I am walking back to the manor when Rose storms out in a panic. She immediately spots me and rushes to my side. From the red in her cheeks, I can tell that she has been running for a while.
She still stinks of tainted blood.
Gah, what is it with tonight? Can I not enjoy this party in peace? Is it too much to ask that the world polices itself for one evening?
“Miss Ari, your uncle asks for you, he has been challenged to a shooting competition and turned it into a three-on-three public match. Everyone is waiting!”
I raise my eyes to the Silent Watcher and think “can you believe this?” I get a vague feeling that it is not impressed. Fair enough.
“Dalton, take Inez and make sure she stays safe. There could be more of them.”
“And Dalton? Be careful my Vassal.”
“I will be.”
He leaves without a word. I am lucky to have him around. How did I manage society without his helpful presence?
Ah, yes, I have been living like a recluse for six months. I was not managing anything.
I stride towards the front of the house and notice in passing that the ballroom is empty. This explains the lack of reaction we got when the soldiers returned victorious. The other revelers did not hear us.
The garden in front of the manor is a meticulously kept lawn. The party-goers have gathered in a semi-circle around two targets. My uncle and his three giggling girl friends are forward and to the left while Captain Lannes and his three stooges mirror him on the right. In the middle of it stands Cecily, currently playing the violin. In the distance, someone set up two target practice dummies. They are at least thirty paces away from the crowd and surrounded by lit torches.
I cannot believe my own eyes. They are serious about this.
Loth notices me and has the audacity of winking. I roll my eyes and join him on the lawn, feeling the heavy weight of the crowd's attention weighing on my back.
I turn around. The center of the semi-circle is occupied by our hosts and Bingle, the guest of honor. He seems a bit upset though when our eyes meet, I am graced with the most awkward and exaggerated nod I ever received.
Cecily finishes her piece, a respectable performance, and joins her parents. Loth untangles himself from his improvised harem and struts forward. His booming voice soon fills the clearing.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, fine people of fort Barrington, good evening! My name is Loth Delaney and I have the honor of being yer guest tonight, as well as yer entertainer for a very specific event. And what an event it will be! Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, my martial abilities, my very skills as a marksman have been questioned! Can any Southern Gentleman let this challenge stay unanswered? Nay! And what better way to dispel such a notion than a good and proper demonstration, I ask? There is none! For deeds speak louder than words! As the provoked party, I took the initiative to select a format that will, I hope, garner your approval! Three of us will take the field, for three opponents of captain Lannes' choosing."
That rotten twat, of course.
"As my champion, as my second, I humbly beg the assistance of sir Bingle, the hero of the hour!"
"And you shall have it!" replies the adventurer with a resounding voice that matches Loth's tempestuous barytone. The crowd roars its approval at the theatrical display. It is just the start.
"Thank ye sir, and for my second champion, I ask the only other person of my blood present. My niece, Ariane!"
It is rude for a proper lady to raise her voice and so I merely curtsy. The announcement is welcomed with equal part excitement and disapproval, or is it merely surprise?
"As for the rules, we shall take turns shooting at the targets before us. Each person gets one shot. Shots to the head are worth ten points, the body seven and the limbs four. The team that after three shots has the most points, wins! Now, let us begin, and may fortune favor the bold!"
Applause fills the air as Lydia Tillerson steps forward with two engraved muskets. I pick one and a sneering officer with black hair picks the other.
Well, aren’t we confident?
The crowd is still cheering, partly due to Loth’s limited eloquence but more, I suspect, because of alcohol. I do so hate when Loth is bored.
A solid looking soldier with greying sideburns goes first. He loads the musket with practiced ease, patiently lines up the shot and fires on his target. The roar of the weapon is accompanied by womanly yells of dismay. Yes. Firearms are loud...
Lady Tillerson steps forward and verifies that indeed, it is a square hit to the chest.
The assembly erupts in polite congratulations and I spot Cecily inscribe a big seven on a piece of blackboard brought for the occasion. The man is a cautious soldier and with the distance, it is not so easy to guarantee a headshot. For humans, that is. I judge his decision as wise with the limited information he has access to.
Bingle steps forward but Loth will not have it. He jumps to his feet and bellows:
“As the eldest, I claim the first shot!”
The facetious Dvergur then winks to me and stumbles as he takes the musket from my hand. He makes a show of loading the weapon and even has the paper cartridge brought to him by a blushing beauty.
Loth aligns the sight, takes the time to give me a radiant smile then pulls the trigger. I roll my eyes just as our target’s head bounces back.
Dead silence spreads over the clearing. Unfazed, the lady of the house inspects and announces.
The front of the house resounds with yells and cheers. On the soldier side, Lannes eyebrows creep up in astonishment. A smug ten appears on our board, outlined twice by a vengeful Cecily. The advantage is with us.
It is the captain’s turn. He loads his musket with slow and deliberate movements. Several seconds pass as he aims. The tension is palpable.
A loud bang heralds their own target’s head reeling back. The screams of excitement eclipse even the sound of the discharge. What started as a bet has turned into a memorable show. Let us see if I can make it unforgettable.
Bingle detaches from the family and picks the musket and cartridge I offer him with a tense look. He, too, loads according to the manual and lines his shot with deliberate patience. Yet another cloud of blue smoke lifts in the air and after it clears, Lydia shouts the result.
Again, the crowd cheers in delight. Both teams are now tied and everything will depend on the last competitors.
Bingle chose not to take risks, nor to offend the soldiers. How politically minded of him.
In perfect silence, the smug-looking officer loads and shoots with the ease of the veteran marksman.
“Body shot!” Yells the mistress to everyone’s delight.
It is my turn. I step forward and look at Loth. His smile is vicious and predatory as he points his finger towards the space between his eyes.
I slightly turn to Cecily who makes a long and very obvious gesture of slicing someone’s throat.
With the ease of experience, I hold the musket horizontal, bite the paper cartridge and pour powder into the pan. Spitting the piece of paper is accompanied by some whispers of disapproval from the traditional fringe of the assembly.
I close the frizzen and place the butt of the weapon on the ground. I shove the cartridge in the barrel and push it down with the ramrod which I quickly reattach. I lay the weapon horizontal with a flick of the wrist, line the shot and fire. It took me around ten seconds which is fast but not inhumanly so.
I wait for the hit to be witnessed. It does not happen.
I turn around to a wall of shocked faces. The only one who isn’t surprised is Loth. He is currently laughing to tears and drying his eyes with a handkerchief.
“Well well well niece, I believe you are half an inch wide to the left.”
Oh, he dares!
“You were wide as well!”
“Aye, I overcompensated.”
“It’s a headshot!” Yells Lydia with astonishment.
It starts slow, ripples between groups and inflates until the acknowledgment of my prowess becomes a deafening ovation. Loth is looking like a cat who found the pot of cream. This is less about the result, more about playing the crowd.
In the end we have a supernatural advantage and the experience to back it up. The soldiers including Bingle will aim for the center mass because it is enough to incapacitate any human they hit. We, however, train to hit quick-moving monsters. A stationary target at thirty paces is child’s play.
My eyes meet Cecily’s. She is glowing with pride and sated revenge. Our victory is announced on the blackboard with broad letters. Lannes’ group is less than pleased. I believe that once the rumor spreads, the loss of face will dog them for years. It does not matter that two of us and one of them pulled a very difficult shot. People will only remember that they were beaten by a girl.
A pale girl with blond hair and deep blue eyes that came out of nowhere.
Heavens, I hope this does not spread too far. I would not want someone to add two and two. Loth, what have you done? And why?
Everyone spills on the ground to congratulate the victors. Our target is brought forward and the three black holes in the cloth held for all to behold. Our victory is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt and the few dissidents are quickly silenced. I meet eyes with the soldier with grey morse mustache and he salutes me. I find the move touching and quite sportsmanlike, and curtsy in return.
For a while, I am forced to handle everyone’s attention as politely as I can. Bingle comes to compliment me on my shot with Rose on his arm, expressing his complete trust in me. This man is unbelievable. His pride extends to those he sees as allies, and my success is a cause for joy. Truly a relic from the past. He should have sat at the round table.
It takes a while for things to wind down. I find myself shooting another two times in friendly competition, while teams form up to emulate the original show. Loth may have created a trend here.
I am about to follow my irresponsible pseudo-uncle inside the mansion when my nose picks the group's heavy musk. I decide that I would leave them a few hours of intimacy before we have that discussion.
When I turn around, a flash of light catches my eyes.
Only a few people notice and then immediately dismiss it. Unfortunately for me and with how the evening has been going so far, I know I must investigate.
I discreetly reach the tree line and rush in the direction of the sound. It doesn’t take long before another flash of white light illuminates the undergrowth and soon I am close enough to hear a commotion.
How could this happen?! We are still far from everything, practically at the edge of European expansion. This should not be possible. There shouldn’t be another vampire here, and yet there is no mistaking this cold aura.
A hiss of anger.
Impossible. Sinead was spotted? We are far from everything!? Is this bad luck or some cosmic joke?
I could just leave...
I promised Sinead safe passage. That doesn’t mean that I need to protect him...
No! If he falls now I will never get his blood. That won’t stand. This blood is mine. MINE!
I run through the dense copse of trees until I see movement in the distance. I move forward and am immediately noticed.
A man slowly steps out of a mass of ferns. I call him a man out of generosity for he is more beast than kin. He is also the vampire I felt.
Some affliction took him over only to leave behind a tortured husk. His cloth is ravaged and stained. The stench of rancid blood overwhelms my sensitive nose and so does he. It is as if he had turned, like spoiled milk or vinegar. His pallid skin slouches lightly and instead of our needle nails, he sports true talons of malformed chitin.
Is this what happens if we let go too completely?
“Followed me to the prize did you? Can’t have him can’t have him. Mine. MINE. Took everything you did. This I’ll keep and when I come back you will all pay pay pay pay. Should not have cast me away. Not sharing this treasure, oh no. All mine.”
This man is far gone. He licks his lips when I reveal a white leg and does not even seem to notice the knife I retrieve from its sheath.
I move first.
I rush his left side and take a jab at his heart. His claw misses the blade yet at the same time he twists on himself and the blade only slides against his flank.
“Little girl, you’re young. Should have stayed with the others.”
We exchange a few blows, me with my weapon and him with claws. I am quickly pushed back.
His strength is insane!
I fail to deflect completely and his left hand slices into my shoulder. At the same time, I rotate and manage to catch his face with the tip. We separate.
I got his left eye and he doesn’t care a bit. Thick black blood seeps from half a dozen superficial wounds I inflicted using my superior range, while the one cut on my shoulder stings horribly.
“Young, too young. Don’t know you. Not a Harcourt, not an Erenwald.”
I rush him again, more carefully. I use my superior speed and range to harry him and even manage to slice off two fingers. If my strikes do something it doesn’t show.
“You’re not one of my pursuers then. Too inexperienced. Let me show you how I could run away.”
He dodges back and places two feet against the trunk of a tree and pushes. I yelp in surprise and duck, not a moment too soon.
My foe barrels over me like a cannonball only to smack into a nearby tree with the noise of broken bones.
“How stupid can he be?” I think as I turn to stab him in the back. We’re in the middle of the forest, of course he…
The man is already pushing his feet against the trunk he impacted.
Too late, can’t…
He crashes against me. All air leaves my lungs as I am propelled backward and against something solid. His claws dig into the bracer of my left forearm which I placed in front of my heart. His other hand digs into my fingers, trying to pry my knife off. Only his missing digits prevent him from carrying out his plans.
Slowly I manage to angle my blade to slice into his hand yet at the same time, one of his claws reaches the bone.
TRAPPED. WOUNDED. BITE.
His torso is against mine. I have no leverage. He is so powerful that a human would have had his arms ripped off already. Even with enhanced strength, I feel things tearing! I must escape this.
With an impatient grunt, the man arches his back and head away from me.
His forehead smashes against my cheek. I only managed to turn my head at the last moment.
He arches back and I move and bite into his face. My mouth closes around his nose.
He tastes bad, sour, but not toxic. Power. Power is good.
My foe once against shows his disregard for pain. He still pulls away and something rips. I spit the flesh and prepare to bite again.
Something is wrong, the air shimmers around us.
Instead of attacking me, my foe recoils in horror. His mangled hands raise up reflexively.
Won’t get a better chance.
I stab him and he still manages to move at the last moment. I try to compensate and fail.
The blade still bites deep in his chest. I just need to slice and…
Both of his hands smash down into my forearm with enough strength to shatter the bone.
I lash out with my left claws and dig deep in his face. Both his eyes are red ruins now. I just need to slice his throat…
He angles his head down and when I stab forward, he bites down. I managed to move away and only get scraped by his canines.
I twist away as he slices me but not quick enough. I was too committed. He catches me under my right breast and the strength of his strike lifts me off the air.
I see the ground getting away. My ribs cracked.
Something hits the small of my back, increasing the pain I already feel there, then another hits my head, then another hits my left leg.
I land heavily on a root and roll on the ground like a ragdoll.
Owwww. This hurts! Aaaaah! Curses! STAND UP AND FIGHT.
I slowly pick myself up, trying to ignore the litany of aches I feel in my body. The broken ribs are the most painful of all.
I need to finish him off. There will be no egress for me with these wounds. On open ground, his ridiculous jumps will allow him to close the distance.
How I wish I had told Loth instead of going alone. So stupid! Gah, I hope this mistake will not cost me my life.
Just have to stand up Ari. Come on. Stand up. Up! STAND UP.
With a cry of pain, I finish dragging myself against a trunk just in time to see that accursed vampire is blindly stumbling forward towards me, feeling the air in front of him with my own dagger.
DEFILER. THIEF. FAE MINE, BLADE MINE.
“Found you, little girl. Kill you, then drink, then I’ll go. They won’t catch me.”
You, sir, are going nowhere.
“Sinead, give me noise!”
I wait because I know why my opponent recoiled in terror and who produced the blinding flash of light. Soon, the sounds of the forest are amplified beyond reason. My foe is disoriented by the cacophony of the forest.
I brace and jump above him, landing lightly behind him. I grab my chest in pain and take a second to gather myself, then I do as he did. I jump on his back.
As expected he twists at the last moment but this time I’m not trying to stab but to grab. I coil around him as best as I can with a broken arm and bite deep in his neck.
He flails and bucks as I Devour, when this does not work he jumps back and crashes me against a tree, head first. I manage to protect myself with a raised arm at the moment of impact so the shock only allows me to bite deeper.
It only takes a few more seconds for him to stop struggling.
“Devourer…” he whispers with a note of fear.
I keep draining him until there is nothing left. After what feels like ages I fall away from the corpse just as it starts disintegrating.
“It was a good Hunt,” I say and wince in pain. That was some good power if a bit sour, now I just need to…
Trying to move sends a sharp spike of agony through my gut. What is… Ah.
He stabbed me. That faithless son of a mongrel stabbed me with my own bloody dagger. Arg! The CUR!!!! I touch the handle and hiss.
I need this out but I am really tired and this is quite painful.
The wind whispers in my ears: “Hold on Nightwalker, I shall fetch your Vassal for you.”
Yes, if he comes near, the Thirst will turn me insane. Ah, this was supposed to be a GODDAMN RELAXED EVENING, and now I am bleeding out in the woods with my own knife in my stomach. Why? Why why why why. Is this divine retribution for clinging to life? For not letting those fanatics spike my heart in the foul smelling depths of the vampire fortress? I should… Just… Bah!
I slowly drag myself in a small recess just so that a misplaced root does not dig into my bruised back. I take quick and shallow breaths to fight off the pain. Damn it all, I need to staunch the wound. I use my unbroken hand to apply light pressure and realize the dress is already soaked with my blood.
If I remove the blade I will be incapacitated for sure. And when I wake up again…
Aaaahh this hurts! Dammit. I wish I could look at the Silent Watcher and meditate but the canopy is too dense.
I have stopped being a real fledgling for one bloody day and I’m already a wreck. Is there an end to this? My life hasn’t changed since a year ago. I ran away from the fortress, ran away from the Lancaster and from the Order. Then I hid with Loth and ran around to assuage my Thirst while waiting to grow. Now that I can stay awake for longer than eight hours and don’t have to spend a significant amount of that time hunting, I am running around to solve issues. I was supposed to be a leader, not everyone’s problem solver! Why am I only able to handle the things directly in front of me? Is this my fault!? Should I plan better?
And what of that vampire? I am quite sure that he was a fugitive. His words lend credence to my belief. Are there more like him? How likely am I to be found by an errant monster? Are they being tracked and could they lead others to me, or was this just the height of misfortune? So many questions. I know what I will next ask Jimena.
I wince at a pain that does not abate. I think I am no longer healing.
I close my eyes and focus on breathing. I am not dying, not like last time. I am, however, quite cold. And tired. I could just stop for a few moments. Let go a bit. Stop breathing. It does not even hurt anymore…
I have fled. I flee. I will keep fleeing. I do not need air nor water to keep pushing, to pummel the earth with my feet and leave dust and fallen leaves in my trail. So long as the tainted blood flows through my veins, the limitations of this form can be ignored.
Unfortunately, the same goes for my pursuers. I can hear them behind and to the side. They are trying to close in and box me. I am fast and I am no city bird so I have managed to stay one step ahead but it is only a matter of time before a mistake sends me to my knees and my subsequent demise.
"We will find you." They say, "It is inevitable."
I keep going.
What can I do but stay ahead for as long as I can?
Eventually, my foot is snagged by a root I saw too late. I land awkwardly and even as I pick myself up the shadows gather around me for the kill.
And then they die.
Incredible power is unleashed to vaporize all my foes. Flames of blue spread and annihilate them where they stand. When it is done, not even ashes remain.
I am paralyzed with terror as a giant with fiery hair walks past me and kneels by my side.
“Interesting nightmare, Nightwalker, if painfully classic. How I wish I could be my true self in the real world as well, and show your kind the error of their ways. I would keep you alive as a pet, of course. You are just so precious.”
His armor shines in white and blue with such an intensity that I wonder why I have not been burnt to a crisp yet. He is terrifying, a force of nature. I dare not meet his eyes. For the first time, I see someone who could take on my Master and live.
"Yes, proper respect, finally. If the Goddess wills, one day you will see it with your own eyes. Now, wake up."
I regain consciousness on the bed of my guest room. Loth and Dalton’s worried faces are uncomfortably close.
I feel fantastic despite the closing wound on my stomach.
“Please do not tell me I had fae’s blood and was not awake to experience it.”
Their eyes meet and they look just a tad nervous.
“Very well Mistress, we won’t tell you.”
“Dammit!” I say with feeling. I knew it was going to be delicious. I was truly looking forward to it!
“I’m sorry lass, I should have been there.”
“Bah, how could you know. I did not even warn you before rushing into danger. I only have myself to blame for this mishap. Aah. It hurts.”
“Don’t move Mistress. We only just removed the dagger.”
“Ah, I wish I knew how to use it better. I got stabbed with my own blade...”
“Not everyone can boast such an intimate knowledge of their weapon Mistress.”
“... Right. And what of my opponent?”
“We have spread the ashes lass. We are still unnoticed.”
“I cannot believe it. I have used the full extent of my physical powers no less than five times in the past week and Bingle and the others are still unaware of my true nature. It’s miraculous, truly.”
“If you say so Mistress, I personally believe the word you are looking for is ‘gullible’.”
“As you say, Dalton. By the way, I missed the opportunity to say farewell to the adventurer. We are parting ways tomorrow after all.”
“Ah, he did mention it. Let me see if I can wake him up lass.”
"I’m sorry for having you raise at such a time.”
“Think nothing of it Ms. Delaney! It is I who should have remembered your, hem, condition. Besides, I am to blame for your next task. Are you sure that you do not want company? I can catch the next ship, I assure you.”
“Oh Mr. Bingle. Your solicitude moves me. I promise you that I will be well defended.”
“Ah yes, your uncle assured me that you had past dealings with the savage and that he was a man of his word.”
“Yes, and I will have a chaperone in the person of his sister.”
If Bingle‘ eyebrows raise any higher they will take flight. It is my fault for trying to make this situation anything less than absolutely scandalous. For the unmarried daughter of a good family to go gallivanting in forgotten ruins in the company of natives will never be acceptable in any country of the globe. At least Bingle does his best to mask his disapproval.
“Hum, truly you have the soul of an adventurer Ms. Delaney. I hope you will travel to Europe at some point. The Royal Museum would certainly be of interest to you. Why, I dare say you could teach the curator a thing or two!”
I misjudged him again. This man is too pure for his own good.
The discussion ends in pleasantries and extended farewells, which I hate. Bingle is dejected and tears shine in his eyes. I don’t understand why he would grow so attached in such a short time.
Finally, dawn approaches and torpor makes me stumble. This pushes the poor gentleman out of the room so that I can rest, at last.