This night, I wake up to a strange ceiling. Vampire minds are instantly clear and I am spared the instinctive panic of one who comes to, in an unexpected place. Instead, I decide to take stock.
The guest quarters are a set of two rooms and a bath, all in beige rocks, silk and goose feathers. The mix of both spartan and luxurious is peculiar, and I suppose this should be close to Persian aesthetics, though I could be wrong. There is even a basket of fruits, mundane ones this time. The antechamber doubles as a social space and its emptiness turns it from welcoming to ominous. There is not even a lamp right now.
I take a deep breath to settle myself.
Yesterday was taxing. I don’t really care about the incredible revelations I heard, although now I have further questions. It was taxing because I realized what I really am. Not some cursed human, but a new entity built from a corpse and the essence of an alien being.
I find that hard to digest.
I feel degraded.
More importantly, I feel like I lied to myself... and to Ariane’s father. Or is it Papa? I have not decided yet.
He helped and protected me after I escaped from the Lancaster arena. He gave me the Talleyrand rifle. He kept in touch via letters until I left for Marquette, then I had Isaac notify him that I had to go into hiding. I want to believe that he really cared, and so did I. We were there for each other when it counted. That was not a lie.
Bah, enough of this. I will not get my mind off this loop any time soon and I already told myself I had to get away from here first. I should go see my host, after all, midnight is close with summer nights only lasting a bit over nine hours.
I sniff my skin. Vampires don’t exactly smell bad, but we do have a scent and I have it now. I must now face a decision. Do I take the time to clean myself up or do I ask questions to the incredibly knowledgeable three millennia old archmage who created our race?
Let me just brush my hair.
Two minutes later, I emerge from the labyrinth of corridors and alleys onto the circle where Queen Semiramis waits. It appears that the facility is considerably larger than what this mound should be able to contain, which I would find stupefying any other day. Now, a giant walking broomstick could walk out of the ground to launder my dress and I would not even bat an eye. It has been that kind of week.
Like yesterday, she sits at the table with a pot of mysterious tea, clad in toga the color of sand that manages to show her generous figure without being vulgar. In the background, the enthralled people are still dancing around, looking worse for wear. They now move with manic passion and those who stumble out collapse immediately.
The queen looks exhausted. Dark pockets line her eyes and her face is tight. She blinks in a way that speaks of headache as soon as she sees me. If it were me, I would look like death warmed over. The queen, though, looks delicate and vulnerable. She is a tender rose that needs to be protected, never mind the thorns. And she does it so effortlessly too.
“Good evening Ariane. Come, join me. Have you slept well?”
“Better than you apparently.”
She snorts and by that I mean, she pushes air through her regal nose in a way that makes me feel that I am intimate with a great personage. Her alto voice is rougher than yesterday and it has a bite.
“I forgot how irreverent kingless people can be. I almost missed it. Now tell me, would you care for a talk? The grand spell is easy to channel but I cannot move from here, and I could really use a distraction from a proper conversationalist.”
I almost smile at the offhand compliment. She has the devil’s silver tongue, truly, and I am more than happy to oblige. I also need distraction. It is growing now, more and more. The Thirst. It has been three days.
For a moment I consider asking for her essence but I reconsider. She knows what our bloodline is capable of and if I ask, she may consider me a threat. Or rude. Not much difference as far as her family is concerned. I would rather have answers to some pressing questions, even if the first one is still risky.
“May I ask you about that spell you weave?”
Once more she looks like a teacher who finds her student amusing.
“This is the second question I expected you to ask, after the traditional ‘who are you’. Alas, I would prefer not to reveal its purpose. Just know that it is no danger to you, at least not directly.”
“Am I correct in assuming that it will change the world?”
This time she looks pleased.
“Only a small part of it, the one that matters to me. But enough of this. Ask more and take my thoughts off this growing migraine.”
“Right. First question, I am unable to cast a spell, but I was told that it could change?”
She nods in approval.
“Aah, impatient to dabble in the mystic arts, are we? Yes. If you survive long enough to become a master yourself, you will be allowed to touch your own essence. It will be your fuel for casting spells, just like human mages use theirs. Vampires have a knack for blood magic and I sense some potential in you, though it would not have awakened inside your mortal self.”
“Wait, do you mean that my family has mages?”
“Perhaps. Many mortals have traces of power, but in this realm they will rarely manifest. Such was the case for you.”
Again, without paying attention, she referred to my human self as me. I decide to let it go for now.
“Any advice on how to get started?”
“When the time comes, do not discard mortal teachers. They retain the drive and intuition that comes with their nature. For the same reason, do not despair when you progress slowly. It is inevitable, just as they will die of old age eventually.”
“Yes, mages of great power age more slowly. Most only reach a stage where it matters when they are already old. Beware a youthful archmage. They are the most gifted.”
I remember Belinda and realize that she may have been slightly older than I thought. Not that it matters now.
“Not specifically. Just follow your instincts when it comes to blood magic and you will do fine.”
“Thank you. Well, if it’s fine, I had questions concerning bloodlines. If I understand correctly, all the Progenitors come from elixirs you brewed?”
“Yes, and I may just do so again. I follow the Watcher’s whims on this matter. Thankfully, it happens less than once a century on average.”
“Master mentioned that there are fourteen bloodlines he knows of. Are there more?”
“Maybe. Why don’t you tell me those you have met, and I will tell you of them.”
More than fourteen bloodlines?! So much to DEVOUR. Alright, calm down. Answers, focus on answers. Let’s start chronologically.
“Ah yes, Charmers one and all. They became so talented at moving masses during the war of the roses that their progenitor was slain by a once-in-history alliance of mages, brothers of the Order of Gabriel and even some vampires. It was an entertaining time.”
“Ahem. Right. The... the Cadiz?”
“They can focus on a task with unerring concentration. It makes them particularly good duelists and helps with practising a craft. Their tunnel vision has hurt them in the past, however. Their Progenitor is gone. He is one of the few to ever cross a portal to another world. I still do not know how he managed it, why, and where he ended up. He was quite old as well, as he drank the elixir in the ninth century of your era.”
“Wow. Right. Next, the Roland?”
“Incredible willpower, though it makes them quite stubborn. They date back to the end of your eighth century and their Progenitor was changed quite close to the Cadiz one, geographically speaking. It was an interesting time for Europe, to be sure. I had to move more often in those times. Their Progenitor is currently in deep slumber. The weight of centuries lies heavy on the mind of the truly old ones. They need to rest for years, on occasion.”
I remember that Master used his unplanned shipwreck to nap at the bottom of the Atlantic, proof that he is not immune.
“How about the Ekon?”
“A curious bunch, always eager to experience new things. You know of their book, the one that recollects every new and unique experience?”
“My friend mentioned it, yes.”
“The greatest entry of all was made by Ekon himself. He died to experience the sun, and sent his impressions to a telepath on the very moment of his demise.”
Huh. Nami already mentioned it, I think. That does not suprise me coming from those madmen. Moving on.
“I met a Natalis spawn, he had turned rogue.”
Her face scrunches in mild disapproval, the most intense emotion she has displayed so far tonight.
“Their stupid strength is legendary. It can be an incredible boon, it is just a shame that they rarely have the intellect to match. I don’t understand why they do not recruit someone smart and strong, it is not like those people do not exist. Bah. Natalis himself disappeared. I personally think he got lost or drunk and the sun caught him. I do not know what the Watcher sees in them.”
“I also met a member of the Rosenthal clan…”
Semiramis raises her eyes in exasperation. Never mind the Natalis, apparently it is the quiet and peaceful defenders of knowledge who have drawn her ire.
“Those bores! How many times must I say no before they understand that I do not wish to be disturbed with their ceaseless questions? I swear, every decade some fresh-faced nincompoop thinks he found the holy Grail that will lure me away from my research. The fools! I would have razed their headquarters to the ground if they were not so useful. And that old bat of a progenitor is simply insufferable.”
I witness the explosion of temper with some trepidation. A sore spot, it seems. Either Isaac’s progenitor is incredibly annoying, or Semiramis’ control is slipping. Better distract her.
“There are no other clan I can think of right now.”
“Really,” she answers impatiently, “you have never heard of Constantine?”
“The Speaker for the Accords, the nominal head of vampires in North America?!”
“The very same. Am I correct in assuming that you have never met?”
“That is a shame, for Constantine is fairly young as far as progenitors go, and I am unsure as to what his powers are. He has not sired any spawn yet.”
“Well, hm, good luck finding out?”
The queen frowns, perhaps trying to decide if I insulted her or not. I really need to keep her talking.
“Your majesty, how about other bloodlines?”
She inclines her head by a fraction, probably to show that she was not duped by my feeble attempt at distracting her. She still obliges.
“There is the Amaretta clan. They are seers and are interested in the future, perhaps a bit too much. You can recognize them by the veil they always wear.”
One of the knight squad members was an Amaretta then.
“Amaretta is active, but she spends all her time contemplating and gazing into the future. Not an action person, that one. The next are the Dvor. The second oldest clan after yours. They have land-based mentality and powers, and all their members are part of Eneru. Do you know the main vampire alliances?”
“Eneru is about ruling fairly, the Masks influence things from the shadows and the Brotherhood is about personal pursuits, if I remember correctly.”
“Aptly summarized. The Dvor progenitor is currently slumbering away in the heart of his fortress, somewhere in North Africa. Then there is the Erenwald clan. They are the only vampires animals do not fear. They wield some strange magic, primal and dangerous.”
Ogotai was an Erenwald! I need to check if I can approach animals again. In front of me, Semiramis chuckles with such a demeaning air that I feel like a child.
“Their progenitor turned into a tree. A tree! Can you believe it? Preposterous. In any case, the next are the Hastings and they are an interesting lot. They are physically weaker than all other houses, but the benefits are worth it, in my opinion. They can eat and digest human food, and stand the rays of the sun! The current head of the Masks is one of them and Lady Hastings fell for a human. They eloped. They live in a small cottage in the back end of Derbyshire.”
“What? How? Can’t he tell?”
“She would just appear as a sickly woman who doesn’t go out much. I was told there is no shortage of those in England. I am sure she has ways of finding sustenance.”
“Isn’t she more vulnerable living that way?”
“Few know of what I tell you, and fewer still would attempt to take advantage. Why risk the fury of someone who can sway the governments of the most powerful nations on earth when she voluntarily removed herself from the chessboard? It would be folly.”
“I see… Do you think…”
“You will never gain sun immunity like them, but perhaps it would allow you to wake earlier.”
I had felt hope for a moment here. So nice of her to squash it before it can grow. Yes, so nice.
“Oh, do not make that face Ariane, it does not become one who has survived so much.”
“There is a lot for me to process. You can hardly blame me for feeling out of sorts.”
“Of course, now who is next on the blood-sucking list, hmm? Ah, only two. Let us start with the Kalinin. They are mostly based around Russia and most of your Eastern sibling’s allies come from their rank. It is said that they can wield holy equipment, so long as their cause is just.”
“Are you sure? This feels… impossible.”
“Yes, they fight for this world even if they are not of it. It is closely linked to belief I suppose. Their Progenitor is dead by the way. He was slain and devoured by your Master.”
“I do not understand why people still come after him knowing all of this.”
“He would be more dissuasive if he were in the habit of leaving survivors, that is true. The last line is the Vanheim. They are a wild card and I do not know myself who their progenitor was. Their powers are random and surprising. A bit of chaos in the game, if you will. They are rare and mostly solitary, which makes them mostly wanderers. And with this, I believe we have addressed your question entirely. It has been so long since I gave a lecture. I was afraid of losing my touch.”
“Thank you for your answers, your majesty.”
“You are welcome, young one. I must interrupt you, unfortunately. We are reaching a crucial part of the spell, and I will need to focus entirely on it. Do enjoy the show, for you will never see its like again.”
Without further ado, she stands up and I mimic her out of politeness, only to realize that I am standing outside of the circle. I note in passing that space really isn’t behaving around here but soon all other thoughts disappear in the background before the incredible show.
I have my back to the entrance, and to my front and left, the overhang dips down to reveal the vale where her thralls are dancing. As I watch, the few tired dancers suddenly burst into motion, soon joined by frenetic companions. Concentric circles of men and women in mismatched clothes move with insane fervor, their clear exhaustion a sharp contrast with garish clothes and orgasmic faces. The mad waltz grows to a crescendo and from here I can see the sickly skin tones and the poisonous pleasure they have fallen prey to as they twist and jump beyond what their weakened frames can bear.
She is killing them.
The impact of their feet on the soil echoes with their heartbeats in a hypnotic music that makes me want to join them and drain them in equal measure. They scream in joy as the life is torn from their bodies, pooling visibly in the circle under their tormentor until the construct glows a vivid indigo. I have no idea how powerful a spell must be so that its fuel is visible with the naked eye, and then I find out.
The mortals outside scream all at once and Semiramis drops the barrier separating her glyph from the world.
Reality sobs. My mind blanks completely. Something incredible pulses once, as if the planet itself had a heart. I am physically compressed by the power unleashed and for one moment, I believe I’m going to die.
When I can think again, I need to take a few steps back. A double helix of pure power emerges from the ground to the sky above in great waves. The noise is deafening, and the heat and aura emanating from the woven strands force me to grit my teeth. Dark blood drips from my nose, eyes and ears but I cannot look away from the incredible scene. The queen herself floats above the ground with her arms spread wide. She speaks and I scream. We all scream. Her voice burns my mind with images of stabilized pathways and aligned spheres, concepts I cannot comprehend. Only my inability to comply saves my spirit from total destruction. Her command lasts for but a few instants, or for an eternity, I cannot tell.
After she is done, colors bleed into each other like spilled dye until the spell overhead explodes. Another pulse bends the word again, in the other direction. I cannot see. I press my hands to my ears but I cannot feel. Even my instincts are silent.
I am in darkness. All my senses are gone.
Am I… dead?
I reach into my mental fortress and find the comforting surroundings of the master bedroom intact. Not dead then, probably.
I return to reality to find that I can finally see. Technically, I only see shapes but at least there is some progress. As my view improves, my ears pop and now I can hear a high pitch whistle. After that I feel stone under me. It takes a few more seconds before I cough a gobbet of blood and pass a shaky hand before my face to clear out the dark blood covering it.
I can see now.
Semiramis is on her knees, in the middle of her circle now black and charred beyond recognition. She looks drained, weak, but there is a smile of triumph on her face as she looks in front of her.
BARGAIN COMPLETED, KILL.
I held until the spell was done, as promised. If I were to strike her now…
Before I can decide anything, I find myself riveted by yet another display of impossibility. The construct was cast, yes, but its result is only now showing itself, and what a result it is.
In the heart of the vale, human forms are strewn around like broken puppets. Some of them move weakly while a majority are clearly dead. At the center of the first circle of now deceased dancers, the world is broken. It is as if someone had brought a knife to a painting. In the background, we are still in Illinois. In the foreground, like seen through cracks in an opaque window, an endless desert of gray and pink stone spreads as far as the eye can see. Jagged spikes emerge from the ground under a sky of dusty blue while pale lichen clings to life under some round rocks. The sun bleeds an angry red, casting strange shadows on our side’s grass.
For a second, I fear I would disintegrate under the waning light but nothing happens. The foreign star’s rays leave my flesh alone.
Fascinated by this glimpse of another world, I almost miss the patter of heavy appendages on sandy ground and so I am surprised when something comes into view.
There is life there, and it is terrifying.
A herd of strange creatures trots forward from behind a larger shard of stone. A colder part of me reflects that they probably belong to the same species but with different purposes, like ants perhaps, or wasps. The vampire side reflects that those are clearly predators, COMPETITION, while the purely Ariane part can only think one thing.
What in the seven circles of hell is that unholy pile of abomination? What sick god gave birth to those horrors?
There are three types of beings. The first is the smallest and more numerous. They hover above their kin like a malevolent swarm. Dragonfly wings bat the air with a sinister hum, with two atrophied limbs tugged under a red lean body as large as a raccoon. Two more limbs ending in sharp claws encircle a triangular head with a smattering of eyes. They dart back and forth looking for the Watcher knows what.
The second kind is clearly made of outriders. I spot about two dozen of them the size of small poneys, with six limbs ending in talons. They are as red as their brethren, but their face has only two eyes and a pair of pincers.
And above them all dominates a horror I never thought could exist. The beast is as large as a small barn. Its six massive limbs support a body with a larger back end disturbingly insectoid in nature, while its face simply does not exist. Instead, the creature sports a set of tentacles equipped with bony protrusions facing inward. Whoever gets caught by this is not getting out, I believe. It turns towards me and samples the air with a long pink tongue. Its mouth is like a gate into the abyss.
There is a sound like broken bones being set back and one of the breaks in reality snaps close. Besides a quickly fading blur, it is as if there had never been anything.
The bigger thing sniffs the air once more then bellows. The sound is absolutely atrocious. The closest analogy I can find is a mix between shredding steel, a bobcat being skinned alive and a woman giving birth. I shudder in disgust.
And to think I had to go to a hellish landscape to find a serious contender to the squeals of flaming pigs as the worst sound ever made.
The abominable creature moves closer to the breach, surrounded by its unholy brood. I fight my body to force myself to move. I manage to close two fists and lift my chest off the ground but my legs are still unresponsive and I am growing Thirsty.
Come one, get up.
It passes its maw through the breach and samples the air again. The swarm around it grows agitated.
The breach is too small for it, right? Right?
One more break snaps back to normal and the warning spurs the monster forward. The others follow it through the break as it gingerly tests the grass with a hesitant stumpy leg. When nothing occurs, it gurgles and its followers fall on the defenseless mages in an orgy of blood and violence. The few surviving men and women can do nothing but slowly crawl away as fliers and outriders slaughter and devour them alive. In the middle of the grisly melee, the larger creature grabs corpse after corpse and makes them disappear in the abyss of its gullet with a horrific gurgle.
A regal voice distracts me, easily covering the sounds of the feast.
“That would be a Merghol mana hound pack. I learnt of them in a long lost tome that fell through the cracks of the world. They are artificial creatures designed to hunt and kill mages, used in that dying world you saw.”
She sounds conversational, as if we were two ladies attending an event. Those who allowed her to come this far are being devoured as they still draw breath and she does not care in the slightest. They were just tools for her, and she sacrificed them without hesitation. Not even cattle would receive this treatment.
I am a vampire. I have little sympathy for most mortals but tonight she is the real monster. There is not a trace of empathy in the woman before me and even if her heart still beats, it is cold.
“Of course,” continues the queen, “there is little left here to sate their hunger for magic. Once they are done with the meagre fare, they will hunt the next mage with extreme prejudice.”
She stares down at me with a triumphant smirk.
“The spell is done, and we are now in a stable alignment with our closest neighboring spheres. You just witnessed a revolution in magic, little one, I hope you appreciated the show. As promised, you are free to go. I would hurry if I were you.”
I do not even contemplate going after her now that she has nothing else to focus on. Even in her exhausted state she could surely turn me inside out with a flick of her finger.
Wait, what does she mean I should hurry? I am no mage.
The safe house is only an hour away from here, at a slow pace, surely they would not…
The biggest creature samples the air and its revolting snout turns West. Ah, please no.
With one last grunt the thing goes forth, followed by its menagerie. The swarm of fliers spreads out.
Merritt. All my followers… No, I won’t let them die. I stand up, turn to Semiramis’ amused figure and bow politely one last time.
“I shall take my leave, your majesty.”
“See that you do. For what it is worth, I had a pleasant time in your company. Until we meet again, little princess.”
I turn around and run, past the studies and the private apartments, past the bedrooms and laboratory. During this, I hear the chime-like chuckle of the immortal queen, glacial and merciless.
There are no unexpected space shenanigans and I find myself outside in record time, I whistle for Metis and she rides past as I grab for her.
Hold on, she was waiting outside all this time… Poor thing, I hope she did not suffer from deprivation too much…
A flash of pink attracts my gaze and I realize that the galloping equine is casually munching on somebody’s hairy forearm. Ah well, she can take care of herself.
Now that I am outside of the cave, I realize that Merritt set up a beacon and is probably looking for me. Such brazen display of magic is unusual, especially because she must have sensed the spell. It is not like her to be so careless… I hope I am not too late.
I angle Metis parallel to the path of the horrid creature and its nightmarish brood, leaving it to my right, and we soon gain on them. The Merghol creatures do not appear to be that fast, perhaps they make up for it in stamina… And I spoke too fast. An outrider jumps from an overhang to block the narrow valley we find ourselves in.
The fliers to spot and harry. The outriders to catch and corner. The behemoth to crush resistance. They are truly well designed, and this is before I know of whatever tool they have against magic.
I spur Metis forward. Not with actual spurs mind you, I am not suicidal. The proud warhorse sprints forward with a defiant neigh and I grab my spear from my saddle. When we are but half a second away from the ready beast, another one jumps at us from above. I stab up and push into its body then angle the shaft to the left, using its own momentum to smash it against a rock. It yelps in pain and rage.
I remove the spear with a gush of red ichor, aiming forward, for nothing. Metis snorts and as the other hunter jumps at her, she lifts herself on her hind legs and smashes down. I hear broken bones and screeches of pain, then silence as we leave its mangled form behind. She barely slowed at all.
“Well done!” I say, and pat her neck.
Unfortunately, our triumph is short lived. More howls sound from behind us and the first fliers catch up easily. They hover around us, diving in on occasion to try to harry her flank. I pierce the first creature in the head and find it surprisingly hard. Hits to the body fair better. As their number increases, I switch to just damaging the wings to disable them instead of killing them outright. After half a dozen fall, the rest move to a safer distance but they do not leave.
I now regret bringing nothing but the spear, and I have no way to warn Merritt and the others… Time will be short.
Metis and I soon overtake the small horde which we still hear behind our back. We tread through narrow valleys and escarpments at breakneck speed, leaving clouds of dust and broken needles in our path. I would be completely lost were it not for the beacon. I do not understand how Metis always finds the easiest path forward either, but I count myself lucky. Our window will be short.
The safe house is located on top a forested hill, hidden from view by a dense patch of pines. It is a simple one-story edifice of logs half-buried into the ground. Stores of powder and weapon racks would allow defenders to repel a vigorous assault, and a small cellar acts as a last ditch protection against this place’s most obvious weakness: fire. The problem here is that camouflage remains the most serious defense of this place, and this protection was thrown to the winds the moment Merritt announced her presence to anyone with a hint of magic.
I slow down Metis to a trot as we make our way to the ring of tall pines and whistle when I come in view of the inner clearing. I cut my signal short out of surprise.
In a single day, the unassuming bunker was turned into a defensible position by the apparent determination of Merritt’s group. A full barricade of sharp spikes surrounds the structure and from here I can see the tip of hats and bayonets. Torches on sconces light the entire perimeter, giving even mortals a clear visibility.
“It’s her!” yells a familiar voice. I approach and realize that quite a group has assembled here. My usual odd squad foot soldiers number around ten now, and they have joined with Merritt, John, and Nami. This is all well and good but we cannot stay here.
“Gather up, we’re leaving. There are monsters coming and they are after mages. Merritt, hop on your horse we will need to drive them away from the main group then break off.”
“What monsters are we talking about exactly?” asks Nami with a frustrated voice.
“They’re called mana hounds but I don’t know what they can do. No one has faced them on earth yet.”
“What did you just say?” she answers with surprise.
“It’s a long story, and…”
“Are you sure nobody has faced one before?” she asks with a widening, insane smile, “No one ever? We would be the first?”