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I quickly retrace our steps. As expected, a blind child could track us down. In half an hour I slow down when I see the smoke and ember of another camp.

I creep closer until I happen upon the remainders of the ill-fated Valiants.

Most of the group lounges dejectedly around the campfire. They lost more than half of their numbers today. Many men sit apart from each other. Eyes do not meet.

A real group bound by links of blood or friendship would cling together tightly. Misery and fear would promote the herd instinct and a feeling of unity before the catastrophe. Those people are nothing like that. They are a band of jackals and hyenas brought together by greed and the promise of easy violence. Now that their failure is made evident, they are starting to split along lines of allegiance.

This motley crew does not even qualify for the moniker of Warband. Truly pathetic.

I can see the alpha and beta males in a contest. The beta is a huge man with an imposing black beard that reaches his protruding belly. The alpha is sitting on a rock, his hand on the pommel of a saber. I can tell why he calls himself Crow. His jacket, trousers, and boots are black. Even his hat is the same color and adorned with shiny dark feathers of the eponymous bird.

I am getting flashbacks from half a year ago when I cleared the warehouse.

I return my attention to the group. They have two sentries. I also count eight men in various stages of despair. Only the two leaders pose some sort of threat, or they would if they had adapted weapons, which I doubt.

I feel disappointed and this feeling worries me. I know what is required for survival. I know from the books Loth lent me that victory is often achieved before the battle even begins. I am still frustrated.

I want a challenge. I want to walk on the edge. I want a good hunt so that when I defeat my opponent, their blood is that much sweeter.

I remember Nami’s expression when she let me drink from her. She was also seeking a thrill. Am I turning into a prideful fop?

I looked down on Gaspard, the man my master crushed because he was arrogant. I fear now that this lust for danger will make me take unreasonable risks.

On the other hand, measured risks are beneficial. I never learned so much about fighting as a vampire as when I was running the Gauntlet. There was a stake, a cost for defeat and therefore I was invested.

Even Loth, old as he is, still takes risks. I find it unlikely that a single bullet even to the head could take him out, however fighting still brings a risk to him.

He still does it.

Perhaps this is what it takes to stay alive, actually alive, for so long.

I will set my own rules now. I will challenge myself only if I am confident that I can at least escape and survive.

Yes, that sounds reasonable. I shall still ask Loth about his opinion later. He must have guidelines for having lived for so long.

Using a tried and true method, I wait until the first sentry gets out of sight to neutralize him. In the camp, nobody notices.

This is the first time since the night with Toussaint that I am faced with more blood than I can safely consume.

I can not afford to get drunk this time. I decide to try to Devour him. It may only grant me a fraction of the normal vitality, but it is faster, does not make me drunk and leaves me in control. Truly there is no better way to recover strength quickly.

Now to do it.

I plunge eight fangs in the man’s carotid and pull. It is much harder than last time. The part of me that pulls is not quite AWAKE. MANY PREY. HUNTING GROUND. CATTLE.

Wait, cattle?

I smell the air. There, near the tent. It smells like unwashed women.

Could it be...

“You might as well come out!”

I turn my attention back to Crow who stands on the middle of the clearing. Everyone else is staring at him as if he were insane.

“Peter disappeared without a noise one minute ago and two men cannot account for all of our casualties. Not to mention, all of this occurred at night. I know what is happening, I know you’re here somewhere. Come on out. Let me see the face of my doom. I dare you!”

Ho? Now this is interesting.

“Do you now, little bird...”

How they jump in fright at the clear sound of my voice. How they brandish their weapons in vain.

Hopeless.

I step out in the middle of the clearing with my weapon holstered. I know how I look: like a young woman in a traveling dress. Young, fresh and innocent, with the pale skin of those who do not work outside.

The image in their head does not match with what they know. I present myself as a threat yet I do not look like one. Their expectations of the world will make them look down upon me until it is far too late. Such is the power of a vampire.

Despite his bluster, Crow swallows nervously. He looks like a little boy who threatened the monster under his bed to come out, only for something to drag on his sheets.

You called the night and it answered.

I tap my index under my chin and this time I do not bother to hide what I am. Talons and fangs are out. I stop bothering to breathe or close my eyes.

“I am curious, little bird, what did you think would happen now? Hum? A heroic fight?“

The man swallows and retorts with pretend confidence.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I challenge you to a duel.”

There is something desperate about the proclamation. Those are the words of a drowning man clinging to the familiar.

“And why would I accept?”

“Why not? Are you scared?”

I move, turn on myself to slash the throat of the man approaching me from the back with his knife drawn. I heard the sound of metal scraping against leather. I saw the looks of the others when they forced themselves to look straight away. I smelled his perspiration and his fear.

I finish the circular motion in an instant, ending up exactly as I had started except for red liquid dripping down my claws. I hear blood spilling on the ground and the gurgles of the dying.

I resume as if nothing had happened.

“Am I truly? Or do I simply not see the point in granting you this request? You will fight me anyway. Well, you will try. Why should I offer you a formal duel?”

“A wager!”

“Oh?”

I can almost see the cogs grinding in his skull, looking for a solution to his predicament.

“I have information. I know you were looking for the girl and you think you’ll get what you’re looking for from my diary, well, you won’t. You won’t get anything. It’s encrypted.”

“There is no cipher your mind can come up with that my friend cannot crack in twenty seconds.”

He shakes his head.

“Not that kind of cipher. I wrote things like, I smelled strawberry today and it means I was thinking of my sister.”

As he says so, he blushes. Hah, the dark and brooding Crow, thinking about a sister.

“It won’t matter. I know things that I didn’t write. Couldn’t write. It was just too insane. I know who she really was, what she really was after, exactly where I sold her, and to whom.”

“And what are you asking for in return?”

“If I give you a good show you will spare my men.”

The clearing is perfectly silent. You could hear a pin drop.

“We engage in bouts until blood is drawn. For every time you make me bleed, you get to choose one person. I will not hunt them, and they can survive the night. For every time I draw yours, you tell me something I want to know. If I don’t like it or it is too brief, I shall assume you have run out of ideas and I will kill you. While we duel, I will not use my powers, just my body and my blades.”

“Deal!”

“Then let us begin.”

I jump on the man, who desperately draws and attempts so slice me in the same motion. I am used to this now and I can tell where the blade will land. I simply block it with my knife and stab him in the shoulder with my left hand. Not too deep. Not the dominant arm. That would not be sporting.

“Gaaaaah! Hell!”

“Speak.”

“Gah, fine. Fine! That woman, she was not who she said she was. She had some weird rings and documents in German. When we captured her she said that she worked for the Order of the Heirs, whatever that means. She said they're a powerful secret society. I thought it might be poppycock but what do I know.”

Hum, it appears that everyone and their dogs manipulate poor Cecil. Ah well, I care not. As long as she does not endanger me, she can belong to the Chinese imperial family for all I care. As for the organization itself, there is absolutely no way that they would have a big enough presence here to be any of my concern in the short run. This is a problem for much later if indeed it is even true.

I resume a guarding stance and we circle each other. Crow probes my defenses with conservative movements. I move as little as I can until he overcommits on a feint. I jump forward and hit the saber with the knife’s small guard. We lock blade and I easily stop his left hand with my own. I stab a finger in his wrist and he drops the knife he had been concealing.

“Ah, dammit!”

“Speak.”

Cold sweat has started to form on Crow’s brow. A darker patch marks his wounds on his shoulder and sleeve.

He smells delicious, like battle lust and courage in the face of certain death. I am sated, for now, thankfully, or resisting the Thirst would be difficult.

“We sold the woman to some insane communities up there at the southernmost peaks of the Appalachians. Some kind of inbred idiots who worship the weirdest things. Heathens and maniacs, the lot of them.”

“Where?”

“Hey come on, I...”

“Where?”

“F... four days of riding, to the North. They have some insane estate painted white and red. You’d think you were transported to bloody Gloucestershire.”

“Hmm.”

We resume guard position and this time, Crow goes all out. I use it as an opportunity to dodge with minimal movement and try to predict the way he moves his body, and yet the fight becomes much harder. His heavy cavalry saber was a liability in quick exchanges but now its weight and power make it harder to block and dodge. This exchange lasts for a very long time. Thirty seconds. Forty seconds. He does not relent.

At the fifty seconds mark, he tires and slips on the muddy ground. I bounce forward but he surprises me. Instead of trying to block his fall, he uses a two-handed strike to swipe at me. I block with my left talons but stop as I am about to stab him in the ribs.

We stay there for a second as I look in his terrified eyes.

Humans blink a lot.

I get back up and inspect my left hand. The blade caught between two talons and sliced my finger. The wound is already closed, still...

“Choose.”

“What?”

“You drew blood. Choose.”

“Dalton.”

As the name crosses his lips, I hear a scream from behind. I turn to see the large bearded man take out a gun and aim it.

Not at me, at a very young man sitting terrified at the side.

Tut tut tut I won’t have someone ruin my moment. I move.

I stab every finger of my left hand in the man’s chest. He gasps in pain and drops the gun.

Ooowww! What? That hurts! I think I broke two knuckles! How are ribs so bloody hard?! Master put his entire hands in someone’s chest and made it look easy! How!

I remove my hand. The man falls without a noise and I face Crow again. I do my very best to school my expression.

Ouch ouch ouch ouch... Gah! Dammit! Must focus.

Crow looks at me warily. I just assume an en guarde position again and we resume fighting.

I can tell that he is tiring. It is long past midnight, he has had a long day and he is bleeding.

Crow has a pattern. At the end of an exchange, he loves to swing and hit his opponent’s blade on the way up, then immediately slash back down and move forward at the same time before they can recover. It must have worked well against weaker opponents, particularly given how heavy his saber is.

It is useless against me.

The next time he does it. I strike the blade further out just as he reverses and get into his guard. I slice a shallow cut across his chest.

“Gah!”

We are now on the last act of this tragedy and the others can feel it. I catch a few subtle glances and I hear footsteps. I turn around to a filthy man in a straw hat who is much closer to the edge of the forest than he was a moment ago.

“You run, you die first.”

The man stops. This will give me a moment before I have to finish this.

“Speak.”

“I, hmm. The cult. They keep stealing people around for who knows what.”

Stealing huh. I know who they have "stealing" those people.

“That is not helpful. Tell me how you knew what I was.”

“The... the head of the cult. I sold the woman to him. He called you vampires. He said that you are hoarding your power. He says that he will achieve this by himself and share the bounty with his followers.”

“Hmmm.”

I return to the center of the clearing and wait for Crow to do the same. As soon as he is in position, he charges me, and all the Valiant Companions turn and run.

I stand my ground. Crow sees his men run and charges me with a desperate cry.

Remarkable! Of course, I was expecting no less from a crafty outlaw. I flip my left arm and a moment later, Crow stumbles and falls. He stares with disbelief at the throwing dagger in his chest. I did not waste my time those past six months.

“I did warn you when I said blades.”

I move after every bandit. I Devour them one after the other without pause. In the dark, they are all slow and noisy. I make it quick and painless.

When I return to the clearing, only Crow and that young man Dalton remain.

“It should not... be like this. We were meant... to be adventurers. Heroes… Like knights of old.” Says the fallen leader with a strained voice.

I straddle crow and let my hair fall on his face. He is so warm and his perfume is exquisite. A perfect end to a worthy Hunt.

“Heroes, you say? Do heroes raid travelers? Do they keep sex slaves?”

“They are... natives, not white women.”

“They are sex slaves. Who they are does not change what you did.”

“That’s rich... coming from a monster.”

“Ah, but I do know what I am. Just as I know who kidnaps people for that strange estate you mentioned, and just as I know why you were prompt to sell them the woman as well. You have fallen farther than most, Crow. Now, any last words?”

Crow gives me one last smile with red-tinged teeth. Defiant to the end. I love it.

“I’ll see you in hell.”

Heh.

“Farewell human, it was a good Hunt.”

When I am done, I stand up and take in the devastation I brought.

Corpses litter the clearing, strewn around broken tents and trampled personal effects. The sole survivor of this massacre is kneeling on the ground with his hand on his head. I ignore him for now.

I approach the largest tent and open it. The stench of unwashed bodies is pungent here, yet I fight through.

Two young women stare at me with insane eyes. The first one is shaking with fury while the other one cowers behind her. They are dressed in the torn remnants of filthy rags. Their dark hair is stringy and matted.

When I get closer, the stronger one growls and curses under her breath.

Hum.

I retreat and pick up a skinning knife, then get back in and drop it at their feet. I leave them be.

Crow used a short stool to sit. I right it and settle near the fire.

I need to think.

Why did I accept the challenge? Why did I kill these men but spare their prisoners? What do I do with Dalton? Do I stick to the spirit of the agreement and let him go? Or do I follow the letter and make sure that he dies before he reaches a settlement? Was I led here by Bingle’s preposterous narrative power because what I learned is vital to the continuation of our quest?

I ignore the two native women as they stumble around the camp, kicking and spitting on corpses while crying and sobbing in their language.

I accepted the challenge because it was right. It was right to offer them a chance to accomplish something instead of butchering them like animals. It made for a good Hunt.

And again with this Hunt concept. It certainly has something to do with the tainted blood in my veins. I never thought much about the concepts of the Hunt when I was alive. Should I stop? Will it kill me like blind confidence killed Gaspard?

I do not think so. Crow’s blood was both delicious and more powerful than it should have been because its potency did not stem from the man himself, but from the way it was taken. Respecting the spirit of the Hunt and winning makes me stronger. It also made me feel more alive. The contest forced me to work for it, instead of just taking it with overwhelming force, just like the blood of a supplicant tastes sweeter than that of the cattle.

Yes, I know that I am right. I shall respect the prey and in turn, it will make me stronger, more patient and more cautious. Challenges will remind me of my limits and that I should never look down upon mortals, just like Crow reminded me of my imperfect technique when he sliced my finger.

If I encounter a situation that is a challenge in itself, then I do not need to give myself constraints. Instead, I will use every tool at my disposal to achieve victory.

Yes, it is as it should be. The red nectar needs to be earned. I must never forget it.

Now onto the next concern.

Who do I spare, and why? Loth was correct. Rules and guidelines are the first steps in any proper society. As the only vampire in the area, I need to set those rules and enforce them on myself, by myself.

I shall now create ground rules, just as the Continental Congress established a constitution more than two decades ago.

Those I call my friends, those that are bound to me by contract or oath, those I am negotiating with, and those who are too young should not be touched without their explicit consent. This includes supplicants.

Those who are not related to me can be fed upon, but not killed nor enslaved.

Those who have disrespected the Hunt by hurting weak prey, those who have broken their oaths to others, and those I have been contracted to capture can be fed upon, tortured and enslaved, but not killed.

Those who broke their oath to me and my own, those that stole lives out of self-interest and those that stole women’s dignity are fair game. Those rules apply to groups I consider myself at war with, but not their relatives.

Those that endanger me by their existence and those that tried to kill me yet respected the spirit of the hunt can be fed upon and killed, but not tortured nor enslaved.

Above all else, I must keep my word and protect myself and mine.

Yes. This feels right. I shall apply those rules at least for now. I will adjust them as I go if I deem it necessary.

I return my attention to the present. The boy has not moved, and the two native women are cleaning themselves while eyeing the prostrate man with suspicion. The taller one is caressing her knife with a contemplative expression.

I start gathering supplies. I know what I must do with the boy and I want no witnesses.

I prepare two heavy backpacks and return to the women. Diplomacy is made difficult because they do not speak a word of English, French nor Spanish, not that I blame them. With enough grunts and pointed fingers, they understand that they are to take horses and food and go, but they refuse. After pointing to the sky and fire a few times, I finally remember that this is currently the dead of night and traveling is not the best of ideas.

I am sated and they represent no danger to me, so I decide to let them do as they please. Instead, I grab the boy by the elbow and drag him to the cover of the trees. He does not resist.

“Can you understand me?”

He nods.

“You are safe from me for tonight, but tonight only.”

The young man raises his head to me. Just like the other bandits, he is wearing a mix and match of farming and travelling clothes of simple but solid make. His brown vest is too large for him. I think he may have been the youngest person of the group at around sixteen.

I end up face to face with liquid blue eyes paler than mine. They are large and strangely magnetic. Even when I look at the rest of him, my gaze is drawn back. He looks at me with a sort of childish wonder and though I smell fear on him, it is not as strong as I would have expected.

I do not want to kill him. I do not believe he is a threat to me. He does not feel like one.

“If you never speak of this, nor of me, to anyone, I will let you go. Do you agree?”

The boy actually considers my words for a moment, and only then agrees by nodding again.

“Swear on it.”

“I will not betray you. I swear.”

“Good, now I shall test your word.”

I take his unresisting arm and bite, then stare in his eyes.

“Did you intend to betray me?”

“No. Never.”

That was fast. According to my rules, I can kill him if I deem him a threat. I do not. He is not a friend either, so he can be fed upon, but not harmed further.

I do not Thirst.

Bah, enough, the hour grows late.

“Very well. You may leave and go where you wish. Respect your word, for if you do not, I will not be the only one to go after you provided you are even believed.”

“I will not betray you.”

The boy’s reactions are rather strange. Could he be retarded? That would explain why Crow chose him to be spared. He must be the least deserving of death of them all.

“You should leave the camp this very moment. I doubt your previous captives would forgive you for what they have been through.”

“I know where to go.”

Again with the lack of any doubt. There is something wrong with this young man. He is entirely too accepting of the situation. Could he be hiding what he really is? No. I did get the barest hint of his essence when I bit him and he is, beyond a doubt, a mortal.

Bah, it matters not. I have already delayed too long.

I make sure I have all my weapons on me and promptly depart the area. The return trip is much faster since I do not have to search for our camp, nor do I need to hide my presence. Two hours after I left, I soon find the familiar lights of our campfire.

As I return to the camp, I see a hint of magic in the air. Loth has not been idle while I was out.

I cross the spell’s demarcation, eliciting a light chime. I hear a sleeper waking up and follow the sounds to a slightly haggard Loth. He gestures to Bingle and we leave the warmth of the dying fire to discuss the night’s events without waking him up.

I tell him everything, including my findings, the ethic code and Dalton’s fate.

“Hum. Ari, are ye tipsy?”

“What? Hum, perhaps? How could you possibly tell?”

“Yer attention is wandering and ye are more contemplative than usual. I saw this in Constantine back in Boston, he would have a similar mood after a lethal hunt. In any case, I must congratulate ye on tonight. Well done”

“You think so?”

“Ye eliminated the threat, left no dangerous survivors and got us what we wanted. Now ye’re back safe and sound. Tyr, I wish all my raids had gone that well.”

“Yes, and now we must decide on how to proceed.”

“There’s no doubt to be had aye? We’ll ride North ta purge those madmen and recover the lass, if she lives. I doubt it, ya know? Any weird cult that buys people don’t keep them around for long.”

“I do not like this. We are moving blindly into a situation that could very well be dangerous. Is there no group that should be sent to deal with this?”

“Aye lass, there is us! We are the two most powerful entities for a hundred miles so it’s up ta us ta defend our territory. Hahaha, Tyr, you are still so human sometimes. Did you expect the gendarmes or militia to come and hunt monsters?”

“Hum, not them, but their supernatural peers? I assumed that the order of Gabriel or vampire knight squads would dedicate themselves to hunting those strange groups.”

Loth looks at me in silence for a moment. The atmosphere grows heavy. A sort of pressure makes me want to avert my gaze and I am reminded of who Loth of Skoragg really is, not a gentleman and a scholar but an ancient being of vast magical knowledge whose hands are tainted with blood. I remember when we fought together. I remember the silent titan of cold metal slaughtering his way through fighting and pleading men without ever stopping, without ever flinching, and I shiver.

“Lass, this is our territory and we don’t need no idiots to protect it for us. This is not the human world, where ye can rely on institutions and laws. For us, what is ours is what we can get and keep, and don’t ye ever forget it. Besides, I won’t tolerate those fanatical mongrels stepping foot on it anyway.”

Loth closes his eyes and massages the bridge of his prominent nose.

“Aye, listen ta me rambling like an old man. I did not mean ta scold you lass. Sometimes, you are so good at being what ye are that I forget that ye’re so young. As fer knight squads, ye don’t understand.”

He sits down and moves his hands together in the lecture stance and I sit comfortably.

“I mentioned that they fix supernatural issues before they get out of hand. I did not tell ye more, but I should have. Vampires are a rare breed. Ye are a territorial and arrogant lot. Ye’ll rarely see more than fifteen in a large city, and they will be defended by a handful of masters. The reason why vampires sit at the top of the hierarchy where they are is because each master is incredibly dangerous. Knight Squads are groups of battle-hardened masters dedicated to war. There’s barely a handful of them, but ye can be sure that if they get sent somewhere, the problem gets solved. Permanently.

That’s the thing though, they’re always busy. They will only come here if the cult somehow gets out of hand and starts summoning horrors from the beyond.”

“They… They can really do that?!”

“Aye it can happen, but we won’t let it come to this. Don’t ye worry.”

“I see. So it is up to us. Well, I won’t let you down.”

“I know I can count on ye. Well. We have a big day ahead of us. I’d better catch some shut-eye.”

Loth lies down and five minutes later I hear both men snoring like two horns playing a duo. If I were a mortal woman trying to sleep, I believe I would be trying to smother them with their pillows now.

I take out my notebook on ancient languages and review it as the night slowly reaches its end.

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Mecanimus

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