“I already hate this Hunt.”
“Ye’re just a sore loser, lass.”
“Just because I end up being a loser a bit too often for my tastes...”
Loth looks like the very picture of innocence, which I find extremely suspicious. I insist that we change the way we select who will go first every time, and yet I still lose. Surely, Loth is not capable of cheating at every game.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, mister. “
A howl interrupts his answer.
I know how wolves sound. Their songs are eerie, beautiful and if you are outside, frightening. It does not compare to the grating abomination I am hearing now. More importantly...
“Loth, there are two of them.”
“Aye, I heard.”
“We need to help him.”
“No, we need to trust him.”
Loth is about to hold me back with an extended arm then thinks better of it. Our eyes meet briefly.
“I hope that you can provide me with a good reason, Loth.”
“Aye, this is the lad’s first outing. Don’t clip his wings. Let him give a good accounting of himself. Have some faith, Ariane.”
I grind my teeth in frustration. I don’t want him to get hurt, I need to LET HIM HUNT IN MY NAME, yes, that seems fair. He is my Vassal, he will take down those CURS LIKE THE MONGRELS THEY ARE.
In the clearing in front of us, torches burn at regular intervals centered around a butchered horse covered with three chalices of human blood. Dalton stands straight with Loth’s latest iteration of the Wolf Slayer in his steady hands. A boar spear with a silver inlay is dug into the ground at his feet.
Even my vampire senses can barely pick up any fear in him, only anticipation and the thrill of the deadly struggle to come.
My Vassal chose the location himself, with the rationale that a clear line of sight was the most important thing to have. Loth did not comment so the idea must have merit, although I would prefer to HUNT THEM MYSELF AND MANGLE THEM LIMB FROM LIMB, except, I gave my word. Dalton drew the short straw and the attempt is his.
They come. I lean forward in anticipation.
Wood creaks and groans under the push of a massive body. Dalton turns and kneels.
The Wolf Slayer is a massive crossbow. Its draw strength is guaranteed by an elegant system of pulleys and taut metallic strings. It must be heavy for a mortal, though looking at Dalton, you could not tell. He holds it with ease born out of rigorous practice.
A hulking abomination crashes through the vegetation into the clearing. It spots Dalton.
Dalton aims, and waits.
The werewolf runs to him on all fours, its strange gait an obscene parody of nature.
The creature screams its rage and its thirst for blood, claws digging furrows in the tortured ground. Forty paces away. Thirty.
I hear the twang of strained cords finally released, I do not see the barbed silver quarrel leave its slot.
It is simply too fast.
The werewolf’s head explodes in a cloud of blood and brain matter. Its body drops in a tangle of monstrous limbs.
Dalton stands up and brings out two pistols from the holsters on his hips as a second dark shape overtakes the first. He fires one second before the thing reaches him. The werewolf raises a paw to his ruined eyes but does not stop.
The yowling form barrels past him as he rolls to the side, grabbing the boar spear. Before the blinded beast can recover, my Vassal buries his silver blade deep under its armpit. The creature shivers and struggles in vain. Dalton manages to keep it at bay through power and balance. With every movement its wound only becomes more grievous. Carmine blood soon spreads in a pool around it.
With proper preparation and deadly skill, Dalton took down two of the most dangerous supernatural creatures of the land.
“Come and partake Mistress, before it is too late.”
I move to his side with pride in my chest. He did so well!
I feed quickly. It tastes exquisite, like a hard-won prize. An offering worthy of any king. When I come to, Loth is congratulating Dalton on his aim and his courage.
“Ice-cold lad! We’ll make a sharpshooter out of you yet.”
“Thank you, my dear Vassal, for the show and for the meal. Now, I shall… Wait. Shhh! I hear something.”
Both men immediately fall silent, even their breathing grows subdued. I close my eyes and focus on listening.
I hear the beating hearts of my companions, fire burning softly on the torches, the many sounds of the forest, and behind that, footsteps.
A group of creatures is approaching us. They are confident if cautious. I focus on them.
For a single moment, my ears are cleared of everything but them, then a furious headache makes me recoil. I scowl at the discomfort. There is still much for me to learn, but now I know enough.
“Group of men, three or maybe four. I heard creaking leather and metal so they must be armed.”
I turn to Loth and so does Dalton. Tonight we went hunting at his behest and this is his territory. By right the decision should be his.
“We hide and observe.”
I fetch the quarrel while the others take the boar spear and crossbow. We run to cover. We do not have to wait long before the intruders make themselves known.
Three men in the now familiar leather outfit of the order of Gabriel trudge through the undergrowth and stop at the edge of the clearing.
I lean towards Loth and ask:
“What do you want to do?”
“We need to kill them all.”
Just then, I catch a whiff of them. Sweat, fear and under this, one of them is... Now that is interesting.
“Can I try something?”
“Sure thing lass, it’s your turn, but they don’t leave the clearing alive.”
I move out of sight to my backpack and change into my traveling dress as fast as I can. I enter the clearing from the side just as the others do. I crawl between the rings of light cast by our torches to a spot on the ground not too far from the two werewolf corpses.
Now that I think about it, I did not know they could hunt in pairs. Loth never mentioned it was possible.
Bah, it probably is just an anomaly. Nothing to concern myself over.
The trio walks towards the center of the clearing with one man looking back at all times. I find it striking that they would adopt this formation, clearly designed to fight werewolves. The corpses of the two monstrosities are squat between two torches, clearly visible from where they are. The death of their prey as well as the presence of torches should hint that their enemies, if indeed they are enemies, use tools. With this logic, walking slowly out in the open and in sight of everyone is the last thing they should do.
I focus on hearing again and confirm that they are not being followed.
It appears that ancient vampires do not have a monopoly on rigid mindsets. I should not be surprised. Once more, I am putting too much effort in a confrontation that could have been solved at the speed of the crossbow’s muzzle velocity.
Ah well, at least I can make it interesting. I feel the threads of a beautiful rendition of “The Turning of a Friend” blooming before me. Improvised, of course, but still interesting.
The trio reaches the two monster corpses. One of them touches the body of one of the beasts.
I sneeze. Three lanterns turn on me with blinding glare. I lift an arm to shield my eyes.
“Please... Don’t hurt me!”
Heavy footsteps draw close. A hand closes on my wrist and drags me to the floor. I yelp in surprise and pain.
“A woman? Here?”
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” says the one who manhandled me, now on my left.
I whimper in fear, my eyes still closed. I am but a poor defenseless woman in a dark and isolated forest. Three men have me at their mercy. Anything could happen. I am terrified.
“Calm Gamelin, can’t you see you’re scaring her half to death? You, woman, what’s your name?” Asks the man in the middle.
“M... Mathilda, sir, Mathilda Wallace.”
“What are you doing out there at this hour, huh?” Says a bitter man on my right.
“It’s not my fault! I did not want to be here, but he took me...”
“Who? Who took you?”
“I don’t know! A man! I don’t know him!”
“Hold on, start from the beginning. And you two, keep a look around. What is this, a picnic?!”
With the lanterns away from my face I raise my eyes to their leader. I blink rapidly to clear them. He is an older gentleman with sideburns. More interesting is that I cannot Charm him.
All three men are surrounded by a sort of cocoon centered around their cross. There is no bond between us, and when I try to force it I only receive a jolt that feels distinctly like a warning. Something like the taste of ash at the back of my tongue.
Very well, the old-fashioned way it is.
“I... I was on my way to Hull. Not far from here.”
I wave my arm South. We crossed the hamlet on our way here.
“Then this tall man covered with weapons jumped out of the woods! I was so afraid!”
“What sort of weapons?”
“Well, I saw, hmm, guns!”
“Women...” adds the bitter man. I am pretty sure he is the one with the interesting smell. Just you wait, you yellow-livered halfwit.
“Dale will you shut up for one blessed second, please? Miss... Wallace was it? What sort of guns?”
“Well. At least two pistols. Maybe more.”
“He also had a strange sort of bow. With a handle.”
“I don’t know sir, I did not see a cross.”
Dale sniggers. With a supreme effort, Sideburns refrains from cuffing him.
“Yes, he had a spear. It was a hunting spear I think. I saw my father use the same.”
“That’s not one of us.”
“Dale, one more word and I will use you as live bait. Miss Wallace, the man, what did he look like.”
“A very tall man, strong as a bull he was. He had a big red beard, flat nose and a ring above his right eye.”
I just described Rolf Stonehead, possibly the dumbest of Loth’s relatives. Somewhere in the treeline, someone chuckles softly.
“A ring, you say?”
I nod frantically.
“Why should we believe that hussy. Any respectable woman should be in bed at this hour, she probably followed him here for a tryst.”
I may be a scared lone woman but those accusations sting my pride and so I must show it.
“That is not charitable of you, sir!” I claim. The fear of the demon-like creature must soon reassert itself, however.
“Ooooh, this is a nightmare! This cannot be real...”
“Miss, look at me.”
Although the leader of the squad affects kindness, his eyes remain calculating. This one is sharper than the rest. He can feel that something is wrong.
“Tell me, what happened after.”
I lower my head and close my eyes, doing my best to remember.
“Hum, he grabbed me. He was strong and I was scared so I did not fight him. It didn’t hurt. He said he needed bait.”
Dale and Gamlin exchange whispers.
“Who might he be, an independant hunter?”
“One of the devil-worshippers perhaps?”
I go on.
“Then he dragged me through the woods. He did not answer my questions, or my pleas. He only told me to... To shut up.”
“A wise decision.”
Sideburns stands up and floors his subordinate with a powerful right hook. I cover my head and yelp at the sudden violence. I have to admit, it was done beautifully.
To my inner delight, Dale growls.
A flicker of doubt crosses Sideburns’ otherwise stern expression. In typical fashion, he dismisses it almost immediately.
Yes mortal, you are so close to understanding, and yet you dare not face the truth.
I swallow with difficulty, intimidated by the clearly dangerous man in front of me.
“And then... he brought me here. There was a horse carcass. And torches.”
“When night fell, he used a syringe to draw some blood,” I say as I massage the crook of my left arm, “and he just spilled it on the body. I thought he was a lunatic and he would do some evil ritual.”
“What tells you that he didn’t?”
Ah, a solid observation. This would destabilize many a liar.
“I don't know? He dragged me to the side and he just stood there. Did not say a word until... until...”
My voice quivers and I grab my head and collapse on the ground. My breath comes hard and fast and one of my hands is on my heart, as if to calm down its panic.
“Are those demons?”
“They are godless creatures. That is all you need to know.”
He turns to leave. What, going so soon?
Sideburns would ignore me but leaving a woman defenseless is more than he can tolerate. I have a short window of opportunity.
“Do you live nearby? Can I come with you?”
“No, we do not. And no you cannot.”
“Don’t leave me here please!”
“Listen, they’re dead now so we should be safe.”
“What if there are more of them?!”
“There are none. We have been tracking those two for three days now. There are no others.”
Ah, so they already fought those creatures and that is how dear Dale ended up cursed. The fact that they have been traveling for three days also means that their base is relatively far. Perhaps Loth knows more.
Now for the finish.
“Then at least come back to Hull with me for the night. You will be able to rest. You should not walk around with one of you bleeding like that.”
They all stop.
Oh, yes. This is so precious, the fateful moment when the seed of doubt blooms into a beautiful, tainted flower.
“What did you just say?”
“Nothing! Nothing! I’m sorry! I did not mean to imply anything!”, I yell in terror. Sideburns grabs me by the collar and hoists me up. My, quite daring!
“Who! Who is bleeding?! What did you see?!”
I just have enough time to raise my hand protectively before Sideburns’ head explodes in my face. My dress is soiled with blood and pulverized brain matter.
Also, really? I was expecting a fierce argument ending up in a fight. I did not expect Dale to be so trigger-happy. Oh well.
“No!” , screams Gamelin, taking out his own pistol, “How could you!?”
They throw themselves at each other in a mad tangle of limbs, trying desperately to angle the barrel of their guns towards soft flesh.
“I need to go back to Elise! I have to! I know what you will do to me!”
“Traitor! Did you not swear an oath like all of us? Are you so ready to forfeit your immortal soul?”
“Screw this! I’m not cursed! I can’t be! I’m God’s chosen!”
Yes, yes, God’s chosen. Father Armand also used to tell me God loved me and yet here we are.
I watch with interest as they wrestle on the blood-soaked ground until it looks like Gamelin has the advantage. He slams Dale on the ground.
Instead of fighting both his previous colleague and gravity, Dale suddenly pushes his arm down. In the brief moment of leeway he has, he aims his gun up and shoots.
The bullet misses Gamelin by a wide margin.
The cloud of ignited black powder, however, does not.
The poor sod recoils and reaches for his eyes. The turncoat does not hesitate. He grabs the discarded gun, turns it on the man he called his brother and fires it at point-blank range.
Gamelin’s head whips back. He collapses, dead.
I am sobbing and crying on the ground. Only my pathetic mewling and Dale’s heartfelt curses break the silence of the grave that has befallen this clearing.
Eventually, he stands back up and walks to me.
“No, please, please! I haven’t done anything!”
“I know. I am sorry. I have no choice.” he says, while aiming one more pistol at my head. He turns his head away with an expression of pure guilt. On his cheek, a single tear trails down.
He pulls the trigger.
After the echo of the gunshot has died, he falls to his knees. For a long time, there are only bitter tears of guilt until finally he bellows his pain to the heavens.
“Because you broke your oath.”
Dale turns in fright as I stand up and brush the grass from my knees. Now the travel dress has stains of blood, brain and soot. What a chore it will be to wash.
“What? No! I don’t understand! Who are you? What is this?”
“This, is a passable rendition of The Turning of a Friend, with you in the role of the traitorous companion, and me as the puppeteer. Although, to be fair, you made it too easy.”
“How are you still alive? I shot you in the head!”
“Correction, you shot at my head. You missed.”
“It’s impossible... I am insane, completely insane, this is just a dream, yes just a dream.”
What an interesting development! He is losing his mind. I approach and kneel in the grass in front of him. The cross on this man’s chest burns my hand when I grab it but I still manage to tear it off.
“It hurts right? All of this.”
“Yes, please make it stop make it stop make it stop. Let me wake up.”
“I will make it all better, little oath breaker. Just hold still...”
He tastes like a play led to completion, and a hint of curse. Not bad.
Loth and Dalton clap politely as they enter the clearing. Dalton piles the carcasses, Loth checks the priests’ belongings and I gather firewood to build a pyre.
Dale was a traitor and a fratricide. I look down upon him while I respect Sideburns, whose name I never learned. It is curious that I would harbor the least resentment to those who could have harmed me the most. I only feel respect for those who follow their beliefs to the end, even if it means that they need to destroy me. Perhaps it is...
“Ari, are ye tipsy again?”
“What? Psh, no, absolutely not. I would if I drained three people and I only drained two. So there!”
“Are you sure? I remember that werewolf blood is potent.”
“That was only one werewolf and half so it doesn’t count.”
“Ye are being contemplative lass. You are contemplative when ye’re tipsy.”
“Am not! I am perfectly fine!
“Alright, sorry. By the way , why are you adding their muskets to the bonfire?”
“Technically, they are made of wood. Mostly.”
“Right, lass of course. Go sit down for a minute or two aye?”
Acting is hard.
The towel is hung, the tub is empty, and my bedroom's secured doors are locked tight. Loth retired after a last attempt at creating a magical skeleton key, his latest project. Dalton is long asleep.
I walk naked to my bed, not the sarcophagus, and plop onto its soft mattress. It smells of soap. I smell of jasmine and the subtle spice of vampire skin. The canopy covers me in soft blue tones.
I run a finger down my torso. The claw trails against my skin without breaking it, until my hand stops just below my navel.
I turn my head to the nightstand upon which rests another of Jimena’s gifts. It is a rare print of a story about a shepherdess and far too many handsome noblemen.
I am going to have myself some “me-time”.
I open the book with one hand and start a new chapter titled “In which our Heroine absconds to the woods with don Miguel…”
What a delightful turn of events.
“… and don Rodrigo.”
Alas, as I start reading the bell rings. The urgent bell. The one that signals that Loth has an important matter that needs to be addressed immediately.
Perhaps I can rip it from the wall and pretend it was an accident?
With a resigned sigh, I pull on a nightdress and undergarments, don a pair of slippers and promptly exit my room. As expected, the house is dark and deserted. No fire, no intruder and generally, nothing that warranted me being disturbed at this most inopportune moment. I swallow my annoyance and climb upstairs. I hope this is truly important.
I find Loth in the smoking room in a fine silk robe and a lowball glass full of whiskey. An empty bottle lies on the table at his side. The dying fire reflects in his dark eyes.
Sensing the mood, I silently sit in front of him and wait.
He slowly brushes his hand over his face, then pinches the bridge of his nose. When he can no longer delay, his voice starts rough from stress and the burn of liquor.
“It’s yer fault, ya know?”
He sounds defensive.
“Many things are my fault. You will have to be more specific.”
Loth puckers his mouth, moving his great beard in comical fashion and finally hands me a rumpled letter, which I open. The text is entirely runic. My study of his magic system allows me to decipher a few key elements: wife, ship, arrival, a few runes that refer to people as well as a time coordinate which I realize is three days from now.
It does not take long to piece the puzzle together.
I shake the paper like a flag.
“How long have you had this?”
The Silent Watcher save me from procrastinators.
“Am I to understand that your correspondence has been fruitful?”
“No! As soon as Leikny, that be me wife, found out I was alive, she managed to track me down and now she’s on her way ta Savannah! With that damn Rollo!”
“Rollo who showed his posterior to the king of England or swine-kisser Rollo?”
“Neither of them, it’s a third one I never mentioned before.”
“Aye, see, he’s a wee bit of a cunt.”
I splutter in outrage but Loth cuts me off.
“Don’t ye start. I’m wroth, and I’ll damn swear if I feel like it. DAMNIT! I have ta confront them. Else they’ll come here and I’ll never hear the end of it.”
I can imagine the commotion. All those widows coming here for a roll in the hay, finding out that their paramour is still married. Scandalous.
Well, more scandalous at any rate.
“I feel a bit responsible. I could… Convince them to head back.”
Loth’s eyes are reduced to slivers under his thunderous brow. I had to needle him before the temptation to cut and run could grow too strong. Now his pride will not let him retreat.
“I can solve me own damn problems thank ye very much. Just…”
“Can ye come with me? For safety?”
“Hold on lass, ye think I’m being metaphorical. Am not. That Rollo is three snakes in a gambeson.”
“You suspect foul play?”
“Suspect? No. I expect foul play. So you and I are going ta make a short list of contingencies in case I’m not as paranoid as ya think. Aye?”
“Of course Loth, I shall endeavor to assuage your fears.”
“Assuage? Come on, Ariane, stop being so damn respectable for one damn second.”
“Bah, fine, but just this once! If they dare touch you, I will fuck them up.”
“Thank ye lass, but did ya mean ta say that ye’ll shove their heads up their…”
“Do not press your luck.”
I never knew one could infuse so much meaning in a single gesture. Some smiles are worth paragraphs. Loth’s sigh spells an entire book.
Regret, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, resentment, disappointment, the list is long. We have set up a meeting point in a rather expensive inn at the edge of Savannah. Three people just arrived. Four had gone down the walkway a day before, carrying with them a massive crate. Big enough to contain an oversized man, like Loth for example.
It does not take a genius to suspect that they want him back with a bit too much enthusiasm.
“I am feeling out of sorts Ariane. I am not quite sure what to do.”
“What does your heart desire?”
Loth turns to me and I am reminded of the warrior in my vision, the one who had laughed as he had buried his axe into another man’s chest.
“Let’s not go there, aye? What my heart wants now even you would object, say it dishonors the Hunt or some such.”
I feel a rush of excitement. This is not about the Hunt, this is about retribution. Those kin of his intend to commit some terrible offense, breaking their oath in spirit, and to their own blood no less. They would accept his offer of peace with ill intent in their hearts.
Oath breakers. We should make an example out of them. PEEL THEM OPEN ONE BY ONE, EXTRACT THEIR SECRETS LIKE MARROW FROM A BONE. SEND BACK THE DREGS. LET THE REST WITNESS THE COST OF TRANSGRESSION.
“Do not tempt me lass, I beg of you, do not tempt me.”
I wipe the ghastly smile from my face and retract all of my fangs. If Loth were after justice, his wife would be dead. He is after closure. I do not want to push him to do something he might regret. He deserves better from a friend.
“You want to confront them?”
“Spring the trap? It’s bloody stupid, is what it is.”
He mulls it over for a while, like prodding a wound to see how painful it is. When he finally turns to me, all his emotions have been boxed in tight. Only cold anger remains.
“I need ta know.”
I look through the window.
The inn is suspiciously empty. Only one table is occupied, around which Loth’s relatives and spouse are sitting. The stocky blond must be Leikny, and she looks nervous. The other two share my friend’s muscular frame and lush beard. The one on the right is an apprehensive red-hair, the one on the left has hair as black as night, curled in an elegant do. He has a vicious countenance to him and I would bet solid gold that this is Rollo. As I look, he reaches mechanically for a bulge on his side and I see the glint of chain mail.
“They are armed, and armored.”
“Of course they are.”
Loth moves back from the cover of the carriage and stretches. Joints and bones pop like a military fanfare.
“Well, here goes nothing.”
“Loth? I was thinking…”
“Is it really kin slaying if they are your in-laws? Surely that should be acceptable.”
The large man only graces me with half a smile, but he feels less brittle. The raw grief is now covered by a veneer of fatalistic contempt. Before leaving, he turns to me one last time.
“Thanks Ari, and… I am counting on you.”
I nod in acknowledgement. Leikny’s party is not stupid. They must have planned for Loth to resist and have measures in place. If they are not fools, they will have many.
It is time for me to fulfill my end of the bargain. I circle the inn out of sight, find an empty alley and climb on the wall. In a few short hops, I am next to the inn’s roof.
Now, if I wanted to bring Loth back to his country with me, I would first try to convince him peacefully. It would only cost time. That is why Leikny is here herself. Failing this, I would make sure he is tranquilized. That is why the shadow I see detaching itself from the second floor window is here.
So much treachery just to try to get him back. If they truly understood the man, they would know that five of his cousins and a two weeks drinking binge would do the trick.
The silhouette moves enough that I recognize the shape of a man. I am intrigued. I cannot feel a single flutter of magic coming from him and yet there are clearly some occult shenanigans at play here. A concealment binding?
I have difficulties seeing this person work. His actions come out as a jumble of movement that I find hard to follow, not because they are fast but because they are confusing.
I manage to perceive more by not staring directly at him. He dangles from the roof and slowly lowers himself in front of a window. I see a glyph being hung on top of it, and then he rolls back, giving me clear access.
Runic inscriptions of the script Loth favors are engraved into a transparent disk. They circle a pale blue stone in intricate patterns. I see several iterations of the same instruction: stop, surrender, sleep.
If Loth jumps out the window he will drop like a stone.
The strange man now lowers himself on top of the door.
If I wait, the cloaked man may go back inside. If I attack him and I am heard, Loth may burst out of the door and be instantly incapacitated.
What should I do?
I decide that the ability to escape is more important. I wait for the man to get back in through a window and jump silently on the inn’s roof. I climb down the wall using claws and study the first glyph once more. It has been fastened to the top rail with an adhesive substance. I also taste a small spell. There, next to the glyph is a small rune of alarm. It will warn its user in case of tampering.
That will draw the stranger man out.
I move. I rip both glyphs from the wall and rush back up, first on the roof and then on top of the window. I hide myself and focus on my senses.
For a full minute, nothing happens, then the barest sound of well-oiled hinges tickles my ears.
Coming from behind.
Ah, curses! I stride silently across the roof until I am atop another window, lean down, and then wait.
The light sound of the pane opening stops and stills. I wait.
Then something small appears in front of me. It looks like a small silver disk at the end of a metal rod. The disk rotates.
This is a mirror, which means...
I move forward and over the edge, as I spin down I grab a gloved hand and pull it down. The window pane crashes on the side as a hulking form barrels past me and into the streets below.
And that, is... Wow!
I roll to the side to dodge a bolt. I start moving too late, fortunately the arrow head pings harmlessly against my arm guard. As I watch, the figure twists on itself and lands on the ground with perfect grace.
I must not underestimate that one.
I jump down the ledge. As I fall, my foe fires another quarrel. This time I am prepared and barely manage to block it again. I rush him, dodge to the side as he slashes me and stab him in the leg.
Or at least, I try to. The man grunts and stumbles but when I withdraw my blade, there is not a drop of blood to be seen. I move and dodge as several silver knives whistle past me. As I step back, my opponent throws two knives at the same time, I almost miss the small flask that follows them.
His aim is off so I simply duck and move forward. Then something explodes behind me. Incredible heat basks my back and I’m sent tumbling on the ground.
I’m on fire.
I’m on fire I’m on fire I’m on fire. No! NO! MUST RUN. Must not run. I roll on the ground to extinguish the worst of the flames, jump back on my feet and sprint away.
I turn the street corner. There, a water barrel. I lift it and empty it on my head.
Immediately, a cool sensation spreads down my body, it brings me clarity of mind, and with it, the pain. It stings quite a bit.
The acrid aroma of cat pee then assaults my delicate nose, it seems that the barrel contained more than just rainwater.
Fair enough, you sorry excuse for a devious scoundrel. If your armor can stop my blade, then I shall have to teach you the meaning of blunt force trauma.
I spot a half-sawn rotting beam placed against a nearby wall and dig my left hand claws in it. I ignore its mushy consistency and run back.
The shadow warrior is hobbling to the inn when I approach. As I watch, he discards an empty vial, probably a potion of some sort. His movements are still harder to spot the more directly I look at him.
I sprint silently and I swear he must have felt my eyes on his back. He twists and shoots at the same time. Another quarrel is soon embedded in the beam, which I use as an improvised tower shield.
When I reach him, I swipe the heavy piece of wood in a circle aimed at his legs. As expected, he jumps up. As he is still in the air, I simply continue my motion until the circle completes, and goes on.
The second passage does not miss. The beam hits him in the side and knee. At the same time, I reflexively twist as something rakes my chest.
A blade cleaves the scales of my armored dress, parting them like water before stopping at the limit of my heart protector. The solid steel barely blunted the blow. I cough blood. A second later, the pain makes itself known.
I hiss in agony, a sensation that only increases when a burning sensation spreads along the wound. KILL NOW. CRUSH THE HEAD AND DRAIN THE OTHERS.
At this point, both of us stop.
Something happened inside, something that was bad enough to trigger an event both awesome and terrible.
Loth is angry.
Perhaps the word pales to reflect the reality of it. Truth be told, Loth is mad with anger.
A fierce bellow, less human and more like the clarion call of a great horn pierces the night’s tranquility like thunder from a cloudless sky. Loth is angry. He is in danger!
I need to move. I need to ignore the pain. I take one slow step forward, another. Loth needs me. I WILL NOT FALL. Especially not by one who thinks he can dwell in the shadows. THE NIGHT IS MINE.
The shape turns and lobs something at me, I throw the beam.
A vial breaks against the wood with a sizzling sound. An instant later the heavy object lands on its target with the ominous crack of broken bone. Acid eats at the darkness until it turns back into a screaming person. An armor made out of strange leather covers him entirely, and a few runes on his chest are being damaged by fuming acid. His head is covered by a helmet that would make Loth proud.
Well aren’t we covered in expensive gear? Let’s see if we can put it to good use.
I lean forward and grab him by the ankle before moving back to the entrance with the prisoner in tow, just as the sounds of broken furniture and crashing glass herald the start of a true rampage. As I reach the window, I throw my fallen foe through it.
Damn it it still hurts. Gah. Note to self, move conservatively until the wound is somewhat better.
I carefully hoist myself atop the broken sill, then fall heavily on the ground. I push myself up and stand witness to devastation the likes of which I had never seen before.
Every piece of furniture but for the counter has been reduced to splinters, shards of broken glass litter the floor and the room is still lit by virtue of the lanterns being stuck to the ceiling. The red-haired man has been planted to his elbows through a wall of cheap plaster. Rollo is frantically trying to remove the chair leg embedded in his hand while Leikny is hugging the wall with tears in her eyes.
In the middle of it all stands Loth.
His presence weighs on the back of my mind as if he were three times the size. I know for a fact that he still fits in the inn but when I look at him, I see a giant. His elegant vest is now torn and scruffy. Breaks here and there show corded muscles flowing faintly with the twists and planes of tattooed runes.
When he sees me, I fear for a second that he will not recognize me. A blink later and I am apparently in the clear.
“Number two, please.”
I collect a secured vial of antidote from a pouch on my belt and pass it to him. Because of the continuous pain, I almost miss. Loth removes the silvery cap and swallows its contents down in one gulp.
Then he crushes the metal container as if it were made of paper.
Loth walks to the leather clad form on the ground and holds it by the neck. With a beautiful arc, he slams it on the counter, which sags noticeably under the brutal assault. A moment after, the helmet comes off.
My opponent is a rather handsome man with a clean-shaven face. A vertical scar runs down his face on the right side, barely missing the eye.
Loth’s anger turns cold. He addresses his wife in English with a deceptively low voice. If those people were not part of his family, they would be formless meat on the ground by now. Even then, I do not know if we will finish the night without a death.
“Skjoll. You brought Skjoll with you. You intended to kill me?”
The blonde woman blabbers in their native language.
“You have lost that right. I will not sully our tongue by sharing it with the likes of you. Now I am going to ask you again. Did you truly mean to kill me?”
“Loth,” I interrupt, “he placed stunning glyphs on the door and window.” I finish the sentence and then cough some more blood. I spit reddish phlegm on the ground. So unladylike... Ah well, this is not the time to worry about such things, really.
Just then I hear footsteps outside. Slowly, I try to get to my feet and wince. Nevermind, let me stay there for a little while longer, unless my assistance is required. Thankfully the wound has healed a bit and the pain is now barely tolerable.
A fat guardsman and four others at his side crash through the door with all the authority and outrage they can muster.
“Now what is the meaning of... Of...”
The squad falls silent as they take in the damage and, square in the middle of the room, the cause of it.
“Hey.” I say.
Five pairs of eyes turn to me and I grab their attention like one grabs a handful of stalks. With that many people, I will not be able to work any subtlety, nor do I have to. Few entities could stand before Loth now without feeling a bit of apprehension, and these guards do not qualify.
They leave with commendable speed. Amusingly, the head guard takes the time to dip his hat in polite farewell before slamming the door close. He has more self-control than I gave him credit for.
The woman speaks in anger and disbelief. Loth’s answer worries me. He might hurt them in his fury, and he already did, but what I hear now is different. He has gone full cold.
“Aye, she is a vampire. And as to why I favor her over you, I shall tell ya.”
With each sentence, he comes closer to her.
“She does not demand I stop being who I am.
She does not demand I stop liking what I like.
She does not demand I forget the past.
She did not come to abduct me like some cheap highwaymen.
She did not poison my bloody drink.
She always has my back, and last but not least…”
Their faces are only a hand apart now.
“She did not shag my brother for power, aye?”
“I don’t care why ye did it, only matters that ye did. Now, whose brilliant idea was it ta kidnap me and bring me back ta the country trussed up like a dead boar?”
She closes her eyes and cries.
“Ye don’t have ta answer. Ye don’t have the guts, Skjoll never starts anything and Haardrad is far too daft.”
Loth goes for Rollo, who was crawling on the ground towards the stairs. He grabs him by the back of the neck and casually smashes him in the far wall, then he takes each arm and calmly breaks them at the elbow.
This is savage even by my standards, though this vengeance is not my own and so I remain silent.
When he is done, he pulls him up by the collar. Rollo tries to say something, only to be cut off by a terrible right hook.
“When I took the title of Jarl, I made an oath never ta shed the blood of my kin. Just as ye made an oath ta always protect the interests of the clan.. Well, lucky ye, we will both hold our promises in our own way, I suppose.”
Loth encircles his treacherous relative’s head in his massive arms. Once it is locked, he twists right, then left.
The sound of shattered bones echoes through the room, soon joined by Leikny’s horrified sobs.
He is not done.
Loth drops the corpse like it is garbage and walks to her. He takes something from his pocket and throws it on the filthy ground. It’s a golden ring, with beautiful inlays.
“Consider yerself divorced.”
He turns away and leaves.
When he sees me still on the ground, he kneels. I did not notice but the front of my dress is slick with glistening black blood. The wound is not completely closed yet.
Without a word, Loth grabs me under the shoulder and takes me up in a princess carry. I let him. I trust him.
We reach the door and he kicks it down. The crowd outside lets us pass in wary silence.
We reach the carriage with no one stopping us. Loth helps me up and after signaling Asni, and waiting for a few seconds, we depart.
I do not move. I do not even pretend to breathe. This is technically my fault. Had I not pushed him, he would not have contacted them and he would not have been forced to kill one to make a point. There would have been no ambush.
I thought I had done well.
I thought this would help him.
I was wrong.
There was nothing to gain from facing the past, only scars to be reopened and old blood to be shed anew. Ariane, dimmest vampire on earth. Bah.
“Why are ye so down lass? It should be me.”
“How can you even tell?”
“Ye got perfect poker face, what with not breathing and looking like a statue, but when ye’re sad ye bend yer back a bit.”
I chuckle lightly. Is this how I manage to lose every game I play with Dalton and him?
“I should have stabbed myself in the foot the day I told you to send the letter.”
“Nah, ye were right. This had ta be done.”
“You’re not mad?”
“I am mad. At them, at myself, at this fucking world that took Agna and left me with those rotten fucking snakes, but not at ye. I was stupid, too afraid and in a rush ta just get this over with. I forgot all I had learnt those past decades.”
“And what would that be?”
“Politics. Like it or not, I’m a public figure. I can’t just waltz in with a smile on my face and expect those twats to leave me the fuck alone. If I want to enjoy the presence of my kin without being used all the time I gotta prepare, gather allies. Only when I have a chance to be my own man will I return. Constantine showed me how to do it, but I was not ready. You may have noticed, but I am not the most subtle man around.”
Understatement of the century. I somehow successfully hold my tongue. My, but when Loth is incensed, he is quite foul-mouthed.
“I, Ariane of clan Nirari, will assist you in this endeavor. I may have access to a safe way to send your letters.”
“Why thank you. And now oh Ariane of clan Nirari, the mighty vampire, care to explain why you stink like cat pee?”
“I was on fire! I had no other choice! There was this barrel...”