a magical beast to grow stronger?

 

I am tempted to try. I could certainly use the distraction, at least.

 

 

 

 

“What do you offer in exchange?”

 

The translator turns to his chief and the two debate for a while, eventually the chief points to Nashoda with a smirk. His companion frowns, yet still offers.

 

“Minco says that should you slay the beast, we will let you have the shaman to drink dry.”

 

I remain silent and unmoving. This is not right. Only a free man can become a supplicant. Only what is offered freely can be taken fully.

 

My lack of response produces the expected result. The two men start shifting nervously and Minco’s grip on his spear makes the wood creak.

 

I turn to the kneeling shaman.

 

“Should I do as your chief asks, you will offer your blood to me freely.”

 

“Forgive me pale one, our shaman does not speak...”

 

“Give blood, earring to hide better, for you, child of thorn and hunger.”

 

He blinks slowly, first one eye then the other, like a wave. One of his pupils is much larger than the other.

 

This young man is mad as a March hare and caution dictates that I should not trust a word he says. It would be wrong. Nashoba showed up exactly as I reached this clearing. Given our respective speed, he would have had to depart from his village far before I noticed the beacon. He also spoke the tongue, twice and that is no coincidence.

 

It is said that genius and insanity walk hand in hand. Perhaps there is some truth to it.

 

He also offered me something I did not ask for. Earrings that will help me hide? Did he see a reason why I would need those? Did he see my future?

 

This man is dangerous. Perhaps I should dispose of him before he can be turned against me.

 

No, this is wrong, a supplicant should never be harmed. What was I thinking?

 

“Agreed.”

 

The shaman nods as if my approval was never in doubt. He stands up and points a finger towards one side of the valley that goes deeper into native land. A low incline leads to a sparse canopy of trees and the occasional glimpse of gray water.

 

As a gesture of goodwill, I nod to his two companions, but they only stare at me with apprehension. This is a bit rude, though I harbor no grudge. Their fear is not unwarranted.

 

I pick up my pack and set out while they do the same.

 

Once I am out of view, I change into the battle dress. The original spotless garment now harbors a bloody stab wound, a bloody bullet wound, a bloodstain on the left shoulder and scorch marks. It also smells a bit rank as a result. I really need to stop and do some actual laundry.

 

Ariane, the vampire that washes bloody rags under the moonlight. Perhaps I should sing, too.

 

I quickly reach the edge of the marsh proper. Now, how to proceed? My quarry should be either in, or next to a body of water that can contain it. Even accounting for exaggeration, the beast should be massive and only the largest ponds would be a suitable habitat for it. I am reasonably confident that I can feel its magic.

 

My plan is decided. I shall skirt alongside the aforementioned ponds and keep my senses sharp. I will start by going left and circle the marsh, then go inwards. I will use this opportunity to find shelter should the task prove to be too much for a single night.

 

Nodding to myself, I set out and for a couple of hours, I search. At this time of the year, the marsh is unusually quiet. Strands of mist hover on the water and around naked trees. Their blackened limbs extend like the desiccated hands of crones, ready to snatch and strangle. Only the sound of my traveling boots in the odd pool breaks the ominous silence. Finally, I find the first trace of my quarry.

 

Under a gnarled root, I find a severed arm. Only my keen nose led me to the relatively fresh appendage. It has been cut off at the shoulder and I push it with a shoe to stare at the grisly wound.

 

I count three tooth marks. For an entire shoulder.

 

Aha.

 

I back up slowly and almost lose my footing when I step in a hole. Cursing, I quickly regain my balance and stop when I realize what I walked in.

 

It is a footprint.

 

It is… Quite large.

 

Really large.

 

Surely, it could not be that big? When Iskani said that the creature was as long as three men, he was joking, right? That was poetic license, yes? It just has very, very big feet. Right?

 

Oh my God.

 

That thing must be as big as a bloody elephant! Nevermind my rifle; I should have brought a navy cannon, nay, a frigate, with a full marine complement!

 

Did I truly agree to go after this Behemoth? Was I insane?

 

Forget it, it would be better to cover the entire marsh in black tar and set it on fire. Problem solved.

 

I stay like this for a few seconds, but my cold will soon reasserts itself. This is a hunt. The prey is deadly, and so am I.

 

I secure my backpack and take out and load the pistol with a silver bullet. Should the beast assault me, I will rely on my speed to shoot and stab it in the eyes. Alligator brains are small and their eyes, unarmored. It will do.

 

I hope.

 

Another few minutes later, I stop as I see something promising. There is a small lake further inland with parts of the shore suspiciously devoid of vegetation. I creep closer and my suspicions are confirmed. There are a few stumps and dead trees as if something massive had passed through several times. This could be the lair of my prey. I start walking along the edge until I pick something up, the aura of a living being.

 

I step away from the edge of the water as soon as I realize two problems. First, it does not come from the water but a copse of trees a few paces away. Secondly, it is wrong.

 

This aura does not feel like a marsh animal should be like. It is powerful, yes, but powerful like a mountain, like steel. It is unbreakable, indomitable and it is ancient.

 

I turn to the source, aim my pistol and cock it. Without being prompted, a nightmarish form stands up.

 

And up, and up.

 

What in the name of…

 

It is an abomination! An insectoid creature covered in moss and dead vegetation, with two arms and two legs and…

 

Oh.

 

It is a very tall, very strong man in a black iron armor of strange make, covered with camouflage.

 

“Are ye quite alright, lass?”

 

With an annoyed click, I close my mouth and holster the pistol. I must have looked like some scared bumpkin just now. What a disgrace! A giant insect? Please.

 

“Hum, yes, I am, thank you for inquiring Mr…?”

 

The man in front of me is a force of nature. He is the tallest person I have ever seen by a wide margin and his shoulders match the rest of his physique. What can be seen that is not hidden by armor is scar-covered muscles and tan skin. The armor itself is a thing of wonder. It looks like it was built from a locomotive, with rivets and additions aplenty and shaped like a massive beetle. There are even gauges and buttons spread about. I cannot see his expression behind a conical half-helmet and glasses that look like a pair of tinted monocles. The rest of his face is covered by a majestic beard sitting under a huge, ruddy nose.

 

Quite the character!

 

“Loth of Skoragg, lass, it is a pleasure to meet ye.”

 

The man’s voice is deep and cultured. It is much softer than I expected, even if there is a gravelly quality to it.

 

“Ariane,” I reply as I curtsy. This is new and exciting! “May I inquire as to what you were trying to ambush here?”

 

“Of course. I am hunting an alligator of prodigious size that has been terrorizing the locals.”

 

I freeze.

 

Could it be?

 

“And were you perhaps asked to do so by a trio of Choctaw men?”

 

“Ah, ye saw their advertisement too?”

 

Gah! Of course! They just attract anyone that has a chance and then throw them at their problem. Is this a scam? Have I been swindled?

 

“And may I ask what you have been promised as compensation?”

 

“A few shards of obsidian. Nothing too fancy. Ye?”

 

“A trinket, also I get to drink from the shaman.”

 

Oops, I spoke too hastily! Instead of a reply, a whirr and click come from the man’s helmet and his left eye’s lens is substituted by a reddish one.

 

“Ah, a vampire. I never expected one so far away from a large settlement. Well, to tell ye the truth I am more interested in the beast’s scales, unfortunately, it has refused to come out and attack me. I had resolved to wait on one of its trails until it passed by, but your arrival has changed things. Do tell, how did ye notice me, lass?”

 

“I…”

 

I hesitate. The man raises a hand.

 

“I apologize for my manners, vampire. It has been a while since I had a proper discussion and I am understandably rusty.”

 

He stands straighter and the armor creaks and groans like an old barn to accommodate him. That thing must weigh a ton!

 

“Hum hum, I, Loth of Skoragg, would like to offer ye to cooperate on this hunt. Since our prizes are different, there is no reason for us ta compete. Instead, I would like to ask for the help of whatever keen senses told ye of my presence. In return, I shall cover ye and provide ranged support to take down the beast.”

 

I see no field cannon on that man.

 

“And what, pray tell, will you use to pierce through its thick dermis?”

 

“I thought ye’d never ask, lass.”

 

Loth turns back and leans forward. There are a few clangs, a few grunts and he eventually turns around to show me his weapon, proudly displayed in front of his hips.

 

“Oh, my, it is so big!”

 

The man smiles as I admire his equipment. It looks like a harpoon launcher that would have been taken from a whaler’s deck. It is humongous in size and no human should be able to wield this monstrosity.

 

“Aye, just wait ‘till I start shooting.”

 

By comparison, my poor pistol looks woefully inadequate. Oh, what an unpleasant feeling.

 

“Before I agree, I would like to ask you a few questions. Hum. You are not human, are you?”

 

The man stops moving.

 

“Wh…What gave it away?”

 

“Hum you have an aura but you are not a mage, there is also your size, that strange armor of yours, the oversized harpoon…”

 

“Aye, alright, but what about my voice? My mannerisms? Close yer eyes for a while and imagine we’re havin’ this conversation in a nice salon, aye? Would I come off as strange?”

 

“This conversation? The one we are having about hunting a titanic magical alligator together, at night, in Choctaw territory, in exchange for blood and obsidian shards?”

 

He nods frantically.

 

“Uuuuuuh, besides the obvious, you sound perfectly normal, I think?”

 

“Oof! Ya had me worried for a second here lass. Ya see I haven’t had a talk this long in three months! I was afraid I was coming off as particular. Ya know? Borderline? Loony? Isolation can do that to ya”

 

“I… I see. Hold on, you have not talked to anyone in three months?! What in the world were you doing!?”

 

“I was looking for magical beast skin.”

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

“Magical alligator skin?”

 

“Aye lass that would do, and that is why I need yer help! I thought I was blessed when I spotted that towering column of magic those lads set up and heard their proposal. But that beast is cunning! It hides from groups and things too big. I walked around; screamed obscenities that could be heard from here to the North pole and even showed it my arse but ‘twas all for nothing! The beast will not take the bait. I have been stuck in that piece of armor for three bloody days! Do you know how hard it is when you got that itch in ya…”

 

Does… Does this man have any censure?!

 

“Ye alright lass?”

 

I close my mouth with a click. I just wanted to know what he was! How did we end up talking about his itchy crotch…? Arg!

 

“Oooh, ye asked me what I am. Well, I am a Dvergur.”

 

I stare in silence.

 

“Aye, don’t look at me like that! I’m telling the truth. I’m probably the only Dvergur on the continent, well, the only one with pure enough blood to know what he is.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well we have a veeeery low birth rate, aye, and we are so close to human most can’t tell, so many of us just marry into human families. Why, my second wife was human!”

 

“What happened to her? Where is she?”

 

“She died of old age! That was, oh three hundred years ago, give or take.”

 

“WHAT?! How old are you!?”

 

“Aye lass, that’s sort of a personal thing to ask hey?”

 

And telling me about the state of his unmentionables is not personal? Pah! Men, I swear.

 

“We are close to stone and steel. Always have been. We love metal and magic and we wield them well! Why, I built that thing meself! Oh, and we also love good liquor. And lasses, or lads! Ah, and we can live very long. My grand-uncle Lokri, bless his heart, was already a man when Rome fell to those Huns upstarts. And he’s probably still alive if that harpy of a wife has not…”

 

I spend a good three minutes listening to the man talk about his cousins twice-removed back in Norway and Lapony and whatnot, and I am growing increasingly worried. I am confident that the Choctaw tribesmen will not speak of me, not because I believe in their honesty, but because no warriors worth their salt will admit to having asked a foreign woman for help.

 

I am planning to kill Loth, however. He already proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he cannot keep his mouth shut. The more he talks, however, and the more I see the issue.

 

Loth is a centuries-old battle-hardened veteran encased in a magical suit of armor of his own making. I would rather try my luck against the crocodile, bare-handed.

 

Could I possibly wait until he lowers his guard? He will get out of this thing after the hunt. I can still work with him to slay our quarry, though I dislike the idea of murdering someone I fought side by side with.

 

“… And then it took three weeks for their wives to figure out the twins had switched place, bahahaha! Lokri and Takk are such pranksters!”

 

“Loth of Skoragg?”

 

“Aye?”

 

“I propose that we kill the alligator together. You take all the skin you want, I get to try its blood and then we shall return to the tribesmen and claim our respective rewards. Do you agree?”

 

“Aye, sure lass, works fer me. We’ve already delayed long enough as it is.”

 

And whose fault is this you gossiping blabbermouth?! Gah!

 

“Let us set out then.”

 

I walk forward, close to the water while Loth covers me from much farther away. When I asked him about it, he answered that the beast would only go after “cute and juicy-rumped targets”, that I should not worry my “pretty noggin” over playing bait because he could “throw a Francisca through a troll’s nostrils at a hundred paces.”, whatever that meant, and that I was, therefore “Guarded as a dragon’s bollocks”. After that, I decided not to ask any more questions.

 

 

Loth is direct, vulgar and talkative but as I offer my back to him, I do not doubt that he will only protect it. My instincts agree.

 

I do not want to fight him, but I want to fall back into vampire hands even less. ..

 

We circle the whole pond without success and the strange man leads me to another lake where our target may be resting.

 

“Ya know, East of here there’s a species of wetland trees with its roots bare. It’s a bit indecent if ye ask me. They’re showing their naked legs to everyone if ya think about it.”

 

“Ya know, all this mud reminds me of Aunt Gerda’s cooking. She could not make a proper meal ta save her life. We used to say, just throw it up it will taste better the second time! I remember that even that starving fox…”

 

“Ya know, I think vampires should say yesternight, cause it’s never yesterday, technically.”

 

He never shuts up.

 

 

I know a few nasty words could make him stop. I do not say them. It would be unwise to antagonize him now.

 

Ah who am I kidding, I understand him perfectly. He has spent three months in solitude, and now he has someone who he can talk to about events that happened two hundred years before without being seen as a madman.

 

He is also the only Dvergur around. I know that I should avoid other vampires like the plague but at least they are there. I am not the only one of my kind. I have Jimena. I have my father and Aintza. Loth is alone.

 

How can someone so old be so alone?

 

“And here we are lass, I hope I did not bother too much with me ramblings aye?”

 

“Not at all Loth. Should we proceed as before?”

 

“Aye. Just so. Keep yer peepers open, I think it’s the right one.”

 

We keep walking. The immobility of the marsh grates on my nerves. At the same time, I feel myself growing sluggish. The tedious search is not the same as an active hunt, and since I fed almost immediately upon waking up, I...

 

A noise behind me. I turn around.

 

Massive jaws.

 

Impossible, IMPOSSIBLE! I did not feel anything?!

 

I move and it compensates. With a snap, it closes.

 

Caught.

 

DRAGGED. STUCK. TRAPPED. MUST SLASH.

 

The thing is too fast, its skin too thick, it drags me away. My head is submerged. There is muddy water in my mouth; there is muddy water in my lungs. It hurts. My leg hurts.

 

IGNORE PAIN, KILL FIGHT.

 

I grab the silver dagger and stab what I can reach: inside a nostril, the gum, a broken tooth. I fight like a fury. I grab the jaw and try to push it away.

 

Suddenly, I surface.

 

I manage to open the nightmarish maw, I free a bleeding leg. I crawl away. The beast does not move.

 

I cough a lungful of brackish liquid. I turn again. It’s dead. I cough more.

 

“Ariane.”

 

I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine…

 

“Ariane! You are safe lass, it’s over. We killed it.”

 

“Cough, I .. cough, I did not feel it coming, at all! Cough!”

 

“Yes, I understand now, it could mask its presence. I was looking at the water the whole time and did not see anything. Its eyes should have been visible.”

 

I stare at the corpse of the beast. The alligator is as massive as expected, and its scales are completely black. The darkness is so intense it seems like it is swallowing the light. Even the corridors of the arena were never that obscure. The beast has a single, massive harpoon lodged to the hilt in its eye. Transparent liquid slowly drips down its side.

 

This was an incredible shot. Loth is as good as his word.

 

After a pause, the man goes on.

 

“Try the blood, then we can go back. I’ll skin the thing tomorrow at dawn. ”

 

Yes, I should not let myself be distracted by a near-death experience at the hand of a massive Saurian.

 

I take my knife and stab into its throat. A thin trail of blood drips down. I must hurry before all the vitality disappears.

 

I take one swallow.

 

“Blergh.”

 

So bitter! This is completely undrinkable! I can feel the potency, but I cannot stomach its medium.

 

“Yes, I thought it might be the case. I met vampires in Boston, ya know? Some of them can distill essence from magical beast blood. I thought it was weird that ye tried to drink it raw.”

 

He looks at me and frowns.

 

This is bad, I don’t want him to…

 

“We should get back to my camp. I have rainwater. Let’s wash the worst of it clean.”

 

I look down at myself.

 

The dress is beyond ruined. A massive tear runs from waist high down and shows my pale left leg on top of the existing damage. It is also disgustingly filthy. The walk back to the camp feels like an eternity, an eternity spent picking weed off my hair. Eventually, we arrive back where we first met.

 

“Come, sit.”

 

I am not thinking straight. I am exhausted now. I still need to pick up my gear and find shelter for the day. This will be a closer call than I would like…

 

I sheathe the knife and drop my holster. I will have to clean those very thoroughly, preferably before I slumber. I really need one night spent on supplies and cleaning… So bothersome.

 

Loth grabs an entire barrel and slowly upends it on top of my head. I rinse my hair, my face. I remove the worst from the dress. I need clean clothes.

 

“Hey lass, that hunt was a bit anticlimactic don’t ye think? We got all that anticipation, all that tension, and then bam, it’s over in a second. Kind of disappointing, ya know. I was hoping for something that would get the blood pumping”

 

It suddenly occurs to me that I am weakened, and completely unarmed. He… he wouldn’t…

 

“I know what I want to do to get a little bit of excitement, a challenge if ye will. I heard that vampires are exceptional at it”

 

No… He wants a real hunt. I can’t fight him, I am not at my best and he is dangerous, deadly even! Must RECOVER DAGGER, CREATE DISTANCE, HIDE, AMBU…

 

“Say, let’s have sex!”

 

WHAT

 

What?!

 

“What?!” I sputter.

 

“Aye, to celebrate the hunt, the fact that we’re alive and the beast is dead aye? We Dvergur….”

 

His hand caresses my shoulder…

 

I am crying. The front of my dress is shredded, but my right arm is still free. I grab around. I find a rock. The abomination has stopped moving. It is looking right at me, daring me to act.

 

“Go on, try.”

 

With a yell of defiance, I smash the rock against its temple. I might as well have hit a steel door.

 

“I think that you do not need to use that arm anymore.”

 

A heavy hand grabs my shoulder.

 

“NOOOOOO!”

 

I jump, I grab my knife, I wave it in front of me.

 

“STAY AWAY FROM ME!”

 

He looks too astonished to move at first, then he slowly raises his hands to appear harmless.

 

“You, you stay away from me, don’t touch me. Don’t touch me at all. Stay away.”

 

“Alright.”

 

“You, you don’t come near.”

 

“I won’t come near. I’m sitting down.”

 

He does, and at the same time, he deflates. I know that he is the same size, but he seems to collapse on himself. Slowly, Loth raises his hand and unlocks something, then he removes his helmet, which falls on the ground with a loud thud. He then waits in silence.

 

I realize that I am hyperventilating. Ariane, the only hyperventilating creature that needs no air. Pathetic.

 

I am pathetic. I was weak. I am weak. We killed the alligator? What a joke. He killed the alligator. I was just floundering around like an idiot. I am still very much the Spawn that was thrown away by its Master after only four bloody days. Unwanted. A bargaining chip. The butt of the bloody joke. Damn it.

 

We spend some time in this strange stalemate. I am standing with a blade trying to regain control, while he sits quietly, waiting for God knows what.

 

“I am so sorry, Ariane.”

 

I look up and take his measure for the first time. Now that his head is revealed, I can see that Loth has a pleasant face, in a rugged gentleman kind of way. His hair is black and cut short and he has chestnut-colored eyes currently fixed on me. Right now, he looks like a beaten dog. A harpoon-equipped, armored, beaten dog.

 

I say nothing.

 

He waits.

 

Why did this happen? I have been touched by people before without triggering any memories, without turning into a quivering mess.

 

Except, besides my father, I have never been touched by a man who wasn’t a cattle or a supplicant. They were all in my power.

 

They were not men to me, not really. Loth is. He is mature, strong and we are not bound by oath or contract.

 

What should I do?

 

At a loss, I look up to the Silent Watcher. Once more, its quiet gaze brings me a modicum of self-control.

 

“Ye’re a fugitive, ain’t ye ?”

 

Well, that settles it. He figured me out. It has come to this. I should never have agreed to a truce, I should have fought him on the spot.

 

I stand up.

 

“What if I am?”

 

“Aye, don’t get yer panties in a twist. I’m asking because, well, because I can help ya.”

 

I scoff. Does he think me daft?

 

“Why would you ever do something like that? We just met.”

 

I must run away. Even with his helmet off, I am far from confident that I can take him out.

 

Loth’s expression turns resolute. He stands up, takes a step back and methodically removes a gauntlet. I watch, mesmerized as he takes a small knife and slices his palm open. Blood wells. It smells pretty good.

 

“I, Loth of Skoragg, hereby swear that I shall protect Ariane’s life, freedom, and welfare until next midnight, or die trying.”

 

A powerful wave of magic washes over me. It tastes like snow, mountain, and unyielding metal, all things I am not familiar with and yet I feel them as if I knew them intimately. The intensity of the blood oath is stunning.

 

The Dvergur closes his fist and kisses it without breaking eye contact with me.

 

What?! What just happened?

 

I don’t know what to say. I certainly did not expect this. Loth of Skoragg, warrior, and craftsman, will die to defend me if it comes to it. I know this with the same certainty that I know the sun will rise in the East. It is inevitable.

 

“But why?”

 

“Perhaps I feel like a fool that ignored all the obvious signs. Perhaps I owe ye for what I just put ye through by being callous. And perhaps…”

 

He pauses for a long time and I wait without a sound. This moment feels important. It would be sacrilegious to interrupt him.

 

“Perhaps I feel lonely.”

 

I ponder this strange confession for a little while. His words make little sense to me. I cannot reconcile them with my image of him.

 

“I do not understand. You look human, you sound human, you can drink, eat and walk under the sun, so why are you alone?”

 

“Ye are so young to ask me such a question… Tyr, I should have known. I should have noticed. Yes, humans are good companions. Did I mention me second wife, Agna?”

 

I nod.

 

“I stayed by her side until her head went white. In the end, she could no longer walk, could barely see. Never did she harbor any grudge that her body would fail her while I would go on.”

 

Loth marks a heavy pause. The pain in his eyes is sobering.

 

“It broke me heart when she died. I promised myself, never again. Our children were adults by that time, so I picked me things and left. I stayed in the mountains for a century to hone my craft. It did not help. Even today I can see her smile as a young lass, as a mother, as a mature woman and as I held her hand because she could not see me no more. If ye live long enough ye will know this too. Human lives shine bright, but they fade fast. I cannot let meself be burnt like that again.”

 

“And maybe I will die in two weeks. Fugitive, remember?”

 

“And maybe ye won’t, especially if ye accept me proposal. The gist of it is, maybe in a hundred years, ye’ll still be here. The humans won’t, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Just knowing it is enough.”

 

“Not to mention, you can’t talk about that time your nephew Rollo showed his posterior to Edward the First without people starting to wonder how old that would make you.”

 

“Aye lass, ye got me here. Rollo two Beards we called him afterward!”

 

“Well, after what you said and that oath of yours, I think… I think that I want to hear your proposal.”

 

“And I’ll tell ye tomorrow. Ye’re barely staying awake as it is, and we need to find ye some shelter.”

 

“Yes… I am afraid you may have to carry me.”

 

“That’s not the issue… Don’t ye want to get changed? Ye’re kind of covered in swamp water”

 

“Ah! Let us make haste!”

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Mecanimus

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