“… Potent blood for the experiments, Leonard…”
“… Over there next to the others, and cover her in chains…”
“… Costly, but think of the possibilities! She is fully turned; we now have a benchmark…”
Sometimes I move my eyes. There are bricks.
Sometimes I hear a sound. People are crying.
Sometimes I smell fear and unwashed bodies. And blood.
I cough. A few droplets flash blue and turn to ash.
A flake of ash falls from my finger. It won’t be long now.
Something is traveling underground. When it emerges from the ground, all will be ash.
It’s cold, and sometimes very hot when I cough, but mostly cold.
Something grabs me. Pair of brown eyes. Worry, pain, guilt. I close my eyes.
“No, Ari, Tyr, Ari, stay with me.”
“Sod off Cecil, she ain’t dead yet. I need privacy. NOW!”
Something wet falls on my face. I breathe in. Steel and Mountain. Feels safe. Can go now.
“No no no no it’s my bloody fault. Don’t ye dare. Don’t ye fucking dare leave. Alright, alright. No choice you daft old cunt. You brought her here. Now pay the price. Only ye can do it. Right. Right, hold on girl. This old fool got ye.”
I breathe in something fantastic.
Absolutely incredible. Exquisite.
I open my eyes, a red wrist. It forcefully parts my cracked lips. The pure liquid seeps on my tongue, drips down my throat.
I stand in the middle of a battlefield. Crags and green grass, and the sea beyond. My chest is bare but for blue woad and black hair. A man charges me, shield up. I bury a heavy ax in it. He loses his balance. I pull and he falls forward. My other ax kisses his neck. I roar in laughter and jump to the next warrior.
A vast hall. Sturdy men and women drink and make merry. Meat juices flow down my chin and on my beard and that blonde lass keeps reaching between my legs. A grey-bearded man grabs my shoulder and I smile to him. He is so proud and happy. Father, my heart is full.
I watch with amusement as that tall brown-haired human screams in outrage at Skeggi. He threatens her with a fist. She upends a bag of manure on his short frame. We all laugh as he runs screaming to the river. Her name is Agna.
My feet dig in the mattress. Both my hands grasp the sheet. Agna smiles mischievously and licks her flushed lips. I want to grab her heavy breast, tease those erect nipples yet I do not. She smiles wider, she grabs my arms with her own and lowers her torso, sinuous and sensual. I see the white of her belly, I smell her arousal. Her soft skin brushes mine. Nails drift against my skin. I shiver.
Her head is level with my chest. She kisses me lightly. I moan. I do not move.
She raises her hips and her mound rubs against my manhood. I feel moist skin and pubic hair made wet by her ardor. I pant with desire and still, I do not move. I close my eyes. Something incredibly soft and wet parts to let me in. She sheathes herself with agonizing slowness. Her sigh of ecstasy tickles my hear. Still, I do not move.
She lowers herself to grab more of me. Her hip rolls against mine and I can take it no longer. With a soft growl, I collapse as she laughs and grabs my back. I take a firm cheek with one hand, her graying hair in the other and I move inside her, slow and steady. Soon, her giggles turn to moans and she answers my rhythm with her own, guiding me towards her bliss. We accelerate and tenderness turns to a relentless dance, one we have mastered over the years. I go as deep as I can and her legs twist on my back to lock me in. After a while, we turn frantic and I barely manage to control myself. With a last moan, she rakes my back as her whole body stills. I keep the exact same speed and soon we climax together. Her body spasms as I empty myself inside of her. Our moans of release shake the walls of our home.
A minute later, we catch our breath, I roll on my back and she falls asleep on my shoulder. I am safe. I am happy.
The last shovelful of black earth leaves the hole. There, that should be deep enough.
Someone gouged my chest a day ago and filled it with brine and ice.
Agna is dead.
The pain I feel cannot be expressed with words, it cannot be expressed with deeds. It is so immense, so incredibly overwhelming, that it covers the entirety of creation and then some. Agna is dead. Her mortality caught up with her.
I pick up the covered body and gently lower it. Then I exit the tomb and fill it with earth. I would fill it with gold, diamond and the heads of emperors if she had let me. She wanted good earth and flowers instead, so I plant the flowers, take my bag and leave.
I climbed down from the mountain because the clan needs me. Father points me at enemies, and I kill. Father gave me a bride and I married her. I fuck her as well. She does not love me, but she likes the prestige and pleasure I give, I think.
My younger brother challenged me today. He and my wife planned a coup. I saw the fear when I took my ax. He knows what I can do. I do not kill him. Instead, I leave. I walk North and take a ship to Greenland, then I start walking. Let them have it if they want it so much. I care not.
It is frigid and I am too thin. I munch on the cold fish I caught from the depth. Tasteless. There is land to the South. I am tired of this. I want to travel to a better place, to forget.
“Ariane, please, Tyr, answer me.”
My consciousness rises to the surface.
“Yes. Yes, I’m here lass. I’m here.”
I cough a bit. I spit out something sticky and disgusting. I feel a wet cloth clean my mouth.
“How are ye feeling,”
“Hnn…As if Asni and the carriage trampled me a dozen times, then left me to dry under the sun.”
I crack open my eyes. It’s difficult to concentrate. Things come in and out of focus. All sounds come to me distorted.
“I… Feel so weak.”
“Ye’re lucky my blood is potent. I fear…. I fear the worst may have happened otherwise. For a fledgling to suffer so much and live… I did not dare hope.”
I try to lift an arm to my chest but I fail. The left one is bandaged tight and the right one is unusually heavy.
“Wow, slow down.”
“Ye’re still not fully healed. Yer arm was punched clean through. Ye’re lucky it’s still attached. Ye also got lacerations, burn marks and a bullet through the right lung. And yer heart was stabbed.”
“I don’t feel Thirsty…”
“What can I say, I am delicious.”
We stay silent for a while, then...
“I think I need a moment.”
I feel pain, though less than I should. More than that I feel empty, drained. I know we are probably still in danger but cannot bring myself to care. A little of the apathy I felt earlier still clings to my psyche despite the holes in my chest now being closed. I decide to focus on just breathing, not because I need air, but because it has always helped me settle. I count thirty cycles before I turn my face up to Loth again.
“Shouldn’t we be on the move?”
“We need some time to organize the prisoners we just freed. The cultists have taken some of them and regrouped higher in the mountain complex. We must prepare before we continue.”
“How are the others?”
“Everybody is fine. Dalton has cracked ribs, nothing too serious. I gave him a tonic and he will be able to function for another four hours, then he will crash down.” Loth pauses long enough for me to realize he is considering something.
“He found you.”
“Yes. He knew where you went, somehow. You bonded. We will have to discuss this later, in greater detail, when we have time.”
“Right. Do we have a plan to get out? I cannot fight anymore tonight.”
“I think you will need a few days to recover, at the very least. Before we discuss a plan I have to ask. What happened? What managed to take you down?”
I recount my evening to Loth. He frowns at the mention of tainted blood, raises his eyebrows in surprise when I mention that there are two mages left, and shows barely restrained anger when I share my pain.
“There, you have it. I expect that there are at least twenty more guards, fifteen tops if they did not pull back from the property grounds. The two mages are also a problem.”
“Yer immense Thirst almost killed ye because I did not anticipate this…”
“You could not…”
“Do not make excuses fer me, young one. I brought you on my raid and ye almost starved. This is my failure, and I will reflect on it when we are done here. As for the plan, I will explain when everyone is ready.”
I finally take the time to look around. We stand in the middle of a vast, rectangular room with a single wide door. Chains are attached to the bare stone wall at regular intervals. Most are empty, but some still hold captives. As I watch, Bingle and Dalton walk around to free prisoners. They are a sorry lot, thin and weakened, but most look angry and eager for revenge. A small group of women stands near the exit huddling together protectively. Every one of them is pale and filthy. The cell has a rancid stench of unwashed bodies, old sweat, and excrement.
“Maybe we should…”
“Let’s wait for a while. When we found ye, ye looked like a corpse. I thought… Nevermind that lass. Just give it one more minute. Ye’re already haler.”
Hale? A vampire? I begin to protest, however, I realize that I do not want to move. I am warm here, and safe. Just five more minutes, then I will stand up.
“Sorry Ari, we gotta go now. Come on.”
Loth hoists me up and drags me to the rest of the group. I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Two women I do not know rush take me under the armpit.
“We thought you were dead miss.”
“I thought I was dead too.”
I close my eyes for a while until I hear someone clearing their throat. I look up to see Bingle’s worried face.
“Miss Delaney, I cannot express how sorry I am to see you in this state. I failed to protect you. My shame knows no bounds.”
“Do not fret good sir, if you recall, this was my decision to put myself in harm’s way.”
“And I remember recommending against it, and if you had followed my recommendation, I would be currently rotting in a cell and awaiting a fate most cruel. You saved my life twice tonight, miss Delaney, when you braved those corridors to free me, and when you sabotaged our jailor’s muskets. I shall never forget it. You have my word as a Bingle!”
“Ah, I thank you for your gratitude, and yet I cannot accept it, for are we not saving each other? In the face of such evil, can good souls do else but to rise up to the challenge?”
“Well said, I say, well said! By Jove, what a loss it is for the armed forces that you were born a woman! I am most blessed to have met people such as you and Loth!”
“Thank you, Mr. Bingle. Now, I dare not ask, but did you find Mrs. Schaffer?”
Ah, I should not have asked. How very tactless of me.
“Alas no. But I do not despair! There are still captives to be saved, and if not, I shall find a trace of her passage. I shall not grieve, nor relent until the light is shed on her fate, whatever it may be.”
There is something chivalrous about this man, an indomitable will to fight with the belief that in the end, Good will triumph. Behind all the boisterous claims and bombastic sentences, Bingle has courage, honor, and compassion. I think he was born in the wrong time, that he should have been a knight riding fearlessly in the defense of the innocents. This anachronism makes him sympathetic and his friend’s certain death all the more tragic.
“We can but hope.”
“Indeed. Now I shall address this crowd and then we will set out to end this menace once and for all.”
“Do you think it wise, sir? Many of those men are weakened.”
“Yes miss Delaney, for where you see sheep, I see starving wolves, and they shall be led by a lion.”
With this “optimistic“ statement, Bingle calls for anyone’s attention and we gather in a small crowd facing Loth and him.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it is good that we were able to release you from the clutch of those faithless heathens, those worshippers of idols and devilry! Yet our task is not done. Although it is my fondest wish to see you all depart this forsaken place safely, I must ask, nay, beg you for assistance. Indeed, there is still a hurdle on the road to freedom! Our enemies stand strong and we are still in the black heart of their keep. I cannot prevail alone, and I find myself compelled to call on you brave souls for help.
I know that your burden was great. You traveled West to find a new life, safe from starvation, oppression, tyranny! And on the cusp of success, succor was stolen from you by the most horrid of foes! Your pains are great and you have lost friends and family, and yet you still stand before me! Undaunted and unbroken!”
“Those hateful curs thought you an easy take, but settlers are made of stern stuff and they shall regret ever laying their filthy hands on you!”
“And I ask you, my brothers and sisters in arms, will we allow this injustice to continue? Will we bend the knees like pigs to be slaughtered? Will we forfeit our dignity?”
“Indeed not! For our hearts cry for justice and the righteous glory of the Lord! We shall not surrender, we shall overcome, and may God have mercy on their souls!”
I watch mesmerized as Bingle works the crowd. I finally realize why he is so convincing, it is because he is convinced himself. His eyes shine with emotion, his face is reddened with passion. He truly believes this motley crew capable of defeating two dozen well-armed guards, and he will personally lead them into battle.
As the yells of fury die down, Bingle asks for everyone’s attention as Loth walks to a wall where he draws a map with white chalk.
“The cultists have gathered in their ceremony room. It is a vast open cavern leading to a sheer cliff. It could easily hold two hundred people. We expect the cultist head to be at the altar which is situated in the middle of the cave and close to the edge. There is a main entrance that will undoubtedly be guarded; however, we have found an alternate way. On one side, the cave wall rises to an elevated platform from whence lady Abernathy could watch the proceedings. There is a very small corridor that leads to this platform and we shall take it. We will distribute muskets shortly. The best marksmen will stay on the elevation to provide covering fire while the bulk of us will jump down and engage the guards. Sir Bingle is volunteering to lead the attack himself.”
With the leader dead, the drones will be affected. I need to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.
There are no questions. Loth and Bingle distribute weapons taken from guards. There are truncheons, the odd saber, and a few old muskets. I would be worried if our opponents were not in the same situation.
Rose and the men lead the way out and I notice Dalton standing guard outside. He joins me when he sees me.
“Thank you, friends, I think I can stand now.”
The two women let me go with a nod and a knowing smile. Dalton silently hands me my pistol, some ammunition and one of my throwing knives.
“There you go, Mistress.”
In his eyes, I find the same tranquil faith, the same blind acceptance as before. I find it hard to reconcile this peaceful demeanor with the mangled corpse of the stable’s sentinel, its chest turned to ruin by relentless stabbings. It finally occurs to me that Dalton would make an excellent vampire.
There is, of course, no way for me to turn him into one. I can still keep him as a vassal.
“Do you understand the choice you have made? You are bound to me now.”
“I told you the night we met. I will never betray you and I know where to go.”
I turn away, unable to face him any longer. I do not want the responsibility of another person…
Or do I?
It is only suitable for me to have a Vassal. With him, I can easily hunt bounties, purchase lands, sign contracts…
The possibilities are endless.
“There is much I can accomplish with you.”
I can already imagine it. We would track our quarry, then Dalton could handle the authorities while I snack. I would not even have to go into Partridge’s house anymore! No more will I have to face tasteless Christian imagery! This is great!
“Are you feeling better Mistress?”
“Hum? Oh, I can walk but I cannot fight. You will have to do without me.”
“Not to worry Mistress. I believe your … Uncle… has reached the end of his patience.”
We silently move up a set of stairs, down dark alleys and corridors interspersed with storage rooms and studies. We do not meet anyone on the way and the silence is only broken by footsteps and tired breathing. We finally stop while inside a particularly dark and twisted passage and instructions roll down the line in frantic whispers.
“We’re there, keep silent and wait for the signal before attacking.”
What kind of signal would that be anyway? Bingle never said. Was he really an officer of his Majesty’s army? This is amateurish, I believe.
Little by little, the group enters a monumental cave.
We stand on an elevated balcony with a low stone parapet. Below us, the cavern extends in every direction. Illumination is provided by iron candelabra suspended here and there. The reddish light of torches reflects on the sheer rock with an ominous glint. A natural opening into the side of the cliff on our left only shows the night’s cloudy sky while on our right, the cave ends up in a massive set of doors. Our target stands in the center, surrounded by braziers and armed goons. He holds a chalice over a white altar and as we watch, a captive is dragged to its marble surface to be secured with bindings. A group of prisoners is kneeling beside, waiting for their turn.
My senses are coming back and even from here, I can tell that the stench I smelled in everyone comes from what this chalice contains. The fact that I am not shaking with fury is a testament to how weakened I am.
Now we just have to get in position while they are focused on making this victim drink…
“YOU HAVE SHED BLOOD FOR THE LAST TIME FOUL FIEND! HAVE AT THEM LADS, FOR KING AND COUNTRY! CHAAAAAAAAARGE!!!”
Bingle grabs one of the ropes that secures a candelabra and cuts it at the base. As the implement falls on the head of an unfortunate goon, he is propelled forward and up, lands feet first on another guard’s chest and rushes the cult head with a furious yell. At the same moment, Loth bellows a deafening roar that washes over the cave as he jumps down and crashes against a hastily drawn line of opponents. They are sent flying like ragdolls before his fury. A second later, the rest of the men reach him and lay into their enemies with vicious enthusiasm.
So... That was the signal. Huh.
I turn to Dalton and remember to close my mouth.
“Did he just?!”
“It’s been like that for the whole evening, Mistress.”
My consternation is interrupted when the gates slam open and another squad of guards comes to the help of their beleaguered allies. They are led by a man in white: the surviving mage, Leonard.
“Over there!” I scream.
The musket team was hesitant to shoot at the melee, but the newcomers are exposed and close enough to be easy targets for even an inexperienced marksman. The sounds of detonations and the smell of powder soon fill the air as both groups exchange shots. Two guards soon fall but on our side, one man falls back clutching the ruins of his left hand.
A burly woman grabs the fallen combatant’s gun while a few others pull him to safety. She reloads with expertise and a few seconds later, yet another guard collapses with a smoking hole in his chest. Seeing that our cover advantage is too great, the mage orders his troop behind him and rushes our position. The balcony is on a slope which means that they will reach us too easily.
Two lead bullets crash uselessly against a transparent barrier to our side’s consternation.
I push myself against the wall and Dalton kneels against the parapet. An instant later, five guards led by a furious Leonard jump on the landing and push the men back. I notice Jimena’s knife on his belt.
Oh no he didn’t.
With a vicious smile, he raises his gauntlet to the fallen shooters and panicked women.
“You should have stayed in your cages.”
That's when I shoot him.
The bullet goes cleanly through his skull and covers his neighbor in brain matter.
He should have kept his shield up and his grimy paws off my precious knife. Hah.
The drones turn to me and charge. I move to the side and collapse instantly with a hiss of pain. I watch powerless as a guard raises his truncheon.
This is going to hurt.
Dalton jumps on the foe’s back and stabs him like a madman, my enemy falls with a yelp of pain. Our men regroup and charge back but I watch, powerless, as a second guard raises his truncheon.
No escaping it this time, this is going to hurt.
“Lady Delaney showed us the way! YAAAAAAA!”
A massive woman in a white bonnet and the clothes of a baker smashes into the goon with the power of a freight train. I can hear the “oof” as air leaves his lungs and the crack of bones when she pins him into the wall like an ugly butterfly. With a deafening shriek, the rest of the women slam into the beleaguered guards with terrifying fury, overwhelming them in seconds. Goons are pummeled into the ground with boots, stones, and white-hot rage. I can scarcely believe my eyes. Not even the Gauntlet displayed this magnitude of unleashed violence.
I stand up, pick up my blade and walk from group to group, delivering a jab when the guard is still moving a bit and in short order our victory is total.
Below us, the fight is also taking a turn for the better. Our side would have been losing were it not for Loth of Skoragg.
Suffice to say, the man has had enough.
I can only imagine that following Bingle on his silly adventure has frayed his nerves. He is currently right where he wants to be: in the thick of battle. As I watch, he grabs the neck of an enemy who was about to kill one of our own and throws him in the feet of another. He then dodges a club and punches his assailant in the face, breaking his nose. As the man raises his hands to his face with a cry of pain, Loth gives him a gut punch of such strength that his opponent's feet lift off the ground, then kicks him in the head. The guard flies back into one of his partners. Half of his teeth stay where they are.
I know for a fact that he can kill more efficiently. He is just letting off steam.
Men, I swear.
My attention turns to Bingle who seems to be in a bit of a predicament. The cultist leader is harrying him with a fire whip spell which he manages to deflect with his saber. Unfortunately, Abernathy manages to snag the blade and tear it out of his hand. Bingle stumbles and Abernathy uses this opening to use a push spell.
Our adventurer is propelled against the altar and I can tell he is in pain. I turn around and urge the nearest marksman to look at the leader and shoot him. It is already clear that I will be too late.
“You are blinded by your ignorance, fool!” screams Abernathy hysterically.
“It is you who cannot see.” retorts Bingle as he throws the cult’s blood chalice. His opponent is caught off guard and although he stops the goblet with his arm, its contents splash over his face. Bingle ignores his distressed screams to jump back into the fray. He grabs his blade and puts an end to his vile foe.
The rest of the cultists still fight to the bitter end, but they are disheartened and without a head to think for them, they only offer us token resistance. In short order, we stand victorious.
It is finally over.
People cheer and jeer, hug and cry. Bingle walks under the acclamation of the mass. His clothes are singed, he is hurt and tired and yet there is a spring in his step as he walks triumphant from group to group, shaking hands and patting shoulders. Dalton and I gather the wounded and bring them to Loth who sets up a temporary infirmary. There is a lull of activity when everyone catches their breath and I use this opportunity to approach the mouth of the cave.
Finally, a reprieve.
It is at this moment that I regret never learning how to draw. The land lays before me for miles in so many valleys and plains. The mountain range extends to my right at a sharp angle and the sky is enormous, almost overbearing. The presence of the Silent Watcher greets me with its now-familiar light.
A fresh breeze blows inside the cavern, making the light dance. It brings with it untainted air, and something else.
I turn my gaze to the right when I smell something tantalizing. The perfume is gone as fast as it appeared.
Stairs are going up along the cliff.
“This leads to the sanctum, Miss Delaney.” Says Rose as she walks to me.
“We need to explore it, make sure we did not miss anything and destroy the research.”
“Are you sure? I mean...”
“Yes, I am sure.”
I leave the entrance with regret, but I have no choice. The sun will rise in less than four hours and I need to prepare for it. We gather and it is decided that Bingle, Dalton and I will go up while Loth stays with the rest to look after the wounded and protect the group.
“Don’t worry lass I’ll take a look later.”
We set out.