I dodge a clawing motion then another, stunned at what I see.
Ogotai is pitifully slow, his movements jerky and inefficient. I feel like I am fighting a drunk child. Were rogues not supposed to be particularly dangerous? Was he always so feeble?
I reminisce as I stop another assault and slam my old jailor against the stone wall. Back in the vampire fortress as I first woke up, he had been terrifying. I was powerless before his strength and the pain he could and did inflict. With Jimena and Master, he was one of the three individuals who had ruled my life then. I have trouble reconciling my memories with the sad wreck in front of me.
“Ogotai, wake up.”
The degenerate creature shakes its head and charges again with a yowl of fury. I seize his arms as he extends them and shatter the wrists. The beast screams in pain.
“Ogotai, enough, wake up.”
I will kill him. He is a traitor and not someone I intend to keep around. I just want to give him a chance of doing so on his own two feet, as a last courtesy from one vampire to another. Not like this.
My words are useless. He just tries to bite my arm wherever he can reach it. His aura fizzles sickly and I am left to wonder how much time he spent here. When I disabled him and stunned Father Perry, could the priest have taken the vampire captive with him? Did the traitor spend more than thirty years in their custody, bound here by chains of steel and walls of stone? Did they even feed him? By the Watcher, I would rather rip my own throat and throw myself on a silver spike.
I avert my eyes from the fallen one as I remember why I am here. I do not have more time to give him. With a hint of regret, I expose his throat and bite deep.
When Subotai led us to the city they call Kiev, I thought we had reached the end of the world. We brought back strange furs, and slaves with skin as milk and hair like wheat in summer, a treasure for the horde and for the Khan. Now, we ride again into this place they call Hungary. I was already there when Temujin led us into China and because of my experience and prowess, I was named to lead a hundred men! We have split from the main column to find more land to plunder. This tall fortress of black stone looks like a good place to start.
They told me I was a vampire. They told me I belonged to the Erenwald clan now. Me! Those sons of diseased dogs! I hate them, and I hate what I have become. They have me sit and do nothing, tend horses or speak to trees! Like a woman! I want my life back! Even if I have to burn everything around me.
So much time has passed that even the Golden Horde is just a distant memory. Since I was sold to that horrible woman, I managed to grasp enough control to go out and find one of the servants of the crucified god. If my strength will not do, my guile will have to suffice.
Thirsty thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, thirsty!
I pull out.
Thirty years trapped here, after I shot him in the face. He woke up to find himself already in chains.
This must never happen to me. I need to find a way to escape, in case all is lost. I would rather not exist than exist in this world of endless suffering. Hell itself cannot be worse.
Ogotai was changed by mistake or out of cruelty. This is a travesty of what we should be and his master shares a part of responsibility in this disaster. A waste, from the very beginning.
I turn around and ignore the strands of ash clinging to my sleeves.
The search leads me to three other mad wizards, whom I promptly Devour. The next room is more interesting. As I enter it, my nose scrunches in displeasure.
INTRUDER. KILL HIM. No, this is a captive, not an intruder. He TRESPASSES by accident.
A man faces me, bound to the wall with chains shining silver. He is surprisingly calm considering the circumstances. He is also sniffing the air, his gestures mirroring mine in a way I find disturbing. His build is light and wiry, like a forester. Straw colored hair fall on a gentle face centered on vivid green eyes clouded by pain. A smattering of freckles covers his sun-kissed cheeks. What I find strange is that there is no defiance nor aggression in his posture. If anything, he looks like a man who would lend me an ear and comfort me if I were to share a tale. When he speaks, his voice is warm and smooth like good coffee. I wish I could hear him sing.
“Fair lady, I see you are not one of them. I would be eternally grateful for any assistance you could provide.”
I realize that this is my very first time having a conversation with a werewolf. I was planning on rescuing the fiancée and vampires provided they agree to secrecy. Now I need to decide what to do with this unexpected find. Kill, or subsume?
“Fair lady, if you will not release me, will you at least end my torments?”
“You ask for death?”
“I seek freedom, no matter the cost. I would be thankful either way.”
I don’t need another essence of werewolf. I could, however, get some answers on a curse and lifestyle I know nothing about.
“Are you asking for my help? Are you willing to pay the price?”
“I would be willing to negotiate my liberty at a fair price, yes. You have my word, fair lady.”
“Supplicant. Very well. In return for freedom, you will swear absolute secrecy on me and mine forever. You will also protect me and answer all my questions for a duration of a week, and finally, you will offer me blood. Willingly.”
“Fair lady, this is a generous offer. I accept. Though…”
“May I ask why do you need my blood exactly? I do not wish to renege, you understand, only to warn you that it carries a potent curse.”
“Oh,” I add with a toothy smile, “I know.”
The man’s enchanting eyes widen in surprise when he sees my fangs, then he smirks.
“It appears that I am the one most in need of answers. What may I call you?”
“But please, in public call me Ms. Lethe.” I add, as I find the key to open his restraints.
“How very mysterious. My name is Alistair Locke, at your service. Rest assured that I will answer any threat to your person by whomsoever they might be given with the utmost urgency.”
“You are most kind, and since I see you so amenable, there is one more request I would like to ask of you before I draw your blood.”
“Would you mind going to the other room and find clothes that could cover your manhood?”
Alistair stares down and realizes his state of undress. I will admit that the view is quite nice, and I graciously step out of his way as he leaves. I also look after him just to make sure there are no anomalies. As a measure of precaution, of course.
Enough distractions, however nice, I need to find that woman and there are only four cells left. The next one contains another werewolf, this one fully transformed and quite wild. I drink him dry. Waste not want not! I get a final werewolf and to my surprise a Wendigo. I Devour them as well and arrive at the second to last door.
I have gone full circle.
I open the gate to find myself in a bedroom. Instead of the naked stone, unpolished furniture clutters the area giving it a homey feeling. All four walls are covered with papers upon which strange glyphs and letters written with an elegant hand. A woman sits at an organized desk, carefully reviewing a document.
She is breathtaking. Even the sackcloth they gave her does little to mask her grace and elegance. Dark auburn hair are tied in a messy ponytail that let a few strands grace her cheeks like the frame around a painting. She turns to me, her heart-shaped face regal, and I find myself staring into shining cerulean eyes.
“Lady Sivaya of the Court of Blue?”
The woman lifts one imperious brow, then notices something on my face.
She then spouts imprecations in a voice that goes crescendo culminating with a strident scream. The princess raises a hand to her forehead, then proceeds to faint.
“Errr. Nice to meet you too?”
I grab the woman and pull her up, then drag her to the main room where Sinead’s face lightens with pleasure.
“Hah, you found her! Is she… Alright?”
“Think so. She lost her nerve when she saw me. Don’t know why.”
“Perhaps that would be because you are smiling and your fangs are quite visible. Did you find any documents?”
“Yes! A veritable…”
I stop to find the right word, holding a hand so that Sinead waits.
“It would be better to wake her up and find out which she wants to keep, or I will never hear the end of it.”
I grab the princess by the collar and slap her vigorously. Sinead looks at me in wonder.
“Is something the matter?”
“I’ve always wanted to do that…”
Our exchange is interrupted by the woman’s fluttering eyes. She looks from Sinead to me with a complicated expression. Then she reaches a decision and takes a deep breath as her brows furrow.
I block her mouth with a hand.
“You handle the screaming part Sinead, I have two more things to do.”
I leave the lovey-dovey pair behind and turn to Alistair, who had been watching the proceedings with bemused attention.
“And now dear supplicant, time to seal the deal, please assume the proper position!”
Mr. Locke looks distinctly ill at ease in his pilfered uniform. I frown at his utter lack of manners. What good household would forget to teach someone how to do a proper blood offering. What household, I ask! Out of patience, I curtsey and expose my neck which makes him smile, which makes me frown, which makes him recoil, which makes me smile, then he obliges.
“Excellent. Now don’t move, this won’t hurt a bit.”
In the confines of my mind palace, I am amazed. Werewolves have always been wild and this one is no exception and yet there is a noticeable improvement in Alistair. His aura is ordered and controlled. Underneath the beastly urges, there is deep peace and acceptance of his fate and an unwavering resolve to face it with all his might. I find an echo of my own belief in him, this desire to do the most with what we have and to never give up on what I believe makes my identity.
I lick the wound clean and pull back a bit. He is flushed, and his smile is beautiful.
“I must say, this was… Intense, miss.”
Something pokes my stomach through, thankfully, two layers of cloth.
“I can tell.”
I chuckle and let the man turn around to, ah, get things under control. I am sure he has the situation well in hand. As for me, I intend to…
“Princess Sivaya needs to collect some documents from her room.”
Silence ensues. I am not quite sure what he means.
“I fail to see how that is any of my concern.”
Sinead looks a bit embarrassed and his fiancée, angry.
“Herm, I was hoping you could lend a hand.”
I tap my finger against my lips in fake consideration.
“Let me think about it. No?”
I leave the Llikaean to handle his lady friend. Hah! Serves him right. Pranking and torturing me daily for weeks? Making me pay for enough wine to roll a Scottish infantry regiment under the table? Do not expect any help.
“Teeheehee. Serves him right indeed.”
“I can hear you, you know?”
I ignore that sore loser and open the very last door.
Inside, I find a naked woman chained to the wall by a veritable tangle of chains. I can barely see the ebony skin beneath the many links covering her lithe form. Her face is haughty and beautiful with sharp cheekbones. She is also a vampire.
“You look familiar…” I whisper.
Hope flares in her dusky eyes. She strains against her restraints with unbidden excitement.
“You… I know you. Ah yes, we met in New Orleans, sweet cheeks. I thought you dead!”
I remember her. I was tasked with punishing a man by Baudouin and she walked in and saved me. Her name was…
“Ariane! It is so good to see you! I thought I was finished for sure this time. Aaaa.”
I step much closer, excited.
“Incredible! The world is small indeed, to think that we would meet again so!”
“Yes, well, about that. May I ask that you unbind me?”
“Eh? Oh, of course.”
“It’s the big key. Two to the right. No, the other right. Good.”
I am about to open the chain when a thought crosses my mind.
I scrunch my face in displeasure. There is something I need to remember.
Something to do with why I am here.
Arg, frustrating, I should run naked in the woods. The fresh air would do me good!
“Is something the matter?”
“Yes. Oh that’s it! I have conditions!”
“Do tell. Quickly please.”
“There are two Likaeans under my custody. No touching, and no telling anyone you saw them ever. No betraying my trust. Yea?”
She laughs lightly.
“You already have blood slaves, and two of them? I am impressed. I swear that your secret is safe with me.”
“Ah, and no telling anyone where I am. You see…”
I lean very close and claim in her ear, with pride.
“I AM IN HIDING. TEEHEEE. So exciting, is it not?”
I nod to myself. Yep. Very roguish of me, if I do say so myself.
“Ariane. Are you drunk?”
“What. Me? Pfffff. Of course not. I only had, huuuuuh…”
“Right. Please free me, I promise absolute secrecy for you and yours as well as one year of service. Please?”
“Alriiiiight! Company! So, how did you even get captured?” I ask as I remove the lock and start untwisting the chains.
“I was trying to bed every member of the order from the same chapter, one by one. I was halfway done when a handsome fellow managed to trap me with the coming of dawn. Crafty bastard. I woke up covered with more steel than a bank door. I don’t know how long I would have lasted without your help. I will be eternally forever in your debt for this timely assistance.”
“Yea yeah. Let’s go!”
“There could be more prisoners.”
“I already, huh, visited the other cells.”
“That explains it…” She mumbles, “You could have left some for me!”
“I’ll just ask John to provide you with a few sips. He’s a good lad. Also, can you explain why you wanted to lie with members of the order of Gabriel? That doesn’t strike me as a wise idea.”
“For bragging rights. Nobody has done it before, I checked on the Ekon repository. Also, guilty sex is nice.”
“We members of the Ekon clans are trying to experience as much as we can. Our progenitor lost his life to experience dawn, in fact. All new records are written inside a depository for future generations to peruse, with notes by the record holder on how interesting the experience was.”
I nod in echo with this absolutely outrageous statement. They keep records of all the insane things they’ve done. Unbelievable. Before I can sate my curiosity further, we reach the main room and Nami walks boldly forth then stops with her hand on her waist in a confident posture. She is of course completely naked, and her shamelessness is so blatant that it transcends good manners and turns into some sort of assertiveness. Or at least, that is how I perceive it. Siraya hides behind Sinead who looks at me with a measure of apprehension. Thankfully Naminata remains true to her word and does not engage, only looks on with curiosity.
Then she turns to me with a pure expression of wonder and starts with a girlish scream.
“They are not collared! They are free!”
“Do you know what that means?!”
I incline my head to the side. Surely, she would not dare…
“That means I can do it! I can have my record! Be the first Ekon to have a civilized discussion with free members of their race! I will stay vague of course, to protect you, but still, oh, Ariane, thank you, thank you!”
“Hmm. Glad to be of help I suppose.”
“Yes, excellent, now I have a request.”
“Can I get some clothes?”
Ah yes. That does sound reasonable. Even Alistair is… Visibly distracted.
Our problems start as soon as we get back out. The odd squad is gathered around one of the Navajo warriors, who is developing what will certainly be a spectacular bruise.
“One of them escaped,” answers a Creek, “He left the compound on horseback.”
“Immediately after the barracks exploded. He came out swinging.”
Do I have to do everything in this place?
“Very well, I shall handle this myself!”
I whistle and Metis arrives at a trot. I jump on her back on the way. Time for another Hunt! Teehee! I can enjoy the wind in my hair and on my skin, the crisp winter air. I go through the now open gate of the prison and pass underneath the earth, only to emerge from a concealed trap door at full sprint. Yes! The hunt, the open land, that low branch on my path! Why is it so close?
Ow ow ow ow.
Fine, I admit I’m drunk.
Métis snorts and nuzzles my prone form as I massage my poor forehead. If I were still a mortal I would have brained myself on that thing, not that it would have harmed any vital organ if my lack of prudence is any indicator. By the Watcher I am too old to be this silly! Note to self, Devouring too many magical creatures is still intoxicating.
I stand back up and consider that my only saving grace is that no one witnessed this debacle. Now, time to find my prey. The last survivor fled on horseback so there should be tracks and scents. I inspect my surroundings and eventually find clumps of disturbed earth. Unfortunately, I do not smell nor hear anything out of place in the frigid night.
The tracks stop at a river. The lone horseman followed it up or down the stream to mask his tracks and escape pursuers.
I consider trying my luck and choosing a side on a coin toss, then decide otherwise. It matters little if news of the fall of the prison reach an order outpost earlier than planned. They did not see my face, nor do they know where I live. My priority remains the survival and protection of the rescued. With regret, I turn around but comfort myself with the knowledge that I acted reasonably and sensibly in these trying times.
When I reach the others, they have thoroughly checked and looted all the buildings. Men and horses are laden with pilfered weapons and supplies. The Navajo, in particular, look pleased with their most recent acquisition of quality muskets. I find my sarcophagus placed snugly between walls of various loot including piles of rolled up documents. Soon, the convoy departs and Nami walks up to me.
“Honey, I have one more request.”
The taller woman, now dressed in my own dress, places a proprietary arm around my waist as I jump and yelp. Her cold breath brushed my right ear.
“Can I share your place of slumber, sweet cheeks?”
“Ah, yes, of course. No shenanigans!”
She chuckles but relents. Her hand moves from my waist to my shoulder and she leans forward to continue the conversation.
“So... I heard that you own a brothel?”
“Yes. It was... Expedient.”
“Of course. I perfectly understand. So… What’s your favorite kind of cock?”
I sputter in shock. This is going to be a very long night.
Two days later
I slam the door behind me. Sinead, sitting at my borrowed desk, patiently places a pen down and closes his eyes. After a moment gathering his courage, he turns to me like a man expecting horrible news.
“It’s about your fiancée.”
“I expected as much. Before we begin, I understand that our Navajo friend left?”
I know he is attempting to distract me. I will only oblige because I intended to tell him anyway.
“Yes. We went to the place where I had buried the remains. The old chief’s spear was pointing towards it in any case. After a brief ceremony we had a talk and they left.”
“They asked many questions, about how many warriors your kind has and muskets. I answered faithfully, I hope you do not mind.”
“Not at all.”
“This knowledge will be used against your kind, when the time comes.”
“Vampires are my kind, and you are forgetting something. Do you truly believe you will make a difference?”
Sinead stops to consider the idea, yet declines to answer. I go on.
“This is a tide that no one can stop. My friend Nashoba said that in order to stop the colonists, he would have to become like them. This state alone can marshal tens of thousands of militia with support artillery and a baggage train in weeks. Do you think the natives can match this? Do you think knowing will make a difference?”
“Knowing always makes a difference.”
“Only a modern army can stop another modern army. There are no foundries here, no weaponsmiths, no military academies. If he were a king and had decades of preparation it would still not be enough.”
“In the kingdoms, decades of preparation means an invasion will never succeed.”
“There is not enough magic in this plane to equalize the field when columns of men are brought to bear, and the blue cloud of spent powder reaches to the heavens. They could have victories here and there, but it will not suffice.”
“You seem certain.”
“It already happened before. East of here.”
“Interesting. Life is truly different in this plane.”
“Speaking of life here. I have an issue with your darling.”
Many have issues with his darling. Sivaya has managed to offend everyone’s ego in record time through supreme condescension and a complete refusal to communicate with the others. She spends most of her time isolated downstairs, busy with research.
“She doesn’t speak English.”
“But she understands it, does she not?” I reply undeterred.
“I think I preferred you when you were a bit more gullible.”
“Enough, her behavior is unacceptable. I will have you communicate the rules to her for the last time. If she does not comply, I will declare you in breach of your agreement as guests. Do I make myself clear? No spreading her mess outside of her designated areas clearly delimited by blue marks, no stealing my paint and no leaving the number ten wrench on her worktable like some avatar of chaos! I was looking for that thing for ages!”
“Yes, I will tell her. I promise. Please be patient, she is… not used to this.”
“You are royalty too and she is far from being your equal in terms of insight and subtlety. Managing one’s allies is a vital part of any political scheme.”
“She and I are not alike. We are the two most powerful Likaeans on this plane, Ariane, but in reality our backgrounds could hardly be more different.”
Sinead’s gaze drifts to the windows and the gray clouds outside. His face grows distant and thoughtful. A comfortable silence comes between us as he loses himself in his memories
Eventually, he returns his attention to me, gauging. Then he relaxes and nods, coming to a decision.
“What I am going to share with you, I never intended to reveal. You have earned that much, for sparing my life then and for helping me now. I know that our contract is to my benefit and that you are aware of this fact. My gratitude for you is real, and I will repay it if I survive and my plan is carried out to completion.
“Sivaya is a princess of the Blue Court, one of their most talented scions. She has spent her whole life in the heart of the Cloud Spires, its airy halls and intricate research laboratories. When I confirmed her presence on this plane, I knew we stood a chance. Make no mistake, she is brilliant, but her outlook is extremely limited. Only research matters to her, and the notes we brought back from the prison as well as those she is nailing to every wall of your sanctum are the written statement of a revolutionary approach to planar travel. Like all geniuses, her other skills are… lacking. She never had to fight for supremacy or survival. Her dreams were always within her reach, and the means to pursue them, always generously provided. The Court of Blue is also isolated from most turmoil. No army has besieged their capital in eons, for they are the architects behind the best workings in history. All those circumstances conspired to her behavior and while I do not expect you to excuse her, I ask that you act as the better person, and show her the patience and courtesy that she denied you, for me. Please.”
“It is not just a matter of image, Sinead. I am a vampire and you are on my territory. If you are not guests, then you are intruders, and I will not fight against myself to accommodate you.”
I walk to the window and turn my back to him. I will not dull my words. He must understand.
“Your fiancée is no longer in the Cloud Spires. She is here, in this world, with us. If my second life taught me anything, it is that weak people are crushed when they step out of bounds. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This is a lesson you will have to impart upon her before someone else does it for you.”
Sinead winces, then nods in the end. I am not done though.
“You surprise me to accommodate her so. Why the deference. Are you not her equal?”
My friend chuckles bitterly. Once more, he appears more vulnerable than usual. His veneer of sarcasm is momentarily shed.
“I am Prince yes, one of many. The Court of Summer has a king, my father. Unfortunately, my mother is a dancer of the Wandering Court. She caught his fancy one festival year, and when they parted, she was with child. My siblings on my father's side are numerous and many of them are well connected. I am not.”
I watch, fascinated, the veil masking Sinead’s otherworldly traits evaporate as he loses his usual focus. His hair shines like flames and his eyes like molten gold. Motes of blue dance around his shoulders as he continues his tales. He does look regal, I admit. And dreamy.
“It was only when I reached adulthood that I was admitted to court. I believe my mother wanted to protect me for as long as she could from cutthroat politics. She taught me art and poetry, and dance. A bit of fencing. All useless, I thought, until I realized that she helped me form a core of individuality. She made me who I am before the others could ruin it. I would have lost myself otherwise.
“Competition was difficult. It still is. Now though, this tragedy might be a blessing in disguise. There is another Prince named Revas who had decided that I was a threat to him, and was about to crush me. I would have had to bend, but now if we are successful, the return of so many lost ones will cover me with glory. Many a mighty clan will owe me favors. I could even earn my father’s preference, who knows? So, my knight, now that I have unveiled my ultimate goal, will you stand by my side?”
I smile at the return of his good mood.
“I still think you are insane. I will help you as a friend, but I will not forfeit my life on a suicidal attack.”
“Nor will I ask this of you,” he adds with a smile.
I assume he has some grand plan, and I understand the need for secrecy. I would not trust myself with anything too confidential quite yet, especially with my status as rogue.
“We will leave in three days. There is so much for us to do, and we are too exposed here. We thank you for your assistance, and I believe we will have a suitable present. A token of our appreciation.”
“I will look forward to it.”
“You keep slaves. I saw them on the last floor.”
Alistair seems wary. After spending two days together, I have determined that his disposition is calm and poised. He is also patient, protective, and an excellent listener. He is the last person I would have taken for a cursed one and yet he is. Just for the smell, I had to rent him a room at a nearby residence or risk hissing with customers present. This is the first time I see him consider me with anything but affable good will.
“You mean cattle?”
“Yes. They are robbed of something.”
“Indeed. Your point?”
He frowns and stops to consider. My most curious guest has a tendency to think his words before uttering them, a good habit to have. Papa used to say that after words cross our lips, we belong to them.
“This is wrong and unexpected. I thought you a champion of freedom after you returned me mine. I will not dictate your actions, of course. I merely hoped to understand.”
HE DARES QUESTION ME. No, this is different. He made a respectful enquiry and acknowledged that I did not owe him answers, despite the mild anger he is feeling. This is just a matter of courtesy.
That blood pumping faster, the mild red on his freckled cheeks. Aaaaah.
No Ariane, this is just gluttony.
“They tried to kill, cheat or trap me. This is their punishment.”
“Why not slay them? Surely, death would be preferable to what you have done to them.”
“Due to my nature, I need protection during the day, as well as servants who will not wonder why their Mistress requires no sustenance. Consider them a necessary evil, if it pleases you.”
“I thank you for your answer. You are my benefactor and I will remember this first and foremost.”
I DO NOT NEED YOUR APPROVAL, WEAKLING.
“I thank you for your consideration. While you are here, I have questions.”
“Of course, Ariane. Do ask.”
“I faced loup-garous before, and you are different. Can you tell me more?”
“Yes. The answer to your question as well as many others you will learn in my tale, and I would like to share it with you, if you will allow me.”
“Please do, you have my attention.”
“Thank you. I was not always cursed. For the first part of my life, I was the son of a doctor in the town of York in Upper Canada. I got bitten during a hunting party. The monster slaughtered my horse but spared my life in a gesture that, I did not realize until much later, took an immense amount of self-control. When I realized the nature of my affliction, I attempted to take my own life, only to realize that the steel blade I was using was unequal to the task.
“I decided to find death in the wilderness and instead, my kin found me. They took me in and welcomed me as one of them.”
“Hold on. Werewolves live in communities?!”
“We prefer the term pack. And yes.”
This is tremendous news! No, extraordinary news! Werewolves are organizing themselves? This has never happened before in history if Isaac is to be believed. I have to tell him.
“We have developed social structures across packs, spread all over Canada’s most remote areas. The Indians leave us alone and in return, so do we. It is a peaceful life and one where the curse does not lead to human deaths. Our community helps us stay in control. I used to play the role of omega. For some reason, my inner wolf is more of a loner and finds no interest in the struggle for supremacy. This allows me to smooth things out, as it were, and welcome new members to our pack, or at least it was the case until last summer.”
“I will not go into too much detail. We used to keep in touch with each other via a loose network of messengers. The mightiest pack of the North decided that they would prefer a pyramidal hierarchy with them on top. They have already subdued many clans by killing the local alphas. They are a detestable lot, those Black Peak ones, and they need to be stopped. It was decided that I would head South as an emissary, to recruit the help of local packs in our struggle for independence.”
“I am not aware of any packs around.”
“That would be because there are none.”
Alistair smiles sadly.
“We are the only place where the structure developed and now I can see why. It appears that my kind is hunted like animals here. I do not blame you. I know the trail of destruction many of us leave behind and I know that some even embrace it. I only wish that some were given a chance. We are not cursed by our own choice.”
“You make a good point. My instincts are telling me to end your life, and I never questioned this before. Perhaps I am being too harsh.”
Alistair pales a bit at that. He knows what I can do. I decide to assuage his fear.
“I will stop to consider before starting a hunt, from now on.”
“That is all I can ask. Was there anything else?”
“Any chance that Black Peak heads South?”
“Yes they will, eventually, and if there is any justice in this world they will cross your path. Be careful, for they are still a dangerous group with large numbers on their side.”
“I will. We will talk more later.”
The man facing me wears a quality shirt and beige vest stained at the armpit by days spent under the sun. His light blue eyes are piercing, and the rest of his virile face hidden behind an auburn beard. His gaze alternates between the document on the table, the nervous flesh trader by his left and me. His jaw works on a wad of tobacco he bit off from a brown stick. The sounds of mastication and the stench grate my already fraying nerves.
“What’s this about?”
The obsequious merchant passes a hand in his greasy sand hair and speaks with a nervousness that hints at fear. Mr. Lipp, with whom I am now treating, is known for occasional bouts of anger. He has destroyed more teeth than the town’s dentist.
“As I mentioned, sir, Ms. Lethe here would like to purchase the negro known as David King. Her offer is more than generous, as you will…”
“Bullshit Sharpe, you know what I mean. Ain’t no negro of mine worth five hundred dollars. So what’s this about really?”
I have already spent more time on this than I planned on. Who knew slave acquisition would be so despicable, not to mention tedious? They have people lining up naked as if they were swine. Naked! Disgraceful. And unsightly! I have never been exposed to so many genitals and I live in a brothel. And the paperwork…
“I will answer, if only to make you act with celerity. His father died in my service, protecting me from an attack by Indians. It was his dying wish that I take care of his child.”
Lipp chuckles with a smile that does not reach his eyes.
“Women are sentimental and irrational. David King is a dangerous one. I applied the lash generously and read the scriptures and still, he defies me. You need an iron fist to deal with his kind.”
“Is my safety your concern Mr. Lipp? If that is the case, let me assuage it. John?”
Heavy stomps batter the wooden floor, then the door bangs open. The tiny negotiation room goes from intimate to cramped in a heartbeat, as my giant bodyguard looms dangerously over my shoulder.
“Tell the gentlemen what you do to those who displease me.”
John’s ugly mug turns dangerous as he smiles.
“Whatever you ask, Mistress.”
Both men recoil instinctively. I used to think it amusing that they would be more scared of him than they are of me, and only realized after the prison raid that it matters not to the sheep if it is slain by a wolf or a lion.
“I assure you, I am quite safe and we already spent more than enough time on this nonsense.”
I push the pen across, with just a hint of suggestion. Lipp’s eyes drift to John’s enormous paws, wrapped around my chair’s back.
Twenty minutes later.
David King is a hard man. His build is the lean of near starvation and his skin bears the mark of undue exposure to the elements, but despite this, he remains unbroken. I feel his gaze on me. Though he is taller, he has to look up for his horse is no match for Metis.
“You have a question. Ask it.”
“Is it true that you were sent by my old man?”
“He never cared much for us or he wouldn’t have left us behind.”
John turns to glare at the newcomer, who he assumes is acting out of bounds. I calm him with a gesture.
“Humans will do terrible things when they are desperate.”
“With all due respect miss that’s bullshit. He could have let us know. My mother died thinking he had been lynched somewhere.”
“Mr King, that is between your father and yourself. I fulfilled my promise and have little care for the rest. You will have to find your own answers.”
My statement is taken with a sullen silence. When King speaks, his voice is more subdued.
“What happens now?”
“We cross into Illinois, then I will give you papers confirming that you are a free man. You should travel North to Chicago or East, where circumstances would be marginally better for you.”
“Is it true that you own a business?”
“You hire black folks?”
“Would you treat me fairly?”
Interesting. I turn to him and see worry in his eyes, and hope too.
“I assure you, I give every person under my employ equal concern.”
They are higher than strangers and lower than supplicants. This is the proper order of things.
David King turns around and his expression turns calculating. I only now realize that there may be others he left behind and may want to free. If he ends up working for me, I will need to insist that I am not dragged into any illegal mess against my will.
The more time I pass here and the more I find myself bound to the world around me by deals and debts. I do not know how to feel about it.
The spear catches me in the sternum, pushing all air away from my lungs. I am propelled backwards into a trunk then dodge the following strike by falling to the side. My opponent’s movements are always flowing and her weapon’s tip drifts around in a hypnotic dance. A feint turns into a sweep turns into a series of quick jabs. It takes all my speed and reflexes to avoid being taken out. I find no opportunity to counter-attack, close the distance and stab with my dagger. Eventually, I fall into a trap and the bladed edge strikes my temple.
“That is enough. Are you alright honey?”
“Uuuh so difficult.”
“I told you. Spears are my weapons of choice.”
“Who taught you how to move like that?”
“A Greek woman on the Island of Samos. A mortal. Every night we would find each other, fight then make love. It was a beautiful time.”
I have recovered now, and stand back up. Spring is here, and the woods at the edge of town have sprung to life. I am having the Dream renovated following one last suggestion of Sinead before his departure. I do believe him when he said Sivaya thanked me for my hospitality, though it is hard to say. She sticks to that rhythmic and sybillant language of hers and refuses to sully her tongue with our coarse language.
With nothing much to do, I have decided to resume combat training for the first time since Loth departed. I am confident in my ability to face hordes of Wendigos, mage strike teams and members of the Order, and in knowing when to flee. Vampires are another thing altogether. Without feeling their aura, it is a fool’s errand to judge their strength. A slip of a girl could grasp a boulder and smash me with it and there is nothing I could do to stop her. By facing Naminata in combat, I am learning how to deal with a superior adversary.
It’s not going well.
Naminata moves better, faster, strikes harder than me, and her technique is impeccable. All my tricks are seen through before I can even start. Whenever she gets serious, all I can do is find clever ways to disengage and survive for a handful more seconds. The lesson is clear. When having to face a superior vampire in combat, the solution is: don’t.
All is not lost of course. I practice against several styles and armaments and even learn the basics myself. I never knew, for example, that swords, sabers and foils were different arms that required different techniques.
I rush her. Might as well go out with a bang. Her spear takes across my chest. I managed to angle the blow so that I am not pushed away. HURTS. This is nothing, we use blunt training equipment. I crash forward and jump back up while slicing, block her back step sweep and keep the pressure. I stay low and mobile. My footwork has improved, but not enough. At the moment I think I have her. She plants her spear on the ground and kicks around it. Her dainty foot catches me in the nose.
More pain when she stabs my prone form.
“Not too bad sweety. I have a few things to add.”
“Ah yes, a broken nose hurts a lot. Do be careful when facing us, some manoeuvres that would be impractical for a mortal are well within our grasps. Second point, if you get stabbed by a spear, you will be skewered. A real weapon would have had you pinned like a precious butterfly to this tree, yes?”
I wipe black blood from my face and nod silently. Nami describes herself as a “fair” duelist, and she is a relatively new Mistress. I can imagine what facing an actual knight would be like. I believe I would just forfeit any attempt at honourable combat, shoot them if I can, and run if I cannot.
We go on for two hours, two hours of constant defeats and failures on my part. Nami’s style evolves to match mine as fast as I get used to her flowing movements and ethereal grace. I need to GO FASTER, ASSERT DOMINANCE.
“Your mastery over your instincts is impressive, but be careful. Anger will only make you more predictable. Direct it, use it as fuel.”
AGAIN. USE SWIPES TO KEEP THE BLADE AWAY. IF I GRAB THE HAFT, I WIN.
Stay close to the ground for faster movement. Force her to target a smaller area.
Her blade tip catches my hand and breaks three fingers. The next breaks my jaw.
“Aw sweet cheeks. You would need to be much faster than me to catch my spear.”
Her next strike is going for my temple. The wood haft smacks in my ready hand and I grab it just as it bumps back. Then with muffled scream, I strike and it splinters.
“Hah! Not bad honey. Not bad at all.”
I wait for my jaw to heal. I’ve had enough of the pain for one night and the Thirst is waking up after expending so much energy.
“I could use a break.”
“I concur, you are showing signs of mental exhaustion. I will admit that I am impressed by your performance so far. Your style is very close to that of rogues and yet it is so much smarter and more unpredictable. You are better than any Courtier I have ever seen, you could perhaps even match some Masters in hand to hand combat. It is a shame that your understanding of weapons is so lacking and I fully intend to help you remedy this. You need to understand at least the basics and eventually, find your favourite blade and develop your own style. We will have to... Experiment. Don’t you think?”
There is a twinkle in her eyes I recognize only too well. Fighting always gets her blood pumping, so to speak. I am not tempted, although I believe she is a beautiful woman.
“I wish you could meet Jimena.”
“Of the Cadiz? That little strumpet has gone monogamous if you will believe it, with her brand new human servant! What a loss for us all. Best tongue this side of the Atlantic.”
“Ahem. How do you even know Jimena? Do all vampires know each other? Is this like high society?”
“There are only two hundred of us on the continent, and less than half are Masters. Of course, we know each other! It’s a small world, you see.”
“Unbelievable. So Aintza is a servant now? Would it not be better to have turned her?”
“Ah, so wise and yet so ignorant sometimes. I believe I will need to teach you more about our kind. Servants are meant to help us keep our humanity, while we sire fledglings to lose it together with us.”
“Such a nice turn of phrase.”
“Is it not?”
We walk together back to the Dream with a pleasant discussion. Just like Sinead before her, I let Nami occupy herself however she wishes when we are not training and she already has many suitors, including quite a few white men. I reflect, as we walk, that her carefree attitude and pleasant disposition are at odds with the rest of our kin, and yet she still has the backing of Kouakou, the leader of clan Ekon here. I find the contrast comforting. There is some room in our community for fringe personalities after all. As soon as we reach the Dream, one of the cattle notices me and rushes forward with a message.
“Mistress. There is a woman with two children asking for shelter.”
“She indicates that she knew you under the name Ariane of the Nirari. She also said that we would be attacked very soon by, and she was serious, wizards.”
And here I was complaining about getting Thirsty.