I dodge low and sweep the blade with my spear. The foe is strong, diverting his strikes takes all my might.
Fighting during the day is wrong, I should HIDE AND REST, but being prepared pays off and I need to train now in case I get caught off-guard one day. My thoughts are sluggish and moving is difficult. Sometimes I need to stop and remind myself that I am fighting. Vampiric speed is all but impossible.
Thankfully, I am not entirely defenseless. My strength and agility are still my own, though it takes everything I have to keep that specific enemy at bay.
Torran lunges, feints and stabs again. I counter and dodge back at the same time, just the way Nami showed me. My lover is forced to abort his attack to deflect the strike aimed at his heart. The gesture is small and effortless. He lightly slaps the blow aside then his assault resumes. He is grim and relentless, a veritable storm of steel that follows me with no respite. By comparison, my style is much more chaotic. I am often low to the ground except for lunges, and change direction constantly. I keep the patterns as unpredictable as possible, capitalizing on every opening and opportunity I can spot. We are relentless perfection and savagery opposed, but the advantage is his. Despite my speed, I only managed to strike his flank once and paid for it by a slash to the face. By comparison, my training gear is already covered in scratches and tears. We face each other with steel blades so any wound closes promptly, but the sting to my pride does not heal so easily. He struck my heart at least five times.
Torran controls a sphere around him where his existence is tyranny and he attacks with a relentless will that grinds all opposition. Despite my best efforts, my concentration wanes and I am soon entirely on the backfoot. One of his slices catches me across the shoulder and sends me careening through the training room.
I feel alive. Energy courses through my veins as everything gets back into focus and my mind sharpens to a deadly point. Then something unusual happens.
I have practiced diligently with the cards Aisha gave me. Two times out of three now, I can predict the outcome and whenever I do, I feel a pull towards a direction that does not exist, not exactly inward but close. I feel it now. With perfect clarity, I can tell exactly where Torran’s blow will fall, even with my back to him.
At the last moment, I twist on myself. His blade rakes against my chest protector as I stand and swing at the same time. My blind talons find purchase in the flesh of his throat. YES, YOU ARE MINE NOW.
Something pointy presses into my chest. His sword.
I stop. Torran’s steel grey eyes capture me. They are filled with pride.
“Beautifully done, my star.”
“Not so bad yourself, Torran. You were right, this was a good idea.”
“Of course, I was!” he replies, feigning outrage. Behind us, two mortal attendants wait with equipment in the manor’s largest training room. One of them is a slightly older, burly man with a satisfied grin while the other is younger and obviously witnessing vampires fight for the first time. If he opens his mouth anymore, I will be able to shove a whole egg in its cavernous depths.
We are alone for now in that bare room of dark stone, though soon vampires and mortals alike will tread its vast expanse, using dummies and targets to hone their skills while the most adventurous will make their way to the circle we now stand on.
With nightfall comes something else. I feel, once again, a pull. There is something that I should be doing but I am not quite sure why, only that it is important.
“Shall we continue?”
“Hold on, dear, there is something.”
“What is it?”
“I am not sure. A hunch.”
Torran waits in silence as I close my eyes and focus. Alas, getting anything else is impossible. I am simply not good enough yet, and the meaning escapes me. All that I can perceive is a diffuse sense of forgetting something, or of having a destination in mind though I do not know which.
“I do not know.”
“Is it related to Bingle?”
“Then let us not stay here and find him instead.”
I frown in frustration. Did Nashoba not tell me that real life work would serve me better than blindly following hunches? And here I am, already forgetting.
After a quick passage through changing rooms designed to this effect, we leave the blades in the hands of the two attendants and depart the arena. The training room is situated underground and is well provisioned with all manner of weapons, including pistols. The duelling ground is covered in sands to absorb spilled blood, a necessary measure for us.
I follow Torran up a set of stairs dug into the very stone and through massive vault doors locked in case of emergencies. We are only in the first basement, and I am not sure exactly how deep into the earth’s crust the complex extends. I have little interest to find out, especially because the torture room is two levels below.
We quickly make our way to the front desk where we find Sophia, Constantine’s assistant. The unusual Rosenthal stands straight as a rod, with brown hair in a prim tail and her hand on a saber by her side.
“What can I do for you?”
“Are there any messages for either of us?”
“No. Expecting something in particular?”
“We are helping a godling. Someone touched by fate. He may have tried to contact us.”
The woman considers our problem for a moment.
“Could you describe him?”
“Dark hair, dark eyes, shaven, wears black-“
“And carries a cane?”
“He is down the road at the first checkpoint. We blocked his access for we did not know him. I was about to have him brought in for interrogation. Would you like to see him?”
“Yes, have him brought up and wait in the lobby, I will be right back.”
I turn to leave while Torran finds a seat to wait. The night past, we helped Bingle take the Scepter. I would not be surprised if the vampire at the other end of the chessboard had played their turn. If it is the case, it ends tonight, and quite likely through a physical confrontation.
Time to try Loth’s armor.
I move to my bedroom, scaring Solveig on the way and throwing the special wardrobe open.
The battle dress awaits me in all its baleful glory. I undress until all that remains are my smallclothes and put it on. I fasten it piece by piece, feeling the protective garment fit snugly until I am clad in it as in a second skin.
Once this is done, I take a second to stretch and luxuriate in the feeling of the silk-like fabric against my skin. Each scale slides in position with uncanny precision, leaving me completely free to move. I then grab throwing knives, my silver dagger and the spear, finishing with the silver pistol I took from father Perry, the oldest piece in my collection. I tie my hair and grab my old mask from a container, the one I had worn at the masquerade, though I do not yet put it on.
I am ready.
A minute later, I reach the lobby once more and smile at the sight.
The room is packed with vampires here to see the godling. The lobby’s couches, normally mostly empty, are now filled with a variety of my kindred and their servants. Some pretend to read books while others confer, or plot, in low voices. An annoyed-looking older woman is knitting, her brow furrowed.
In the middle of it, Bingle sits sheepishly by Torran’s side. The adventurer has lost some of his flame. His clothes are in disarray and deep pockets have formed under his eyes. Even his back, normally ramrod straight, has a slight bend to it.
Something bad happened.
I sit by his side and skip the pleasantries.
“Talk to me.”
“I was a fool,” he exclaims bitterly. This is the first time I have seen him expressing negative emotions with such strength.
He sighs. He gently massages his temples with shaky hands.
“We were betrayed. Unknown assailants found our hiding place and kidnapped Miguel, Sara’s cousin, while we were away. They killed Sarvajna. Stabbed him to death. While I was checking for traps, Sara found the ransom notice. She absconded with it and the Scepter, only leaving me with a hastily scribbled note and vague apologies. I know from her words that the exchange will be made at nightfall but she did not tell me where.”
The more I look, and the more I see the myth fraying at the edges. Stubble mars his pointy chin, his traits are drawn and his eyes bloodshot. The most fascinating element is that he is still himself, a godling. He only now represents another aspect of the adventurer, the jaded one, the one who drowns memories and lost friends with gin and carries a gun instead of a cane.
We are at a junction.
I am not obligated to do anything, I can feel it. The pull of fate disappeared at the very moment I sat at this table. I could just tell him to fight his own battles and drive the hero down a darker path, one of vengeance and knives in the night. Along this route, there would be more opportunities for me to use him to my own ends.
I have enough darkness around as it is. Soon, this period of respite will be over and I will return to my scheming, ruling, and the wholesale slaughter of mortals who overstep themselves. Bingle is the vaguely annoying yet cute cub that offers distractions regardless of one’s own plans.
Yes, Bingle is my puppy, I realize. I should not kick the puppy away.
Besides, we are playing a game, that other vampire and I. One they are winning. It is my turn to play and it would be a shame if I had gotten changed for nothing.
I emerge from my thoughts to see that the atmosphere around us has changed. The spectators of the scene stare not at the daring man but at me and my armor. The spear by my side shines with the flickering red of the hearth. The scent of Wilhelm’s flower arrangements clash with that of vampire and human sweat. They want to see what I will decide. Some look eager. They know that one does not dress as I do for a tea party.
I turn to Solveig who had followed me down and ask her to inquire after Salim. We will need his pet mage, Sorrel, to track down the unruly artist.
“Do you have the message she left you?”
“Yes,” he replies, taking a folded sheet from his breast pocket, “here.”
I pick it between two talons and unfold it. The writing is horrible, barely more than pinpricks. I also spot two wet marks, quite likely tears of regret that cannot end there unless shed on purpose. Sara’s tasteless antics will end up making our task easier.
It will work.
I turn to the Bingle and take his hand in mine. He shivers at their coldness, and only now does he notice how sharp my ‘nails’ are.
“You know that I am different, don’t you? You can feel it in your heart when our eyes meet, when you see me move.”
“I do. That curse, it-“
His Adam apple bobs as he swallows his saliva with more nervousness than he had ever displayed.
“-it changed you.”
“Correct. It changed me. It also showed me a world that was previously hidden. I can find the woman for you, but then you will know and that will make me vulnerable.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“Good. What you see tonight, you will not write down, and you will not report either. You will keep it secret. Will you do that?”
“Of course. I am grateful for your help, Miss Delaney. I would never betray your trust.”
I nod and fall silent. It doesn’t take long for Salim and Sorrel to show up. I suspect that they were already on their way to this impromptu gathering. I negotiate a tracking spell in Akkad with a smiling Salim, and the serious mage immediately gets to work. Tracking spells are simple constructs for those with proper training. We have our compass in only a few minutes.
“I hope it is not too late,” says Bingle. Normally it would be, but the enemy being a vampire, perhaps they have not had the time to reach the exchange point. Something tells me that the godling’s strange effect on reality would at least grant him a chance, though I am not so certain. Arriving just a tad late would be a good plot twist.
If we want to have a chance, we will need speed.
“Follow,” I say, and go to the counter where Wilhem is waiting. The blond man’s dark eyes fasten on my guest with a predatory intent. Bingle feels it and shivers.
“Wilhelm. Would you have a mount for my guest?”
“We do not lend Nightmares, even the half-blood ones, to mortals.”
“He is no mortal.”
Wilhelm turns his attention to me. His considerations are short. After a few seconds, he reluctantly nods.
“Very well. I do expect compensation. You will complete a task for me in return. Of little danger, and no more than a single night.”
“Go to the front of the manor, I will join you there.”
Behind us, Torran walks up.
“Wilhelm will want to keep an eye on his mount, my star. Would you care for my company? It will make the journey faster.”
“Of course, dear, though I would prefer it if you left our foe to me.”
“It is your Hunt.”
“Clan Natalis offers assistance with your ride, House Nirari,” comes a low, rumbling voice from behind. Lord Jarek is here, dressed in custom-fitted hunting leathers. It looks good on him though I suspect there is enough material involved to build a tent.
“It has been too long and the occasion could not be better. Will you allow it?”
“I will,” I add without hesitation. If there were a price, he would have mentioned it, and I will not look a gift lord in the mouth.
We walk out.
The pull of fate is silent now. It has been replaced by another, a sort of momentum that carries me forward and gives more weight to my steps. I am not sure what is happening, all I know is that it will be special. I turn to Bingle. He needs to understand.
“What you will experience now is a rare privilege,” I inform him.
To ride by our side, vampires who have lived through hell and slaughtered legions. I know this to be true.
Bingle nods, his expression serious. The weight of his failure has been momentarily lifted from his shoulders by his burning curiosity. He is still an adventurer at heart, and nothing speaks of adventure quite like a hidden order of whatever he thinks we are. The unexpected excitement is making him positively giddy.
Our little procession stops at the edge of the inner court and Jarek steps forward.
“I claim the lead as eldest.”
In my mind, the possibility of denying him dies before it can truly be born. Jarek is the eldest, and strongest. He shall lead the ride to a satisfactory conclusion. It is as should be.
Above, the Watcher’s tendrils uncoil lazily. It likes it when I experience things, I can tell. The vague feeling of satisfaction is both alien and clear beyond any doubt.
The Natalis lord steps forward and whistles.
The ground rumbles with the weight of ungodly hooves. The largest horse I have ever seen comes forth from the darkness.
Massive. There are no other words for it.
I thought Metis large and she is, but she is also built for speed and power both. This newcomer is a charger, bred to carry armored knights to and through enemy lines. Its dark saddle is so high that I would never be able drag myself up to it without jumping. The beast waits placidly as Jarek hoists his gigantic frame onto it. The size of the pair plays with my sense of perspective, until the dense forest leading to the bay comes into focus and I am forced to accept reality. They really are that big. If Famine, War or Pestilence came to herald the coming of the apocalypse, they would look like that.
Excitement fills my heart. Krowar is next and Torran takes Jarek’s right, then Wilhelm comes and takes his left, pulling behind him a shorter Nightmare. I help Bingle up and climb on a visibly excited Metis by his side. We are right behind the Natalis lord on either side of him.
Jarek turns briefly to ascertain that we are all ready. To our right, the balconies are filled with mortals and vampires who observe us in silence. The scene is deathly quiet as they wait for us to start.
Jarek lifts a gauntlet covered hand to the heavens then forward. His unnatural destrier walks at a leisurely pace. We follow.
We are slow, so deceptively slow, but there is, again, this momentum carrying us forward with the energy of an avalanche. We cross the bend at the top of the plateau and descend down the road along the cliff at a trot. The guards have opened all the gates and cleared the way. We trot down, our coming announced by a rumble like an emergent quake.
We reach flat ground.
Jarek lifts the compass in his armored hand. The construct looks no bigger than a marble between his giant fingers. The needle pointing South-East shines a strange purple hue.
We accelerate. Everything up to now was but a preparation for the real event. Wind pushes strands of hair from my face as trees and road drift past, the group now moving at a furious gallop. We ride. We move into a forested path and soon, there is nothing but us and the way forward. The deafening sound of Nightmares trampling the ground expands and reverberates until we are no longer few, but an endless horde charging through an infinite forest to a battlefield at the end of time. Under the sky and its eldritch denizen, we ride, and we cannot be stopped. Nothing exists but the smooth movements of Metis, our destination in front and the other predators by my side, united in purpose.
I do not know how long it takes for us to come in view of the clearing, probably less than a quarter hour. It felt both like much more and much less.
Jarek holds a fist and we slow down.
It is over.
For a moment there, I was part of something great. With only four of us, I felt like Attilla’s adoptive daughter riding down Aetius’ legions. What could we achieve with twenty, one hundred? It will likely never happen. Vampires are too divided, too solitary. But perhaps, one day…
I shake my head to regain my senses. This is a thought for another time.
Climbing down from Metis takes only a moment, one the others use to leave on their own business. I am left with a dazed Bingle, my own death pony and the mystical equivalent of a hangover.
The adventurer is the first to recover and I realize that he is quite committed to his cause. I shake my head and follow his skulking form, realizing that if evil befalls the soprano, the opera season will be ruined. I need to focus on what is important.
The clearing around us overlooks the Dorchester flats, with Boston far to our left. It used to be lived in but now lies abandoned and desolate. A single large structure stands in the middle, surrounded by overgrown vegetation on all sides. Upon closer inspection, the building is less a house and more a hall of some sorts with a glass cupola at its top. There are no lights and besides footsteps in the tall grass, no signs that this place has seen human presence in years. The contrast between the decrepit shell and the bustling city in the background is mesmerizing.
Bingle does not care for this at all. While the experience of the ride distracted me, it made him more focused. He crosses the unkempt lawn in angry strides up to the door.
I catch up to him before he can rush in. He turns to me, his face showing will and just a hint of bloodlust.
Did I change the story, somehow?
“I will cover you in case something goes wrong,” I tell him.
He nods in silence. As an afterthought, I pick up my silver pistol and present it to him, handle first. He carries another cane tonight and I fear that this one might not suffice.
“Take it. You may be heavily outnumbered.”
I expected him to resist and I am surprised when he picks the weapon with a grip that shows training.
“My debt towards you only grows,” he notes with a frown, before sneaking in without a sound.
Time to see this story to its conclusion. I look up and easily jump to the second floor, then to the dilapidated roof. I make my way to the cupola and realize with pleasure that one of the glass panels has been broken. I lean in and look below.
The remnants of a library occupies the massive open space beneath, carrying the scent of mold and a familiar spice. The walls are covered with empty bookshelves, now only hosting a handful of rotten tomes. A smattering of candles brings light to the desolate place, though I doubt mortals can see more than a few feet away. In the center, three people occupy a space left clear by the removal of work desks. I recognize the soprano of course, currently trussed up like a turkey, but also her cousin Miguel who appears to be suspiciously devoid of bindings. He is talking to a man in an expensive jacket that has seen better days. They are speaking in Spanish, and though I do not understand the content, they are clearly disagreeing with each other.
I now understand why Bingle would mention betrayal. Those two are conspirators, not enemies.
I turn my attention to the new man. He holds in his hands the Tiger Scepter. The artefact is the only thing of beauty in this den of treachery and neglect. Curiously, I feel revulsion at the thought of taking it from him.
I extend a tendril of essence down and to him, tasting his own. He is far and the exercise strains my control. The result is a vague sense of dampened aggression.
It appears that the decisive round of our little game will be played by our main assets. I will bet on the godling over whoever this one serves any night of the week. After all...
“Drop the staff, raise your hands in the air and step aside from the woman, slowly.”
My agent came prepared.
The unknown Vassal looks hesitantly to Miguel, then to the Scepter in his hands.
“I have not had to shoot anyone in two years sir, but do not think for a second that I would hesitate.”
His voice is cold and commanding. Desperation brought out the pragmatism in my companion. He would make a good Vassal himself...
No, Ariane, better not go there. I have enough trouble with mysterious and seemingly unstoppable entities as it is. No need to look for trouble.
The reality of their circumstances finally dawns on the pistolless pair. The Vassal delicately places the Tiger Scepter on the ground and stands back while giving his partner a knowing look. They are about as subtle as two gravid elephants in a China shop. Bingle does not acknowledge that he is aware of the cousin’s duplicity. He walks up towards the prostrate form of Sara now letting out muffled growls. Her treacherous cousin steps back and to the side.
“I always wondered how you knew Miss Diaz had the stone,” the adventurer says. His eyes are curiously on the ground by his side as he keeps his gun on the Vassal with a lazy aim.
I watch with rapt attention as Bingle lays his trap. It will be good, I am sure of it. Miguel takes a hidden stiletto from his sleeve and creeps forward while Sara moans impotently in her gag.
“Or how a warrior like Sarvajna could be caught off guard. Now I know. All the evidence...”
It happens fast. Miguel jumps and a glint of light reflects in the collapsed glass panel beneath me. I realize where the adventurer has been staring. He used the missing glass pane as a mirror.
Bingle rounds on Miguel. He holds the pistol in a hammer grip and slams it into the traitor’s hand. The other holds his cane below the pommel and presses a hidden button. A sharp blade snaps out of the implement’s end before seamlessly getting buried in the traitor’s tender abdomen.
“... points to you, Miguel.”
Ah, he could not resist, could he? I smile and since my time has come, I put on my mask and drop down through the shattered canopy, onto an empty bookshelf. I land in a crouch without disturbing its delicate balance, and not even the half-rotten wood groans under my light touch.
The Vassal was prepared and rushes forward. Only when Miguel’s blood dots the floor with crimson droplets does he realize his predicament. His hesitation costs him dearly. Bingle turns around and calmly aims.
He pulls the trigger.
A form moves through the room from a nearby hallway and interposes itself as the shot goes off.
I recognize her now! She was at the party with two Courtiers claiming to seek asylum. I remember little from her except that she is a Roland. Her face is strict and average with thick black hair, giving her the appearance of a governess, perhaps. She wears a black set of leather armor with plates around the heart and a metal choker. The bullet bites deep into her shoulder and I delight in the look of pain and surprise when she realizes that I only ever pack silver.
Her two Courtiers are close behind and spread on either side of her. Their armor is similar and they hold duelling swords which they aim at Bingle. The one on the left has the appearance of a veteran soldier and knows how to use his weapon, while the one on the right is more bookish and clearly isn’t enjoying himself.
“Let it go, child,” the woman says with a hint of wariness, “you should know when you are outclassed.
I believe this is my cue. I slowly clap while releasing my aura. It washes over the trio like a wave, forcing them to take a step back as I drop down. I slowly walk up to the small gathering, my smile hidden behind the mask. This is just so deliciously dramatic.
“I could not have put it better myself.”
“Yes. Me. You should have expected it, facing against a godling.”
While we talk, Bingle doesn’t waste time standing around doing nothing. He unbinds a protesting Sara who pushes him away with tears in her eyes. He lets her go and grabs the Scepter at his feet.
“You have no right to oppose me. I am merely reclaiming what is rightfully ours. We are protected by our status as seekers and attacking us is a violation of the neutrality covenant.”
“Ah, yes, that specific law, the one that is aimed at protecting newcomers from retribution. Tell me, do you know the obligations that come with such status?” I ask innocently.
The woman’s expression turns hesitant. She thought she could lawyer me. Hilarious.
“I learned the Accords through and through because my survival depended on it. In order to benefit from immunity, you must forfeit all previous allegiances and arrangements, including current operations… Yes. That includes retrieving a scepter from the hands of a godling. Your status will be revoked as soon as Constantine learns of your machinations.”
“Then I am sorry but you leave me no choice. You must be silenced until we can depart. I regret that I cannot give you a fair fight,” she says, and draws.
“I feel the same way. After all, there are only three of you,” I reply mockingly even as her Vassal leaves.
She charges in with her two companions in support. I sweep at the approaching figure only for the left Courtier to dash forward after the retreating forms of my allies.
Using one of Nami’s tricks I step back and strike the approaching Master at the same time. I channel the Natalis essence and the strength of the blow catches her by surprise. She is pushed back. I reverse my grip and stab to my left without looking.
The Courtier falls, a bleeding wound where his heart used to be.
One down, two to go.
“By the Eye,” the woman says before moving again, this time more cautiously and we fight in earnest.
I have to admit, her confidence is well founded. I am faster and stronger but her technique is exquisite and my lack of experience fighting duels on open ground shows. She deflects my strikes with economical movements, waiting for an opening then counter attacks mercilessly. The Courtier by her side almost never attacks but his presence hovering by her side continues to pose a danger. Their style is the most defensive I have ever faced and I am starting to think there is some truth to them surviving the fall of their coven. I finally manage to overwhelm her after a flurry of blows that leave the air ringing with the sound of metal on metal. As she stumbles back, I throw two daggers with strength.
She falls to the side, dodging them. As expected. The satisfied grin on her face fades as soon as she hears the gurgling sound of her companion’s shred throat.
“I wasn’t aiming at you.”
“No! You, this isn’t over. You are but a child.”
The man falls incapacitated, the grievous wound too much for him. Only the Master is still capable of putting up a fight. Since it worked the first time, I launch another series of furious attacks, culminating in a sweep that knocks her blade from her fingers. Disappointing. I close in for the kill.
An immediate sense of danger and urgency makes me falter and I barely react to her next move. She extends her hand. An instant later, an oversized estoc manifests in it and punches clean through my mask, leaving a deep furrow in my cheek.
I fall back and resist the urge to touch the wound. Keeping hidden claws are we? Let’s see how well she uses them.
Now that her trap is sprung, she adapts her style to using her soul weapon. Her reach is longer and striking the blade feels like hitting the side of a mountain. I keep moving around her looking for openings but her defense is flawless and I want to avoid being hurt. Worse, my armor is now useless before this blade. Even the heart protector would only deflect a glancing blow.
So hard to crack. So annoying. I could escape her easily but this is not what I want. I want her to be broken and at my mercy. The small wounds I manage to land do not impede her and it would take only one lucky hit to take me down. We dance for a while and then I get an opportunity. I block an overhead sweep and with one last ominous crack, the steel shaft breaks in two pieces.
She roars in triumph. I let her blade slide along my shoulder plate as I crouch then push on, closing the distance. I stab at her with the half spear I now hold. She blocks it before I can bury its cruel edge into her chest. At the same time, I grab her other hand.
This is now a contest of strength and I will CRUSH HER. She claws pointlessly at the armor’s heavily enchanted arm brace while my own talons dig deep into her flesh until they shatter her wrist. She screams and drops her soul blade, then braces and tries to kick me in the face. Cute. Lambert did it better. I grab her foot and lift it higher, then sweep the other from under her. She falls. I fall on her.
RIP HER APART. She manages to cover her neck while I straddle her. I slash her arms, painting great lines of blood across the floor. Mine now.
“I surrender! Please...”
Surrender? I will EAT YOU.
A voice I was not expecting wakes me from my bloodlust. The familiar aura flares at my back, towards the entrance. Who does HE THINK HE IS? She’s my prey, I’m not sharing!
“What do you want?” I growl, and stop savaging my captive. The vanquished one under me stops moving as well. She shows her throat. Good.
“This is your first fight since you joined our society,” the intruder says.
“The decision you take now will affect the relationship with your peers for years to come. It is customary to accept surrenders when offered unless the conflict is too great. It is also customary to spare our kin whenever feasible. One day, you may be glad that someone extends this courtesy to you.”
“Talk talk talk. You talk too much. I win. I feast. This is the way of things.”
“This is the darker path. I ask that you reconsider, my star, at least until the rage of battle abates.”
“And why would I do that?” I growl.
“Because...” Torran starts, then seems to reconsider. His mouth twists into an evil smile as he steps forward, exuding confidence.
“Because you are being a brat and I will discipline you if you don’t.”
“Discipline me? I’d like to see you try!”
“Then come,” he answers with a smile then opens his arms in welcome.
He dares. I’ll show him who is the queen, I bow before NO ONE!
I jump at him, spearhead held tight in my fist.
He manifests his soul weapon. It is a two-handed sword of ridiculous size, the most intricate and beautiful work I have ever seen bar none. It is even more majestic than Suarez’ broadsword.
He swipes, so fast that I can barely follow.
The spearhead soars into the air.
A hand at the back of my head punches me into the ground. I yelp in pain, then in surprise when two talons grab my neck. I try to squirm out but the pressure only increases. I stop fighting.
Torran lifts me by the neck like a kitten until we face each other. With his other hand, he unfastens my mask which falls to the floor. The cold air washes over my face, stinging the wound on my cheek.
“Better?” He asks with a sly voice.
“Not... exactly,” I answer. I lick my lips. This is strange. I hate restraints with a passion and yet Torran’s hand on my neck does not fill me with fury and horror. I trust him implicitly, therefore I am not trapped. I am, however, dominated. The same instincts that pushed me to kill a moment ago now ask that I present my throat so that I do not die and since it’s Torran, and he is my partner, the sensation is not entirely unpleasant. He did, after all, just crush me. That makes him powerful on top of everything else. Hmm.
“I will consent to taking them prisoner. Your arguments have weight.”
We both chuckle, and he releases me. I drop down and lean slightly against his chest, breathing in the scent of him. He is solid under my fingers. His presence is grounding and even relaxing. We stay there for a moment while behind us, the woman helps her second Courtier up. The first one she will have to carry. A destroyed heart will not heal in a single night, unless one has access to extremely potent blood.
The woman’s Vassal returns and helps them and soon, we are ready to depart. We leave the building in a single group. Outside, I find Jarek on top of his monstrosity of a Nightmare patiently waiting for us. He lifts a brow when we exit the building with three vampires in tow, though he does not comment on it.
In laconic fashion, he informs us that Wilhelm escorted “your godling and that noisy girl” back to the city. The return trip is tamer than its predecessor, and while we ride in silence, I find myself thinking. More specifically, I think of him. Torran is by my side with his steely grey glare and impeccable poise. His ruddy face makes him look mature and weathered, the kind of man who has seen it all and remains unimpressed. He is a bit terrifying in a warlord kind of way, and he has the body and sword to back it up. Then, he turns to me and his entire demeanor changes. He goes from strict to roguish, and unbending to solid in an instant. His traits grow softer.
I want him. I want him enough that I no longer fear intimacy. I want to kiss him and feel him and all those other things I know of. Living in a brothel jaded me towards lovemaking, or so I thought. Overexposure made it a messy, fleshy affair that I had little interest in, something that others did. Now though, I realize that sex is what you make of it and I really, really want to make something great.
The last remnant of the conservative girl I was complains that we have only known the man for a bit under two weeks and that lying with him would make us a hussy. The more mature part of me says that we are technically a fifty years old spinster and that, really, fuck it. I have waited long enough. Carpe diem, or is it carpe noctem? No matter.
I want him.
“Say Torran, do you have any plan for the rest of the evening?” I ask in what I hope is an unaffected voice.
“No?” he replies with half-lidded eyes.
I’m not subtle, am I?
“Would you care to join me in my room? There is... something I would like to show you.”
Torran takes a very careful expression. I hope I was not too forward, and that he doesn’t think any less of me.
“Of course, Ariane. You can show me whatever you want.”
And I thought I was too direct. I frown, but in the end, decide not to take offence. Nobody will take this night from me, not even myself.
The door closes behind me. This is it.
I am nervous.
Torran walks up and hugs me from behind. I am not tactile, not since I was turned, yet this firm embrace soothes me. Torran is solid and dependable, and he has shown time and time again that he was there for me, even when I had lost myself. We have known each other for all of two weeks, I remember. Somehow it feels longer than that.
My lover remains silent. He must have an idea what goes through my mind right now. He knows that I am scared. What he may not know is that I am also eager. It happened during our very short fight, when he showed me the steel under that composure of his. It was not the violence itself but the control and power behind it that made me want him.
I turn in his embrace and reach up to kiss him. He is hungrier than before and a bit demanding. My nervousness disappears before his passion and I close my eyes to enjoy the moment. His hands caress my shoulders and my back and for a while, we just enjoy each other’s presence. Rather quickly, I feel something hard push against my belly.
Torran takes a half-step away. He knows what I felt. His face is unapologetic, waiting for my decision.
“Be sure what you want Ariane, because I am done holding myself back.”
In answer, I place my hand on the flat expanse of his stomach and trail down until I reach the tip of his erect member. Torran groans and grabs me as I yelp in delight. There is much I want to see, and he is eager to show. For the rest of the night, I know only him.
I submerge in piping hot water and luxuriate in the amazing feeling of the warm water surrounding my body. Last night was so great. On one hand, I am horrified that it took me so long to experience lovemaking. On the other hand, it probably had to be Torran. That man is talented. Dangerously so.
A knock on my bedroom door forces me to lift my head off the bathwater.
“Guests milady. Your friends Naminata and sister Jimena.”
“Those busybodies…” I grumble, then louder: “let them in, I will join them momentarily.”
I dry myself in a hurry and pick up a light pink dress which I put on. I leave my hair down and come out into the main room.
“Look at that slovenly girl, Jimena dear. One night of sin and she’s already given up on propriety,” a sly voice remarks.
“That’s rich coming from you, Nami. How is Jarek by the way?”
“Hanging around, I’m sure.”
I wince. I should not get Nami started on him or she’ll be debating about the perfect… scrotum. For a good ten minutes. Again.
“We heard that Torran spent the night. We are delighted for you, sister,” Jimena says.
“How do you know already?” I ask with horror.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep such things secret in this place. The staff also loves gossip, and as a newcomer yourself, you are a prime target. You must also take recent events into consideration.”
“You mean the trial?”
“The trial, the hearing, your lineage. There are also rumors of an arrangement with Constantine to take over a new region as the entire state of Illinois has been taken off the list of available lands.”
I did not know that.
“Your duel with Torran yesterday morning impressed a few people as well. There are few who can offer a challenge to a warrior like him. And you’re so young as well, my little lemon pie!” Nami explains.
“And now you went and nabbed one of this den’s most eligible bachelors.”
“I admit that he exceeds all my expectations,” I cannot help but remark. The other two smile at each other knowingly.
“Oh, it is not just that. You don’t know why he is here, do you?” Nami asks smugly.
“He mentioned his technical expertise was needed. He was quite vague.”
“Naturally so. He did not want the knowledge of who he really is to affect you. Many would chase him just for what he can do.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I ask with suspicion.
Naminata smiles knowingly and nods to herself.
“He is one of the world’s few soul smiths, my sweet.”
“He can help Masters bring soul weapons into being. That is why he is here.”
“I know what a soul smith is! Why are you telling me this only now?”
“He requested that we do not share this knowledge and we agreed.”
On one hand, I understand him. I too, would prefer if someone was attracted to who I am instead of what strategic value I have. On the other…
“Have you two and my lover been plotting together all this time?”
“Of course, dear,” Nami declares as if it was obvious.
“From the very beginning,” Jimena adds, “he came to us for advice on how to best approach our favorite thorny rose.”
“It is for your own good, my little strawberry,” Nami retorts, “how else could we get you out of your shell? You needed a very special blend of silk and steel to let yourself go and he was only too happy to provide it. We are delighted that it worked just as planned.”
I hold my head between my hands.
“Am I that easy to read?” I complain, dejected.
“You are not. In terms of emotions, however, you are surprisingly consistent, sister,” Jimena says with a gentle voice.
“‘Tis a good thing to be reliable in love and business, unpredictable in schemes and wars,” Nami adds. This sounds like good wisdom, especially coming from her.
“Don’t look at me like that, treacle cake, I am predictable in some ways.”
“You always go for the hunkiest beefcake?”
“That too,” she answers without a hint of embarrassment.
I shake my head. This is a surprise, and though I understand Torran’s choice, we must still have a talk.
“So Torran is here to create soul weapons. What about the other two lords who arrived with him? What are their plans?”
Nami and Jimena glance at each other. Jimena shrugs and Nami starts.
“We are not sure. The most likely event is an arrangement for both Hastings and Natalis clans to take over a domain, though this is mere speculation. Lady Sephare holds a lot of sway in the United Kingdom. She would have to sacrifice it all to come here herself and none of her protégées qualify either.”
“Indeed,” Jimena continues, “there could be other reasons such as a trade agreement or simply Constantine’s expertise. He is possibly the most prominent blood mage in existence, after all.”
I bet he isn’t.
“In any case, we will know soon enough. All three of them came to an agreement two days ago, an official declaration is sure to follow.”
“Speaking of time,” I interject, “you have stayed here for a long time, Jimena. Is your position with the Knights assured?”
“It is. I am afforded more flexibility than the squad; therefore, I can stay here until my next task comes up. Hopefully not too soon.”
“I will stay as well, honey,” Nami continues with a devious smile, “you always bring me the best and most interesting things.”
“... are you referring to the Merghol mana hounds?”
“Absolutely. The Book of Lives can be accessed via several physical tomes, one of which is in New Orleans under Kouakou’s care. I already shared that Hunt, including its last glorious moment. You’re famous!”
A dreadful foreboding fills my heart.
“We are talking about my incredible stunt right? The part where I threw a lit powder charge down the beast’s gullet?”
She just smiles.
“We imbue the recollection with a smidgen of essence. Your face just after the creature projectile-vomited on your back was so priceless...”
“It was! And now the whole of clan Ekon is grateful for your contribution. I received several commendations for having saved your life back in New Orleans. Some call me the Devourer Wrangler.”
“Forget I asked...” I reply, appalled.
Jimena smiles knowingly and asks in turn.
“Speaking of embarrassment, how is Urchin doing? Remember that you can always cast him out if he fails your expectations.”
“He is doing adequately. I sent him to get a new wardrobe and I have taught him better posture, manner and, most importantly, proper Akkad. My hope is to have him promoted from street thug to fancy highwayman by the end of the year.”
“He does not know the tongue? You do not have to teach him yourself, you know? Constantine has several books available for self-studies.”
“That would help if he knew how to read.”
“You must be joking.”
“Alas, no. Why are you even surprised?”
“You are correct of course. I wonder who changed him and what pushed them to do so. There are rumors that Vanheim him or herself is to blame for these random occurrences.”
“You don’t say. Urchin would be a first generation vampire? Like me?”
“Hard to say. The Vanheim progenitor is barely more than a legend at this stage.”
At this moment, Solveig stands up to answer a knock on the door. She walks back to give me an envelope. It contains a message from Wilhelm requesting my presence, quite possibly to pay back the favor he did for me yesterday. I dislike having debts, and so I take my leave of the others and go see what the steward wants from me.