I cast a last glance at the army arrayed before us and return my attention to Melusine. I note in passing that she feels like a Master now, though weakened as she is, it is hard to tell for sure.
“They trapped you too?”
“Hard to believe, is it not? They managed to kill Harold. I heard his screams before part of the house decided to fall on me.”
“I just… how? How did it come to this?”
“You are so young, still. You believe the Order to be nothing more than a nuisance. They always managed to kill some of us every decade or so, back on the old continent. We cull them but they always come back. Always. What you see out there is the cream of the crop of this generation. They were probably after the Cabal and caught us as well, and now, you.”
“How can it be? How did they know we would be here?”
“They were probably not expecting you. They pulled out recently after their assault on the workshop failed, probably to regroup before delivering the last blow. They took their dead with them. I imagine that they are delighted that their snare would catch yet another prey. As for knowing of your coming, you probably marched through the road like we did. It takes but one scout to warn them of our advance and they have plenty of people willing to take that role. Arrogance was my mistake. Carelessness. And now…”
Melusine takes a deep, shivering breath. I remember that it helps with the feeling of suffocation. For a while.
“We thought that with three vampire clans present, they would not dare approach the city. They are fanatical, not stupid. They must have thought they could get away with it and with lady Moor gone, circumstances prove them right.”
She grabs her sternum and hiss softly, in pain. If we fight now, she will be mostly useless.
If I let her live, that is.
“Whatever happened to Lambert? He was supposed to go after you?”
I press her neck until my talons draw blood. Her breath accelerates and she closes her eyes to deal with the pain.
“I ask the questions.”
“Now we are in an interesting situation. I could kill you and the others who came with me would be none the wiser. Or, you can make it worth my while, and I could be convinced to make some efforts to ensure that you get through this ordeal in a form that doesn’t fit in a funerary vase.”
“I… I want vengeance. I don’t want to die just yet. What did you have in mind?”
I had been thinking about something that would help me in the long run, and I believe I have just the thing. Melusine listens to my three conditions, even smiling cruelly at the end.
“Yes, I believe that would be adequate. And well-deserved by all. Very well, I consent, and I have to admit, I expected you to demand something truly demeaning of me.”
“We do not all enjoy seeing our opponents crawl at our feet like the miserable worms they are.”
“Alright, I do also enjoy seeing my opponents crawl at my feet like the miserable worms they are, but since you still have access to resources, and because you are one of the most devious, spiteful, and vindictive painted trollops I ever had the displeasure of coming across, I figured I would at least try not to give you undue causes for revenge.”
“That’s more like it. And don’t you worry, you mongrel-born Nirari meathead. Among those I wish to flay alive, you do not even make the top five.”
With our truce firmly in place, I drag the filthy degenerate harlot up and we calmly make our way back to the Knights. The first condition is that she will let me have her blood once she has recovered, something I need to demand a lot more often if I ever hope to get powerful enough to stand against the mightiest Lords. The second is that she will help me in battle, once, in the moment of my choosing. The last is for the hearing to gain House status.
I have no doubt that I will be acquitted, so I require no help for my trial as a rogue, but the hearing will take place just a bit later and Jimena made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the Lancaster were a crafty lot. Even if they do not reclaim me, they could still demand compensation for my loss and this is not something I want to waste time on.
We cross the street at a sedate pace, not trying to hide. The workshop harboring the Cabal remnants is not in view anyway, while the order troops have blocked the only path out of the fire, content to let us roast. There is barely any wind so it should take some time for the flames to reach us but the air is already heavy with smoke and, more unsettling, the smell of roasting meat. While we move, I think. We need a plan to get out. The order blocks the only access and they will shoot and pray away whoever gets close. Even the Knights would have difficulties breaking through that perfect setup. In fact, I believe Aisha will die if we try it. We need a way to cancel that advantage.
Jimena jumps down as we pass by her tree. Her expression is sombre and does not improve when she sees who I help limp along.
“Color me surprised.”
“Did not expect me to make it, did you?” asks Melusine with a raspy voice.
“I expected you to survive the mages, but not my blood sister’s wrath.”
Melusine’s eyes widen. What Jimena just did was to freely acknowledge our bond. It is a mark of support despite the political cost of doing so, something that genuinely pleases me. Ah, Jimena. You are so stupid. In a cute way.
“We came to an agreement.” I reassure her.
“Is that so? In any case, I have finished scouting the workshop though obviously it matters little now.”
“Does it?” I wonder.
It could work.
“For now, we should return to the others. Time is short.”
“Yes, forget about dawn, we will be ash before two hours pass.”
Jimena and I drag the skank with us and find the squad where we left them. Anatole seems preoccupied, a sign of how serious the situation is.
“Ah, you are here at last. Who is this?” he asks, pointing at the weakened vampire between us.
“A survivor,” replies Jimena, “from the Lancaster force. There are no others.”
Melusine does not object. She is staring in the distance, sometimes taking deep breaths.
“I see. I will save my questions for later, for now, we have an emergency. I hereby change the parameters of this mission. We shall break through the order’s army and retreat back to New Orleans, where we will find shelter for the day.”
“So, how are you going to do that?” I ask, curious. Anatole frowns, then remembers that my security is his responsibility and keeping me in the dark does not help.
“We have well-established strategies for assaulting well-entrenched order troops.”
“Let me guess: don’t?”
If looks could kill, I would be lying on the floor right now. With a supreme effort, Anatole retains his self-control.
“Not all of us will turn tail at the first sign of danger,” he retorts, “when required, squads will attack using their speed and the terrain to force a reaction. Harrying them as they waste their bullets on our fleeting forms. So long as we are not cornered, victory can eventually be ours.”
Aisha will not make it. I may not either.
“So, a frontal assault is the plan? That sounds… stupid.”
“Unless you have a better idea, wench, we should go now while smoke offers us a measure of cover,” Anatole replies with a voice dripping with contempt.
“I do, in fact, have a better idea.”
Everyone stops moving. No one does immobility quite like vampires, I think. Anyone entering now would have to take a moment to realize we are not statues.
“And… what would that be?” asks Anatole with regret. Yes, imbecile, you should not have given me such an opening.
“A truce with the white Cabal.”
Melusine’s breath hitches in her chest and I look towards her, but she does not even lift her head. I remember the horrible void I felt following Dalton’s loss and I only managed to assuage it by consuming the depleted essence of half a village, something that only Devourers could manage. I will credit her for not whining. I suppose the strumpet has some spine after all, it is just a shame that it is not attached to a heart nor a brain.
Anatole looks almost relieved.
“And here I thought you would surprise me. Enough of this, let’s go.”
Anatole’s eyes widen in shock as he realizes Aisha was the one to speak. Even Alec shows surprise on his bald rock of a face.
“It costs us little to try…” she continues with a timid voice.
“I will not tolerate insubordination. I said, let’s go.”
“She’s right,” adds Alec.
Oh, how I do so enjoy watching the squad leader squirm. A mutiny! How fun.
“Obstacles are tools, enemies are weapons,” adds the grim axeman. It sounds like he is quoting something.
Anatole appears to consider. We carry a lot of meaning through body gestures, when we want to. Alaric is currently neutral, but Aisha, Alec and Jimena all cross arms which is a clear sign of disapproval. I remain neutral. I do not want to squander my chances of fulfilling a promise for the pleasure of needling that bastard. After a short consideration, he concedes.
“Very well, you may go and discuss terms with them, though Jimena will guarantee your safety. Keep in mind that every minute you waste, the fire spreads and our window of opportunity shortens.”
I nod and exit the room, Jimena in tow. To my surprise, Aisha comes after me.
“Wait! I have what you asked.”
What I asked? Oh! My weapons!
“Here you go,” she announces with pride, and hands me my dagger.
“Hum, Aisha, what about the rest?”
“I only took your proper vampire blade!”
“Not the rifle? You know, the thing that would have let me take potshots at the order and snipe down their leaders? Thin their ranks? That rifle?”
“Fat lots of good that toothpick is going to do, aye? Proper vampire blade she says. The audacity!”
“I am sorry… Does this mean…”
The proud Knight looks completely dejected. Pah. Elite group indeed.
“It means nothing,” I reply, “I’ll make do, as always.”
I turn around and my sister and I make our way to the fortified workshop. A dagger. I swear… Well, nothing to it. Time to implement the next phase of my plan and try diplomacy. First, I need information.
“What can you tell me about the Cabal’s hideout?”
“Everything is heavily warded except the walls, though it’s mostly rushed work. The points of ingress are the windows, the office entrance, the wagon entrance and the cellar. The windows are shuttered and barred, and the office and wagon gates are both to the front of the workshop so the approach has no cover. The cellar door is the most heavily fortified and it’s made out of steel. There are no easy ways to get in and I suspect they may shoot you on sight.”
“Any chance of them surviving the fire?”
“None. Even if the workshop was not made out of wood, it is not the flame itself that kills mortals, but the smoke. They will suffocate long before their retreat is set ablaze.”
“Hmm. Show me the cellar. I might be able to get through.”
The workshop is rectangular. The cellar door is at the back, opposite the two other entrances. The approach is covered by stacks of crates and other sundries left in random piles. I suspect that the workers just dump whatever they are not using there. Their carelessness is a boon, as we make our way undetected.
Jimena points to the gate, a double door made out of steel set almost horizontally against the wall. There is a thin line where it doesn’t close exactly, and from it, I can hear moans of pain and low whispers. Under the smoke, I smell a bit of blood both old and fresh. I understand now.
“They put the wounded belowground. They probably plan to escape from there if they get overrun.”
“Fascinating but unhelpful. What do you plan on doing?”
I can feel the wards placed here. There is an alarm, but mostly they increase the durability of the base material. It would take a direct hit from a cannon to blast through the thing. There is however, an obvious weakness. The space between the two doors is thin but not thin enough that I cannot get my claws in. I bet that they forgot to reinforce the steel bar.
“Why, knock politely, of course.”
I grab below each pane, get down on my knees and with a grunt, channel both the Herald’s power and my essence for an additional boost of strength.
A month ago, I could not have easily bent steel by pulling on it.
A month ago, I was not a Master.
With a terrible shriek of tortured metal, the way opens to stairs heading down. At their bottom, a man with his arm covered in bandages wakes up with a jolt and stares at me, uncomprehending. I calmly walk down while Jimena stays behind just in case. In short order, I find myself in a vast open room with a stone floor.
A dozen people lie there and they are all wounded. Most are men, ranging from a grizzled veteran to a young and portly man with what I imagine is an attempt at growing a moustache. There are women as well. A grandmotherly one holding the stump of her hand, and a girl with curly black hair and a bump on her head the size of a quail egg. They all stare at me with expressions ranging from disbelief to plain horror.
Only one person is standing, a young woman with liquid red eyes and white hair tucked firmly under a nurse hat. She slowly lifts a trembling hand clad with a mage gauntlet. Before things can devolve, I raise two hands to show that they are empty, a universal gesture of peace. Not that being unarmed makes us harmless.
“My name is Ariane. I wish to speak to your leaders and offer a truce.”
Nobody moves and I figure out why the nurse’s eyes appeared liquid. Fat tears drip down her eyes as she opens her mouth.
She starts bawling. Her face turns into a red mess with snot dripping down her nose. Her still-raised hand wavers but she does not lower it.
She just keeps crying like a fountain.
It just doesn’t stop
Most of the wounded are awake now, and look at each other and the crying nurse, at a loss.
It’s a little bit awkward.
The door opens and a mage walks down the stairs.
“Sola? Is something the matter?”
He freezes when he sees me.
“For Christ’s sake Jebediah, not you too. Go back up and fetch Jonathan and the Dog, Ariane here wants to talk,” says a grizzled veteran with an annoyed voice.
Jebediah opens and closes his mouth a few times like a beached fish, then turns around and mechanically climbs back up. Moments later, clambering footsteps and yells of alarm ring throughout the building. The door from upstairs bursts open and two men come in.
The first one is panting heavily and holding his gauntlet and a large cavalry saber. He wears a more elaborate version of everyone else’s white uniform as well as a thunderous expression. With his long grey beard and serious figure, he looks like an old general in the midst of battle.
The second figure is deeply calm and walks in without fear, though not carelessly either. His familiar dark eyes take in the situation in an instant.
I will admit that I am surprised. I knew this man as Bradley when he tried to blow me up back in Marquette. He was with the order then. How convenient for mortals, to be able to change their allegiances so. His heartbeat is the only steady one here. He must have guessed it was me from the name. There are so few of us, another vampiric Ariane would be extremely unlikely.
Though, now that I think about it, if there is one I will have to find her and convince her that I am the Arianest of them all.
The old man charges down the stairs like an enraged bull at the sight of the still sobbing nurse.
“I swear, if you hurt her…” he starts.
“If I hurt her then what?” I hiss softly, and completely release my aura. About half of the wounded are mages, and they shiver before the arctic onslaught. Even the old man’s steps falter. As quickly as I displayed it, I pull my presence back in until it is entirely subsumed within me.
I made my point.
The nurse collapses in a heap, and other wounded drag her out of the way. WEAKLING. No, she is a healer. They have their use and should be respected.
“I have come to discuss a truce and temporary alliance,” I say.
“Why should I believe anything you would say, monster,” replies their leader, still bristly despite my rebuke.
“You should,” says Bradley.
All attention turns to him. Normally, I am good at picking up leaders and influencers in a crowd, but in this case, Bradley’s subdued presence misled me. The others look at him with respect, almost reverence. I did not anticipate that. Let us see if this can be leveraged.
“What do you mean, Jonathan?” the old man asks.
“I met her before. She held her promise, despite our enmity.”
“You faced a vampire in combat and lived?” asks a young mage with admiration.
“I tried to trap her and failed. She captured me.”
At those words, everyone in the room stares with renewed fear and this time, respect. Apparently, piercing through their wards in seconds through guile and expertise doesn’t count but one word from this ruffian and I’m vetted? Typical.
“She let me go because I amused her. She kept her word. I believe we can trust her,” he continues in his calm voice. I remember him sounding the same when we were negotiating. Does this man ever show any emotion? I do not know who I should pity the most, his foes or his lovers.
The crowd nods and even the old man goes from fuming to contemplating in a heartbeat.
“Very well, I will hear your proposal.”
“First, I offer a truce, between my faction and yours, for a week.”
“Done. What’s next?”
That went better than I expected. The next step should be easy then.
“I propose a temporary alliance, to face a common threat.”
“And ally with your kind? Never!” he spits with renewed anger.
I jinxed it didn’t I?
“Hold on,” says a female voice in the room, and silence is made. The person who talked is the old woman with a missing hand. She stands up from comforting the red-eyed nurse who she had been hugging. Her skin is pallid and there are deep pockets under her eyes but her voice is firm and her expression, cold and resolute.
“Sigismund Abelard Coolridge, a word please. In private.”
The full name treatment? Somebody is in trouble.
“Is the timing well-chosen, woman?” asks a noticeably nervous Sigismund Abelard Coolridge.
“Don’t make me tell you twice.”
The gloves are off. The proud warrior leans towards his spouse and they confer in whispers. I can hear their conversation perfectly well. It is the age-old debate. On one side we have ‘Can we trust them?’ and ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead working with vampires’. On the other, we have ‘All those kids are going to die from your stubbornness you pig-headed fool’ and ‘One more hour and you’ll be caught dead alright. We have no choice’. I leave them to their arguments and return my attention to the former Gabrielite.
Is Gabrielite even a word? Whatever, it is now.
“I go by Jonathan now.”
“Jonathan. Is that your new identity?” I ask with amusement.
“In fact… that is my real name.”
It tastes like the truth. How queer. Could it be that he is more honest about his current alliance than the past one?
“How did you come to be a well-respected member of a mage group? They would certainly be looking at your past allegiances with distrust,” I remark in a low voice, low enough that the crowd looking at me with a mix of wonder and fear lean towards us in an amusing attempt to eavesdrop.
“I told you I was tracking a group of evil magickers.”
“I followed rumors and gruesome crimes to their hidden base. The White Cabal was investigating them too. That is how we made contact.
“I am surprised that you would willingly reveal yourself so.”
“I did not. I took two of them for a scouting party and captured then interrogated them. They told me of their allegiance. I decided that we could benefit from working together.”
“That could not have been more than a year ago. How come this… Dog? Believes you.”
“The Black Dog is the head of the military in any White Cabal cell. Coolridge is in charge of this war party.”
“He seems to hold you in high regard.”
“When I joined, they thought slinging spells equalled fighting. I proved them wrong. They opened to non-mages and varied their training afterwards.”
“And this is your doing? This assault on the Lancaster? Being trapped?”
Jonathan smiles so lightly that some would have missed it. His smile has a sad and fragile quality that makes me want to draw the ephemeral moment. I commit his face to memory, for later. If we make it.
“I recommended against this assault. The leadership would not take the loss of Cyril without retaliation, however. I came because I knew I could save a few lives.”
An act of courage and sacrifice. How many of those ended up with more cattle for the clans I wonder? Futile. Cyril must be the fledgling the maid mentioned. He is already changed and on his way to parts unknown, a member of Lady Moor’s entourage.
I understand their feelings all too well though. I would have done the same, had one of my people been taken. Before we can continue, the couple returns. The woman sits heavily, with a clear wince, while the Black Dog walks up to me. He is quite tall, and draws on his size and girth in what looks like an attempt at intimidation.
I am not amused.
AGGRESSION. DISSUADE OR PUNISH.
The Dog pales and takes a step back just as I realize I had been letting a low hiss and showing just a hint of fangs.
“Cease your pathetic attempts old man, I have faced nightmares that would have swallowed you whole and lived to tell the tale. You are nothing,” I growl.
“Sigismund dearie, if you could stop being a pig-headed ass for one goddamn minute?” asks the old woman with a deceptively calm voice. The Dog gives her a quick, angry glance, though he also calms down.
A few people snicker.
“I SAID, we have decided that we would entertain your proposal. Of an alliance. What did you have in mind?”
That was quick.
“First, I would like to ask, did you have any plan to get out of this situation?”
The old man immediately grows suspicious but Jonathan replies with his usual calm.
“I gathered all our remaining black powder and made charges with the clay pots we found here. I was planning on detonating them on a hunter path to the South.”
“Why?” I ask with curiosity.
“It is not a well-known fact. Explosions will snuff out flames, though if there is fuel they will restart. I believe it would have been enough for some of us to pass through.”
I look around as I understand the implication. The path would be terribly hot and smoky. Those who manage to pass would have light burns and lung damage. The wounded… would be left behind. Would they truly do this? I imagined the White Cabal to be suicidal idealists. They attacked a vampire city, after all.
“I never said it was a good plan,” says Jonathan, amused at my lack of reaction. The others lower their eyes as the mood plummets.
These people are desperate. My intrusion distracted them for only a few minutes before the thought of their imminent demise returned to haunt them. I should not have worried about this alliance. Their leader’s defiance aside, they are ripe for the taking.
I just need to give them hope and they will eat it from my hands. And I do believe I have just the idea. The powder charges are the last tools I needed for the plan I had been considering.
“I will offer an alternative. Our main problem is not the fire so much as the order troops. Dig in or escape by blowing up a path, the problem remains the same. The order is coming for you, and for us, and you will be too slow to escape their fury. If they are defeated, however, the road North will open and you can go home safely with your wounded.”
“We know that,” the Dog snaps, “it’s just that a frontal assault would be stupid.”
“Not if we use the right tools. Their advantages lie in the presence of a chokepoint, their ranged weapons and their tight formation. I have a way to neutralize or even turn those advantages against them. It will require my group and yours to work together. We will need…”
I expose my idea, and doubt is replaced by attention, then by a blooming excitement. “Yes, this could work,” their bright faces say. Jonathan assists by making adjustments and corrections and even the old Black Dog offers a few pieces of advice based on his mages’ abilities. We end up with a workable plan in less than five minutes. A miracle.
“Give me a moment while I tell everyone upstairs. Unless there are major objections, I will confirm the alliance and we will then implement the plan while you fetch your allies. Is that… acceptable?”
Oh, he is trying diplomacy. How cute. I nod and he climbs back upstairs, casting fearful glances behind as if I would suddenly murder everyone around. Jonathan follows him without a word.
I am left alone, standing in the middle of the room while a dozen people gawp at the vampire. I do not enjoy being the centre of attention like this, not unless I am playing a role.
To my surprise, the uncomfortable silence is broken by the nurse. I remember that her affliction is called albinism, and it makes her sensitive to sunlight. We have something in common, then.
“How could I not feel you? Your presence was hidden,” she asks with a vaguely offended voice. She probably blames me for her public meltdown. Before I can think of a proper answer, I find myself misquoting Sinead.
“I am a Master vampire, why would I have anything less than mastery over my own aura?”
The mood changes once more as morbid curiosity turns into fearful respect.
It… it worked?
Oh Sinead, Master of half-truths and boisterous claims, I bow before thine expert windbaggery. Your pompous turn of phrase allowed me to awe those mortals. I shall never doubt thee again, great one.
Properly chastised, the nurse seems to deflate. I am almost disappointed that her spine would disappear so quickly.
“It took great courage to face me,” I say, remembering how she almost soiled herself and could do nothing but stand there and cry like a fountain.
“To protect your charge.”
I realize that I mean it. She is not a fighter, but a healer. She still stood there and faced her death head-on. WORTHY PREY. No not prey. Remember Ariane, no eating your allies. It’s important.
“Thank you! Hm, what I meant was, you cannot tempt me, night creature!”
And there she goes and ruins it.
“Sola, help me up,” the old woman intervenes with a tired voice.
“Are you sure?” asks one of the younger men, “the warriors have not agreed yet.”
She shuts him up with one glance. Slowly, the wounded who can stand are helped up by comrades. Nurse Sola closes her eyes and a pulse of energy expands from her chest. The power spreads around the room harmlessly and I now remember what is missing.
Anytime I walked around a field hospital, the stench of opened bowels and souring wounds would assault me. Not so now. It smells of fear, pain and blood, a scent that I am accustomed to. The rest is missing.
Is this some sort of healing magic? Interesting. I can understand why the Lancasters would shop for talents among the Cabal’s ranks. I am tempted myself, though I think I can devise a much better way than plain open warfare. I believe I have understood the essence of openly negotiating as a vampire. Since it would be insane to work with me from a mortal perspective, I merely need prey finding themselves in absurd circumstances and appear as the sane choice.
Like I just did now.
It would be mad to walk through a fire, leaving wounded behind in the vain hope to escape an order war party. The world has grown insane, therefore doing insane things is the path to salvation. I am no longer a fledgling harried by the Thirst. I can establish working relationships with the powers that be, and they need not be vampires.
I return my attention to the present when Jonathan pops his head from the upstairs door and addresses me.
“They agreed. Meet us in front of the workshop.”
So… so cavalier! Addendum one to the previous proposal, I shall establish working relationships with the powers that be and teach them proper manners! Being surrounded by a blazing fire and outnumbered by fanatics sworn to your destruction is no cause for such wanton vulgarity. Pah!
Miffed, I exit the building from whence I came and meet with Jimena. She throws me a questioning glance.
“What is the matter sister, did they not agree?”
“Oh, they did, they were just not very respectful about it.”
“Oh sister, you did not get your fill of groveling servants? Allow me to assist.”
She stoops and scurry at my feet with a false limp.
“Oh Mithtreth, thine geniuth ith unmathhed, thine intellect shineth like a beacon! Allow me to polith thine toes with mine unworthy thpittle!”
“I’ll tell Aintza where you got the soldier fetish from.”
We stand in the corridor to hell. Red flames and smoldering husks make up the world and a black cloud masks the heaven. The fire flickers and casts dancing shadows that turn into mocking demons when I am not looking. Suffocating smoke stings my eyes and unbreathing lungs like acid and this is not the worst.
The only egress is forward, through disciplined ranks of well-trained, well-equipped, and dug-in vampire killers and this is not the worst either. No, the worst is the heat, a physical wall that crushes my mind and body like a cover of lead. It wipes my mind and bends me with its domineering presence.
It tells me that I do not belong in this world, that I need to be purged. It tells me that my clock is ticking and sooner or later, it will get me. The heat will consume me and only ash will be left behind.
To move is torture, to stand is agony and yet I trudge forward. No sweat can protect me from the inferno’s rage. Even paces away and through my cover, it still sends embers to kiss my bare skin, blackening it like paper. The dark voice in my mind screams and harries me. It wants me to run, to find the darkness and cold that will welcome me in its blessed embrace, yet I endure. I must.
A silver bullet hits the warded door, causing a small vibration to travel up my arm. For one instant, I falter and the improvised shield drops a bit.
With a hiss, I bring it back up.
“Hold,” the order commander screams, and no other shots are fired. Even with my senses, I can barely hear him over the roar of the fire, the creaks and groans of the dying homes.
We move forward.
I am at the head of the formation, with Jimena and the A squad’s brawn by my side. They hold torn off doors and plates facing forward, like roman legionaries of yore. The weight of those covers is beyond mortal ability to carry, and this is where we come in. Our steps are slow and measured to prevent gaps from appearing in the improvised wall. Behind us and to the sides, carriages loaded with wounded and covered with tarp protect the flank from the implacable heat. Behind us, mages walk low. Their faces are covered in wet rags and they stay close to the ground with tears dripping down their abused eyes.
I must have been insane to propose this. Perhaps I should have listened to Anatole when he announced he was not a glorified shield bearer for a sorry mass of uppity magelings.
Ah, who am I kidding? The Knights would have suffered the most. This heat is too much, even for them. It assaults my mind with the urgency of my situation, of how I am fighting my own nature. No training will ever allow me to face this without dread.
“Steady now,” Jonathan says with a hoarse voice. His voice drags me back away from the panic. I focus on putting one step in front of the other. FIRE. I know, me, shut up.
Fifty paces. We walk along at a steady rhythm to prevent gaps from forming. We had no time to rehearse, and we will have no second chances.
I lost track of where we are. I dare not check through gaps to see our progress, lest the wall be disrupted. I can only stare at my boots and take another step forward, and another. My entire existence is reduced to that, and biting down whenever an errant flake adds yet another small burn to my growing collection. One step, silence my screaming instincts, another step, keep going. It goes on and on. It never ends. It never stops. My arms hurt.
I almost miss the signal and need to take my foot back. There are sounds from around us. The order has broken formation?
I put the shield down, in case some order bastards decide to shoot my toes off. I bend and look through the hole where the handle used to be.
A few outliers wearing heavy coats are trying to flank us. With their back to the flames, they slink at the edges. They are trying to enfilade us.
“Shields take a step forward, mages at the ready,” says Jonathan in a calm voice.
The first flanker finds a gap and lines up a shot.
“Firebolt!” someone roars, and the Gabrielite is skewered. A few others rush to the side and take potshots but most of them are lost against the sides of the carriage. The order’s formation is working against them. The flankers have to move out of cover to get in position while our mages can fire safely and more importantly, en masse. The order commander realizes it and rescinds his order.
“Back, back, tighten formation.”
This is it.
“Shields up, forward!” says Jonathan firmly. I realize that the temperature is dropping. We are doing it, we are leaving the fire behind. And now, in front of me are those responsible.
We are so close. I can hear the Gabrielite’s heartbeats, their controlled breath and the horrid prayers they mutter to themselves. They have spears and we don’t. They have powder and we don’t. Their shields will stop our spells. We have to charge through, and when we drop our shields to do so, they will unleash a barrage that will mow us like wheat.
Or so they think.
“Now lob’em!” screams Jonathan, and a dozen improvised powder charges arc over our heads to fall among them. Cries of dismay echo as some foes run, pushing others away and disrupting formation. A few pick up the heavy clay pots hoping to send them back, in vain. Jonathan is a master artificer and his fuses are perfect.
The homemade grenades explode. Blood mist erupts in the enemy ranks as limbs and innards rain around. Their discipline is momentarily weakened by the incredible shock.
“Now, CHARGE!” bellows Jonathan.
I raise the door with a roar of fury and toss the heavy metal and wood protection in the face of a very surprised enemy shield bearer. The heavy piece of hardware smashes into three men and squishes them like bugs. All around me, projectiles start flying into the surprised mass of the order. It is as I expected, they do not know how to face a combined force of mages and vampires. I rush forward and soon, there is no more room for deep thought.
Slice up and down, slide under a man to avoid a shot, steal a pistol. Get pushed back by faith, slash a heel on my way down, gut a man on my way up. Throw the body on my foes, shoot a man yelling orders, stab and maim and roar and bite. YOU WANTED ME, I AM HERE. My essence sings as the air overloads with the smell of death and blood, the din of battle and the screams of men and women in a fight to the death. They do not break, they do not flee. They stand and fight. They rally and regroup.
We are not facing bandits but dedicated and well-trained groups. WORTHY FOES. Pain in my flank. An errant bullet found me. I steal more guns from standing men and corpses. SLAY THE LEADERS, CLAIM THEIR HEADS. The other Knights are zipping across the battlefield. They disrupt formations and force the Gabrielites to react or to die, while the mages and soldiers of the White Cabal rush forward. Behind them, some of the wounded stand up from their carriage to shoot spells at targets of opportunity.
It is not enough.
Here and there, our mortal allies fall to bullets, blades and spears. As I watch, the old woman with a missing hand moves in front of the nurse. Her chest explodes in a red mist and she falls, face twisted in pain. Aisha has an arm missing. Alec is spilling black blood with every movement, his stature making him a target through sheer size.
And I realize what is wrong. Alaric, Anatole, Jimena and even a weakened Melusine are at the edge of the battle on the other side, fighting defensively while Alec and Aisha, though bogged down, slowly make their way to them. The vampires are not fighting to win, they are fighting to escape, and they are right. This is the smart thing to do. Our alliance is not formal, we are fighting the same foes and that is all.
We never said we would stay.
I lose my focus for one instant and am rewarded with a bullet punching through my shoulder. Hsss. Hurts, dammit. I can’t… I can’t…
I don’t know what to do.
Aisha pulls through with Jimena’s help but as I watch, Alec finally takes a bullet to the back of the head and falls forward. He is immediately surrounded by shield bearers while a man takes out a silver spike.
Not happening. I move forward and grab a dead Gabrielite with a loaded pistol. I channel the Natalis and werewolf essence as strongly as I can and throw the corpse. Prayers are not enough to stop their dead comrades and the line collapses backward. I aim and shoot the would-be slayer through a gap in their defense. Anatole is there in an instant. He takes Alec by the foot and extracts the heavyset man as if he weighed nothing. I follow.
The world cools down and darkens. The vampires made it out, even Aisha.
The Cabal is bleeding and dying behind us.
I stop. The bullet in my flank exits from the wound to be replaced by unmarred skin, a benefit of Masterhood. I am still fully capable. I could still fight but I need not to.
It is done.
I have accomplished what I set out to do. All those I wanted to rescue made it out and the rest are but small fry. I can go now, leave the fire behind and rest in the gold-leafed and baroque buildings we call our own, and yet, I will not.
This is wrong.
My instincts are telling me this. Those are allies I left behind. I obeyed only the letter of the agreement, not the spirit. Those mortals by our side displayed bravery and gallantry in the face of certain demise. They are worthy. They are…
They are mine.
After a fashion.
And the day has not come that I will give up what is mine to those bigoted pricks.
I turn around and face the world painted red, and for the first time since the beginning of this battle, my instincts and mind align. This will be dangerous, yes, but also exciting. I will face this horror and I will defeat it. My essence sings and my heart pulses once. I feel a hum of approval from the Watcher. It likes it, I think, when I do what I live for no matter the cost.
I know what to do now.
I whistle and from behind, the heavy stomp of dark hooves sound like war drums. The other vampires stop and watch with blank masks as I stand aside and grab the harness as she goes.
“A true-bond Nightmare…” Aisha whispers in awe.
YES. Go Metis, go! For blood, freedom and gunpowder!
I lean to the side and pick up a spear as we approach the melee again. The largest bulk of the order has rallied around their leader, a tall man bearing a battle standard.
A few heads turn when they hear the nightmare charging at their back, a few pray or scream to alert their friends, in vain.
The leader turns, sees me. He turns a cross around.
I throw the spear like a javelin.
The projectile goes through his chest without slowing, then through the back of men facing the mages.
Then Metis finishes her charge in their packed ranks. Physics plays its merciless role when the heavy steed’s body impacts that of the squishy mortals. The back rank flies like pinwheels. YES, WE ARE WHERE WE BELONG. Metis stops in the middle and, essentially, unleashes her bad temper. She raises her front legs and shortens whoever she lands on. Her back hooves dent shields and skulls as she kicks and with each bite, she steals ears and noses. I am not idle either. I pick up a spear and protect her flanks, but soon our predicament becomes clear when the poor girl neighs in pain. Someone shot her! YOU DARE. I hiss and turn. A few musketeers have created distance and are already lining shots.
I can’t reach them.
I will be too late!
Then their heads start to fall. Jimena is here, picking those out of positions with ease.
“Come on men, one last push!” screams Jonathan from the other side.
And then, what I never expected happens.
“Fall back,” a Gabrielite yells with authority, “fall back!”
His men all pick up shields as they can and stop shooting. They grab their wounded and slowly retreat in a defensive formation, looking like a large turtle. I use the distraction to get back to the Cabal ranks. I stand down and check Metis’ health. As I watch, a slash on her chest slowly closes. She will heal.
I sigh as fear leaves me.
This was too dangerous. She could have died. Is it wise for me to bring her in fights like that, where bullets fly while she does not have my speed? There is only one reasonable solution. I need to get her a full plate barding, Dvergur-made, because I am not giving up on riding her into battle and I suspect that neither will she.
Silence descends upon the field as the Cabal combatants lower their weapons and look around with disbelief.
The battle is over. The night is ours, but no cries of victory sound through the night. There are only stares of disbelief and cries of relief. Only fifteen Cabal orders are still standing from a group that must have been around fifty two days ago. Many of the wounded will recover, yet they have still lost almost half their numbers. A terrible blow.
I feel little pity for them. They were fools to attack to begin with. If Jonathan had not been here, none of them would have returned. I climb back on top of Metis and turn her around. Reddened eyes filled with grief follow us. I glance one last time at the old Dog, holding the body of his dead wife.
I care not, my task is done.
“Our bargain is fulfilled,” I say, and ride out into the night.