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A note from Mecanimus

Happy new year! Let's start with a bang.

Also, the bonus story chapters are now here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cA9MLVU8t-XLSmLAP9mv3POygPe5N3h93Z7licAQZ5g/edit?usp=sharing

 

“Oh, Adeline, since I met you on that fateful night and rescued you from Alonzo’s men, my world has changed beyond recognition. I thought I knew my place at court and the course of my life until the day I die. How wrong I was! ‘Twas but a lie! A gilded prison that encircled my soul in its invisible embrace and condemned it to an existence without happiness. You opened my eyes, dear Adeline! You freed me from the grey fog of apathy with the sun of your spirit! At the very sight of you, my heart expands and fills with passion…”

His heart, eh? Right.

“My handsome Alphonso, I know not what to say. I am but a lowly servant who…”

I am interrupted by a knock. Sighing, I mark the page and close my book, then slowly open the sarcophagus.

Blessed darkness.

And an impatient redhead.

“Why are you still hunkering? We have much to do.”

“And the first order of business is to interrogate the werewolf, which I will certainly not do while the sun is still up,” I retort.

That is why I stayed inside, and absolutely not because only a thick layer of cloth separates me from the vengeful radiance of the sun. I am not terrified that some birdbrain could have left the opening flap unsealed, thus condemning me to a fiery death as soon as I open the sarcophagus. Not at all.

Melusine lifts an imperious brow.

“You do not want to read the reports made by our men? They are on the table.”

My indomitable will allows me to hoist myself up without grumbling. Everything is harder during the day, and Torran was right: it does not get better. The only option is to endure and compensate.

I take a seat in front of the table and take a comb to brush my hair. I was able to take a quick bath yesterday, fortunately, otherwise, I would still be smelling like rank water and Melusine. The horror.

I am getting a bit peckish as well.

Frowning, I read the documents in front of me and remind myself that I should value the mages for their, well, mage skills. Not their spelling. It appears that a group of werewolves in human form infiltrated Detroit during the day and attempted to sniff out the vampire dens. Literally. They did break into Mornay’s office, but we had thankfully managed to clear out the place in time and they must have failed to find anything useful. Most of the Roland assets are still safe in various warehouses and caches, while the houses of loyal families were left untouched.

The scout responsible for the report left town in the early afternoon, implying that the situation may have evolved. For obvious reasons, none of the mages approached the werewolf encampment.

“A whole lot of nothing,” I comment.

“I have high hopes for our captive,” Melusine replies, “and if he does not know enough, we can always capture more.”

“Indeed.”

We are lucky in the sense that our ability to Charm, especially compounded with our bite, makes keeping information from us an impossibility. Even the sturdiest of mages with special mental training would eventually fall under our ministrations. We do not even have to rely on that barbaric and inefficient method that is torture.

Unless the target is one of our own, of course.

I discreetly pull on my fingers.

“By the way, I noticed something about the group that attacked me,” Melusine idly notes.

“Do tell?”

“Their auras were unified as if they were a single entity. A most curious phenomenon. They numbered five and covered each other as much as they could. The boy, for example, started his suicide attack to protect another werewolf. A female.”

“A female?” I ask in surprise, “how do you know?”

Melusine takes a stricken expression.

“You do realize that the creatures are in the state of nature, and though their nether regions are atrophied, they are still present. Right?”

“And you took the time to inspect their genitals? In the middle of combat?” I ask with disbelief.

“Look, perhaps your vision is only restricted to fangs and claws, but we Lancasters are trained to notice every detail so that we may capitalize on weaknesses!” she hisses back with annoyance.

“Uhu. Well, your contribution is appreciated, as we know for sure that they care about each other. Our prisoner has something to lose.”

“Yes. I killed the other three so that only leaves the woman. Perhaps his lover?”

“We shall see.”

We wait another hour for the sun to set, our conversation turning to her training during her Lancaster days and my own experience after escaping. This bonding moment surprises me as much as her lack of judgement concerning my performance. She is particularly amused by my tale of Bingle’s shenanigans, but her expression turns morose when I mention Dalton and his tragic end. When the night has fully fallen, we finally leave the tent.

The Marquette detachment managed to locate a deserted estate and settle there without trouble from the locals. Unfortunately, the main house and adjacent warehouse are both too damaged to provide adequate shelter for our delicate skins, and so we were reduced to using a heavy tent. The soldiers have no such qualms and between this and pavilions, our base has turned into a respectable military camp.

The mood remains pleasant despite the knowledge of what we face. It is true. Humans can get used to anything.

I turn back to see the tent we came out of. From the outside, it looks like any other, though a more careful inspection will reveal that the fabric is significantly thicker. We are still vulnerable to foes shooting in, thus opening gaps in the uniform cover for the light of the sun to filter in. This will not do.

I have decided that as soon as this whole business is over, I will certainly acquire one of those armored carriages. They are too convenient to pass up. I will also install a swivel gun at the top that can be fired from the inside. Oh! And load it with canister shots.

“Ariane, the prisoner is over there.”

“Ah! Yes, ahem. I was lost in thought. Let us go then.”

We walk confidently across the encampment while mages and soldiers stop what they were doing to watch us pass through under the glow of the odd torch.

“The sun is down, and the pale ones are up,” somebody whispers to our side.

There is no fear in the man’s voice, but instead a sense of anticipation. Of ownership.

I never thought that we could be adopted as if we were pet tigers.

Interesting.

Shaking my head, I follow Melusine to a tent that was set apart. Three men are surrounding it with muskets loaded and pointing in instead of out. I take a key from one of them, then turn to my companion right before lifting the flap.

“It would be preferable if you stayed outside in case the three you killed were his friends. Can you listen in?”

“Most certainly,” Melusine answers with a smirk.

I expected more resistance from her. Curious.

I get in and immediately understand why my ally was so eager to shirk her role.

This young man...

STINKS.

A subtle mélange of wet dog, filthy human and dried swamp scum. Eye-watering in close quarters. I do not remember Alistair, the only other werewolf I ever got close to without killing, being so dreadfully pungent.

Absolute bowfing lad.

The… boy is on the ground. Both of his hands and feet are being held in massive silvery manacles that dwarf his skinny limbs. Someone was kind enough to procure a small cloth, but he is otherwise naked and his muscles are incredibly well-defined. Too well-defined, in fact. We used to see some of that in freshly purchased slaves coming from the worst plantations, back when I was human. They were all wiry strands of meat with no fat.

As I watch, he tilts his head up and the light coming from outside briefly reflects in his eyes before the flap closes and surrounds us in darkness. He blinks, looking lost, and starts sniffing the air. The gesture is still oddly human.

His eyes widen. I am recognized.

“You look hungry,” I comment in a soft voice.

The boy sighs in what I recognize as an attempt to regain self-control. With his body bared, every reaction appears exaggerated from his breath to his shivering.

On a whim, I exit the tent again and signal a soldier to bring me food and ‘a lot of it’. Melusine does not react. Either she approves, or she will not oppose me publicly.

It takes less than a minute for the man to return with a bowl of hearty stew and a large slice of dark bread. I bring them in, once more regretting this odious assault on my nose. I place them on the ground in front of my captive and free him from the manacles.

He takes the bowl with some hesitation, and when no punishment comes, falls on it voraciously.

Quite the spectacle.

With his meal savaged, the boy leans back while I sit on a small stool, the only piece of furniture save for a very small table on which I light a candle. The weak light would barely be enough for a mortal to see the outline of my body, and yet the werewolf immediately inspects me from head to toe. I decide to do the same.

The boy’s traits are still underdeveloped, and the prominent cheekbones give him the appearance of vulnerability. I recognize despair in those green-flecked brown eyes. I have seen the likeness before in those who hold so much grief that the world only appears in shades of grey. Nothing really matters anymore.

This might make things easier, or he will clamp so hard that only a bite and a full-powered Charm will make him talk. In any case, resorting to strength as a means of intimidation makes little sense when the person already expects the worst without much concern.

“Do you know what I am?” I ask.

The boy considers answering me, then shakes his head and looks down.

“No need to act tough, we are having a conversation. This is your chance to ask questions as well,” I continue.

The boy scoffs.

“As if it matters. You’re gonna kill me,” he replies with a young and accented voice. Farm stock, I’d wager.

“You do not know what I am after,” I reply with a smile. Good. He took the bait. I hope he is curious as the younger ones tend to be.

“And what are you after?” he asks, still guarded.

I smile lightly, and tease his curiosity awake with a bit of Charm.

“I freed a werewolf from prison, a man by the name Alistair Locke.”

No hint of recognition. Perhaps Alistair died, after all.

“He told me that your kind had gathered in the north. In packs. He spoke of one called Black Peak.”

Deep Hatred. This is getting interesting.

“I assume they succeeded, and I would like to know how.”

“Why do you care?” he spits, “do you not hunt us like animals?”

Guilty as charged.

“You seem like a bright lad. The situation is a bit more complicated than that, as I am sure you can imagine.”

He frowns but does not object. He must believe my story.

“You said we’re having a conversation, right? So I can ask questions too?”

“Go ahead,” I generously offer.

“Why don’t you smell bad?”

Well, because I take baths, for one.

“I assume you find the smell of other vampires… upsetting?”

“Yeah. Like that redhead. I smelled her and it made me angry.”

It used to be the case for me as well.

“The redhead and I come from different bloodlines. Mine can acquire the ability to alter our smell so that animals no longer fear us. I suppose that it works on your kind as well.”

“What’s a bloodline? You mean, like horses?”

You little shit.

“Like family. We obtain some of the powers of the one who changed us.”

“Right. So. Uh. I gotta ask. You’re not gonna kill me then?” he asks in a mix of hope and disbelief.

“I have no interest in killing you. I do have an interest in stopping the Black Peaks from spreading too much. If I can do it by freeing the clans, all the better.”

I am serious. If I manage to stop the threat by myself, even if it means staying in enclosed space with werewolves for extended periods, I would gladly do so. I will just have to acquire a perfumed handkerchief prior to the negotiations.

“You’re serious?”

“Yes. I am, in fact, serious. You clearly dislike them yet you still risk your life fighting under their banner.”

So to speak. They do not have a banner. They do not even have pants!

“What tells me that you’re not just trying to split us so that you can take us out one by one.”

“Let me be perfectly clear. Do you think the five of us who faced you represent our elite, the fine fleur of our military?”

“Wha’?”

Oops. Forgot who I was talking to.

“Do you think your ferals faced the very best of us?”

“We… did not?”

“Not even close. I will ask you to believe me on this, you have not yet faced our Lords and our knights and it would be wise to solve this before they get involved.”

“But then they could just hunt us down, even if we escape north?”

“Would that not mean traipsing for years through the infinite expanses of the north?”

“Wha’?”

“Killing you off means spending years in the boonies. We have better things to do,” I translate with a bit of annoyance.

“You folks are pretty arrogant, you know that?” the boy observes, not unfairly.

I prefer this glare he gives rather than the utter gloom that preceded it, but he remains my prisoner and we cannot have that.

I grab him by the back of the neck and easily lift him above me, like a puppy. He jerks in surprise and his knee bangs uselessly against my chest plate.

When he stares down, I show him fangs and he stops struggling.

I will admit that I find his ability to understand visual cues refreshing. Some mortals would have kept struggling and spewing nonsense about ‘releasing them’ and ‘monster’ and some such drivel.

“We have cause to be arrogant, don’t you think?” I reply, still smiling. Then, I drop him without waiting for an answer and he falls heavily on the ground.

“Are there really more of you?” the boy asks as he tiredly climbs back to his feet.

“Hundreds, just on this continent.”

He considers my words for a moment.

“I am not sure why, but I believe you. Are you doing something to me?”

“Not yet,” I answer somewhat truthfully. So far, I have only nudged his curiosity so that he does not fall to apathy.

“You could?”

“Yes.”

“And you haven’t?”

I tsk, annoyed.

“I have no need for such artifice when I can have a normal conversation. Now, tell me. How does the Black Peak Clan control the others, including all those ferals.”

“It’s probably the way you smell.”

“Can we PLEASE focus on the problem at hand?”

“But it’s really weird.”

“I am going to bite you, you know?”

“Fine, fine…”

The boy looks to the side and focuses on his memories.

“I’d been with the Deep Lake Pack for two years after that big wolf bit me. Huh, in case you don’t know, werewolves can turn into a real big wolf instead of the monster thing. Depends on how you’re doing when you change. Anyway, been with the pack for a while then this big lug comes and challenges the bossman.”

He swallows with difficulty.

“Our leader was the strongest man I’d ever seen. They fought long and hard but eventually, the big lug won. He didn’t kill the bossman, just said that we’d have to obey them from then on. Then they broke a few legs, killed two men and brought us back to that huge camp of them out in the middle of nowhere.”

Is this it? I expected something more dramatic.

And I talked too soon. Only now does the boy’s eyes turn clouded.

“They split us, except us five because we were so close. Anyone who showed a smidgen of rebellion they would break until he died or turned feral. They took the women too. They made Lilly turn feral. She was only fifteen.”

The weight of those memories bends the boy’s back.

“You probably think we’re weaklings but you don’t get it. You can’t. We follow the strong or we’re isolated and when we get isolated, we can’t control the curse anymore. And there are many of them who just joined with the Black Peaks because it’s better to be on the winning side, right? And every time we started to resist, they would bring one of the skalds.”

“Skalds?”

“It’s an old word for bard or something, ‘xcept this bard just plays a big bone horn that, huh, not sure how to describe it.”

He stares into the flickering light of the candle, gritting his teeth all the while.

“It’s like all your emotions get leveled. You get that anger in your belly, right? Because they starve us and they do horrible things to us, and we want to get out and be free. And then it sort of picks up, yeah? But then the skald comes and plays and the sound, it goes through your body and soul. Not the ear. It gets into you and then you lose the emotions. It… it drains you. Like you’re a bottle and someone smashes the bottom. And all the juice gets out and you’re just… empty for a while. It’s just as horrible as before but you can’t bring yourself to care.”

Only after finishing does he look up to me and realize that I had been listening. I can imagine his pain.

“I know how horrible it can be to have your mind stolen from you,” I reply. I choose to omit that I have no qualms inflicting this treatment on other people, of course.

“You do? Yeah, maybe you do. Anyway. At some point, there is nothing left but despair. You just… go through the motions or you give up and turn feral. The five of us… we helped each other hold on. Well, we used to…”

His eyes moisten and he passes a dirty hand on them to clear them.

“It’s just me, now.”

“There is another one who survived. A girl.”

“She did? June lives?” he replies with renewed hope, though the emotion is short-lived. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Maybe it does,” I reply, “but first tell me about the Black Peak Pack leadership.”

“Alright. Yeah, fine. There is the big bossman. I’ll have to admit he’s something else. He’s got black hair and beard that he keeps long, and those very pale eyes that stare into your soul. And he’s smart and cunning and whatnot. You can’t but help being impressed, you know? Like he’s around and you don’t mind that he’s a boss for a while. Goes by the name of Fenris but it’s all bull. That’s not his real name.”

A pretentious man.

“I see. Who else?”

“There’s Maul, the one who beat my previous boss. Dumb as a rock but so strong. He’s big too. Biggest man I ever seen. Maybe twice as tall as me.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, it’s uncanny. Anyway, Maul keeps people in line and he follows Fenris blindly. They say that Fenris defeated him in battle but I’ve never seen Fenris fight. I believe it though. Oh, and there’s Rolf. He’s the head skald. Some say he was the first one.”

“Alright that’s interesting. Tell me more about the skalds.”

“Alright, so we stay in packs because it sort of made the curse smoother. I think it splits the curse over everyone like maple syrup on a pancake yeah? Soaks it right in so that we can keep it under control.”

What is it with everyone and maple syrup?

“But skalds are different. They can force the same thing to happen, only more and with more folks, and when they ring their horns they can sort of push us in a direction. The ferals too.”

“How are skalds made?”

“It’s weird. You sound the horn and you are supposed to push into it or something. I never managed when they tested me. Those few who succeed become skalds. They get a lot of power. And women. They get to choose who, well, you can guess.”

“You mentioned that before. Are your girls used as bargaining chips?”

“It’s just that… we have those instincts, right? And, well, the pleasures of the flesh, that’s one of them. But there are not many girls around, only one in four of us, tops. Mostly they do not make it through the first transformation.”

He looks stricken again. Keeping him focused on his tale is becoming harder, quite possibly due to the sheer amount of traumatic memories. I decide to give him some time to recover as I am starting to see how ‘Fenris’ managed to unite the packs.

The key is the use of bone horns. Those are very likely artefacts of blood and death magic, or something related more directly to the nature of the curse. To learn more, I will need to acquire one.

Skalds are probably werewolves who had the potential to become spellcasters before they were transformed and can thus operate a magical item. I wonder if they can still be mages.

Then something occurs to me.

“Where are the children then?”

A mistake. The boy’s face expresses outrage and powerless anger in equal measure.

“We change every full moon. Some of the girls bleed when they turn back.”

Ah.

“I am sorry.”

He shrugs, helpless.

“It’s a curse, after all.”

It no longer bothers me to be infertile. I wonder if my vampire nature smothered those desires or if I simply grew used to my situation. I can appreciate that it would be a difficult situation for anyone who hoped to create a family.

I decide to leave the matter behind. We are getting sidetracked.

“You had one skald with you at the encampment,” I note.

“Yeah. Kohl. A prick. Some skalds resist Fenris but not him, that’s why he was put in charge here.”

“There are other groups such as yours?”

“Only one other. Bigger. They are somewhere east of here, but I don’t know where. I think that’s where Fenris went.”

York. I hope Lazaro is having fun.

“Would your group stay here, or move now that you’ve killed two of us.”

“We did? Hmm. Pretty sure we’re supposed to kill everyone before moving on. That’s how Fenris did it with the packs. Do they know you survived?”

“Yes.”

“Then they’re probably looking for you during the day and hunkering down at night.”

I now have the beginning of a plan.

“How many people would rebel if, say, Kohl were removed, and the horn disabled?”

I step back as the boy undergoes an incredible metamorphosis. From broken and sitting, he suddenly stands up and his posture changes radically. His stance widens, and where his eyes were downcast, they now burn with fervor.

“You would also need to kill Olaf. That’s the big werewolf with the dark fur. But wait. Hold on. You think you can take Kohl out?”

He frowns.

“But no. He will be at the center of the camp and surrounded by a wall of flesh as soon as the alert is given. And you cannot possibly get through the reinforced security. A whiff of you and the camp will go on high alert.”

“I already have a way, don’t you worry about that.”

“To go through the entire camp?!”

“I say, let me worry about that and answer my previous question.”

“Hold on,” he replies with his hand raised, “do you seriously intend to liberate the others? And oppose Fenris? Get us all out of his pack alive and free?”

“I intend to kill him. And liberate the others so that they may return north, yes.”

“Swear it. Swear that you will help us, and I am your man. I’ll do anything you want.”

Errr. Why not, if it can guarantee his cooperation? This was my plan anyway.

“I swear to do my best to free the werewolves in the camp from the clutches of the Black Peak Pack, and should they help me thereafter, to do my best so that they may return to their home, wherever that may be.”

The boy suddenly stands up like a valorous hero at the prow of a ship, aiming his sword at the horizon.

I try to ignore the fact that his underwear slipped to reveal half of his butt.

“Then I, Jeffrey of the Deep Lake Pack swear my allegiance to you. What’s your name fair lady?”

“Hmm. Ariane.”

“Then Ariane, come on and let’s leave this dump, we have a revolution to plan! Hell yeah!”

I mutter “language” after the man’s escaping posterior and walk to Melusine as Jeffrey shakes hands with a flabbergasted guard, informing them of what a good team they will make.

“Nicely done,” Melusine comments with a sarcastic grin, “though you are lucky that I ordered your men not to shoot at the gesticulating madman.”

“We were just having a conversation…” I reply, feeling that the situation escaped me somewhat.

“And now you have a brand-new minion and it took you, what, ten minutes?”

“You worked with his kind before, is this normal?” I ask, recalling that she had hired a mercenary to have me killed back when I was her prisoner.

“I knew they tended to be, let us say, easily excitable. I always assumed that they only answered to negative emotions. Perhaps being part of a pack grounds them a bit?”

“Yes, well, I still need to know more. Hey, Jeffrey!”

“Yes Ariane?”

“Come with me to the command tent! And please grab a pair of pants while you are at it.”

Melusine and I silently jump from ledge to ledge, digging claws in the occasional crevice to push ourselves up. The treacherous ice would be the end of any casual climber, but for us, even the most slippery of footings is barely more than an inconvenience. We scale the cliff with unmatched speed in only a few minutes until the sheer wall turns to a slope and, finally, to a large slab of stone which we share with a lone scraggly tree.

Below us, the werewolf camp lies in its sheltered recess, and I notice that its denizens made a clear attempt at turning the place impregnable.

A double ring of lit fires circles the entire perimeter with a warm halo of reddish light, flickering under the wind. No spot of darkness was left untouched, and patrols of unchanged men and women in groups of half a dozen watch intently into the darkness. In the middle of the camp, the massive black werewolf stands in front of his command tent while the skald, Kohl, sits next to the caged ferals with a small retinue of bodyguards.

I notice with some satisfaction that the herd has been slightly thinned. It confirms my suspicion and Jeffrey’s words that they use ferals as front liners to soak up casualties since they cannot be used for anything else. There should still be over a hundred and eighty werewolves down there, but the thirty or so we killed yesterday did make a dent. This is somewhat comforting.

Amusingly, I realize that werewolves make poor sentinels as the reason why they are clumped in large groups quickly becomes apparent. At any given time, at least half of their numbers will look in any direction but the one which they should.

Finally, and more importantly, my observations are confirmed: predators never look up.

I do not know whether it stems from overconfidence, carelessness, or simply out of a lack of meaningful tree-dwelling dangers on earth. In any case, our foes clearly expect us to come from any direction but the high mound to their north.

“I hope this works,” my ally mutters as she gingerly lifts the wolf slayer. I repurposed the tool with the help of Frost and his cadre for a very specific task and the trials were conclusive.

It just feels strange to watch my precious creation in the hands of that woman.

“It will work. You fired it five times and the rope deployed properly five times. Stop fussing and get in position,” I reply as I open the large case by my side and quickly assemble its content.

“You know, you defy all expectations. Ours is not the kind of plan I would associate with a Master of the Devourer bloodline.”

“Have you met many Masters of the Devourer bloodline?” I sweetly ask.

Melusine scowls.

“Then you are just being your typical arrogant strumpet self who thinks I am an airhead because I don’t turn my nose at everything. Now get in position.”

Muttering unkind words under her breath, the redhead obeys and proceeds to leap gracefully down the cliff to a ledge jutting over the camp while I finish my task.

Two months ago, Loth sent me a gift, and after a long wait, I am finally granted the opportunity to use it in combat. I screw the two halves of an unreasonably long barrel filled with silvery engravings on the breech-loaded mechanism and load what might very well be the first functional long-range musket.

I trained with it. I could shave the wings off a fly at several hundred paces. It was, of course, on a range.

Melusine reaches her destination as I line down the sight. The musket’s stock rests comfortably against my shoulder.

She waits for a particularly loud gust of wind to fire a quarrel at a stack of crates. The steel arrowhead buries itself in the frozen ground. A few nearby sentinels raise their head with curiosity. They sniff the air. They find nothing.

Melusine replaces the crossbow at her back and attaches the other end of the thin wire to a piton that she furiously stabs in the ice at her feet.

She grabs the wire in her gauntleted hand and jumps out, then lets gravity carry her down as she picks up speed.

I turn the rifle’s humongous barrel towards my target. The skald’s face appears in the crosshairs when one of his bodyguards does not block the line of sight.

His handsome face shows signs of boredom.

I breathe once, out of habit. It settles me and sharpens my focus until I reach a mindset of calm and discipline.

Melusine is still picking up speed. The way down the slope is long from the height of the mound.

My prey is still hidden.

The wind dies down for an instant.

He turns his head. There is a furry arm in the way.

He looks up.

He frowns.

The bodyguard turns as well, curious.

Kohl’s face is fully revealed.

I pull the trigger.

A quarter of a second later, my target’s head explodes out in a fountain of blood. The shot rings over the camp, reverberating on the slope of the peak I am on. Its echoes roll over the thunderstruck crowd.

Melusine hits the ground at a dead sprint. She casts a nasty spell at the four bodyguards who fall to the ground, writhing in pain. She picks up the horn without slowing and runs like the wind between groups of stupefied guards still unsure of what to do.

Slow and stupid. This is what happens when you never trust your subordinates: a complete lack of individual initiative. The Black Peak pack forfeited any chance of cornering Melusine the moment they relied on a clunky gathering of unwilling fighters.

We are just getting started.

Satisfied that the redhead is well on her way out, I return my attention to the black werewolf as I reload, but quickly give up on shooting him. Loth’s long-range rifle came with bullets designed to pierce through enchantments, not to inflict the kind of catastrophic damage that would pulp that monster’s skull. Rather than attempting it, I grab my gear and escape to the right on a path parallel to Melusine’s.

Now comes the first hurdle: making sure the wolfies take the bait.

And they do.

By the Watcher, they do. One of them must have unleashed the ferals because I can hear their constant baying even over the roar of the northern gale. A rational decision I suppose, as they have no more means to effectively direct them. The best they can do is to point them at a quarry one last time, and hope for the best.

I accelerate as much as I can, draining precious energy but gaining on my companion whose frigid aura is clearly revealed. We are almost at our destination when I finally catch up.

“You’re still carrying that thing?!” she screams, pointing one claw at my gun while her other arm is firmly holding the horn as if it were an unwieldy flowerpot.

“Why would I leave it behind?” I ask with surprise.

“Tsk!”

Prejudice against firearms is as deep-seated as it is inexplicable among my kind.

Melusine slows down as we arrive at our improvised camp.

Both the odd detachment and the mages have formed a hastily constructed half-circle with a barricade of sharpened spikes dug into the unyielding ice with Frost’s help. I may have misjudged how tired they would be as the men manning the defenses show signs of exhaustion, but at least their heavy clothes and various enchantments have kept them warm and they now show excitement as my ally and I jump over the barrier. They do not need our warnings. Only a deaf man would miss the signs that our plan worked.

We walk to the center of the camp, where Frost is waiting inside an intricate circle glowing a soft white. At either side of him, Blake stands resolute with a borrowed blade while Jeffrey watches me approach with a goofy smile as he munches a piece of dried beef.

“We are set,” I observe laconically, keeping my eyes resolutely forward.

“I hope so, dear. After all, you promised me a nice battle and here I have been, relegated to the role of support so far,” Frost replies with casual interest.

“Don’t worry, you will be elbow deep in fur within the next two minutes,” Melusine remarks drily.

I quickly disassemble the rifle and close the case under the mesmerized looks of the others, then almost tear the wolf slayer off Melusine’s back before loading it with repeater bolts.

“You look miffed. Is something the matter, bosswoman?” the young werewolf asks.

“WHY ARE YOU NAKED?”

“Oh, if it’s just that, I guess I can transform now,” he replies.

The young man drops the bag of jerky on the ground and sighs deeply, somewhere between relief and anticipation. He extends his arms to the side and, without warning, it begins.

His skin roils and erupts with fur and muscle, bones snapping as they expand and reattach themselves without method. The change is asymmetrical and messy. I fully expect blood and other fluids to cover the ground, but my expectations are dashed.

It still looks unbelievably painful, and yet not a whine escapes the creature’s muzzle.

In less than three seconds, a bipedal monster towers before us, dwarfing even the tallest man. Jeffrey flexes his sharp claws and displays a row of serrated fangs. Only his eyes remain unchanged as expressive orbs of brown flecked with green.

Conservation of mass just tipped its hat and left the planet. I feel somewhat annoyed. As our first werewolf ally struts confidently forward under the wary gaze of the mortals, I lean closer to Melusine.

“You never mentioned that he was that massive,” I whisper.

“And it’s really cold as well,” she deadpans.

I stare into her innocent face with growing frustration.

“Get your mind out of the gutter, you know what I am referring to. His human form is all scrawny.”

“I believe it relates to the strength of the curse and possibly, how they place within the pack when their aura equalizes. Leaders tend to grow larger. Perhaps his less hairy aspect is just young and starving, and he will eventually grow to match his wolf form.”

“Perhaps.”

“If you are done, then here is the artefact. Would you like to try it before we are swarmed with monsters?”

“Certainly.”

Right, our plan is simple. Eliminate the manipulative prick, steal his tool and the army’s cohesion will shatter.

The second part is by far the most uncertain. The clans under the black werewolf, Olaf, follow him because of the horn and their instincts to obey the strong. We have three ways to remove his control and eliminate the group as a fighting force without a massive bloodbath.

The first and most obvious solution is to kill him.

A daunting task, but not an impossible one. It will require me to fight through his personal guard and hope that I can manage it without too many casualties on my side.

Jeffrey assured me that without the horn’s powerful effects, the werewolves would revert to their normal mindsets. Their leader has not earned the right to lead a group of packs. A horde. He usurped it. Once the momentum of the chase is exhausted, the majority of werewolves should feel no urge to defend one they will instinctively resent.

This unique opportunity comes from my smell. I do not have the scent of an enemy like Melusine and Blake do. Therefore, the army should not instinctively unite against me if I go after its leader.

That is the theory. They could still decide to close rank on me and then I would be swarmed and killed. I will keep this option as a last resort.

The second possibility is that the horde splits immediately once the others realize that they are free. I consider this to be wishful thinking. I personally believe that it will take more than the five minutes we gave them for the flames of liberties to burn in their hearts. I would bet that the instinctive response of a beaten group would be to wait and see, rather than to stand up and risk extermination if they are proven to be the outliers. Nobody wants to be the first target in front of the firing line.

I asked if Jeffrey could challenge Olaf. My most recent minion said that yes, of course, he could issue a challenge. And then promptly die, thus reinforcing our foe’s legitimacy.

The third and last option is to use the horn ourselves to push the packs over the edge and into open mutiny.

The item is, after all, a thing of blood and bone. An artefact of the hunt. And what better wielder of such a creation, than me? There are none here.

I cradle the object between my hands, passing a thumb over its smooth surface. The bones come from a predator judging from the size. Bear and wolf, mostly. The ivory material was fused together by means unknown and the smooth planes have been engraved with runes I do not recognize. They shine softly in carmine red, waiting for activation.

The aura is mighty. I taste the hunt, of course, but also blood, lust, death, as well as warmth and cold. It was not designed for me, but I can use it. I hold nothing more than a dedicated focus meant to cast a single spell altered by the caster’s intent. Yes. I just need to place the COLD WITHIN. WARMTH IN THE PREY’S BLOOD. And everything will work out just fine.

I am reminded of the gauntlet dedicated to casting a single spell I used in the library of Alexandria. The more deliberate and precise the tool, the less training is required to activate it. What the focus lacks in flexibility, it gains in sheer power. The irony of turning their own means of control against the Black Peak Clan is an added bonus.

Yes, I think as I caress it, it will do nicely.

“I am sure I can operate the horn but it might take a lot of power. I would rather wait until the non-ferals are within range.”

Melusine nods and turns, heading to the front. I follow her when Blake steps up to me.

“Excuse me, Ariane.”

“Yes?” I ask with surprise. Blake has been helpful so far. She has protected the Roland assets through a careful evacuation and assisted with planning. Our cooperation has reinforced my opinion that she is strangely attractive to men though this in itself is not an issue, as she has done nothing to harm our efforts. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“Can I get your crossbow?”

“You know that if you die, it was all for nothing.”

“And I will not leave the shield, but I can still be useful. I can shoot.”

In a way, I understand her. She needs a symbolic kill.

“Very well. You remember how to operate it?”

“I was there when you taught Melusine.”

“Indeed,” I reply as I give her my weapon as well as the spare ammunition. Then, I turn to a stump not far away from us and point at it.

“Aim at—”

The upper part of the stump explodes in a shower of splinters.

“As I was about to say,” I drily comment to the embarrassed Courtier, “watch out for the sensitive trigger and aim a bit low.”

“Sorry.”

“There will be plenty of targets. Make sure you do not shoot our allies.”

She nods and I continue on my way until I stand at the edge of the barricade.

The troops are arrayed in three circles covered by shields, with the largest one in the center and occupied by Frost. The packs may be freed, but the ferals could just disperse and become a significant danger for the population and for Blake whose duty it is to cull them. We need to take down as many as we can before they split up.

Only a minute has passed since our arrival and already, the horde is coming. In front of us, the aura of a multitude of supernatural creatures blows like a strange wind, bringing with it a jumble of emotions. While still impressive, it lacks the terrifying pressure of yesterday’s assault. The sense of unity is gone.

Behind us, another aura grows.

Once, I stepped into a cavern while a blizzard was raging outside. The cavern was sheltered from the wind and only the back of my skull was buffeted by a furious gale. This is how I feel now. The spell Frost is building writhes inside of his circle with terrifying power, like a cannon aimed outward. I can see the glow of the fuse, but not the darkness of the muzzle. It is not aimed at me.

For once.

The forest moves in front of us as massive shapes crash against trees. The fastest ferals sprint ahead of the rest.

I remove a pistol, aim, and fire, catching a frontrunner in the eye. All around us, the soldiers fire as soon as they have a shot. There is no point in massed volleys here. We are just trying not to get overwhelmed.

Many of the bullets find a target and slow down the onslaught. Spells and the occasional bolt bring down attackers as fast as they appear until a large group bursts out in front of us.

“Fireball!” Melusine screams, and a small explosion lands in their midst. Around me, soldiers switch from their empty muskets to grenades and lob them in front of us. The multiple explosions catch more ferals, killing some of them. Then the first foe jumps over the barricade into my waiting arms.

Finally.

I have been so very THIRSTY.

GRAB CLAW. GRAB MUZZLE. SUBJUGATE. EXPOSE. BITE.

Delicious.

I Devour the creature in a second and send its corpse flying back over the barricade. I made a bit of a mess this time, I realize. Hm. That was completely on purpose for the sake of intimidation.

“Are you going to be less catty now that you have had your fill?” a voice asks.

FILL?

“I am just getting started.”

The three shields manifest themselves as the first creatures slam into them, pushed back by silver bullets and bayonets. No one remains outside, except for me.

STAB. MAIM. CLAW. They come one after the other just to die, unable to go beyond their bloodlust. I drag one more to Devour it after killing its two neighbors. The transparent energy shields waver.

“Ariane!”

I roll inside a circle as more and more bodies press against the overtaxed defenses.

WEREWOLF.

Hold on, that one is mine. No killing. STINKS. No. MINE. NO KILLING.

To my side, Frost sighs deeply and stretches his arms to his side. All three shields flash a deep blue and the ferals recoil in pain.

Incredible power saturates the inner part of the circle I stand in. The raw strength of the ritual electrifies my skin and burns my lungs. Slowly, Frost rises in the air, momentarily free of the bonds of this world.

A beatific smile spreads on the old man’s face and his skin lights from within as it loses its wrinkly appearance. His hair and beard turn to silk, radiating the white of the dawn of a winter sun and when he opens his eyes, they shine in the darkness of the night like two faraway stars. He speaks and his voice is a murmur that smothers all other sounds. From the wolves to us to the trees and the very wind, the entirety of creation falls silent.

“Cover, cover, the world over,

Extinguish now their every light

Hear thee my plea, heart of winter

And share with them your endless night.

Polaris.”

Light dims. The moon disappears behind some conjured darkness but I care not because Frost is all I can see and he is beautiful. From his extended hands, water streams and expands until it covers the spheres in a veil the color of sapphire. The liquid shudders to reflect its master’s eagerness as droplets stream up to the skies in defiance of the laws of nature. In less than a second, the watery blanket has reached an appreciable thickness. So thick it is, that the outside appears to us as if it had sunk to the depths of the ocean.

Frost’s preparations are complete and I feel the pendulum of fate at the end of its swing. The tension has reached its paroxysm and now, the steel ball is on its way back.

Frost throws both hands in a clawing gesture. The blue surface explodes outwards in a silent boom and the tinkling sound of shattered crystal. The wave expands, as unstoppable as the tide, until it disappears from my senses.

The shields lower and light returns. I shiver with pleasure at the magnificent sight before us.

We stand in a garden of statues. Ferals in all poses lay about, frozen for all of eternity, this one chasing, that one lunging, captured in the moment. I feast my eyes on this incredible sight and the beauty of their deep blue prisons. Translucent spikes of crystalline solids jut from their unmoving forms, giving the statues the appearance of some icy creatures trapped in strange amber. The spectacle is so very alien that none dare speak first among our ranks. We just stand there, facing a taste of the world at the end of times.

Slowly, we wake up from the trance of this awesome display to realize that a half-circle of wolves peer at us from the cover of the trees, just outside of the range of the spell. They were waiting for the ferals to finish the job.

The fact that they still haven’t moved is quite telling. In the middle of the assembly, the black-furred leader stands tall in an amusing attempt to look larger.

I turn back to Frost and realize that his smile matches my own. He is so very attractive. And fascinating. This carnage. This… conquest. He is…

He is worthy.

RAISE.

“Join us. Join us and conquer forever.

The old man tilts his head. He sighs deeply and lifts a finger to my lips, touching them softly. I let him. His smile of regret tells me of his answer before he even speaks.

“No.”

He made his choice and I respect it.

“It is your turn to impress me, Ariane,” he continues.

I nod and take the horn from my side. I lightly jump on a frozen beam from our now pointless barricade. My audience is arrayed before me, paralyzed by indecision. I, too, would hesitate to strike after such a show of power.

Let me spur them into action.

I bring the horn to my mouth and take a deep breath. The artefact links with me just like the gauntlet did and I feel a great reservoir available for me to fill. I start pouring power into it and realize that it will not work.

The horn is a tool designed to convey orders in a way that the cursed understand. I am not one of them, therefore reaching their minds will require the message to be as simple and unambiguous as possible.

What do I want? In theory, I want control. In reality, subjugation is both impractical and dangerous. What I need is to free them. Just as I promised.

Freedom.

I search my memories for the feeling and find many instances of running through the woods, or riding Metis, where I felt truly free. I push into the horn and stop again.

I am an idiot.

It is not freedom I should go for, but liberation. Not being free, becoming free. And for that I have the perfect memory.

I close my eyes.

Charlotte stands close to Aintza. She is proud. She figured out our little ruse and she will gain much credit with Lady Moor for her cunning.

When she tells her.

She hasn’t done so yet. She came alone.

Her mistake becomes obvious to her as I show my fangs, as I jump on her back and push her weak body into the mud where it belongs. I am strong, and smart, and I have ALLIES. WARDEN WEAK. PACK STRONG. FIGHT AND BE FREE.

BREAK THE CHAINS.

BOW TO NO ONE.

The horn sounds over the plain in a single note, pure and mighty. The branches shiver and powdery snow fills the air. A tantalizing taste fills their mind. It speaks to them of running through the empty land with the others, the weight of their curse temporarily lifted from their shoulders. It reminds them of a better time when they found acceptance in a new family. One that understood their burden and lessened it through shared experience. It speaks of a future in which it happens again.

They merely need to seize it.

The first to change is a massive leader with a grey pelt. His transformation is the most impressive of all as cracks and groans lead him to expand his frame until he dwarfs even Olaf. A hundred pairs of malice-filled eyes turn to the Black Peak Pack’s bunched group, their torturers, jailers and rapists.

The grey werewolf roars and it carries with it a mountain of torment that demands retribution.

The next minute is one more incredible show in a night that was filled with them. The freed packs fall on their enemy with unparalleled hatred. They literally tear them apart in their fury.

They leave no survivors.

After the massacre is done, the fighters split up, gathering into little groups of naked bodies hugging each other for comfort. Cries of relief cover the plain once more as we watch without a word.

The grey leader ignores them. He steps to the barricade with confidence, transforming back mid-stride which is, I assume, a rather impressive performance. The naked man before me stops at the edge of a log. He has short brown hair and expressive chestnut eyes. His squarish jaw and heroic face give him the appearance of a tragic hero. He sniffs the air and turns his attention to me.

“Let’s talk.”

 

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Mecanimus

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