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I lean against one of the corners of the tent and breathe in vain. Isaac takes a step forward, as if to help, then shakes his head in shame.


“I will not go against direct orders from my clan. I cannot come. I am sorry.”


I care little. I don’t need him to exert my vengeance. He is clearly torn but it is not up to me to grant him forgiveness. We will all have to face the consequences of our decisions in the end.
Isaac has not given up yet. He clasps his hands and bends forward in a strange gesture. When he stands back up, the guilt has been replaced by a new resolution.


“I can still help. Here.”


He walks to a large chest and takes out a box. It looks like an expensive jewelry coffer made of lacquered wood decorated with strange glyphs. I cannot feel magic coming from it despite its obvious nature.
Isaac rips the wood apart with his bare hands. Beams and planes are shed from the structure until only a metallic frame is left. It consists of a handle stuck to a bar with a series of spikes branching out and curving back inward as if meant to encase a cylindrical object. The metal is silvery and the structure a bit rough, seemingly made in a rudimentary forge by an apprentice, and yet upon closer inspection, the surface is covered in hair-thin runes forming a complex lattice. Its aura is subdued and oppressive, evoking restraints.


“This was meant to contain the key, should the box be lost. It will disrupt its power on contact and quite possibly, hurt the Herald as well. Here, take it.”


I grab the artefact, cold and smooth under my fingers. Definitely used to restrain something until it is completely powerless...Dark basement. Broken arm. Broken leg. Dried blood.


I shake my head and wince. I feel so weak. Things are seeping in. Memories that should remain dead and buried. I take the contraption away and turn to Loth.


“Aye lass, I’m coming.”
“And so am I.”


Merritt lifts the tent access flap soon followed by Nashoba. She looks like death warmed over while the shaman is the picture of concern.


“You don’t get to tell me I can’t come. They killed my…”
“You can come.”
“Friends… Huh? You are fine with it?”


Headache. What do I care how you spend your life?


“Yes.”

“We still stand a chance to stop him if there is no one to slaughter. I split up the Warband. They have orders to reach the nearest villages and have them evacuate before the Herald and what is left of his men can reach it.”
“Will they be on time?”
“Yes. Those are their families at stake, daughter of Thorn and Hunger. They will make it.”
“Then I just need to stop him before he can get any more power.”
“Yes. The visions say you are immune to his touch.”


I am, now that… Now that the only bond I had to a mortal is gone.


“You will have to face him alone. If we approach, we will die and feed him.”
“I know. Tell me, shaman of the Choctaw, can you see my future?”


Nashoba lowers his head in disappointment.


“I cannot.”
“Excellent. It means that this is not over.”







I dream.


It is dark, not the embrace of the now-familiar nocturnal veil but the oppressive obscurity of the unfathomable depths. Pressure, crushing and unforgiving, bends my neck forward. There is nothing around but rocks surrounded by onyx sand as far as I can perceive, while above, there is nothing but the black of a fathomless canopy. The air, if it is air, is dry and scentless, Unspeakable things prowl lazily around, massive and contemptuous.
Although I cannot see it well, I know that an obsidian obelisk lies before me, toppled. And upon it sits a mocking silhouette. It holds in its hand a strange skull and starts with a voice that nothing can silence.


“Rage, Goddess. Sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that which caused the Achaeans countless agonies
and threw many warrior souls deep into Hades,
leaving their bodies to be feasted upon by carrion birds and savage dogs,
all to fulfill the will of Zeus.”


The voice should have been solemn, even fearful, as befits one who implores a Muse. Instead, it is ripe with bloodlust and the anticipation of the violence to come. Its owner leans forward until I look into eyes darker than even the abyss we stand on.


“It has been a long time, my child”


I scowl in recognition. Tall, dark hair and beard, golden skin. The Lord of the Nirari looks as regal as always in a sand-colored outfit richly decorated with rivers of precious stones. He looks like a Caliph holding court, at ease and confidant even in this desolate place.


“You…”
“Yes, me, at long last. Ten years. Ten long years I have waited, watched, eager to see if the little princess would fall like the others. And now for the first time, you are on the path to self-destruction, consumed by the blackest of rage. Tell me, child, what hurt you so? What deeds tipped the scales? Who was your Patrocles?”


My words escape me, unbidden. I must answer.


“… My Vassal. Killed.”
“How?”
“Treachery! Lies. The Herald took an oath to uphold a truce, intending to break it. And he did. He shot my Vassal down like an animal…”
“And this enemy, you intend to pursue him?”
“I must.”
“For all debts must be repaid?”
Our eyes meet. I do not submit.
“Yes.”
The monster stands up and moves towards me. The pressure I am feeling increases with every step he takes, but I hold.
“Defiant, still. You were never completely broken, even at the end. You share my curse now, the one I share with my better scions.”


He turns and walks away and I collapse with relief.


“We do not know how to lose. Very well then. A lesson, so that you may repay the debt. Listen well, princess of the blood. Listen to your Master. An eternity ago, the greatest queen who ever lived created a set of elixirs, and those have found their ways to the hands of the mighty and the fated over the years. Those were elixirs of eternal life. A spark of the divine, with a twist: a curse to steal the vitality that we would no longer create. I, her son, was the first. I drank and the essence that became mine reflected what I needed and who I was.”
“A Warlord?”
“No. A conqueror. Every new bloodline, every new creature you sample is added to your kingdom. It becomes yours. Drinking more makes you powerful but the first one opens the path.”
“I know this.”
“You do not. You feel stronger but you do not understand the power itself. Close your eyes. Focus. Go deeper.”


My perception of the world fades and the scene grows distant.


“I will guide you.”


Something drives me forward until we lurch and spill in my mental fortress. I end up sprawled on the grass of my strange garden, next to a rock in the shape of the first merman I faced.
A presence behind me makes me turn. Master is here, though he is somewhat transparent like I imagine a ghost would be. I want him out, but I cannot push him away. Something stops me. My defenses do not recognize him as a foreign entity.
He turns his gaze to the statue and smiles, then with a wave of his hand, an arch emerges from the ground.


“You have refined tastes, princess. Now, open the way.”


I must still obey. A distant part of me objects to his coming here. He does not belong in my sanctuary. He desecrates this land by simply treading it. That part is drawn by another that insists that this is the most natural thing in the world.


Both voices are right.


I arrive in a circular plaza surrounded by tall walls of tightly woven roses, in black, white, and red. The ground is made of polished marble slabs but what attracts my attention is its inhabitants.
The deceptively wide expanse is currently covered in statues, most white and standing, and a few colored and kneeling. Wherever I look, the open space widens, and more come into focus, only to fade as I look away. I recognize a few of them as people I killed, like the werewolf I faced in the Lancaster Arena. Others, I do not remember.


“An impressive tally, little one. You may look upon them with pride, I do not believe I have seen its like since I sired Malakim.”
“Those are…”
“Your victims, yes, and those who paid you tribute, of their own free will. They are the sources of your power as my scion. Yours, for as long as you walk the worlds. Observe, a few of them already lent you their allegiance.”


Indeed, some of the constructs surrounding us are not only kneeling, they are colored while the others are alabaster white and they feel reactive. I recognize a few, including a very faint outline of Sinead, Bingle, Nashoba, Loth, Naminata of the Ekon whom I met just before being sent to fight in the pits.


“I do not understand. I did not make them submit.”
“Oh? An interesting distinction. Go ahead then, make the others… Submit.”


This is not a matter of words. I focus on the deep part of me, the one that wants to subjugate, and bring it forth. The plaza below us pulses once and something stirs in the depths. Its size defies comprehension. Above us, the purple light of the Watcher shifts.


SUBMIT.


The command spreads outward like a wave. The ones I killed kneel in turn but the ones that gave me their blood of their own free will stand up and fade in the background. Worse, those who kneel are not colored.
Master chuckles and shakes his head in amusement. One of his hand holds his elbow while the other caresses his beard.


“Tell me, princess, from whence stems power? Say, for the, hm, president, of your old nation.”
“The mandate of the people?”
“And for the king of the Britons?”
“I don’t know? Divine will perhaps?”
“Such complicated mental gymnastics, such elaborate concepts. So many theories to justify one eternal truth. No matter how strong an idea, or how beloved a sovereign, there will always be dissidents. How are they kept in check?”
“Military might?”
“Yes, overwhelming martial strength. Those,” he gestures around him, “are not yours because you are a vampire. They are yours because they faced you and lost. Because you vanquished them. You are very close. Try again.”


I bring the deeper part of me towards the surface again, but this time I infuse a truth in the words, my own belief that they shall submit by the most ancient rule of them all, the right of the victor.


SUBMIT.


The statues kneel, this time with color. They raise their hands in surrender. Their powers are mine because they have no choice. Once more, those who gave me blood out of their own free will remain standing.


“I do not understand.”
“Patience little princess, patience. You remind me of a desert raider I once knew. You only understand conquest through violence. Those allies and supplicants who helped you, they flocked to your banner.”
“Two of those were used to save my life.”
“And they strengthened you by doing so. We vampires, we conquerors, are not mindless killers. We have our codes and our honor, our Vassals and Servants, our clans and communities. Those who follow willingly may do it for safety, order, power, vengeance, for as many reasons as human nature allows. What matters is that they follow. Try again.”


I understand, I think. They trusted me, some trust me still, to have mastery over those gifts they offered. They are not mine because I crushed them but because they acknowledged me as one deserving of tribute. Loth loves me in his own way. Bingle sacrificed himself out of duty and friendship. They did not do it because I defeated them, but because they believed in me as a person, enough to expose themselves.
I take a deep breath. I know what I must do. To conquer is not to destroy. To conquer is not always to stand alone. That is the difference.


SUBMIT.


Some kneel because they have to, some because they choose to. One by one, all the statues before me bow and color springs from the ground to cover them. Then, their powers unlock.
I have never felt stronger.
I bask in the ensuing bliss. I could send a werewolf flying. I could crush steel. I could outpace the fastest stallion. It feels amazing, more than that, it is a deserved reward.
Master walks among the statues like a collector inspecting his latest acquisitions.


“The mortals do not amount for much, and the mages you cannot use. Yet. The werewolves are a nice touch, you can draw on their savagery to fight longer, heal faster. The Ekon bloodline is renowned for its ability to hold pain and the Thirst at bay, a necessity for those adventurers. The Lancaster are peerless when it comes to Charm. You even drained a rogue Natalis! I am impressed. Their dumb physical strength will serve you well. Oh, and a few stranger creatures! Why, I have never met those spirits of Hunger. Degenerated native people perhaps? I will have to come back at some point. The fae prince and the god-touched powers are locked from us, unfortunately. Only the inherent strength can be yours. Well, this is a pleasant surprise. You have been productive.”


His inspection over, he returns by my side and places a hand on my shoulder. I feel the steel grip behind the light touch, and I am not scared, just a bit pleased at his approval. This is a dream. Many of my gut reactions are subdued.


“With this, you have access to four of the fourteen bloodlines I know of. I granted you this lesson as a favor, princess of the blood. See that it is not misplaced.”


The shape of him evaporates in black vapor until only an eight-fanged smile remains, then this is gone too, and I wake up.







Pain. Thirst. Claustrophobia. The sensation of choking. I gulp great breaths of air that do nothing but satisfy a vestigial reflex. My claws scratch the sarcophagus’ inner padding until I grab the handles and pull them. I jump up and fall on the side, coming to my feet in an instant.
Around me, dry earth and roots topped by a very low tent. Loth stares at me with a blank look from behind a tiny workbench. He has never looked more tired.
No immediate danger. Clear exits. No need to FIGHT OR FLEE.
I clutch the center of my chest to try in vain to ward off asphyxiation. He came in my mind. He came in my mind and did what he wanted and I did NOTHING. Nothing to stop him even though I… Even if he… Gah!
Only distance saves me from him anyway. If I were by his side, I would just be a bumbling and lovestruck wreck. Pathetic.
Maybe I was lucky. At least I got to be myself from the onset. Now I just need to find somebody to eat to end this unbearable pain and I know just the man. In silence, I attach battered pieces of armor to my stained dress and affix my half-mask, leaving the mouth free.


“Lass?”
“I’m ready. How are we doing?”


He considers the lump of metal in front of him and removes his hands from it. Just as I recognize the object in front of me, its aura pervades the small space we stand in.
I don’t know how long it took for him to finish it but I would presume every waking hour since I fell to slumber. In typical Loth fashion, he took the problem and analyzed it then found a solution that would satisfy his need for violent revenge. Since it is too risky to get close, my friend made a shell.
No, calling it a shell does not do it justice. He made a shell-shaped object that is more magical concentrated spite than steel. It is made from darkened metal engraved with vengeful runes pulsing a deep red like a wound leaking blood. Lines of glyphs criss-cross it in every direction like taut barbed wires. Loth’s creation looks like what it is, the fruit of patient malevolence, made for the exclusive purpose of inflicting pain and death. Whispers at the edge of my hearing promise dark retribution. My friend lifts hollowed eyes to me.


“I’m ready. Let’s go outside.”


We leave and I find myself in a depression surrounded by pines at the top of a hill overlooking a large valley. Dried needles and fallen cones cover the ground and let out a pleasant scent that offers a sharp contrast with the tensions of those in it. There are no fires, no gear and no horses around, only two exhausted mortals lying on the ground next to the covered form of Loth’s steel canon. Nashoba and Merritt turn around and see me but do not react. Everyone is on edge.
I lean down by their side. If they notice me trying to breathe, they do not comment on it. In front of us lies a vale with an open ground around a tiny stream. Muskogee houses and structures dot it with a few tilled fields in the distance. Signs of life are everywhere but I see no locals alive or dead. In the central plaza, the Herald is in an animated discussion with a handful of subordinates including the Tower Mage.


“The evacuation was successful. Merritt managed to track that bastard and we used our mobility to our advantage.” says Nashoba in English.


I turn in surprise to the mage. Her eyes are bloodshot and her traits drawn but there is no mistaking the pride in her voice.


“That asshole left a lot of blood behind. I scraped it off the pier and made a compass.”
“Excellent. Loth, are you opening?”
“Yes.”
“When?”
“Right now. You two, get out.”


The two mortals stand up without a word and run away in the opposite direction.


“Listen lass. As soon as that shell is off I’m getting the hell out of here. You’re the only one who can stand in front of the key and live. The rest of us would just feed him more power.”


“I know.”


Loth stops and turns to me. In his eyes, there is not a hint of doubt that I will succeed.


“I won’t say good luck. I’ll see you on the other side. Now, stand back. This is my moment.”


Loth removes the tarp from the gun’s maw, I take position by his side.


“Betrayed.” he murmurs. His huge hands cradle the patiently made shell almost lovingly. The terrifying thing pulses in rhythm with his heartbeat.
“Bloodied. By oath broken and words made void, one was taken from us.”
He slides the shell in the gun. I can see a reddish glow flowing down its length as the whispers grow louder then with a final ‘thunk’, it nestles deep within, quiet and ready to be unleashed.


“By the old laws, by our own honor intact, we come to claim our due.”


He adjusts the gun with patience and a deceptive calm. The atmosphere is so heavy that I stop breathing again. I know that I am witnessing something unique, a master at work for a once in a lifetime performance.


“Your guilt and debt set ablaze, our vengeance expressed.”


He walks back and grabs the rope that will release the primer.


“And made manifest.”


He pulls the cord.


The canon vomits its horrifying payload into the world. The shell screams its way down like a chorus of furious demons, a symphony of nightmares that fills my ears with its insane voices, I grit my teeth before the onslaught and watch the shell impact, then detonate.

One instant, the village is empty but peaceful, the next, it is simply gone. The shield used by the tower mage makes as much difference as a teapot emptied on a house fire. The clearing is obliterated by a deafening explosion that sends pieces of rocks and soil high into the air. The shockwave extends outward and levels the entire forest in a wave of fire and destruction. The trees closer to the epicenter are simply torched. Not a single needle remains attached.


And the fire keeps burning. First white, then an unnaturally dark red, the raging inferno emits heat that hits me like a wall even hundreds of feet away. I raise a hesitant hand to painful ears and return a few drops of dark blood.
For a solid minute, I ignore Loth’s retreating form and stare into hell itself. How could anything survive that?!
And yet, a dark silhouette soon shows against the incandescent background, shambling forward mindlessly. As it exits the area, the flames gutter and die like a man losing heart. The hexed shell did its best. Now, dinner is served.


I sprint forward with incredible speed, faster than I have ever been in my entire life and yet with absolute confidence in my steps. Over stumps and trunks and upturned earth I go, never slowing. My hair clings to my skull with the wind of my passage and in only a few heartbeats, I reach the Herald. As I watch, blue links and patterns do not knit flesh, but make it appear from nowhere. The aura I feel is incredible. It buffets me like an alien wind.
I grab my prey from behind and bite down to Devour.


“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH.”


It burns! I spit blood and teeth, only for it to regenerate and melt again. I fall backward and crawl away, mewling in pain.
So much power. Too much. Like kissing a thunderbolt. And despite that I feel strong, so strong. Just an instant, but it felt like drinking from Master.
I calm myself, letting the lava-like substance drip away from my charred lips for a few seconds, but soon the sounds of the Herald regenerating behind me forces a new alarm. No. No! I will not let go. This. Is. Nothing!
I draw on the deep and cold will inside to STAND UP AND FIGHT. My claws catch a half-formed arm and pull it out of its socket. The crack of ruptured ligaments is accompanied by a muffled scream that spurs me. I grab the other arm and the Herald’s aura explodes outward.


“Oof!”


I am pushed backwards, only to roll on the ground and sprint back up. The scrapes, the pain, nothing will stop me. This is to the death.


“You! You… This is all your fault!” screams the Herald with a broken voice. His flesh is now intact, and I notice in passing that he is naked from the waist down. The tattered remnants of his hunting jacket cling to his form while hot tears run down his face.


“It was supposed to be my moment! I don’t understand! What in the seven hells are you!”


YOUR DEATH.


I slice and stab him three more times until his cries of pain turn to pure rage and he strikes. For a moment, he is faster than me, perhaps even as fast as Jimena.
And he misses.
His fist goes wide and his body collapses in the ashy ground. In an instant I am on him. I take his head, twist left and right and throw it away. I take out my blade and slice great swaths of fabric from his enchanted vest. I need that thing off.
Once more I am blasted away but this time I roll and barely dodge a strike to the side before retaliating. The herald only screams incoherently at this point.


“Why why why won’t you die!”


I block the exact same strike coming from the exact same angle and counter-attack with a blade to the stomach. I jump away and gut him like a fish. His yells of agony sound strange in the deadened air. He grabs a fallen pine and tosses it, hoping to crush me perhaps? I step to the side to avoid the improvised projectile. I have been me for a decade. I know how my body works. He is just an inexperienced mortal playing demigod.


For a good minute, I dance around him and use my experience to inflict terrible damage. I find that cutting off limbs works better than piercing flesh as the key regenerates it entirely. It takes more time and hopefully, more energy. Our contest is an unequal ballet between a wasp and a drunken, bumbling fool.


He just won’t stay down.


I maim and amputate and slice and still his body is reformed in instants. Changing gear, I boot him away and to the side, then I jump on his back and bring him down. I savage his back. I know he will heal these wounds but this is therapeutic.

Once more, his aura explodes outward but this time I cling to his jacket, tearing it to pieces. A second later, his actual body explodes. When I land and stand back up, there is something different. He is taller, paler, and his face is no longer fully human. His aristocratic beard is gone as well as his lips and nose. Only pale skin below two slits are left. Even his eyes shine a strange blue. 


“I eliminated pain, vampire, and the key will repair my mind. It’s only a matter of time now.”


He is also fully naked. I search the rag in my hand for a pocket and find something cylindrical, but the contact is peculiar. I feel my fingers closing on it and yet it has no texture, no temperature, and then it is gone.


“Looking for this?” asks the Herald, amused. In his hand, the key appears.
“We are one now. You can no longer claim it, assuming your kind ever could.”


I need it. I jump. He dodges and I follow up by cutting off his leg at the knee. The resistance is higher, for some reason. Is his body tougher? I block the following counter and am smashed against the ground once again. Stupid strength. I dodge a downward punch that buries itself in the earth and slice one of the arms on the way out, then I move around and grab the key. At the same moment, his aura once more explodes and I am flung away.


“Annoying insect!”


The Herald is whole, and yet I can spot the barest hints of black veins under his skin, perhaps exhaustion or perhaps a remnant of yesterday’s transgression. His aura is more and more manifest, buckling and thrashing against his control. He may be insanely strong but he cannot bring this power to bear.


“It is not for you to take.”


My foe seizes the key and places it at the top of his forehead. The artifact digs into his skull with blue tendrils and latches, looking all the while like the world’s most disgusting unicorn.
He rushes me and slaps the air in front of my retreating torso. I dodge by the barest of margins to counter again.
DODGE.
I jump left just as an insane power erupts from his palm. With a roar, blue energy digs a deep furrow into the earth, smashing rocks and sending toppled trees spinning in the air like pins.
PAIN.
I grit my teeth and claw his face, blinding him.
Pain. Pain! I check my right arm to see it now stops at the elbow. Where is my bloody.. Oh, here it is. I jump forward and catch it, then place the mangled limb against my stump.
Come on!
I feel a rush of wild energy and the need to howl, to hunt. Bones bound, muscles rejoin and skin knits before my very eyes.


“Where are you, harlot? Only one…”


The Herald’s eyes widen in surprise when he sees me healed. I open and close my hand around the dagger. Everything is fine. It doesn’t hurt one bit.
For the first time in two nights, I smile.


“You still do not understand.”


I rush forward then back to avoid another shockwave, then forward again. My enemy screams in frustration while I dive under and jump above bolts of blue energy. His face melts under the intense power, only to reform again and again. Each time, the traits are more inhuman, more cruel. His teeth are now completely triangular. Great black arteries snake under his skin, leaving the flesh around blemished.
Finally, I manage to sidestep a two-handed vertical strike and find myself behind him.
Now time to DODGE.
Massive bone spikes grown from his back in every direction. I did not manage to leave in time and two pierce my enchanted bracers as if they were butter, while the last digs deep into my belly.
PAIN.
I fall back and block a backhand blow with the dagger. The sharp blade cuts off the limb once more. Reprieve.
Just need a second to…


“This has been far too annoying, I do believe I will take it now.”


The Herald extends his hand and grasps. I feel nothing myself, then the dagger jolts. I watch powerless as Jimena’s gift is dismantled, deconstructed before my very eyes.


“Interesting.”


The Herald lift his fingers and each tip is replaced by inches of silvery blades covered in runes.
Not good.
The blackened veins expand even more and I can feel his aura stuttering but that won’t help me if I am dismembered in the next few seconds.
I turn and run.


“You won’t escape me you hussy! Hahahaha!”


Not escaping, just looking for… Ah.
I turn my back to a large vertical rock upturned by Loth’s cataclysmic shot. The Herald smirks and jumps.
He stole my technique!
I throw myself backward on the ground, trying to ignore the wound in my stomach.
There is a single instant of faith when all I can see is the smoke-filled sky, then the stars are blotted by a body passing overhead. With a grunt of anger, my foe’s steely claws bury themselves deep into the stone, and stay there.
Cracks form almost immediately but I am faster. I dig talons into his wrist and break it apart, then grab the severed hand and use it as an improvised weapon.
The first swipe guts him, the second blinds him, while with my right, I reach behind to grab Isaac’s present and place it against his exposed spine.
Then both of his hands explode. Silvery shrapnel hit me.
Agony.
I scream and roll on the ground. Take them out, MUST TAKE THEM OUT! I remove a piece of smoldering metal from the meat of my shoulder then another from a calf, another from my right ear. After two more I finally stop panicking and stand up.
The Herald is holding his head and yelling atrociously. The keening sound should be a torture but in truth, it is music to my ears.


“You! What have you done!?”


If he had not turned off the pain, he would know that his organs reformed around something foreign. Now with the recent change to his body, I would be surprised if he could tell how many spikes grow out of his back.
Energy explodes randomly around him. As I watch, his right leg bursts and reforms as a grotesque parody of an insect’s feeler. Both his hands grow mismatched claws and tentacles. He finally remembers the cause of his woes, however, and charges me with the strength of despair.
I surprise him by charging as well. He is barely faster than me now and just as he strikes, I dig my left foot into the ground and boot him with all my strength. I remember the maddened charge of the Natalis rogue and pour the same mindless energy in my kick.
The Herald lifts off and crashes against a rock, a fallen pine, a burning stump and another rock. He sees me approach and tries to stand up, in vain. His mutated leg does not find enough purchase to pry the spikes off the stone they are embedded in.


“If you had not looked down on humans and their form so much…”


I raise my hand and plant my feet in the ground to resist an aura explosion. It barely slows me down.


“…You would not have fought like a toddler…”


I duck to avoid a bolt of energy.


“… You would not have paid so much for an oath broken…”


I grab the key on his forehead, dig claws in his chest to find Isaac's suppressor and place both feet against his chest.


“… And you would not have destroyed your organization and yourself.”


With a ghastly sound of broken flesh, both objects break free of the form encasing them.


“I am Ariane of the Nirari. You were dead the moment you killed my Vassal.”


The steel trap’s spine close around the key and the connection breaks. Energy arcs from the Herald’s prostrate form, raking him and the ground. My foe lets out a last, keening yell and in mere instants, he is but a scorched husk.
I did it.
The link is severed. He’s dead. I won, and paid the debt.
Now I just need to…
Return the key of Beriah for safekeeping?
I know it should be the best decision, then something whispers into my mind.
I look up.
When did I ever think the Watcher was far? He is close, so close. A tendril descends and brushes a strand of hair away from my cheek. The eye croons and then asks like a very young child:


“Give?”


No words are actually spoken. The requests appear in my mind instantly with a purity of meaning that the spoken word can never hope to match.


“Give?”


This is not an order, not even a demand. There is something so innocent and beautiful about the simple request, so humble. I know I could refuse without consequence. There would not be a grudge.
I raise the key. The closest purple limb closes around it, two things that do not belong here, and then the blue construct is lifted into…
I blink.
Space and reality hiccupped for a moment. I frown, trying to remember in detail what just happened but cannot. I… Could not process what just occurred. My mind is simply not equipped.
What I know with certainty is that the key is gone.
I look up. The vampire aster is as distant and mesmerizing as always but for the first time, I feel something I never expected.


Approval.

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Mecanimus

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