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My dream palace melts in a phantasmagoria of shapes and colors. Awareness comes and goes with the ebb and flow of the riotous tide that pushes me forward. I know in my soul that I am here for a reason, an important one. An evanescent feeling of purpose. It calls to me from beyond the mirage swirling around my essence.

As I think this, I breach a sort of membrane and fall forward into a body that is not my own. I do not have the time to consider any of its physical properties for my mind is swallowed by an overwhelming sensation.

So much power.

The might of a demigod courses through my veins, begging to be used. I tower above all and none can match me. The clouds of shifting illusions coalesce and turn dark. A scene unravels before me. I am standing there and I am… I am…

I am bored.

Plumes of smoke rise into the night sky as fire ravages the husk of a fishing village. Nets, baskets and jars litter the ground alongside armor-clad corpses. There is not a labourer in sight. All those who lie here are warriors, or rather, what passes as a warrior in this pathetic era.

They are fools. Weak fools.

I direct my steps to a man in grey plate, still clinging to life. My feet raise clouds of ash as I cleave my way through the remains of the fallen. Men, vampires, even exotic creatures called by magic, all fell before me without showing the barest sign of inspiration, the dimmest spark of genius. Lives wasted in the pursuit of mediocrity, now fated to be lost to time, their memory stained by their ultimate and pointless failure.

This one was their leader. His dark beard is stuck to his face by thick black blood while the red flame of one of my spells slowly digs into his flesh. He raises mismatched eyes to me with the empty courage of men who have nothing to lose.

“I won’t say anything! You might as well slay me, beast.”

“You think I want to know why vampires and mages have united against me, or how you knew where I would emerge? You are mistaken, worm. I care not. The only thing I wonder is why you believed that you stood a chance.”

I pick him up by the collar. He grunts in pain as the motion makes my spell bite ever deeper.

“This is not new to me, none of this is. I have seen this alliance before. I have fought this kind of ambush before. I have slain lords and knights before. You bring me nothing. Even your flimsy excuses to stop me are rehashed arguments I have already heard a thousand times. You have been nothing but a disappointment, though I am feeling generous tonight. Tell me something interesting and I will let you live.”

“I... Know who it is you seek... You will never... Catch her.”

“I have all of eternity, and I need to be lucky but once.”

I drain him dry and throw the smouldering corpse away. Vanheim bloodline, a bit bland for a lordling.

“Are the preparations complete?”

I perceive a lithe form nodding in assent behind me. Good. I have tarried for too long and the trail has gone cold. It is not the first time and probably won’t be the last either.

“Then go.”

My servant disappears. I would eagerly depart myself, unfortunately, there is something left to do. My attackers evacuated the village before my arrival to prevent unnecessary casualties and to stop me from Devouring them, perhaps. I need to show them the futility of such actions. I need to set an example so that I am left alone for a few decades. Another tedious task.

To it then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dreamt today. Nightmares torture me until I wake and other phantasms always start in the heart of my mind fortress so I know that this was different, only, when I woke, the images flizzled between my fingers before I could commit them to memory. There was a man, no, I was a man, and there was also a fallen knight. He died. I killed him. I remember the taste of him. There was something important to realize, if only I could remember what it was. Can a dream really matter? Is there more to it than my sufferings and Nashoba’s unwillingness to send a letter like everyone else?

The carriage rolls to a halt, interrupting my musings. It is not yet time. We have just joined the line of people waiting to be admitted to John Fillmore’s party.

John Fillmore, self-made man and the current governor of Georgia. Also, a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood and my target tonight.

I lower my gaze to the mask in my hands and lightly caress its lacquered surface. This is the latest addition to my arsenal. Loth really surpassed himself when he made this masterpiece. The exterior is a perfect oval in lunar white with no features. Towards the middle, two discrete holes allow me to breathe in when I need to sample scents and the lower part can be removed, but is otherwise alien in its design. The total absence of feature makes me look like a true monster, and only serves to accentuate what I painted on it.

I drew what can only be described as a giant mocking smile in pure black. It took me a long time to get the dismissive sneer just right, the perfect expression of amused contempt. Eight stylized fangs border the mouth in a powerful statement. There is a delicious irony in fully accepting my lineage only when anonymous.

I also drew a pair of stylized brows and eyeshadows. When I angle my head forward, for example when I am in combat, the shades deepen and make me appear more murderous.

The interior matches me completely so that it could hold even without straps. The mask leaves my ears and the back off my head free. It also contains the drawing of a rune, etched in gold, that should prove salutary. Its working masks my aura to an extent. It will not suffice when dealing with wards but individuals will have a hard time noticing me. It will, hopefully, allow me to outrun what I cannot outfight.

I put it on just as my ride stops in front of the monumental doors of the Fillmore residence and I step out to pass them, formal invitation in hand.

The open gates, the majordomo genially checking the cream envelopes, all seems to indicate that I am invited here and I go through the threshold without issue but not without apprehension.

It worked.

I move forward to the ballroom as the first revellers turn to take in my sight.

For this operation we have forfeited discretion and gone for maximum impact and I must say that without the mask, I would not have had the gumption to carry this out.

My attire is provocative. There is no other way to say it. I am wearing a black dress with long raven feathers covering the collar and shoulders. High gloves ending in chitinous talons cover my arms and while I show very little skin, the attire is form-fitting. Shards of obsidian are sewn in hypnotic patterns along my side to attract and distract those that dare look.

Wearing this dress is a statement I have no choice but to own. And so I weave my way to the crowd, haughty as you please. I dodge and slide and strut and stalk with a grace that no mortal can hope to match, and leave in my trail envy and just a tiny note of fear. Those who look will know I am a predator. For a woman to walk thus should be unthinkable in good society, and the same rule that should constrain me does not allow the attendees to challenge me aloud. The sensation is almost intoxicating. Tonight, I am not Ariane the demure daughter of a landed gentleman, who was chaste and attended church every Sunday. I am Ariane of the Nirari, the daughter of Thorn and Hunger, she who carved a bloody path to freedom through vampires and werewolves alike. That Ariane does not care for peer pressure and the judgement of the cattle. She already has her place in the world, and friends she can rely on.

I ignore the whispers, the gawking yokels and the dancers stumbling their way in the middle of the floor. I grab a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and make my way out towards the garden. From the corner of my eye I see the master of the place, leaning to the side to ask some questions to a second majordomo. I am no betting woman but I would match peanuts against solid gold that it concerns my identity.

With the bait set, I step outside.

It so happens that Mr. Fillmore likes young and confident women. I am also not someone he has ever met, having obtained the invitation through one of their business partners. If everything works well, he should approach me himself. I only need to hold on until he makes a move and I would rather avoid getting too stuck in discussions before it happens.

I step outside and walk down a set of stairs on a gravel path surrounded by perfectly cut lawn. The garden expands before me, deserted at this hour. It is surprisingly vast.

I slowly make my way alongside carefully carved trees and geometrically placed flower beds. Cubic hedges line the path forward.

I recognize the marks of a French formal garden with its obsession of symmetry and control over nature. It used to be my favorite when I was younger. I had found its controlled lines and deliberate design soothing. Recently, I have found myself craving something a bit more on the wild side and the design of my mind fortress’ ethereal park reflects this change of taste. There are more hidden paths and sinuous ways. The flowers have thorns and sprawl lazily where they please, covering strange rocks.

My feet lead me to a small copse of trees, the only part of the property to have escaped man’s controlling grasp and I am for once surprised. There is already somebody there.

A bit curious, I dodge under a branch and become the uninvited guest to a most peculiar show. A man in a satyr mask with two horns jutting upright is playing a silent melody on a transverse flute. I quickly understand the lack of sound. The strange musician has placed the end of a light scarf on the embouchure and lip plate, so as to prevent his creation from escaping. His fingers danse a light gig on the silvery metal until, as I watch, they tangle and stop.

“Overly-complicated pretentious bullshit,” he swears with emotion.

“Is that the name of the piece good sir?”

The satyr jumps in surprise at my voice and grabs his heart.

“Good lord, milady, please knock on a trunk next time,” and without missing a beat, “you are as quiet as a whisper milady, please forgive my manners, I had not seen you.”

He then bows smartly with his flute held to the side like a saber.

“You are forgiven, dear satyr. Though if I might ask, this is a strange place for a rehearsal.”

I draw closer and study the weird human. He is probably quite young, dressed in a green suit adorned with leaves and vines in dyed fabric. His feet have been covered by a hilariously large set of fake hooves. Dark eyes without guile study me from behind the mask. A curtain of wavy black hair fall from it on both sides.

“Would you believe me if I said I am offering my songs to the goddess, hoping that Artemis herself will interrupt her hunt and descend from the firmament to bestow upon me the secrets of the night and perhaps even, her favor?”

“An exciting proposition my friend, though satyrs serve Dyonisos, songs are the domain of Euterpe and, sadly, Artemis is forever a virgin.”

“Curse classical education. My lies have been undone.”

“To be fair, overly-complicated bul… Poppycock, sounds like a poor offering.”

“Nothing can escape your keen senses. Very well, I at least owe you the truth for submitting your ears to this unsightly display. I am hiding.”

“From whom?”

“Have you perhaps seen a woman in a brown dress rushing around? Wearing a dog mask.”

“I cannot say that I did.”

“She has been hounding me.”

I groan at the poor pun, yet cannot help but smile. The delivery was top notch.

“It is true! Her name is Margaret Hart, daughter of a local furniture merchant, and she decided that we were destined for each other. I had no say in this decision, mind you. She has been courting me quite aggressively ever since.”

“Has she captured your heart yet?”

“No, though not for lack of assaulting it.”

“I see, and this mask will not protect you?”

“Oh, I cannot hide, I’m afraid. Despite the disguise, we remain recognizable. We are an insular folk here, and have known each other for years. No thick cloth nor masks will rid poor cousin Francis of his unfortunate tendency to scratch his ass in public for example. Ah, pardon my French.”

“You are forgiven for your language, sir, but not from bringing this to my imagination. I am inclined to retaliate by bringing your pursuer’s on you.”

“I am at your mercy milady. Though, I would like to point out that she would devote some of that attention to you.”

“As a rival?”

“Assuredly.”

“That seems far stretched, we only met.”

“The poor girl is craving excitement, and the appearance of a mysterious and beautiful woman will be enough to name you an enemy for life.”

“You must be exaggerating.”

“Her most favoured gossip remains her aunt’s unwanted pregnancy.”

“It... Does seem like a serious affair?”

“Not if you consider that it happened thirteen years ago. The boy is almost as tall as her, though obviously not quite as heavy. This is, to date, still the most exciting thing to happen in her life.”

“Oh my, how dreadfully boring.”

I would rather spike myself and face the dawn than to live such an existence.

“Now you can imagine my worries.”

“Marrying her would be a death of the soul. I understand. By the way, how do you know I am beautiful? I could be a gorgon under this guise.”

“This is a masquerade milady, I can choose to think you pretty and you would have to break the rules to prove me wrong. Besides, there is something in your countenance, something that speaks of confidence. This is not the mark of an ugly woman.”

“Oh my, how insightful. But tell me, is your suitor not beautiful herself?”

“I am afraid that she fell off the ugly tree at birth and hit every branch on her way down, then landed face first.”

“Surely she has a redeeming quality?”

“Her stature can only be called willowy if said willow has been cut down and turned into a barrel. Her temperament would suit Hades better than Persephone and if she ever had a moral fiber, it has long since dried out and been turned into a basket.”

I cannot help but laugh. What fun he is! I have not had such a pleasant and carefree conversation since… Since…

I cannot remember. I have been fighting and hiding for so long, even social events were only the setting for another intrigue. Come to think of it, this one is too. I still have a little time however, I must not rush this operation and besides, this is so entertaining.

Yes. I missed this. Just a nice evening out with a pleasant conversationalist. Witty retorts and fun exchanges. It is lucky that he would be here alone, and he smells quite good, like soap and sunshine on clean skin. His heart beats so strong, a bit faster now. I could see him touch me and not be terrified. He would be tender and patient, and I would BIND HIM TO MY SERVICE… No!

I take a step back and retract my eager fangs. The mask saved me from doing something regrettable. This is not the time to be shopping for new followers. I have a mission to complete!

And I would lose him.

This man would not do as a vassal, I would have to bind him and after each feeding, he would grow ever more placid and obedient, and even less himself. A hollow shell. Cattle.

My hand, which was about to touch his shoulder, falls down by my side. His own hand retreats and I can tell he is a bit disappointed.

“I am sorry. I do not know what came over me.”

“Haha, there is nothing to apologize for. I wish whatever came over you had stayed a second longer. This was… Pleasant.”

“I would not want to be too forward.”

“Think nothing of it, I can handle unwanted attention, and this was not it.”

I say nothing for a while. I liked this moment. I liked him as well, but now the spell is broken and I remember why I am here and what I have become. There is still something more I could steal from this evening.

“Regarding your unwanted suitor, I do believe you have been approaching the situation the wrong way.”

“You think so? I am open to suggestions. My next step was to unleash the dogs when she would next visit.”

“Nothing so crass I assure you. Think of your poor dogs. No, what you need is to stake a public claim. The humiliation will prevent her from pursuing the matter.”

The man’s stance shows hope.

“What would you suggest?”

I lean forward ever so slightly.

“Invite me for a dance?”

He licks his lips nervously.

“Yes. I see how this would be an excellent idea.”

I place my arm in his. I am daring tonight! Constanza would be squealing if she knew.

My mysterious friend leads me back inside and to the dance floor, chest puffed with pride. I realize that he is most likely much younger than me, an occurrence that will only happen more often as years go by. We enter under the curious glance of more than one attendant, line up with the other dancers and move with the sounds of flutes and violins.

Dancing is ever the social activity. The slow rhythm invites flirting, though the presence of so many people around prevents anything too bold from happening. There is no physical contact except the occasional hand clap, though it does not stop me from making myself noticeable. Even the most minute change to someone’s balance can make a twirl awkward or perfect and I am, to them, perfect. Every step, every twist is flawlessly timed, and I let my partner guide me and guide him in return. As the music goes on we become the centre of attention for none can match our display. From the corner of my eye, I notice a plump woman in a dog mask storming out of the room.

“It seems our little ruse has worked, your suitor just left the scene.”

“I would rather make sure, would you grant me the next dance as well?”

I laugh happily. What my companion lacks in experience, he makes up for it in enthusiasm. Alas, I can see the next step of our plan unfolding and it will soon be time to get back to work. I must cut our amusement short.

“I’m afraid I must decline my good sir. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned after all. I must prepare for my exit.”

He is about to protest when I break protocol and place a finger before his lips. The gesture is enough to make him miss a step, thankfully promptly corrected. The poor lad looks completely dejected.

“Will I see you again?”

No, we will not meet again. This was an experience born of the moment, and perhaps a sign that I can move on a bit, retake what should have been mine.

“Who knows?”

When the orchestra stops, I merge into the crowd, leaving him behind, and make my way to the middle of the room where I am intercepted by another majordomo in a frog mask.

“Milady, forgive my impertinence. Mr. Fillmore would be delighted if you could join him for a moment if it pleases you.”

I nod and follow. Our plan has borne fruit.

I thought I would go to him directly upon arriving, however Loth said it would be preferable to be invited. Since my purpose is to be alone with him, it will require us to depart the room, which is better done without too many people’s scrutiny. I harbored doubts and voiced them to Loth. How could I, a woman without much experience in flirting let alone seducing, end up alone with a notable man such as Mr. Fillmore? Especially in one night? Is he not overestimating me?

The tall man had simply raised a brow and retorted:

“Aye how could a powerful man be convinced to be alone with a beautiful woman in his own house? Big difficulty that is. Guess ye’ll have to impress him with yer knitting first, ya know? Engage in jolly conversation? Jokes aside, use yer instincts and Sinead’s lessons. That man wants ta be seduced, so since ye’re wearing a mask, use it ta be a little daring aye? Trust me, I’m a man. It will work.”

And so here we are. I just hope he will not be so vulgar as to touch me in public. That would be catastrophic for everyone involved.

The crowd parts and I finally see our benevolent host. He sits on an actual throne, in a suit of cream and gold. A sun mask adorns his face, held in place by a golden crown. By his side, a large man with a clean shaven head stands at attention.

This is the most blatant show of megalomania I have seen since leaving the Lancaster clan.

“Ah, good evening miss, I do not believe we are acquainted?”

“Naturally, sun king, this is a masquerade after all.”

The man chuckles, though his eyes remain curious.

“How should I address you then?”

“Melpomene.”

“A muse! Dare I ask to see your cothurnus?”

Cothurnus are shoes worn by classical Greek actors in tragedies. Achilles mentioned it once, thankfully, else I would look ridiculous right now.

“Surely you would not want me to be indecent at your own party sir.”

“Of course not, haha, of course not...”

Right.

“Say, milady…”

The following conversation is a careful exercise in patience. I immediately start by engaging Fillmore on his favorite topic: himself. At the same time, I remain mysterious and use a light touch in my attempt to keep him entertained. Any heavy-handed attempt might be detected by someone with his experience in social matters. I stay careful and do not overestimate myself. A light laugh here, an amused and snarky remark there, little by little I make him more comfortable and after his guard has let up a bit, I insert a bit of Charm in my eyes. It is then that my caution proves warranted as Mr. Fillmore is wearing a protective magical charm.

How interesting. It appears that my dear guest has fingers in a great many pies, to be linked both to the secret society and to mages.

Following Sinead’s method once more proves to be a boon. I carefully align the essence of the bond linking us to his current feeling and I start to dig through the magical shield. This charm, however, is powerful. Much more so than the one the Rosenthal guard wore. I must now focus on both my conversation and the breakthrough. Thanks to hours of practice, I quickly succeed and get a glimpse of his thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, my host does not hold me in high regard. I do not detect any feeling of respect or concern in his mind, he does however harbor no small amount of lust. It is only tempered by careful self-control and… Apprehension. It cannot be that he knows what I am, the feeling is far too diffuse for that. Then what?

Ah, of course, social pressure. My host is a widower, and although it would not be unacceptable for him to search for a new party, being seen going upstairs alone with a younger woman could become a stain on his reputation. This fear is a boon if I can carefully reduce it. Fillmore is clearly worried about his mind being tampered with, and any sudden increase of sexual desire may be regarded as suspicious. Instead, I will simply weaken his inhibitions. Nothing liquor could not have achieved, had he indulged a little more.

Soon we reach a tipping point in our exchange. He had been boasting about a collection of Renaissance paintings he had shipped from Italy at great cost when he suddenly stops and turns to me. This is it. Tonight’s crux. If he leaves, I will have lost my opportunity to enter his inner sanctum. We would lose weeks of work.

I have to try it.

“How I wish I could see it. I am a painter myself.”

“You are?”

“Yes, though I do not claim to have any talent in it. I did not study Renaissance much, I prefer Baroque. Do you know why?”

“Do tell.”

I lean forward and my arms press my modest bust forward. It is not much, but I can see a flicker in his eyes as he takes in the view.

“They capture the moment. Bernini paints David as he throws the stone and Vermeer paints the girl with the pearl earring as she turns towards him. They play with light and motion to make their work come to life.”

“Fascinating… Yes, the moment. You do make a good case, and I would appreciate your opinion on my modest possessions.”

“I am quite tempted, although, I would be loath to hog you at your own party.”

“Think nothing of it. It is not everyday that I have the pleasure of entertaining a guest of such refined tastes.”

I bet.

“Shall we?”

He stands up and the majordomo and bodyguard both mask our exit in what appears to be a well-rehearsed maneuver. I follow him up a flight of stairs to a corridor where we inspect the paintings as we go. Fillmore prefers pastoral landscapes and nudes. Very few of the works displayed are religious in nature, and Greek mythology is prevalent. This might explain how he dared use “cothurnus” in a conversation without suffocating under the weight of his own self-importance.

Cothurnus. Honestly.

“And now, the prize of my collection.”

We are alone in a room filled with curios and art. Fillmore’s acolytes did not follow us up the stairs and I will not get a better chance.

“Impressive…” I say, as I drag a nail along his collar. I discreetly dig out the pendant’s chain and easily snap it between two claws. My prey breathes faster as his desire gets the better of him. He does not even notice his protections being stripped away.

I let go of any subtlety and crack his mind like a nut. I have been Charming him for the better part of an hour. He does not stand a chance.

“You want to satisfy me, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you keep notes related to the Brotherhood of the New Light?”

“Yes. Notes and blackmail material.”

“Where is it?”

“Some of it is in my safe, in my office. The rest is spread across the county.”

“Lead me there.”

I do not need to maintain eye contact, though I cannot leave him alone for too long. We quietly leave for his quarters and he unlocks his study, making a rather complex ward disappear with an intricate key.

Fillmore’s office is all gaudy displays and hard work. He clearly does not owe his success to anyone but himself. I have not seen such discipline and efficiency since Isaac helped me open an account. I shove, without reading, everything I can to a secured inner pocket on the side of my dress. It will make a bulge, but I do not expect a great many people to notice. Owing to my experience in Charleston, it is also insulated against water, fire, smoke and even to some extent, bullets.

There is also more than five hundred dollars in obligation, which I pocket.

Spoils of war!

I remember a derogatory remark from lady Moor about looting and dismiss it immediately. That pompous goose earns everything through prior investments and by smuggling alcohol. She and Melusine can go sunbathe in a volcano, this money is mine.

“Is there anything else of value for you?”

“Yes, my setup in the basement.”

“Wine?”

“No, the secret basement.”

Oh my! He truly is an opera villain.

“How do I access it?”

It turns out that the concealed entrance is hidden behind a false wall in his bedroom. I have him drink a few decanters of an excellent whisky I found on his desk and follow him there.

“There are several exits, all easily accessible from the cellar heading out. No traps.”

I order him to open the way for me, close it behind and then fall into deep slumber. I wipe most of the memories of the past hour, leaving a blurred image tainted by alcohol. He should wake up realizing he has been robbed by a woman whose face he never saw, and the embarrassment should keep him mostly quiet. I doubt that he will complain to his secret society brethren, as I can easily imagine how they handle compromised elements.

I follow a narrow set of stairs in semi darkness. I do not bother with lamps, and why would I? The passage carries me three floors down. I can still hear violins and the whispers of conversation through thin walls, signs that the party is in full swing.

On the last landing is a secured door, with no wards this time. I open it and lock it behind me.

What in the name of the Watcher is this?!

I turn around and my eyes confirm what my ears and nose picked up. I stand in the middle of a vast room with a packed dirt floor and support columns. Steel doors lead further into this space, but what attracts my attention stands in the middle. There are four cages fastened to the floor and ceiling by steel chains, and in each cage is a woman.

Fillmore you disgusting pervert, I underestimated your depravity. What an incredible setup! This is almost vampire-like in its nature, though terribly amateurish. I could mention three improvements off the top of my head.

All the cages have covers, a jug of water and a chamber pot. In the first to my left I see a short Asian woman fixing the ceiling with an empty gaze. The second contains a very young black woman cradling her knees. A native girl turns her back to me in the third cage, this time to my left, and the last cage is occupied by a redhead who stares at me in disbelief.

My, my, my, what should I do with this lot?

I notice a desk by the entrance covered in notes and conduct a summary inspection of all his notes. It’s sex. All of it.

I should not have come here, this is a waste of my time.

“Psss! Please, I beg you.”

I should just go.

“Miss. Please…”

Sighing, I approach the red-haired woman. From up close, I realize she is even younger than I assumed. She is surprisingly clean, but exhaustion and misery are clear on her face. Her paleness serves as a contrast to the red of her eyes, the black of the pockets below and the blue of the numerous bruises I see on every spot of naked skin.

“What is it, supplicant?”

The alien word makes her recoil and she flinches in anticipation for some sort of punishment. Seeing none coming, she gathers her courage and continues.

“Are you with him?”

“No.”

“Then… Please help us escape.”

“And why would I do that?”

The black girl’s sobs turn to a panicked whine. I do not react and instead consider the girl in front of me.

Resourceful. Daring. Not easily broken. I feel a kind of kinship with this one. She is a survivor, like me.

“I’ll serve you. I can cook, clean and sing. I can swing a bat with the best of them. Please miss, I’ll serve you with all my heart, you won’t regret it.”

“Deal.”

What will Loth say? Ah well.

“How do I open the cages?”

“Sir, I mean, that man who owns the house. He has it.”

Damn it, I should have been more thorough in my interrogation!

“Any other way?”

She shakes her head, licks her lips, thinking fast.

“He could keep a spare somewhere around?”

I nod and look around. Besides the desk, there are also several wooden apparatuses that would not be out of place in a torture chamber. A rack holds tools I do not recognize, though their shapes speak of a tragic tale. Should I free this woman, Fillmore may not survive the night.

I return to the desk. Unfortunately, a more thorough search only gets me a hidden knife. I am certain that there are no secret compartments. A quick search beyond the two steel doors only reveals the concealed exit and an actual cellar as large as a warehouse filled with crates and cleaning supplies.

I return to the red-haired woman, who is starting to tear up and grab the door.

I pull.

“It’s steel, miss…”

The metal creaks and groans, the hinge pops and the door opens.

“Hoooly shit!”

“Language.”

“Sorry!”

I turn to the others. I could do the same or keep them as snacks perhaps?

A noise comes from upstairs, heavy footsteps rushing down. What should I do? If I drag her now, they will rush us before I can open the concealed exit.

Indecision takes the decision away from me.

“Stay here, pretend the door is closed,” I manage to whisper before the door bangs open and Fillmore bursts in with three men in tow. One of them is the bodyguard I met before, still as expressive as ever. The other two are more interesting. There is a tired looking old man with a graying beard and fat man with a red jacket stained with grease, pasty face red and out of breath.

The two newcomers are mages, very likely the ones who made the pendant and set up the wards.

“You willwheezereturn the documentswheezenow!” says my host while brandishing a gun.

Instead of answering, I run towards the darkness. Fillmore does not pull the trigger, not that it would stop me, but even the most soundproof ceiling will not stop the thundering blast of a gunshot.

Instead of reaching for the exit, I enter the warehouse, lock the door behind me and jump up. I use my claws and feet to stick to the ceiling and wait.

“She went left?”

“No, right, idiot.” answers a gravelly voice. Probably the older man.

The trio bursts into the room. The older man had the presence of mind to take a lantern and the bodyguard now has a club.

“We search the area, you go right I go left and we meet at the end. Alister you guard the door and catch her if she tries to make a run for it.”

“Do we really have to? We could just...”

“Shut up. Yes you really have to. Now go.”

“I don’t have a light.”

“Then make one.” answers the leader out of patience.

The fat man grumbles and complies.

“Light!”

A pale orb rises and shines on me. They do not look up. No one ever does.

The two men split up and start their search. Theirs is the only source of illumination here. With the clutter, it is easy to hide if only for a minute or two.

“Come on out, don’t make it too hard on yourself. You know you’re trapped.”

I wait until they are a few meters away before dropping on the bodyguard. I may still spare Fillmore to avoid a major scandal. These men are expendable.

I silently kill the bodyguard with a finger through the neck. I pull him down to avoid noise of a collapsing body and hide his form in the shade. One down, two to go.

“Don’t be ridiculous girl, it can only end one way.”

“What makes you quite so sure?”

Both men swing around, one with a yelp of surprise and the other with his gauntlet raised.

“He got caught huh? Nicely done, but you are only delaying the inevitable.”

“Again I ask, what makes you so sure?”

“There is only one thing that could stop me with no weapon, girl, and you ain’t it. Now down on your knees.”

I am delighted to see that this rune does indeed mask my aura quite well. Loth will be pleased.

I press a small indent at the base of my mask. It slides open to reveal my really, really pointy smile.

“Think again.”

“Aw FUCK!”

I move. I almost behead the fat man before he can do more than open his mouth in surprise.

“Spike!”

Translucent spines start to appear on the old man, before he can do more I am on him. I dodge to the side and grab him by the heel where his defenses have so far failed to appear and swing him bodily into the nearest pile of crates.

The wood explodes under him. He gasps in pain as red foam taint his lips. A bar of rusted steel emerges from his battered chest.

He gives me one last bitter smile, which I return in kind, before I Devour him.

“It was a good Hunt.”

That was easier than I anticipated. Unfortunately, my short pleasure is interrupted by a gunshot. Bah, can a woman not enjoy her drink in peace? What manner of party is this?

Then there is another gunshot, then two others.

Oh. Oh no.

I replace the mask and when I step outside of the room, a squad of men has gathered in a defensive circle around a shaking Fillmore and two others. A beautiful woman in a daring green dress and crimson hair stands with her eyes closed. Besides her, a tall man with black hair and a well trimmed beard is calmly reloading a pistol. He has the understated charm of old nobility and is clearly in command.

The four girls are dead.

The supplicant is sprawled on the ground with brain matter leaking from her shattered skull. Her one remaining eye is staring at the ceiling and freedom that never came.

I... failed? I failed! I said I would free her and she died, under my care! The supplicant is dead, killed while I was feeding?! God dammit.

I feel revolted. I was careless and arrogant and because of this a supplicant I swore to protect lost her life. Fulfilling my word should have come first! I should have massacred those idiots where they stood and forced my way out instead of trying to be smart. Or I should have refused the deal! Instead I went half-cocked and look where I end up. Pah! Ariane the fool. Ariane the conceited. Ariane, queen of three papers and a corpse.

“It’s her! Melpomene!”

I return my attention to the men in front of me. The squad surrounding Fillmore is armed with muskets all pointing forward.

“Imbecile, don’t you know that Melpomene carries a knife? She gave you the hint and you did not take it... Typical vampire humor. You lot, fire!”

I dodge left and down as a storm of lead clatters against the bricks behind me. I charge forward immediately.

“Belinda!”

I brake and manage to slow down by digging my talons in the packed earth as a circle of silvery fire raises from the ground. The woman has her eyes opened, and a ring aimed at me.

“Bolt!”

I barely manage to dodge the white hot beam coming from her. I am probably as surprised as she is though I certainly do not show it.

“My God she’s a Master, up, up the stairs, now! Cover Belinda!”

I take my dagger from a holster on my leg and stab into the barrier. The red-haired woman grunts but does not yield. The pain I feel is manageable in comparison to the deeply unsettling shame now coursing through my mind.

Failure.

I am forced to back off when one of the soldiers fires at point blank range. A small twist allows me to reposition but it is clear that this tactic will not succeed. Instead, I retreat to a torture table and grab it. The witch was practically sneering when I was falling back. Now that she sees me lifting the piece of furniture in the air, her countenance breaks.

“Shit. Inferno!”

The spell goes off and she collapses in the arms of a soldier who drags her up. A moment later, the piece of furniture slams into a straggler and pulps him against the unyielding steel door, now closed.

A wave of delayed heat explodes outward. I upend a table and take cover as it moved forward, igniting everything in its path.

FIRE.

Dammit. I need to get out. Now!

I rush over ground shimmering with heat and don’t bother touching the reddening handle.

“Yah!”

I boot the door opened the way Loth showed me. The rectangle of steel bangs against the wall and I roll inside.

“Hot hot hot aaaaaaa!”

The temperature keeps increasing, I manage to operate the locking mechanism and jump through the opening into the blessedly cool night.

And then I run away.

Fillmore will have rescinded his invitation so I cannot finish off my enemies, even if I were willing to take the risk. I got documents we will have to decrypt. In return I let them know they face a vampire.

Ah who am I kidding I know what I lost, a supplicant and even perhaps a potential Vassal. As I disappear in the darkness, this night feels like everything but victory.

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Mecanimus

  • Shanghai

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