Lambert’s blue eyes are the cold of the deepest ice as he steps towards me with barely contained fury. I take my spear out and twirl it casually. We will come to blows but I wouldn’t mind talking a bit before that. Time is on my side in this case. Without his leadership, his rabble will collapse while my side has every advantage including numbers now.
As he stops at a respectable distance, I consider that I have not interacted that much with Lambert. I know why now. He was the enforcer while I was the errand girl. In a way, it is a mercy that we did not meet so often. His perverted drive to taint and destroy everything a person is and owns before killing them is the mark of a sick mind, a deviant, whose sole entertainment is ruin.
I use the silence to study him as he studies me.
This is what he embodies. His posture is relaxed and confident. His handsome face is twisted by scorn and disdain. My enslavement and death are not even a game to him. They are a chore. Something he will inflict in passing before returning to more civilized lands.
He only wears one weapon, a luxurious fencing sword in a scabbard by his left flank. His hands are gloved with white and his spotless beige ensemble fits comfortably on athletic shoulders. By comparison, I am dirtier than a farm hand after a slaughter. I do not mind. Those are the marks of who we are.
I suppose Lambert expected me to threaten, beg, or negotiate. My uncaring silence has worn his patience thin and he is the first to talk.
“We meet again, peasant girl. I have been… sent… to retrieve you so that you may be judged for your many crimes. You can come peacefully, and I will be mostly gentle. Or you can resist, and I will remove your legs and arms and drag you back to New Orleans in a child coffin.”
I pretend to consider it for a moment.
“Such a generous offer… Are you convinced you are in a position to make it?”
“Lady Moor gave me leave to drag you back the way I see fit.”
“You are a bit slow Lambert. I am questioning your competence. Do you really think you can capture me? You and what army?”
“I don’t need mortals, you imbecile!” he hisses, “especially not frontier dogs.”
“Why bring them then?” I snap back, “don’t reply, I know why. You wanted to punish me for dragging you to this mudhole, am I right?”
Lambert tightens his fists, then relaxes, still in control.
“You think yourself victorious, as expected from someone who lacks vision. None of your pathetic accomplishments matter. After we are done with you, you will beg me to come help you burn this place down.”
“You are delusional.”
“You really do not understand the situation you are in,” he scoffs, “ the kill order on your person is still valid and even if you were to miraculously escape this place, the knight squad on your tail will not falter. I made sure they knew everything. You have run out of options.”
“Of course they are coming, I called them here.”
I did not, I called Jimena, but as long as she’s here I will be fine.
“You what?! You are insane! If you think Anatole will show you mercy…”
“Of course not,” I say dismissively, “but I do count on him respecting the Accords. You see, there is a way around a kill order.”
I have his attention now. Every minute spent talking brings his forces closer to destruction. He may fall back just to avoid being surrounded by hostiles. I do wish to kill him, but I also wish to take little risks. I am so close to safety, to recognition…
“In his great wisdom, Constantine included an amendment to the law. City Masters are expected to be the target of many a machination, and to guarantee that the Speaker is not dragged into local conflicts, a Knight Squad cannot be sent to slay one. They must be brought before the Speaker for judgement.”
“You cannot be serious…”
“I received recognition from House Rosenthal, the local branch of the clan. A copy was sent to Boston. It is done, Lambert, I am entering society properly this time, and you cannot stop it. Burning the city to the ground will not help, threatening me will not help. Even that devious and dishonorable blond cur will not raise a hand to me unless he wants to publicly break his oath to the Knights. You come as the game is already over, Lambert. I will go to Boston and claim my due. I have made it. After thirty years as a slave, pariah and fugitive, I have finally made it.”
“No, you have not,” he snarls, “I will take you back this very night and you will be our slave forever. No one mocks us and lives free.”
“Your army has failed, your machinations have failed, all at the hand of a ‘peasant girl’. And now you threaten me with violence? I am unimpressed.”
“We shall see, peasant girl, we shall see. The night is still young and there is much I will show you.”
Lambert draws and charges. I push him back with a quick jab and we start circling each other. I probe his defenses and find them formidable. Even my fastest attacks are lazily deflected by the tip of his blade. When he attacks, he tries to bat the spear away but quick footwork and bringing the spear back allows me to keep my distance.
Thank you, Nami, I cannot imagine how hard it would be to face him without your training. Lambert is clearly a master fencer and only my experience facing superior foes lets me fight him without already collecting wounds. His speed is only the same as mine, but his strength and technique are far above. PATIENT HUNTER. I will take my time. He looks down upon me. His overconfidence will give me an opening.
We move around the street. He moves in a line while I move in a circle, mostly to counter him. We go faster now that we are used to each other’s style. Then he stops and crouches. DODGE to the side.
In an instant, he disappears, and a fiery line ravages my left cheek.
“Better. Now you will hold your tongue.”
Silvery runes glow on his blade. An enchanted weapon, of course. The unfamiliar feeling of cold air on my teeth almost eclipses the pain.
Lambert blinks and inspects his left flank, where I left a little surprise. One throwing knife used, two to go. The Lancaster grunts and removes my weapon from his flank. Black blood seeps on his beige overcoat.
Merritt’s runes glow red. That has to sting a bit.
“You will pay for your insolence.”
I return a lopsided smile and we resume our fight. Lambert changes his style. He uses his strength more and tries to corner me recklessly. His blade bites into my left armguard but the blow is mostly stopped. The pain is still manageable. I retaliate by using more sweeps and exploiting his opening. Eventually, he tries to walk on my spear as I extend it. I dive low and catch him in the tibia with a horizontal swing that smashes him into a boarded window. He stands up with a snarl before I can capitalize on my victory, however, but a new black stain mars his trousers. He redoubles his efforts. I am on the backfoot and retreat as his attacks become ever more aggressive. He maneuvers me into an alley. I jump back then up, bouncing from wall to wall until I am on the roof to avoid being trapped in close quarters. I AM PATIENT. I cannot match him in strength. I just need to hold on and then, PUNISH.
“Ever tire of running?” he asks with an arrogant voice.
I keep my distance. I am a PATIENT HUNTER. I do not let my rage overcome me.
“You think that being part of vampire society will change your life. It will not. You are not ostracized because you are unlucky. You are ostracized because you are a monster made on a whim by an ancient horror. All of your master’s spawns are sick puppies and you are no exception. The only thing that saved you from immediate execution, is that you were not picked for intimidation but for entertainment.”
I maneuver around a chimney. Lambert just jumps on it and lunges at me. The shock of our weapons sends me to slide over the roof. I twist to the side to avoid a downward swing. We crash through the roof into a cluttered shop filled with cooking and gardening tools. I weave my way around stoves and piles of pans, avoiding large strikes that shatter furniture and send metal flying. I almost lose my balance on an errant pot. Lambert’s eyes narrow.
He lunges. I kick the guilty pot and it shatters on his chest, enough to deflect. The sword still bites into my upper right arm.
Lambert crashes into me, I manage to put my foot on his sternum and push with all my strength. He takes off and his back smacks against a support beam. I throw my second knife. Somehow, Lambert twists midair and it only draws a bloody line across his temple.
Lambert lands lightly and gingerly touches his now bisected ear. He does not show anger, and this worries me more than the blood slowly dripping from my dress. I move my tongue around my mouth and find out that the first wound is mostly closed and that I can speak.
I have nothing to say. He is just spouting nonsense. He tries to destabilize me. I’m a PATient… I am patient. And strong. He is just bluffing.
“That Russian mujik is only alive because he is the Vitiazi’s attack dog, kept on a tight leash by oaths and agreements. There is nothing for you in this world you wish to join. You will forever be pariah, barely tolerated or hunted outright. Anatole is not an outlier. He is the norm.”
I parry the next lunge and counterattack. Lambert grabs the shaft and uses it to throw me through the front door. I climb to my feet to face him.
The enforcer steps out of the ruin of the shop’s entrance. He casually inspects the small wound I inflicted on his hand as he threw me. He is supremely unconcerned, and his eyes are so cold.
“I will remember each of your words and slights against me. I will have you repent for your insolence. One hour of agony for every second of annoyance you dared inflict on your betters. One limb for every wound. I will skin you, I will break your every bone, I will cut your tongue and cauterize the wound every night. I will have burly sailors line up to ravage you for five pennies a shot. You may even like it.”
That twit… I…
Lambert lunges once more, sliding under my guard. I twist into his attack and hit him with my shoulder.
I might as well have hit a train.
His hand reaches for my throat. I drop the spear and try to claw him. He drops his sword and captures my wrists, pushes me away without releasing his hold and drags me back.
Light in my vision. Pain.
I spit blood. No time. I dive before he can kick me in the face again and bite his unarmored sleeve. I barely pierce the skin before he releases me. I block a punch with an armguard, but still fly into the air.
I land heavily against a wall. Nose bleeding. Mouth bleeding. Dizzy. I shake my head and push myself back. Use the wall to get back up. Need to be quicker.
Lambert does not use the opportunity granted to him. He is still looking down on me, not that I can really blame him.
“Yes, little peasant girl, get back up. The trip here was long and tedious and I do need to unwind. Tell me, when you left us, did you go back home? Did you sate your Thirst on your family or did they just throw you out like the beast you are?”
“I wonder if your father knew his precious daughter had died bleeding in some damp cellar, only to be replaced by you? Did he think of you in his last moments? Did he know the soulless monster desecrating her body was still walking around, whoring herself out to sweaty miners?”
“Did you try to lie to him? Did you seek comfort? How long did it take for him to throw you out, you filthy scamp? How long did it take for him to discover the truth about what you had become?”
Not long at all, in fact.
We never discussed soul, but he could tell I had been changed. That I was different. I told him I died. I did. I told him I did not know if I was the same girl.
I remember now. How silly. I tortured myself, wondering if I had betrayed his trust but I did not. I told him everything. This question was never for me to answer, it was for him. And he did. I was feeling guilty while Papa had answered decades before I even asked myself if I were still me.
Suddenly and with perfect clarity, I remember his words. They ring in my ears as clearly as the night he said them, after I walked home, free, for the first time in my second life.
“I remember that you told me you are not my Ariane, but you were wrong. You still carry the same spirit, the same aspirations and God forgive me, the same love for unladylike things that go boom.”
“You think that being human is what made you my daughter. It is not. Being you is what made you my daughter. You have always changed and grown, this particular change is just the latest and the most dire. Do not despair and do not let go of your past and our time together, yes?”
I am me. I am always me. Not just a monster, not just a person, not just my father’s child and not just a vampire. I am all of it, and more. I. Am. Me.
Ariane of the Nirari, previously Ariane Beatrice Lucille Reynaud, daughter of Hercule Reynaud and Diana Anjou, scion of the first. Friend to Jimena, Nashoba, Isaac, Loth, Merritt and others. Protector of Marquette.
And royally pissed.
I parry Lambert’s lunge before the blade digs into my heart. It slides along the armor, digging a furrow in my flesh. I grab the hilt and drag the sword forward until it digs deep into the wood. GOUGE THE TALON. I twist and slice, catching Lambert’s arm and cleaving him to the bone. He hisses in pain.
I am not done.
I rush him. I have a knife and he has nothing, the sword stuck in the thick log behind me. He blocks and dodges but not enough. His suit is half black with blood. SUBJUGATE AND DEVOUR.
Lambert winces and grabs something from his chest. My next strike is deflected by… a shield!?
I dive under a claw and block a foot, I am propelled back and when I look up, Lambert is snapping something around his left hand.
I should have expected that, to be fair.
Lambert is a bloody mage.
“I will admit that your stupid savagery gives you some measure of resilience. I suppose I will have to make some effort to take you down, after all.”
Not good. I dive to the side and pick up my spear. I rush forward. I had no idea he could cast! I don’t even know how good he is.
This will be a close one. I need to finish this quickly.
I move faster than ever.
Massive red manacles emerge from the gauntlet. They hiss and slither to me like snakes. My claws glow blue. I will only be able to deflect such a strong spell once before running out of energy. It matters not. I only need one try.
I slap the spell away.
Lambert’s face widens in surprise. Close. Lunge!
The spear tip glows with Sivaya’s gift. The Court of Blue’s expertise clashes with Lancaster spellcraft.
The spear tip digs through my foe’s chest like a hot knife through butter. I lift his body and slam it into the ground, pin him like an insect.
Hold on, something is…
“Bind,” a voice coughs.
I DODGE, but the angry links track me, find me. They snake around my arms and pull me to the ground. So heavy. Hurts. Everything hurts.
Lambert grabs the shaft and pulls the blade from his bleeding lung. He spits blood and slowly gets back up. Impossible! This is impossible! No vampire can stand after losing their heart. The very idea is ridiculous! Our heart is… our heart! How! I cannot be!
“Never thought…” he coughs bloody foam on his lips, “you’d push me so far… Few know of this.” He adds with a smirk as he grabs the spear’s shaft.
The lightly enchanted pole breaks in his fingers.
I… don’t understand.
Lambert painfully stands back up with an evil grin on his face. The chain constricts me, extending from his glove to my chest. The links grate painfully against my bones and the wound on my left flank. Without the Ekon’s power, I would be screaming.
“None of your efforts matter. You are out of tricks now, and in the end you fall, alone.”
“I am never alone.”
Lambert screams as he dodges a silver quarrel. His focus breaks and the chains break and fade.
“Your servants will not save you.”
“I will admit the timing was impeccable, but this isn’t what I was referring to.”
He is right, I am out of tricks. I only have my ace left.
I take the silver cylinder on my chest, pop its cap open and down the contents. Cheers!
I despise this world. I despise it and those in it. It is drab and dull. They are uninspired simpletons. I only wish to go back, and so I dedicate my intellect to solving the one issue that bars our way: how to open a path back when the barrier on this side is so dense.
I will succeed, I must.
My eyes rest on the mountain of notes on my borrowed workshop. I need a break. My fiancé is up there, playing host and gallivanting. I do not know how he does it, but I approve so much. The Court of Blue is as rife with intrigue as the Court of Summer. I am glad I will rely on one so keen and witty, so that I may dedicate myself to my research. It helps that he is such a competent lover.
On a separate table, lies a side project. Sinead gave her his blood as a sign of trust and as a favor. The receptacle’s workings need to be maintained so that the blood is correctly protected.
She is… different. As drab as the others, to be sure, but at least there is a spark there, a drive. Perhaps I have been too arrogant in my dealings with her. It is not because she is beneath my station that I may not show esteem and gratitude. Virtue stems not from the others but from ourselves.
I step closer. I will return this artefact, with a gift. Let it not be said that Sivaya of the Court of Blue is ungrateful. Let it not be said that she does not support her spouse’s projects, no matter how… boorish they may be.
I carefully unscrew the top and prick my finger. A single drop charged with my immortal essence slides into it, mixing with the gift of Summer. The blood of a royal couple, given freely and with our blessing. May she one day realize its value and may her heart fill with joy.
Always before, a struggle, always before, not enough, always before, Thirsty! Too much too much, it is too much. The vitality and power carry me like a torrent, a tidal wave! They are everywhere and they do not stop and there is always MORE. I am exploding but inside, and exploding again and again and again. The power bursts into my bones, my ligaments, my organs, everywhere! They force themselves into me and then they become me and more comes and becomes me as well. It doesn’t stop. There is more me, more of my essence, mine. MORE. There is as much power as in my master’s blood but it doesn’t let me stop, it doesn’t let me breathe. I should be the size of a barn, and yet it manages to push itself into my tiny frame and there is still more!
From my heart, I feel something pulsate once and find an echo somewhere above. It pulses again and again as each wave of power burrows itself into my essence and becomes mine. My wounds are long closed. My exhaustion was washed away in the first instant. Lambert is standing here, moving like a slug with horror on his face and I could snap his neck, but I cannot because I cannot move! I can only endure as the wave washes through me and in me, only to be replaced by another. The pulses come faster now, and I can feel it. My essence echoes from my heart to the rest of my body. My essence. I can feel my essence, for the first time ever.
It is mine and mine only, the touch of the Watcher. My inhuman soul. My aura flairs and expands with unprecedented might.
I am… a Master!
The power stops because it has pushed into me as much as it could, carrying me over the edge. I feel raw and tender but now the power courses through my veins, eager to be used. It purrs like a great cat. So much energy. I can do… anything!
I extend a hand to Lambert’s face. A rune appears in the air, one I saw in the dream when Nirari killed Wolfgang and the army arrayed against him. A red branch emerges from it and crashes through a hastily erected shield. Lambert screams as his arm is mummified in an instant. His blood crawls back to me, a droplet in an ocean. I am doing magic! How can I not? I am a GODDESS.
Why is that cockroach still alive? Power expands in a bubble and I see his own essence centered around his heart, which is… on the wrong side of his chest! Is that how he escaped death? A circus trick? Laughable.
It won’t help him now. He runs, no, he limps away. I already hurt him so much. I lift a hand and the spear head jumps to it, unbidden. I do not need to run.
The spearhead blasts away and pierces through the enforcer’s chest, two walls and into a smithy with an ear-shattering clang. So easy. PREY is on the ground, unmoving. I reach once more and the body is dragged towards me, but slower. The power is going out. Why?
Lambert’s heartless form is before me. I kneel and grab him by the collar. Ignoring his panicked eyes, I push his head back to uncover a white neck.
I bite down.
I know the taste should be exquisite, but my senses are dulled. There is so much that happened. The power in me has mostly petered out. The rest is seeping into my heart as fast as it can welcome it, completing the transition. I feel so wrung out. Beyond tired.
A pair of solid arms pick me up as I collapse. I see the softest smile’s on John’s hideous face.
“I help you now.”
I am safe. I close my eyes and surrender to the darkness.