I sprint up the cliff to the best artillery expert we have. Behind me, fiery flowers bloom in the midst of our encampments, forcing the remaining men away from their cots and their weapons. Already, a layer of cloying black smoke covers the stars. White tents and piles of supplies are set ablaze by the fire and no one is foolish enough to try and stop it. The air is thick with soot and the unsettling aroma of cooking meat.
I left the mages and Dalton behind a ridge at the border of the village and I believe they are safe, for now. The rest of our troops, not so much.
I find Loth in his steam armor at the gate of the fortress. From afar he looks like a machine, no, a golem of unstoppable power. The glowing runes on his chest reflect those I saw on his skin on the fateful day he confronted his family. His visor clicks twice.
“Hey lass. Funny thing, aye.”
“We are being bombarded!”
“Are those mortars? How do I destroy them?”
“Those ain’t mortars lass, those are artillery spells.”
“Read about those. Incredibly rare. Takes a crew of three spellcasters working together to operate one and it can get pretty draining.”
“I don’t understand. Why did they not use those today!?”
Isaac appears from behind us, announcing his arrival with his disciplined aura.
“A good question Ariane, one we can answer later. Did you find those teams?”
“There was only one on this side of the shore. They’re dead.”
“Yes, yes indeed, likely a distraction for this setup. Now the mages are quite likely firmly entrenched and waiting on you, my dear.”
“I will go.”
“We should… What? Are you certain?”
“Yes. They have always relied on the same strategy. Mortals are not the only one who can adapt. Loth?”
“I have them and I’m coming too. I have a score to settle.”
“I do not believe…” says Isaac.
“They burnt my fucking house.”
The flames reflect ominously on Loth’s polished plates. The fact that he is almost half again my size makes him intimidating. I like that.
“Alright, I’ll get the mages and Dalton and then we’re going.”
“Very well. We will reform the lines and advance immediately. Oh, and Ariane, do be careful.”
With a quick nod, we descend into the plain and pick up the rest of our group on the way. Most of the magical shells are landing on what is left of the camp behind us, and so for a while, we will be relatively safe. This will change soon, however, as drums and trumpets sound the muster of the troops. It appears that our foe will attempt an attack.
“I thought nobody fought during the night,” I remark as we make our way on the remains of today’s battlefield, weaving between corpses and discarded equipment.
“Look behind,” answers Loth.
I do. Numerous fires dot the landscape. With the bodies around, we stepped into a hellscape that would equal a Bosch painting, were it not for the lack of demons.
“Ah, I forgot sorry. Visibility is perfect here. Those pricks can just show up at the edge of the camp and shoot down anyone trying to retrieve their gear while they stay under the cover of the dark. It’s perfect for them.”
And here is why they patiently waited until night, so that our men would be unarmed and asleep.
I stop the men behind the remains of a dead horse to eliminate a sentry. With the light of the inferno at our back, my companions will appear as black silhouettes and I cannot risk it. Finally, our little group finds relative safety under the cover of trees.
Loth and I guide the rest through thickets and our attempts at discretion appear doomed when it becomes obvious that our spellcasting allies are… Not the athletic type. They trudge through the undergrowth like gravid longhorns. Their breath is like a forge’s bellows. I admit that I have an unfair advantage but Dalton trails me without too much difficulty while even Merritt is red and sweaty. By contrast, Loth is eerily quiet even in his massive suit.
They are starting to look tasty. Hmm.
No Ari, remember, no eating our allies. They haven’t even proved their usefulness yet.
When we reach the other side of the small forest, we get our first view of the enemy camp and its occupants. Soldiers are joining formations in front of their tents, harried by angry officers. I cannot fail to notice the tense faces, the bandages, the hungry looks. These men are not the heart of Ascendancy, they are the normal soldiers brought on a senseless adventure by corrupt men. They probably wonder why they are here at all, questioning the wisdom of their leadership. I smell weakness. I smell despair and the cohesion fraying at the edge.
They are ripe for the slaughter, but it will not come by my hand. My prey is another, one who I have been looking forward to face for a long time.
“Are we… There yet?” wheezes the bald mage. Perhaps if he spent less time worrying about hygiene and more time moving his hairless self around, he would not look like the rear end of a baboon right now.
We trail along the edge of the clearing. Fortunately, most sentries are distracted by the preparations behind them and we make good time without being spotted. We soon arrive at the artillery emplacement by following the smoke trails to their origin.
I have assisted Loth countless times and even I am impressed by their set-up.
The battery is situated at the top of a small hill, in the centre of a vast circle of naked ground. No trees will provide covers for anyone approaching, on any side.
The installation itself is heavily fortified with dug trenches where men are lying in wait. Smaller canons are pointed outward, their servants ready to fire on any incoming enemies. Protective circles and the tantalizing aura of wizards lay everywhere. At the highest points, I can see groups of mages working around stubby artillery pieces that look as much as mortars as pieces of art. Their brassy surfaces shine lightly in the darkness with the smouldering red of burning embers, and the surfaces of the barrels are carefully engraved with rows upon rows of vicious runes.
“Skargard guns. Dvergur work.” adds Loth helpfully.
“They look expensive.”
“They are. You are looking at enough gold to equip a ship of the line here.”
I have no idea how much a ship of the line would even cost, nor do I care. It is enough to realize that Ascendency went all in on this operation.
“We should circle around.”
Both Loth and Dalton look worried. There is no doubt in my mind that this place is fortified in every direction and those look mighty indeed. I should be able to survive a direct approach. Loth may also, though probably not unharmed. The mortals will be turned to mincemeat. They will have to support us from afar, if at all.
Silently enough we turn around until we are situated almost behind them. The pirate fortress is directly in front of us, visible as a dark patch above the treeline, while to our left, the lights of the Ascendency camp shine fiercely. Far away and to the front, fires dot the night and with the air distorted by the heated air, it sometimes looks like a whole city has been set ablaze.
Our target lays in directly in front of us, so close I could shoot the head off their soldiers. Even being in their back, I can still see at least one field gun aimed backwards and we still have a large force of British behind us. There is also a curious magical construct at the edge of the field, something that pulsates softly like a beacon. Its touch is light and familiar, and I realize that it is attuned to me, and to me only. Only one man could achieve such a thing, and only one man would be brazen enough to take such a risk.
The first shield breaker orb hits the barrier protecting the twelve-pounder aimed outward, a courtesy for Loth and Dalton. The lead gunner barely has the time to widen his eyes in surprise before I remove his head. The second orb hits the circle around one of the mortars and the mage powering the defences screams in pain as I kill her two companions.
Then the trap snaps closed around me. The broken circle reactivates and turns silver. All of the other casters interrupt their firing with swear words and add their might to my prison. Hidden in the centre of the hill, men with swords and silvery shields surge forward, forming around the one they are tasked to protect.
A very familiar redhead in a green dress walks towards me with majesty in her steps and a sneer on her face.
“So kind of you to join us, vampire.”
“You remember my name. I hope you do not expect me to be impressed, after all, your kind has always been better at reminiscing rather than coming up with new ideas.”
The assembled mages in look at me with a mixture of fear and relief. A motley bunch of different ages both male and female, they are brought together by their expensive-looking red dresses, seemingly made out of some kind of dyed leather. They gawk like children seeing a wolf behind bars. They know it can kill, just as they know that it will never shatter the cage. Despite the shimmering runes around me, the most primitive part of their brains is still pushing them to run.
They should have taken the chance when they had it.
This time, I am wearing all my gear except my mask, because I am not here to intimidate but to captivate. The men and women arrayed against me ogle my face, my nose, my lips, expecting it to be ripped open to expose the monster beneath, perhaps.
It will not happen.
Yes, the blonde girl before you is the cause of the slaughter at your feet. See the bodies. See my dagger and claws still coated in her blood. It really is me, no matter how hard it is to reconcile with your expectations.
Belinda steps a few feet away from the containment as a statement of power, and of trust in herself and her abilities. I mirror her and we stand only a few feet away. She takes her time to inspect me while I drink in her presence. She is a mature beauty with large inquisitive eyes and an aristocratic face with barely a hint of crow’s feet. Instead of detracting from her charm, it only shows that her confidence is born from experience rather than birth, an impression reinforced by her impeccable posture. The difference with Merritt is striking, I notice in passing. The poor girl looks like an overgrown street urchin by contrast.
When she is done with her own inspection, our eyes meet and she flinches but holds. She has an amulet protecting her mind, I can tell, and I do not even try to Charm her through the barrier. There is no need.
“You look meeker than I expected.”
Ten years ago or if she had caught me off-guard, I may have lost my composure. Instead, I slowly turn to the side and walk slowly along the edge of my prison. Then I bend down and her smile falters when I pull up the moaning form of the one surviving mage, the one in charge of the shield.
“Why don’t you tell me what happens next while I enjoy this hors d’oeuvre?”
She opens and closes her mouth like a beached fish as I casually pull aside the leather coat of the woman I hold, denuding her shoulder. I recognize the glyphs around me. They are quite resilient and in return, quite inflexible as well. It would be nigh impossible to break the trap from within and at the same time, they cannot reach me. Only sound and light may pass, everything else would be stopped, even the air. That means that as long as this prison stays inviolate, so will I.
The girl I Devour is short and a bit pudgy, with rosy cheeks and a bob haircut. I cannot risk the loss of focus that comes with a normal feeding but I do drag and enjoy the process for as long as I can. This allows me to maintain eye contact with dearest Belinda and enjoy the impotent rage boiling under the frozen mask she has donned.
She and her companions deprived me of a potential Vassal. It is only fair that I share the distress they imposed so callously.
When I am done, she still hasn’t spoken so I decide to needle her a bit. It is obvious from her inner struggle that she cared about her sister in craft.
“Palatable, if a bit rustic.” I say as I drop the corpse unceremoniously.
Aaaah, delicious, delicious anger. Her voice shakes with fury and sorrow. Magnificent. And it was so easy as well!
“You… Will stay here until dawn while we defeat your allies, and when it comes, I will enjoy your screams of pain while the purifying sun turns your unholy flesh to cinders.”
“My, are we getting a bit emotional perhaps?”
“You are too full of yourself, vampire!” she spits the term as if it were an insult. “You parasites are things of the past. This is the Age of Enlightenment! You will be left behind with the rotten temples and the insane superstitions. We will cleanse this world of all the freaks and curses our own ancestors unleashed upon us. Even this predictable resistance of yours is just the swan song of a dying era. You just went after us again and again in exactly the same way and your insane strength only carried you so far. You fought like a mad beast until you fell into our trap and now, I will put you down like one.”
While she was talking, three suspicious hooting sounds came from around the hill. I need all eyes fixed upon me so I lean down against my dearly departed breakfast and unlatch her gauntlet, which I slowly fasten around my own wrist. My own armour leaves the talons free and this would be quite painful.
“You! You are bluffing! You are not a mage!”
They instinctively all take a step back, which I find amusing considering that this formation around me would hold a mage with even more ease than it holds me.
“Oh no, this is not for spellcasting. This is for isolation.”
I take the last of the three orbs Loth managed to create this evening and push it against the shield. Now this is not an actual spell, it is a construct in the same way that the circle around me is a construct. When the two clash, angry bolts of blue weave and dance like furious snakes. Belinda screams and holds her own glove as we push each other, but the barrier is meant to contain and the breacher is meant to pierce it. It is like pushing a needle away with one’s bare hand.
It also hurts me atrociously.
I do my best to keep the ball in place, but it is so very painful I cannot even feel the tip of my fingers. I grit my teeth in silence. Only cold resolve and a healthy dose of pride prevent me from dropping the abominable thing where it stands.
Allied mages form around Belinda, adding their strengths to her. The breacher glows red in my hand and I let it go before the bloody thing turns my fingertips into charcoals. It. Hurts. I am clamping my jaw so that I do not scream.
It takes a good two seconds before Belinda realizes that the cry of pain she hears around her are not my work.
One moment, two rings of men in compact formation devote their entire attention to the monster in their midst, next the hill turns into a giant melee as Muskogee in garish colours and Choctaw warriors in leather crash into them with unbridled fury. Ululating war cries blare through the night in a glorious cacophony, supported by insane war drums. Fire arrows land on unarmored chests. Magical white trails from our own team hit shields with keening sounds as tomahawks, sabres and bayonets hack into flesh with desperate abandon.
But we are not facing weaklings.
Belinda reacts immediately. She steps back under the cover of two of her comrades and though it is weakened, the barrier holds. Even if the middle of such chaos, she knows that letting me go is the worst thing that can happen.
That is why she doesn’t flinch when a blue disrupting spell hits her own, though her frown only grows.
When a massive cross-bolt obliterates the chest of the man next to her, she still doesn’t relent.
I am impressed though it is, of course, all in vain.
From behind, I hear a stomping sound that increases in intensity with each passing second. The heavy impact is such that even the in the deafening din of battle, some heads turn in wonder.
Then the sounds stop.
And coming from above, a roaring steel titan descends two glowing gauntlets on my prison. The barrier does not break, it explodes.
Belinda is propelled backward, as well as quite a few combatants from both sides. I raise my hands in a protective gesture until the shockwave disperses. When I raise them up I meet Loth’s goofy smile.
“Damn lass it’s been too long! YAAAAAA!”
And then he’s gone. Unfortunately, a swarthy mage managed to drag Belinda behind a circle at the centre of the hill, the last refuge I presume, in case things go wrong. Those who can, join it and soon a green shield pushes back arrows and thrown axes.
I, however, am running in the other direction.
A thing of the past I am? Left behind? I run into my Vassal who looks a tad worried and I realize I am laughing maniacally.
Still laughing I find what I was looking for and get to work.
Inside the last stand shield, two mortar pairs form hands while the shield holders are pushed back by native warriors. They raise their arms in unison.
Choctaws and Muscogees cringe in terror from the incoming wall of flame, however the blistering heat never reaches them. The war drums reach a crescendo and jade coloured tortoise scale appear around the shield, stopping the blast instantly. As the enemy mages stare in surprised horror, their defences are pummeled by a bloodthirsty Dvergur warlord and long-range shield disrupters from our own team of mages. I almost hope it will take long enough as I am almost done.
Predictable and always using the same tactics huh?
I stop mere feet away from the battle line. The warriors in front of me widen their eyes and flee to the side as they see what stands behind them.
Belinda was looking around the battlefield for me. Our eyes cross and her pretty mouth form an ‘o’ of surprise. It mirrors the gaping maw of the captured twelve-pounder facing her beautifully.
“EMBRACE MODERNITY YOU HUSSY!”
I ignite the prime charge.
The gun vomits its payload in a sonorous deflagration. The grapeshot breaks the defences like stones through a flimsy window.
I see Belinda fall and the native warriors surging ahead, brushing aside all opposition.
I was so incensed I forgot the recoil and I’m actually pushed back by the moving wheel and slapped to the side. Oooow my poor breast. Can’t even massage it properly through the armour. Ow!
Two heavy boots land before me and Dalton helps me to my feet. He watches me rub myself where it hurts.
“Hum. Perhaps the timing is ill-chosen, Mistress?”
I hiss and move forward. Loth is a bad influence on him. Now is not the time though. I would like to enjoy the fruits of my labour.
I find the red-haired witch on the ground. From the waist up, she is her gorgeous self. From the waist down, I would say crushed raspberry.
I kneel by her side and pull her head down more comfortably. Her panicked eyes search for mine, as I knew they would, eventually.
“We will never be in the past, because we are, and will always be, you.”
I bite down.
With the screams of the dying in the background, victory at last. Vengeance. Challenge answered and insults paid back in full.
I am reminded of the first time I tasted a werewolf, back in the Lancaster arena. Ah, but what a wondrous fragrance, and this power. Wonderful.
Nashoba joins us looking a bit tired. At the front, Loth is walking down back toward the crackles and pops we hear in the distance.
Ah yes the night is not done, is it?
I jump over the line of warriors, eliciting some shouts.
To my side, Loth’s face is just a bloody rictus and his eyes glint madly with red reflections. We do not need to share words.
Led by their war leaders, the natives walk down the slope leading to the battlefield where red and blue troops are fighting for supremacy. We do not go through the forest this time, but directly to them, from behind.
With Loth at the forefront, the walk turns into a trot. We are carried on the wings of victory. We tread on the corpses of the vanquished on our way here and the next to know death are in front, just around the bend. I lose myself in the breath and heartbeats of men running by my side flush with bloodlust, the maddened smiles and the predatory postures. Fresh blood and sweats. Maniacal laughs. A stolen memory of the smell of heated sand caresses my nose. I can almost feel the desert wind on my skin, dry, hot, and clean. The morning sun kisses my skin and the clamour and songs around me celebrate the greatest city that ever was, and the queen that led it to glory. This is where we are meant to be. Here at the head of the army. With the wheels of our chariots crushing bones and our spears biting flesh. Let the sentinels follow us to victory. We are at the front, as is fitting, and will claim the first blood. We cannot be stopped. We are without match. And we are without mercy.
The men in red see us, hear us, they form a square to stop our onslaught. A hopeless attempt.
“Hold rank lads, those are just men! Just normal men!”
“SEMIRAMIS HIA’LU SALTANIS!”
The mortals do not understand the ancient warcries but they follow anyway. There is no turning back from the charge. I breach their line first, headed straight for their prince. The titan of mountain and steel smashes into them second, like a great scythe. His glorious bellow deafens their ears while he sends the foes toppling like broken toys.
The prince lowers something at me from his horse. Courage in the face of death, admirable but ultimately futile. I slam him on the ground and take his head with a mighty swing. I give it for all to see, so no one doubts where the tide of battle goes. The men in red break rank. Pathetic. Your wives and sisters will shed tears tonight.
All around me, the ordered world of what is right collapses into the chaos that battle truly is. I realize I am holding a captain’s severed head, still covered with a hat.
I appear to have been slightly carried away.
Ascendency’s borrowed infantry has disintegrated. Their rout is complete and even the officers are running for their lives. Soldiers drop their weapons to run faster, with the native warriors on their trails. Farther away, the line is retreating somewhat coherently under the onslaught of Strand’s regulars. A cursory glance does not reveal the Herald and his tower mage though they should have been here, somewhere.
I am concerned, deeply concerned by what just happened. Those memories came from Master, I am sure of it. I knew my bloodline would affect how I think, not what I remember. Is this the result of our bond and will it disappear once I gain my full independence or is it fully a part of me now?
My worries last but for a second before the cold part of my mind covers it, settles it. It does not change anything. It will remain a part of me for the foreseeable future and no one can change that. And what a part it was. Human Ariane could have had children and a suntan but I got to charge at the head of a host of bloodthirsty warriors like Boudicca or the legendary Amazons, so there. I was able to let go, and it was… Glorious.
Now there are still two persons I need to find: the Herald and his bodyguard.
They were nowhere to be found. I did not even see their tent in the British camp now abandoned. I returned to our own to find men in the middle of raucous celebrations. Avoiding the crowd, I walk to Venet’s side of the camp where order and discipline are always maintained and soon reach the command tent. Isaac and his second are present, and so are Nashoba, the mages, Dalton and Loth, the last one passably drunk. They look preoccupied except Loth who just looks plastered.
“Ah, there you are. Any news?” says Isaac, at the head of the table.
“I could not find the Herald.”
“Ah, you were gone looking for him I see. A thoughtful decision. I will let Nashoba speak on this matter.”
The shaman looks exhausted and more than a little annoyed. He scolds me as if I were his little sister.
“As I was about to tell you before you jumped forward like a pouncing wolf, the future is clouded. I cannot see past this junction and this conflict is therefore not over. We must prepare.”
“Wait, I thought we broke their backs?” I continue in English.
“We did, Milady. We killed or captured almost four hundred men and that is more than half of their effective strength. They are neutralized as a land-based fighting force,” answers Venet, “but they have ships. They might decide to burn Black Harbor to the ground, then send search parties after all is smoke and ruin if they so desire.”
I turn to Loth in surprise. I thought he was an effective deterrent?
“Aye don’t look at me lass, I’m just one man and they got a lot of ships. They have three more frigates and if they play it carefully, there isn’t much I can do.”
“Do you believe this is their plan? And how do you know how many ships they have at their disposal?”
“An attack by the sea is the most likely Milady. As for the frigates themselves, we pursued the survivors to a creek two miles up North. They were loaded aboard transports and covering fire from three of their warships prevented us from overrunning their position. I suspect that the Herald is already on board and that it is via this cove that they were able to deploy the elite mage squad you took down tonight without us scouting them beforehand.”
“I see. I would be of little use in an artillery duel,” I note.
Venet shakes his head.
“Not as such, though there is still much we can do with your help Milady. We will relocate all our guns towards the sea before dawn. I understand that you already participated in a night boarding action?”
“And we will count again on...”
Venet is interrupted by one of his men lifting the flap of the tent with visible excitement.
“Sir, I think you’ll want to see this.”
We all exit to see a British ship moored in the harbour and a rowing boat heading to the pier, well lit by lanterns. At its head, a man holds a white flag.
“Sooooooo do you mind if I ashk you a questshion?”
I am currently cleaning every part of my armoured gown, a task that is normally a moment of calm and contemplation.
“What is it, Merritt?”
“Do you have to go to the loo?”
Ah. So that is it. I now understand why we were sent these three specifically. The head mage wisely chose casters of respectable magical capabilities so he could not be accused of sabotaging the operation. At the same time, he used this opportunity to get rid of the most mentally inept and those whose habits placed them firmly at the bottom of the barrel, socially. I had noticed that Langdon is awake perhaps two hours while I am active, and his companion has been scrubbing himself raw in a bathtub for the past hour and a half. I was expecting Merritt to be at the losing side of a political play but no, oh no, she is just a raging imbecile.
I delicately place my brush on the small workshop in front of me, drop the now clean plate next to the other and turn towards her. I am contemplating whether or not I should plant a massive ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ sign at its entrance with the witch’s head firmly shoved on top it. That would be a good deterrent.
She still isn’t moving.
I turn towards her in what I hope to be a firm rebuttal.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know, you drink blood right?”
“So it’z gotta go somewhere right? It’s the only conclushion.”
“You know that conservation of mass and energy does not apply to magic, right?”
“But I tried to find a spell that stops peeing for years! How can you just do it naturally?!”
“Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, somewhere else? Don’t you want to unwind a bit? Dalton doesn’t want company? Loth?”
Here, two birdbrains with one stone.
“Dalton is helping Venet’s men so I couldn’t ashk... And Loth left with the laundry girls,” her eyes widen in awe, “all three of them!”
Battle always gets his blood pumping.
“And you came to me for...”
“Yasss! A lady moment! With two ladies!”
“Where is your friend then?”
The insult does not even register. Her face scrunches in concentration until a deep realization comes upon her taxed mind.
“I need to pee!”
“Wonderful. Don’t let the flap hit you on your way out.”
I cannot really stay irate for any length of time. Merritt might be a strange one, but she is a potential source of knowledge on the mage factions of the new continent and someone I may be able to add to my circle, one way or another.
Although I may not have accepted Isaac’s proposal officially, I obviously need to. My presence has been noticed by dozens of people and the repercussions of a significant land battle will be felt for months to come. I lost my haven, and I will be hunted down unless I manage to find shelter and there is no better shelter than the ancient and respectable house of the Rosenthal.
I am packing my cleaning oil and the last of my throwing daggers when Dalton knocks on one of the stone posts to announce his arrival although we both know I do not need it. Ah, manners.
My Vassal looks thoroughly exhausted but otherwise healthy.
“You should rest.”
“I will. Just one thing. Colonel Strand contacted us, he says the redcoats want to discuss terms tomorrow evening.”
Dalton nods. His large amber eyes twinkle in the candlelight.
“They know who defeated them.”
“I would expect them to avoid us.”
“You and Isaac will be the ones to decide anyway, in the end.”
Will we? Will I? I am only here to make sure the key of Beriah stays contained. Isaac involves me in the decision-making process because I am our greatest weapon against their elite mages. Or does he? I should try to make a demand on occasion. I have refrained so far because he and Venet have things well in hand. Now though, I am curious. How important am I?
“I will seek him. Now go to sleep.”
As for me, I will seek Isaac. We need to align before tomorrow.