The veil of thorns parts. I move past the fog with all the speed I can muster, not believing my own instincts. For a moment, I see nothing, hear nothing, yet I do not slow. Eventually, the mist fades and I find myself in a clearing. Wheat and wildflowers cover it in a vivid cushion upon which a gigantic tortoise is resting. She is taller than I am, even with her legs splayed on the side. A figure leans against the marked shell with a relaxed posture and an easy smile. He is young again, with lean muscles and the eternally mismatched clothes.
I stop in the middle, even more surprised. There is sun on my skin. Sun. Not the unforgiving fire that keeps me hidden and afraid, real, honest, July sun. I raise my head to see an endless sky of azure and lift a hand to cover the glare of the golden orb.
“A gift from me to you, as an apology for not keeping in touch.”
I am crying. Thirty years. Thirty long years and now this memory that I will keep and cherish, untainted by the transformation.
“I would let you get a tan if I could, Daughter of Thorn and Hunger. Unfortunately, we are on a schedule. My friend here cannot extend my stay for too long.”
“How are you here? You are…”
Immediately, guilt makes me bend my head.
“… was fished out of the river by my son two minutes after falling in, and given a proper funeral. Of course, I would not come alone, nor let an alligator snack on my most excellent features. How could I let that happen? Don’t you know? I can…”
“… see the future. Of course.”
I chuckle merrily. I was right not to attack Anatole and now I no longer have cause for regrets.
I will still kill him though.
“What did you mean by pretender?”
The tortoise snorts and Nashoba’s smile fades, his expression turning serious.
“We do not have time, I’m afraid. You can get that story elsewhere. I came because I have to tell you about your dreams. Of the future.”
“I only had one since arriving in Marquette.”
“It matters not how often you have them, only that the possibility exists. You had a seed of potential that would not have awakened while you were a Mortal, and a vampire’s ability to grow such skills is immensely stunted. But there is a loophole, so to speak. As a Devourer, you can take the essence of seers and prophets and use it to develop your own. You will need it.”
“Can I force dreams? I think I did before. I saw the day battle at Black Harbor.”
“That was a vision of the present, of events happening less than a mile away, and in which you were heavily involved. Other visions will be harder. As a general rule, you want to rely on mundane means as they are more reliable. The best use you can make of it is to keep an open mind and follow the current when it catches you. Do not fall into a trap of counting on them. It is not your nature to be a seer yourself, but let fate give you a helping hand and set you on the right course.”
“Why do I need it?”
Nashoba smiles sadly.
“The world is changing faster than ever, and it will change faster still. Conflicts that have spanned millennia will soon find a conclusion. Yes, I am referring to the race between those two, and yes, there are more. Unless you and a few others rise up to the task, the planet will die in less than two centuries.”
“Hold on, less than two centuries?! Really?”
Nashoba grows taller and his eyes shine like stars. His voice sounds like a choir of singers speaking in unison.
“Darkness, ash and thin air.”
As quickly as it came, the moment is gone.
“That is all I see, daughter of Thorn and Hunger. This is my burden. I pass it on to you now. It will not come now and it will not come quick, but make no mistake. The end is nigh, unless someone keeps it at bay.”
I step back and pick a tulip. Its petals are red and silky.
“You forget that I am weak. My sire killed a Lord without trying and his Mother could probably unmake me with a gesture. Can I really make a difference? Can the World be saved?”
“My time has come. Remember what I said. Build your strengths, prepare, and when the time comes, step up to the challenge.”
“Fair enough. One last thing?”
Nashoba places his hand on my shoulder. The touch is soft and intimate, it conveys more emotions than a book could.
“No, we cannot meet again. I do not know where you will go when your time comes, but it is not my destination. I am sorry.”
The tortoise puffs again. The world fades around me.
“Farewell, my friend. And good luck.”
The mist returns. I am once more in my garden. I decide to stroll along the garden, between hidden paths and statues. I try to forget what I know for sure happened. I refuse to consider it.
He lied when he said perhaps.
No, he was probably wrong.
I wake up to a ceiling of lacquered wood. Jimena’s cabin.
I expected spartan furniture aboard. Instead, each vampire-occupied room is lined with chocolate-coloured planks varnished and polished to a lustre, with assorted chairs, table, and cabinet. There are no windows and we are at the bottom, behind several layers of reinforced doors. Between those precautions and the guards, it would take an immense effort to eliminate the squad.
To kill us, one would need to catch up to us, board us, and fight through well-trained and well-armed guards. Then, they would need to escape as the men have instructions to scuttle us if it looks like the battle is lost. The intruders would have to dive and recover the sunk sarcophagus through the wreck and then blow them up before night comes. A daunting prospect.
Despite those many measures, the most secure defence of the ship is still its anonymity. The steamboat carries carefully vetted goods and people aboard. It appears, for all intents and purposes, like any other ship sailing this great river. Truly, we are in good hands. The luxury is just an added bonus.
I sit up and look around. Jimena’s fortified coffin is at the side of the bed, and the woman herself is reading, already fully dressed. I am only wearing a modest shift to sleep.
“Good evening, sister,” I say.
The poor woman frowns and her hands flex on her book, the claws scratching the cover. Her lips draw into a line.
“Enough,” I add with a smile, “I told you it is fine.”
“And I still disagree. I should have been here.”
I stand up and shake my head, giving up on the argument.
“Do we have any plans for today?”
“No. It will still take one day at our current speed to reach our destination. I suppose I can tell you now, we are going to New Orleans.”
I stop in my tracks.
“Fret not, I told you this was not related to you in any way.”
“You did. Since I have nothing to do, I was wondering if you were willing to answer a few questions…”
“Naturally. We can start here, then we should go outside at nightfall. If I enjoyed being cooped up like this, I would have become a nun.”
I make full use of this opportunity to learn more about my world, or what will be my world if I can finally stop being delayed.
There are about one hundred and twenty vampires on the continent, an extremely low number for such a large territory. Half of them renounced their allegiance while the others are autonomous branches of existing clans, bound to the rules created by the Speaker, Constantine.
The man himself is an intriguing character. Jimena describes him as a talented mage versed in several schools, a rarity among our kind. As a Progenitor of his own bloodline, he was a master upon first waking up and had immediate access to singular amounts of essence.
This, combined with his personal guard, allowed him to enforce rules that the European clans agreed to. Jimena reveals that it was much more profitable for them to set up the New World as a neutral ground where clans could peacefully make money, rather than cross the ocean and dedicate great resources to subduing a Progenitor, just for the privilege of being piled on back home by competitors exploiting their weakness.
As for his bloodline powers, no one knows for sure what they are, and he has yet to sire a spawn. All she knows is that he dislikes bureaucracy and politics, preferring research which might explain how Anatole managed to get the kill order out of him. For all his apparent leadership flaws, the Accords are still an exemplary framework. Under their light rules, clans have a margin of liberty for expansion and covert actions while large scale conflict is heavily restricted.
I am surprised that such an ass.. such a person could create good laws and fail to implement them until I remember that the gap between being good at theory and simply being good is an abyss.
Jimena then goes on to explain that the Cadiz, Ekon, Lancaster, and Roland clans have territories while the others have yet to come. There are less than ten Lords and Ladies, which again, is very small. When prompted, she informs me that the difference between them and the rank of Master is the ability called Magna Arqa. It apparently channels our essence in a pure expression of power that breaks the rules of reality. Each power is expressed differently and reflects the personality and skills of its wielder.
On top of that, Lords usually have access to soul weapons, which I learn are the vampire’s crystallized essence, given form by a crafter. There are only a dozen such crafters in the world and they are untouchable. No vampire will raise a hand against them, and they can travel everywhere even in time of war without fear. I inform Jimena that I saw Suarez use his power.
“I know,” she answers with a smile, “he told me all about it. His power makes a few of his strikes unstoppable. Incidentally, there is a Roland lord whose power makes him invincible for a short period. There are standing bets as to what will happen if they clash in battle.”
“I bet the world will break.”
“Silly woman,” she scoffs, “how would you collect on that bet, then?”
I learn more about Masters next. Now that I can manipulate my essence, there is something I can do that I never considered.
“You can sire a spawn, though I would strongly advise against it. Not only would it be poorly received, but it would weaken you for a very long time. The older you get and the more concentrated your essence is. The more powerful the essence, the less time you need to recover from siring someone.”
“How is it even done?”
“Once you have made your choice, you can let your instincts guide you or so I have been told. You concentrate your essence in a few droplets of blood which your spawn must drink three nights in a row. The process is highly unpleasant, though it has a few advantages such as keeping the recipient alive through diseases and wounds that will kill most mortals.”
I shiver. Agony, cold, thirst. I push the memories away.
“I am sorry.”
“It is nothing,” I force myself to say. Becoming a Master did not erase all scars. Even my cold mind still reels from remembering those nights.
“Ahem, yes, in any case, once the process is started, it will end with a drone or a corpse. Or rarely, as a fledgling I suppose. Ah, it is night, let us take a stroll along the gangway, sister!”
We link arms like the best of friends and enjoy the summer evening. I used to do that with Constanza when I was still human. She is a grandmother now. I could even take a look at her, if we pass by… No. I will not. Not while Anatole is around.
We have a pleasant time, standing at the fore and looking out to the shore, its sleepy villages and budding farms, whispering in low voices about newly created spawns and the few newcomers who landed recently, until a distraction offers itself. Two gentlemen walk up behind us, confer in low voice about who should court whom before politely accosting us. Jimena and I exchange knowing smiles.
“Good evening, ladies. It is such a pleasure to meet good company. Are you enjoying the view?” asks the first, a suave man with an auburn mustache and a top hat, of all things.
“We needed fresh air; my friend was a bit out of sorts,” I answer with mischievousness.
“Yes, I felt light-headed and I would not want to go down on my friend.”
I cough into my elbow to mask my surprise. I have spent enough time in a brothel to get acquainted with that specific expression. Note to self, never try to tease Jimena. She plays dirty.
“If I may, perhaps you should sit down as well,” adds the second, broad-chested and sporting impressive sideburns in an old-fashioned suit.
“I apologize if I am stepping out of bounds,” he continues, “I am a medical practitioner. It comes with the job.”
“Oh, not to worry,” I add, “she’s healthy as can be.”
“My family doctor says I could live forever,” Jimena deadpans.
“You two seem very close. Oh, but where are my manners? I am Francis Levine and my doctor friend here is Frederick Schuyler. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is ours. I am Ariane, and my friend is Jimena.”
“No last name?” asks Francis with a smile that shows he does not feel rebuked.
“For now,” I answer.
“You two are quite close,” Frederick observes.
“We are…” I reply.
“Like sisters!” Jimena adds.
We spend a few minutes in banter, the two friends asking us questions and us dodging them with an air of mystery, until Francis exaggeratedly shivers.
“It’s a bit chilly, are you not cold?” Francis asks with a convincing expression of concern.
“Now that you mention it, the front of the boat is a tad windy. Come Ariane, we would not want to catch consumption.”
“My blood runs cold at the very thought.”
We have been competing with puns since the start of the conversation. I will admit that Jimena is winning. Quoth that witty Frenchman Victor Hugo, puns are farts of the mind, and shame wars with amusement within my heart.
“Say, how about we continue this conversation in our cabin? We have a bottle of…”
“Francis!” exclaims Frederick, shocked, “this is entirely inappropriate.”
“We do not mind, we are convinced that you will not do anything untoward,” answers Jimena. I nod in assent. Frederick looks a bit flustered and possibly a bit scandalized, though he is too polite to object. Together, we make our way down.
Half an hour and a pleasant meal later, we leave the two resting comfortably with an empty bottle on the table and extremely fuzzy memories. Aisha is waiting outside for us. In civilian clothes, she wears a surprisingly colourful dress with middle-eastern influence and a heavy shawl with which she masks her lower face. It sometimes shifts enough to show unmarred skin. Whatever causes her to hide herself, it is not disfigurement. She bows elegantly and addresses Jimena.
“Knight, Anatole requests your presence in the command room. There have been developments. Do not be alarmed, I will keep your ward company.”
An elegant way to tell her to get moving and that she will be my watchdog. I appreciate the politeness, if nothing else. Jimena frowns but she cannot disobey a direct summons. At least, not without reasons.
“You will be with Anatole,” I remind her. Realizing that she will be keeping an eye on the cause of my woes, she relents and leaves with one last warning look towards her colleague.
I almost jump and claw off the petite woman’s face when she grabs my hand. Her eyes are wide and convey a sense of urgency.
“Quick, I don’t have much time. I know you have no cause to trust me, yet I beg you. Please follow me!”
And then she drags me through an alley and down a set of stairs below deck. We pass by a patrol of guards who ignore us after a quick glance and to a smoking room, mercifully empty at this late hour. She practically slams the door closed and locks it.
The stench of cold cigar is omnipresent, though the leather couches and warm tones are pleasant. She turns to me and bow deeply, to my surprise.
“Forgive me. Our window is short.”
Her tone is clipped and her voice, lower than I remember and a bit coarse.
“I must present you with two gifts.”
“There is no time. I am Aisha of the Amaretta. I will help you. Set you on the path. Now onto the first gift.”
She takes out a sharp silver knife. AMBUSH. KILL. I hiss and step back, still uncertain. Aisha does not even spare me a glance. She digs the tip of her blade into her arm and slices along the artery. Before I can properly react, she bows low again and presents me with the bleeding wound.
What is she… SUPPLICANT. Can vampires even be… OF COURSE SHE IS A SUPPLICANT. BLOOD OFFERED FOR AN AUDIENCE. DRINK THE OFFERING. LET IT NOT BE SPOILED.
I bend forward and lick the wound, all caution thrown to the wind. Power overwhelms me and drags me under.
We meditate, all together under Amaretta herself. She will never stop but we come and go as we are needed, as we are sent away on missions or to recover. She needs us to help her focus and she needs us to alter the world, to carefully influence it for a better outcome. Once, it used to be for our own development and power, others be damned. Now, it is for survival.
The world as it is, a complex network of information expanding horizontally.
The world as it could be and will be, a great pattern of data expanding outward and upward, to infinity. Instants turning to seconds turning to minutes. Flows so dense and complex, we only perceive it in hues and ever-changing shadows. For us, following it is as impossible as predicting a pattern in the flames of a roaring bonfire. For her, it is the wave on which she sails and we are her helpers.
It is beautiful. We could lose ourselves forever in the myriad of futures that exist and flourish and die as potential becomes certainty, and certainty becomes fact. She chides some of us who fumble, let others go and be lost forever. Is it punishment, or reward? The more time passes and the more I have doubts.
The tapestry is shrinking. The infinity of time and space is closing on us. It is not a sign that the world shall perish, but that we will. Something, or somebody, is clipping our wings. Week after week, month after month, our future narrows and dies.
For hours now, I have been following our Mother on a specific task. She sorts through strands as I do my best to assist her focus. Suddenly, a pair of vivid green eyes turn to me and my concentration shatters.
“Go West, past the ocean. Seek the spawn of the Devourer. Set her on our path.”
I gasp and open my eyes. I sit in a circular amphitheatre in the heart of our sanctum. On the rafters, other Masters sit behind the vestals who sired them and in the middle of it all is an open casket. A prone form lies with, surrounded by fresh lilies. Her skeletal face is at peace, or so I thought. As I watch, a tiny droplet of blood the color of midnight pearls at the edge of her aquiline nose. I leave the room with a hurried step.
I pull back.
“Wow. That was… abstract.”
I have no better words for what I felt. The sense she used is not something I possess. The memory of using it as naturally as if I had been born with it is disconcerting. I do not have the time to consider it further. The small Knight collapses in my arms.
Aisha gasps through her shawl and grabs my shoulder with her hand. It takes her a few moments to recover. When she does, she stands back up at a respectful distance, as if nothing had happened.
“I shall teach you how to control and develop the foresight you have. I shall speak for you during the eventual trial that will set you free. In return, I ask you for one favor.”
“I need you to prevent my death, which will happen two nights from now.”
That is surprising.
“I cannot promise to save you. I can promise that I will do my utmost to do so.”
I will not make false promises like I did to that redhead under the governor’s palace.
“That is enough,” she says. She silently walks to a couch and collapses in it with catlike grace. Outside, a trio of drunkards tries to open the door before giving up. We wait in silence until their laughs fade in the background.
“I suppose I should tell you more. We have been summoned because all contacts were lost with clan Lancaster.”
“Please, stop smiling so openly,” she scowls, “the possible loss of our kind is not to be taken so lightly.”
“I respectfully disagree.”
It looks like she wants to argue then thinks better of it. I don’t care about the Lancaster being vampires. They could be talking unicorns from Atlantis that I would still dump the whole lot of them into the nearest volcano, given the chance. I would sell Melusine to the order of Gabriel for three pennies and a rusty fork, and I don’t even eat. Hell, if I were in a room with Moor, Nirari, Semiramis and two pistols, I would shoot Moor twice.
Aisha continues her briefing with a noticeably darker mood.
“They were in conflict with a major spellcaster group called the White Cabal. We have so far ignored the Cabal, as they are defensive in nature. They mostly track down rogue spellcasters and they are surprisingly effective against the Order of Gabriel. It appears that the Lancaster drew their ire, due to their… aggressive recruiting practice.”
“Let me guess. They abducted one of their members and turned them?”
“As far as we can tell, not just any member. A well-appreciated enforcer and defender. The Lancaster expected the Cabal to lay low, instead, they rallied and brought the fight to New-Orleans. That was a week ago. Since then, we do not know what happened. It is not unusual for a House to go dark during an all-out fight, but never for that long. Constantine asked us to move in just in case. His caution proved warranted.”
Ooooh, go dark! This is all so very mysterious and exciting, and the Lancasters could even be dead!
“Could this Cabal truly have taken out the entire den?”
“Unlikely, but possible. Some Houses grow complacent and many of Lady Moor’s resources are nothing but rejects.”
“Present company excluded, of course,” she adds hurriedly.
Well, she’s not wrong. It just stings when someone else says it.
“Pray tell, do you know how you will die?”
“I do not. Only that it will be violent. You appear in the strands where I survive, so your contribution is required.”
“Fair enough. So, no matter what there will be a fight?”
“It is inevitable, though the details are blurred.”
“Could you not just refuse to join?”
She glares coldly.
“Of course not,” I reply with a smile. Well, this should be interesting. Let’s start with the most obvious.
“Say, Aisha, is there any way for you to conveniently have my weapons around when things go to hell?”
“I’ll see what I can do. In the meanwhile, take this.”
I stare at her offering.
“That… is a deck of cards.”
“Texas hold’em? Three-card brag? Omaha?”
Aisha tsks and lightly slaps my hand.
“This is not a standard deck.”
“I can play Tarot, no worries.”
“Will you stop this!” she hisses. “This is a vision deck. It contains twelve pairs of opposite concepts. For some reason, it is easier to guess what you will draw. We use this to train our fledgelings. Now, what concept is this?” she says, drawing a card at random.
“It’s not even on the list!”
“How would I even know what’s on the list!” I hiss back. I realize that we are very close, fangs out. I am supposed to let her teach me. This is a part of our agreement that helps both of us. I made a commitment.
I pull back.
“Tell me what I am supposed to do.”
She sniffs disdainfully. I have not left the best of impressions. Neither did she.
“Do you know how to meditate?”
“Try to do that and leave yourself open. I will present you with a card. Focus on the card and just the card, nothing else. When this works, you will be able to glimpse details of it. Just tell me those and we will see if this worked.”
Right. Nashoba said that distance, time and level of involvement all affect how easily I can see. The bloody thing is right in front of me, it’s the present and I can hardly be more involved. This will be child’s play.
“You latched a tendril of essence to the card.”
“Should I stop?”
“No. Latching won’t help you read the card but it might help you focus. Go on.”
The world, in all its horizontal glory. The infinity of potential upward and beyond.
A crux. Two choices. One branches from immediate satisfaction, the other, from maturity. The second choice leads to a better path. I will need to act out of character. It will require-
I collapse forward. Aisha prevents me from hitting the floor by steadying me. I grab my head to ward off the beginning of a terrible migraine. Something sticky rolls to my lips.
“Forgiveness is not in the list, although I can tell you saw something. Come, let me guide you to your room. You need rest.”
I don’t know who I will have to forgive but if it’s Melusine, we’re all doomed.