Perhaps due to my deep concern, or simply by chance, I find myself at the heart of my mental palace. The Watcher’s tendrils float outside, more animated than usual. The fire in the master bedroom’s hearth brings no comfort.
I want to see. I need to see. For the first time, I live the incapacitation that comes with the day as the burden it is. I will spend almost ten hours in slumber, during which my friends and allies will fight, bleed and die, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to change it.
I need to see. Show me. Show me!
A tendril of purple flashes by the window and I feel a tug. I get out into the main hall and walk down the stairs. Twin reinforced doors open before me.
The garden is as strange and beautiful as always, filled with unknown essences and strange rocks. I pace through its hidden alcoves and false paths with a familiarity born out of intimate knowledge. We are in my mind and the place I am going to now, I have never seen before.
Curtains of thorny roots part to reveal a small circular pond. Trees curve inward and mask it from the outside. Its placid surface only reflects the eye above, and the black void surrounding it. The reflection is just as strange as the original but not quite as mesmerizing. It is like watching the sun through darkened glass. The blinding glare is tamer, though still as majestic.
The reflection blurs and changes in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. I lean closer and the pond swallows me whole.
A tall man emerges from the seas, walking leisurely as if the army arrayed against him was of no concern. Dark shapes swim behind as witness to the bloodshed to come. His black hair and beard are plastered against his golden skin and his dark eyes glint with dismissive amusement. An armor the color of the depths emerges from below and enshrouds his powerful form just as the first of his opponents spots him. The last thing they see of his face is the glint of eight cruel fangs before his body is encased in nightmarish plates and monstrous scales.
On the shore, a small army has gathered. Two hundred men and women heavily armed with bows, guns and gauntlets. Their colorful robes and armors come from another age, with glowing auras and shiny runes pushing back the darkness of the night. Around them, formations and circles have been dug to stop, defend, and empower. They are ready.
From the ranks of fighters, a flurry of projectiles erupts. Arrows, bullets, spears and stones. Spells in beautiful shades of blue and gold. They curve across the sky like a charging horde and descend upon the man.
He raises a hand. Three concentric circles of red runes form in the air, then he closes his fist.
A blade of purple and crimson is born. It smashes through the collective offensive like the tide through a sandcastle. The curse travels back and hits the carefully erected shields. Layers upon layers are burnt through in an effort to stop the onslaught. Men and women fall to their knees with bleeding eyes and screaming voices. Those behind stop their offense to join the defenders.
Finally, the hex fizzles. Behind the army, an old man in an elaborate dress raises an arm holding a stylized lock.
At his feet, a complex rune formation ignites, mirrored under his dark-armored foe.
Unbeknownst to the mage, the tall man points two fingers down and black runes encircle his wrist, a twisted mirror to the spell thrown at him.
For the first time, he stops.
The circles around him flash silver. At the same time, a woman in a red tunic sends forth a screaming scarlet orb and a couple in grey lamellar armor rush him from the sides.
The fire hits, just as the man’s black Claymore cuts through his target’s throat and the woman’s foil stabs his heart.
And then the decoy collapses.
Eyes turn to the mage in robes, but too late. Already his corpse is held aloft and his blood drained. The man in dark armor throws it aside and extends his arms, wrists together. A construct like a black tree erupts from them. Where its gnarly branches hit, combatants fall with their bodies mummified as if they had been years in the desert. The spells turns red with absorbed life force and is soon changed into a massive scythe. It impacts the red woman’s defenses and scatters them. The man in grey armor surges forward and his foe steps back before countering with a deadly spell. The knight collapses. His companion lunges but her strikes rakes against an obsidian gauntlet. The same gauntlet lashes out and takes her head. The witch in red is interrupted in her next spell. She stares with disbelief at the blade in her gut.
With this, resistance collapses.
The vampire lord bends down to Devour the mage, and none stand before him
I pull out of the vision. Not this. I saw it before, I remember it now. Yes, Master has returned. I don’t care. He is on some island and good riddance, I only miSs hiM so mUch… No! I don’t need him! I don’t need anyone! Show. Me. The. Bloody. Battle!
Something strains and snaps but I don’t care and push on. Yes! It is here, around me!
Ascendency has finally finished their preparations and their infantry moves forward. The battle is joined, just as a horrible surprise comes to hit the morale of the defenders.
Two frigates bearing the Union Jack emerge from a bend in the coast and immediately fire on the pirate fortress. Its elevated position protects it to an extent, but walls soon show the marks of damage as cannonballs punch through them. There is no return fire. All the guns are pointed inland.
On the American right flank, the regiment of line faces its equivalent in furious combat. Men in blue uniform fire volley after volley from behind low walls, supported by a handful of twelve-pounders. They face those who stopped Napoleon's ambitions in their crimson uniforms and black hats. The same who stood fast from the sandy dunes of Egypt to Waterloo’s dreary plains. The red line retaliates with accurate musket shots and the support of their own gun park, much larger. Worse, supporting artillery from the fort is made inaccurate by antiquated equipment and the ships’ ceaseless assault. Despite their ordeal, the continentals return blow for blow, just like their fathers did before them. The grounds are littered with dead and wounded, the air thick with smoke, and yet no side will relent.
In the center, the battle is not going so well. Strand’s inexperienced militia panics and fires too early, long before their enemies are in effective range. Some of the bullets even fall short due to inept gun loading. The British rank stops at fifty paces and delivers one lethal volley. As the militia reels from the impact, the red line fixes bayonet and charges. The American rank disintegrates under their vigorous assault. The disciplined ranks of soldiers pushes their enemies away like insects. From the outside, they look like a single monster whose teeth spit lead. It pounced once, and now readies for the kill.
Thankfully, the fleeing troops join and merge with their comrades in arms of the second line, solidly anchored along a ridge. The British advance is halted by accurate shots delivered under the orders of a screaming veteran officer who has seen worse blows and turned them aside. The main British group attempts to charge again but the militia holds by the skin of their teeth, stabbing ahead at the deadly foe. The monster bleeds from a thousand cuts and after a furious melee, it is repulsed. Unfortunately for the defenders, the enemy general smells blood in the water and soon, commits his reserves to the breach. From behind the reforming infantry, drums and fanfare herald the coming of a regiment of Highlanders, their elite reserves. They soon resume the attack with even greater ferocity. Less than two hours after the first shot was fired, the American army is at risk of being cut in half.
On the left flank, the British advance is checked by deadly shots from Venet’s veterans. Their light grey uniform denotes them as an elite unit and their opponents realize they are facing perhaps more than they can beat. Using number advantage, they attempt to form a half circle around Isaac’s own guard.
Just as they reach optimal range, skirmishers erupt from everywhere and lay fire into the close-ranked troops. The British captain orders his men to charge, supported by what is left of their horse.
The light troops on the flank are overrun but just as the main rush reaches a small thicket, the sound of a mighty horn blares across the plain. The American cavalry detachment springs from the trees and meets its counterpart in merciless close quarter combat. The red tide is thrown back but manages to retreat in good order. Venet decides not to pursue, worried about his right flank.
Then, the tide of battle turns.
From the fort, a single canon opens with a deafening roar and hits the lead frigate with inhuman accuracy. A second later, civilians huddling in the village hear mad screams about ‘bullshit weather’ and ‘dry storage my hairy ass’. A second shot joins the first as the frigate captain realizes what is happening. He turns his ship away, too late.
The third shell ignites.
In a horrific conflagration, the ship’s powder store is set ablaze by an incendiary projectile this world had never seen. The resulting fireball reddens the sky and boosts the morale of the defenders. At the same time, shots from the fortress becomes increasingly accurate under the expert motivation of a certain Dvergur screaming incentives such as ‘My uncle Gromir can shoot better and he’s fucking blind!’ or ‘Miss again and I’ll shove you down the barrel head first you absolute fucking walloper!’. The right flank is thus bolstered and holds fast.
In the center, Strand’s trap closes its steel jaws on the charging reserve.
The devious colonel counted on his foe’s disdain of the militia to force an assault in the center and the enemy commander swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker.
From the forest on the right, his elite regiment emerges to reinforce the beleaguered militia, while from the left comes a column of bloodthirsty privateers, charging the Highlanders like madmen. Undisciplined and unreliable they may be, but if there is anything you can count on, it is their irrepressible hatred of the English. Men in leather armed with sabers, pistols and axes close the short distance and assault the infantry’s flanks. Sensing the trap, Ascendency orders a general retreat under the cover of their flanks and concentrated artillery fire. Their men escape, but leave many wounded on the field.
The day is won.
IT HURTS! Agh! My head is like in a vice! Why? Why why why. Is it because I pushed this? The ability to see what was going on? Not worth it, not worth it at all, I could have just waited and now I am stuck with this devilish headache! Is this magical hangover? Curses!
I push the top of the sarcophagus aside and find myself in Isaac’s secure tent. Dalton is waiting anxiously with a bound man by his side. As soon as he sees me, his face turns horrified.
“Mistress? Are you alright?”
I attempt to rub my eyes, only to find something sticky. Blackish blood sticks to my fingers.
It appears I bled from my eyes and ears. Oh joy. I cannot even be dead in peace.
“Later. Who is this?”
Remembering the prisoner by his side, Dalton pulls him up. The captive is a shifty fellow wearing the blue uniform of our allies. One of his eyes is closed by a spectacular bruise and his hands are bound behind his back. His complaints are muffled by a gag, although his eyes move frantically from the sarcophagus. I can guess what is going through his mind.
“I knew that they must have infiltrated our ranks, so I kept my eyes open for suspicious behavior. This man was attempting to desert and join the enemy lines when I caught him. Oh, by the way, we won!”
I wave a hand dismissively. There is no time to explain.
“Did you bring him to be interrogated?”
“Yes, and I believe Isaac wants your help with something. He woke up an hour ago. You may not have the time to hunt.”
With those words, my future breakfast panics in earnest. I hastily grab him before he can soil himself as it would sour the air, and bite. A quick interrogation reveals that he himself knows nothing. He was only promised a large reward if he could report on our force and their location. Once I am done, Dalton signals outside and the body is carried out by bored guards.
I follow Dalton outside to Venet’s command tent and to my surprise, find the three mages standing outside. Venet himself is by their side.
“I beg you wait a while, miss Ariane. My employer is… Having a meal.”
We had a few spies then. I turn my attention to the trio, with no small amount of curiosity. The older man stands with his eyes closed and it takes but a few seconds to realize that he is, in fact, fast asleep. The woman who I remember is called Merritt looks confrontational, but her companion is fidgeting with curiosity. His complete lack of any sort of hair gives him the appearance of a circus freak and his large eyes do not help.
I might as well get acquainted with my allies. I have never talked to mages except to inform them how they will die.
“Are you a corpse?”
We are off to a great start.
“I ask because of humor. See, a corpse is filled with vile humor and is a carrier of diseases so if you bite someone as a corpse you will make them sick but at the same time your blood slave looks healthy so it’s probably not that anyway I was just curious please don’t eat me.”
He talks a lot about disease for someone afflicted with verbal diarrhea.
“Dalton is not my slave, he is a Vassal. And I am not a corpse. I do not decay, nor will I ever.”
“What if you die again?”
“We turn into ash.”
The man looks shocked.
“What about mosquitoes? Lice?”
“We are magical creatures you cretin, we do not have diseases or parasites of any kind.”
“Even in your hair?”
“Yes even in our hair. Are all spell casters maniacs or are you just an extreme case?”
“Don’t mind Colvert, he is obsessed with cleanliness.”
“is this why he looks like a walking alchemical accident?”
“He cleans his hands seventeen times per day.”
“You are sharing critical information with the enemy!” her companion hisses.
The witch and I share a kindred moment between relatively sane people.
“I’m Merritt by the way.”
She scoffs and shakes her head in disbelief.
“I never thought I would one day speak with a legendary vampire. You are a thing of myth. It is said that to meet one is to meet death, and the cities you have taken over are black zones where to stay after dusk is to stay forever. And now I am talking to one.”
“It is a rare opportunity for me also. I only ever shared but few words with mages.”
“Yes, and they were along the line of ‘fire whip!’ and ‘please no’.”
Merritt laughs lightly.
“Hah! Yeah, I suppose. Say, one girl to another. How do you get so many men to listen to you? Those old codgers always go about me learning my place and all.”
“It is mostly Isaac’s influence. We know each other from before, his trust in me gives me a measure of legitimacy.”
“So it’s because of a man huh.”
She looks dejected.
“Find someone reliable to be on your side and you will not have to fight for recognition every step of the way, he will do it for you.”
“How could I find such treasure.”
“Not with your personality, that’s for sure.” interjects Dalton. I knew he had not forgotten the blood slave comment.
The woman’s face turns ugly and before our attempt at diplomacy is irredeemably damaged, I try to comfort her.
“A foe looking down on you acts carelessly, and the air of surprise they affect as they die is that much sweeter.”
This excellent observation on the nature of the universe is welcome with stunned silence. What!? It’s really solid advice! Born from personal experience!
“Ahem. Thank you for those kind words, I guess?”
“Hold on, I have questions as well. Are you all part of a mage organization?”
Both mages exchange glances. The bald one only shrugs.
“Guess it does not hurt us to tell you. We’re with Sanctuary, it’s more like a vague alliance than a real thing. Not like those Houses back in Europe. Langdon is our mentor. He’s in charge when he is awake, so, not that often.”
Loth told me what little he knew about the mage population. They are the most numerous of the world’s strange denizens, with easily a hundred thousand in the known world. Many only have a smidgen of power, but their trained soldiery is numerous and dangerous. There is a constellation of groups, lodges, secret societies, families, cartels and others with as many objectives and agendas as there are political affiliations. In a sense, they are the true representation of humanity. Insane cultists fight against devoted Christians who think their powers are a gift of God, while devious mastermind and police orders fight for control of local government. Loth’s information is sparse, however, and I assume that there are some groups at the top.
“And you oppose the Brotherhood of the New Light?”
“Well yeah the guys in charge decided that having a power-hungry lunatic in possession of an artifact capable of mass murder is a bad idea. Go figure.”
Common sense! I can scarcely believe my ears, surely I am mistaken?
“That is sensible.”
“It is, isn’t it? Oh, it looks like it’s our turn.”
Venet waves at us from the side of the tent and we join in, the sleepy mage being dragged in by his associates. A more detailed map of the area is lain on a table at its center. The ink is still wet.
“Good evening! Good evening… Yes. I apologize in advance if I seem abrupt, but time is short. As you know we have managed to repel Ascendency’s main assault. I shall leave the management of the battlefield to our dear Colonel and focus on what is truly at stake. And by this I mean the key of Beriah. Our good Venet as well as sir Loth have noticed movements around Black Harbor Village as well as the beach, and so I am quite certain that the hunt for the relic is already under way. This is, of course, completely unacceptable. We rule the night, as they will soon remember. Ariane, I am counting on you, and you mages, please support her as best you can. The enemy has many spellcasters and we have not seen them today. Something is bound to happen.”
Our mortal allies take the end of the sentence as a dismissal and exit with record speed. I stay.
“How are you?” asks my host.
“I do not know. The past few weeks have been a constant fight against the Brotherhood and their influence. I find myself missing painting, or taking strolls through the woods at night. Anything to take my mind off my worries. I feel myself eroding under this unceasing pressure, losing depth, so to speak. We have a need for balance.”
“Us more than most. When this is done, you should join me when I return to Savannah. We have need of someone of your talent and can give you shelter while you wait. It would be lucrative as well.”
“Loth is going to Europe.”
“It would be unwise for you to join him. Dvergur politics notwithstanding, you are technically a rogue and Europe is extremely policed compared to here. The risk would be high.”
“I… will think on it.”
“And by the way, do you not think it strange that they would send patrols at night?”
“Not really, no. I doubt that their information is reliable, after all. I see two possibilities. The first is that they are desperate. With their failure to take the town, they might just be attempting a quick smash and grab. Such gambit makes sense given their dire situation. The second possibility is that they are trying to trap you.”
“Yes. How many men have died by your hand or that of Loth of Skoragg since you started your offensive?”
“I did not keep count.”
“Vampires trained for war are strategic assets. If they take you out, they will be able to use their mages to conduct night operations in quasi impunity. We only have the three, enough to guard our leaders and nothing more.”
“We have killed the two they sent after us.”
“This is nothing. The core of their numbers should still be intact. I expect that you will be facing perhaps ten battle-trained mages, and those two archmages besides. That is why I requested that you are accompanied.”
“Hmm. We shall see. I will prepare and depart.”
“Go to the shore and look for tracks heading South. If there are none or if they fell back, go North. We cannot let them search.”
“I shall do so.”
Isaac nods, and adds as an afterthought:
“Thank you for cooperating. I appreciate your support, as I have before. I will not forget it.”
We both smile and I leave.
I clean my claws with a torn piece of greyish uniform. There was only one group. Eight men with their suicidal runes, no mages. Strange.
The three spell casters walk up to me and stop as they take in the devastation around. I can taste their fear in the air, and in their heartbeats, yet they remain silent.
“Unless they are truly out of ideas, this is just an attempt to waste my time.”
The old man will not meet my eyes. He licks his lips nervously before replying.
“Yes, but for what?”
As soon as the words come out of his mouth, a series of whistling motes emerge from the Ascendancy camp, far to the North, before smashing into the ground. An instant later the night turns red.
“For this. Dammit. Back, back!”