I awaken to moans of pain and the coppery scent of congealed blood. My hands find the sarcophagus’ opening mechanism and the lid opens without a sound.
Something went wrong. We are still a day away from the prison, and from any patrol that would take exception to our presence. I make sure my dark battle gown is secured and my weapons ready before stepping outside.
I left seven men and one woman in good health at dawn. Now Laura is missing, Tom is dying on the grass and we are short three horses. The survivors have formed a scattered perimeter along a ridge with a sheer cliff at their backs and a sharply declining slope on every side. Tall pines and large boulders dot red-tinted earth covered with dried needles. There is almost no cover to be found.
This is a defensible position, and a deathtrap. We have our backs to the wall, quite literally.
Farther down, I hear the soft murmur of running water and footsteps of encroaching foes.
We have also gained a few newcomers. Four natives from a tribe I do not recognize have gathered with us. One of them, older, is praying softly while the others look out, clutching spears and bows in their nervous hands. Their faces are deep red and cracked by years spent under a merciless sun.
John is the first to notice me. A smile of utter relief spreads on his simple face.
“Ms. Lethe! Ms. Lethe is here!”
He is quickly silenced but now my presence is known. Sinead lifts the musket I gave him and crawls towards me.
“Ah, poppet, I am ecstatic to see you up and about. We find ourselves in a bit of a pickle.”
“You don’t say.”
“Tut tut, sarcasm does not become beautiful women.”
“Less seduction more explanation, please?”
“Of course. We are beset by, and please believe me when I say this comes as a surprise, cannibal monsters. Yes. As to how we ended up in this predicament, we left late afternoon on schedule and made good time on our journey West. Not long after, we came across a group of natives and decided to group up for safety. Then an hour ago, the path led us to a rickety wooden bridge over a deep gorge. Laura had point and crossed first to see if the structure was sound enough to pass with our wagon. They fell on her like wolves as soon as she was on the other side.”
For the first time since he arrived, Sinead shivers and I see unease piercing though his usually unflappable countenance. Something terrible must have happened, and his usually jovial nature has been replaced with obvious worry.
“Thin men dressed in leather. Fast and feral. They unhorsed her and brought her to the ground in seconds. She managed to fire one shot and got an assailant in the chest, but he stood back up and joined the others.”
Sinead licks his lips, unsure on how to proceed.
“They ate her alive, Ariane. Starting with her face. The screams were something I could have done without.”
He lowers his eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to regain control. When he looks up, only cold resolve remains.
“My dear, I am aware that the success of my project is far from guaranteed but please, if it comes to this, do not let me be eaten alive. I would die of embarrassment. Not to mention, they do not deserve to taste a flesh as delicate as mine.”
“You won’t fall to them. Continue your story.”
“Yes, yes of course. Many more of those things jumped out of the woods. They were frenzied, insane. I believe they were waiting in ambush but could not resist, and their lack of control saved us. I had everyone turn around and retreat as more of those came after us. We managed to hold ourselves and the horses together for a while, yet despite my best efforts, they soon caught up to us. Your men showed admirable control and we were able to go on a fighting retreat up to this position. Unfortunately, we lost two horses and a third one ran away when a creature managed to drag Tom down. Metis must have disappeared in the confusion as well. The monsters attacked relentlessly. They did not care at all for their own well-being.”
Sinead’s voice is barely a whisper now.
“There is something else. They eat their dead. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“I expected that, just like I know what they are. I just never came across them in such numbers.”
Wendigos. They are organized now, enough to set up an ambush. Enough to take down a heavily armed convoy.
The world is changing and I am not sure if I like it.
I could go out and slaughter them. I am confident that they would all die but I also lost someone in the past by being overconfident. My priority should be to keep the rest of my allies alive. I need to stay with them. Now, should we make a stand or move? It would be more difficult to keep everyone together if we try to break out, not to mention the horses may panic. So I need the Wendigos to strike and slaughter them as they come. I also need to wipe them out. If a majority scatters and leaves, I may not be able to hunt them all before dawn and then the group would be vulnerable to a counter-attack.
We need bait.
I turn to Sinead just as I hear approaching footsteps at the edge of my perception.
“Somebody is coming. I’ll stall them. Walk around and prepare a fall back circle against the cliff. We need to fire on them when they attack, then draw them in and deny vision to their reinforcement.”
To my surprise, Sinead obeys without comment. Our situation must be dire indeed for him to eschew his acidic wit. Ignoring the urgent whispers spreading around I step onto the ridge to await the monster’s envoy.
Down the slope, a hungry mob of fighters has gathered in a loose line just out of musket range. The mass seethes and writhes in a tide of lean flesh and salient bones. Their sour musk pervades the very air. As I watch, a figure approaches. The man is larger and while still lean, he is not as skeletal as some of his brethren. He walks leisurely forward in a smooth gait that sometimes reveals his leathery skin and below, muscles like corded steel. I take an involuntary breath as I recognize the two crossed bands on his desiccated brown outfit. Our native allies during the battle at Black Harbor wore something similar.
Those are Choctaw Wendigos.
Nashoba, my friend... No. I refuse to believe it. They are so far from their land!
No, it cannot be. I must have made a mistake. Or they are raiders. Or exiles. I shall learn the truth!
“Why do you come to us dressed as a Mingo?”
The man stops and looks up in surprise. His black eyes inspect my body and when they reach my midriff, he licks his lips.
“I am a Mingo, a chief, white woman.”
“You are far from your lands, Mingo.”
I realize immediately that I made a mistake. The chief’s visage twists with inhuman fury, revealing a jagged set of teeth. To my surprise he regains control almost immediately.
“You do not know.”
He laughs. It is a mirthless and broken sound that grates the ears. A mockery of the real thing.
“We are so insignificant that the white men of the North do not even know what their leaders have done.”
“I do not understand.”
“Then I shall tell you, white woman. I shall tell you how we ended up here like this. So you know how we were betrayed and why you die.
“Long ago, my father fought alongside your warriors against the Creek and the English both. He was there with Pushmataha when New Orleans was saved from the invasion. We thought you our friends, bound by blood spilt and shed together. You called us one of the five civilized tribes and we respected you in return, but the memory of your kind is short and your greed, endless.
“Two years ago, we were invited to a feast at Dancing Rabbit Creek and told we would have to bow to your rule or be exiled West. I saw how your free men were treated so we left. We could not fight you. Your kind cheered as my people walked through your cities because they knew there was new land to be had. All of our previous treaties meant nothing. We did not deserve to be treated with honor.
“I should have taken my war club, painted it red and died like a man. Instead we were led into the swamps by incompetent guides. We lost our way. Many died on the trail of tears.”
The fallen chief’s gaze is lost in the distance and his voice grows heavy with memories. I am surprised by his self-control. I never thought Wendigos could even be articulate, and yet his command of English is flawless.
“I was so hungry. I ate a crawfish, raw, with the pincers. And worms. My... my wife. She was chewing her own fingers...”
For a few moments, remnants of humanity bleed through the creature, only to disappear as the thing returns its attention to me. He has grown cold. His eyes are two black pits of nothingness smouldering with scorn and anger.
“Look at what I have become, because of greed. So hungry all the time. Like I have a dog gnawing from the inside. Enough. I was going to offer terms but no more. You will feel my pain, you, the Creek, the red people and the black men. All of you. I will eat the tender flesh from your stomachs, your breasts, and your thighs while you scream for mercy. Then, I will kill you.”
He steps back and screams. The sound is guttural and charged with meaning. It speaks of carcass eaten to the last pieces of cartilage, of broken bones with the marrow sucked off. It speaks of hunger and madness.
“There will be nothing left of you.”
Then he steps away.
He is lucky I need him alive. That scream sounded like a CHALLENGE. One I will answer. Later.
I trot back to the wagon and take out my rifle, then join my allies against the improvised trench.
“I can’t see shit.” comments Russel, one of the two black freemen. Good point.
“Light the lanterns and give them to me, quickly.”
The mute hermit and John scramble to provide what I asked. I take the first one as soon as it is ready and throw it.
Everyone follows the piece of red ember as it arches through the sky, then crashes against a pine tree. Oil spills, setting the tree ablaze. The halo of scarlet light shines on the advancing force. It reveals parodies of men, some of them on all four.
Our side opens on the foes. The volley catches the creatures off guard and a handful falls. Unfortunately, the rest forfeits any attempt at discretion. They charge with throaty screams.
There are quite a few of them, I’d say at least thirty. I don’t see their leader and deduce that he will use his more feral troops to soften us. Sinead and I fire our pistols, slowing segments of the incoming force as some of them fall on their dead comrades. Soon, the first creature is climbing up the ridge.
The others retreat to the prepared positions.
“You too, John.”
The simple giant hesitated but he has never disobeyed a direct order and today is not the day he will start.
The others form a circle with the wagons at their back. The hermit and Russel reload frantically, preparing to cover the Creeks who have taken out steel tomahawks and stand shoulder to shoulder with the red-skinned men. Somewhere in front, the lanterns have set a tree ablaze and dark silhouettes appear clearly against the red-tinged background.
I cave in the first Wendigo’s chest with a closed fist. Snap the spine of a second one. I move slowly, hiding most of my abilities. Those are scavengers. If the tide of battle turns too fast, they will flee. I need to make it look like they might win while keeping my allies alive. Sinead and John must hold at all cost. The rest are replaceable.
The assaults starts in earnest. A creature falls to a point-blank shot and the next to John’s oversized metal club. I dance among the slow monsters and kill them where they stand. I am careful not to spread too much of their sour blood and I mostly break bones. One of the red-skins yells as he is dragged forward. I move and break his foe’s spine, then throw the corpse near the ledge to slow down the assault. Another uses the opportunity to jump on my back. YOU DARE. I grab the thing’s head before it can bite down and CRUSH IT, send the body flying. I kill three others in quick succession. Bodies are piling, some are fed on. Allies are being overwhelmed, too many. KILL FASTER. I go through their rank from one side of the circle to the other by slitting their throats and ripping their heads off. Spilt essence everywhere. Some of the mortals are already hurt, with fresh blood dripping from their wounds. The scent mingles with sweat, fear and Wendigo’s acidic ichor to form an intoxicating perfume, pungent and heady. Too many, I need to THIN THE HERD.
Oh no you do not want to leave. Look at me, all of you, yes, you are THIRSTY, SO VERY THIRSTY. YOU NEED THE PRECIOUS LIQUID. Feel the craving, the abominable pain. Come sate it. I am here.
The creatures open their dislocated maw and scream in anguish before rushing me. YES, COME.
This is my moment. The brothel, the politics and the others can all go to some lost circle of hell, this is what I was made for. I claw off half a head, grab the corpse and smash another with it. I dive under a grasping arm and stab another in the spine, use his corpse as a battering ram and crash into a group. They fall like pins. I stomp down and smash a skull, dismember them as they try to stand back up. Their screams of pain are a glorious symphony and the red mist of my labor caresses my nostrils. So good. Yes. MORE.
Some of them falter.
Oh no, that won’t do. I find one of my allies on the ground and grab him by the throat. He is wounded. Yes, he will do nicely.
He obeys. Some others join in. The scavengers smell weakness as they recognize the sound of falling prey. The Mingo reaches the top.
More than two-thirds of his base creatures are dead. The rest is spread on the floor, nursing wounds, or paralyzed by indecision.
It roars in outrage.
PITIFUL WEAKLING. YOU THINK ME AFRAID? YOU ARE DOG AND I AM QUEEN.
Its face twists in terror. It turns to flee. One of his better-fed companions extends a hand and mutters a word. A translucent snake emerges from it, only to be bisected by my blue-clad talon. You call this magic? Pathetic. Die.
I massacre what is left of the retinue, gorge on their blood as the fallen one abandons the field. Yes, A BIT OF SPORT.
The nightmare gallops seemingly out of nowhere and I jump on her back as she passes me by. We chase after the fleeing PREY.
It turns just before the end, so that I can see the disbelief on its face. Metis runs him down in a cacophony of yelps and shattered bone.
It crawls away.
I drop and grab it by the neck.
“It was a good hunt.”
He tastes pleasantly sour and powerful, with a tinge of regret and thwarted vengeance. The forest, moments before filled with the clamour of battle, falls silent.
And just like that, the hunt is over. I drop the broken remains of the dead Choctaw on the ground and look around. Two pines are still ablaze with sputtering flames, the sooty smoke trailing up to the sky. Bloody corpses are gathered in clumps where we shot them and where their allies fell on them to feed. The air is heavy with woodsmoke, gunpowder and blood.
I lost control, for the first time in two decades. I revealed my wildest self in public, in full view of my allies. I brought the odd squad because rumors coming from them would be dismissed and they know it, and this time it might not suffice. It is one thing to suspect your employer of being a witch, another to see her mow through supernatural creatures like a demon from hell.
Oh, and I think I Devoured a few of them, did I not? Yes I did. Wonderful. Tremendous.
Perhaps all that dismemberment was a tad overdone. Ripping the arms from your enemy’s chest? So last millennium.
Dammit. I did not need this. I must have enough men to assault the prison and access the areas that will necessarily be consecrated. The order of Gabriel has been formed and trained to slay things like me, it is therefore wise to use mundane means against them. I cannot afford a mutiny before this is done.
Metis nudges me and brings me back to the present. I tear off the leather strips from the dead one’s stomach and leave her to her own feast. The walk back to the fortified camp is a long one as I fear what I will find and the decisions I shall have to take. On the ridge, only John is waiting for my return. He is looking around at the charnel pit that this place has become.
His brow scrunches in confusion, then he turns to me and asks me with a calm voice:
“Why did they attack us, Miss Lethe?”
I stop by his side and consider an answer. I could tell him that they wanted to inflict pain in return for the pain they suffered. I could tell him that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time and made to pay for sins committed by men who would see me dead if they could. I could tell him that the world is a senseless hellhole where fortune and tragedy walk hand in hand for no specific reason, that I did not deserve to die for reaching above my station, and that my first victim should not have perished to feed me. I could add that I did not deserve to be saved by Loth or tortured by Lady Moor. I will not. It is a fool’s errand to seek meaning in that vast cosmic circus of a world. There is no justice in that divine farce, save the one we dispense ourselves. Why did they attack us? Why indeed.
“Because they were hungry.”
I pat the huge man on the shoulder as he nods beatifically. His all-knowing and all-powerful Mistress answered the question and explained reality, and now all is right in the world. Sometimes, I envy him.
The men I left behind are bandaging their wounds when I find them again. They collectively recoil when my steps lead me down. Only Sinead and the old red-skinned man are not staring at the ground in hope that when they look back up, it will all have been a dream. The ancient warrior looks at me with a calm and contemplative gaze, and I believe that he had been ready to meet death long before our paths crossed. Sinead is inspecting the others and gauging their reactions, already planning ahead.
Behind them, Tom’s raspy breath and the man I forced to scream’s soft sobs are the only sounds that break the silence.
The fire dies out.
I force back a sigh and bend to grab a defunct Wendigo. We have to stay here for a little while to allow the others some rest and clearing the battlefield is a necessity. Dead, my foes lose their bestial countenance and unnatural strength. They are thin and shockingly light, weighing less than an adult should.
“Light some torches.”
They obey and we work in silence. When I have grabbed the last severed limb and added it to an improvised pyre, I turn and find their attention on me. Good, it is the perfect opportunity to deliver an important message.
“You just found out that the world is bigger and darker than you thought. All of you realize that I am part of it. If anyone wants to panic, or pray, do it now, because tomorrow you will perform according to my expectations or you will die. I do not care if afterward you run all the way to Texas screaming like banshees. Until this is over, you are mine. And in case any of you got any bright ideas about fleeing by day or warning the authorities, I will now explain why you should not. First, no one will believe you. And second, when I find out, I will make sure that your end is the stuff of legend. I will grind your flesh until you are ready to sell your souls just so that I allow you to succumb. No distance will be too great and no fortress safe enough to protect you from my retribution. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
A series of nods and “Yes ma’am” answers my question. Even the otherwise cold hermit seems a bit flabbergasted by the sudden display, though Sinead is just shaking his head and wincing. I am about to turn and go for a calming run when the old chief stands and greets me.
Or at least I think he does, I do not understand a word of what he says.
“Allow me to help here,” says my Likaean friend.
“How do you even know his language?”
“I have a gift for tongues, as you may have guessed. I will translate for you.”
The ancient man’s diction is peculiar. His voice flows peacefully in a soft dialect that makes sentence structures hard to spot. The melody of his words is rhythmic and soothing.
“He says he thanks you for saving us all. His name translates as ‘He who raided at dawn’, and he came here in pursuit of his son.”
“Was his son abducted?”
“No, he says he is here to kill him.”
That was unexpected. The chief grows agitated as he elaborates on his outrageous claim.
“He says that his eldest son used dark magic to kill both a brother and his wife. He is filled with malice and steals the skin of innocents to fuel his evil powers. And the monster cannot be slain, for every time it falls dead, it sheds its skin like a snake and is born anew. Only a bone spear made from a relative can slay the creature once and for all. Say, Ariane…”
“I know. Ask him if, uh, what was it again, Shandeen was the girl?”
At the mention of the female name I dug from my memories, He who raids at dawn steps back in apprehension. He grabs his spear and eyes me with suspicion while his men look on, unsure of what to do. THREATENING ME. No! Not threatening me, he is merely afraid of something that can take anyone’s form. I do not want to kill him unless I have to. He fought at my side and shows no sign of betrayal. It means something to me.
“Tell him I killed his son, the old-fashioned way.”
The father lowers his spear. He and Sinead whisper in a low voice for a little while and though his fear has abated, there is a strange weariness to him. I think I understand. He committed to a desperate quest, willing to sacrifice his very life to redeem the honor of his clan only to find out that the transgressor is already dead and buried. The ultimate evil has fallen to another ultimate evil, one who likes petticoats and geraniums. I would be at a loss too.
After a few more exchanges and questions about the death of the skinwalker and his final physical appearance, the old chief asks to see his son’s grave and I accept. He then proceeds to vaunt my powerful magic and the ease with which I channel the spirit of the Mountain Lion and to be careful not to let it take over. He adds that he will repay his debt by assisting us in our next raid. This might be the nicest thing a stranger has said or done to me after seeing me at work, and I smile at his graceful offer. The exchange goes on until Russel walks to me and announces that Tom wants to talk.
I leave the others behind, and find Tom’s harried form is at the back of the wagon. He has been bandaged, but the wounds are too deep and his normally clear skin is ashy with pain and blood loss. Strands of white hair from his beard are plastered by sweat to his clammy skin. Feverish eyes follow me as I approach.
A stained hand reaches out from under his cover. I grab it and hold him steady. His voice is strained but clear in the quiet vale.
“Miss Lethe… I have a wish.”
This is important. He is my fallen warrior. I must listen.
“I have no cause to hold a grudge… I knew I might die here… If you could just look after my son…”
This is the first time Tom mentions a family.
“Who is your son?”
“His name is… David. I left him behind. Left him on the plantation. He was too young… I am so sorry, David…”
“King. The tobacco plantation of Mr. Dawes, in Louisville.”
“I will find your son and buy his freedom if he still lives. You have my word.”
“Good. Thank you. May God bless your soul… Whatever you are. Please, leave me not here on the ground... To be eaten by jackals.”
“I’ll bury you in a pleasant spot with a view on the river. We will not abandon you.”
“Thank you… Ah… It hurts so much…”
“Look at me. Yes, good. Follow my voice. There is no more pain. No more pain. You feel warm and cozy, under that cover. You hear the fire crackling. It is warm and cozy and comfortable. You are sleepy. Sleep is good. Now let go. Let go.”
Tom sighs one last time and shivers. I lean forward and slowly close his eyes. He died a warrior’s death in my service, and I will give him whatever last rites I can. This is just as important as respecting the hunt and my promises. It is a part of my identity, one I fully accept. I pick up the body, still warm. His blood has seeped through the bandages and cover. The smell mingles with the inevitable stench of released bowels but I do not mind. This is no longer Tom but what he left behind and respecting it is also about respecting ourselves.
Russel is waiting by the camp’s edge with a shovel and an attitude.
“I’m coming too. He was my friend.”
I nod in silence. I now understand why Sinead showed his displeasure at my earlier display. There were many ways for me to handle the situation and I went with threats. Someone as smooth as him could turn this raggedy outfit into a guard loyal to the death but I am not him, I am a survivor, and so I went with what I knew would work. For the first time, I realize that I took the wrong approach.
Sinead had us stop a mile away from the prison and prepare, and now we are moving slowly towards it. The moonless night offers so little visibility that the mortals must hold hands not to drift. The noise of their stumble through soil and grass is masked by the Likaean’s magic.
I would not have noticed anything special about the hill we are heading to if he had not pointed it out. Even now, only a small window allows one sentry to look out. The opening is almost invisible from the outside. The obscurity serves us as well, though I am a bit worried about the smell. Our entire company is quite ripe after yesterday’s battle and even if I managed to clean up in the river, the frigid temperatures deterred the others.
I made sure I stood upwind. It’s that bad.
Our destination is a wall between two of the four watch posts. We reach it without incident. Behind it, the hidden complex sprawls. It looks more like a warren than something where humans live. All four structures are low, parts of them dug into the ground. Trenches provide access to buildings and instead of a roof, there are only mud bricks covered by a thin layer of grass.
“Careful,” I whisper, “broken glass.”
Somebody painstakingly glued jagged shards on top of the wall at the entire circumference of the camp. The dedication and time required to do that are impressive. I silently break off the sharpest parts and cover a meter-wide segment in mud and clumps of grass. Time to go. I attempt to jump and… immediately fall back down on my bottom.
“Perhaps not a knight,” comments Sinead lightly, “but you do have a future as a court jester.”
“It’s blessed! The entire place is consecrated.” I whisper back.
This is a terrible thing. I planned around buildings being forbidden to me, but not the entire compound!
“Impossible. Look left, there is a log gate to the outside. They must have blessed the wall only, to prevent intrusion. Listen, I can lead the men to the door and unlock it from the inside. You should be able to go then.”
“Hold on. I may have a better idea.”
I walk back and tap on John’s shoulder, then drag him up to the wall. He kneels by my side so that I can whisper in his ear. He smells of sweat and tobacco, a familiar scent that puts me at ease.
“Get over the wall, go right until you find a door. Open it quietly. Kill the man inside, in silence. Find a big cross. Break the cross. Stab the wood in the corpse. Return.”
John nods and walks up with unquestioning obedience. There is a childlike purity in the way he murders people. I ordered it, and thus it must be right. This kind of unquestioning obedience is a precious thing and one that can be easily abused. I will not do so. John is mine and those who choose to become mine will be well treated.
I close my eyes and focus. By my side, Sinead’s calm breath and steady heart show that my friend is no stranger to covert action. I am not truly surprised, and I follow John’s steps as he moves forward with a grace that belies his large size. The feet stop. A door slides on slightly rusty hinges. A man takes a sharp intake of breath, a muffled scream is interrupted by what I assume are my soldier’s bear-like mitts. Flesh impacts wood, once, twice, thrice. Bone breaks.
A heavy body falls on the floor. John’s breath is just as steady as ever. He does not doubt and that is why I believe my plan will work. A minute passes, then I hear the noise of broken wood, of mangled flesh.
It is done.
John steps outside and walks back to us. I hear him counting steps as he makes his way.
When he arrives, he turns with worry on his face, fixing the darkness with big round eyes.
His large hands search the wall lightly, finding the dirt cover. I grab one and see pure relief on his big ugly face.
“You have done well. Now, invite me in?”
“Please come in miss Lethe.”
The silent warning dissipates before innocence corrupted and twisted to end a life. The barrier disappears almost… reluctantly.
I am in.
With a tug, Sinead guides the others into the prison.
The area is one of the queerest structures I have ever witnessed, and I was reborn in a cavernous underground fortress. Four buildings as large as family houses are dug into the ground and trenches lead from one to another. The roofs are covered in grass and vegetation. Excruciating attention to detail has been devoted to make this place as hard to find as humanly possible. Thankfully, there are no pig pens.
“Then we proceed as planned.”
The red-skinned men, who I learnt come from a people called the Navajo, split up and jump down into the trenches to wait by the guard post entrances. I grab a leather bag I had brought and open it to reveal ominous black canisters.
“Are those fire bombs?” asks Sinead with curiosity. “Made of oil and resin, perhaps?”
“Oil and resin?” I scoff, “Pfff! Nothing so pedestrian, I assure you. Those are powder charges of a special blend containing traces of magnesium and I assure you sir, that those devices will ignite beautifully, and reach temperatures as high as…”
“Yes, yes yes, alright, calm down woman. By the spheres, I never knew explosions could have such a rousing effect on you.”
“I thought you could appreciate true beauty you ruffian!”
“Shh! The plan! Focus on the plan!”
I leave the odd squad to set up an ambush around what we identified as the barracks and Sinead leads me to the smallest building. He turns to me.
“Ariane, I am going to reveal how I located my fiancée. Please promise me you will not share this secret.”
“You have my word.”
“I knew I could count on you. Look.”
He takes from a pendant around his neck something that looks like a compass, with an arrow shining viridian even in the dead of night.
“This is keyed to her essence. If the secret of its existence should fall into the wrong hands…”
“I already told you I would keep your secret.”
“I know. Let us find out where my darling went.”
The so-called jail is barely more than a shed. I am about to question Sinead’s crafting skills when it comes to me. This is an underground prison.
Sinead kneels in front of the door and fiddles with the lock until I hear a click. It opens to surprisingly large stairs and a packed earth landing. Soft murmurs can be heard further on.
This is the moment of truth. I take a step in and breathe in relief. This area is not sanctified, and that means I know what I could find here.
I walk down the stairs to a large landing. A rectangular room leads to two massive locked doors to my left and right. They are made of reinforced steel and could probably hold a siege. The room itself is mostly bare. I spot only an armory, a table with chairs and my first piece of luck since starting this endeavor: the guards are kneeling on the floor, praying. Their gear was left on the ground.
Oh, the irony is just delicious.
I resist the disturbing urge to taunt them and instead pounce for the kill. The first man dies immediately, a second falls before realizing anything and the third one only has the time to widen his eyes before I stab his brain.
Beautifully done, if I dare say so myself.
At this moment, I hear a clang behind me. A fourth man gazes stupidly at my toothy smile and the bodies at my feet.
Ah, damn it.
I jump but too late, the door shuts close. I manage to grab it and pull open with a groan of tortured steel. The last order member gives up on closing it and takes out a cross and a pistol.
“The power of God compels you!”
I hiss and take a step back. What does he take me for, the devil? I dodge to the side as he pulls the trigger, jump on the wall, then behind him. Then he dies.
Outside, a second of silence follows the sound of gunshot, then men yell in alarm. Spotted. The others should be fine and my priority is the prisoner. There could be more guards and they could have a way to purge all the cells at once. That’s what I would have done.
“It’s clear!” I inform Sinead. The Likaean walks in as the sound of detonations confirm that my charges were conserved in a dry environment. Heh. I wish I could have seen the explosion.
I turn around when my ally joins me and inspect the corridor I find myself in. Lanterns sit at regular intervals, shedding light on the brick walls as well as the fortified doors lining them. The corridor turns at a right angle further down.
“How can we tell which door is hers?”
“I can’t. Her aura is too strong, the compass’ needle is just twisting around.”
I grumble at the loss of time but not too much. I wanted to check the other cells anyway.
“Return to the guard room, I shall examine each one.”
Sinead is safe by the time I open the first door. It took me half a minute to find the right key from the jailor’s massive collection.
The cell is completely devoid of any comfort. There is not even a bucket or a pail of straw, only grey stones. On the far wall, a human man is chained, held by massive steel links. His wiry frame is covered in wounds and sores. A single manic eye glints with madness as he lifts his head.
“Finally, thou have answered my summons! Thine master orders thee, succubus!”
“Now get on thine knees and suck my cock!”
Ten seconds later I step back out, wiping blood from my lips.
“No one important, next!”
A few curses later, I manage to get the next room and immediately regret my lack of caution. The steel links have been shattered and a prostrate figure lies in the middle of the room. The cold aura of a vampire reaches me, one that feels strangely familiar. The man is muscular, and tall. Long black hair falls in front of his face and prevents me from recognizing him until he turns his attention on me and I recognize the slanted eyes and the foreign skin color. Impossible. Could it be?
The rogue opens a maw filled with serrated teeth. His long yellow claws rake the unforgiving ground, then he charges me.