Constantine’s office is as spacious and ordered as before, but now it feels crowded. To my right stands a tall man with dark curly hair and the beard and mustache of a Spanish Conquistador, which, arguably, he might be.
He is also my rival for the ownership of the State of Illinois.
Behind his desk, Constantine gauges the both of us as we sit at attention, studiously ignoring each other.
“I have a task for you,” he finally says.
“I have received concerning reports of unusual werewolf activity around the Grand Lakes region, particularly in Detroit, Michigan, and the city of York in Canada. Those cities are currently occupied by small covens of the Roland, and their House has requested my assistance in this matter. House Nirari will go to Detroit and House Cadiz to York, where you will collaborate with the local clans to elucidate then resolve the issues. You will be accompanied by people I fully trust: Melitone and Ignace.”
I hiss and stop, as Constantine immediately raised a hand to preclude any protest I may have.
“I am not completely insensitive, Ariane. Melitone will go with you. Is that agreeable?”
“Yes,” I reply without hesitation. I should not have lashed out at the mention of my torturer and yet, I have.
My fingers itch.
I ignore them.
“Continuing. The dominion over Illinois will be granted to those who have made the most significant contribution to our cause. I will not share the exact method by which I will judge you. Know that elements such as the numbers of foe killed as well as allied lives and assets kept out of harm will be taken into consideration, and so will more unquantifiable contributions such as bringing a long-term end to the matter.”
Constantine leans forward, his lean fingers intertwined on top of his desk.
“You must take this task with utmost seriousness. For the first time in history, werewolves have been spotted in groups larger than three and displayed obvious signs of organization. I cannot overstate how unprecedented this is. So far, they have been nothing but pests or loners. If they form a faction, the political balance in our lands will be changed forever. I am counting on you to get to the bottom of the matter.”
“Of course, sir,” my neighbor replies.
“Right,” I add, already considering the implications.
A year ago or so, I rescued a werewolf from the Order prison where Sivaya and Nami were also held captive. Alistair was his name, and he was originally from the city of York. He had mentioned that communities had formed in the Canadian wilderness.
He had also mentioned a group called Black Peak that was trying to gain dominance. At that time, I had dismissed the whole affair as having nothing to do with me, and I had not helped him. Well, the joke is on me now. This mass movement is most certainly related to that whole business. Either those groups Constantine mentioned are refugees or, more worrying, the Black Peak wolves are trying to expand.
I really hope this is the former.
I could, of course, share my observations with Constantine and my rival, but I really do not see the point. Vampires only rarely interact with werewolves besides by hunting them down, though individuals are sometimes used as freelance agents. If I treat them as an organized faction from the beginning, it might give me the edge I need to win this contest.
“There are additional terms by which you will have to abide,” Constantine continues with a pointed look. I am sure he anticipates some level of treachery. The poor sod. He has no idea what I am about to unleash, witness or not. Melitone cannot be everywhere at once.
“First, Lazaro, you may only employ the vampires and mortals you have registered in your request to take over the state.”
That means that he can only rely on his subordinates, not his entire clan. Good news.
“As for you Ariane, you may not call upon Torran nor Sephare to act directly,” he declares, then as an afterthought: “and please keep the artillery, explosions and flaming pigs to a minimum.”
I sputter in outrage! Calumnies! Shameless defamation! It seldom ever happens!
“Lazaro, you may leave. Ariane, please stay, we have another matter to discuss.”
My rival bows then to my surprise, turns to me.
“I am sorry that we would meet this way Lady Ariane. It is an honor to face you in this contest, and I wish you good fortune.”
He grabs his fancy hat and departs the room.
How dare he be polite and respectful while I plan to do unspeakably devious things to him and his party! This proper behavior will not save him from my wrath. His clan should have thought twice before annoying me.
We wait until the door closes behind us. Then we wait some more.
And some more.
I am tempted to draw on the Hastings essence. Besides turning coffee into an elixir of the gods, it allows me to act more human. That means shifting in the seat, scratching my arm and other mannerisms that vampires apparently find endlessly annoying coming from another vampire, according to Torran. Fortunately, Constantine speaks before I must resort to psychological warfare.
“Torran cannot stay under your protection in the current circumstances. I cannot allow him to accompany you on the frontlines nor can he complete his next contract just yet. As such, I am compelled to end your current, ah, protection detail.”
I instinctively grip the edge of my seat. If he dares…
“Since it is my decision to forbid Torran from helping you, I consider your task complete. As for your reward… you have completed both tasks I required of you and as promised, you may draw from my essence.”
Constantine shows the most minute signs of distress. A mortal would have missed it.
“Now will do, I suppose. Come,” he announces as he stands up.
Despite my best effort, I must have shown a sign of excitement because my host looks a bit aggravated. Progenitor blood! A rare treat indeed. It will lack vitality, but this power...
I join him behind his desk, a symbolic allowance on his part. He extends one bare wrist which I take delicately, then his other hand whips out and grabs my head with lightning speed.
I freeze. From where I stand, I see the edges of a mage gauntlet of incredible power. The contained aura of the artefact thrums with a threatening rhythm like war drums in the distance. It tastes of blood, iron and the tide.
I feel no aggression from Constantine and so I stay still. Even my instincts are silent as power emanates in waves from the Progenitor’s form.
He is considerably faster than me.
He is also known as a blood magic genius, showing incredible innovation, a rarity among our kind.
I am convinced that he will not kill me if I do not give him cause and so I keep my peace.
“I place myself in a vulnerable position. Even if you were to swear an oath not to harm me now, the backlash of breaking that oath could possibly justify my death. When you taste my essence, the temptation will be here to consume more of it than you should. That is why when I say stop, you will stop, or you will regret it. Briefly. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Good, you may begin.”
I lick the skin over the vein, eliciting a sigh. I can feel the power crawling languishly under the pale skin. Despite my best efforts, I find myself anticipating the moment with great pleasure.
I bite down.
High tide. I must hurry or I will be too late. I cannot believe that the village could do that. They are stupid! Our village was not cursed. All the towns around us have bad harvests due to the poor weather, and the raiders were not due to bad luck, but because that alderman gixajo skimped on hiring some guards. I rush to the shore, hoping I am not too late. Behind me I hear the cries of pursuers. They know that I will act. They will not catch up.
The beach, and the rocky formation at its edge. The bar of sand has been reduced to a thin line by the conquering waves. Too late. The entrance is already submerged.
I am too late.
“Hello, young man.”
I turn to see a woman covered in a cloak looking down with a smile. Despite the urgency, and despite the late hour, all thoughts abandon me. I can but stare.
She is incredibly gorgeous, the most breathtaking beauty I have ever seen. She could walk right into Madrid and the king would throw himself at her feet, begging her to be his wife. The pope would embrace damnation for a night with her.
Even with most of her form hidden, I can see hints of unmarred golden skin, a dark eye like a summer night and lips as red as blood. The cloak shifts, and I see the beginning of her cleavage, the barest hint of a curve. It would be enough for some to sell their souls.
The goddess chuckles warmly as she sees me gape like an idiot. The sound is soft and intimate, not mocking. I feel privileged that she would share it with me.
“A bit late are we? Only a champion could brave the waves and the rocks now. Only a champion could save his precious sister. Do you want to be this champion?”
She smiles again, and removes from the recess of her garb a phial of exquisite make. I am a clock worker. I know the work of a master when I see one. Golden filigree encircles the body and stopper to form some alien characters I do not recognize. Beyond the crystalline barrier, I see droplets of a carmine liquid.
“What is this?” I ask.
“Fate,” the woman replies. I feel measured by her gaze, judged and weighted by a cold intellect without match in any place where I have plied my trade.
“Drink it, and become the one who can save your sister. Or do not and return to obscurity.”
I have no need to hesitate. I remove the stopper and imbibe the contents.
This is not a liquid.
It looks like it, behaves like it, but what slides down my throat is living fire. A power without match. No language of mankind can give justice to the intensity of it, the purity. It feels so dangerous and intimate at the same time. It moves through me.
I drop the phial and fall to my knee, mouth agape and breath stolen as the decoction ravages my insides. It is pain, pleasure, hot and cold. And vibration like the purr of a cat if the cat were the size of the moon. All of it at once.
The sensation grows too intense for me to stay conscious.
In a way, I die.
And I am reborn.
Then, after what felt like an eternity, it is done. Whatever the potion did is completed, and I am in full control of myself once again.
I feel so strong, so incredibly powerful. I can see her perfectly now, I can hear and smell everything.
A manic energy moves my limbs as four strange new things protrude against my gums. My nails have fallen off, to be replaced by small talons like obsidian. I take a few seconds to remove the blood and discarded keratin from my shoes.
“I will go now,” I declare with finality. I have already wasted too much time.
“Do as you please, young one. We will not meet again. Fare thee well.”
She is gone and so I am. My steps lead me to the beach, then to the rocky amalgam extending into the sea. There, our ancestors imprisoned sacrifices by placing them in a cave that could only be accessed at low tide. Other gaps allow the air to come in, but they are too small to pass through. They are barely enough for the voice inside to moan and beg, an unwilling bride for the god of the sea.
The villagers sent my sister to die for them and I know why. She was always too headstrong, my Melitone. Just as smart as me who apprenticed with the clockmaker, but born a woman and unwilling to bend to tradition.
I feel a deep anger boil and fester inside my now silent heart as I slip into the sea, as I swim through the furious waters as if they were but a mild bath in some bourgeois’ tub. I am fast and strong, so strong. I do not even need to struggle for breath.
The interior of the cave is dark but I can see.
“Ganiz, is that you? Is this a dream?” a trembling voice answers.
I grab her cold hand and place it on my face. Her fingers trace the familiar form.
“I came here to rescue you.”
“Then you are a fool. The current will be too strong now.”
“It is not. There is a way. We will bind our fates.”
I slash my wrist and push it against her bluish lips. She is shivering now. Weakened. Her frantic eyes search the darkness for me.
“Drink and you will become strong.”
I do not know how I know this, only that my confidence is absolute.
She trusts me, she drinks just as I bite her. I could have done something differently so that she could become like me, but the change is all-encompassing, and it will have a price. That way she is bound as… as a Servant. Not an equal, but a partner. She will be stronger though, stronger than all other Servants. She will share some of my power, because she is my sister, my only family, and I want her to be able to protect herself from now on.
It is easy to leave, it is easy to climb out of the sea and shake the sand from our clothes. Our steps are assured and although I remain stronger, she is more dangerous than any soldier I have ever seen.
“What now?” she asks, her voice calm and confidant. She was always good at moving on.
Me, not so much.
“Now?” I reply with a cruel smile, “Now we return to the village.”
I pull back.
I have seen enough; I have taken enough. The essence is mine now. I finally understand the secret power Ganiz, no, Constantine, has chosen for himself. Just as my own sire was driven by conquest, Constantine crossed the boundary out of brotherly love. The touch of his line will make the Servant better, more powerful. Inhuman. Not as strong as a vampire but sharing none of our weaknesses, they will be a force to reckon with. Not to mention that we still cannot touch them. The taboo is still here.
I find his sacrifice touching.
I need to remember that Melitone will display superhuman abilities, especially now that she has had a century to train. It also implies that should she fall, the murderer will have to face a vengeance like no others.
“That was… interesting,” Constantine idly comments to mask his temporary weakness.
I care not.
Again, so much power. I can feel it roll and merge into me. Its touch is gentler than Sinead and Sivaya’s essence, a pond to their torrent, but no less powerful for it. I stretch in delight under the soothing effect, marveling at its strength.
My essence follows the line of my body, while my aura is more diffuse and more flexible. I can feel it growing denser and darker. It feels good.
I flex my claws. Now would be a good time for a Hunt, but alas, necessity makes law.
I note in passing that I am not drunk, just like the night I tasted my sire’s essence all those years ago. Perhaps it is due to the low vitality? Curious.
Constantine studies me for a while, and I allow him some time to recuperate. He has not dismissed me yet therefore it would be rude to leave.
“What is the core of the Nirari’s essence? Consumption?”
“No,” I reply, “conquest.”
“But you have not defeated me.”
I eye him with undisguised amusement.
“Victory and conquest are not the same thing. An offer of blood is a clear sign of submission, is it not? To expose yourself so thoroughly to my mercy.”
“I…” Constantine replies, frowning, “I think you may leave now. Our deal is done, and you have much to do,” he retorts with a bit of anger.
I laugh as I leave.
“No need to be so sore, Speaker. I have almost forgiven you for what you have done to me.”
“Just leave. Melitone will join you in Marquette.”
I chuckle and close the door behind me.
I already knew I would need resources to complete my mission. The first step is thus to return to Marquette and gather those resources. Constantine correctly anticipated this move and I can rely on Melitone joining me shortly.
As expected, I cannot count on Torran. Not that I planned on asking him for help. Torran is my senior in every regard, to rely on him is to send a signal that I am dependent on him. That will not do.
Thankfully, I have much to work with.
As I step outside of the manor and onto the inner garden, I am joined by the first additional member of our expedition.
When I saved Melusine, I demanded of her a one-time assistance in battle, a favor I am calling upon now. As she turns and narrows her eyes, I will admit that she looks rather good in a brown traveling dress and deep green cloak that compliment her pale skin and carmine curls.
“I am here, as promised,” she declares as we make our way along the fountain and onto the gravel road leading down. I nod and we both whistle at the same time.
Metis trots out of her stable with a prancing gait that shows everyone that she is the best Nightmare around and she knows it. She stops a few paces in front of us and snorts disdainfully, like the big good warhorse she is.
By comparison, Melusine’s Nightmare is thinner, less muscular though arguably more graceful. She seems to glide on the earth with thin hooves while Metis’ trample the ground with the sound of thunder heralding the coming of the Huns. What is this delicate flower of the night? This is not a Nightmare. A Nightmare exists to run down werewolves and smash into human lines like the wrath of the Watcher itself.
Both Melusine and I finish our inspection of each other’s horse and scoff at the same time. I turn to her with fangs bared.
“Just so that we are clear, my pony is better than your pony.”
“In your dreams, peasant! Zana is a prime example of the perfect Nightmare, a shadow weaving through the trees without a sound! Any mortal catching a glimpse of her will question their sanity before this dark mirage!”
“Dark mirage my posterior! Is this the one you will ride into battle charging down a pack of wendigos? The only thing you will slay is a romantic poet and only if the tuberculosis does not get him first. You could not tell a proper Nightmare if it kicked you in the face you flat-assed milksop!”
Melusine gasps in outrage and displays her fangs in return.
“And you would not know good taste if it was shoved up your muddy butt, you bumbling meathead!”
“Ladies, please,” a warm and slightly accented voice says from behind. I turn around to see my darling here and smile helplessly. He looks dashing in traveling leather, with that sardonic smirk that lifts one corner of his mouth more than the other. Without another word, he passes us by and calls for Krowar. The larger war horse trots forth with elegance and dignity. Torran climbs on it and rides first.
Melusine and I exchange a glance.
“At least you have good taste in men,” she reluctantly admits.
“I wish I could return the compliment, Melusine, I really do.”
Then after a pause, because I am not completely insensitive, and she did lose her Vassal and lover not too long ago.
“With one notable exception,” I concede. It is not every day that you will find a man who will hide your insensate form with his own dying body to save your life.
We both fall silent as melancholy overcomes my companion. I grab her by the arm and pull her forward. Nothing like a good ride to clear one’s head, after all.
We gallop and soon catch up with Torran as he rides down the path along the cliff leading down from the manor. The humans guards, always vigilant, let us pass without a word after a cursory inspection by the light of their torches.
When we reach him, my lover slows down and pulls alongside me.
“Your essence is denser,” he declares while inspecting me.
“You can tell?”
“Yes. Soon, it will be enough to forge a soul weapon.”
“What are soul weapons anyway?” I ask with curiosity. We never actually discussed it, simply because I preferred his tales of home, games and politics and I wanted to make it clear that I was interested in him as an individual, not because of his role as a smith. This time is different. Torran initiated the conversation himself.
“Soul weapons are crystalized essence, molded into an offensive form. They are the highest form of weaponry in this plane of existence and are unchanging and indestructible so long as the vampire lives. Soul weapons are killing drive made manifest.”
“Can an armor be a soul weapon?”
“No. First, the artefact itself is a proactive item while most armors are reactive. Lord Jarek’s gauntlets are not protection, for example, but extensions of his fists.”
“Could a gun be a soul weapon?” I ask with excitement.
Torran considers the question seriously.
“Perhaps. There are a few ranged soul weapons already.”
“Indeed. Your sibling Svyatoslav, for example. He uses a bow of tremendous size. Ammunition would be a concern though, and it would not fit you.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, surprised. I do enjoy my guns.
“As I mentioned, soul weapons are an expression of one’s violence. Yours is… up close and personal. Firearms are ranged weapons and they imply a certain desire to keep a distance from the conflict, and are usually associated with an ambush hunter’s mind. You can be patient, but you definitely prefer to be in the thick of it.”
Torran is not wrong. Even my pistols are often used at point blank range. To be fair this is the best way to use a pistol as they are not the most precise firearms around.
“Huh. What do you think my soul weapon would be then?”
“I have no idea, dear, however I hope that you will call upon me to forge it for you. I will do it for free.”
“You are too kind,” I reply with appreciation. While the cost of a single forging is not only astronomical, the services of the smith may not even be purchased with money to begin with.
“How does it work? May I ask?” I go on.
“Explaining in too much detail would break the mystique of the forging itself. Your essence right now is in your body. It follows its outline though the essence itself is not physical. You can already pool it and send it elsewhere.”
“Precisely. The forging consists of drawing out a large amount of essence and then, with my assistance, severing it and molding it into a weapon. The essence is still yours but it is separate from your normal body. It also coalesces into something physical.”
“That sounds… painful,” I remark.
Torran turns his aristocratic face to me, his grey eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Excruciatingly so. It will also weaken you. Temporarily.”
I jump on the occasion to ask another question that had bothered me.
“So, we do lose essence? When we create a soul weapon and when we sire a fledgeling?”
“And when you burn under the sun.”
I shiver at the memory, a memory I have shared with him. To my surprise, Torran has never been touched by the golden orb’s unforgiving radiance, though he has suffered countless other wounds.
Yet less than a year of being able to move during the day and I have already been roasted once. Maybe I am just an idiot.
“Can we recover that essence?” I ask with worry. I cannot afford to weaken.
“Yes and no,” Torran replies, “you will recover what you lost quickly. You must have realized that the Thirst grew stronger for a while? Well, it was to rebuild yourself. It still slows your growth a little bit because while you heal, you do not grow stronger. That is why I would suggest that in the future, you try to stay out of the daylight,” he finishes with fake condescension.
“Duly noted,” I reply with a murderous glance. Torran has grown more teasing in the past few weeks, following in the footsteps of Jimena, Nami and basically anyone who has grown close to me. Is it fun to needle the Devourer? Unfair.
By now, we are crossing the fields and glasshouses covering the valley
We continue in silence for a while, until I notice signs that Melusine wishes to speak to me. Surprised, I pull back after a last nod at my lover and align myself with her. As we ride side by side I realize with pleasure that between my size and Metis’, I am easily two heads taller than her.
“Yes?” I ask with a smirk.
Melusine huffs, completely unamused.
“I have a proposal for you, Ariane.”
Ooh, we are on a name basis now.
“I am yours for this mission, under the seal of secrecy you so heavily insisted upon,” she reminds me with annoyance, “and I fully intend to repay my debt. With that said, one of the causes of the current situation should be obvious to you by now.”
“All vampires are snakes and anyone not bound to you by alliance and contract is to be considered an enemy in waiting?” I suggest.
Melusine merely rolls her eyes.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, you simpleton. If you want your land to be fully secured, a coven must be established in every power center of the state. Provided that you win, you must take over the northern part of your domain.”
I stare at her, long and hard. Melusine does not flinch under my scrutiny. She lifts her chin with all the aristocratic grace embedded into her persona since she was dragged screaming into her clan so many nights ago.
“You?” I coldly state.
“Yes, me. I will swear an oath of allegiance to you. I will cover your backyard and promote your interests in the state and in the whole continent. I will come to your side when you call for battle. I will pay a tithe. In return, you let me rule the town as I see fit, with no interference and no spy to look over my shoulder. A true City Master.”
“You would follow me?” I ask disbelieving.
“You are better than most. It is true that Devourers always keep their words, the sane ones in any case. As for me, you know well what I am capable of. You rule your land in the manner of the Eneru, with many knowing of your existence and a level of control that borders on the absolute. It will not work everywhere.”
She looks forward now, fully absorbed in her demonstration. In front of us, Torran shifts to let me see his amused smile. We must appear as children splitting a cake for one such as him.
“The north will host the state capital because of its proximity to the Great Lakes, it will grow too fast for you to swallow. A more delicate touch is required to make the most of it, an iron hand in a velvet glove.”
She closes a fist and turns to me again with a hint of disdain.
“… while you are an iron hand in an iron gauntlet, the one with the tiny spikes on the knuckles.”
“Continue with your demonstration,” I pointedly suggest.
“For larger cities, the touch of Mask is preferable. I will rule from the shadows in your name and bring us countless benefits. I will stir it in secret, for you controlling sorts still haven’t realized that only the unfelt ruler is truly safe. On the other hand, you merely have to focus on what you enjoy doing to keep the jackals off our backs.”
I consider her proposal.
First, she is serious. I can tell from her posture and determined air. She also makes a good point. I will need to create covens. I am unwilling to sire spawn for now and Urchin does not qualify as a coven member.
Second, and most important, can I trust her? If she is willing to take an oath, then yes. Despite her devious Lancaster ways, she is still one of our kind and we do not break oaths easily. It still bears the question…
“You and I have been at odds many times. Are you not worried that I may use this opportunity to take revenge?”
“I am asking you.”
Melusine smiles softly.
“For all your achievements I forget that you are still young. For us, alliances of interests and enmities of opportunity are things to be discarded in the long run. I still think you are too callous and direct for your own good, and yet there is no denying your successes and, more importantly, your integrity.”
She stares me in the eyes with candor.
“I would have no qualms following someone such as you, for as long as our agreement holds. If I have my city, then I will found a coven, accrue power and eventually, after I become a Lady, I will find Moor wherever she hides and skewer her rotten heart. Then I will personally shove warm coals up her nasty…”
I phase out Melusine as she descends into cold rage, listing the many indignities she would subject her fallen superior to. Interestingly, many of them involve fire in some fashion.
I think I can trust her. In theory, her arrangement is also to my benefit, though this time I will consider the question before taking any hasty decision. I will not repeat my mistake of agreeing to lady Sephare too quickly.
“I will consider your proposal,” I reply as I interrupt Melusine’s next description on what she will do to Moor, which involves a box with a small opening, coals and a rabid wolverine.
“I must admit that I was not impressed with your performance when we were both in New Orleans,” I continue and to my surprise, Melusine does not object.
“You did not strike me as a competent follower then. It would significantly help your case if our cooperation went well,” I continue.
“I understand,” she replies.
We nod to each other with grudging respect and return to riding in a single file. The rest of the trip to the way station is done in silence. A few hours later, Torran and I part ways after promises to spend more time together when all is done. He will travel around for a bit while Melusine and I rush to Marquette at high speed using armored carriages.
We have a war to plan, and to win.