I immediately recognize the visiting mage. Her hair color is more intense than I remember, reminding me of Sinead’s true form. The rebellious girl has turned assertive and her beauty is now that of a mature woman, calm and composed. The black marks under her eyes and other signs of wariness do little to damage her elegance and poise. When I enter the study, she turns to me and her mask cracks. Under the apparent control is a woman at the end of her rope. Two children, a boy of around ten and a much younger girl are held protectively behind her.
I cannot help but smile when seeing her. Because I am such a good host, I give her the fangless version.
“Merritt, it is so good to see you again.”
“Ariane… You haven’t changed at all.” She looks a bit surprised.
“And you have only grown more beautiful.”
It is true. I did not realize it until now but she does not look a day above thirty. Do mages age slower? It does not seem to be the case for my local informant, though that person is untrained.
“I ask for shelter. Hold on, I was told by your friend from the consortium that you prefer when things are done properly.”
She starts kneeling and I stop her.
“You stood by my side against the Herald Merritt, there is no need for this. Not for you.”
“Ah, very well.”
She blinks owlishly. She looks a bit lost, not in the way of those who have missed a night but in that of people who have gone beyond their limits for weeks. Fatigue has stolen her wit.
“I… I need shelter for my children. And I am sorry. I need to tell you! The assh… The Pyke family is after me. They have tracked me here. I brought danger to your home…”
“Shhhh, it is quite alright. You want protection then?”
“Yes…. I would do… Almost anything. For my children.”
“It so happens that I am in dire need of an experienced mage. You would be welcome here, and receive honest pay for mostly honest work. I have a security detail during the day and by night, there is me. Interested?”
“No enslaving minds? Blood magic? Summoning eldritch horrors from beyond the veil?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of wards and enchantments. The occasional fireballing of religious fanatics…”
Merritt takes a deep breath and stumbles forward, all tension leaving her body. Her children look up in alarm as I help her brace with one hand.
“There is still the matter of the Pykes. They are on my heels. I will help you… Fend them off.”
Naminata enters at this moment, with a smile and a glass of brandy. She favors bright color and exotic dresses and today, she wears yellow and white with a red sash around her tiny waist.
“Darling, you are in no condition to go anywhere. Here, have a little pick me up. Ari and I will see to the intruders.”
“Merritt, meet Naminata, my friend. She is right, you are in no condition to help and besides, you mages have an unfortunate tendency to set each other on fire.”
“A terrible waste of blood if you ask me.”
“Exactly, mages are a delicacy, and you lot tend to walk around fire-whipping everything in sight. A disgrace is what it is.”
The harried mage blinks very slowly, her haggard eyes bulging as our conversation progresses.
“I… I don’t know.”
“Merritt? What is wrong?”
She closes her eyes and grabs her children’s shoulders. They stare at us with silent wonder. I am no expert on little ones, but I can tell there is something peculiar about them. They are a bit too serious, too focused. Perhaps they had to grow too fast. Unaware of my inspection, Merritt continues.
“I have been on the run for four years and on the road for two months. I had lost hope. I simply cannot believe that I could be safe now.”
“Oh, it is decided. You take care of your family and settle down. Kitty will help you with that, and I will leave John to protect you just in case. You can rest assured that your pursuers will no longer bother you after tonight.”
“Thank you. Thank you Ariane, so much. Before you leave, I have to tell you about them. I would not have you face them unprepared.”
Merritt sits down heavily and upends the brandy glass in one swift motion, before setting it down with a click.
Wow, that was so manly!
“They’re my in-laws.”
Oh! This is juicy, crispy gossip! I can tell that the twinkle in Nami’s eyes reflects my own avid expression.
“What happened? Do tell!”
“Cornelius died is what happened. He was my husband.”
She hugs her children tightly. They share her distinctive red hair and while the young girl leans into her embrace, the boy looks at me with what I assume is meant to be a threatening expression. I find it adorable.
“He was at odds with his family. So long as he lived, they kept their distance. That changed when he was killed in an ambush in 28. We were culling rogue practitioners when the order of Gabriel attacked all of us at once. It happened so fast… Now, the Pykes want to recover Ollie and Lynn and this is not happening so long as I live. The stories Corny told me about the way he was raised… I will never submit them to this.”
I place a comforting hand on her shoulder and greet her frowning child with a wink.
“You do not have to justify yourself to me Merritt dear. Our deal is struck and will be honored. Speaking of which, we’d better get on the way. The Dream is made out of wood and it is a material that is tragically flammable. Ta ta.”
I leave the exhausted woman with a wave and give orders so that she and her children are protected and fed, then get back to it. Finally, some proper entertainment.
“Naminata, my dear, it is my great privilege to invite you to a Hunt.”
“And it is my pleasure to accept, sweetie. Let’s get changed, I would not want to stain this new dress.”
An hour later.
I close my eyes and focus the way Sinead taught me. My own vampire aura is around me, always, a mark of my nature and a symbol of status. Tonight, I want it to be more subdued.
Slowly, my perception shifts to the same sense I use when Charming. The aura is here, quiescent. I take it in.
The sensation is strange and defies description, not because it is confusing but because I lack the words. It is not unlike using a muscle I did not know I had.
My presence constricts inward and I start feeling as if I were too small for my gown. The sensation is only mildly uncomfortable. After a while, it becomes too difficult to continue. My concentration falters under the unusual strain.
Sinead assured me that with regular practice, I could eventually mask my presence from all but the most sensitive of foes, or even alter its properties for a variety of use, and so I have practised dutifully every night. This is the first time I am granted an opportunity to apply that knowledge in a real situation. With my presence so hidden, I step into the second floor alley where our unwitting intruder and impromptu snack is currently tracking my friend.
“Good evening kind sir, and where might you be going?”
The mage facing me jumps in surprise and takes his eyes away from the device in his hands. The brass colored apparatus shares enough similarities with a compass that it might be mistaken for one, were it not for the powerful aura it emits. It tastes like perseverance and a weathervane. A most peculiar mix.
The man himself wears travel clothes of good fabric stained by heavy use. His face is covered with several days’ worth of stubble below angry dark eyes that inspect then immediately dismiss me.
“None of your business, begone harlot!”
I like it the most when they’re rude.
“Oh, but I do believe this is our business, kind sir,” adds Nami as she steps behind him.
Perhaps because he feels trapped, or perhaps his mind made a last-ditch effort to warn him of his imminent doom. He raises a gauntleted hand.
“Last warning hussy, back off.”
I grab his wrist, which I break, then stab his palm with my thumb. His muffled scream is drowned by the music downstairs and Nami’s hand on his mouth.
“But kind sir, we are not quite done yet.”
I smile and enjoy the scent of terror, the frenetic heartbeat, and the bulging eyes. Nami joins my game. Her other hand digs into his shoulder with a sound of torn fabric and she leans delicately over his shoulder.
“Yes, mage, be our guest for the night. We insist.”
“You will be accommodating, yes?”
Our captive clings to our words like a drowning man to a plank. His eyes search mine for a hint of mercy and find subjugation instead. He is not even wearing a protective charm.
“You want me to be happy with you, yes?”
“It’s important that we become good friends.”
“You are with the Pyke family?”
“You came here by yourself?”
“So courageous. You are a brave man, yes?”
“What is your name brave man?”
The flow of conversation breaks a bit as the pattern of questions changes, but not enough to affect the Charm noticeably. My victim is already caught, hook, line, and sinker.
“Tell me Matthias, are you here to scout?”
“To what end?”
“Find that insufferable whore and her spawns, for the family. They might be redeemed yet.”
“I see, and you have friends around yes?”
“Of course, this is a serious matter you see. Patriarch Benedict is here, as well as his two other sons.”
“Is that so? Surely, such august characters do not travel alone?”
“No, for such a task they brought their retinue, two mages trained for war and a dozen armed men. She doesn’t stand a chance.”
“You sound very proud Matthias.”
“I am, miss, tis my privilege to serve them.”
“So it would seem Matthias, but tell me, where might I find this illustrious group?”
“We made our camp an hour down the road Eastward, in an abandoned farm.”
“Oh, I know the place. And now dear Matthias, there is a secret I wanted to share with you. I’ll tell it in your ear…”
Fifteen minutes later.
Nami and I walk down the road at an energetic pace. I lent her one of my armored black gowns modified to fit her figure. With those and our spears and assorted blades, we both cut dashing figures. I considered bringing Metis, unfortunately Nami does not have a Nightmare and it would just be rude to have her trot by my side. Despite her promise to serve me for a year, we have maintained a cordial and respectful relationship so far and I intend to keep it that way. She is a Master and just as importantly, someone I consider a friend. Our relationship is more like that of relaxed mentor and experienced student, even though some of her lessons are more than dubious…
“A good-looking ball sack is of great importance in love-making. You do not want to fondle one that looks like a shriveled old prune, you see. It is truly man’s most underrated attractive feature. My favorite kind is…”
“Were we not discussing interrogation techniques?”
“I was discussing scrotum relative to interrogation. A trick I learnt quite early is that males, any males, will endeavor to offer clear and complete answers if you hold said anatomical feature between your talons.”
“Would it not be, I don’t know, sweaty?”
“In mortals, assuredly. Not in vampires though, which leads me to vampire specific techniques…”
“I would prefer if we limited the scope of our discussion to interrogation techniques, specifically.”
“Ah, you are no fun. Though, I will admit that you impress me sweetie. Your Charm is simply incredible for your age.”
“I have a very good teacher.”
“You must be very talented as well. Can you use it in combat yet?”
I decide to steer the conversation in case Nami has not fully detailed her preferences yet.
“Say I have a question. What’s with gloating. Why do I always feel like doing it? Is it just me?”
Nami chuckles fondly.
“Silly goose! Proper gloating is a staple of a good vampire. How can you be an immortal horror and not gloat? How, I ask?”
“I don’t know it just feels silly. How many times must our prey escape or do we place ourselves in danger because of our tendency to play with our food?”
“But what fun! Consider this, successful vampires live for a very long time. It would be a terrible bore if we had to act like merciless knights most of the time. Where would be the entertainment? Why would you favor an eternity of ennui over constant excitement?”
“With all due respect Naminata, I am not sure this is sound advice coming from you. Dying over a stupid record!”
“Pffft! This was just a minor hiccup.”
“You were chained, naked, to a wall!”
“I do that for fun all the time.”
“Pah! Insufferable woman. I do not mind a little challenge, I am only worried that others could pay the price of my arrogance.”
“Then cover your obligations when you must and enjoy yourself the rest of the time! A good life needs a proper balance. You think you gloated now with dearly departed Matthias?”
“A little bit?”
“Aw you sweet summer child. You call this gloating? Surely, you jest.”
“Was it not? What would you have done then?”
“First, pretend to be scared and lure him to an isolated room, then toy with him a bit, then reveal what you are, toy a bit more, and finally eat him.”
“What if he sets the room on fire?”
“What if, what if… Everything can always go wrong, and also go so right. If you are uncomfortable enjoying your prey too close to your pet witch, just drag him away to some farm and play tag there. Use your imagination!”
“I don’t know…”
“That was merely an example, my little jam pot. The point of gloating is entertainment. Go with whatever makes you happy. If you absolutely need to make sure your obligations are honored before you can let go then so be it. Now, where was that farm again?”
It turns out that the abandoned estate I assumed Matthias had referred to stood empty. I would have been both angry and afraid, were it not for a suspicious trail of smoke rising further along the road. Naminata and I find two sentries keeping warm around a large pyre at the Patterson farm. Perhaps the Pyke family found the house empty and thought it abandoned. They were wrong.
The Pattersons are a new addition to the area and the place reflects this. The English-style house is small but cozy, with the unusual luxury of colored glass windows. They made the effort of decorating the new structures with marks of individuality like blue flowers of an unusual essence, small wooden carvings hanging from the roof by twine and even a fake scarecrow with a humorously big gut. I know this because Jenny Patterson used to be mine. They have a child who is four now, and whose name I forgot. They tend to go to the city often to visit the father’s family, leaving the house devoid of inhabitants.
This might be problematic as I would need an invitation to give old Benedict Pyke my regards, if it is indeed his men outside.
With a gesture, I indicate that we should check the back of the house and realize that we will not, after all, need invitation. The Pattersons came home tonight. They shouldn’t have.
Behind their home, Jenny kept a small garden. Some enterprising thug started digging a trench large enough to bury the family and stopped half way. They piled the dead haphazardly to the side, both parents, the child and their dog. Jenny’s leg emerges from below the others, pale and naked under moonlight. Her shoe fell off at some point to reveal a patched up sock in a display that is so odious and disrespectful that it fills my heart with rage. I do not know why this tiny detail of desecrated intimacy strikes me more than the myriad others. It just does. The Pattersons were slain out of convenience and cast off to rot at the back off their own house like so much garbage. They did not even warrant the effort of a finished grave and a shroud. I find the depth of this insult abhorrent.
“We will have no trouble getting in.”
Sensing the mood, Nami does not reply. Her expression turns cold and her aura gains this fleeting mobility that defines her fighting style.
I strut to the front of the house, making no effort to hide my presence. The two sentries soon notice my approaching form and recoil, allowing me a glimpse into what they had been burning to keep warm: the Patterson carriage.
Those are thugs of the common variety. They know they will have to silence me but their ability to improvise is limited by a stunted brain entirely devoted to cards and uninspired threats.
“You made a mistake Miss, there is nothing here for you.”
“I disagree,” I reply. I grab behind me to seize my silver pistol and point it at the closest man.
I pull the trigger.
The detonation rings loudly in the night. The heavy lead ball takes his right eye and most of his skull. Before the corpse even drops I grab the second man and allow my fury to show.
“You look cold, boy.”
Into the pyre he goes, face first. The tremulous screams add to the vacarm as sounds of alarm come from the inside. In mere seconds, the door bangs open and a group of men exits their stolen abode. At their head stands who I assume to be Benedict Pyke, grandfather of Ollie and Lynn, a dead man walking. He shares some similar traits with his grandchildren like a delicate nose and piercing eyes. His aristocratic features are currently scrunched in displeasure as if he were smelling something particularly nauseous. Come to think of it, the stench of roasting pig permeates the air, so perhaps he does.
His minions and two spawns whose hair are black where his are grey spread out and point their muskets at us, looking a bit unsure on how to proceed.
“Kill them,” adds the older man summarily.
Before they can react, I take out my modified boar spear and move forward, skewering the nearest hireling mage before tossing his bleeding remains on a mortal thug. I stab the rest of them before they can move. On my side, Nami silently matches my gesture and from the corner of my eye, I notice the three Pykes retreating back into the house. Ah, the human instinct to go to ground can always be counted on.
I climb the two steps leading to the house’s gate and push it open with the butt of my weapon. The instigators of tonight’s festivities have formed the expected shielded circle in the center of the living room.
“Begone, foul creature. You can keep the woman, we shall depart from your lands at sunrise.”
I turn to Nami with a fake expression of delight.
“Do you hear this my dear? Our intruder deigns to let us leave. We are blessed.”
“Indeed honey, such honor he bestows upon our worthless heads. We are free to go. Should we take him on his more than generous offer?”
Tonight, I feel like gloating.
“I do not know, there is still the matter of feckless vermin sneaking into my lands and killing what is mine, then expecting to depart in all impunity?”
“As if his sins carried no weight and his survival was but a matter of fact?”
Benedict sneers in a way that speaks of inborn privilege and a life-long lack of challenging encounters. I do so love when his kind comes to me. I delight in shattering foolish pride so much.
“You do not scare me, dead thing. Your kind cannot enter houses without invitations, your words are just empty bluster.”
“Semantics? Nami chérie, I thought I told you to warn me when we would reach this part of the discussion?”
“My failings are many.”
“Yes, you see Benedict, it is homes we cannot enter, and this one,” I add as I step forward, “is not yours.”
I point my boar spear at him, charge and activate one of the two gifts the haughty Princess of the Court of Blue left me. The tip glows strangely and space twists around it as our brains stutter, unable to process what our eyes see.
An instant later, the silvery spike finds its way deep into Benedict’s chest as if his shield were never here. For all I know, it technically wasn’t. I finish the motion and pin him to the wall like a butterfly. Naminata uses the momentary confusion to disable one of the two sons.
The last one raises a gauntleted hand and meets my gaze.
He flinches and his spell fizzles. I focus and the edge of my claw glows blue.
I swipe the shield. Hurts. No, THIS IS NOTHING.
Unprepared mages are just prey. I Devour this one before turning to Merritt’s nemesis. How fleeting the world is. One moment we are in control and the next, we die and sometimes even wake up in a strange dungeon with new and unusual appetites.
“It was a good Hunt.”
I take my time. When I come to, Nami is licking her own lips and greets me with a feline smile.
“I partake with you.”
“Uh, thank you?”
She chuckles at my reply.
“Your manners still lack polish, treacle cake. We will work on that as well.”
“Indeed. In the meanwhile, we are done here.”
“Will that judge of yours use the opportunity to cause more troubles?”
“No doubt, but it had to be done.”
I drag the bodies out. Apparently, the bandits who killed the Pattersons fought among themselves until they perished or left. Over the loot no doubt. I make sure to pocket most of their valuables so the story is at least somewhat believable and look up to see Nami with an amused, and slightly condescending expression.
“What, it’s spoils of war!”
“If they had too much wealth my bandit explanation would be too far-stretched.”
“I don’t need to justify taking their possessions, they are mine by right of conquest.”
Yes. She is absolutely convinced of the necessity of such actions. Now we just need to head back so I can add the choicest pieces to my collection.
I recently purchased an extension at the edge of town, a wide communal house to lodge my employees. Some leave and retire, but we also have sick girls, those who can no longer work for one reason or another, girls on leave and something more: children.
They come with new employees or as a side effect of the profession, and someone needs to take care of them. Until now I found them to be noisy, smelly and generally obnoxious. I was therefore more than happy to have them contained somewhere I would not have to deal with them. Loth used to say that kids are like winds, one can only tolerate their own. The comparison is apt if typically vulgar. It is in this dubious haven that Merritt moved into until she could secure better accommodation.
I find myself in a clean if austere room. Baths and the kitchen are common parts, and still there is barely enough space for a wardrobe and seats. The bed is the largest piece of furniture here, blocking the entire space below the window. I find the witch busy brushing the hair of her daughter Lynn. The copper curls resist the veteran spellcaster every step of the way and it appears that my newest ally may be defeated yet. I decide to offer her some respite.
“Good evening Merritt. How are you settling in?”
“Fine,” she answers. Then any further exchange is interrupted by the whistle of a heated teapot.
“Oh, hold this for me!”
I look at my hand where suddenly a brush has landed. My gaze drift to the little girl’s big innocent eyes.
Oh, no the crafty witch would not dare! Alas, the malicious spawn silently points at the rat’s nest above her brows. Curses!
With a sigh, I resolved myself to my punishment after being so deftly outmaneuvered. I start working on a painless liberation, using my claws to separate the most uncooperative strands. I swear Alexander the Great himself did not struggle so much with the Gordian knot.
“To what do I owe the pleasure? You want to talk about the wards you need?”
I turn to her while still working and realize Ollie has snatched a knitting needle from somewhere and is in the process of caressing the implement.
CUB. FEARLESS. I LIKE IT.
My heart swells with pride at having acquired such valuable followers. Yes, they will do nicely. After they grow up a bit. There is just a hint of fear on his face when he sees my smile and he still attempts to hide it.
Merritt serves herself a cup of tea, unaware of the powerplay that occurred between me, the shaggy mop on top of Lynn’s head and her pint-sized defender.
“Yes. As you know, I have established a business here, and I am quite satisfied with how I managed it so far with a considerable exception.”
The witch sits by her daughter’s side, intrigued.
“I need a day manager. I had a friend come here before and take care of the Dream as I was slumbering. He left recently, and his absence made me realize how much I lose and how much more effort I have to produce to offset my daylight absence. I could achieve much more with competent help and I believe you can do the job.”
“Hold on. You want me to take the head of your brothel?”
“Yes, though only during the day. You would be compensated accordingly, of course.”
Merritt’s composure shows wariness and excitement in equal measure.
“There are no others who display all the qualities required to handle both Kitty’s team and Harrigan’s. He is my head of security.”
“The black-bearded, black-haired, vicious and barely legalized highwayman who broke a man’s arm because he was annoying him?”
“Precisely! You understand my conundrum. I need someone with your spine to keep him in check and execute him if he goes too far, and I need the same person to handle that cackling, unruly mass of gossip mongers who work for me. Few people who qualify can do both to my satisfaction and I trust you to have the means to achieve this, and the loyalty not to stab me in the back.”
“This is a generous offer Ari, I am just not sure that I can live up to your expectations.”
“Do not feel pressured into accepting immediately. I wanted you to know and keep my offer in mind as you get to know the town.”
I did not tell her the entire truth. When I am gone, I intend for her to take over if she so desires. No need for anyone to know though. I gain nothing by having them plot accordingly. We discuss for a few more minutes but it soon becomes clear that she is still too busy to share her tale. I bid her farewell and quickly leave the premises.
The large structure is surrounded by a vegetable patch and low walls. As I walk forward, I hear a strange crackling noise coming from a storage shed by the path and stop, considering. It almost sounds like burning black powder.
Then the shed explodes.