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All the remaining mortals, a dozen people including Meritt, gather around us to witness our untimely argument. I frown at Nami’s display. Our arrangement is clear, she may be my elder and a Master but as long as the year of service is not ended, I remain in charge. This has worked so far in part due to my lax approach to ‘service’ and our friendly relationship. That is why I did not expect insubordination from her, not at this time. I hiss softly, baring my fangs to her alone.

“You said those monsters hunted mages?” asks Merritt with a hint of worry.

I turn my attention away from Nami who only seems amused by my display. I’ll show her… later. Focus, Ari. Ignore the THIRST.

“Yes. Do not use spells. You will be fine, we will ride on Metis and…”

“What happens if I do run? Will they stop at some point? Before sunrise? If they lose us will they go for the nearest mage after me?”

“I don’t know… If you run…”

“What if they go after my kids?”

Ah. Yes, her children. They already have an aura, even though they cannot use it yet. Merritt realizes that I know very little about the beasts when I do not reply.

“What if they rampage through the countryside unchecked? Can they reproduce?”

David King, whom I bought and released and who joined the squad comes forth as well.

“Miss Lethe, we know you and Naminata try to purge the world from evil despite your curse. We will help you on this and, God willing, we will end this scourge before it can cause harm to the population.”

The other members of the squad nod in approval, white, black and native united in purpose around God apparently. When did that happen? Did I create a new order of Gabriel? An order of Ariane, so to speak?

In the background, John’s simple smile is unerring. If I say we leave, he is the only one who will obey without complaint. Mistaking my intention, he frowns in an attempt to show he is serious. The ghastly result could send a prison warden running.

“I shoot for you miss Lethe!” he adds while waving around the heavily modified wolf slayer. The ominous crossbow looks like a normal-sized weapon in his hands, meaning it would be otherwise mounted as a fixed piece of artillery on some castle wall. I sigh in resignation. I have been outvoted. Me, the supposed vampire master of Marquette. Ah well.

I pat Metis, dismount and jump over the barricade and pass between the group to the armoury below, adding as I go:

“Fair enough then, I’ll get changed, keep your eyes peeled for flying horrors and breaking trees.”

I rush into the main room currently covered in sleeping bags and personal effects, to a corner where my own gear lays. I change into my most heavily armoured gown, with an enchanted heart protector and add a knife belt, two pistols, and a long dagger made after Jimena’s gift but without the enchantments. I also pick up my spear, my rifle, and a mining powder charge which I place in a bag at my back. A knock on the door makes me look up just as I am done loading and priming the last firearm.

“Come in.”

John enters and closes the door behind him with measured movements, just as I told him to do after he broke too many pieces of furniture back in the Dream. He looks at me with shyness so I ask.

“What is it, John?”

“Miz Nami said you were too thirsty. She said you need a bit of blood. I want to help.”

I consider. They are both right, of course, but I have always considered John to be in the list of people I would not drink from. According to my own set of rules, I cannot take the blood from people I am currently cooperating with, supplicants before the deal and children. I hesitate. Is an offering the same?

“Miz Nami said if you say no, if you are hurt later then you will lose control and take blood anyway. She says you have a choice now, but you won’t later.”

That is fairly accurate, and yet…

“I say, why you don’t want my blood? Is my blood bad because I’m dumb?”

“What? No, no that’s not true at all.”

Somehow, I find the big oaf endearing. I do not want a follower to suffer needlessly. He is mine.

“Then take blood and help protect Marquette. I help too. I will always help.”

I sigh and smile softly, disarmed by his helpless look. Denying him would feel like kicking the world’s ugliest puppy.

“Alright John, you win.”

The man extends his wrist and I realize that there is a small logistical issue with feeding this time. His wrists are as big as my leg.

Five minutes and a painful jaw later, I come out of the cabin fed, armed and feeling like a brand new woman. The troop gathers around me, covered in weapons and primed for bloodshed. I feel a bit of pride at the sight. They are here because of what I built over the past two decades. Time for a plan, and as those things go, easier is usually better when we have so little time to prepare.

“Alright listen up. Those are magic-hunting creatures so Merritt, don’t throw magic at them, keep the beacon going until they find us then switch to guns. Now, there are three kinds of monsters. The first is small, flying ones, don’t shoot them unless you’re sure of your shot. Let Nami and I handle them, and if they attack you stab them in the chest, not the head. The next is big hound-like creatures the size of small ponies. Those are your priority, use everything you can to stop them from overwhelming us. Finally, the pack is led by a huge creature the size of a small barn, do not get close to its tentacle mouth and let Nami and I handle the close-quarter fighting. That is all. You two get inside and grab all the muskets we have and load them. The rest, take your positions and good luck, everyone.”

I turn around and take position at the tip of the barricade line. Behind me, mutters erupt in the group.

“Tentacle mouth? Did I hear that right?”

Welcome to the party lads.

A few seconds later I turn around when Nami leans on the earthwork besides me.

“How are you feeling Ariane? I have never seen you so out of sorts. Is there a worse danger that you have not mentioned yet?”

“No, nothing in the short term at least.”

“Are you hurt then?”

“No. I… came to a terrible realization concerning my condition.”

“Ah yes, ‘tis terrible indeed to be a virgin at your age.”

“…Excuse me?”

Naminata nods knowingly, trying to act mature. It is laughable though I appreciate the effort.

“You do not know the embrace of someone you are intimate with, the rhythm of sex and their skin on yours. You do not know about working together towards that sweet release, of your moans and theirs, of the taste of their lips and the scent of their arousal. The satisfaction of lying on the comfortable mattress wracked by the aftershocks of your orgasm afterwards. Tragic, really.”

“That is… What… Why do you… Arg!” I sputter. “First of all, I am not a virgin.”

“Are you referring to what lord Nirari did to you?”

“Yes?”

“Really? Did you have anything of what I listed just now?”

“Hum, no?”

How did this conversation start anyway? I have never felt so out of control in two decades.

“You don’t take a lover because you want your first time to be special, yes? Your first time making love?”

“Ahem, is this the right time to…”

“It is. Answer me.”

“I, yes. But…”

“See? Virgin.”

We remain silent for a few moments after that, but Nami is not done.

“Do you want to talk about what makes you sad my lovely little virgin?”

“I will hit you.”

“Ah, better. Now you are finally yourself.”

“I am always myself. I appreciate your attempts to distract me Nami, there is just a lot for me to think about, and that is not related to my sex life thank you very much.”

“Then do it some other time. Come on, we are the first to face those creatures on earth! And one of them is as big as an elephant if you are not exaggerating. Don’t you feel some measure of excitement? This is the hunt of a century! Vampires everywhere will envy us this prize. Let go of what you cannot control and embrace what you are, for this is our way.”

“I… Yes. Yes, of course you are right. I shall enjoy the moment for who knows what tomorrow is made of? Thank you Nami, ruling the city taught me to see the greater picture, and now I need to learn when to focus on the details. Tonight, we hunt.”

“That’s the spirit. I call dibs on the big one.”

“Not a chance.”

We continue our friendly banter for a moment and I find that I bet twenty dollars with her that I would fell their alpha. In a few minutes though, the drone of fliers interrupts us.

“Merritt, drop the beacon and help us reload. All of you hold fire,” I yell as I take one of the five muskets King dropped by my side. Soon enough, the first scout enters the halo of torchlight surrounding our camp.

Aim, shoot, switch musket. The first creature falls into the trees with its sternum turned into a smoking mess.

Aim, shoot, switch musket. Merritt is by my side reloading with mechanical precision. Fearless, this one.

Aim, shoot, switch musket. Nami takes a shot as well and gets one in the wings. Should have spent more time at the firing range, though I suppose I should be grateful she learnt at all.

Aim, shoot, switch musket. By then, several fliers are zipping around us and the baying of hounds grows closer. Nami switches to her pistol and takes down one creature that had drifted a bit too close.

Aim, shoot, switch to the Talleyrand rifle. The first hound steps into the light and howls with a nightmarish sound.

“Hold!” I scream, though the gasps of fear and surprise suggest they would have hesitated.

Aim, shoot, switch to a pistol. Two other hounds join the first one.

“Fire at will!”

The crack of muskets and clouds of spent powder fill the air. Two of the hounds fall immediately, pierced by numerous bullets. The odd squad is well trained and at this distance, they won’t miss. The third one yelps but still charges forward. Four other hounds enter the fray as we switch weapons and shoot as fast as possible. I empty my remaining pistol into a flier and send knife after knife into glittering wings. All the remaining scouts descend upon us just as the first outrider jumps over the barricade. Nami is already there. She stabs up and into its brain with her spear, before throwing the twitching corpse on the ground. Her war cry rouses the rest of us and we throw ourselves at the creatures with fury. The thrill of battle takes me and I rush into the melee. Screams of pain from humans and beasts merge into a glorious din. FIGHT WITH THE SENTINELS. LEAD THEM TO CARNAGE.

I dance from group to group, slicing necks and appendages with my dagger to help and save wherever I can, while Nami focuses on taking out the hounds in innovative and exotic ways. Despite my efforts, one of my men is already bleeding out from a missing throat and one of the Creek is holding his scratched face and bleeding eye. FASTER. The Thirst returns as I force myself to move in long sequences. The last scout falls to the ground and I turn to see a hound savage a bearded man on the ground as the hermit stabs it repeatedly. I grab the creature’s maw and force it open. It yelps first in surprise, then in pain as I break its jaw. SAVAGE? YOU DO NOT KNOW SAVAGERY. I WILL SHOW YOU. I claw its eyes off and stab into its brain. DIE. Then I dodge a flying piece of wood.

The brood leader is here. It crashed against the barricade, sending debris and a few men sprawling including poor Merritt. Do those things know no fear?

A slick barbed tongue shoots out and encircles King who screams in pain. I move and slice the filthy appendage. THIS MORTAL IS MINE TO DEVOUR IF I WISH. I will not share with you, stupid INVADER. KILL IT. I move to the side and hack and slash into the dense epidermis. The creature roars in pain and flays around with its many tentacles. I step aside.

Then it pushes itself away from the barricade, great bloody gashes spurt blood from its chest as it turns around and flees.

Oh no you don’t!

“Metis!” I roar in delight. The charger gallops from the treeline and I jump on her when she goes by. The behemoth crushes its way through trees with surprising deftness. USELESS. We ride after it. Nami is rushing as well, I will NOT LOSE. TROPHY.

We gallop after it, following the path of devastation it left behind. Stumps and splintered trunks litter the ground, and great tracks were raked through the undergrowth. A blind man could follow this. In no time I catch the creature. Metis weaves through pines and rocks in the wooded valley, over ridges and down narrow paths full of pebbles and vegetation with a supernaturally sure foot. At the same time, I harry the creature’s flanks but the spear now works against me. Its reach is long but it has two prongs used to keep boars away, or in this case house-sized tentacular abominations. It also prevents me from stabbing deep enough to inflict critical damage now. I dare not move on top of it in case I fail to cause a mortal wound and get hurt as a result.

Nami does not share my concerns. As we reach a clearing, she jumps on the hound’s back and runs to its head before stabbing down where the brain is supposed to be. Her own pike digs at least halfway through the creature.

Nami’s triumphant expression turns dismayed when the behemoth screeches to a halt and smashes the shaft with a slimy appendage. I smile and take my own secret weapon from the bag on my back.

Why bother precision when you can blow everything up? Those are the words I live by. I light the powder charge’s fuse and jump off Metis’ back, right in front of the brood leader’s maw.

“Hey, ya ugly bastard!” I scream, channeling my inner Loth.

It extends its tentacles and for one precious instant, its gaping maw is uncovered. My timing is impeccable and the sparkling herald of military engineering disappears in the creature’s gullet.

You’re dead now, PREY.

I dance away from the reaching appendages and turn my back to it, crossing glance with a stunned Nami.

The charge explodes.

With one last whine, the creature falls. I WIN. With class and pyrotechnics, as it should be.

I smile smugly and address the loser of tonight’s competition.

“Hah, right down the ha…”

The creature spasms and projectile-vomits a disgusting soup of saliva, blood, bile and half-digested body parts that covers me completely.

For one precious second, the valley is perfectly silent, then it begins. It starts with a long drawn out yelp of incredulity then chuckles that quickly turn into a full belly laugh. Naminata runs out of breath and needs long, winded respirations to keep cackling her ass off while I sigh in defeat and remove gnawed fingers from my hair.

Metis snorts, bends down to pick up a severed tentacle and trots off into the night.

Traitor.

“Tis… truly your… glorious victory… fearless leader!”, she manages to say between hiccups of hilarity, “Best twenty dollars I have ever spent.”

I find myself smiling at the absurdity of it all. Here I am, ankles deep in eldritch gastric fluid wondering what it means to have no soul while my friend is mocking me, and my horse just fled with a snack. I raise my gaze to the Watcher and feel the same tacit approval and comforting presence as before. I have been through a lot of unfair things, and I will certainly face even more desperate battles in the future, and that is fine. It should not prevent me from smiling now.

Nami interrupts my musings.

“Have I mentioned that we ran out of water at the safe house?”

Nevermind. Someone please just stab me in the heart.

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Mecanimus

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