Today is a mighty important day! It’s the day we finally get to call ourselves full-fledged mages and wear the white uniform with the golden tassels, even us girls! Well, if we pass the final exam, of course. I am not too worried, though. Reggie said it would be a piece of cake, and besides, we passed every other exam with flying colors. What I really want is to beat Cornelius and wipe that self-assured grin off his stupid mug.
The teams have gathered at the academy. The familiar complex of solid wooden logs with the practice field feels different at night. More like a field camp than a school. The instructors have lit braziers and they all wear a serious expression and their battle gear. This is all quite intimidating! Even instructor Lydia looks fierce with her pistol and gauntlet. I think they just want us to be in the mood and it’s working. I haven’t felt this stressed since the entrance examinations.
As soon as everyone is here, Professor Tilley has us group up by teams, in ranks of two with the leader up front. Reggie is our captain. With his square jaw and dreamy green eyes, he is quite the dashing figure! He looks forward with aplomb and I find comfort in his confident stance and wide shoulders. That Cornelius wastrel sneers at us, but our dauntless leader would not even acknowledge his presence! That will show him.
After Reginald, there is Carmela, looking as fierce and aloof as usual. True to her nickname of “the Amazon,” she stands tall and uncaring, looking nifty with her saber. Our shield-master Cedric is his usual bubbling self. He can barely stop moving, and I can see the restraint he must exert not to start one of his usual jokes. Oh, what a cad! I hope his good mood carries us through this ordeal as well. Then, there is Will, as silent and brooding as usual. I’m sure his keen intellect is already picking up clues and tips to help us get ahead. And then there’s me. I may not look like much, but my firebolts are second to none! I worked hard for this, and even Professor Tilley commended me for their power and accuracy. Take that Cornelius! Where are your tradition and lineage now huh? You can shove your “mongrel” remarks up your—
Before my thought can finish, a man exits the command room and walks to the center of the line of teachers. It’s the Black Dog himself! My God, he is so young! I knew this, of course, but to see it with my own eyes!
I met old Coolridge when he oversaw the entrance ceremony last October and, well, he looked like that kind of general from the stories who cares for his men. This Hopkins person is different. He wears the black uniform Coolridge had disdained and it suits him like a glove. And he seems… I don’t know, dangerous? His dark eyes pass over us and I shiver a bit. He reminds me of Will when he had us skirt the rules to win the previous game. Like he would go to any length to achieve victory. I’m not sure I like it, but if that kind of man can protect others from what befell my family then I won’t complain.
After he is done with his inspection, the Black Dog addresses us. His voice is curt and clear, silencing our whispers in an instant.
“Welcome, students, to this year’s practical exam. Tonight, you will take part in a mock mission that will push your training and adaptability to their very limits. I expect each and every one of you to act like the war mages you have trained to become. Good luck and do us proud. That is all.”
With those few words, he steps back and Tilley takes the ground. That’s it? That’s the inspirational speech a general delivers? I cannot say that I’m impressed…
But then there is no more time for diversion. Tilley is explaining the details of the mission.
“Your task tonight is as follows: you will go with your team to an outpost built deep within the Spiderwood forest. There, you will meet up with the patrol leader who will give you further instructions. We will send you out one team at a time. Team Zephyr starts immediately, the rest of you head inside the canteen to wait your turn.”
We walk back inside the complex through a wide door and sit at our usual tables in the building’s long refectory. Every team plans and discusses in low voices and we are no exception.
“What do you think?” I ask no one in particular.
“Orientation, followed by a patrol and a fight,” Carmela starts in her smooth alto, “the Spiderwood is dense enough that they can set up an ambush. Test our awareness.”
“So kind of you to untangle that web,” Cedric deadpans, forcing all of us to groan. Yet when we resume our conversation, the mood is slightly lighter. This is Cedric’s gift. He can always bring levity at our darkest time, like that time he comforted me during Christmas. I do not know if the others have noticed how much of a difference it makes, but I have.
“I agree with Carmela,” Reginald continues calmly, “I think we can use lanterns until the camp then switch to spells during the patrol. That way, we conserve our aura and reduce our exposure right as the enemy attacks. What do you think, Will?”
“Yes, I heard you. I think it’s fine.”
We all turn to the broody boy. He is resting his chin on his hands, fingers interlaced together. He usually does that when he is formulating one of his dastardly plans.
“What’s the matter, my friend?” Cedric asks.
“Nothing yet… just… something Hopkins said.”
“What, that speech?” Reggie scoffs, “that was miserable. Perhaps Cornelius was right, and this man doesn’t have the shoulders to lead. A true general should make one’s blood boil with only a few words!” he declares with passion.
Reggie is so heroic! He is all fire and fury and I am so proud. With him as a leader, we are the best team around and fear nothing and no one!
“Hmm,” Will answers noncommittally as his dark eyes bore into Reggie’s righteous expression, “perhaps. In any case, we should do as you say until we receive further orders.”
We continue to converse as two more teams are led away. Soon, only Cornelius’s team, as well as Phenix team, Pearl team and ours, are left. I feel more and more anxious for some reason and soon realize the cause. The instructors are coming and going wearing peculiar expressions. Their faces are too… blank. Should they be this nervous? I mean, we are the ones taking the exam, right?
Soon, it is our turn and Tilley leads us away to the armory where we retrieve our gear, as well as lanterns, a map, and other sundries.
“Is something the matter, sir?” asks Will who picked on the professor’s apparent nervousness.
“Nothing you need to concern yourselves with,” the older man retorts curtly, “just focus on the mission, that is all you need to do.”
We follow him to a smaller gate out of the enclave and directly into the Spider Wood. The line of tall trees looks much more ominous under the night light, their branches now the gnarled hands of some petrified witches.
“Your mission starts now. Good luck,” Tilley says, then hurries back as if there was an emergency.
“That’s queer,” Cedric observes with furrowed brows. We do not reply, and soon all turn to face the expanse of dark woods before us.
Spider Wood may have a sinister name, but in truth it’s just a large patch of wood left completely untamed at the edge of Avalon. It remains untouched, mostly for training purposes and also as a buffer against the mundane world. We have crossed it a few times for orientation practice as well as games and mock battles. The “capture the flag” operations are particularly fun because the wood is so dense. There are many hiding spots and secret paths and Will is devious beyond measure, giving our squad the edge every time.
We are on familiar grounds.
“Night-patrol formation. Let’s do this, people,” Reggie announces in his serious voice. We light some lanterns and walk into the dense shrubs, searching for a path. Cedric opens the way as usual. Not only does he have keen senses, he also wears an enchanted piece of cavalry breastplate and a heavy helmet. Reggie and Carmela follow and provide illumination. Then, there is me, who can throw the best bolts as well as a decent shield. Finally, Will closes the march in the black ensemble he chose. He also carries a small crossbow and though both he and Reggie know how to use pistols, we do not have any at the moment. We walk slowly through the dense vegetation in a single file and I am grateful that the clothes we wear are thick enough to protect my legs from both brambles and insects.
It does not take long for the lights of the town to disappear and the forest to close in around us. The world is reduced to bulbous tree trunks strangled by ivy, branches and roots that grab at our feet and above our head, an impenetrable canopy. The two bobbing lights from the lanterns become our talismans to ward off the darkness. All I can hear are our heavy breaths, the snaps of broken twigs and the creaks of live wood. After a while, a curious sensation of timelessness grips my heart and I start to wonder if perhaps we are lost, if the trail no longer exists and we crossed some fae arch to disappear in this green hell for all of eternity.
Fortunately, we find the beaten path before this curious idea grows into more than a fantasy.
“That’s the Wilson trail,” Reginald comments, “we can follow it to the flag clearing, then the camp is just around a bend, according to the map.”
We turn right and walk for another fifteen minutes. It feels good to see the stars again. Eventually, the path widens into a glade with a massive willow tree at its center. That’s where we won our first capture the flag battle against that pompous dolt Cornelius and his cronies! I remember the area well, except that under the light of the moon it feels much less friendly.
“Was this always here?”
We gather in front of the huge trunk, struck by disbelief. Its previously pristine bark is now shredded, lacerated by a double set of claws. The marks are so deep that I could easily hide two knuckles in the furrows.
“It’s like a beast marked its territory or something,” Cedric exclaims.
“What kind of beast?! There isn’t anything in the Spiderwood that can leave such marks,” Carmela objects, her hand on the hilt of her saber.
“A black bear?” Reginald suggests, hesitant.
Will approaches and silently places his hand against the maimed bark. Even spaced at their widest, there is no way for his fingers to touch the outermost ditches.
“My God…” I helplessly remark. A black bear? More like a grizzly!
“Do you recognize the markings?” Reginald asks our resident know-it-all.
“Maybe,” Will answer cautiously, “it’s just that… No. No, it can’t be.”
“Well, out with it, man,” Cedric urges.
We all freeze in shock and horror.
“The final exam can’t be a werewolf, right?” Cedric asks with fear.
“Impossible! Don’t be ridiculous, man,” Reginald chides him, “they would never allow fresh recruits against such a monster and particularly not in a wooded area. No, I think it’s unexpected.”
“What should we do then? We can’t exactly go toe to toe against a werewolf!”
“I agree that it would be suicide, but right now we need to link up with the patrol at the outpost. It would still be safer than heading back.”
We all agree, and I remember the classes we had on werewolves. They are cursed humans who turn into giant lupine hybrids under the influence of the full moon or, sometimes, voluntarily. In wolf form, they are vicious creatures that kill for sport. They are incredibly fast, monstrously strong, and their claws can carve steel as if it were wax. They are even more dangerous in forests and the deadliest ones temper their savagery with humanlike cunning. Only experienced groups track them down and still incur the occasional casualties. I remember that Carmela’s elder sister was killed in such a hunt, poor thing.
If this is truly a werewolf, we must act with all haste. We are vulnerable!
“Let’s go quickly,” Will urges us.
We follow the trail out of the clearing and the forest swallows us once more. Everyone has their weapons out and I call upon my magic. I feel my aura suffuse my body and I guide it to the gauntlet where it lays, quiescent and ready. The energy glows softly in my mind like a reliable and constant companion. I have but to use the right symbol and say the word, and by my will manifest a spear of fire that can go through a man without slowing down.
Not that I ever did such a thing!
We are tense, checking every angle but never stopping along the way. Visibility is reduced when the road turns around a bend. We instinctively accelerate as the fires of the outpost come into view.
Something is wrong.
“Stay in formation,” Reginald urges us as we move closer.
There are no sentries and as we get close enough, I notice a discarded helmet on the ground. Some lanterns around the perimeter are still shining.
We enter the outpost still in a circle with me at the center. It is closer to a treehouse than to a real installation. Just a few benches around a fire, three tents and a rope leading up to an observation post.
Reginald gestures us in. There are no bodies but it smells like blood… and soon we find the source: a trail of red leading further into the woods as if something heavy had been dragged.
“God no…” Carmela whispers softly, her voice quavering.
“There is only one track, and the rest of the camp left in a hurry,” Cedric observes, “think they went after the beast?”
“To rescue their comrade, undoubtedly!” Reggie proclaims.
I look at the blood on the ground. All that red… No, I have not seen the body so I must not give in to despair. Still…
“We must go after them. They might need our help!” our fearless leader proclaims, and I feel courage fill my heart. Yes, we are to be war mages! We need to act like proper heroes!
All of us nod, our faces grim yet determined. All of us except Will. We all turn to him, surprised.
“Will?” Reggie frowns, his chiseled jaw locked by anger.
“I think we should head back to town and call for reinforcements.”
“What? And leave the others alone?” Reggie explodes.
“Calm down, Reggie, please,” Cedric says with a grim expression. As for Carmela, she is staring around frantically, trying to cover all angles.
I don’t know what to say. This is the first time I saw Will argue for a full retreat.
“We are not equipped to face a werewolf. Only Carmela has a silver blade and my silver-tipped quarrels are too small, not to mention that I have only the three. If we fall back now, we can have this place crawling with veteran fighters in half an hour.”
“These men don’t have half an hour!”
“You don’t know that, and you should consider that we could be more hindrance than actual help.”
“I never took you for a coward!” Reginald bellows, red with fury.
William, the ever-placid William, takes a deep breath in as his face contorts with unbridled anger. Then, just as I believe the two will come to blows, he settles down and his visage grows as cold and aloof as usual. I don’t like it when he does this, bury it all inside, but now is not the moment to fight. We must follow Reggie’s lead!
“Very well, I suppose you will have to learn by yourself. Lead the way, oh fearless leader,” the dark man answers, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
I can tell that Reggie has been needled beyond reason but his anger is misplaced.
“Reggie, if we want to help them, we must leave now,” I declare.
“Right, form up,” he says, with a last venomous look at our friend. Reginald takes the lead with his gauntlet prepped and dagger raised. Cedric follows and then Carmela too, after a delay. She seems despondent. I don’t like it. Oooh, I don’t like any of this. Why is the team arguing now? And is Carmela fine? No one said anything to her.
“Carmie?” I ask in a soft voice, but she doesn’t respond. Her eyes are still looking around, haunted, and her back is bent forward.
I’m not so sure that this is a good idea. We are in way over our head. What Will said is true… No, I must not doubt Reggie, not now. He is a true gentleman and one day he will become Black Dog, I am sure of it.
“I will take point. Cedric and Carmela, be prepared to cover me. Mina, keep that spell ready and Will, give us night vision.”
Night vision is one of those weird spells that Will picked up at the library that no one else wanted. Thieves’ magic, Cornelius would say. It has proven useful on more than one occasion though.
“Pierce the veil,” Will whispers, and I can feel my view grow clearer and the world comes into focus. We leave the lanterns behind and trot forward.
A blind man could follow the trail. Besides the blood, there are also the many footsteps of pursuers. We follow the chaos for a few minutes before seeing our first signs of combat. In another clearing, this one caused by a fallen tree, we find broken weapons and spell impacts but mercifully no other bodies.
“We can’t be too far, keep going,” Reggie urges us. I am getting really worried about Carmela but there is little I can do right now.
We burst into yet another clearing, this one unfamiliar, and stop in our tracks. Surprise robs me of my speech.
I expected a battlefield, I expected dead people and to some extent, I expected howls but certainly not this.
The small valley has an incline with us at its bottom. Above us, a massive stone rises up from the grass. Below it sit three mages, clearly still alive and bound by chains, and on top of the stone itself, the displayed corpse of the werewolf.
I had never seen one before but there is no mistaking it. The body is humanoid, to some extent, though the head is as lupine as can be with a jaw filled with serrated teeth shining gloomily under the moonlight. Sharp, long claws hang from its long fingers. They are big enough to circle my waist with room to spare!
And someone killed it?
And took the mages prisoner?
How can this be?
Paralyzed by fear and indecision, we helplessly witness the spectacle before us. Reggie is the first to speak, and his sentence summarizes our minds well.
“What in the name of God is going on?”
Immediately, we get our answer.
It starts with an aura, not the rich and shimmering one we all share but a cold and unyielding wave of power unlike anything I have ever felt before. It crashes against the squad and pulls us under, subjugating our spirits beneath its frigid claws. I gasp and hold my chest. Carmela’s blade slides from her helpless fingers. We all moan and fight the onset of despair, for something is coming.
Heavy hooves stomp on the ground with deliberate slowness and I turn my head to the right to see a figure that my worst nightmares could not have conjured. A gigantic warhorse walks in our direction. Powerful muscles roll lazily under a coat as dark as soot. Eyes of flaming red regard us with disdain from up high, and even I can tell the incredible power waiting to be unleashed. This is the king of war horses, and if the apocalypse comes and the pale knight rides, it will do so on the back of such a creature.
Sitting comfortably on the infernal beast is a young woman.
She is beautiful, with delicate golden hair around an elegant face. Her blue eyes inspect us impassibly and the normalcy stops there, for below her neck she is clad in a midnight suit of armor that an emperor would envy. An intricate lattice of plates clings to her lithe form and on her chest, she bears an unknown coat of arms as strange as it is threatening. She also holds in her hand a cruel hunting spear coated with blood.
The aura comes from her. It rolls from her silhouette in waves like a winter storm, flaying us with its sheer intensity. It freezes me to my soul.
“More snacks!” she mocks in a haughty voice, “Such an auspicious night. You all just come running, do you not?”
I turn to Reggie, too out of sort to even start to think.
“Who are you and what have you done? This is White Cabal territory!” he boldly claims.
“I say this is my territory since I hunt in it,” she replies, uncaring, “and I hope that you will offer more of a challenge than your predecessors.”
“Release our friends immediately!” Reggie orders with a squeaky voice that I can barely recognize. I turn around and see that Carmie is ignoring us, still staring at the wolf’s corpse while Will’s expression is a frozen mask. The only other person to react is Cedric.
“Reggie… My God Reggie…”
“I-I think… she’s a vampire!”
We turn to the woman, even Carmela, and watch in disbelief as she slowly, slowly grins, revealing pointed fangs. As she does it, a passing cloud shifts and moonlight bathes her alabaster skin in a ghostly light. My fear turns to panic.
“Hold fast,” Reggie trumpets, “hold fast and we have nothing to fear! We are the shield of Avalon!”
The woman chuckles and slides off her mount with preternatural grace. She steps forward while twirling her spear in the air then stops fifteen paces away from us.
“You have nothing to fear? Let me put this to the test.”
Then she disappears. One instant she’s away, in a relaxed stance and the next she is by our side, holding Carmela by the neck.
“Shit!” Cedric swears.
“Let her go, you monster, guiding blade!” Reggie screams and he throws his dagger. The projectile flies into the air! Unfortunately, the devious vampire moves and the projectile rakes Carmela’s flank! She screams in pain causing all of us to stop. The vampire lifts fingers now coated in blood and licks them languidly.
“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you?” she asks Reginald with palpable contempt.
None of us dare move. None of us act as the vile monster bares our sobbing friend’s neck and bites it. We are still paralyzed a few seconds later when her groans are silenced and the creature drops her unmoving form.
“Noooooooooo!” I scream, “no! Carmela!”
“You beast!” Reggie roars.
She won’t get away with it! I’ll send her to the abyss!
Hundreds of hours of practice have made my spells true. The beautiful and familiar crimson streak dashes across the valley.
The woman lifts a hand which now shines blue. With contemptuous ease, she slaps my spell away!
“Is that all?” she asks with a bored voice.
“Firebolt!” I yell once more, soon followed by the others. We send hexes and curses after the demon but she either deflects or dodges them all. She does not even move from her place! Is she mocking us?
“Do not relent!” Reggie bellows, and we keep firing. Three by three, we send ineffectual projectiles after her. I have never felt so powerless, even when my family was killed. I fight back the fear and the grief, not just for Carmela but also for the rest of us.
We are going to die here.
And then something else happens. I now realize that we have indeed attacked by three, which means… that William disappeared! I now see a blur moving closer to the vampire, step by step. I must distract her!
“Light!” I scream, and a blue ray extends from my gauntlet to the creature’s head. She closes her eyes. Yes! This is our chance!
Will jumps at her back with one of his silver-tipped bolts used as an improvised stiletto. Hope surges in my heart.
Then the monster turns and catches William mid-lunge.
“A commendable effort, you even masked the noise.”
She dodges one last spell and bites down, staring Reggie in the eye. She’s making sure we see William perish! No, I will not allow that!
Reggie charges forward, and I follow him bravely! We must not give up!
Then something queer happens.
I am sent in the air.
I push myself from the ground and spit grime and leaves. Gah! What happened? Cedric, Reggie and I are in a heap on the ground? How?
It’s the vampire. She’s toying with us.
It’s… over, it really is.
We are doomed.
Carmela and Will, my friends…
I can’t believe it. This has to be an illusion, a nightmare! We were just going to become war mages! How can it all turn out like this?!
“Disappointing. Pathetic. Are you really combat mages?”
“We will… not falter!” Reggie spits, his spirit unbroken.
The vampire’s cold blue eyes turn to him with slow purpose and I feel an intense weight settling on my shoulder like a mighty yoke. Reggie flinches.
“You must be the leader of this sorry lot.”
“I am Reginald Lewis…”
“I care not,” the vampire interrupts and Reggie’s voice dies in his throat. I feel something like a presence in my mind, a pervasive poison that fills me with dread but try as I might, I cannot shake it off. She’s doing something to me!
“You are a poor excuse of a man to send this ragtag joke of a troop against me.”
She blurs again and when I see her, she is holding Cedric by the neck, her other hand digging into his armor as if it were paper.
Cedric, kind-hearted Cedric, squirms and screams in her hold.
When will the nightmare end? I let my tears fall freely from my cheeks. What can I do? What can I do? She’s just too fast, too strong! Nothing we’ve done even bothered her!
“There,” she continues casually as if she were entertaining guests, “do tell him about honor and glory. Go on.”
She squeezes and Cedric yells in pain.
“Your pointless sacrifice honors the Cabal! Your fighting spirit will live on in the afterlife!” she declares in a fake voice, a mockery of Reggie’s previous statements.
“Go on, leader,” she urges Reggie. Her fangs are bared in a nightmarish smile, sly and filled with disdain. Oh yes, so filled with disdain.
“Tell him you’ll win.”
We never stood a chance.
Reggie’s face is a mask of pain and powerlessness. He, too, is crying. Then to my surprise, he swallows his sobs and turns to me.
I am so scared.
I leave all my friends behind in this place of death, their corpses strewn across the grass. I run and I do not look back, and the worst thing is that I already know it will be for nothing.
She’s just too fast. I won’t make it back to the camp, much less back to town.
It’s all over.
As I run with all the desperation, I suddenly remember something. A voice I heard only an hour ago. It feels like an eternity now.
“Act like the war mage you have trained to become,” the Black Dog had said.
That’s right. I am a war mage. If I must die, let my sacrifice be of use.
I will warn the others!
I shift right on the path, to a slightly more open area where the sky was opened by the fall of a large aspen. I channel all my power, all my will into one last spell.
“I wonder what you hope to achieve…” an amused voice comments behind me. I turn around and see her only a few steps away from me. She stands there like a lady at court, talking about the weather. The contrast between her polite observation and the slaughter behind chills me to the bone.
The gauntlet thrums with power and my hand is uncomfortably warm. This is it.
I raise the gauntlet and the woman lifts an aristocratic brow, only to display genuine surprise when I point fully upward.
“Firebolt!” I yell, and the spell takes off, its shiny radiance a reverse meteor that breaches the canopy and climbs to the sky.
The spell explodes. The loud detonation sends leaves fleeting in the air, while the light shines like a small sun.
“A beacon?” the vampire asks.
I turn to her, facing my death. I do not lower my eyes nor bend my back. I am a war mage and will die like one.
“Now, all of Avalon will come for you,” I declare, and close my eyes.
I pray one last time, thinking about my friends and the regrets I have. I wish I could have lived longer, and yet I find that if I had to do it again, I would. Carmela’s aloof grace and down-to-earth behavior, Reggie’s spirit, William’s guile and Cedric’s humor. Yes, I was blessed to end in such a company.
Is she toying with me?
“Melthanein, not bad, cub. Perhaps enough for a passing grade.”
I open my eyes with surprise. The vampire is still here, tapping her index against her chin. Her eyes shift from the sky to me. They are no longer full of scorn.
“This exam is over. Follow.”
I sputter. What? Huh? This was… not real? No? This was all an exam? No, impossible. The bodies, the blood. No? Maybe? Is this a farce? Am I dead or hallucinating the entire scene? This is… too much. I burst into tears.
“If this is… some sort of cruel game!”
“It is not. Your friends are waiting. Come, I don’t have all night.”
I stand there, wracked by emotions. The vampire turns and I meet her gaze. This time, it carries no judgement.
“Your courage was commendable. Do use it a bit longer, there are still three more groups to assess.”
I stare in disbelief, then wipe my tears. Three groups, she said. That means she was part of the planning, probably. Also, there would be more bodies if she had found the other groups first… and she has little reasons to keep me alive.
The walk back to the clearing is an ordeal. My nerves are a frayed bundle of raw panic but I want to see them, I want to know.
And finally, I do. The mages covered in chains are standing around the lying forms of Carmela, Cedric and Reggie and I now realize that the steel links do not cover their hands. William stands by the side with his arms crossed.
I run to him and hug him, but I only allow myself to cry for a few seconds. I want to see to the others.
Then I realize something is weird.
I pull back, eyes narrowed, and the previous fear makes a return.
“Did you know this was a test?”
He hesitates, but eventually relents.
“And you did not tell us? Why?”
His dark eyes inspect me, considering.
“There are some lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Reggie… is a good man, but he needed that.”
“That? This… nightmare? We needed to go through that?”
I want to slap him.
“Why?” I demand, angry beyond measure.
“There will be time for talks later,” the vampire declares, and we turn. Carmela is on her feet, blinking owlishly. I jump to hug her as she takes in her surroundings.
“Huh, so this is how it is…” she says.
I fiercely hug her and feel better when she pats my back. I know she dislikes physical contact, I just couldn’t help it.
“Is that a real werewolf?” She asks with a hoarse voice. I pull back just as the vampire woman answers with the affirmative.
“Did you kill it yourself?”
“Can I take a closer look?”
“Yes, but hurry. You five must be on your way.”
Carmela moves to the stone but I interrupt her.
“Carmela, your flank!”
“What about it?”
I look for her wound but find none. I turn to the blonde vampire with a struck expression.
“I stabbed my own palm to get some blood. You should have noticed that it was too dark to be hers.”
“You panicked and your addled brain filled the gaps,” she continues, as Cedric now wakes up with a jolt.
“What?” he asks. Then he sees us all standing around, and slaps his forehead.
“Oh, the exam, dammit! I guess we failed, huh.”
I don’t know what to think.
Cedric flinches when he realizes that the vampire is still here, but he soon tries to gather his courage and even starts a conversation!
“Hah, you’re amazing. An illusionist? I never saw you around here, are you a new archmage?”
The men look at him with utter disappointment mixed with disbelief. The vampire just ignores him. It takes him but a few moments to realize his mistake and he pales once more.
Reggie is last to wake. When his eyes open, he also quickly understands that this was all a test. Our leader alternates between outrage and despair. Eventually, he turns to the head war mage, a dour man I sometimes saw at the practice field.
“Shut up. Stand up and prepare to follow us back to the town.”
“I have a right to—“
“Two hours of detention.”
Reggie clamps his jaws but he doesn’t press the issue and he is right. I, too, can tell from the mage’s stony expression that he will not hesitate to have us peel potatoes until the winter solstice, should we dare to mouth off.
The vampire woman closes with Carmela and whispers something in her ear. My friend turns away from the monstrous corpse still laid atop the monolith and joins us, her face contemplative. As she passes me by, she squeezes my hand and I feel better.
The walk of shame back to the town is the worst of my life. At some point, Cedric starts to whisper only to be told to shut it by the mage trio. They have left their chains behind, which were put on by another team. It looks like everyone will get to experience facing off against a monster of legend.
We drag ourselves not to the barracks but to the administrative headquarters of the White Cabal military. There, we are made to sit on uncomfortable chairs with no water and forced to stay silent while the dour mage leaves, probably to report. Ten minutes later, we are summoned to the office of the Black Dog himself.
We line in front of him as he leans back in his leather chair, hands crossed over his lap. He glares at us from across a spotless desk, managing to look down upon us despite being the only one seated.
Eventually, he starts in a tone rife with disappointment.
“Do I need to spell out your result?”
“Sir, I must protest!” Reggie starts immediately.
“You must?” the Dog interrupts him, “do you object to my methods? Perhaps you find me unfair? Perhaps you find my standards too high?”
Reggie reddens with shame.
“Which specific aspect of this task did you find to be too hard?”
“Indeed? Did I ask you to kill a vampire?”
“Did I?” Black Dog Hopkins demands, raising his voice for the first time.
“Answer me, Reginald Lewis, did I give you the impossible task to kill a vampire at any time of the briefing?”
“So far, two teams have passed this test and will receive the title of war mage.”
“Impossible!” Reginald sputters.
The Black Dog smashes his fist on his desk and we all jump in surprise. His next words drip with contempt.
“You have all been judged according to the exact same standards. Team Phenix and Flame successfully pulled back and reported the presence of a werewolf, as well as the disappearance of the patrol.”
“What? But, this is cowardice?” Reggie exclaims.
“Mr Lewis, what was the consequence of your so-called bravery this night? No need to answer, I will spell it for you. You and your entire team were killed to the last man, only managing to give some semblance of warning to our town because of the presence of mind of Mina Kinkaid. Did I summarize your achievements to your satisfaction?”
Silence. Reggie looks… defeated. Humiliated. I have never seen him so desperate. He who would always keep calm under any circumstances is now on the verge of tears. I want to comfort him against that miserable Black Dog and yet I do not because deep inside, I am troubled.
Yes, we acted foolishly. William was right when he suggested a retreat. What looked like cowardice was in fact…
“The White Cabal military is a professional outfit dedicated to the defense of our kind against the horrors of this world and those who would seek to enslave or exterminate us. I will not accept glory hounds and sanctimonious imbeciles in the ranks of my beloved army, for failure is not an option. That is why, Mr Lewis, we do not charge in against a superior opponent with no plan. That is why, Mr Lewis, we prioritize the survival of our team through common sense and basic logic. And finally, that is why, when lectured by a superior officer, we do not question and object but stay quiet and listen. Do you understand?”
“Mr. Hope, Lady Ariane informs me that you saw through the whole thing. I am tired of wasting my breath on a bunch of incompetent morons. You will explain the situation.”
William licks his lips and turns to us. He is a bit hesitant at first, yet soon his words flow with the same precision and clarity as when he explains his plan.
“The first hint happened during the speech. I can tell that you did not pay attention so I will remind you.”
“Act like the war mages you have trained to become…” I whisper, my eyes widening.
“Precisely,” Will says with approval, “this was a strange thing to say. I expected him to speak about valor, intelligence or some such but the specific wording and brevity of the message struck me as odd. Then there were the marks on the tree. They were a little too obvious and also lacked some other elements of territorial marks.”
“Huh?” Cedric asks.
“Urine and fecal matter,” William adds helpfully.
“In any case, the camp was also a setup. The trail was too clean. Normally, you would have a large splatter at the site of the attack and more chaos where the victim would try to get free. I was pretty sure that this was all a trick by that time and that’s why I suggested that we fall back.”
Behind Will, the Black Dog allows himself a small nod, the only sign of appreciation he has shown so far.
“Why not tell us?” Cedric asks, stupefied. Reggie remains silent but he, too, looks curious.
“That would have defeated the purpose of the exercise. We were meant to realize that we were outclassed and retreat, which I tried to explain. Instead, you called me a coward.”
William’s voice is not judgmental. If anything, he looks sad. Reginald purses his lips and averts his gaze.
“I became sure when we spotted the vampire. Lady Ariane, apparently. Do you remember the details of the disaster at New-Orleans?”
We remember of course, they only escaped thanks to the help of… oh.
“Is she the one?”
“The very same,” the Black Dog interjects.
“Right, I asked around out of curiosity and the survivors described her as a young-looking woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. That’s why I was certain. When she pretended to bite me, she did not force me to lose consciousness so I faked stupor while she took care of you. She tasked me and the instructors with making sure you were all comfortable before going after Mina.”
A series of “oohs” and “aahs” flow through the room.
“Good enough, now, attention!” the Black Dog says.
We instinctively snap into salute. The Black Dog stands up and comes to stand before Reginald. He is quite tall, I notice.
“Reginald Lewis, your performance was dismal. You allowed your lust for glory to get to your head, leading to the death of your entire squad as well as a failure to inform command of your situation. You did not order the creation of a defensive perimeter to delay the vampire, instead attacking her recklessly. You disregarded the advice of your subordinate and insulted him in front of his peers. You fail. You are hereby relieved of your position as squad leader until you pass the seminary on squad management to the satisfaction of your instructors.”
He walks to Cedric.
“Cedric Birmingham, you remained quiet when your fellow member objected to Mr Lewis’ inane plan, you remained quiet after witnessing signs of a dangerous enemy, you failed to acknowledge your squad member’s intense emotional distress…”
Cedric turns to Carmela, face stricken by surprise then by guilt.
“… and you omitted to establish a defensive shield to delay a superior opponent. You fail. You will attend intensive training for three months, following which you will be allowed to take the exam again.”
He turns to Carmela.
“Carmela von Leeb. You should have known better.”
“You fail. You will follow the same program as Mr Birmingham here, as well as compulsory counseling.”
She lowers her head.
I want to close my eyes but I do not. I keep my spine straight and look forward.
“Not once did you question your leader’s poor decision, nor did you act on the distress of your comrade in arms. You followed blindly. You fail.”
“Compassion and intelligence mean nothing if you do not use them. I expected more from you.”
“Yes, sir, sorry, sir.”
“You will attend the same training as the two others.”
He stops before the last member of our group.
“William Hope. You displayed wisdom by objecting to the plan and loyalty by still sticking with your friends. Lady Ariane says that your obfuscation spell is, and I quote, amusing though he should also work on his smell. You pass. You have two choices. You can remain with your friends as they attend the supplementary training, or…”
“Supplementary training, sir.”
“I expected no less.”
He walks back behind his seat and picks the next paper off the bundle in front of him.
“You have your orders. Now, get out of my office.”
What a night.