The werewolves have made camp in a basin nestled between the mound to our north and the ridge we stand on. The small depression hides the camp from sight, if not from smell, and bitter wind disperses the upward clouds of smoke of the campfires before they become visible.
What shocks me is not the size of the camp, fully capable of hosting a good two hundred men. No. What shocks me is the incredible level of organization displayed here. This is not a refugee camp or even a caravan bivouac.
We are spying on a military installation.
Most of the camp is made of large tents, not set in rows but evenly spaced across a good half of the basin. The materials used are heavy furs and tanned hides sewn together, and a sentinel stands before each entrance with their arms crossed.
I do not see any cannons or armory, nor any smithy, which does not surprise me much. I have noticed that entities who possess an overwhelming physique often underestimate the usefulness of firearms. Or perhaps, they simply lack the means or training.
The missing structures have been replaced by cages. Rows and rows of densely packed prisons filled to the brim with the huddled forms of transformed werewolves. Their listless bodies form an incredible tapestry of colored fur behind a foreground of grey metal, a quiescent organism made of hundreds of temporarily inhibited monsters. When that slavering mass is unleashed, nothing will remain in its wake.
Walking at the edge of this massive jail, a man patrols, a great horn of some bony material hanging around his chest. The artefact’s power echoes slowly across the mass of prisoners with some unknown effects. With his heavy mantle made of fur poorly sewn together, he looks like some shaman from the dawn of time.
Finally, a command tent sits at the end of the camp opposite the cages, and in front of it stands the tallest werewolf I have ever seen. The creature easily tops nine feet and its muscular body is covered in thick dark hair now slowly drifting in the wind.
“Are those ferals?” Melusine whispers as she points at the cages.
“I believe so,” I reply.
Some werewolves lose themselves completely to the curse and never transform back. My companion and I share a moment of unease. Turning rogue will forever be a threat hanging over our heads, and the sight of those lost souls only reminds us of the possibility of our own demise, not to external forces but to the darker part of our nature.
“There must be at least two hundred of them.”
“Agreed. Let us fall back for now.”
We return to the Nightmares, taking extra care not to leave any trace nor to be spotted. The ride back to Frost’s camp is morose, and for good reasons.
We cannot stand against those numbers.
I am confident that I can take on a dozen werewolf and come out unscathed, but the more enemies there are and the more likely it is that a single mistake will spell my doom. A single jaw firmly clamped on my arm means a dozen more all over my body by the time I can free myself. It means being trapped, overwhelmed, and dismembered. It will take more than five vampires to stand against such strengths, especially considering that two of us are Courtiers. It will take a large force and a careful plan.
It will also require a high degree of cooperation between Mornay’s group and ours, a dubious proposal at best. Less than forty-eight hours into this operation and the situation is already desperate.
“Hundreds, you say?” Mornay asks with a sneer as he reclines in his comfortable chair. We stand in an office that would look respectable if it did not still stink of fresh paint. Blake and the unnamed spawn stand at either side of him across the massive baroque desk while I am flanked by Melusine and Melitone.
The prick did not even offer us a seat.
“I would never lie on such a serious matter,” I retort with more bite than I meant.
“Lie? No. But hundreds of werewolves? From creatures that have never banded in groups larger than three until very recently? Allons donc. And besides, did your bloodline not show issues with, let us say, clarity?” he asks in a seemingly innocent tone.
I flex and unflex my hands, claws hidden from their sight. I know Melusine enough to realize she is livid though she masks it well. By questioning my sanity, he is also insulting her, whose testimony backs my own.
If we were not trying to work together, I would demand satisfaction right now. Unfortunately, there is no time for him to recover from the lesson I would impart. Nor do I really need to.
This man is dead.
I let the silence draw on, none of us moving in the slightest. Instead, I progressively release the hold I keep on my aura. So far, I had let Mornay’s presence dominate the room as a courtesy, even if he was still flirting with the limits of what is politely acceptable. Now, my own power radiates outward with increasing pressure. The change is not fast enough to qualify as an outburst but still quick enough for the atmosphere to change, and the unspoken threat to be stated.
“Perhaps you would care to see for yourself?” I ask after his grin has fallen a bit.
“And follow you alone into the wilderness? I think not,” he retorts.
Can I just KILL HIM. DISRESPECTFUL WEAKLING.
“Are you refusing the Speaker’s aid, Mornay?” Melitone asks coldly. She, too, has a low tolerance for stupidity.
“Of course not. You can assist if you wish. Now that our prey has been revealed, I shall face those pests and bring a swift end to the current troubles.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” Melitone retorts sweetly.
“Why, I shall run them down like the parasites they are of course. A handful or a dozen it matters not, they will fall before me. If the Devourer spawn is too… wary, she may watch from afar how extermination missions are conducted.”
He slams his fist on the desk in what I imagine is an attempt at appearing decisive, but in reality, looks more like the tantrum of an unruly child.
I suppose I have grown too used to competence in the past few weeks. Mornay merely reminded me of the vicissitudes of this world, where us rational beings must every day contend with the malicious and the dimwitted.
“Very well,” I reply, “we will join you when you make your move.”
I conclude the meeting there, leaving immediately with my two companions in tow. Mornay’s parting words are interrupted by a slammed door and we promptly leave his estate and its intimidated staff. As soon as we turn on the next street, both of them start at the same time.
“That asshole…” Melitone begins while shaking her brown locks.
“I commend you for your control…” Melusine hisses, showing a bit of fang.
I raise a hand to stave off their outburst.
“Not now. We need to get back to the inn first.”
The trip is considerably faster than normal and I realize that I should have let them vent their frustration. As soon as we arrive, Melitone drags Frost into the conversation with the crafty old man only too eager to listen to everyone’s complaints.
“Mornay is a windbag and a moron. His sire should have stabbed himself in the heart on the day he chose that brainless twit to join the ranks of the undying!” she spits.
“In a way, I am pleased to see that politically motivated incompetence is not the prerogative of my bloodline,” Melusine adds.
And so on and so forth.
After vociferating for a few minutes and letting Frost needle their aggression, they finally realize that I have remained silent.
“Are you not irate, Ariane?” Melusine asks, “he disrespected you on purpose, and quite cruelly at that.”
I am indeed calm, because I know for certain that my vengeance is already assured.
I turn to the Servant among us.
“Melitone, how likely is my victory should the entire den fall?” I ask.
She winces in return and I have my answer before she can even reply.
“Well, if they all die and any of Lozaro’s charges survive…”
“… then we lose,” I finish.
Melitone only nods dejectedly as Frost decides to contribute.
“Not to mention that you will receive some unwanted attention from that clan those idiots belong to. If they perish and you don’t, they will demand an inquiry.”
“So, we need at least some of them to survive. Do you think we can win?” Melusine asks.
“Win?” I ask with disbelief, “that would depend on your definition of winning.”
That gets their attention, and so I explain.
“We cannot possibly stop that horde if they all attack at once. Which they will.”
“How about those reinforcements?” Melitone asks
“There are hundreds of werewolves. I am not even confident we could stop them in Marquette, even if I gave silver bullets to every militiamen and women. Not without devastating casualties.”
I pause at that. Melitone remains an outsider, and I must not forget it. She is on my side in everything but what truly matters: formal allegiance. I cannot reveal the darker parts of my plan in her presence lest she reports it to her sibling, while at the same time I need to show enough that she does not suspect too much of a hidden agenda.
“We will use the river…” I begin. The others join and soon add their expertise and minds to my own until finally, we have a workable plan.
I find it remarkable that no matter if by ten miles or a thousand, being away from civilization and its lights always gives the illusion of infinity to the nocturnal landscape. Intellectually, I know that the dark frozen trunks and untouched snow do not go on forever, that a river flows at my back and that beyond it lies tamed land. It matters not. Here and now, we might as well be in the northern reaches of the world, where they say the night lasts for months.
Mornay paces nervously in front of our small group. He wears a genuine plate armor of a strange make, a sign that he is at least taking this seriously. From time to time, he furtively takes a glance at my unmoving form.
I repaired Melusine’s attire as best as I could with the limited time I had and the tools I brought with me. Thankfully, vampire dexterity and speed can work wonders, especially backed by a bit of Cadiz essence for continued focus. She now looks half-decent as her asymmetrical armor gives her a rebellious look, that of a pirate or highwaywoman.
I will admit that it looks good on her.
I also made sure she had proper greaves and gauntlets equipped. From experience, I can tell that werewolves will go for extremities on a moving target, so that they can bring it down. The additional protection should grant her a few more moments to break free before freakish jaws close in too deep and seal her fate.
All in all, she looks like a fighter, if a scrappy one.
I, on the other hand, look like a Master. Loth’s armor shimmers in the fleeting light of the torches held by Mornay’s men, its exquisite details obvious to my peers. I also wear my half-mask and carry with me an assortment of weapons including Sivaya’s spear and my own wolf-slayer.
John’s version of the massive arbalest is designed for absurdly strong mortals. Mine is designed for absurdly strong vampires. It has the same draw strength with a major difference: my slayer is a repeater. The bolts are stored in a long magazine stored on top of the central axis. A crank with pulleys allows me to wind back the wire-like string without having to lower the weapon. It looks exactly like what it is, a siege weapon that should be operated by a crew and fired from crenellation at approaching shield walls.
On top of that, I have a pair of one-second-fuse powder charges secured at my back, the ultimate way to clear a path.
This is the werewolf hunt equivalent of being overdressed.
I love it.
With our tightly braided hair and matching blades, Melusine and I are the cold professionals to Mornay’s mismatched group of dilettantes. Blake doesn’t even wear proper armor.
I hope she does not get caught too early.
Eventually, Mornay’s pacings fail to assuage his worry and he turns to one of the four mortals carrying torches who had the misfortune of accompanying us.
“What’s taking them so long?” he demands.
The mortal obviously shrinks before his employer’s attention. What a stupid question to ask. How could the mortal know? A leader should never reveal their fear.
Mornay’s master plan was to provoke the wolves into attacking him. We managed to find a roving patrol and he slew both untransformed wolves, one of them a woman, only to have one of his men drop the pair of severed heads at the camp’s entrance with a formal challenge.
I almost insulted him here and now for his dismal stupidity. It takes a considerable amount of willpower to remind myself that I should not waste my breath on a dead man. The mortals will be intercepted. The werewolves will smell and notice the severed heads. They will exact vengeance. Then, when they are ready, they will find us. Such an insult cannot remain unanswered.
In any case, the messengers are lost and so are the mortals present here. Simply because Mornay did not believe us and felt the need to double down like the arrogant fool he is.
As we wait for the inevitable tide, I reflect on his behavior. He does not believe that werewolves can assemble in large numbers because it never happened before. This is the sort of mistake I have also committed. I realize that until recently, I no longer believed that mages could take me down. Then Alexandria happened. Without David King, I would have died that day.
We vampires are all guilty of the sin of pride. If mages have failed twenty times to end my life, the twenty-first attempt might be the one to succeed. They have all of eternity to try and they only need to win once.
I must walk the edge between death and insanity, taking them seriously while still giving them a chance to survive a proper Hunt.
It does not take a genius in arithmetic to realize that no matter how small the odds, with an infinite amount of chances, success is assured.
At some point, I will die.
…And here I am brooding again. I blink myself awake as a noticeable shift triggers my intuition. While before the world was uncaring, there is now a sense of anticipation on the wind. No, a sense of longing. An eagerness.
I calmly load the crossbow, drawing a furious stare from Mornay and resisting the temptation to kill him right now and run while I can.
Ariane, queen of mature self-control.
I take a step forward.
It happens quickly.
No time for speeches. One moment, silence reigns. The next, snarls and grunts and pounded snow herald the coming of a pack and the very next instant, the bipedal hybrids of wolf and man storm the clearing.
I unleash the first bolt on the leading beast as the tide of fangs and furs rushes us in tight ranks. They are so close and so similar that I feel that I am not facing a group but a single misbegotten entity with more limbs than a centipede. Even their aura is but one wave of feral rage. It crashes against our own with blind obstinacy.
Then there is no more time to think.
I manage to shoot twice more, taking heads each time and slowing the mass of bodies as the bolts pierce through the following member, then I take my spear and stick it in the first wolf jumping on us, using the momentum to throw its massive body into one of its neighbors. I repeat the gesture again and again with mechanical precision, breaking the tide like a rock at the head of the formation.
Behind me, the vampires instinctively gather in a wedge, supporting each other. Melusine’s spells crash into the densely packed bodies in great fiery explosions, to my surprise. I did not know she could call fire.
Both Courtiers are pushed to our back so that we make a defensive circle while the torch carriers are swept away with brief cries of terror and pain. We fight back to back, lunging for devastating strikes before pulling back to the cover provided by our allies. Blake and the Spawn sometimes falter but the trio of masters is more than enough to stem the tide and to compensate for momentary weaknesses. Savagery is answered by stern discipline and recklessness by surgical precision. Each of our blows either kills or maims beyond recovery. Every swipe throws one body into two more to hamper five. No matter how strong they are, we are deadly fighters with centuries of combined battle experience.
And still, we bleed.
The pack fights as one despite their apparent mindlessness. They blindside, feint, and distract with an ease that can only be born from instinct. They follow each other tightly so that one jumps over the other when the first one commits. They attack from multiple sides when they can and will always try for the weakest link or the overextended fighter.
I am fine. I sometimes let glancing blows rake my armor without much effect when I want to use the momentum to strike elsewhere. Melusine manages to avoid most hits though she gets a cut on her temple, and thick dark blood now drips down her cheek.
The Courtiers are not doing so well. They are already covered in wounds. Blake’s left arm hangs limply by her side. Both Melusine and Mornay are forced to compensate and in turn, so am I.
As I kick a corpse into the side of a roving pair, it happens.
Vibration shakes the air, the powdery snow, and my very body. It comes with a low-pitched sound like a horn of impossible size. The intermingled auras of our quarry undergo a drastic change under the sonorous blast: from aggressive and unhinged, they turn dark and patient. The surviving werewolves bound away in every direction as they leave their fallen comrades behind.
We are left alone on the field, with corpses spread at our feet. Blood and other bodily fluids turn the pristine meadow into a grisly battlefield.
Silence descends upon us. As quickly as it came, the battle is finished, and yet even the bombastic Mornay does not declare victory. A blind man would know that this retreat is temporary.
This was a scouting party. They found us, and now the rest will come.
My intuition tells me that the situation has not reverted back to normal. If anything, the anticipation in the air is even thicker than before.
The horn blasts once more, again seemingly coming from nowhere and anywhere at once.
And again, a second time.
Beneath our feet the ground trembles like a drum beaten in a low roll. Beyond the densely packed trees, something moves.
I lightly jump to a nearby branch and grab it to get a better view. Far in front of us, two small ridges form a natural barrier and in the small gap between them, I see quivering movement. This is the only warning I get before the horde crests over both ridges and punches through the gap at the same time.
For an instant I am staring at the dark canvas of space dotted by a galaxy of twinkling stars before the illusion shatters, and the light is revealed to be nothing more than the moon reflected on hundreds of lupine eyes, all made frantic by bloodlust and the thrill of the hunt. A veritable tidal wave of creatures charges us in ranks so dense that their numbers obscure the ground. The drums we heard are their paws trampling the earth and the cacophony of snarls and growls heralds the violence to come.
I drop down and turn to Mornay. He is indecisive, paralyzed by inaction.
I take one last good look at him and the incredulous fear he displays, then it is too late. The edge of the horde is upon us.
I do not hesitate. I pull the first powder charge and throw it forward and to my side as the first wolves weave through the trees, then I pick the wolf slayer and catch a few of the creatures in the mouth, just to topple them and slow the charge.
The first wolves reach us on Mornay’s side.
He turns around to cover his spawn.
The first charge explodes. I step back and grab one of Blake’s arms as Melusine picks another. The Courtier yelps in pain.
Mornay realizes his flank is uncovered. He turns on himself and deflects a strike but ten more wait behind.
Our eyes meet one last time as his companion falls under the combined weight of a dozen creatures.
And then, the massive werewolf I had spotted in the camp surges and clips him in the flank before merging back into the mass of bodies. A wall of claws and teeth overwhelm the vampire’s defenses in moments, his speed unequal to the task of stopping such numbers. He disappears under the melee with one last shriek, cut short as something finds his throat.
Melusine and I dash away as I use the last charge to blast the land behind us. The wolves are fast but not as fast as us, or rather, they would not be if we did not have to worry about our charge.
“I got her,” Melusine says in a clipped tone. I let her grab the girl in a fireman carry and she picks up speed.
Blake does not resist. Her frantic eyes look behind us at the horde on our heels. One misstep and we die.
I nod at the redhead.
This is it. Now comes the next part of the plan, the difficult one.
I will have to admit, I do not recall having this much fun without Torran for a long time. The tension, the price should I fail.
I rotate to the right as Melusine accelerates to the left. I take out my pistols and fire into the coming crowd, aiming for eyes. My first shot kills a creature but the second bounces against the orbit of a massive fighter. This one is so tough and muscular that even a silver bullet fails to achieve more than a light wound.
It matters not.
I am only doing this for the noise. It works as intended, with most of the horde hot on my heels. Most, but not all.
I jump forward, landing on a low branch two dozen yards away from the lead creature. The tip of the pack slows, all eyes fixed on me with a hungry stare.
YOU THINK YOURSELF STRONG. YOU HAVE THE NUMBERS.
I HAVE EVERYTHING ELSE.
I roar. In my cry, I pour all the fury and disdain I can muster in a challenge that cannot be ignored, and the horde answers. Larger specimens like the one who survived the shot echo with deep howls, lower-pitched and more tremulous than anything a real wolf could produce, then hundreds of monstrous throats pick up the yowl in a deafening warcry.
In their excitement, even the farthest creature returns to the fold so that they may hunt down the one who dared provoke them.
I cannot help it. I laugh and laugh as I move through the forest with unmatched agility. I have been running through the woods since I stopped being a fledgling two decades ago, just for the unique pleasure it provides. I know forests. We are in my domain now and we shall run indeed.
And so, we do.
For a minute, then two, then five, I sprint between trees and rocks and branches. I ascend vertical cliffs as if they were flat and cross frozen ponds as if they were grass, while my pursuers scramble and slip in their mad dash. When the horde breaks up, I pick isolated targets and skewer them, licking the blood from my spear as they fall. And always, I laugh.
This is a perfect moment. This is why we live, not just for power and influence and all those… human things, but also for this primal instant when instinct and conscience will cease to struggle for control. One mind, undivided in perfection. The wind on my face and the ground beneath my soles. The horde at my back, as unstoppable as winter but always one step behind, always a bit too late because they are flawed and weak.
They were not made by a curious god to prey on the world, nor chosen by an ancient monster as a potential heir. They are but cursed men and women thrown at us by a fool who overreached, drunk on his provincial success. They are behind and there they will stay forever because they are not the apex predator.
They are not...
And so, jaws clamp on empty air, claws flail and slip and muscular bodies fall to the ground in uncoordinated heaps.
And they know it.
After an indeterminate amount of time, the horn sounds once more and the pack slows down as we reach a clearing. I wait in the middle, fully exposed as the werewolves stop by the edge of the wood. Every bush, every tree conceals muscles like corded steel and yet, they do not move on. The imperious call of the horn proves too much.
For an instant, a gap in the landscape gives me a clear view of a scene a hundred yards beyond the impassable line of monsters. The black wolf who disabled Mornay stands next to a man clad in thick pelts holding a large horn made of bone, the very same who was guarding the ferals.
They stare, and so do I.
The man is the only one in human form and yet I know that he is a werewolf. There is something in his stance and in the way his iris reflects the light that leaves no doubt in my mind.
Then the moment passes, just as the wolves slowly start to withdraw. The horde disintegrates into shuffling clumps from the previously unified pack, still dangerous but nothing like they were before.
I wait until the last straggler disappears in the shadows of the trees.
It is done.
I take a few moments to center myself and to focus on the quickly fading impressions that course through me. This was great and I need to remember. I need to cherish this moment.
I only hope the rest of the plan went without a hitch.
It takes me several more minutes to find the river. I even had to find a tall tree to spot the hole in the forest. For once, the Detroit river’s languid flow does me a disservice as its quiet nature leaves little way for me to hear it. Eventually I find the shore and manage to orient myself, quickly running to one of the two hidden piers prepared for the occasion. I take the arranged rowboat and make my way across, cursing against the occasional slab of drifting ice. It takes me another five minutes before I arrive at Frost’s camp.
If I did not know it was there, I would have missed it. A large circle of basic runes hides it from aura perception and smell while the location naturally blocks sight and sound. As soon as I enter the perimeter, Frost stands up from his position near a central fire. Blake follows suit, looking dazed.
“Good you’re here. Is Melusine not with you?” the old man asks.
I stop in my tracks.
“What do you mean not with me? We split up so that she could evacuate Blake. They were supposed to cross the river together.”
“A small group of wolves followed us,” the Courtier answers in a hesitant voice, “she stayed at the pier to stave them off.”
“I thought I attracted all of them” I hiss, “well, I am going back.”
I turn around to the small pier under the mages’ incredulous stares.
“Careful Ariane, those who came after us were not ferals,” Blake warns.
It matters not.
I sit in the rower seat only for Frost to lower himself in front of me. He removes a strange contraption from his pocket, something between a dreamcatcher and a compass. The artefact tastes like tracking and searching, not in my way, but in a more methodical and rational mindset. A bit like a Rosenthal hunt.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Frost asks.
I frown, yet also start rowing.
“I am surprised by the intensity of your reaction, Ariane. I did not expect Melusine and you to be… close.”
“You should already know that I do not simply discard an ally in need.”
“And what about Mornay? And Reynald? They were not allies in need then?”
“There was nothing I could do,” I reply with a shrug. I did not even know that the spawn’s name was Reynald.
Frost nods, pretending to be thoughtful. Then, after ten more seconds he continues.
“It is fortunate that Blake made it.”
“When pursuing a line of questioning, you should be wary of what you may find at its end,” I interrupt.
Frost raises his hands in mock surrender, but I give him no recognition. He is too eager to poke and prod for no discernible gain. I am amazed that he still lives.
The following minute is spent in silence as I focus on dodging the ubiquitous pocket icebergs and Frost tinkers with his bauble. I realize that the cold is absolutely biting, yet my companion seems unbothered. If anything, the frigid wind pools around him.
I almost crash into the pier because of my speed and lack of attention. I climb down and inspect my surroundings.
The forest around us is quiet, though the scent of werewolf blood is still strong. I notice that there are no corpses despite a suspiciously large pool, which means that our foes picked them up before leaving. The pier itself is mostly untouched but here and there, branches and trunks have been marked with the telltale signs of claws and pyrotechnics. The devastation follows the shore downstream.
I follow the trail in silence with Frost on my tail. The land is empty of life and there are no auras besides our own. No signs of Melusine, so far.
As I walk, I realize that my erstwhile bitter enemy took a significant risk by acting as bait, and I am reminded of the one prophecy I had in my life so far. The one about forgiveness. I am ashamed to admit that I have, in fact, forgiven her. We have both grown quite a bit since New-Orleans and she has been instrumental in the success of tonight’s operation.
I really hope she made it.
Fifty yards down, the traces of conflict abruptly stop.
“Do you think she went into hiding?” Frost asks.
“No, she would have had to kill the entire group for that and no werewolf died here. There would be tracks of a massive body on the ground.”
I check around but see no signs of ash, which is a good start
“Where is she then?”
I look at the river.
“She probably followed the flow as a backup plan. Werewolves are too heavy. They sink, and they are sensitive to cold. Vampires do not need to breathe, and we do not fear low temperatures.”
“She jumped in?”
“I do not think so,” I reply as I find a particularly deep set of tracks, “I believe she was thrown. She could be too exhausted or wounded to save herself, even if she survived.”
I decide to continue heading downstream. I have no idea how far she could have been carried, if she was. I start scrutinizing the waters for any sign of an anomaly. I even sniff the air and pick up a queer scent.
“There is a werewolf farther along the path,” I inform Frost who is still tuning the artefact. When he hears my warning, he removes his hand from his pocket.
Frost’s gauntlet is as white as its namesake. A single ruby is inserted halfway on the back, between his knuckles and his wrists. It glows ominously.
We continue carefully but soon realize we need not have bothered. The scent comes from a prone form at the edge of the shore. Smoke wafts from the pale naked body of a young adult, a proof of the werewolf’s impossible metabolism. He is breathing fast and shivering while his aura flickers weakly.
“Do we finish him off? He will be too weak to talk, at least for a while.” Frost asks.
I do not know how he can be so sure, but I trust him.
“No. I have another use for him,” I say, looking out again.
“You want to jump in?”
“Yes. If Melusine fell in she would be around here if my assumption is correct.”
“Then take it,” he replies as he hands me his compass, “this is the tool I used to track the werewolves. I recalibrated it to find vampires instead.”
“Will it work underwater?”
“Yes, and if your ally is unconscious, she will not try to restrain her aura.”
I nod, and jump.
Even if I expected the cold, I am still disoriented by the sensory overload that comes with it. I take a moment to recover and look around.
Seaweed. Rocks. Debris. The odd fish. No sarcastic Lancaster.
No, focus Ariane, you have a tool, use it.
I take out the compass and realize that the thin blue needle is pointing at the nearest vampire.
I curse but realize that Frost cannot be this stupid. Below the needle, I find a single gem that I can press. I do so now and note that the next target is behind me, upstream.
I quickly swim and find Melusine’s body near the bottom, huddled against a large rock. A thin trail of black blood emerges from the back of her head where her skull was crushed. So that is why she is here. She must have landed headfirst into a block of ice and sunk, while the werewolf struggled to float and only managed to climb back to the shore a bit farther away.
It is a simple matter to drag her back and I soon emerge from the depths a few feet away from a bemused Frost.
“An impressive show with that armor of yours,” he comments, “too bad about the seaweed in your hair.”
I sigh and remove the guilty piece of vegetation, but I cannot muster any form of annoyance. I am relieved that Melusine survived.
I would have missed her.
“How is she?” he asks.
“As long as she is not ash, she will be back to her posh and caustic self within the next hour.”
Frost discarded his coat to cover the shivering body of our prisoner. I grab underneath for an arm, and at the moment I succeed, the young man’s eyes flash open.
They are a warm brown with flecks of green in it. Rather pretty.
He sniffs the air, surprised.
“You smell weird…” he comments, frowning. Then he yelps when I bite his wrist.
What is it with people taking such liberties to comment about my hygiene and appearance, huh? Go waddle in the muck and you will smell strange too. Bah!
With the wolf’s expression slackening, I bring his bleeding appendage to Melusine’s lips and let the carmine liquid trickle down. The redhead shifts and soon, ravenously latches on the wound. She stops as soon as she regains consciousness.
Slowly, she opens her jaws and releases her still breathing captive.
“Melusine,” I begin as a greeting.
“You saved me, again, like last time.”
“You are not going to battle again without some sort of helmet.”
“Agreed,” she concedes with a bitter chuckle.
Melusine does not stand up. A bad sign. We normally dislike being in a position of vulnerability. And although I appreciate the trust she shows, it also indicates that the ordeal has taken a toll on her.
“When I saw you above me it reminded me of last time. It scared me. I feared to turn around lest I see him again. My Arthur.”
“I am sorry, Melusine.”
“Oh, don’t be. By the Eye, this is ridiculous. I really thought I was done for this time. I remember every detail of my fall into the water. The branches overhead. The wind. The claws against my armor. I even remember useless details, like how the beast stank of rank sweat.”
“That’s rich, coming from a ginger.”
Melusine pauses and I witness with some pleasure her face turn from mewling to its usual haughty self.
“Ariane, you are such a bitch.”
We both snort at the same time and this time, she is smiling.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Ladies, if you don’t mind doing this later?” Frost comments.
He is right. We are in hostile territory. I almost forgot about that.
“You really could not save them?” Melitone asks firmly with just a hint of suspicion. Around us, the mages are packing their belongings in preparation for our retreat back to the city.
“But you could save Blake?” she continues after a pause, looking at the woman sitting near the fire.
I carefully maintain a neutral expression, mirrored by Melusine.
“Blake was already wounded, and she is but a young Courtier. Wrestling a reluctant master would have been a different proposal altogether. As for his spawn, he was the first to fall.”
Melitone considers my words with clear unease. My testimony is perfectly believable, but the death of Mornay is simply too convenient.
Almost as if I had planned from the beginning to let him die with his spawn so that the leadership of the den falls on Blake, who would be much more, shall we say, malleable, than her predecessor.
“Melitone, I told you that this attack was suicide. I saved whomever I could despite the odds. We were facing a veritable wall of cursed flesh, fangs and claws out there. I give you my word on this: once they were upon us, there was nothing I could do. You can ask Blake if you do not believe me,” I continue.
Technically, I could have tried to convince him to leave or dragged him away and hoped he would follow, thus promoting the interests of the Speaker of the Accords and clan Roland.
I did not.
Lord Ceron proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that ours is a merciless world where self-interest rules. I am no fanatic in the service of Constantine, nor am I some sort of benevolent savior to risk my life for others of my kind. I am here to protect my own interests and those of my friends, and Mornay resolutely placed himself in the list of disposable assets. He was not my ally and I did not have an agreement with him. Indeed, my agreement was, and still is, with Constantine himself.
Also, Mornay was a prick.
And so, for convenience and for insulting me, he had to die.
Now, with the leadership firmly in my hands, we can finally work on a proper plan.
Melitone nods, admitting that my explanations make perfect sense, and here lies one of the most valuable lessons of the night.
I swore that I could not help the deceased as the tide overran our position, and I told the truth. That does not mean that I could not have intervened before.
Vampires seldom ever break their oaths as the price is too high. Similarly, if I swore I believe something is true then unless I twist in pain on the ground as the words leave my mouth, I did not lie. The abyss between the absence of falsehoods and a faithful rendition of reality is so vast that I understand why we are loath to bind our foes and allies in complex contracts. The more we abuse it, and the more the victim will struggle for a way to wiggle out of their bounds like the proverbial genie.
And so, I am left in charge after letting nature follow its course.
“Blake, you must return to Detroit and evacuate your people.”
“Like it or not, you are now the de facto leader of the local den. The werewolves may come to town tomorrow as we slumber and our meager defenses will not stop them, even if they keep to their human forms. We must leave and retreat to a fallback position. I have reinforcements waiting outside of town. Their camp will do.”
“Then what?” Melitone asks, looking a bit lost.
“Then the boy and I will have a conversation,” I announce as I kick the prisoner by our feet, “and once we are done, we will finally understand the true nature of what we are facing.”