I manage to convince Isaac to grant me enough time to get changed before our assault on the Frederickson Estate. I have cobwebs on my nice blue dress just because of that stunt on the beam. If possible, I would rather avoid bloodstains as well. Cobwebs can at least be brushed away.
I decide against taking my rifle. It is useful but unwieldy, and thus unsuitable for infiltration. The sad truth is that I have difficulties moving around when burdened with it. I would sometimes crawl forward and forget its very presence, only for the barrel to clang against a doorframe.
Embarrassing. Perhaps I just need more practice.
Nothing will make me forfeit my pistol, however. I am a woman of elegance, refinement, and black powder. Try and stop me!
Our carriage arrives at the previously agreed meeting point. As I exit, Isaac comes out from behind the shadow of a tree. We are now at the Western edge of Savannah and even the most miserable hovels are giving way to barren fields. The chill in the air is biting and Dalton’s breath shows in small icy clouds.
The vampire’s eyes widen when he sees my outfit. Loth and I worked on it for more than thirty hours and it shows.
It is a dress, black as night. No parties will it see, nor dance nor revels. It is a tool of death, an instrument of the Hunt, and a statement. It is enough to glance at it to know that its wearer has not come to parlay. It is mine and I love it.
The outfit covers me snugly from neck to foot. Light metal scales held by silk threads cover most of my torso, arms, and legs. My heart is protected by a fully integrated Hastings-designed chest armor, while bracers of dull steel go over my forearms, strong enough to stop a blade. There are also holsters for my blade, throwing knives and a pistol. Dark boots and a skirt complete the ensemble, although the skirt is just me not feeling comfortable wearing man trousers. The cloth is snug so that when I move, there is no sound of fabric flapping in the air to betray my presence. It was designed and created for me.
I walk to Isaac just as Dalton takes out a monstrosity of a crossbow, another one of Loth’s creation. My Vassal has taken a liking to the ungodly contraption. It might be slow, but it is silent and the draw strength is terrifying. It was designed to kill werewolves, after all.
“Greetings, hrm, Ariane, the, hrm, estate. Just that way. Over the hill.”
I should add distracting to the list of the armor’s quality. Perhaps it is just a bit too close-fitting? Particularly, around the bottom?
Leaving those considerations behind for the moment, I look up to our destination. There is nothing to see, just an empty field going up. The road continues away to our right, and to our left, a small copse of trees hides the carriage.
It appears that Isaac expects me to lead and so I do. I walk a bit to the side until we find a path. I do not intend to walk through the actual field. Vampire or no, I would end up with enough caked mud under my soles to start my own plantation.
We follow the path in silence, and I keep my ears open for trouble. Soon, the edge of the Estate comes into view.
Now, I admit to being a commoner. I even admit that the “glorified peasant” insult I heard from Lady Moor hit a tad too close to home, so I am not the best one to judge other people’s properties. With that said, if this qualifies as an Estate, then I am the queen of Spain. This is a decrepit farm, nothing more.
Isaac seems to share my concerns.
“Is this… really the place?”
“Undoubtedly,” I answer and point forward.
The farm is surrounded by stone walls that go around and along the buildings. I see a house, servant quarters and a barn through a pair of opened gates. There is some activity in the courtyard, and I can spot the distinctive glow of lanterns.
“Could they simply not be doing peasant things?”
“In the middle of the night?”, I hiss, “In February? And they need guards for this?” I add as I point to a pair of sentinels around the door.
This man has been sheltered beyond belief!
“I assure you, they are the right people. Now, before we proceed, are we in agreement that everyone here needs to die?”
“I would prefer to capture a few so that I may interrogate them at a later time.”
I grab my temporary employer’s shoulder before I lose the last remnants of my temper. I stare him in the eyes, all the while trying to formulate a message that will not be perceived as unnecessarily rude.
“No need for formalities Ariane, speak your mind.”
“Very well. You requested that I offer support while you eliminate your foe, now foes, with the clear purpose of protecting your territory. Those are the terms of our arrangement, sir. What happened instead is that I killed your opponents and extracted a location from our prisoners. I assumed that you needed a little nudge and I was, obviously, mistaken. You will assault this farm. You will kill its inhabitants and reclaim your place as its apex predator, and I shall only step in if you find yourself in danger. Only then will you have experienced a true Hunt. If I do everything for you, what was the point in coming?”
“Yes, yes, you are correct.”
“Why are you reluctant to kill? Is this not one of the easiest things for us?”
“As a group, I suppose,” he replies with a hint of impatience, “the issue is that I was trained not to do it. We Rosenthal learn how to dodge, avoid and flee because any conflict we get stuck in is one we should not have been involved in to begin with.”
“Then it is time to rely less on your training and more on your instinct, is it not? Look at those men, look at them.”
Isaac turns to the pair of grumpy guards. They are complaining in low voices about their assignment and the cruel treatment the weather is inflicting on their gonads.
“Do you know what they are missing?”
Isaac frowns and looks them up and down. I can imagine him going through a checklist of what he expects a member of a kidnapping ring should have. I sigh.
“Fear. Isaac, they do not know fear. They are here on your territory in the dead of night, and they know no fear. They even have lights up and strut around noisily because they are not even afraid of the militia, and why should they? How many of them are in their pockets? They have been poaching from you with impunity for who knows how long. Like rats. Does that not irk you? Is this how things should be?”
“You do not need training to tear necks and crush bones, you just need to do what feels right. Yes?”
He slips into the shadows and moves around to approach the sentinel from the side. I watch him with a bit of concern, soon proven to be unwarranted. He remains quiet.
The only issue I ever had with my instincts was that I tend to overestimate myself when I, let us say, succumb to them. Isaac’s predicament is beyond comprehension. What manner of vampire fears his own power? I can only presume that I am missing a vital element that would let me understand.
I return my attention to the present. Isaac is moving along the walls and will strike shortly. I signal Dalton and whisper in his ear.
“Go around to the front gate. Kill all who escape.”
He taps my hand in understanding and leaves.
Working for Isaac only increased my appreciation for the faithful Vassal. He is not only competent; he is also obedient and proactive. The Valiant Companions would have been a force to reckon with if he had been a part of their leadership. Their loss, my win.
I keep looking as Isaac uses a lull in conversation to grab the first sentinel and smash him backward into the wall.
Of course, the second sentinel hears the impact and turns around. The outlaw and the vampire face each other.
Come on! Do something! I walk forward and grab a throwing dagger. I would prefer if the alarm were not raised. If we get spotted too early, it might turn into a chore to chase everyone, not to mention entering the house if anybody calls it their home.
Just as the sentinel raises his musket in alarm, Isaac jumps.
I recognize that move. I first used it by instinct in the Henley residence, back in New-Orleans. It is a great opener and finisher.
The vampire’s claws dig into the man’s chest, stealing his breath forever. Blood erupts in a geyser and paints my companion’s face crimson.
I do not understand. He could have avoided this easily.
He slowly passes his hand over his face, as if to clean it. A fruitless endeavor as they are both covered by the crimson liquid.
He stares at his drenched hands. His eyes narrow, considering.
He raises his face to me and for an instant, I see a drop of baleful purple reflected in his tame brown, and then he’s gone.
I rush to the wall and jump on it. The courtyard is mostly empty but for a few crates. The doors of the barn are wide open and a small cart with a narrow frame is parked in front of it. A few lanterns scattered around allow limited vision to the mortals.
A horse neighs in fear. I hear the sound of torn flesh and exclamation of surprise and dismay. My ally is savaging a downed man under the shocked look of a handful of other humans. I cannot see his face from here, I should...
I should what? Why would I stop him?
Because we need at least one prisoner in case an invitation is required. Curses.
I jump down as the first musket is fired. Isaac is hit and that seems to stop his frenzy. He turns to the offender and moves, crushes his throat with a hand before throwing the corpse at another man. His movements are quick and savage but utterly inefficient. He spends far too much time on each victim and would have risked being overwhelmed if his enemies had been trained and equipped to stop him. I find myself disappointed again. I would have loved to see another one of my kind in action against someone other than me, for a change. This performance is rather lackluster.
One of our opponents has the presence of mind to jump on the nearest horse to flee as his associates are slaughtered by the strangely resilient madman in their midst. He rushes to the front door and something must have reflected just right because he turns to me and our eyes meet.
I smile lightly and point forward. He turns around just in time for a quarrel to appear in his mount’s chest.
They collapse in a heap. A magnificent shot, as always. Now I just need to select one of the survivors... ah, it appears that it will not be necessary.
The front door of the house is banged open by a veritable mountain of a man in dirty coveralls. From here I can smell the stench of alcohol and old sweat, a revolting mix that speaks of decadence and neglect. He carries in his hand a large butcher knife covered with old blood, some of it human.
Behind him comes the leader of this place.
I know authority when I see it.
The ringleader is dressed in a conservative grey suit that would not be out of place in a courtroom. His dark eyes sweep the courtyard without a hint of care for the fallen. He is not worried in the slightest, only angry that someone would dare assault his operation.
Both men notice me at the same time. The tall one smiles with a most dreadful expression, while the leader only shows cold disdain.
“Very astute sir, I commend you on your keen sense of observation.”
They both frown. Ah yes, it is difficult to reconcile me with what they know of the world. In it, I should be cowering in fear like all the vulnerable people they kidnapped from their home.
“Get her.” Says the leader with a bored voice.
I let the tall man approach me. The ugly smirk on his face would have had me worried two years ago. I am no longer that Ariane.
His grubby paw reaches to grab my shoulder. I quickly stab his arm and dance away, ripping his artery open lengthwise.
He recoils in pain and surprise. I do not understand his astonishment. I did not move, did not show fear. Did he truly expect me to stay there and wait for the cruel treatment his countenance promised?
He advances with fury while his hands try to stem the flow of blood. I step back. This is my favorite moment.
Fury turns to concern when he sees the puddle of blood that already escaped his doomed body, then to genuine fear and then to panic. He ties a filthy handkerchief around the gaping wound as if it could stem the tide.
The “boss” grinds his teeth in frustration and takes out a gun. He does not even spare a look for his poor subordinate. Ah, a true monster in human skin with no empathy and no honor. I shall enjoy toying with him.
The brute falls on his knees as the other man passes him by. He is white as a sheet while the earth under him turns a beautiful shade of carmine.
For an instant, I take in the beauty of the moment. The red, the black and the white highlights. Life and death intertwined for one fleeting moment. A wonderful trio of a dying man, one walking to his death and a woman who died and came back, each a victim of a fate beyond their knowledge and control. I sometimes miss the daylight, but times such as those make it all worthwhile.
The second man reaches me and the painting fades.
With a sneer, he lifts a pistol and shoots me in the face.
How very forward, and quite rude besides! Why, these Savannah people certainly are a brazen bunch.
I move my entire torso to the side as he pulls the trigger and the smoke ignites. There is no need for me to dodge the projectile, just the man’s aim. The bullet skims past my left ear like an angry hornet.
Ow! Ow ow ow! So loud! This is quite painful! Why do I not have this issue on our house’s firing range!? Is it because this time I’m on the receiving end?! Gah!
I force myself to keep smiling even though I want to RIP HIS THROAT OPEN. I just wanted to appreciate a little “Memento Mori” instant in peace, is it too much to ask?
Bah, I cannot kill him. Really, it is forbidden by my agreement with Isaac.
The cold man in front of me shows a bit of wariness for the first time since we met. Fascinating. Seeing his men dead or dying should have clued him in, and yet it takes his own failure to realize his predicament? Hubris. The failings of a man used to seeing talent in himself only.
“You have no idea who you’re messing with. You and your friends are already dead.”
The “boss” scowls in frustration. Somewhere behind us, a man begs for his life.
“Go on. You were going to finish your sentence with something, no? You will all die unless you let me go? If you leave I will only ask for reparation? My many powerful friends will destroy you and your families? Do continue, I think I've heard most variations of the classics but sometimes, someone still manages to surprise me.”
“I will teach you respect, whore!”
The man unsheathes a rapier from an ornate scabbard and lunges immediately. I take a simple step back to avoid the tip of the blade while grabbing my own and swipe up to deflect a follow up that does not come.
After his attack failed to hit, the man simply fell back and now circles me warily.
“You know, you might be decently trained but you lack real-world experience.”
I dodge two more lunges, then bat the third to the side. Instead of using his superior reach to his advantage, he stops again. Another mistake.
“Shooting the head is good in a competition. Soldiers know better and aim for the center mass. Less chance of missing, that way, and the target is just as disabled, not that it would have helped you.”
“I said, shut up!!! You wench! I’ll have you entertain the whole barrack!”
“So only three men, no, two now.”
This man is trained to fight in a fencing room so I simply move more across the battlefield. He tries to follow as I dodge and weave around crates and bodies.
“You’re too focused on me, keep an eye on your surroundings.”
“You slut! Once I get my hands on you, your friends will let me go and then I’m coming after all of you! You don’t know who you’re fucking with!”
“Watch the leg,” I warn as I parry. The rapier slides on Jimena’s gift above my head as I move forward and down. He jumps back in reflex and stumbles against the extended limb of one of his fallen comrades.
“I did not mean yours. Ah, this has been a disappointment. Crow was much more entertaining than you, puppet. Perhaps I should have offered a wager?”
“If you look left, you will see that it is!”
The man cannot resist, his eyes flicker to the left just as Isaac smashes into him from the right.
“Oops! I lied,” I say, then I stop.
Isaac’s posture has devolved. He is hunched like a beast and his snarls and disorderly strikes send plumes of crimson into the air as he slashes ineffectively. His clothes are in tatters and the cold and orderly aura I associate with him has turned sour.
Just like the vampire in the wood at the Tillerson estate.
I move forward, grab Isaac by the shoulder and push him away from his mewling victim. He rolls and faces me. I see no sign of intelligence in his brown eyes. His entire face is coated with blood. Oooh this is bad.
“That is enough, get a hold of yourself.”
“MINE!” He growls in answer.
He hisses and I do the same. Trying to ASSERT DOMINANCE? WEAKLING. NOT EVEN ABLE TO CONTROL HIMSELF. WORTHLESS. I WILL PUT HIM IN HIS PLACE. And non-lethally. I may not warrant the attention of clan Rosenthal now, but should I slay one of its scions I certainly will.
He lunges and I move and duck. As he glides above me, I stab his solar plexus with five talons to stop his momentum. Then I slam him on his back. I aim for his heart and he grabs my wrist in panic. My other hand is already reaching up.
I lift him and as his body leaves the ground, I find the opening I need. Two claws dig mercilessly into the back of his neck. He stops moving.
He growls softly and shows me fangs. DEFIANCE? YOU CANNOT AFFORD DEFIANCE. Two spikes of black chitin pierce the bone of his spine.
“Isaac. Look at me. Isaac.”
He closes his eyes in meditation and slowly, his body relaxes. The cold aura slowly loses its sour note until nothing is left but perfectly ordered strands.
I haven’t moved, and I still do not move when he looks at me, nor when his hand grabs the one I left resting on his chest. The intimacy of the moment gives me a peculiar feeling though I am not afraid. I made him submit. For tonight, our hierarchy is clear.
“Thank you, I would like to stand up now.”
I drag him up. He looks beyond exhausted, even while his skin is smooth and his eyes clear. It is a fatigue of the mind and of the soul.
“How do you keep it at bay, the great Beast, the one that needs to dominate and destroy. I tried so hard to hear it through my conditioning that when I succeeded, there were only screams in my head. Nothing mattered but to terrify and slay the mortals. It wanted more and more. Your voice is the only one that could pierce the veil, make it go quiet.”
“You just remind yourself of what your purpose is. The violent part of us lacks self-preservation. It needs to be tempered.”
“Is it?” He chuckles madly, “Is it really a part of me? That thing that only craves death and subjugation? How do you live with it, Ariane, how do you live with its constant whispers?”
“There are no whispers. There has never been anyone in my head but myself. This is not some mysterious evil entity, Isaac, just a part of you that needs to be controlled so that it can be used as one more tool in your arsenal. I have always been me. ‘It’ has always been a part of me, nothing more and nothing less. “
My companion looks mortified as if I had just condemned him to death.
“What about him?” I point to the fallen leader to change the topic. “Did you not want to question him?”
“I have an inkling as to what his business model is like. I do not feel like saving his life just to end it later.”
“You should drain him then, bring tonight’s Hunt to a proper end.”
He throws up. Black, disgusting liquid with not a shred of essence spills on the muddy ground. I step back so it does not stain my boots.
Isaac stands straight and wipes his mouth with a dirty handkerchief. He takes a deep breath and addresses me with impressive solemnity.
“Ariane of clan Nirari, I, Isaac of clan Rosenthal declare your contract fulfilled. As a token of my appreciation, I offer you the prize of the Hunt”
Magic washes over me, reminding me of my deal with Loth. This is the power of the oath and in this case, of a promise fulfilled. A wave of pleasure creeps up my spine with the purity and certainty of things made right.
I smoothly go to the pitiful head of this defunct operation, brought low in a single night. I ignore his babbles and empty promises as I hoist him up. I disregard his cries of fear and pain as I bite deep.
Yes, even in the relative serenity of my mind’s fortress I can feel the power rushing into me along with the vitality of the vanquished. I can feel Isaac’s presence at my side, waiting respectfully until I am done. It is empowering, flattering, and just a little arousing.
I hope his nose is saturated by the stench of blood.
When I am done, I throw the body away.
“I must leave now, Ariane. There is much for me to consider, and I feel unusually tired. I will handle the cleanup, do not worry.”
He pauses briefly to consider something in silence.
“You really are good at this, you know? Being a vampire. Some of us lose ourselves to our instincts. Somehow, I figure this will never be a risk for you. Seeing you fight so naturally has been... enlightening. I thank you and wish you all the best. Do write when you have the time.”
I nod again and he departs without a look back. When I am convinced that he is out of sight, I finally relax.
“Teeeeeeeeehehehehehe that was sooooo fun!”
Damn it, I’m drunk again.