The woman jumps in fright when I accost her. It is late, and dark, and she is not a denizen of the night like I am. When she sees I am a woman too, her shoulders relax, the fear receding from her wary figure.
She turns in my direction and I see that under the heavy green hood, she wears an evening dress of decent make, a shawl and a bag containing at the very least one magical item. Probably her focus. She is young, not a day over eighteen, I’d wager, and beautiful in a guileless and delicate sort of way.
A pretty little sheep walking out, trying to grow. So easy to smother, so much life to draw.
I will not.
Instead, I take the demeanor of a bashful girl. I lower my head, avert my eyes slightly and force a tremble into my voice.
“Sorry miss. Are you, perchance, going to Carol Fletcher’s reception too?”
At those words the young lady relaxes fully. She takes on a more protective air and does her best to exude self-confidence. With her shoulders squared and back straightened, she addresses me with a voice full of authority.
“That I am. I do not recognize you, are you new?”
“Yes, I arrived in town recently. I came to introduce myself, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere,” I add to reinforce my image as an airhead. Only an imbecile would take a wrong turn in a city that consists of squares.
It is enough for the girl to take my arm and guide me forward. I sign for Urchin and John to follow me and be ready. As for Crews and King, they are already hidden next to our destination. Their ethnicity makes them too easy to notice.
She introduces herself as Camille, and I as Ariane. She asks me what I think of Alexandria. My opinion is that it contains far too many gang members, slavers, and chronic masturbators with far too much pride and not enough common sense to fill a tumbler, though arguably that last problem just solved itself.
Instead of sharing this pearl of wisdom, I comment on the weather just like Sephare would. After a few more reassurances from Camille’s part that everything would go smoothly, we arrive.
My companion takes a turn from the wide main street to pass through a gate to an inner courtyard. The path turns to white gravel while on either side of us, a small garden of roses and other fragrant essence charge the winter air with their heady perfume in a display of magical skill. I enjoy the feeling of pebbles crushing beneath my feet since, this time, I should not be too silent.
The large oaken door is reinforced with alarm and resistance runes of a peculiar make. The enchantment is made from wood and freshly cut flowers. Although it will fade fast, it is no less potent for it.
I stop at the threshold and gaze up at the young lady already up two stairs.
“Can I really just come in?” I ask politely.
“Yes, of course. All are welcome in our community.”
I honestly doubt that. Nevertheless, the invitation is enough and as I go by, the enchantments remain inert.
I was invited, after all.
Camille precedes me in an intimate antechamber where she hangs her hood. A set of stairs goes up by my left and a few closed doors lead to other parts of the house.
On the white walls, paintings of severe women alternate with tapestries and landscapes. If it were not for the homey cluttering, the decorations would be impressive. With the presence of personal effects, the house feels like a middle ground between a home and a public office.
Without hesitation, the girl leads me through a set of double doors to a ‘grand salon’ from whence I hear laughter and the murmurs of conversation.
I am amazed at the size of the private receiving room. I did not expect so large a space inside of the city, and I find it obvious at first glance that great care has been given to its design. The ground is polished wood, the walls are painted white and blue with small windows. Instead, most of the natural light comes from a vast glass awning taking a good half of the roof and turning it into a solarium. Instead of flowers, however, Fletcher cultivates social connections.
Clusters of witches converse casually in high-pitched voices, their colorful auras fluttering around them. A long banquet table occupies a side of the room, on which many dishes and desserts have been cut and prepared for the revellers. Brass cups and pitchers abound to allow them to wet their whistles for another round of gossip. If the variety of wares displayed is any indication, half of the food was brought here by guests.
On the other side, a lone piano sits forlorn, for now, moved to make room for a large magical circle drawn in chalk, the work of several hours, at least.
Camille waits for me to take in the sights with a knowing smile. She points at a trio at the far end of the room consisting of an old crone and a portly woman with a kind smile listening to a girl with black hair speaking with great animation. I focus and pick up a few words. It appears that she is wary of, and I quote, ‘strange happenings in our fair city’.
Ah, to be this naïve. ‘Strange happenings’ does not even begin to cover it. Thankfully, my mood recovered after the library debacle thanks to several factors. First, I poached Ricardo who is on his way to Boston with the library’s most useful tomes and his own dimensional research. Second, I had Urchin clean my pistols until they shone. Third, and the most important aspect, I do not have to take care of the library’s cleanup. Not my job. Dear Lady Sephare will just have to find a way to dispose of several metric tons of rotting purple meat on her own.
“Those are Carol, Grace and Moon Flower,” she explains, “you should go introduce yourself after they’re done talking.”
“Moon Flower?” I ask.
“She insists we call her that and not her birth name,” Camille answers, embarrassed.
“It’s Nastasia by the way. But you didn’t hear it from me.”
Oh, juicy. Not three minutes in the room and I already know a pointless secret.
“She is the Black Dog. That means she is in charge of protecting us. Go to her if you have any security concerns.”
“Oh, I will.”
“She can be a bit… abrasive. Don’t let that deter you. She cares about us, even if her crusade against the social order can be a bit tiresome, at times.”
An idealist. That could be dangerous.
“That is all,” Camille finishes and I notice that she is eyeing a group, probably her friends. “Oh, Lucy is making eyes at me. Find me after you’re done, and we will make the rounds together.”
“Thank you Camille, I appreciate it,” I tell her as a form of polite dismissal. A smile and wave and she is gone.
I turn and delicately hold the shoulders of a woman before she can bump into me, then grab the plate she just dropped in surprise before it can land on the floor.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! God, I’m such a clod!”
“Think nothing of it,” I reassure her. This witch is dressed in an old-fashioned dress that has seen too many uses. She attempted to apply rouge with limited success and her frizzy brown hair is held in a messy bun. The overall impression is that of a complete birdbrain. Her aura is particularly vivid, however, glowing around her in ever-moving abstract shapes.
“Thank you, dearie. I would not have forgiven myself if I had dropped my carrot cake. Would you like a slice?” she generously offers.
“I’m afraid I must decline. I am on a liquid diet,” I share with amusement. The lady blinks owlishly and her face falls off a bit.
“It smells delicious though, is that cinnamon?”
“Shhhhh!” she half-screams, “it’s my secret ingredient!”
“My lips are sealed,” I answer with amusement, “here, let me help you.”
I forcibly pull the plate from her nervous hands and deposit it on the table. As I do so, I notice that a few of the groups take a step away as we pass by. My companion is shunned by the group, despite her obvious power. An interesting development.
This Society gathers women from all backgrounds and I would naturally expect them to develop a pecking order. I did not imagine that it would mirror the social order to such a frightful extent, with the richest members clearly at an advantage here. I am almost disappointed. What is the difference between them and a butterfly appreciation group? Does competence not matter for something?
“My name is Ariane by the way.”
“Oh, yes, manners. Sorry. I’m Violet.”
“No need to apologize. Say, your aura is rather impressive. May I ask what your specialty is?”
The change of demeanor of my interlocutor is truly mesmerizing. She straightens and her chocolate eyes, which until then had flitted across the room, suddenly gain a penetrating intensity.
“The art of oneiromancy deals with dreams and their applications. The dreamscape’s malleability offers many opportunities ranging from training to long-range communication,” she proudly declares.
Then the moment is passed and she deflates.
“Not that our sisters show much interest in it. Our society focuses on plant-based magic. Little effort is made exploring other techniques.”
“And such a shame it is. I knew a man who could invite me to his dreams from a state away. The things he showed me…” I reminisce as I think of Nashoba. He gave me back the sun, if only for a moment.
Violet blushes a delicate shade of pink.
“Not that kind of experience!” I chastise her, and she turns even redder.
I chuckle, and notice that the leadership trio finally noticed my presence. Nastasia, I mean Moon Flower, looks my way with a frown.
“Ah, it appears I am being summoned. Remember that if your skills are not appreciated here, there are others who would give you the attention and respect you justly deserve.”
Leaving Violet behind with a shocked expression, I make my way across the floor. I suppose I let the vampire bleed out a bit there, at the end. I could not resist such a perfect poaching opportunity.
The Black Dog walks forward to meet me first, blocking my way to the two others.
“Who are you? You shouldn’t be here; this is a private party,” she spits out. She is one of the few who wears a real gauntlet and with a gesture, she sends a pulse of energy which I recognize as a detection spell. I close my aura completely, only allowing her a glimpse of the chill inside of me.
“You are not even one of us,” she scoffs.
My, an elitist.
“Indeed not,” I reply neutrally, “I am merely a messenger, come here to convey my lady’s greetings.”
“You have some gall,” she exclaims.
“And what message would that be?” the older woman asks while the portly witch wrings her hands in distress.
By that time, the underlying tension of our exchange has been perceived by the well-attuned assembly and they gather around us in a loose semi-circle.
“My lady has claimed the District of Columbia for herself. She wants us to be good neighbors and cordially invites you and your representatives for an evening together, to… discuss the modalities of our cohabitation.”
“Should we care?” Nastasia interrupts, her voice filled with arrogance.
In answer, I give a light smile and move behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder and whispering in her ear.
“You really…” I start, and move again to return to my starting position as she turns with a gasp.
“…really should,” I finish, and release my aura.
A frigid wave washes over the assembly with the power of a blizzard, pushing on the lights of their lives like under a thick blanket of snow. They yelp and recoil and huddle against each other in groups. Even their precious protector takes a step back.
Silence descends upon the room as I stretch my arms and walk around with deliberate slowness. I do not even have to raise my voice.
“For years you have huddled in your little corner of the world, blind to the great happenings outside. Now, your lands are claimed by the Lady Sephare of the Hastings. Under her benevolent supervision, resources and knowledge will flood into the city for those who deserve them. The protection she will grant you will shield the society from the depredations of predators, both mundane and otherwise. You have but to work with her.”
I stop and turn to face the leading trio, all of them having recovered. They are simply waiting for me to finish out of politeness.
“The winds of change have come to Alexandria and it is time for you to choose. Will you embrace this change and the numerous opportunities it affords, or will you close your eyes and be swept away? You will have to decide for yourselves,” I finish, my goal completed.
Nastasia is the first to recover. She finally came to fateful realization.
“You are a vampire.”
“We. We are vampires.”
Whispers erupt all around us, curiosity just as prevalent as fear. Those witches stayed isolated for far too long, content to exchange balm recipes and snob each other, it seems. Many of them do not even know of my kind, their most dangerous predators.
There should be a slang for magical bumpkins.
I await the trio’s reaction and I am not disappointed. While the crone is contemplative and the portly woman busy comforting her peers, the Black Dog acts first. She takes a step forward and invades my personal space once again. I already know that this one will not learn, will not bend. She will have to be removed.
But not tonight, for I came as a guest and a messenger. I will never break those rules.
“I know a thing or two about you monsters. I know you drink blood and enslave humans, so you will forgive me if I call your negotiation for what it is, terms of subjugation! But you made a mistake in thinking that we would be easily cowed. This city has been a beacon of freedom since its very creation!”
I scoff at that. Beacon of freedom? A slaver town?
“You are the last,” I reply.
Nastasia’s answer dies on her lips. I can tell when the pieces of the puzzle click in her mind and she finally figures out how much we already achieved. She does not show fear, however, but overwhelming anger. She bares her teeth in a rictus of rage.
“This isn’t over, creature. I know of your kind’s weaknesses. I do not know who invited you here but this is my home and you are no longer welcome. Leave.”
The declaration smashes into me like a train.
HAVE TO GET OUT.
I move. Outside the reception room and through the warded gate which closes behind me.
I land lightly on my feet in the garden.
Oof. That was… unpleasant. This is the first time someone rescinds their invitation while I am still in their home, and I did not expect it to be so effective. I felt like I was pushed by a mighty hand. The urge to leave was just as imperative as that to stay away from someone wielding a cross.
Urchin had been waiting nearby, he rushes to my side when he notices me.
“Is something the matter?”
“Someone just slammed the supernatural door in my face, otherwise I am fine,” I reply.
He scrunches his weasel face in confusion at my apparent lack of concern.
“Is that not bad, milady?”
“It was the most likely outcome. Besides, I achieved my purpose tonight.”
I look at my minion and consider an impromptu lesson. Why not? He is showing some significant progress and some outward signs of respect and loyalty. I might as well keep trying to lift him.
“Do you know what we really came here for?” I ask, as we make our way across the empty street and jump on the roof. Jumping is better than dropping because I do not have to place my hands on my thighs to avoid indecency.
“I assume that you are not referring to Lady Sephare’s invitation to the city leaders?” Urchin remarks.
“The invitation is only a pretext. What we are doing here is conquest, plain and simple. We are taking complete control over Alexandria, one group at a time, until Lady Sephare remains as the undisputed ruler. And what is the tool we use?”
“A blend of extreme psychological and physical violence?”
“No,” I reply with amusement, “though you are close. It is fear. Fear is the tool we use.”
I smooth my dress, wipe a few tiles with a handkerchief and sit down. Below us, Crews and King wait by a carriage and I give them the signal to hold.
Once I am settled, I turn to Urchin who had patiently been waiting.
“Independent people wish to remain free by nature. This drive is a deeply embedded desire, an instinct, and that impulse is particularly strong on this land where being free is a matter of fact. The only way to override this desire for liberty so that men bend is to slowly subvert it.”
“But… you just spoke of fear?” Urchin interrupts with a frown. I am pleased that he has been paying attention.
“If Lady Sephare is the de facto ruler of the land, its inhabitants will eventually come to accept it as a ‘the way things are’. The benefits of order and development she brings will slowly sway even the most stubborn dissenters. Eventually, she will be perceived as a benevolent ruler, akin to a mild government. Some of her current detractors may even turn into fervent supporters. Unfortunately, and as I mentioned, this will take time.”
Urchin sits by my side, pondering on my speech. Some lessons have stuck. Already, his posture and fashion sense have evolved from lowly lout to merely disreputable under my teachings. Perhaps the one who sired him did see something in him beyond mere entertainment.
“The only way to beat an instinct in a mob is to oppose it with another instinct. Fear will beat the lust for freedom and the resistance to change. It will keep the different factions in line until the new status quo is mostly accepted. I used fear of bankruptcy against the Federals and the fear of death against both the Mudmen and the Ratcatchers. The Mudmen leader, Wallace, agreed to meet Lady Sephare because we easily slaughtered his old rival, not because we granted him more power. Remember this quote by Caesar: it is better to be first of a village than second in Rome. Many of those you will interact with will sacrifice some power to gain autonomy.”
“Like you, milady?”
“Yes. Like me. As for the mages,” I continue, “the situation is different. I cannot simply murder talented spell-casters willy-nilly, or at least I would prefer to save it as a last resort. In their case, knowing our nature is already a strong fear motivator. We merely have to reveal ourselves to our foes for them to realize the danger they are in.”
Urchin muses on that last sentence, staring at the now locked entrance to the witch redoubt.
“They will still fight you if their latest reaction is any indication,” he observes.
“Some of them will oppose us, yes. That is why I announced myself to the entire assembly instead of just their leaders. That way, the rank and file will pressure the leadership for a solution, and I expect many will favor a peaceful arrangement. They are not warriors, and they have much to lose in an open conflict.”
“So we wait until they come to a consensus?”
“Of course not. I did not bring the carriage for a midnight stroll. We will wait until the party finishes and abduct a pair who we will then bring to our warehouse. Let us see how long they last when we start kidnapping their members one by one.”
Afternoon, the day after...
The shutters are closed, and the house is secured and still, I can feel it outside. The unforgiving rays beat on the masonry and smother the tiles on the roof in their baleful embrace, even now at the end of fall.
It crushes me.
My powers are mostly dormant and according to John, I look deathly sick. I feel sluggish and nervous. Oppressed. Threatened. All by this most natural of phenomena. And the most curious thing is that it does not care.
No matter how terrified I am by a tiny dot of pale white light leaking between two planks, there is no intent behind it, no ill will. The terror I feel is not reciprocated, not even by disdain.
To take my mind off things, I organize paperwork. The absorption of the Ratcatchers by the Mudmen is proceeding on schedule, however the fallout from the death of all the mages needs to be carefully managed lest groups like the Gabrielites catch wind of it. I do not need the complications.
Defusing this issue only requires a few paws greased, a price I am willing to pay. I must still monitor the situation carefully.
I am reading a report from one of our newest recruits when it happens. The downstairs door bangs open with a noise like thunder, and a rush of feet come in, soon followed by multiple gunshots. The loud detonations ring loudly in our enclosed space.
I stand up.
No time to think, I grab my pair of pistols and run to the stairs leading from the second floor to the first. Then, I stop at the landing when I see it. Sunlight, like a wall of fire, blocks my way down. The intruders left the door open! And here comes the first one, whom I recognize. He is one of the Mudmen’s main enforcers, from Wallace’s personal guard.
I shoot him in the face. His body falls back. Another face replaces him. This is Jack, Wallace’s protege, the dandy young man I met in the old gang member’s office. He gives me an apologetic smile and ducks. I aim down and realize that I left the powder and bullets in my office.
Should I go get it, or just hold the line? Soon the decision is made for me.
A furious aura emerges from below and the smug face of Nastasia appears, shield brandished before her. She smiles and moves up, Mudmen foot soldiers packed tight behind her.
Ah, a rebellion. How quaint.
Nastasia’s smile crumbles when I grab a cabinet and push it down. The heavy piece of furniture slides down the wooden stairs.
“Move!” she yells, and a second later I hear a crash and a scream of pain. Male, unfortunately.
I use the diversion to run to the office and grab my gear. I do not have the time to change into something more protected, unfortunately. I rush back and reload my pistol with frustratingly slow speed. A quick look down lets me see two Mudmen with muskets. I duck as they fire and shoot down one. The other leaves, screaming.
“She’s here! Do it!”
Do what? I move back and—
I scream, the sound like three voices together, too high-pitched to come from a human throat.
There is movement, there is sound, something grabs me under my arms and lifts me up. It blocks the light.
Blessed darkness. The rays of light encircle the man’s shape like a deadly halo. He carries me. Up up up we go.
It pushes every sensation away, smothers every thought. The tiny orb of my consciousness is pressed on all sides by the red tide of that pain.
Then, coolness. Liquid surrounds my body. The pain becomes less. It fades until I am an island in a sea of magma, not a rock inside of it. I can think.
No longer on fire.
Count to ten.
Count to twenty.
Get the pain under control.
Need to move.
With my right hand, I push, find a wall of ceramic. Lifts. Find the edge. I am in a tub filled with water. Of course.
I push myself up, pain flaring on my left side. I am in the bathroom. King is here, his long black beard plastered against his chest by wetness. I must have moved water around.
The entire left side of my face, my arm and part of my chest and back are burnt. I use my right eye, the only one that still works, to take stock. Red bloody meat with black-charred edges barely covered by strands of mangled fabric. It looks just as painful as it is. Were it not for the Ekon essence, I would be nothing but a screaming mess right now. Even then, the pain is paralyzing.
“John?” I half-choke, then hiss as the agony from my left cheek robs me of my words.
“Holding them back.”
“Dead, I think. He was on the first floor.”
I refrain from swearing. That was so sudden. It is…
It is my fault.
But no, no time for recriminations. We need to get out. I push myself and yelp in pain, falling back into the tube.
“I… I need a moment.”
“We do not have a moment,” King replies, his voice noticeably strained. He… oh no.
I look up and only now realize that he is bleeding. The stench of fire had overwhelmed my sense of smell.
“No,” I whisper, “get me a bandage, I shall…”
“Stop,” he interrupts. He grabs my right hand. His face is grayish, his eyes clouded.
“This is not the kind of wound us normal folks can come back from.”
His beard is not wet with water, but with blood. His chest…
“I am sorry,” I say. What else is there? I cannot save him. He took the bullet carrying me away. He saved me.
I find that I am genuinely sorry.
“I am not,” he replies with a pain smile, “live by the sword and all that. Now, come on.”
He lifts me up until I stand inside of the tub, with the intact part of my dress completely soaked.
“Your wounds are not closing. You need blood, might as well be mine before it all ends up on the ground.”
I say nothing as he drags me closer, against his muscular chest. At the last moment, he looks down at me and our eyes meet.
“We are even now,” he declares.
He pulls me in so that I rest against him and bite down, drinking deep. We slowly fall to the ground until I am on top of him. When I pull back, he is dead.
Power rushes into me from blood freely given by a brother in arms. His sacrifice gives me a sorely needed infusion of vitality and when I stand up, some of the wounds no longer look so frightful.
I am still a maimed mess. I slowly drag myself to the door and go through. As I do, an impact rattles the shutters which resist.
Ah, they must have punched through the second-floor windows and shutter with bullets to let sunlight in. It really took just a trickle to hurt me so…
Fortunately, the third floor contains the passage to the vault where Urchin and I retire. All the exits are padded with metal and even the roof is reinforced.
I find John on the landing with his giant crossbow. He winces when he sees me and quickly returns his attention to the stairs. Below us, the Mudmen slowly creep across the ground, searching. They are in no rush, as it will take at least another hour before the sun sets.
I limp to my only remaining servant. I have recruited a few new helpers over the past few days, only the Watcher knows how many still live.
Finally, the intruders make their way to the edge of the stairs. I hear several female voices arguing over who goes first. After a while, a woman named Gloria wins the honor of being the first to assault our position by virtue of having the strongest shield. A few moments later, our enemies yell and charge. The first to appear is a beautiful young woman with curly blonde hair. She raises her gauntlet and the air shimmers with her power.
John pulls the trigger.
His heavy silver bolt pierces the shield as if it were made of paper and propels the woman back. Her incantation dies on her lips as the projectile pins her against the floor. The war cries die as abruptly as they started. Two voices scream in distress.
Gloria feebly tries to grab the bolt. She moans and coughs blood. Tears fall from her eyes in long trails that end in the expanding pool of red beneath her prone form. She extends a hand to her friends who dare not enter the field of vision of John, who already reloaded.
It takes a solid twenty seconds for the woman to finally choke to death. Eventually, her pallid form’s struggles weaken then seize. The voices below cry, argue and yell for a while in a debate that I fail to follow.
The pain continues. I normally heal quickly but between the source of the wound and the hour, I suspect it will be some time until I am whole again. In the meanwhile, every step is a nightmare. My focus slips inevitably until I manage to shake myself awake once more.
It appears the deliberations are at an end. Nastasia uses a spell to levitate her friend’s body upward, then to the side to recover it. Her voice surges then, spiteful and confident.
“Stay there then, you monster!”
As one, her group leaves. I hear the clatter of their footsteps going down. John and I stay unmoving for a while. Time is on our side.
Or is it?
I finally realize why they were willing to go. If they cannot kill us the old-fashioned way, they are more than willing to resort to drastic measures.
The house is on fire.
The perfect crime. The Mudmen control the firefighters, who will come too late to save the house. Tragic. Fortunately, I am not completely out of options yet.
“John, listen carefully,” I start. The big man turns his ugly mug to me and I can see that the deaths of his friends affect him greatly, yet as always, he remains unflappable in this time of crisis. His attention turns entirely on me, ready to get his orders.
“Go down to my office, find the key in my desk’s left drawer, take it, open the right drawer, take its contents then put everything into my bag next to the stairs leading to the ground floor. Then run back up and open that window,” I say, as a point to the one closest to the neighbor’s house.
“Climb up and jump on the neighbor’s roof, the one with slightly redder tiles.”
“Hide next to the chimney. Do not look down, do not search for me. Wait for nightfall then look towards the garden. Wait for my signal.”
“Good. Now, go.”
John takes off with a speed few would expect from a man of his size. I open the passage to the vault as the first wafts of smoke permeate the air, closing and locking it behind me.
The descent along the stone shaft is a long one, alone, in an isolation that even the inferno outside cannot breach.
Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes, always more mistakes on my part. King is dead. Crews is dead. The Mudmen turned against me. All because of my strategy.
And if I had taken more time, the gangs would have thrown the city into an all-out war.
And if I had not warned the witch of my existence, instead taking them out one by one, I would have forfeited any chance at diplomacy as requested by Lady Sephare.
I did not expect the two groups to work together, considering one is a traditionalist Christian group and the other is made of witches.
It will always be like that, will it not? I will always miss key information, underestimate one foe and overestimate the other. Mortals will always surprise me with their ability to twist their words and beliefs to suit their ends. I will always be the straightforward girl, better at planning a project than at manipulating nations from the shadows. Not like Lady Sephare.
Am I too stupid to rule over a state?
No, that is not the right question. The right question is, can I afford not to? And the answer is no.
I reach the end of the shaft and drop down into the small room in which my sarcophagus lies. Urchin still slumbers away in his own coffin-like shelter, oblivious to the recent tragedy.
I stare at my gear, set against the wall, and realize that I will never manage to put on the armor. I would need to peel off the dress first.
I look at my arm. Some of the skin has started to regrow, the rest of the flesh is still raw muscle tissue covered in pinkish fluids and black blood. I feel a strange separation between my cold mind, and the pain, horror and disgust of the more human part of me. Is this really what I am made of? All that meat?
I shake my head to clear my thoughts. Too much has happened, and the pain has not receded. I find it hard to think.
I sit heavily against the wall.
I just need a bit of time…
Ever so slowly, the wounds close and I can finally open my left eye. My mouth is sticky with King’s blood. I must have made a mess.
As darkness blankets the world, I can feel myself again. Vigor returns to my limbs and sharpness to my spirit forcing me to acknowledge, understand and plan. In front of me, Urchin’s casket opens. He freezes when he notices me.
“There is no time, Urchin, we have a dance to finish.”
I unlock the trap door and push a lever. Through a clever use of pulleys and the power of vampiric strength, several hundred pounds of steel shift up and to the side. I pop my head through the opening to find quite the reception.
“You were right, sister, the rat had a way out,” a cold voice sounds to my left.
“Come on out, vampire,” the voice of Nastasia replies from the front. I pull myself out and slowly crawl out. The wounds are mostly closed and still I can tell from the assembly’s visceral disgust that they are quite ghastly. Nastasia’s mouth turns down into a sneer as she takes in my poor appearance, including my blood-covered face.
I stand in the middle of a circle, with a witch at each of the cardinal points. The spell is a simple shield aimed inward that allows their own casts to travel through, giving them an undeniable advantage. Behind them, a dozen Mudmen gang members spread in a half -circle, holding weapons and crosses. At their head, I find Wallace and his protégé Jack, armed to the teeth.
“Well, not so haughty, are you, vampire? I bet you did not expect that.”
“That certainly came as a surprise,” I admit. Speaking remains uncomfortable, though nowhere close to the torture that it used to be. I turn my gaze to Wallace. The grizzled gang leader’s gaze is filled with disgust and hatred.
“I assume he found me?”
Nastasia smiles smugly, a hand on her hip. Is she gloating? Yes, she is.
“I was right to seek the help of Alexandria’s underbelly to track down your location. Imagine my surprise when not only did they know you, but they were also quite happy to lend a hand.”
“I knew it. I knew you were a monster,” Wallace spits.
“Oh please,” I retort, “you are only too happy to conduct a little coup now that we placed the gangs at your knees.”
“I can help the Lord and help myself, it’s the American way,” he replies with a shrug.
Nastasia interrupts us, apparently out of patience.
“Enough of this. You made a mistake coming here but I will be magnanimous. If you tell me where Lady Sephare’s resting place is and swear an oath to leave the country, we will let you go.”
“Moon Flower?” one of the other women, a slender brunette with eyes reddened by grief asks.
“I am sorry, Mary. We must place the interests of the community before our desire for vengeance. Finding her Master is more important than killing her. Gloria would understand, I am sure.”
The other witch seems troubled but, in the end, she relents.
“Is that it?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” she replies cautiously.
“You killed at least two of my men, and who knows how many of my newest recruits. Are you not going to demand that I forfeit vengeance? Do you think so little of me?”
“What do creatures like you care about—”
“I do. I do care,” I interrupt her, and start pacing the ground. The blood of David King sings in my essence, filling me with a sort of energy that I had not felt from a mundane mortal before. Most of my skin has regrown. Some of the Mudmen’s eyes widen in surprise and a few even take some steps back, clutching their crosses with panicked fingers when they realize how quickly I recovered. Quite a few do not react at all, as expected, and I force myself not to smile.
“David King and Timothy Crews. I bought David from a slave owner in Kentucky two years ago at the request of his late father who also died fighting by my side. He was proud of his beard. He was a devoted friend to other members of his squad. His favorite food was baby back ribs. Timothy Crews, a loner of the Creek nation. Competent hunter and tobacco lover. His brother still works for me.”
Nastasia narrows her eyes. I can tell that I am making her uncomfortable by humanizing her victims. She probably never killed before.
“You truly do not understand us. We care about mortals, friends and foes, and we know that they can still surprise us. That is why we take precautions to account for our own mistakes, such as making sure an organization stays loyal. Isn’t that right, Jack?”
Ah, the beautiful moment when the bear trap closes on the unexpected leg, snapping it between its steel jaws. I am so wary of underestimating the mages that I sometimes forget that the sin of pride is not just ours to commit.
Time slows to a trickle as I make a hand gesture and turn to my cattle. I bit quite a few people over the previous days as an insurance, and many of them are here tonight.
Jack smoothly lifts his pistol and pulls the trigger on the brunette witch, killing her instantly. In the same motion, he unsheathes a knife and buries it deep in the chest of the gang leader by his side. The look of utter betrayal on Wallace’s face as he falls is absolutely priceless.
Then John obeys my signal and a monstrous bolt goes through the witch to my left, the one who had called me a rat. She falls without a scream.
All hell breaks loose.
With only two witches maintaining it, the spell wavers and breaks. A solid half of the late Wallace’s personal guard turns on the other with single-minded mania. With surprise on their side, they cut down their foes with ease.
I turn and kill the witch at my back by burying my hand in her heart. Pointless, yet cathartic. I recognize my guide Camille’s surprised face just as her blood splatters on the ground, then I shrug and return my attention to Nastasia just as she lifts an arm to cast. She, too, displays great anguish, to my delight.
She looks quite shocked when she realizes her gauntlet is gone.
“Mine now,” Urchin's voice whispers by her side. I was not sure if he could pull it off, now I know.
“Make sure none have escaped, then you may feed,” I order him. He rushes after the fleeing form of the last surviving Mudmen not under my command.
As for Nastasia, she falls on her knees, toppled more by utter shock than by despair. I walk to her and bend a bit, so that our heads are quite close.
“Relying on compromised assets was your first mistake. The second was to face me after dark,” I continue as I pull the gauntlet I previously used in the library, now part of my arsenal.
“I had this and an enchanted dagger to go through that amateurish shield of yours and I did not even have to use it.”
“Wait, please, I get it. You win. I surrender.”
“And the third mistake,” I interrupt, “was to expect mercy from a vampire.”
I drink her dry, with the house still burning behind me.
It does not taste like victory, not even like vengeance. I prepared a contingency plan in case I was betrayed and activated it. The precautions I took granted me victory tonight.
I am sure that Lady Sephare would not have had to face a rebellion. We are only here tonight because I lack finesse and subtlety.
I am still a bumbling child to the Lords and Ladies.
With this sad realization, my mind busies itself with the incredible task of managing the consequences of this incident. I will have to calm down officials, grease palms, relocate, reorganize the gang leadership and, more importantly, recover and give the last rites to the remains of my allies.
When I am done feeding, I drop Nastasia’s lifeless corpse and gather the remains of the four other witches in a pile. I do not stop as Jack comes to my side with the other controlled Mudmen by his side.
“Did I do well, Mistress?”
I face him. His loyalty to Wallace was strong enough that even now, within my thrall, the grief he feels still wars with his unnatural loyalty.
“Of course, you did well. He betrayed me tonight, who knows when he would betray others?” I lie.
Serenity returns to him, and with it, inaction. Such is the price of creating cattle. It is fortunate that Wallace did not rely on him being too independent yet.
As for me, I have a delivery to make.
Nastasia’s home. I open a panel through the sunroof and drop the lifeless corpses on the ground one by one. There are plenty of servants here so they should be found promptly. I am taking a risk by making the threat so obvious but to be honest, I am tired of this entire farce. Let Lady Sephare play with her city. I am done with it.
As I head back, I contemplate how close I came to death earlier this afternoon. It reminds me of my own fragility.
I believe that my demise is inevitable.
I am no immortal monster like my sire, who was unbeatable long before Darius turned his gaze on Greece’s city states. Today’s world is chock-full of powers vying for dominance or extermination. Many heroes and fighters have already tried to slay me before I even ruled over more than a toothpick.
They have failed. So far.
Time has lost its grasp on me and they will never stop coming. It can only end one way. At some point, my luck will run out, my intuition will fail me, and someone will finally succeed. I will turn to ashes.
Hopefully, not too soon. Carol Fletcher got my message and I have no doubt that she will cooperate. It will soon be time for me to meet Lady Sephare.