When vampires hold a party, there are no half-measures. Take the manor’s receiving room, for example. The solemn space could host hundreds of people under its exquisitely molded ceiling and crystal chandeliers. I could place a throne at one end, a pair of guards and pretend to be in Versailles' Galerie des Glaces while dukes and counts dance and plot. The long rectangular surface is lined on one side by french windows leading to the inner court and its fountain, and on the other, by countless mirrors that do not reflect me. It is grandiose, but still mostly empty.
Wilhelm and I welcome the partygoers by the door and direct them to the exhibits. Starting to the left and alternating with the windows leading to the manor’s inner courts, I have placed my portraits. Loth, Dalton, Jimena, Nami and even Jonathan alternate with more exotic takes on human nature, such as the Herald before and after his transformation, one of the more courageous English soldiers right as he died and the insane face of one of the cultists. There are no Likaeans displayed, for obvious reasons.
After that, the visitors can appreciate scenes such as “A Slave Family’s Home”, “The Roofs of Marquette” captured on the coldest winter’s coldest night and “A Werewolf on the Hunt”. My favorites are those depicting the charging wendigos and the submissive mermaid shaman as she offered me her blood. In all of those scenes, I paid attention to the illusion of movement by catching my subjects mid-motion, or by adding elements such as fabric held by the wind. The result is that of life as if caught in amber. It took me a long time and the study of many bodies, most of them still alive, to achieve this.
Around twenty such paintings line the left wall to its end. The back wall is also covered in mirrors, a curious choice that makes the place eerie, as the reflection does not have as many people as the actual room. The strange discrepancy makes it feel even larger than it actually is.
My largest work thrones there. I painted the Choctaw, Muskogee and American infantry charging English lines at the battle of Black Harbor. The scene appears mostly normal until one looks more closely. First, they will notice that the largest celestial body looks strangely like an eye, then they will find Loth’s colossal form clad in his battle armor, cleaving through ranks of men like an unstoppable god of war. Further examination will show that the twirls of shadows draw shapes of war chariots and ancient soldiers wielding glaives and severed heads, and the best part is that it takes some time to notice everything.
I did not draw myself in that painting. I have not completely forgotten what I look like, I just cannot picture it well enough to paint. It bothers me just a little bit.
To the right, a small pavilion covers the exhibit’s main piece. A small notice on a pulpit by the entrance warns mortals that the view inside is disturbing and can lead to one being hypnotized. I left this to prevent any guest from having an unpleasant experience, fully expecting the pavilion to mainly attract vampires.
I should have known better.
A few daring individuals watched the Watcher, so to speak, and shared their experience with disbelieving friends. Soon, the attraction became a center of morbid curiosity, and my work was examined not only by the staff waiters but also the maids, the guests, the cooks, the handymen, the gardeners and no less than seventeen soldiers and assorted bodyguards. I refused three separate offers to sell the paintings, for a good sum too.
Mortals are strange. They are curious when they should be scared and scared when they should be calculating. Oh well.
The last part of the ballroom is occupied by tables around a bar where those of us who still digest can get refreshments. A few of the individuals sitting there are hired to provide a more vivacious kind of snack for those with a bit more bite to their Thirst.
I greet a trio of vampires who present themselves as Rolands. The Master then moves to the side, with her two Courtiers trailing her like chicks after a mother hen. Wilhem informs me that they are refugees from a coven that found itself at the losing end of a power struggle back in Spain. They are here to find another coven to join, or for the right to establish their own. The butler adds that such visitors are quite common, and even more so during times of strife. The exiles will be using this gathering to network and make enquiries.
The next person to go through the door fills my heart with joy.
“Lord Dvor, welcome.”
“Please Ariane, call me Torran, always.”
“If you wish. Come to enjoy my paintings?”
“I wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’ll leave you to your duties my dear. Do find me when you have the time.”
He kisses the hand I present and leaves behind the lingering touch of his fingers. His mysterious Servant bows deeply then trails him. Her respect appears genuine.
“I do not believe I had seen Lord Torran smile before,” Whilhelm comments offhandedly.
I definitely need to ask him if he’s courting me.
More guests come and go. Wilhelm introduces them and I do my best to memorize their names. It is easier with vampires. They have a stronger existence to me, as I can taste their essence through their disciplined auras. Their individuality is simply more marked in my mind.
Soon after, a man I hadn’t seen in thirty years makes his entrance. Lord Ceron is just as striking as I remember. He has dark, curly hair, a well-trimmed beard and the muscles of a prize-fighter. His eyes are cornflower blue and shining with intelligence, warning others that under the brawny appearance hides a keen intellect. I remember that in the fortress, he invested in me before I even became a proper fledgeling. His decision brought dividends, as I have since struck devastating blows against his rivals the Lancasters.
The handsome man smiles broadly before giving me a gracious bow.
“House Nirari, welcome.”
“None of that Lord Ceron, not between us. How have you been?”
“Wonderful. Ah, but I remember a fragile youngling in a baggy grey training garb bumbling about. How you’ve grown.”
“I knew it! I knew that attire wasn’t appropriate.”
“No,” Ceron replies with a laugh, “it really was. Your current dress just suits you so much better.”
The Cadiz lord is right. I am wearing the second of Goode’s creations. This one is an old-fashioned affair in shades of white and blue. It fits me like a glove and is just as mildly provocative as the other.
Ceron and I conduct small talk, and I gather that he would be interested in a formal alliance after I have acquired a territory. I subtly assure him that I would be delighted and he moves to the side to allow other people to greet me. Some of the visitors are mortals from loyal families, and I make an effort to make them comfortable. Wilhelm warned me that Devourers have a reputation, and more than a few are more apprehensive of me than of others. I once more find the notion ridiculous. It should not matter to the sheep if it is slain by a wolf or a lion, and no bloodline is immune to rogues in their ranks.
The next important guest is also a Cadiz.
“Lord Suarez, it has been so long. And Inez is with you, your Servant now I see. Congratulations to you both.”
The current ruler of Charleston greets me with a smile. The bruised slip of a girl I had saved decades ago is now a mature beauty with perfect countenance. She greets me warmly, and the pair soon join Ceron in an animated discussion.
I welcome almost fifty people in the space of an hour. Most move on quickly. Others have questions, including the one I am addressing now, a Hastings Master with grey hair and the look of a chief accountant.
“Do you know where your Master is?”
“He is no longer my Master.”
“But do you know where he is?”
“I do not.”
“Will you side with him when he returns? I have not moved here to suffer from the whims of a capricious madman and his ilk.”
My smile grows strained, and I pull him forward while adding in a low voice.
“My good sir, I understand your distress, but let me assure you that if you do not release my hand right now, my sire will be the least of your worries.”
The man drops my fingers as if they were on fire. He looks scandalized by my threatening tone and turns to Wilhelm, presumably seeking support.
“You are holding the line, sir,” the steward remarks with a perfect mask. The Master realizes the battle is lost and pulls back with a last huff. Showing his BACK. WEAKLING. PREY. POUNCE AND… and nothing. This is a party.
“Thank you, Wilhelm.”
“Think nothing of it, miss. He should be the one grateful to me for saving him from the consequences of his behavior.”
“I would not kill him simply for being rude.”
“Not just from you, but also from the Lords already present as a show of support. As for killing, let me just say that your control is excellent, young one, but I am an old hand at reading auras. This bloodlust. Intoxicating.”
Hah, I knew it. Under the veneer of rules and etiquettes, the beast lies. Perhaps I should invite Wilhem for a Hunt. Ah but no, it wouldn’t be proper. I need to invite Torran first.
I must ask Jimena the rules of vampire dating. If I invite a vampire for a private Hunt, is it a date? I have not reached that part of her book yet. I think it depends on the balance of power. When I brought Isaac on his first Hunt, it was definitely not a date.
The next guests come quickly. Salim, Jimena and Nami arrive together with Aintza and a few of their mortals, soon followed by a sheepish Lord Jarek, supporting a tired woman under each of his massive arms. Lady Sephare of the Hastings joins late, apologizes for it and proceeds to fuss over my dress, which she compliments copiously. We are about to move on when an unexpected figure comes through the door.
The man is from a bloodline I have never encountered, a rarity now. He wears a fancy purple silk vest over a white shirt and tie that shows his broad physique. He has that impression I had from my father, of a bit of fat over a lot of muscle. His face is large and squarish with fat lips, a blond mustache and glacial blue eyes. He sees me and gives me a smile that does not reach his eyes.
I wait for a presentation to come but realize something is wrong. Wilhelm froze in place, and his face has gone from mild to stiff, his equivalent of screaming in anger. Pretending not to have noticed, the newcomer takes one step forward.
Behind me, a familiar aura of cold night on a mountain flares, it seeps into the ground and though the land does not answer, there is a pulse far away to the East, as if something vast had answered the call. The aura is joined by the focused burst from two Cadiz lords, and a smattering of others. I feel eyes drilling into my back. The conversation in the room dies out in a matter of seconds when everyone realizes the apex predators among them have gone from quiescent to deadly.
The man wisely stops, places a hand against his heart and gives a short bow. I do not return the greeting. Instead, I turn to Wihelm and ask in a calm voice that every vampire hears.
“Is he on the guest list?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Pardon the intrusion,” the gentleman declares with a rolling accent, “I merely wanted to pay homage to the newly ascended House Nirari. My name is Sergei of the Kalinin, the new leader for the Knight squad.”
Relative silence falls over the room, with the mortal’s slightly panicked breaths and heartbeats the only source of sounds. I am not sure what Sergei’s game is. Perhaps he came to take my measure, or perhaps he was not aware of the support I had garnered. It matters little, for I know two things. First, his name is not Andrei so I will have to rename the A team, darn it. Second, he crashed my party and made no secret of it, disrespecting me and my guests in the process. There is a time for subtlety. This is not it.
“A pleasure. I hope you fare better than your predecessor and now if you’ll excuse us, this is a private event.”
Sergei looks around, probably realizing that cooks and maids are lined in front of the Watcher tent, with my blessing I might add. He takes a breath, possibly willing to continue our verbal joust, but a deceptively calm voice interrupts him, backed by an arctic aura. I cannot resist, I turn around to see Torran right behind me, fixing the intruder with a steely glare that carries the promise of violence as certainly as a naked blade to the throat.
“Do not make the lady repeat herself.”
That is all, just one sentence with a meaning as clear as crystal.
Leave, or die.
Either the Dvor lord is better at bluffing than Sinead himself, or he will, in fact, skewer the man’s heart and rip out his spine.
With one last defiant look, Sergei gives me a minute bow and retreats. The vampires in the room return to their conversations as if nothing had happened and the mortals let out a collective breath.
I wonder if he was here to gauge me, the one who caused his predecessor to fall from grace? I see no other explanation.
I turn to Wilhelm and a silent message of respect passes between us, then Torran comes to our side.
“That would be most of them Wilhelm, would it not?”
“What now?” I ask with trepidation. The sight of a potential new enemy rattles me more than I would like to admit. I don’t want to go through this again. I can’t think about going through this again. I am not ready.
“Normally you would mingle, however if it pleases you, I would enjoy a presentation of those masterpieces by the artist herself,” Torran suggests respectfully.
Sensing my hesitation, Wilhelm adds in a whisper:
“It is appropriate to show favor that way. You can always network afterward.”
I accept and take Torran’s offered arm. He lightly holds my hand and does his massage that helps me relax while we go to the portraits. Guests respectfully part to let us through everywhere we go.
Torran’s touch is soft and his scent teases my nostrils.
I walk my companion through the exhibit. I have a little story for each painting. I talk about the inspiration, I talk about the technique and I talk about my mood and what I enjoyed the most in the creation process. Torran chuckles at the tale of my father meeting me and asking to see my fangs when his portrait comes.
“I really enjoy the way you draw. Most painters will go for the exact rendition of a person’s appearance while you go for who they are. You captured your father’s pride, Jimena’s determination and Naminata’s playfulness just as clearly as their eyes and noses. I see people, not just their faces.”
Torran takes a deep breath, hesitant. This is so unlike the usually self-assured lord that my curiosity
“Would you consider painting me?”
“You want a portrait?”
“Yes. Vampire painters are a rarity. Many of us lost the creative edge that defined us as mortals. Those who remain often enjoy music due to the ease with which we move. Immortality is an obstacle, not an advantage, when it comes to visual arts.”
“I never thought about it that way,” I remark as we reach the first landscape. I notice in passing that Jarek has stepped outside and Ceron is at my back. I do not feel boxed in. The auras present are cold but peaceful, though given so many flavors it feels more like a truce than an alliance. I will be safe tonight.
We spend comparatively less time on the landscapes, simply because Torran does not have so many questions. When we reach the massive battle scene, we make a game of him spotting every little element I snuck in there. He manages to find them all with only a handful of hints. Eventually, we make it to the tent where mortals are still taking bets. They make way for us and genuflect as we go by.
The interior of the small tent is lit by a single light blue lantern. Two images of the Watcher stare into our soul, the effect significantly dulled compared to the real one outside, but present nonetheless. The left one depicts the vampire god in a background of stars, and the right one as a baleful moon overlooking a lake.
The left eye’s pupil narrows.
I blink and shake my head. Surely a hallucination. Or not. Who knows with that eccentric celestial entity? Meanwhile, Torran focuses on each frame, one after the other.
“Impressive. This is a magical item.”
“It does not have an aura in a traditional sense, not one most would pick up anyway, and yet the pull is undeniable. It could even be used as a defensive tool against intruders, and be incredibly effective too. Infiltration requires paying attention to details to spot traps. A spy’s sense of observation would be used against them.”
His fingers brush against my knuckle and he loses his intense glare.
“Forgive me Ariane. My desire for safety got the best of me. Two months away from my territory and I already behave like a cautious old man. This is an incredible piece of art and I treat it like a vulgar trap.”
“I do not mind. I will give you one of them, if you want.”
Torran smiles brightly, and the shadow in his eyes lightens.
“I now own two of your paintings, that gives me a monopoly.”
“Tut tut my dear, I already sent a set to King Loth himself. You are not even the majority shareholder.”
“Blast, I shall cross the ocean and duel him for it.”
“I would not,” I lean in and add with a devious tone, “those are paintings of his previous wife.”
“Torran, you rake!”
We chuckle and exit the tent, then join the impromptu gathering at the center of the room. There, my guests welcome us. Both Ceron and Suarez congratulate me on a well deserved victory and request a portrait. Naminata then asks for a nude of herself to send to a suitor, and Jimena shily orders a scene with both Aintza and herself. Just like that, my career as official vampire portraitist is all but certain, and I could very well retire in a distant cottage to spend my days in work and isolation if I so desired. I have a pleasant time creating bonds of friendship with old acquaintances and newcomers alike, until, an hour later, I feel the need for fresh air. I draw Torran away from his conversations and drag him out through the french windows and out near the fountain.
We follow the path out then right into an open space by the road leading down. There, the gardener who created the intricate flower garden now at our back left the land more barren and open, so that walking there is like taking a stroll through the wilderness. I remain silent until we stop at a low wall marking the edge of the cliff. The bay and the river in the distance move with unstoppable slowness and for a moment there is no manor, no politics, just the flow of murky water under the endless sky and nestled in its midst, the alien being that allowed our existence, ever watching.
Just as before, its presence is calming and its subtle approval puts my mind at ease. The Watcher is not a judgemental god. It is neither jealous or demanding, merely curious, and observing us for some unknown purpose. Sometimes I wonder if Semiramis was right and if it is the embryo of a universe, destined to consume itself in a great explosion. What it does with our experience, our sufferings and achievements and more importantly, our inherent predatory nature, I know not. There is something I have come to believe, however. Perhaps when we die our essence is not lost to disperse in the air like our bodies. Perhaps we come back to it and bring with us what we learnt. I think I would like that. I would not go where Nashoba and Dalton are, but at least what I am would not be lost, when my time comes.
Sensing my contemplative mood, Torran remains silent. I appreciate it, and the efforts he made to accommodate my skittish nature. I think I am ready now to learn for sure.
“Torran, I have a question.”
“You are courting me, are you not?”
He chuckles, his amusement clear.
“Thank the Eye, my efforts have been noticed. Yes, Ariane, I am courting you. Why?”
“Because you are doing a fantastic job of it. I am just not quite sure what you find in me. I am not particularly graceful, nor the smartest or most competent woman around. By siding with me so clearly, you are making an enemy of the Lancasters, the Knights, and who knows how many others who take exception to the existence of Devourers. I want to know why.”
Torran lets go of my arm to face me properly. He still has this slight smile that turns his steely, almost cruel demeanor into a distinguished one instead.
“Very well, I will declare. There is something with you, Ariane, that I cannot resist. It is not your appearance, though you are beautiful. Not your intelligence, though you are brilliant, nor your achievements though they are many. It is the way you stood straight when facing your accusers at the trial. The way you walked out with your head held high. The way you blinked and relaxed when I tugged on your fingers and the smile you gave me when I showed you the garden. I felt you when you smiled at those flowers, when you listened to those arias at the opera. You were vibrant and alive with a passion that echoed in my soul. Every small gesture, every clever word made something blossom in a heart I thought cold and barren for all of eternity.
“Faster than I thought possible, I coveted you like a thirsty man covets fresh water but I was afraid. Me, the old monster, I was terrified. That you would leave. So, I approached you with care and all the patience I could muster because I wanted to drink in your presence and all the little things that make Ariane. I cannot express the felicity I felt when you loved the Elisir d’Amore or when you took my offered arm without worry. I had no right to feel something so powerful. And yet I did. When that Kalinin knight came to intimidate the guests, I was just about ready to tear him apart with my bare hands. The realization of how far I would go for you did not scare me, because deep inside I already knew I was caught.
“So yes, I want to look at you when you’re being you, I want to wake up by your side and I want us to run together, Hunt together and fight together, and if you will have me I will, no matter who is arrayed against us. I want you to be mine as I will be yours.”
I can’t think of any clever reply. That was so… raw.
Then there is no more room for thought. Torran’s lips are soft, and cold, but I do not mind that. His arms circle me in an embrace that I do not fear, just as my own reach to his shoulders. He smells and tastes delicious and crisp. And strong. I melt into it and come to rest against his body as we explore each other. I relax completely and forget myself in this new experience, at peace. Torran’s kiss is daring and possessive. I let him take control and guide me through things until after a while, we pull away from each other.
I just smile like an idiot.
So does he.
“You are a very, very dangerous man, Torran of the Dvor.”
“Of course, that is why you like me.”
“Cheeky rogue. I must warn you though, I just gave you something quite precious. Do not betray my trust.”
“I will not.”
I rest my hand against his chest as he caresses my hair, then a sudden thought makes me pull back and narrow my eyes with suspicion.
“What?” he asks, suddenly worried.
“When we discussed me escorting you, you clearly said you were not after this kind of companionship!”
“First, you were referring to casual sex and that is not what I was after, second, you forget the ancestral truth, my star.”
“And what would that be?”
“All is fair in love and war.”
“Gah! I am betrayed. I demand compensation! Kiss me again.”
Torran is only too happy to comply and after a little while, we are distracted by ponderous steps coming to our direction. Lord Jarek comes into view, only to stop at an appropriate distance. I appreciate the warning, as he only made noises to warn us of his arrival well in advance.
“Lord Jarek?” I ask with a bit of concern.
“There is a message for the both of you at the reception desk. Also, one more thing,” he starts with his singularly low-pitched voice.
“Yes?” I ask the suddenly solemn strongman.
“Where I come from, no coming of age party is complete without a show of strength and a good fight. Here, have a show of strength,” he says. Then he walks up to the closest tree, an oak of respectable size, and grabs it with his two hands. He grunts with effort as the trunk is literally torn apart under his prodigious grip, then, with a last agonizing creak, the poor thing topples. Jarek is not done. He hoists the body like one would a javelin, aims, and tosses it into the bay.
I watch, mesmerized, as hundreds of pounds of lumber arc beautifully into the night like the bolt of an ancient siege weapon. It takes more than five seconds for the vampire-propelled tree to finally topple beneath the waves.
I close my mouth with a click.
“Now we wait for a good fight.”
“Wilhelm is an Erenwald of great power. This natural garden, the flower patches and many of the greenhouses on the plain below are under his purview.”
Just as I answer, a furious roar emerges from somewhere to my right.
Jarek rolls his shoulders and two massive gauntlets with vambraces made of the void-like substance of soul weapons appear on his oversized hands. An instant later, he’s gone and the first metallic clang of clashing weapons rings through the clearing. The fight has begun.
I lean against Torran as I try, and fail, to follow the fight. I already know this is not a struggle to the death and they take great pain to avoid being too destructive. I see it more as a match than anything too serious and manage not to become nervous. Wilhelm does seem hellbent on teaching the Natalis lord a lesson, however, and his face is a mask of focus and contained fury. He wields a twin set of dark axes with which he attacks relentlessly in breathless rushes and large, flowing whirlwinds. By comparison, Jarek is more defensive and fights like a boxer. He blocks, attacks and moves in surprising bursts of speed that I would never have expected from somebody so large. For a while, they test each other’s defense but neither one is willing to fully commit, resulting in a stalemate. Should Wilhelm land a blow, his vicious looking axes would do tremendous damage while anyone hit by Jarek’s fists would be mercilessly punted into the bay. They are obviously trying to avoid that fate.
After a few minutes, both combatants salute and the Natalis lord leaves for the manor while our poor steward stares, despondent, at the pit where his precious tree used to be. I decide to leave him for now and bid Torran follow me inside for that message. I have grown just a bit more sensitive over the past weeks thanks to Aisha’s game and something tells me I should not be late. At the front desk, I am given a nice envelope by a matronly dark-haired Servant. The contents do not surprise me in the slightest.
I hope you receive this letter in time, for I was compelled to leave it at your friend’s hotel. Indeed, the fight over the scepter has come to a close and light has been shed on this darkest of conspiracies…”
Any more eye-rolling on my part and I shall soon see the back of my skull.
“If I may…” Torran says as he picks up the guilty sheet.
Declaiming like Cicero, Torran reads the letter with gusto while I snort and applaud appropriately. The frankly preposterous recollection of events Bingle saw fit to lay on paper becomes hilarious when recounted in the haughty and slightly sarcastic voice of the Dvor lord. I learn that he brought the two singers to his own secret abode to protect them from the goons sent to ransack their home. He managed to get the jump on them and learnt from a captive that they had been hired by the Sommerville consortium of merchants. After infiltrating their compound and the subsequent daring escape, he found out the location of a secret base and now requests our help in assaulting the location and hopefully recovering the stolen jewels. The tale ends on a moving plea to assist him in this endeavor.
Torran folds the message back while I lightly clap before this masterful performance.
“Where I am from, if a trained man asked a lady for assistance in battle, he would be shunned throughout the land,” my lover remarks with a hint of disapproval. I want to remind him that he officially did just that but consider that it was all a ruse. Instead and despite my annoyance, I come to the adventurer’s rescue.
“Since his foes work with vampires, I would be surprised if the compound were not protected by them or at least by some magical means. As before, he calls upon us to equalize the field without realizing it.”
“Will you go?”
“Yes. I dare not think what will happen if I do not answer the call. Besides… it will be fun.”
“Then do you mind if I accompany you?”
“Not at all, I am sure there will be labor for the both of us. Now, when did he say he would assault the compound?”
“Tuesday, an hour after midnight.”
We both pause.
“By the Watcher, it is midnight. We need to leave now!”
The carriage comes to an abrupt stop less than five minutes after leaving the compound. I finish fastening my heart protector, regretting that I cannot bring out my armor this time. Bingle still doesn’t know about vampires and I would prefer if he did not find out.
I open the slit leading to the driver seat.
“What now?” I ask with impatience.
“Milady, we are being robbed,” Urchin answers from the other side.
“Come on out with your hands in the air and nobody gets hurt!” a nervous voice screams in the night.
Torran stands up. His aura blankets the space so that even outside, horses neigh with worry.
“I will be right back, my star.”
“Hold on, I would like to find out if they were sent here and if yes, by whom.”
“Oh, very well then.”
He opens the door and takes one step outside. Around us, I count three mounted raiders to his side and one on mine slightly forward.
Their rides take a step back.
“You’re that man that’s been flashing the money around town! I knew it! Give us your coin and nobody gets hurt.”
“Amateurs. You’re too close.”
Torran’s hand blurs, I hear a sound like air displaced by something massive and the very specific sound of sliced meat. The three mounts on the left twitch, their heads gone.
Cries of disbelief turn into screams of pain when the carcasses fall on the ground and on fragile legs. The man on the right swears in alarm, then realizes his gun is gone.
“Mine now,” Urchin says.
My new minion shoots.
I do not. The horse falls dead, trapping his rider like the others.
“When this is over, remind me to bring you to a firing range. I will not tolerate poor shots among my ranks.”
“That pistol was faulty!”
“The only faulty thing here is your aim. Now quiet, we need to ask a few questions.”
I approach the nearest rider and notice that Torran has gathered their guns. I kneel by his side. The man is dirty and stinks quite a bit. A mask of filthy fabric wraps around his face and I spot the greasy ends of a beard peeking from underneath. His eyes are muddied by pain and confusion.
“Now whose brilliant idea was it to attack us?”
The man instinctively turns to his leader, a tall thug with a black beard and a large scar across his ugly face.
“We no longer need the others,” I note. An instant later, three men are silenced.
“Oh shit oh shit, who the fuck are you monsters?”
“You attacked us and you didn’t know?”
“What? No, please… We just wanted your money. We would not have killed you!”
“I care not. Tell me who suggested this raid?”
“Please, I don’t want to die!”
“Look at me. Good. Now, you want to live, don’t you?”
“I have a bargain for you. If you tell me everything I want to know. I will let you go with a one-minute lead and when I come after you, I will not run.”
“Right, right. I was scouting that eatery where all the rich folks go for a grub, then I saw your John coming and figured he must be loaded. Shook down a waiter for a story and followed the runner here, figuring he would come out alone. We only meant to take the swag and scram, I swear.”
“That was your idea?”
I grab the lout’s face and turn it around. No trace of bite marks, nor does he smell of one of our own.
“Incredible, Torran. A genuine highway robbery!”
“Is it that rare?”
“Yes, especially so close to a city! Ah, but I digress. Torran dear, I propose that we let Urchin handle the clean up and continue by ourselves.”
“Of course, my star, tonight is your night.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your patience in dealing with these ruffians. I know that you indulge me, and have done so for the past few days.”
“Do not worry, you more than make up for it,” he answers with a smile. The rogue.
I turn to the terrified highwayman and lift the horse off his body.
“As promised. One-minute lead.”
He stares at me, frozen in disbelief. So I smile and make sure to show him all my fangs.
Ah, now that is much better. I turn to my helpful aide.
“Little Urchin, can you please head back to the manor and have someone clean this mess.”
“Yes ma’am. Say, I did not kill that one there on the ground. Can I drink him?”
“Of course. Make sure everything is done before somebody notices. Now, Torran dear. How about a little Hunt before we go raiding?”
“I know exactly what you had in mind when you made that promise.”
“Did you, now?”
Heavy hooves trample the earth. A large warhorse gallops through the darkness, its obsidian coat nearly invisible to mortal eyes. It is not Metis.
“Krowar,” Torran whispers with pleasure. He climbs atop the nightmare as it stops by his side.
“Metis,” I echo an instant later when my proud ride joins us. I climb on her back. The two mounts greet each other while my friend checks a richly decorated pocket watch. After a while, he closes it and looks at me. The night is beautiful. The trees mask the city in the distance. The smells of blood and pine needles overwhelm all others and the forest is alive with predators and prey caught in their deadly dance. Somewhere in front of us, our quarry struggles forward, needled by dread. We will ride it down together and partake of his blood.
Torran leans forward and kisses me lightly. His eyes shine with a mischievous glint as he pulls back and he whispers, with his exotic lilt.
“First to the prey.”
He is gone in a great thunder of flowing dirt and crushed shrubbery.
“Eh? Go, Metis go! Torraaaan! Wait for meeeeee!”