After Dalton had his fun, Loth takes over and get us moored or anchored or whatever it is called to the Clarkson Cove pier. Nobody in the tiny port town even reacts to the obvious signs of battle damage and I am reminded that this nation is at war with a naval power. Privateers and raided merchants are almost an everyday occurrence. There are even talks of ships fighting duels, one on one, as if they were champions of old.
Loth heads out to the city of Black Harbor to scout it while Dalton and I leave to meet up with Isaac. I spend the day slumbering and at nightfall, leave him and our carriage behind to sprint across the land. I move faster than a galloping horse and a trip that could have taken a day took me only two hours.
When I arrive at the inn Isaac decided upon, I find it surrounded by a modest but orderly military camp. The mercenaries on guard do not challenge me. Instead, they direct me to the building’s main room, where I find Venet and Isaac with several officers surrounding a map of the surrounding states.
“Do you have it, Ariane?”
The men turn and notice me. I left the mask to my side behind but kept the rest. We are reaching the end of this play, and I expect us to fight at any time.
They are nervous, but not the shifty nerves of the pirates. They know that they face a creature against whom their training would not suffice. This grants me a modicum of apprehension tinged with respect.
“Yes. The wreck is one day away from the city of Black Harbor. We asked and located it. It’s here.”
I place a black claw on the map, at coordinates we confirmed with Clarkson’s Cove only cartographer.
“There is more. The Brotherhood captured the first mate some time ago. They probably know where it is.”
Venet and Isaac share a glance.
“Well this complicates matters. We have confirmed that the British have landed in Shreveport minor, here.”
He points at the map, suspiciously close to Black Harbor. It is likely that the small port could not handle an expeditionary force of this size and decided to go to a bigger port to unload troops and equipment.
“There is no doubt that this is the work of Ascendency.”
“By our estimates, eight hundred plus field artillery. A hundred horses.”
It takes all my experience to school my face into displaying no emotion.
“I cannot face those numbers plus their mages, even in a war of attrition.”
“And you will not have to. You will be pleased to know that Mr. Fillmore has been found guilty of abduction and other heinous crimes. He was quietly retired and the shame proved too much. I’m afraid he took his own life.”
Isaac’s voice is filled with regret, a performance I am personally impressed with. It conflicts beautifully with the air of smugness he affects. Like a cat who has found the bird’s nest.
Note to self, the consortium can retire and kill off a governor in one week flat.
“Following this unfortunate event, you and Loth have received a full pardon and we can now draw on the strength of the local military. Match their troops with our own. I took the liberty of mobilizing the 4th regiment of line and the Georgia militia. I will sign their marching order as soon as this conversation is over, and our plan set up. Mr. Venet, how do you see us proceeding?”
“We should link up with the army and force march to Black Harbor. If we take the field first, we can set up defences and force Ascendency into a disadvantageous attack. Time is on our side since they can’t get supplies easily, and if we have to attack them first, their Napoleonic war veterans will chew through our green troops like a hot knife through butter. My men can form a solid core but there is only a hundred of us and the locals won’t trust us.”
“You are mistaken on the last point, Venet, time is not on our side. This is not a battle for land but for an artefact. The first one to get it wins, no matter if his army is decimated in the process.”
“With all due respect sir,”
“With all due respect nothing. If the Herald gets his hands on the box, we lose. I do not have to explain myself to you, I need you to trust me on this.”
“Very well sir. Our initial plan remains the same then, however we will need to apply constant pressure on their forces so that they cannot send searching parties. This will be... difficult.”
“I believe I can assist with this. I will have reinforcements from irregulars.” I add.
Isaac raises a brow in a public display of curiosity.
“The Choctaw and the Muskogee will fight by our side.”
“We don’t need help from savages.”
Isaac coughs lightly to lift the tension.
“I agree with Ariane of the Nirari Mr. Venet, we need all the help we can beg, borrow or steal. The land around Black Harbor is heavily wooded and native fighters will be of tremendous help.”
Venet agrees reluctantly. His pride is misplaced, for beggars cannot be choosers.
“To summarize, Mr. Venet and myself will link up with the army and make our way to the wreck by the most direct route. In the meanwhile, you shall gather Loth of Skoragg and whatever irregulars you can gather and join us. If possible, delay them. They are closer to the wreck than we are. Is this agreeable?”
I appreciate the courtesy and signify it with a minute nod, which he immediately mirrors.
“It is, then I shall be on my way.”
I stand facing the thorn wall at the edge of my dream fortress. I managed to warn Nashoba of my need to speak by thinking about him, his blood, his eyes when we first met. I also touched the earrings he gave me before succumbing to torpor.
The result is that I can feel him through the wall, and he has not yet managed to establish a connection. I feel a vague sense of frustration, then of energy rising and rising, then it being released all at once. Finally, there is peace and the way opens.
When I am done crossing the fog barrier, I find him in the middle of a pine forest playing with a cone. He is dressed in dark leather and his face is painted in fearsome colors. A war club lays by his side and a quiver on his shoulder. His laughing dark eyes peer at me from under thick dark hair. Just like Dalton, Nashoba has grown a lot since I first met him.
“What took you so long? What happened?”
“I could not fall asleep to come see you so I, ah, asked Tinami for help.”
Tinami? That is a girl’s name...
“Oooooh I DID NOT NEED TO KNOW THAT!”
“Why are you so squeamish, daughter of thorn and hunger? You should make love too, it will soothe your spirit”
“Keep going and I’ll soothe your spirit forever.”
“Tut tut, one cannot deny the needs of the body and stay in balance. But that is a discussion for later. Time is upon us, I know. I am leading my war band to you.”
“It is already assembled?”
Nashoba takes a thoughtful expression. His acting is terrible.
“Have I ever mentioned that I could see the future?”
I am polite and respectful and would never be caught dead uttering the term ‘smart ass’. It did, however, cross my mind.
“Then I will depart before you bequeath any more wisdom upon me, oh great one.”
“Before you do, Ariane, I wanted to thank you. I knew I could count on you. You know what the key that breaks needs to be triggered. Our people are currently scattered and vulnerable. We lack Nightwalkers to face this menace and the tools to warn everyone. If we fail now, the carrier can disappear in our lands and carve a path of destruction across the land before they can be stopped, if they can even be stopped at this point. You really are my only hope in this junction... I pray the spirits that we succeed. I will see you soon.”
The curtain of cloud falls on me.
The village is completely deserted. The smell of carrion spreads from cattle slain in their own fields and left to rot. The houses stand empty of light, broken doors and blood trails the silent witnesses of the horrors of war waged on the defenseless. In the distance, a dog howls dejectedly.
“Where are the people?” asks Dalton in a low voice. I point at the burnt husk of a church. Thin smoke and trails of ash stream in the wind and carry with them the scent of cooked meat.
“Why would they do that?”
“This is their main foraging party. Perhaps they did not want to leave anyone to relay their presence.”
“It seems extreme, even by Brotherhood standards.”
I nod. This is the second depopulated hamlet we have come across while following the trail of the British horse. Well, either them or a hundred strong group of bandits sprouted out of nowhere and decided to devastate the countryside, which is practically impossible. We will find the Ascendency expedition at the end of this path.
Dalton is showing signs of exhaustion. He has been working both day and night this past week, only catching sleep here and there. Watching his darkened eyes, the stubble on his cheeks and the strain in his voice causes me to feel unsettled. I am reminded that he is, for all his qualities, just a mortal man. He is vulnerable. A simple mistake may cost him his life and tiredness makes men prone to them. I need to keep him away from danger until he can rest.
I wish I could turn him.
I would lose a competent Vassal but I would gain a friend, alas it is simply impossible. It took me only one year to become a Courtier when most take around two, and that was already a record. I can’t remember how many times I almost died again during that period. Assuming I keep the same growth, it will take another forty years to become a Master myself and that would make Dalton over sixty-five... He would be an old man, if he even survives that long.
Perhaps I should ask Jimena if her clan is looking for a valuable candidate... No, then he would not be one of mine anymore. I will not share.
I am at a loss. Loth mentioned it on the day we met, the ephemeral nature of mortal life. He said that being with someone who would not age made a difference. I believed that the loss of his loved ones had taxed his undying mind, and yet the same fear now grips me.
“What is wrong Mistress?”
“You will die before me.”
Ah, I replied without thinking. Am I being too uncouth?
“Yes Mistress, I would hope so!”
“I cannot change you. I am too young.”
“I do not want to be changed.”
“Really? I thought...”
Dalton shakes his head.
“Loth told me more about what the change means. It is irrelevant to you now but not to me. I do not want to become a vampire.”
“You will grow old and die.”
“Yes, as did my ancestors before me. Mistress, you are letting the future ruin your present. Cherish the instant and let the memories you create now accompany you throughout the centuries. For example, look at what we found,” he adds with a smile.
In front of us, the road descends into a wooden valley currently specked with campfires. Rows of orderly tents cover the ground in a sprawling mass. A river cuts the plain in two and separates us from the major parts of their forces. A bridge joins both sides, and upon it, looted wagons loaded with supplies cross at a snail’s pace.
“It appears that we found the expedition my dear Vassal.”
At this moment, the bridge explodes in a deafening conflagration, sending horses, carriages and men into the air. Pieces of masonry smash into tents and cooking stations. Fiery embers in red and green ignite supplies and the night soon fills with screams and cries.
“And we found Loth as well! How convenient.”
We just caught the tail of the foraging party and the explosion caught its head. A dozen men are on the ground, unmoving while the rest are struggling to maintain control of their mounts or running around without purpose. The chaos is simply marvelous. I try to capture the moment in my mind so that I can commit it to a canvas at a later point. Just as I think the scene could not possibly be improved, a tall, dark figure emerges from the thickets behind the rear guard. The man stands proudly, clad in a strange looking black armor like a barbarian of old, and with a voice that covers the field, it cries:
“UP YERS YA FOOKIN WANKERS!”
Wonderful. If unnecessarily vulgar.
In case the message was not convincing enough, Loth shoulders his monstrosity of a rifle, lines a shot and takes out the head of an officer trying to keep his men together. Quite literally.
When he starts running there are already more than thirty men trailing him.
“I am sure he has a plan, nevertheless I shall run to the rescue.”
“I will hide the carriage.”
I nod, put on my mask and move around the already nervous horses. No need to make them panic. Before me lies a wooded area, then the road Loth disappeared on. Furious riders spur their mounts there. I can see them through the branches.
Now that I am paying attention, those are mostly auxiliary troops probably drawn from the local Brotherhood ranks. No red coats, and there is also something feral about them. They spur their mounts with more rage than sense, apparently unworried that the man who caught them in such a deadly trap would attempt to do so again. Imbeciles.
I run parallel to them into the forested area with ease born out of constant practice. I decide not to overtake them as being closest to Loth right now is an unhealthy proposition.
As expected, the road broadens into an open field ending in a steep hill. The path forward turns back towards the river, and stands empty. As no one is in sight, the herd of men slows down and only now do the least dim-witted members realize their predicament. Their cries of ‘back!’ is covered by my friend’s deafening roar.
A line of muskets opens from the slope. The shooters are smartly camouflaged among stones and vegetation, and I am quite surprised to see two dozen of them. Where did he even find those men?
Another officer arrives in the clearing just as the Brotherhood soldiers ineffectually exchange shots with their well-entrenched foes. His attempt at sorting the mess is interrupted by another one of Loth’s flawless shots. Despite this, a few combatants still on horse are looking to escape. The first ones are already galloping back.
That won’t do at all. Time to show them why you don’t use a horse when expecting to face a vampire.
I stand on the dirt path, the head rider sees me and turns to run me down.
Below the surface, the monster stirs. The part of me that always wants to dominate, to tear and to destroy, the part that I always keep in check because it does not care for what I can actually achieve, this part of me, I finally LET LOOSE. PATHETIC WEAKLINGS. IDIOTS. UNWORTHY OF BEING EVEN HUNTED. LEARN OF YOUR PLACE, AS YOU DIE.
I catch the exact moment when the lead rider’s pupils contract to a pinprick. The small intake of breath as realization strikes. His horse reeling in panic, soon imitated by all the others.
Yes. This is my time. For the next minute, I can just... Let go.
Claws into chest. Throw body. Red trail. Next prey. Cleave. Shear. Stab. Swipe. Tear and gore and slice and more. Always more. One behind trying to flee into the trees. Slow and cumbersome and pathetically awkward. Jump after. Roots and trunks are not obstacles, just convenient nooks for me to angle myself, position for the next strike. This is my territory. All of it. Crack the spine then return. Scythe my way through their scattered numbers. The last survivors have formed a turtle formation which I circle. I plant myself on their way. They fire their pistols. I fall to dodge and stand back up in a smooth motion.
“Who are you to oppose the coming of the new light?” screams a puny vermin.
WILL NOT WASTE WORDS ON DEAD MEN.
I rush forward, slide under their blades. No runes in this plane will let them match the speed of a Devourer. Crash into them and send men flying. Whirlwind of blood and limbs. The survivors run in every direction, a few steps before I take them apart.
The last one raises pleading hands.
As the corpse shivers on the ground, I take in my surroundings.
Bodies and the moans of the dying. The air is heavy with the reek of gunpowder, excrement and their feeble blood.
Loth struts down the slope with absolute confidence. His heavy black armor does not slow him one bit, which would surprise his men if they knew how much it weighs. A bunch of tough fighters slowly emerges from the bushes with no small amount of apprehension. They truly are a motley bunch from all ages and sizes. The only thing they have in common is long beards and dirty cloth that merge in their surroundings. There is even a one-eyed grandpa with an actual monkey on his shoulders. Is this a carnival or a battle?!
As I consider the assembly, Loth stops a few steps away from me and slowly, his followers form a half circle behind him. Their guns and blades are pointed at me though seeing the fear in their eyes, they know perfectly well how much good it will do.
Nobody says a word. The tension makes them fidget. Beads of sweat drip down their foreheads, and a few of the most desperate ones even found God if their prayers are any indication.
After having his fun, Loth’s scowl turns into a merry smile.
“Nice showing lass, now where is Mr. Posh and his merry band?”
I slowly incline my head but I do not answer. Loth wants to play the crowd. So will I. Blood drips from my talons onto the ground. Slowly. Drip, drip. Before the first of his men have heart attacks, I reply. Perhaps it is the moment, or perhaps the darker part of me is still close to the surface, my voice is sultry and dangerous.
“I left them behind, did not want to miss the fun.”
The thugs relax.
“Ariane, let me present to you the band of the crow, merriest pack of bloodthirsty privateers this side of the Atlantic.”
“Pirates? This did not work so well last time.”
The thugs tense.
“Oh don’t ye worry I think they will obey just fine. They don’t want to end like Big Pete.”
“Their former leader, the head of Black Harbor city by mandate of Jean Lafitte himself. I mentioned the incoming invasion and he questioned my credibility and my honor. Was quite unpleasant about it as well. We had words.”
“Let me guess. Some of those were ‘ah my eyes’.”
“Good. Then I do not have to elaborate on what I will do to them should they step out of line?”
The thugs relax.
“I’m a bit Thirsty though, I could use a dessert.”
The thugs tense. This is fun. Unfortunately, Loth objects to me eating his allies and so I leave to get Dalton. The rest of the night is spent watching over them as they rest, and preparing for the next day.
It is day. The vengeful orb courses across the skies. Under its vigilant gaze, all that does not belong is purged away, made vapor and ash. In a half-tamed land, two furious foes struggle for supremacy. The first is a mighty lion. Its glorious mane shines golden and its arrogance is unmatched. It prowls through the land without fear but behold! A lean and dark wolf jumps from the underbrush and bites its leg! The king is hurt but not vanquished, far from it in truth. It roars and challenges its opponent. The wolf will not answer. It is a thing of speed and momentum. It will not let itself be drawn. Again and again, the two meet and the nimble overtakes the strong. And yet the wounds remain insignificant because its size is great indeed. And see! The lion spits fire in great gouts. The wolf is hurt! It flees! The feline follows it to its lair! The struggle grows desperate. Suddenly the light dims. The suns sets! It is time, time for what? Time for...
The sarcophagus opens and I jump out like a devil out of its box.
My silver dagger flashes out and the fiery line wraps around it and tries in vain to consume its prey. The blade twists and flashes and breaks the spell.
A mage screams in pain in the torched remains of Loth’s tent. My sarcophagus is marred by impacts and shocks and yet it remains inviolate.
I grab the mage by the throat. He is wearing the red uniform of the British. Utter panic deforms his features.
“Your time is up,” I whisper, and bite down. I devour him in moments, but my Thirst is far from sated. I did not feed yesterday, and expended a lot of energy.
Loth barrels into the enclosed space. Only when he sees me does he show anything but dread.
“Tyr lass, we could use some help. Here, I managed to finish what you asked.”
He hands me three small spheres with a little needle pointing out.
“How do they work?”
“Blood trigger. Prick yourself and throw. The enchantment should hold for another few hours.”
I nod and without a word, come out. The tent was raised under the canopy of a great oak at the edge of tilled fields. Bare earth littered with bodies spread all around me, some clad in red, some clad in pirate leather, but most in the undyed cotton I associate with farmers. A few German style houses in the distance hint at the existence of a larger village.
In the middle of a scorched circle stand two men in red coat equipped with metallic gloves and belts filled with strange implements. Mages. An infantry squad of around twenty men has formed around them and fires in the distance at shapes hidden behind fences and low walls. Return fire pings uselessly against a transparent barrier, to the pirates’ cries of dismay.
A ruddy man with sergeant stripes approaches one of the mages and screams in his ears.
“Sir! Remember our orders!”
“For the last time Crespin, you will stop whining or I will have you demoted! We are on the verge of...”
When my voice echoes on the plain, both sides stop firing and the soldiers reform in fearful silence to face me. I smell the tantalizing musk of fear in the air. My, but those past few days have been filled with bloodshed, one battle after the other. I can smell the dried blood on the dress which is starting to show signs of damage. Even my mask is stained by layers of caked red.
“She’s bluffing, she can't stop us. It’s just a legend.” says the first mage, a brash young man with a waxed moustache and black hair. Liar, liar, I can hear your little heart pounding away the delectable liquid. You know what you did.
The second mage, a portly young man, does not answer. The sergeant licks his lips. His eyes dart left and right like a drowning man looking for salvation. None will come tonight.
I am just waiting for them to unload a volley. It will be more convenient to dodge now than when I work on their shield.
“They can’t be that powerful. It’s just stories. Look!”
Without using his gloved hand, he takes out a pistol and fires it. The powder fizzles and the shot fails.
The sergeant snarls and takes out his own gun. I see the trajectory and do not move an inch when the bullet buzzes angrily by my head, making a few errand strands of hair shiver.
They collectively take one step back. Pathetic. TRULY PATHETIC. SUBPAR SPECIMEN. POOR HUNT.
I prick my finger and throw the metal sphere into their shield. It sticks to the transparent surface and with a noise of brittle glass, a half-sphere crystallizes.
A breath later my silver dagger punches through it. The whole defense shakes and falls apart with the shrill cry of the portly mage.
The other mage’s face shows incredulity as I remove it from his shoulders. Next are the soldiers. Skulls and rib cages are hard, so I stab them, throats are soft, so I swipe them. Arterial blood paints a darker red on the washed-out carmine of their uniforms. They fall where they are or while reloading or while striking. Some fall with their backs to me. Some I kill as they pray to God, some as they call their mothers. It does not matter, they all fall.
The sergeant now faces me with the youngest soldier behind him. He points his saber in my direction, but his eyes are filled with manic fear.
“Please, he’s just a boy.”
The one behind him is very young, perhaps as young as Dalton when I picked him. I point at my mask with a bloody talon.
“Is this the face of mercy?”
The veteran’s pleadings turn into a mask of steely resignation.
“Come on boy, stand up.”
The one behind him cries hot tears and yet he still obeys. Courage.
WORTHY ONES. THEIR ESSENCE WILL MAKE ME STRONG.
“This was a good Hunt.”
I make it quick and feed from the older man only. No time to indulge. When I am done, Loth and my Vassal are waiting at a respectful distance. His men are hiding far behind and none will meet my gaze. FITTING.
“Sorry for the rude wake-up call. Our camp was overrun and we only attacked and took it back at nightfall.”
Loth is in his black armor, not the steam-powered one. Dalton is wearing a lighter version showing a few impacts. They look rough around the edges and more than a bit tired.
“The sarcophagus held.”
“Naturally,” Loth scoffs, “those amateurs could not pierce it in a hundred years.”
My resting place being disturbed makes me feel... Uncomfortable. FIND NEST. TAKE OVER. No, this is not the time to hide. I can do this later.
“We are five miles from Black Harbor and we’ve been harassing their column for the whole bloody day. They haven’t been able to reckon or gather much supplies. This was their best effort to take us out in fact, but on the other hand that’s it. We’re spent. If Isaac’s men are not in position by the time Ascendency arrive, we’re done. I can’t fight no more and neither can those lads. Already had to execute two deserters.”
“Understood, I shall go there myself.”
“We’re all going. The men need to rest anyway. Tyr, what a mess.”
I grab my belongings, so my weapons and mask. The rest of it is... Out there somewhere. Like the paintings. It does not feel that important anymore.
Loth guides me to a side path. The others, including Dalton, follow us at a distance. In my Vassal’s case it is due to exhaustion, but I am not here to coddle him. As long as he is not in danger he can look after himself. COMPETENT VASSAL. WILL REST WHILE I KILL.
“I am going back to the old country after this lass.”
Loth looks at me curiously.
“How many people have ya killed in the past week?”
I don’t know. I cannot remember.
“Can’t tell hey? That means it’s been going for too long.”
“You... said you were leaving?”
“Yes, after this is done. I will not rebuild. I have transferred all my stuff to warehouses on the coast. The Rosenthal will carry them East for me. I’m going home. It is time.”
“That is... good for you. Is it not?”
“Aye, it is. How about ye? Any plan?”
“No and I know what you are trying to do. I’m not going rogue. Stop trying to distract me.”
“Alright. Oh, look! They made it!”
We go over the crest of a hill to see where the war for the gate of Beriah will be fought.
A natural harbor extends in front of us in all its dark beauty. A village of respectable size is nestled at its end with a few fishing ships moored to its pier. Opposite us, on a rocky promontory, stands a heavily protected stone fort. Only a single open path leads to it, devoid of any cover and on a slope for a good few hundred yards. I see the black maws of a few cannons from where I stand. It would take an army to dislodge its occupants.
Or one vampire.
A lone flag I do not recognize floats lazily in the night wind.
Further inland, tilled fields form an open plain large enough to accommodate the army camping on it. I recognize the American flag in front of some of the tents and a particularly well-ordered enclave that must be Isaac’s mercenaries. The distance between the fort and the army camp gives the impression of our side laying siege.
Well at least they’re here.
“We should let them know we have arrived and that the Brotherhood is almost here as well.”
“With a full contingent of mages. Pricks.”
“You do realize you are one of the few people on the planet who can say that and keep their insides on the inside, right?”
“I would not risk it otherwise.”
This is fine, I can save all this frustration and put it to good use... Very soon.
We leave the pirates behind and take a road leading to the camp. Dalton leaves to stumble to Venet’s tents while we reach the main entrance guarded by two men. The officer’s tent is clearly visible in the distance as the largest one. The first sentries spot us.
“Halt! In the name of...”
I capture their minds and slap them like insects.
They take an involuntary step back. I have no time for this.
I make my way forward with Loth in tow. I can hear his soft chuckle as men fall silent in shock and surprise at our sight. I know he is intimidating in his black armor, and that I am covered in blood. An angry looking old corporal steps up to bar our way.
“We’re with Venet.” I simply say, and push on the uncertainty he feels. Yes, walking here like I belong and my mannerisms only give credence to my claims. I step inside the tent before he can react.
And through a detection circle.
Around a table with a large map stand a small assembly. Two men in the blue uniform of the army, and passably annoyed as well, form one group. Venet stands impassable in the middle while a curious trio forms the second one.
They are mages, wearing gloves and a coordinated set of green leathers.
There is an old man with an extremely long beard and a scholarly air, a strange person who appears to have shaven every inch of his skin and, to my surprise, a young woman with curly auburn hair. As I enter, the soldiers look up with exasperation quickly tempered by apprehension. Venet closes his eyes in anticipation of something bad and the three collectively jump like a bunch of frightened cats.
“Shit!” “Dammit!” Exclaim the two young ones. The old man only tries to discreetly incline his staff in my direction while fighting down an intense panic. That won’t do.
“You won’t be able to cast that spell before I shove that staff down your throat.”
He relents and swallows with difficulty. Clammy sweat covers their brows as they collectively look for a way out of this predicament. Ah, I know how it feels to be at the mercy of a creature renowned for lacking anything of the sort. When it happened to me, I was cheaply bargained into slavery. And them? It will not be needed. I already know why they are here. Mage groups must have conflicting interests, like we do. This cadre of spellcasters is on our side.
I return my attention to Venet, but before I can ask anything the ranking officer interrupts us.
“Madam, please state the reason of your presence and then leave us. This is a war council.”
At least he did not tell me that courtesans belong with the camp followers. Progress, I suppose.
He is even quite handsome in a sharp kind of way. His uniform is well worn and covers a tall and wiry body. Light brown hairs are gathered in a neat tail reaching his shoulder. Two deep set brown eyes stare at me from the top of an aquiline nose, shining with intelligence and the knowledge that something is wrong.
Loth steps by my side and tells a succinct report on the enemy troop composition and position. I do not really pay attention as this is nothing new to me. After his report is done, the officer does not show a single sign of emotion. His assistant, a smaller man with dirty blonde hair and fat jowls takes a discrete step away, anticipating some display of temper.
“And who are you? What is this, a menagerie? Venet, if you expect me to believe this POPPYCOCK, you are sorely... Ack!”
I interrupt the officer by moving in front of him and grabbing both he and his partner’s throat.
“I do not have time for this. You will believe us, or do you need a more... Convincing demonstration?”
I let the two men struggle in vain for a few seconds, not expecting any answer, but I do not pursue. Isaac is coming, preceded by his aura.
“Ah, I have been careless.” he says as he pushes the fabric aside. The representative of the Consortium is dressed like a gentleman at a hunting event. The contrast with us is rather obvious.
“Shit there’s another one?” whispers the woman.
“Yes Ms. Merritt, there is another one. Please give me a moment with dear colonel Strand here. You too Ariane, I will explain later.”
We dutifully file out, the mortals only too happy to be away from us. A minute passes and Isaac points his head out again.
“Ms. Merritt, Mr Colvert and Langdon, please join me.”
The trio looks at the tent, then at the camp, then at me, evaluate their chances of escape and wisely decide to head back in.
Another minute later, Isaac invites the rest of us. Loth smirks when he sees the thunderstruck faces of the people inside. Colonel Strand looks like he has swallowed a whole lemon, skin included.
“Very well, yes, very well. I had not planned to reveal my hand and forgot that you two were going to lack the, ah, patience to try and find me first. Now that the different parties have been... Reminded of what is at stake, we should move forward with our main concern.”
Blackmail is in season or is it just him?
“Even then, I don’t see why we should work with bloodsuckers.” blurts the female mage to her companion’s consternation.
Isaac gives a minute sign and his eyes flicker towards me, faster that they can perceive. It seems that our roles have been assigned for this play. I am more than happy to act as the iron fist, this time.
“Am I to understand that you refuse to contribute?” I ask casually.
The question hangs in the air for very little time before the older mage elbows his associate.
“Uhhhh no, no it’s fine. Not the first time our order works together with mon... I mean with vampires. For the greater good and all that.”
A vein starts slowly pulsing on the colonel’s temple.
“Can we get back to the matter at hand?”
“Aye and first question is, where is the Barataria representative? The one from the fort.”
While Strand takes a deep, calming breath, his aide de camp answers in his stead.
“He refused to work with us, nor give us access to his fortress. He was quite rude about it too!”
I raise my eyes in annoyance. Apparently, our cause is not valid enough to garner support. It’s just about the control of a weapon that can turn everyone around it into a murderous lunatic. Nothing too serious…
“I’ll be right back.”
I emerge from the tent with a desire to KILL THEM ALL AND TAKE OVER, no, for a bath. Yes. A warm bath. Calming. With the jasmine soap that is currently ash in Loth’s burned down tent... Arg! Alright Ariane, calm down. We will whip this assortment of idiots in shape and prepare to receive the Brotherhood and everything will be fine. Yes, absolutely fine. I shall head up to the fortress and convince the man in charge of his interest to cooperate through a subtle mix of charm and diplomacy. Yes. Then, I’ll find a tub and peel this blood-soaked dress from my delicate skin.
Half an hour later.
I strut back into the tent with a man in tow, kicking and screaming.
“Nom de Dieu, let me go sorcière! Diablesse! Aaaaah!”
I remove my claws from his neck, leaving two bloody imprints behind.
“These are the leaders of the army outside your gates. You will give them your full cooperation, or I’ll do to you what I did to your bodyguard. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes bon sang. Please just leave my soul alone!”
What? His soul? I don’t even... Nevermind.
“Only if you serve us well. If you don’t, I may just strip it from your blackened heart and feed it to a demon. Do not disappoint me.”
The man nods but as soon as the good colonel recovers enough from his surprise to ask how many soldiers he has at his disposal, all my efforts are undone.
“And why should I share this information with a government dog?!”
The clicks of my claws on the planning table resound in the silence that follows. Once I have his attention, I position one talon perpendicular to the surface and dig it into the table. Slowly.
Our newest addition considers the sound of tortured wood for a brief moment.
“A bit above seventy fighting men.”
Now that wasn’t too hard was it? A bit more and I’ll have all of my supposed allies actually trying to stop a madman from playing god with some eldritch artefact, and wouldn’t that be nice?
The rest of the meeting is spent coordinating tomorrow’s battle. Isaac is certain that the Herald will look down on our troops and force an attack, and so soldiers are arranged near the fort. It is decided to leave the village uninvolved to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. The army will be drawn along a line facing towards the Brotherhood expedition, with its right flank anchored at the pirate fortress and the left consisting of Venet’s battle-hardened veterans. The center consists of militia and regulars in two columns with a solid reserve. The leaders use knives planted in the map to show where they will position themselves, which I find quaint. Loth even borrows one of my silver knives to indicate that he will be coordinating artillery strikes from the fort itself. Isaac brought him his cannon and enough ammunition for a bit of fun.
With little left to do before dawn, I leave the soldiers behind to recover the sarcophagus, clean and prepare.
Just as I depart, Strand’s aide looks regretfully at the forest of blades and the finger-sized hole in his furniture.
Our side knows its first casualty.