The gauntlet lets out a pathetic little ball of blue light, barely more than moonlight reflected on a soap bubble. The light shimmers lightly then winks out.
So, that was a success.
And now I get to do it all over again.
“Light,” the young witch by my side declares. A few seconds later, a shimmering burst erupts from her gauntlet and basks the moldy walls in its reddish glow. She cuts the spell and the shadows creep back in.
Our eyes meet before she quickly averts her gaze and returns her attention to the exercise. The corners of her mouth creep up in pride.
I allow it.
I am a vampire of many talents. I am good at painting, shooting, basic engineering, forging and accounting. I have a reasonable head for finance and diplomacy, and I have good taste in friends. And men. Truly, my skills are many.
Magic is not one of them.
I am, simply put, below average. This is an unfortunate fact of life and can only be offset by time and no small amount of effort. I knew it would be so. I was warned. That is why I do not begrudge the pallid girl her pride and return my attention to the training gauntlet on my left hand.
Magic is made of three components. The first is power. I have that aplenty. More than Ezekiel the Red himself.
And yes, Ezekiel is his real name.
It turns out that Devouring so many mages and having such a concentrated essence is a boon. I can hypothetically cast more spells, or more powerful ones, than even an experienced mage. The problem comes from the two other elements.
The second is symbols. There is a need for a focus of sort, a physical representation of the desired effect to guide the energies. Some research Loth mentioned proved that even symbols made of light and shadows can be used, though they are less effective than something more concrete, which is, in turn, less effective than metals or worked materials. The symbols can come from many different systems. What matters is that they mean something to the caster.
Loth had a theory that the more people use a system, the more powerful it becomes. It could explain why Western Standard is so popular.
The best systems are the most flexible ones. Western Standard allows for complex sets of instructions for more specific working, a bit like a language. The Likaean system is similar but I decided to stick to Western Standard for now. One, I do not want to reveal too much, and two, the Likaean system is based on its language which is itself magical. It is, therefore, a crutch. I want to learn the hard way.
A magic user needs to understand the symbol and the system at a fundamental level to wield it with any degree of mastery. My own study has progressed over the last decades and though it is by no means perfect, I am still far above the average apprentice.
No, the difficulty stems from the third part, the will. Mages need to visualize and bring forth the desired effects and it is simply something that I have extreme difficulties with, barring some notable exceptions like the darkness spell.
Calling my will forth is a bit like flexing a muscle that I never knew I had. Anger does not help. Thinking hard does not help. The mental effort fails to match anything I have done so far, including aura control. While the two others manage with commendable efficiency, I was not born with it, and need to learn from nothing. Magic is as unfamiliar to me as the sun. I am not just a talentless player learning the violin, I also need to do so while wearing mittens.
Despite the frustration, I endure.
I lift my gauntlet to look at the rune of light. I easily push power inside of the receptacle and attempt to visualize a ball. I can see the simple image in my mind, but it lacks… substance. Light is not just the light that I can see, it is light that everyone can see from different angles. It has a… trajectory. A ball of light has a depth.
I do not rush. I do not force it. I proceed with calm and patience with the belief that, in time, I will gain in speed.
Slowly but surely, something takes form in the back of my mind until a sort of trigger clicks, like figuring out the answer to a riddle.
“Light,” I whisper again, and another ball forms in my palm. I stare at its pale blue surface before dispelling it.
We go on for fifteen minutes, then Ezekiel visits both students, giving insightful pieces of advice.
He then stops before me with visible hesitation.
“May I?” he politely asks. I nod and place my hand in his. He flinches slightly when they touch.
Ezekiel’s gangly form stands straighter as he focuses on casting the spell himself. He could do it in an instant but instead he takes the time to clearly visualize his process. Through contact and mind magic, he shares his impression with me so that for an instant, I know how to cast the spell with perfect clarity.
A reddish orb rises from the man’s gauntlet. It shines there like a bright star, serene and immortal, and not like my own flickering thing.
Then Ezekiel withdraws his hand and I grasp at the memories of what I just experienced, and it works. Little by little, the man shares his own knowledge so that I do not have to search for understanding, only reach it.
I am already making progress.
I have the time to cast twice more before the teacher calls the class to a stop. The two others unclasp their gauntlets with visible relief. While I have reserves aplenty, they are still quite young, and I understand that continuous casting has a deleterious effect. It tires the mind and renders the mage unresponsive and dull until they have had time to recover. Ezekiel quite capably alternates theory and practice to prevent his human pupils from burning out. Jonathan was correct, the man knows his craft.
The two red-robed youths sit at their desks and I join them. The boy’s name is Terrence. He is a painfully thin stick of a man with a prominent Adam’s apple and an unfortunate face that is made constantly melancholic by two droopy eyes. The girl is shorter, with hair as black as soot and a slightly chubby face under two piercing dark eyes. Her name is Margaret, and she reacts with violence to being called Maggie.
They are quite different.
As far as I can tell from my eavesdropping, the boy wants to escape a life as a shoemaker and his domineering mother. He is as hard-working as he is unimaginative. The girl has a chip on her shoulder and an insatiable drive for power that I can respect, even if I think it will burn her.
Terrence is also hopelessly in love with Margaret, who noticed his toad-like puppy eyes and decided that she wanted nothing to do with it. At least she has standards.
As usual, the three humans look at me with a hint of worry, even when I am on my best behavior.
“Ahem,” Ezekiel begins as he attempts to regain his composure, “tonight’s class will be focused on blood. Indeed, no one understands the vital liquid like us blood mages.”
Heavy, awkward silence.
“No human, in any case,” the man finishes sheepishly.
He then proceeds to explain an important aspect of magic: the addition of concepts to standard castings. Bolt, for example, is a basic spell made out of three runes: forward, power, and impact. The ubiquitous Firebolt is constructed by adding the concept of fire to the power of the construct, turning the projectile from one of force to one of fire. It makes the casting more difficult, but turns the spell from a heavy blow to setting things on fire.
That is particularly useful when your opponent can just shrug off that kind of damage. Now I understand why I have never been submitted to the standard bolt. It would have been absolutely pointless against me.
Ezekiel continues his explanation in a measured tone, stressing the important words to make sure we understand.
“Blood is a powerful and double-edged concept. It adds an organic dimension to the spell that can transform or enhance it, but always at a cost. A blood bolt will draw liquid from your veins. In return, the impact will be greater and wither your foe and their defenses. Competent blood mages walk that delicate edge to gain the upper hand even in the most desperate of circumstances.”
Margaret raises a hand.
“Yes?” Ezekiel asks.
“Then why are we not learning any of it?” she asks somewhat belligerently.
Ezekiel, who is apparently not dealing with his first batch of power-hungry idiots, has the appropriate response lined up.
“Because the first step in learning blood magic is to train how to work without it. You need to understand what you can do without its dangerous power. Only when you have found your limits can you safely overcome them.”
To my surprise, the girl appears convinced. I realize that the students really do look up to Ezekiel and why: he treats them with respect, something that they had apparently been missing.
The class continues with theories on glyphs that I only half-listen to. This is all known to me, but being part of the normal class is part of my arrangement with Ezekiel the Red.
The canny wizard agreed to teach me in return for a substantial monetary compensation and an obligation on my part not to interfere with his other students. The man has principles, I will grant him that, though he applies them strangely.
For example, he has granted his two students a room in his derelict factory turned secret lair at no additional cost. Terrence even considers it his home, as a quick verification showed that I could not enter it uninvited. It still irks me that walls and a door can suddenly become an unbreakable sanctum that no amount of effort allows me to peacefully penetrate. With the power of belief, those are the two things the more rational part of me find difficult to accept.
Ezekiel did not just offer them a safe haven. His training is comprehensive and he only asks from them a reasonable amount of money, to be returned in a manageable time frame after they graduate. He has garnered quite a reputation.
On the other hand, he is an occasional contract killer. He also serves as muscle and otherworldly security to Philadelphia’s criminal underworld.
I keep staring at the man lecturing us in his ridiculous opera prop costume under the yellow light of candles. He who has the blood of many on his hands, many of them possibly innocent, yet still took these youths under his benevolent guidance at a symbolic price. The dichotomy between murderous rake and fatherly figure is so poignant that I am led to wonder if we vampires truly are set apart from mankind, or if the magnificent sods simply delude themselves with ideas of universal values and self-obvious ethics.
At midnight, Ezekiel finishes his classes and the exhausted little idiots retire to their quarters. Ezekiel usually teaches at night due, he claims, to some alignment of the spheres. I suspect that it has more to do with the mysticism that the night offers. Also, the shades hide the general rattiness of the setting.
I stand up to leave when the gangly educator stops me with a hesitant voice.
“One moment of your time, please, Ariane of the Nirari. I have a proposal for you.”
“Do tell?” I answer, curious. This is the first time in a week that we exchange more than trite pleasantries.
“There will be no class tomorrow. There is a task I have to complete,” he continues.
I glare. Our agreement was a bit vague about an exact timetable, and I fully expected him to take some nights off on account of having to assassinate some poor idiots, break into houses and whatnot. I am therefore not shocked that it would occur.
I do not have to inform him of this fact, of course.
“I assure you that I will respect our agreement to the letter! It does not change anything. We will merely be delayed for a few hours.”
“I assume you have a point?” I drily ask.
“Yes! Of course. I am to visit a certain place and retrieve a certain item.”
“And you want my assistance for this burglary?”
The man coughs heavily in his sleeve and clears his throat, red with embarrassment.
“Nothing of the sort. My destination is a hotel of some repute and I merely ask that you stay in its main hall and cover my retreat.”
“You are expecting trouble,” I state.
“Most assuredly. A band of disreputable louts have it in their mind that I somehow offended them. Poppycock! Nevertheless, they shall surely intercept me when I visit that particular location. They have ways to detect my presence, you see?”
“And you expect me to stop them?”
“Yes. I do. You may do with them as you wish. And their leader is a man by the name of Salazar. He is a talented warlock, and…hmmm… I was led to understand that you are a woman of refined…” he swallows nervously.
I am intrigued.
And also, a bit annoyed.
“Surely you are not implying this is payment for my service.”
“Of course not!” he energetically replies, “I would never dare! No, I will also give you access to all my personal spells.”
Ah, now we’re talking.
“All of them?”
“Well, I only made a dozen, but I assure you that they have been praised in all the right circles. And they are efficient and of middling difficulty. You should be able to cast them all within a few years with a reasonable amount of practice. I have a custom-made tracking spell that can use even a single piece of hair!”
That is, in fact, a great deal. Ezekiel is high on the list of able blood mages, and he is very clean in his casting. Anything he creates would be simple and efficient. By comparison, it will be decades before I can master the contents of the human skin tome my sire sent me as a gift.
In the end, I negotiate for the spells plus his help in learning one of them. After we are done, he retreats to his personal quarters and I exit the building via the now-repaired door.
Southwark greets me in all its dubious glory. Warehouses, docks, and trades bustle with activity during the day as Philadelphia digests coal and enough food for its tens of thousands of citizens. Now, they are mostly silent, especially in this more remote area. To the north, the strip that is the city proper shines in the night, nestled between the two dark arms of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. I don my cloak and slowly walk to the affluent part of town, confident that I am not being followed and that Nashoba’s earring still protects me from tracking spells.
I cross the last track of open land to the geometrical chessboard that is the city proper. Sober buildings of red bricks line its streets, interspersed here and there by the white stone of churches and official buildings. Even at this late hour, gentlemen in crisp and conservative clothes head home, speaking English and German. There are still a few trees though I understand that they have grown rare, cut down to build houses for the ever-expanding population. Philadelphia might no longer be the political capital, and finance may be moving to New York, but it remains one of the continent’s largest cities.
It is also one of the oldest, and the vampire population reflects this.
Philadelphia used to be under the purview of Lady Berenice of the Roland, but she left recently to manage her clan’s expansion north. Reigning in her stead is a master by the name of Noel, whose hospitality I purchased at a decent cost. I am his guest, benefitting from his protection and company both.
I walk unmolested to Arch street and step inside a multi-storied brick building that looks exactly like every other multi-storied brick building around it. A doorman bows as I go by, and I enter a lavishly decorated lobby.
The contrast with the sober exterior remains jarring, even after a week. Vampires can only tolerate so much puritan sobriety before our love of art and decorations fights back. The conflict between personal preferences and the need to conform sometimes lead to such dens as this one.
I make my way up a set of stone stairs. I allow my feet to bury in the luscious red carpet beneath, luxuriating in its soft plushiness. Servants and a Courtier salute me as we come across each other, and I soon arrive before a massive door. A knock, and I am invited in.
There, the building’s perfume of vanilla and cleanliness turns to coffee and sandalwood. A quiet fire burns in the office’s hearth while behind the large desk, a man greets me with a smile.
Noel is a thin man with aristocratic tendencies and a thin moustache. His auburn hair is combed back and he wears close-fitting clothes of the latest fashion. There are few official documents on his workspace. Instead, his workspace is covered in notes, correspondences and fossils enshrined in glass containers. He places one back down with great care as I come in before ringing a bell. I sit down before him with a smile.
“Ariane, always a pleasure.”
“Likewise. How is the new specimen?” I politely ask.
Noel is a great supporter of paleontology, which is, as I understand, the study of long-dead stuff. Not to be mixed with archeology which happens to be the study of long-dead people. I lost interest when he said there was no physical evidence of dragons ever existing. I do not look down upon this historical science and its practitioners. Rather, I am much more interested in a slew of more practical studies like chemistry. I still allowed Noel to teach me the basics for the sake of conversation.
“Delightful. It appears to be a sort of shelled insect never seen in our current time. Who knows how many millenia, nay, tens of thousands of years ago this thing walked the earth!” he exclaims. He then frowns.
“Or more accurately, crawled,” he finally admits.
“Any progress on a dating spell?”
“Yes indeed. Unfortunately, we face the problem of reference points. I am considering the acquisition of a fragment of an antique tool to act as a base. Possibly Greek.”
“I wish you good fortune in this endeavor since you would also need a way to accurately date the tools. May I suggest Pompeii and Herculaneum? The cities are still being excavated,” I politely suggest.
“In Italy? Yes… Yes, of course! And we know when the city was destroyed, so we can assess when the tools were made give or take a decade. Brilliant!”
I wait for the man to feverishly write a message while a human maid comes in to bring me a cup of freshly made arabica. I sample it with pleasure, letting the bitter taste linger on my tongue.
“I apologize,” the Master finally says, “was there something specific you wanted to talk about?”
“Yes. I have received a request for protection by my esteemed teacher on a visit tomorrow. I wanted to clear it with you as I expect violence.”
“Whose territory does this concern?”
“Yours. It will take place on the Southern end of the city.”
“Then there is no issue,” he answers dismissively before returning his attention to a note.
I raise an eyebrow at that but refrain from commenting. I am but a guest and he is City Master in interim. How he conducts his affairs is his concern.
I sip from my cup in the following silence. Noel makes conversation for a while and I soon leave. I know when someone would prefer to be left alone to play with their new toy. I still have quite a bit of time before dawn. As usual, I start with my correspondence.
Marquette works well without me. All communities are in balance with clearly separated territories and rules to handle any dispute. So far, there has been nothing that would require my presence. I hope that this week’s mail will not prove any different. In any case, any urgent business would reach me by sending.
I climb down to my official room. I slumber in the basement below, but I conduct my business here. The room is barely enough to contain my few personal effects and a pointlessly large bed.
Torran is busy elsewhere.
I open the first letter, which comes from Merritt, and peruse its contents.
The werewolves ate a patrol of Gabrielites. We don’t know why they came because Jeffrey’s troops apparently consumed everything including the satchel containing their correspondence. There are few means of communication that can survive a trip through a werewolf’s digestive tract.
Jonathan’s wife Sola returned to their home base and is expected to stay there until she gives birth. Marquette now has three acceptably-trained healers.
John has successfully settled in the West with his family.
At the thought of my lost ally, I feel a moment of disappointment. A small part of me still clamors that he was too valuable to be let go. It says that the man was mine until death and that I should have bound him to my service.
This possessive drive is part of who we are, but listening to it is not always wise. We are incredibly vulnerable during the day and the one thing that can kill us is treachery brought by resentment. Forcing him to stay would have not just been dishonorable. It would have also been unwise.
The segregation law of Marquette has been lifted and anyone is now free to circulate anywhere. Excellent. The issue of slavery is still a burning topic everywhere in the nation, with Philadelphia firmly on the side of the abolitionists. I wonder for how long these tensions will last.
Finally, the children are settling in. We rescued quite a few and I volunteered to have many orphans settle in my town. With Sinead’s bastards, we now have a new generation of potential mages growing up. It will be a challenge to train them and to keep a significant proportion away from the White Cabal. We might be allies, but we are also in competition for talents.
I write a short answer to acknowledge reception and suggest that, next time, the werewolves backtrack the patrol’s path to its origin and finish their meal. I seal the envelope with wax and place it in a basket designed to that effect.
The next letter is a financial recounting of my assets. I own or have shares in a respectable amount of Marquette’s businesses as well as factories in the east. Amusingly, the spirit of the frontier is one of independence and autonomy while, in my opinion, they should rely on communities. Few individuals and companies want to borrow or share ownership. They would rather labor for decades before finally opening their long-awaited companies than be indebted for five years and profit for fifteen. It does not make sense from an economic perspective.
The world is a strange place.
I open a few more letters and make appropriate answers, then comes the time for self-study. I take my training gauntlet and fasten it, then visualize the light spell once more.
Time after time, I cast. The work is difficult and repetitive but I do not mind. The spell grows incrementally more familiar after every hour of practice and, every time the sphere appears, I feel a little bit of satisfaction. I am still learning, growing, evolving. Soon, I will add to my arsenal its most versatile element. It is only a matter of time, and I have plenty of it.
I sit on one of the Crossing Hotel lobby’s many couches. The red leather monstrosities are placed around a decadent coffee table, and their heavy musk almost overpowers that of tobacco. The monotonous ticking of a clock is the only sound breaking the silence. The receptionist took one glance at Ezekiel and I before deciding he would be better off somewhere else.
I idly inspect my surroundings. The plaster and fresh paint do a good job of creating the illusion of understated opulence. I assume that this would be a good resting place for well-to-do traders for a few days. It remains depressingly empty now.
The blood mage stepped up one of the twin sets of stairs up and left me here to intercept the forces inevitably coming for him. Since I have a few minutes, I rummage in my shoulder bag and take out a few notes. They contain supplementary visualization exercises that Ezekiel made for students who struggle with it. They look entertaining and easier than a real casting. One of them consists of imagining the tracing of a cube. It is a cube spell. Completely useless but for the exercise itself.
I flip the pages and realize that one of those small spells would in theory permit me to move objects at a distance. It does appear useful in itself. Unfortunately, it falls under the category of advanced exercises.
I am still reading when the double door bangs open and a group of hard men in leather outfits barges in with fury. I count five separate pulses without turning my head. Their auras are that of experienced casters, especially the first one. He is domineering and tastes faintly of ash.
“She’s with him. Kill her,” the lead man orders with the uncaring voice of the consummate professional. A dark bolt leaves one of his subordinate’s gauntlets and slams against my patiently erected shield.
The shield holds and I am almost overcome by giddy pleasure. My first shield! And it worked! To cast it, I did not use my gauntlet. Instead, I drew a circle and a few runes on the ground in silver powder. A worthwhile, if costly, exercise.
“Rude,” I mumble, somewhat annoyed now that I realize I have been attacked. What happened to courtesy?
I finally turn to the attackers and quickly inspect them as another spell is prepared.
The leader is in a dark outfit. He has black hair and beard that jut from his face and head at a sharp angle like so many jagged rocks. His face is too sharp to be called handsome and his eyes are dark brown and piercing as he assesses me. The others are a motley crew of younger men, all fit and alert and eager for violence with their flaring nostrils and palpitating hearts.
“Witch!” the leader alerts, and he and another form shields at the head of the formation while the others focus on unleashing some deadly and complex constructs.
I sigh and stand up, closing my book with a resonating snap. Tonight, I do not wear my training implement. The focus clamped on my wrist is bulky and on its back, a single rune drawn in blood shines an ominous red. The twisting script is not Western Standard, oh no. It is much, much older.
I raise it and unleash my aura. The wave of cold washes over my opponents in a frigid tide and a few flinch. Their leader’s face whitens.
I can feel it now. Even as I weave and call forth the spell, the edges of the room already darken. Shades creep over the floor and along the wall like prowling creatures. Likaean is the language of magic. Before I can even say the word, it already exists within the space we stand on because it is concept made sound.
I am only casting it now because having a cover of darkness is an invaluable tactical advantage that I kinda sorta vaguely could use and absolutely not because my slow progress annoys me, and I want to show off.
“We surrender!” a voice shrieks in the mostly empty hall, interrupting me.
Light returns and I am now just standing and holding my gauntlet forward as if it were an unwieldy weapon of dissuasion. The leader is waving his hands in the air, shield discarded. His followers stare at him with a mix of confusion and disbelief.
“We surrender! We completely surrender! Please do not kill us,” he states with a strained smile, even if I can see the sweat dripping down his brow and taste his fear in the air. His aura flickers in tone with his nervous heartbeat.
“You do?” I ask as I lower my hand and raise a brow.
“Yep. We give up. Won’t get any trouble from us. No ma’am.”
Half of the group now stands down with the lost feeling of someone suddenly drenched in cold water. Only one remains belligerent, a tall lad with a bristling blond mustache.
“How curious. I usually have to kill a few before the others realize the futility of their actions.”
“My friends here might be new, but I remember when your, ah, previous local ruler made her presence known. We did not know a being of the night would be here and ask for your forgiveness.”
That is rather new. I do not believe anyone ever surrendered so promptly before.
“Wait… is she a vampire?!” one of the men exclaims.
“Sssh! Be polite!” another whispers urgently.
“You think it will help?” a third one answers, dejected.
“It will certainly not hurt your chances,” I interrupt before they start a discussion, “now tell me why you are after Ezekiel the Red. I am curious.”
My teacher was tight-lipped and it would not do to press him for information under our arrangement. Forceful interrogation would go against the spirit of the contract, an unthinkable option for me. Obtaining information from other sources does not violate my oath, however.
“Wait, we’re all going to lower our pants for that bitch?!” the previously impatient man erupts.
Everyone takes a step back.
Well, don’t mind if I do.
I move and seize the man by the throat before he can react. I arc him backward and expose his neck.
I bite down.
Men swear. The leader INTERRUPTS THE SANCTITY OF FEEDING with a whine.
“Please… spare him.”
I lift a clawed finger to order him to COWER on the side. Once I am sated, I lick the wound close and release my moaning victim who quickly stumbles away.
I lick my lips.
“Where were we? Ah, yes. As part of our negotiations for me not to engage in a cathartic slaughter, you were going to enlighten me as to why you are currently hunting my pet. Now, speak,” I calmly state to my now very captive and very docile audience.
“We were just going to ask good ol’ Ezekiel a few things, is all.”
“…aaaaand perhaps break a finger or two for stealing. But hey! It’s not like they don’t heal right? Haha. Really, it was about the questions.”
“Yes, well, what do you know of our charming little communities of sorcerers and warlocks?”
Casters really love calling themselves different things all the time. They are just casters. It is probably cultural.
“My host described it as a nest of vipers biting each other’s tails in a large and pointless backstabbing melee.”
The leader has the grace to look embarrassed and passes a hand in his messy hair.
“Accurate if a bit unfair. In any case, we have had a slight problem and wanted to make sure your little friend had nothing to do with it.”
“Somebody is killing us group by group.”
I pause. The entire strike team now looks a bit sheepish, like children caught red-handed on their way to some mischief.
This might be problematic.
I really need Ezekiel to stay alive long enough to fulfill his part of the bargain. I also need to make sure I do not offend Noel by slaughtering the odd killer in his backyard without his license. This outing just became a lot more complicated.
I am being dishonest with myself.
Even if I can guarantee Ezekiel’s safety, there is no way for me to tolerate an independent predator on my loaned territory. It does not matter that the land, in fact, belongs to a Courtier by the name of Clara. It does not matter that she answers to Noel. I will not… I cannot tolerate competition so close to MY DEN.
“My name is Ariane of the Nirari,” I finally admit.
“They call me Salazar. An honor to meet you,” the man replies with obvious relief.
“Tell me more about this killer of yours,” I request as I sit and invite him to join me.
I am going to regret this.