I wake up to the sound of animated discussion. I quickly don one of my armored dresses in dark blue and wonder if I should pick up my pistol. So far, I can only hear irate voices and the appearance of someone armed might do more damage than good. Let us try diplomacy first.
I step out of the tent and realize that we are at the edge of a native city of respectable size. An earthen pyramid dominates the vista in front of me, surrounded by wooden buildings that form a circle around it. Well-tended farms dot the valley as far as I can see, and a few campfires give the place a festive feeling.
Our campfire is not festive at all. Most of the escapees that elected to join us are in a circle of wagons to my left. The men stand around like sentinels and there is not a woman in sight. The voices come from a gathering a few paces away. Torches provide a reddish light to what I hope is just a heated negotiation.
On one side stands a frowning Bingle, an old man who I know has weight with the people we freed, and Loth. Only the Dvergur seems somewhat relaxed. I can feel Dalton from somewhere inside the circle.
On the other side is a most curious motley crew. The largest group is composed of men and women in light and colorful clothes. There are bells and jewelry in their hair, and pieces of mirrors hang from oversized necklaces. I notice at least one European and a few of the younger people are obvious mixed bloods. They are led by two siblings, a large man with a moustache and a red bandana and a shrewd looking woman.
I think the man’s moustache may even rival Bingle’s! Is it why they are trying to stare each other down? I always thought there would be a brotherhood of the great moustaches, yet it appears that they are competing for supremacy. Perhaps they need to establish a hierarchy first? Men are strange creatures.
My attempts at joining my allies discreetly are thwarted when the second part of the native group turns to me. They are dressed in more conservative undyed leather clothes.
Nashoba limps from the group and greets me with a radiant smile, which I return. The argument dies down and all attention turn to me.
Ah, this is uncomfortable.
“Greetings, Child of Thorn and Hunger.”
“Greetings Nashoba. What is this about?”
The circle expands to include me. After Nashoba’s voice dies down I get varied reactions from the colorful group. Many are wary while a few look at me with doubt in their eyes. The European openly scoffs, which does not bother me much. I would rather he believed pale ones to be a myth from the mind of gullible savages.
“The Muscogee of the Fox clan take exception to you crossing their land without license. The white men have been encroaching on them as of late. Tensions are running high, though the death of the defiler has bought you much goodwill.”
“And what are you doing here? You are not one of their own.”
“I came here to make sure those negotiations succeed. That alligator you killed is not the only thing hunting us and your help is required again.”
“Before we begin, I am not slaughtering entire villages of white folks for you, if that is what you were referring to.”
“Indeed not, child of Thorn, for this path would save no one. Ah, but our companions are losing patience, so let us listen to their whining and posturing for a while.” He adds with a smirk.
I did not remember him being so assertive. It appears that the past six months have been good to him.
It is the male Muscogee envoy who resumes the hostilities. He spews what I assume are scathing remarks to the rest of his band and wildly gestures at Nashoba and myself. I do not understand his language at all and apparently neither does the shaman. One of the Choctaw is growing increasingly red though, and I assume he is the interpreter. I notice that one of the women who picked Nashoba after I exacted my payment is here as well, although she is currently staring at the ground with rare intensity. Loth was correct. I did leave a lasting impression.
The harangue lasts until his sister grabs his sleeve. Two newcomers are walking towards us from the village at a brisk pace. I immediately recognize one of them to be the shy captive I freed from the Valiant’s camps.
Not so shy anymore. At the sight of me she frowns before turning to the assembly. Her speech is short and to the point. The woman envoy asks her a few questions which she answers curtly. A wind of fear and surprise washes over the crowd with one single exception: the white man is apparently unimpressed and grows increasingly angrier.
The male leader starts asking something, but the short woman cuts him off with an obvious rebuke and leaves without looking back. Her companion, an older lady, struggles to catch up.
I suppose my identity has been verified. The Muscogee group is filled with whispers and comments which I suppose is good, however the white man in native clothes is moving forward and is about to be annoying.
I look at Loth and he instantly grabs Bingle’s and the old man’s attention. My Dvergur friend is a rare treasure, to understand me so readily.
The nuisance and I cross eyes. I focus on him.
Hypnotizing people has always been difficult. Besides feeding, attempting to influence someone is always a hit or miss. This time, however, I can feel a tug. While not exactly subtle, I manage to push what I want to convey through the temporary bindings that connect us.
The world fades around me as the man stops in his track. I watch as his confused frown turns to bleak realization then to stark terror. He takes an involuntary step back.
The connection frays and I break eye contact just as the rest of his group reaches a consensus. They do not address the European group. Instead, the shrewd woman and Nashoba exchange a few words before retreating in the darkness.
The entire Muscogee delegation soon follows, including a bewildered stranger.
“I will need your help for a hunt, one week from now. In return, your people may go through unhindered. Those that remained will not be harassed. Do I need to convince you to join?”
“What is it that you want?”
“The world will not die in one day, nor will it be redeemed in one. I plant seeds that save and uproot others that destroy.”
“I hardly qualify as savior.”
“The Fallen Prince and the others behind you show otherwise.”
“… This was not entirely my decision.”
The shaman smiles sadly.
“It never is. Will you help me? Must I beg?”
“Yes, yes, I will. In one week. Where?”
“I will send you a dream.”
Well is that not convenient. Nashoba limps away, immediately followed by the rest of his small group. In short order, we are alone.
“What just happened?”
Ah I forgot about Bingle and the old man. How am I going to explain this?
One hour later, I stand in front of Sinead and Loth on the village’s outskirt.
I could tell that Bingle was doubtful about the shaman being a fellow archeologist, but our exchange in a "dead" language as well as the credit I garnered with him allowed the lie to pass. He even offered to accompany me on my next “archeological expedition”, which is how I sold the whole thing. Only the assurance that it would be night-long pottery inspections changed his mind. I am touched, but I would rather clean Melusine’s feet than attempt to hunt Nashoba’s next target without the full extent of my power. One brush with death per year is enough, please and thank you.
“Well he does smell enticing, even from far away but I feel quite fine.”
“How long does it usually take to manifest?”
“Under a minute.”
Something is notable by its absence, something I have learned to live with for the past year.
I feel fine.
It is still here, just somewhat sated. As if I had a light feeding.
“Can ye tell me how many people there are around us?”
I close my eyes and focus on heartbeats, the sound of footsteps and movements.
“Seventeen people in our camp. There are three sentries keeping an eye on us from behind that drying rack.”
I do not add that there is a couple in the middle of a furious coit in the nearest wagon. Hearing this made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were spying.
“Yes that’s twenty in total, good guess. Now look at the pyramid and tell me what ye see.”
I turn at the shape half a mile away.
“There is a stone door leading inside. It’s guarded.”
Loth’s eyes widen in surprise.
“Well I’ll be. Can ye try to move quickly?”
I do so and finish the movement behind him. As I touch his shoulder, he jumps with a short yelp.
“Hooooly cow Ari, don’t ye frighten me like that girl,” he says, breathless “my old heart cannot take it, ya know? “
“It felt faster than even yesterday.”
“Aye, I know what’s happening. It’s incredible! Ari, ye’re on the path to becoming a Courtier.”
“What? What do you mean a Courtier? I thought I was still a fledgling for another year!”
“Well…” Loth says, eyeing Sinead with suspicion.
“I assure you” retorts the offended party, “I have no interest in sharing information with your enemies. They are mine as well, if you recall.”
We do not say anything, because we know his comment is worthless.
“… Very well, I swear an oath to secrecy.”
“Right. Ari, your Devourer bloodline must be hastening yer growth. How many powerful creatures have ye drained since ye awoke?”
I think for a while. Sinead gasps in horror.
“How many creatures have you killed, Nightwalker?”
“Well, I fully drained two mages, three werewolves including two with Loth’s help and one vampire. I got blood offered in good will by one mage, one blessed human, that would be Bingle, one powerful vampire Courtier and one centuries-old Dvergur. ”
“… Yeah that would do it.”
“By the grove! In one year?”
“I have been busy. In any case, you are telling me that one year was enough? I assumed that it was fixed, like pregnancy.”
“It is not. Constantine said it took him only a year and a half. You are probably setting some sort of record, though you would need to compare yourself to others of your kind if you want a benchmark. And yes, I am aware that this is impossible. I suspect that it is as fast as it can get while retaining one’s sanity. Your Master’s other creations grew significantly faster, but they were hand-fed, so to speak.”
“You are a scion of the Devourer?”
I expected fear in Sinead, instead he is contemplative.
“Your Master has a bit of a reputation in Europe. It is said that every century or so, a faction tries to take him out for one reason or another.”
“That is what is said, yes. They also say that he is always true to his word, both in letter and in spirit.”
“Are you sure? He made me to pressure someone he was negotiating with.”
“I never said he was kind, only that when the bargain is struck, he will stick to it. I choose to believe that his blood runs true.”
“Regardless of your opinion of him, you are of his bloodline.”
I find no trace of contempt on Sinead’s expression. This was not an insult, merely an observation that he deems important. It is true that from his perspective, all vampires must be equally threatening. If someone is ripping your throat open, why care if they have four or eight fangs?
“Fair enough, I suppose. Now, does somebody know what is happening?”
“I can tell you, since it is part of our agreement. Your host can attend as well.”
Sinead clears his throat and proceeds with the lecture.
“During my seven years of captivity, I managed to gather quite a few tidbits of information from my jailors, be they humans or vampires. The conditions of drone and fledgling, you already know. The title of Courtier is more informal in the sense that it is traditionally bestowed by one’s clan. There are several aspects of a vampire’s powers one must master before they obtain this recognition, Those specific elements vary from clan to clan and reflect the organization’s mindset and priorities. For example, the Hastings require the completion of a complex project while the Roland base it on ability in one’s chosen field.
I am not familiar with what your Sire would ask of you to acknowledge you, and I doubt it would matter.
Concretely a Courtier is an adult vampire. The majority of vampires are at this stage, as it takes around a century to reach the next threshold in your development. The only real constant is that contrary to fledglings, Courtiers can go two days or more between feedings and stay awake for the whole night.
Aspiring Courtiers typically start by improving their powers: Charm, Senses and Movements. Those are what separates Vampires from the rest of the mortals, besides your many weaknesses.”
“Could you elaborate?”
“Yes,“ replies Sinead scathingly, “I was leading to it. You already experienced them. Charm alters the mortals’ perception; Senses is exactly what it says, and Movements is what allows your kind supernatural displays of strength and speed.”
“I can already do all of that.”
“Not to the best of your abilities, I believe. For example, the pyramid’s door you inspected earlier has a small statue at the top.”
Surprised, I check the earthen mound again and yes, there is something at the top of the white stone door. I try to focus on it, instead, my vision turns blurry and my head starts to hurt.
“It will come with time and practice, like most things. In any case, you have your work cut out for you. Now, let us continue.”
Sinead carries on his lesson for a good two hours before my brain finally cries for mercy. My precious notebook finds itself filled with valuable information on various clans, major figures and ideologies. Little of that is of use to me now besides two critical pieces of information.
The first is that there are three main political alliances in the community that covers Europe, the Middle-East, and North Africa. Their members shift to a degree, but not by much.
Eseru is the group of hidden kingdoms, entire cities subverted to an openly vampiric ruling class. They have groups everywhere but mostly in the East and South of the region.
Masks are partisans of secret dominion. They have a strong artistic and hedonistic side and a pull on several governments. They are mostly present in the United Kingdom, France, and Italy.
Followers of the Path are a diverse bunch dedicated to causes outside of the more political spheres of influence, such as scientific and magic research.
It appears that the community in Louisiana represents all three, which is rather surprising considering that they are currently at war. This is the second piece of news and it surprises me a lot. I expected vampire conflicts to be short, violent and usually one-sided. Instead, much time is spent on preparation for decisive strikes, plots within plots are revealed or unraveled every day and allegiances shift according to inscrutable arrangements. It even appears that they try to avoid fatalities whenever possible. I recognize that when I killed Charlotte, it put me at odds with our usual rules of engagement.
Ah whatever, Melusine is next. That tramp.
“This concludes my presentation on European Vampire politics. I realize that human minds are fragile and feeble things and I see no objection to continuing tomorrow.”
“Yes, that would be for the best.” I answer with fraying patience. “I need a break anyway.”
I return to the encampment to find Dalton almost falling asleep on his feet.
“How are you feeling, besides exhaustion of course.”
“My ribs hurt and the road is not helping. I will be fine though. Say, be careful about Sinead.”
Dalton rubs his eyes and stares in the distance.
“Heard of his kind, I did, from my grandmother. I was born further North and my folks are from Ireland. She spoke of one like him, with big eyes, pointy ears and shiny hair that looks too colorful to be from this world.”
Besides the hair it sounds like the Likaean indeed. Perhaps it will grow back?
“She called them the Fae. She said they like to play around and that not everyone survives their games. They are cruel and callous. Their amusement is all that matters to them. Our lives are worthless because they are so ephemeral, she said. Be careful. Sinead may be a victim, and an assailant too.”
I pause, contemplating. Do I care? I don’t want to get close to the man anyway.
“Thank you Dalton. Our bargain was already struck, however I shall remember his contempt for mankind. You should sleep. You look exhausted.”
No sooner have I said those words that the young man falls on his cot. He is out in seconds.
I reach our tent and find Loth writing in his own notebook. He closes it when I approach.
“I was wondering what we were going to do now that our objective is complete?”
“We are going to the limit of settled lands, a place called fort Barrington which we should arrive in tomorrow. We’ll report our findings to the authorities and split up with Bingle and the settlers there. Then we head home and prepare for your hunt. Ah but it is good to head home from a raid, ya know? Though I would have preferred more loot…”
“What about the Likaean.”
“He will accompany us. By the time you return, he will be gone. I’ll put him on a ship to South America.”
“Good. Well, that is all. I’m going for a walk.”
“Enjoy.” He answers with a predatory smile.
I walk outside and away from the others. When I have reached the edge of the valley, I start to run.
Finally alone. It feels good. It feels good to let go, to run around with no immediate need to hunt, no need to patrol or come back. Just me and the land. I enjoy the wind on my face, the earth and roots under my feet, and the sounds of the night, alive around me. I move in bursts of speed just because I can. Sometimes, my dress gets snagged or I stumble but it does not ruin my fun. The dress I wear is sturdy and so is the body it covers. For a good hour, I trot and sprint across the land with no direction.
I am alive.
My Master took my life and future from me and I turned this curse into a new beginning. I survived and endured and reclaimed. Now, I can choose and carve my own path. It will be difficult but for now, I can let go.
I run and run and run. I only return an hour before dawn, mind clear and hair riddled with broken twigs. I look wild, and I care not.