It takes us only two days of hard riding to head north up to Lake Michigan, then east until we reach Detroit. Melitone, Frost, and three of his men ride by day while Melusine and I slumber. By night, the roles are reversed and since we use lesser Nightmares to pull the carriage, we manage not to stop.
During the trip, I learn from Melitone that she expects the City master to be somewhat hostile, which does not surprise me in the slightest. We arrive in Detroit from the South in the early evening of the second day.
Detroit is old, older than most cities I have been to. It was named for the river it borders, the houses lined along ridges that start at the shore and extend north. As soon as we enter the city, I turn right to take in the piers.
It does not take me long.
To my surprise, Detroit is fairly small with a population barely reaching two thousand five hundred. Many of the edifices are made of wood while Alexandria and Washington had favored bricks. We pass a few groups of late-night pedestrians trudging in the dirty snow, who eye us suspiciously, and mutter in low voices in French, English, German, and sometimes even Irish brogue until we step on the embankment.
The Detroit River flows languidly before us, its placid waters clear enough to reflect the buildings above and surprisingly unfrozen. I spot canals leading into the city bordered by trees. It feels peaceful and—
“Have you seen enough? Can we go now?” a voice interrupts.
I turn to Frost with a glare but he just shrugs.
“This is not the liquid I am interested in. And before you ask, no I am not talking about booze.”
“What are you talking about then?”
Behind him, Melitone takes a dreamy expression as she gathers her heavy cloak around herself.
“What is maple syrup?” I ask, wondering if they are mocking me with made-up products.
“You have never tried it? Oh, you poor thing!” Frost exclaims in mock horror, “it is as if the gods had shared ambrosia with us. It is as sweet as honey, it flows like water and tastes like heaven. I am surprised that you did not take the opportunity to try it.”
“I assure you that my change was not planned,” I hiss in a low tone.
Melitone frowns at the old man who bows his head in apology. Once more, I am amazed at how quickly he can switch from old rogue to kind grandfather in a single heartbeat. Even his aura reflects this to an extent, currently crisp when he could be glacial.
“Ariane…” Melusine interjects.
“Yes, I feel them too. Lady and gentlemen, we have company.”
I turn Metis back and we move towards the center of the city, leaving the carriage and Frost’s men slightly behind. Three vampires step forward to intercept us from around the bend of the road, appearing from behind a snow-covered hedge.
The one in the middle has sandy hair and traits a bit too sharp to be truly handsome. He is glaring fiercely, dressed in an elegant if incongruous dark ensemble that would belong more in a salon than outside in the heart of winter.
The second man, to the right, follows the first with the respect and attention I associate with Courtiers serving their sire. He has dark brown hair and a pencil-thin moustache that Loth would say he tolerates in his women. Both show the muscle structures of fencers and the overconfidence of bravos.
The third person is clearly an outsider from her posture. She is beautiful with very dark curly hair and exceptionally pale skin, even for a vampire. She looks guarded and steps just a bit behind the rest of the trio. She seems familiar for some reason.
All three have the aura of the Roland, which has a slight unyielding quality. Only the central figure is a Master and he is currently flaring his power in a display at the very limit of politeness.
“And when did you plan on greeting the master of the city I wonder?” the leader asks with disdain. Or at least he tries to.
Vampires, just like mortals, are susceptible to visual cues. Anyone on foot trying to look down on me while I am on Metis will only get a sore neck.
In the silence that follows, Metis snorts and Zana, Melusine’s nightmare, quickly follows suit.
I intentionally wait for a few seconds to pass in silence before replying in a cool voice.
“So kind of you to come and greet us, City Master Mornay.”
“Save your breath, Devourer. I do not appreciate my clan overstepping its authority on my domain, nor did I ask for one of Constantine’s hounds. Assist, if you must, but know that I do not need you to get rid of pests.”
He turns to his side to look at the woman with some contempt.
“Blake here will explain where the beasts can be found, won’t you, Blake?”
And with this, the man dismisses us and turns to leave.
“City Master,” Melitone interrupts in a low voice, “are you not forgetting something?”
“Watch your tone, Servant, I do not take orders from the likes of you.”
“You forget yourself, Mornay. You either respect our agreement or I ride back to Boston and your next visitor will be significantly less accommodating.”
Mornay turns once more, his face twisted in a grimace of rage. He flexes his hands, claws eager to rend and punish but with no real outlet. Melitone is completely beyond his reach.
“Very well. Blake, please lead them to the Madison Hotel and make the necessary arrangements. Goodbye.”
One minute later, only a slightly nervous Courtier remains on the muddy ground, and I observe an interesting phenomenon I did not expect to see from her clan.
Blake is now looking to the side and downward in a somewhat bashful pose, and Frost as well as the other men guarding the carriage are showing concern and even sympathy for her. I can tell that she is not using her essence, therefore the strange magnetism she emits is only a product of her natural charisma and beauty.
“Right. Follow me,” she grumbles.
I dismount out of politeness and soon all the others follow suit. As I walk by her side, she inspects me warily and I simply let her. We proceed in silence in a street running parallel to the river, then left towards the center of the town and up a small hill before stopping next to a three-story edifice, still in wood, lit by bright light.
When we enter, Blake excuses herself for a moment and soon after several staff come to take care of everyone. Melusine and I are led into a small dependence surrounded by a garden and hidden from view by tall walls. There is only one floor arranged as a large salon with a hearth, seats and a small library.
Blake wordlessly pulls a carpet from the ground to reveal a stone trapdoor surrounded by crappy enchantments the likes of which I would not use to secure a larder.
“Here we are,” she announces.
Since I am a master perfectly in control of my emotions, I do not start insulting her and her hospitality right away.
“Are you jesting?” Melusine asks coldly.
“The… the shelter is well hidden and the family who owns the land has served Master Mornay for generations,” the woman replies somewhat defensively.
Melusine and I stare in silence.
“Alright, so the man is a miser and he never expected to have guests. Happy? If it’s any comfort my own chamber is even worse.”
Now finally, we are going somewhere.
“You seem familiar. Have we met before?” I ask before Melusine starts a tirade.
Blake pouts, which even I find attractive.
“We met at the manor. I was looking for a place to settle.”
Oh, yes, I remember now!
“You were that vampire in a red dress I came across a few times!”
“That was my only decent dress. It did not work so well in the end,” she sighs dejectedly.
Melusine frowns, but she must also realize that we may have found our only ally in this place. By silent agreement, we all sit around a rickety coffee table while Melusine lights all the candles in the room with a snap from her fingers.
I will never admit to being impressed by this trick. I will, however, keep it in mind as a gloating tool.
“Then you only joined this coven recently.”
“And so did the other two! This place is the ass end of nowhere so it did not justify our presence at all. The most exciting things around are riots and epidemics!”
“You do not seem pleased with the arrangements.”
“Cut the crap. I fled here and this is the only coven that would take me in, and then only because they needed a third member to be called a coven in the first place.”
“Is it difficult to find a territory?” I ask, not understanding.
“Maybe not for you, Devourer, but us who belong to a clan with a local presence have to bend to the rules or be outcast, and I am not exactly the lone survivor type.”
“I do not mean to insult your competence, but what stops you from claiming some frontier town and building a base there,” I ask.
“Simple, my dear. I’m broke. Absolutely broke. Red dress, remember?”
My dealings with the Rosenthal proved salutary during my exile. Without a starting capital, it would have been both difficult and risky to start the Dream from scratch. I would have had to steal. I mean, steal even more.
“Yes, yes, Ariane, please do not lose yourself in the memories of your own abject poverty. We are here with a purpose, remember?”
“Ah yes. The werewolves.”
“Quite. Blake, can you tell us more about the situation?”
Blake removes her hood completely and stretches. I recognize the kind of things we do to center ourselves though we no longer have the biological need for it.
Melusine and I wait in silence.
“What do you know?”
“Werewolves bad. Many werewolves worse. Go kill,” I summarize laconically.
Melusine shows fangs but Blake smiles a bit. She is a young one, I can tell.
“We should summon Frost and Melitone, I do not feel like hearing this tale twice,” the redhead advises.
I agree and call a member of the staff to request their presence. After a few minutes, they join us, gathering around the table with warm drinks. Frost also picks a plate with what appears to be toast that was liberally drowned in some amber liquid which, I will admit, gives off an enticing perfume.
Once everyone is settled, Blake begins her tale.
“Three weeks ago, we cornered and executed a werewolf who had come to stay in our town. We didn’t think much of it until two more came looking for him. We killed them as well, only to realize that a fourth one had been staying at the edge of town. He fled before we could track him down and we lost his trace at the river.”
So far, nothing too abnormal besides the high number.
“The loyalists we charged with disposing of the bodies informed us that they found matching tattoos on the victims. Two jagged black lines to be precise.”
A stylized mountain? It would make sense if this truly is the Black Peak pack.
Every new piece of evidence hints at a danger the likes of which we have never faced, and I am at the frontline with only a pair of disputable allies.
How I wish Torran were here instead of Melusine, and I would not mind backup from Jimena, Nami or John either.
“We also found maps.”
I must have reacted to that last sentence, because Melusine turns to me, soon imitated by the rest of the table.
“Maps are used to wage war. You dedicate teams to making maps when you plan an invasion,” I explain, relaying a lesson taught by Loth.
“But surely,” Blake intervenes, “they could just ask for maps at the city hall?”
I learn that Melusine’s way of conveying deep contempt is to slowly blink.
We ignore her naïve remark and move on with the conversation.
“Since last week, the werewolves have returned. There are more of them and they stay far away during the night. We only smell them at the edge of our territory.”
I wince at the memory of werewolves. They possess an innate vitality that makes them particularly appetizing to me, yet there is no denying that they have a peculiar musk which we find irritating. I remember having trouble tolerating the only werewolf I ever was on speaking terms with, the man named Alistair Locke. Every whiff of his scent would wake up my instincts and push me to track the intruder and slay him, even though he was a guest and never displayed any sign of aggression.
“Have you tried having your humans track them?”
“No,” Blake replies, “Mornay has too few followers and none of them are fighters. He would not shed their blood by sending them against such foes.”
“I see,” I reply, turning to Frost.
“Yes, we have a way to track them using special charms sensitive to smells and specific auras. I would prefer if you were with us when we engage, however.”
“There will be no engagement,” I say, interrupting them.
Melitone frowns, uncomprehending.
“What do you mean? The mission objectives…”
“… are to find and identify the primary threat. Frost will be in charge of finding their tracks and will stay at a distance. When night falls, we will join you and follow them to their base. Then, we will learn the true extent of this new threat. We will not waste time going after the small fry.”
“So you do believe in the existence of some sort of werewolf alliance?” Melusine asks with some doubt.
“Maps? Coordination? Matching tattoos? What more do you need.”
The Lancaster has no answer and for the first time since we began, I see the tiniest hint of concern in the way her eyes narrow ever so slightly.
“That works for me. I’ll leave Duke with you, he can use a messenger spell. That will save us a lot of effort.”
We conclude the council quickly with Blake being tasked with finding the maps for us to peruse. Melitone politely requests an interview and I follow her to her room while Frost and his men do some emergency work on our vault entrance.
“What is it?” I ask as she closes the door behind her. She left her luggage half-open near a narrow bed and her perfume already permeates the place, soothing me a bit.
“It appears that Mornay has elected not to cooperate with you in any meaningful way. I am allowed to share with you that he does not know the stakes you have in our arrangement.”
“Do you mean…”
“Yes, he is unaware that Lazaro and yourself are competing for control, otherwise he would have been even more obnoxious. Make sure that he does not figure it out or he could make unreasonable demands.”
“I will be sure to let the others know.”
“Good. The second point is that Jimena is close by.”
I smile at this.
“You are not supposed to know,” Melitone warns me, “and any help you receive from her would affect your final score if you ask for it against my dear brother’s orders. I just wanted you to know in case the threat is just as dire as you seem to believe.”
“Right. But if she happens to come upon us…”
“Then it will be a lucky happenstance.”
Oh, I can produce lucky happenstances, not to worry.
“Do you really think there is a werewolf army?” Melitone suddenly asks.
I realize that I am not sure.
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” I answer noncommittally. “In any case, we will keep you safe.”
“Good to know. Alright, thank you for letting me know and in case it was not clear, I am rooting for you.”
With that polite dismissal, I take my leave and return to our salon. Melusine and I spend the rest of the night exploring the vicinity, and I find myself enjoying my trips over snow-covered roofs. Despite our efforts, we find nothing. The werewolf maps are also of little help besides proving their complete lack of cartographic and artistic skills.
With dawn approaching, we retire to our significantly improved vault.
The following day, my mental fortress.
I come to in my palatial bedroom, surrounded by pillows artfully arranged under a canopy that defies physics. On both sides of the vast bed, pedestals hold mementos and baubles, each one corresponding to a specific memory.
Somebody is knocking.
I walk out through a labyrinth of rooms and down the monumental stairs and into the inner courtyard. Great statues of creatures and men I have slain alternate with trees of strange essence, most bearing thorns. In the dark celestial vault above, the Watcher moves, more agitated than usual.
Down into the garden I go, through hidden passages and illusions. Here and there, more statues appear. They are one of the defenses with the flora, and though no one has tried to attack my mind recently, whoever shall do so now will have a terrible time of it.
Then I will kill them.
The knocks stop, to be replaced by chimes which is quite novel.
I soon reach the edge of the forest surrounding my domain. As before, it is made of thorny roots and trunks densely interwoven, sure to shred any intruder to the bone.
With a small push from my will, the curtain parts and a figure glides in with a beatific smile.
“Oh, good day! Lovely place you have there!” she exclaims in a chipper tone.
Sometimes, I think Violet was never meant to wake. She is not unlike those birds who are terribly awkward on land but incomparably graceful while in the air. The curious thing is that her hair is still tousled, but here, in her dreams, it moves and merges into different styles according to her mood. Her clothes flow, sometimes as broad as a medieval gown and sometimes tight and scandalously vaporous. Patterns of color appear and disappear on it according to her mood and sometimes, motes of light like glittering butterflies pop out as she speaks, like now.
“What an incredible house! Please be sure to give me a tour of the garden before I depart!”
I cannot help but smile as the strange lady jumps into the air and on top of a werewolf statue, the dress immediately turning to petticoat to protect her virtue. For an instant gravity lost its grasp on the woman and the thorny branches around her grew small white flowers.
“Ooooh a maze! Amazing! Haha!”
“Violet,” I interrupt with a chuckle, “the messages?”
“Ah yes. Quite a hassle that was,” she adds, still looking around while balanced on the tip of her toes of a single foot. Her visage seemingly radiates from the inside, and her soft beauty is now made manifest through the serenity and joy that animate it. The difference is truly breathtaking.
Then the bubbly faerie is gone as she stands straight, still on my statue, and closes her eyes. Her dress morphs into a toga of the purest white, with golden jewelries encircling her wrists and ankles. Her hair tightens itself into an elaborate braid that would require an hour and the efforts of two people to recreate in reality.
“I summoned both Sinead and Sephare in the same space, and they talked for three hours. I will not elaborate on the level of detail in which Sinead went, just know that even Sephare was intimidated by the depth and breadth of his questioning,” she begins in a steady voice.
“I failed to understand the reason for many of them, and Sephare asked me to inform you that Sinead was dangerous,” she continues, looking down to me.
A part of me is bothered to be the one to look up, but the greater part is just amused at her antics, and glad to see her stretch her wings. A mortal who was bashful and possibly lonely has now bloomed into the incredible talent I knew her to be. I am only too glad to give her recognition for it.
“I already knew he was a dangerous man,” I reply.
At this she blushes.
“It was only in a dream, I swear!”
Oh that… scandalous cad! Giving me inflamed declaration and then robbing my newest plaything of her virtue the following day?! I know that Likaeans have different customs but surely this is slap-worthy? No?
“Not to worry, Violet, you are not the first to fall to his ploys,” I tell her with gritted teeth.
“Oh, I know, only a man with experience could be so incredible!”
Beyond the fact that I would kill him in the heat of passion, this is another reason why it would not work between us. Sinead is part of a culture that does not even consider monogamy and I do not see myself sharing. I especially do not see myself playing second fiddle to Sivaya, or anyone else for that matter. With a last shake of my head, I banish from my thoughts the possibility that… I banish any thoughts, at all.
By the Watcher, I miss Torran. If he were around, I would not even look at another man.
“Moving on,” I continue, “Sinead asked some questions. What then?”
“He made some arrangements to move towards York then disappeared with around a thousand dollars from your coffers.”
Ouch. Well, we will see if this leads anywhere.
If not, I will take the compensation out of his hide.
“What do you have to report besides that?”
“Lady Sephare gave us the location and timing of the Cadiz supply route. As far as we can tell, they are respecting the limitations the Speaker put upon them. Sinead said you should not worry about them and focus on your own thing.”
“The last important piece of news is that you have fifteen men from your ‘odd squad’ and five mages of the White Cabal on the way. They have orders to stop thirty miles from Detroit and to find a town to hole up in. We are having some difficulties moving around due to the inclement weather so you shouldn’t expect them before a week.”
A whole week!
“That is all.”
Now is my turn to keep my allies informed. I share my findings, such as they are, with Violet who has instructions to relay them to Merritt and whoever commands the approaching detachment. After this is finished, I oblige and allow Violet to follow me around. We walk the maze, the gardens and the inner court but stop at the edge of the manor proper.
“I will not follow you inside, it would not be proper,” she says while shaking her head.
“What do you mean?” I ask with surprise.
“This is your sanctum. It contains all the memories and emotions you hold dear and will be your last redoubt if anyone tries to break into your mind.”
“What, you mean with magic?”
“Precisely. Not that it would be a good idea for them. Your defenses are formidable. You must have worked on this mind palace for a long time.”
“Thirty years,” I idly observe.
“It shows. In any case, it was a pleasure visiting such a wonder. I will leave you to your sleep. I hope the others have prepared coffee! Goodbye Ariane, take care!”
“And you too,” I reply as Violet closes her eyes and fades into the background. I close my eyes and find myself back into the bedroom at the heart of the complex. I jump on one of the pillow stacks and drift to sleep.
When Melusine and I climb out of the vault, we find one of Frost’s men waiting for us. He clearly wishes he were somewhere else.
“We have found them.”
“So soon?” I ask with surprise. The man winces, and nervously scratches his short blond beard.
“That is what Councilor Frost said. I do not have details.”
We order the man out while we change. We must wait for the sun to set to begin with.
I put on my true armor, the one Loth made with the sigil on the chest. It looks just as deadly as the first time I tried it. Melusine gives me the stink eye when I look down on her own uniform, the now battered and hastily patched up dark leather armor she wore when her Vassal died. The Lancaster crest has been summarily torn off.
I note in passing that she and I share the same body type. We are clearly used to physical effort, but we still have some, ahem, padding. The main difference is that Melusine is really well-endowed.
Also, she is shorter, so there is that.
And I obviously have the better posterior.
“Are you done ogling?”
“You could not get a replacement for your armor? This one is barely holding together.”
“When I exiled myself, the Lancaster took all my assets!” she hisses.
“And you did not think to ask me?” I retort with calm.
“I… You would have laughed in my face!”
“Of course, then I would have helped you get a new armor. Our future is more important than our pride, Melusine,” I sternly tell her.
“You are going to war in a wreck. This affects both our chances and our image,” I continue.
The grumbling Lancaster averts her eyes, before finally relenting.
“I apologize. I did not expect you to be so reasonable.”
“I did manage an entire city for almost two decades if you recall. It taught me quite a bit about leadership and the importance of appearance.”
“I was under Moor the whole time. Give me a break.”
“Fair enough,” I relent, “how are you for weapons?”
She shows me.
“I have a short sword and a spare set of daggers,” I tell her.
“Please. And thank you.”
In a gesture of unusual unity, we help each other bind our hair in tight braids that the wind will not disturb, then wait for nightfall. I leave a message to Mornay out of politeness, and then we ride.
The mage goes first and his horse gallops through the dirty snow with commendable speed. I personally believe the poor beast is scared beyond reason, as it should be. Melusine and I may have donned heavy cloaks, but under them, the glint of weaponry is obvious. Our guide sometimes casts back a fearful glance as if the thundering hooves of Metis were not a sure way to tell what hounds his steps.
It does not take us long to leave the city’s mostly empty streets behind. Our passage elicits a few yelps of terror from the citizens still outside. I even see a woman cross herself. Luckily for her, we are after another quarry tonight.
The ordered rows of houses soon fall behind us, to be replaced by endless farmlands now covered in a layer of snow. Smoke from fires lift up towards the sky from every direction as we move on and where we pass, dogs whimper and hide.
We go north then east until we are able to ride along the shore. After a few minutes, the mage slows down and we move alongside him. I did not realize it before but his horse is shorter than even Zana who is rather delicate herself, meaning that both Melusine and I look down upon him. We instinctively box him without the need to communicate. His horse neighs softly.
“Why are we slowing down?” I ask in a deceptively soft voice.
“The... my horse is tired, I can’t push him like you do your, uh, we’re almost there in any case.”
Ah, the smell of fear. Melusine and I exchange a knowing glance, but take no further action. It would not do to provoke our allies too much.
“There is a small ship anchored nearby. The ferryman is waiting for us. Come.”
We turn right and follow our guide on a downward path through a dense copse of trees. As we reach the edge of the water, branches and exposed roots are no longer covered in snow, but instead encased in sheaths of solid ice that gives them an otherworldly look. They glitter like strange jewels under the diffuse light of the moon.
We quickly exit the copse and find ourselves on a small, rickety pier hidden from sight. On it, a riverman wearing several layers of cloth to ward off the biting cold turns with anger, but his complaints die on his frozen lips when he takes in our appearance.
Metis and Zana lazily step on the wooden skiff in perfect silence. The man swallows nervously and pushes away from the pier with commendable haste. I watch with interest as several large blocks of ice bump against the hull, but it appears that the placid current will prevent us from turning into a shipwreck. It would certainly kill neither Melusine nor myself, in any case.
Once on the other side, our quiet guide resumes his pursuit and we soon leave any sign of civilization behind. The dense woods and pristine snow would make for a fantastic hunt were it not for the grunting mortal and his annoying light spell. Fortunately, I know that we will leave him behind soon and I feel no need to eviscerate him for ruining my fun. Truly, I have mastered my emotions.
“They’re here,” our guide finally says.
For a while, we have been following a set of horse tracks and behind a rock, in a small depression hidden from the wind, we find the rest of Frost’s group huddling around a campfire. I note in passing that the fire is hidden from view by some concealment spells that also blocks off their aura and, more importantly, their smell. Frost himself is sitting comfortably against a trunk, seemingly unbothered by the cold.
“Good evening, ladies. I hope you had a pleasant trip?”
“Where are they, old man?” I answer with a grin. I am quite impatient now.
“The tracks continue northward from here. They stopped trying to hide them so you should have no difficulties. When you are done scouting, come back here and we will make our way back to the city together.”
“Very well. Melusine?”
The light behind us fades then disappears.
The night, in all its glory. I wish Torran were here, so that three of us could gallop and recreate that exciting nightmare ride.
Perhaps another time.
Trees after trees after trees. The odd rock. Sometimes, an irregularity in the landscape forces us to ride to a side where our quarry climbed. They are close now, I can feel it in my essence. When the sensation turns to a dull warning, I raise a fist and we stop, heeding the warnings of my intuition.
Melusine and I dismount without a word and drift through the landscape as silently as shadows. Our feet touch the ground without leaving tracks and no cliff can slow us down for more than a few instants.
For a while now, we have approached a small mound and I can finally smell it on the wind.
A pungent odor of dog, wet fur and human musk, as heady as it is unpleasant. Beyond the mere unpleasantness of it, their stench wakes in me the desire to find them and purge them, for we occupy the same niche, that of the apex predator. I spot Melusine frown with disapproval. She feels it too.
Quietly, I make a circling gesture and we sprint perpendicular to the origin of the smell until we are downwind. An unpleasant necessity as we, too, have a scent. The landscape before us climbs to a ridge behind which our prey surely is. I find a flat rock some distance away that overlooks the field beyond and guide Melusine there. I climb first and use the promontory to survey the scene lying before me.
Then I fall back, speechless. I almost bump into my companion who was on her way to join me.
“What is wrong?” she softly hisses.
“You know that feeling when the Order came at us in Triste Chasse? That realization that you are facing a threat you had not quite expected?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, there were hundreds of them.”
I silently point forward and Melusine lifts her head to get a good look.
“What the fuck?”