May 1st, 1846.
I was not granted the time to return to my home base and muster a force. A hundred disciplined militiamen would have probably been welcomed by Taylor since there was a dire need for more trained troops. Unfortunately, fate forced my hand with news of a skirmish and Mexican forces moving on Fort Texas.
I try to ignore the fact that dragoons died during the opening engagement, and that there is a chance that my mission failed before it could even begin.
I remember the loss of a potential Vassal because I overestimated myself decades ago, and so I decide to head west without delay, even if it means having access to fewer resources. I am confident that I can, shall we say, ‘convince’ Richard’s superior to be avaricious of the life of his men. I barely stop by a small pond to cast a message spell.
Messaging spells are interesting as they require knowing the exact interlocutor and his approximate location before casting. The power required to hold a conversation is also significant, as is the need for focus. Fortunately, I merely must contact Boston to inform them that I would be lightly interfering with the military and request access to Natalis land, which their local representative agrees to immediately. I manage to set a meeting with their one caster capable of message-spells at the edge of their territory. With the diplomatic aspect of the problem solved, I can set out without concern.
I make use of a more recent series of safe houses set up by Constantine on my way west. Those are maintained by the different clans in order to facilitate safe transit, a measure that we took from our European cousins. I rely on those for the first three nights on my ride by the coast, then find myself in the wilds on the fourth, at the edge of Texas.
I decide to stop in a cove with tall leafy trees and the sea lapping on a stone beach further down as the night ends. I climb down from Metis, who looks at me with the silent, judgmental disappointment of someone who has not had her ear yet.
I recover a small bag from her harness and remove the desired snack, which I wave around as I demonstrate. Her captive attention spurs my scholarly enthusiasm.
“Since the dawn of time, our worst weakness has always been the sun. How many of my kin have succumbed as dawn caught them unaware or unprepared? How many turned to ash under the yellow orb’s vengeful radiance? Too many! Too many, I say! Thankfully, my sire, bless his ingenuity if not his kindness, came up with a permanent solution!”
Metis takes a step forward, head tilted in a vain attempt to intimidate me. Silly pony. I am not done!
“Behold, the instant resting place spell! After casting it, I shall be shoved into mother earth’s comfy embrace, safe from pesky incineration! Isn’t that grand? Have the damn ear.”
I forfeit the snack to Metis’ decidedly pointy teeth and raise a gauntleted fist.
The earth takes me.
One day later.
An absolute bloody idiot crawls out of the muddy soil like the brain-dead fuckwit she is, spitting twigs.
“Pwah! Pwah pwah pwah pwah. Pwah! Urg, I think I swallowed a worm.”
The irredeemable imbecile who shall remain anonymous makes a pathetic attempt at unsticking dried earth from her completely ruined traveling dress. She looks like a mudslide.
“Forsooth! If it is not my old enemy, the direct and completely predictable consequences of my own actions! Curse you. Curse you unto the dawn!”
My moment of melodrama finished, I swallow my pride and go for a short swim in the ocean. The salty water can just finish what the mud started, I care not, I am not going around looking like an ambulating nymph-shaped bog.
After coaxing Metis into letting me ride her through bribery, I stop at a ranch to upend a few bucketfuls of crystalline salvation on my unworthy head. A passing farmer approaches but a very frank ‘I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!’ sends him on his way. Thankfully, the delay is short, and the incident only claims my self-esteem as a victim. Soon, I approach Corpus Christi, the town where the army used to be stationed and where I will link up with my contact.
The weather is rather warm, but dryer than what I am used to in my native Louisiana. Texas has drier parts further west, but not here.
For one irrational moment, and as the ranch-turned-trading-post-turned-garrison-town comes into view, I fear that a place named ‘body of Christ’ will somehow repel me. I think that a mighty barrier might descend from the heavens to protect the hallowed ground, smiting the inhuman beings in their midst. Then, a vigorous young couple does, from behind a barn, what I will generously call a ‘Corpus Christi Tussle’. I also quickly come across the Corpus Christi whorehouse and all my worries disappear like wrinkled dollar bills into an overstretched corset. Why should I care that I can no longer blaspheme? The mortals are doing it for me.
I cross the bloated body of a watering hole that grew too fast so as to accommodate its many bored guests. It does not take me long to find the army’s previous encampment, now mostly empty. The first problem arises when the mage I contacted, and who was supposed to meet me, fails to materialize.
I take a moment to ascertain that, yes, I am at the right entrance. I even flare my aura for good measure.
A small tingle runs along my spine in a feeling I have come to recognize and rely on. My intuition informs me that something is up. Well, that is nice, but I am on a schedule.
I manage to isolate a sentry and feed on him, leaving the poor sod woozy. Better not take risks with the Thirst. I also find the local well and fill a borrowed pot. The watery reflection will serve as a focus for the message spell.
The mage does not reply.
A worrisome development. He is, to my knowledge, the only long-range communication specialist for the Natalis. They are not exactly known for fostering mages.
No matter, I am on a mission to locate a lone dragoon. I climb back on Metis and head south after my quarry without too much hassle. Four thousand men marching with their baggage leave a mark on a land that a blind simpleton could not miss.
We ride hard and the landscape maintains its green sheen for now. There is something dry in the air that I can taste on the back of my tongue, a sunbaked flavor hinting at the height of summer when light will push down on the land, settling on the shoulders of mortals like a heavy cloak. It will be different from the engulfing wetness of the marshland but no less oppressive, I can tell.
I find myself missing winter once more. Cold is more my thing.
The land is mostly flat here and we make good time through the wilderness. A small draft carries the smell of the ocean, a constant companion these past few days. I find little comfort in it. The fateful tingle has not stopped, and though I detect no immediate danger, I am still wary.
Just as dawn approaches, the road widens and the trees shorten to reveal the estuary of the Rio Grande, a patchwork of green grass, ochre sand and blue water. A fort built on top of a small inlet stands vigil over the idyllic locale. The earthwork was obviously made in a rush but it does look defensible with all that water around it. Torches set at regular intervals protect its approach. Even this early, a flurry of activity shows that soldiers are already awake and active.
I hide behind a few trees and change into a clean dark green traveling dress, smooth my hair into a decent do and ride forth. I come across a patrol on foot made of young men who might be able to grow enough facial hair for a pencil mustache through collective efforts. They flinch when Metis trots by, but the presence of the fairer sex motivates them to straighten their backs. I am briefly asked a few questions and subsequently directed to Lieutenant Briggs, who is in charge of keeping track of things.
I admit that they look rather fetching in their white and blue uniforms.
I am stopped again at the fort gate by a grizzled sergeant with a coldly assessing look. I can taste his apprehension though he masks it well. The silly pony has this effect on everyone and particularly on those who have seen death. Some primal memory from ancient times resurfaces to warn them that she is more than she seems.
“Who might you be and what in the name of God are you doing out here at this time, woman?”
I adopt my tragic heroine persona, one of a girl who rode through dangerous lands for a noble cause. She is stricken by tragedy, yet still defiant. She is also hard to resist when she makes very reasonable requests.
“My name is Ariane Reynaud, I bear an urgent message for Richard Reynaud, a dragoon in the second brigade. I would like to find him, please. I was told that Lieutenant Briggs could help me?”
“I apologize, miss. I cannot grant a civilian access to the camp. We are in a state of war, in case you didn’t know.”
“I am aware, sir. I do not need to get in. Knowing where he is and giving him the message would suffice. Please, will you at least tell where I can find my brother?”
A small lie, but one that will serve me well. Even if Richard is here and remembers that none of his sisters is called Ariane, he will merely assume that the old sergeant misheard.
The man himself scratches his beard as I grow impatient. Dawn will fall in an hour and I am not eager to repeat the emergency tomb experience, thank you very much.
Eventually, the benign nature of my question forces a reluctant grunt. He barks an order at one of his subordinates who takes off at a sprint. A few minutes later, an officer with a spring in his step struts to us, mustache waxed and uniform ironed to flat perfection. Even the flickering light of torches reflects on his shiny buttons.
The newcomer is dark of hair and eye and his demeanor wordlessly screams of disdainful annoyance. He turns an angry gaze to my helpful sergeant. His nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath in anticipation for some furious tirade, no doubt. I do not have time for this and so I slip from Metis’ back and take a quick step forward and curtsey.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to see me, sir. I apologize for the disturbance,” I announce in an aggressively contrite voice.
The officer is taken aback and his lambasting dies on his lips as he studies me. He places a pair of spectacles on his aquiline nose and scolds.
“And what do you think gives you the right to disturb an officer? We are conducting a war here, miss, the affairs of the nation take precedence over… whatever you think you are doing.”
“Please forgive me”—you little jackass—“sir, I would not dare disturb you so in normal circumstances, but this is hardly the case here. Our father just died, and it was his dying wish that I carry over his last words to my brother as soon as I could. Please, I only need to give it to him.”
I affect my most pathetic face. Harmless, lips shaking, and eyes filled with sorrow, I plead with all of my being. It does not take long for the officer to crack under the double offensive of peer pressure and basic human empathy.
Unfortunately, his reaction is not the one I expected. The emotion I decipher in his embarrassed face and aura is not acceptance, but guilt. He knows. He already knows.
“Where is my brother, sir?” I ask, this time pushing on his sense of pressure.
“You… that is… Richard Reynaud was captured on April 25th by the Rio Grande with most of his squadron. I am sorry.”
By the Watcher, what the… Arg! It takes all of my self-control to mask the rage I feel right now and affect a tragic expression. I force my poor mouth into a ‘o’ of surprise instead of an ‘a’ of rage.
Did I fail before I could even start?
“As far as we know they are being treated with care. We recovered some wounded who named your brother amongst the captives and the Mexicans have so far respected the rules of war.”
“Though you never know with those Catholics…”
The sergeant clears his throat very noisily and the lieutenant immediately tries to correct his blunder.
“I am sure they are fine.”
“I… thank you, lieutenant. I believe I need a moment.”
“You’re about to keel over, miss. Come in and we’ll look after you,” the sergeant says with some concern. I cannot accept. Dawn is on its way and I feel the coming of lethargy on the edge of my mind. I need to find cover.
“Thank you kindly, sergeant. I fear that I must refuse,” I tell him, not unkindly, and turn Metis around.
They do not try to hold me back. My best of ponies tends to attract attention when she starts to move and there are few who would not be happy to see the back of her. I click my tongue to urge her on and we return north, towards the woods we just passed.
I close my eyes and let intuition guide my steps. I need an enclosed space. As we move to the road and eventually to a side path, I consider what I just learned.
Richard was captured. Now that my moment of outrage is over, I realize that this might, in fact, be a better outcome. Death in battle is less likely when one is covered in chains in some basement. Isolation, stale water, and hard bread are equally conductive to self-reflection on honor and the glories of war. The problem is that the spirit of fairness and gentlemanly conduct tends to be short-lived in any conflict. It seldom survives the first few battles.
I should extract him.
Assuming he was taken by ‘permanentes’ and not some militia, he will be held at the base of the Mexican forces in Matamoros. The war has not lasted long enough, nor has there been enough battles for there to be a prisoner camp.
I am working on more assumptions than facts here, but assumptions are all I have.
I ignore the tingle along my spine and realize that we are now above a small entrance into a rocky hill. A quick inspection reveals some sort of smuggler cache, currently abandoned. It should do for today.
Or will it?
I wince at the memory of the sun on my skin. A flash of phantom pain surges along my flank.
The sun and arrogance are the most common killers of our kind and I just looked down on both of them. Out of the hundreds of thousands of days I could spend being alive, there is bound to be an unlucky one.
I cannot take the risk of leaving this realm with oaths unfulfilled simply because I refused to be dirty. Time to bite the bullet.
Learning from the previous experience, I undress completely, stash my belongings in my bag and lift my head to see that Metis already trotted away. I do not have the time for any concealment work. I sigh, raise my gauntlet and cast the spell.
One day later.
I spring from the ground like a devil from his box, in the state of nature and covered in charcoal-colored dust. A quick inspection reveals that none are here to witness my embarrassment, so I simply grab my gear and walk a few hundred feet to the sea for a quick dip. Note to self: find a drying spell.
Less than a week after my emergency travel and I am already walking around butt-naked like some savage. Truly, the veneer of civilization is a thin one indeed.
Metis reappears after I am acceptably dry and we ride west at full speed and right into the American army.
In retrospect, I should have guessed it from the trampled earth, dodged mounted patrols, and numerous animal droppings. Metis and I crest a slope to find the valley before us covered in rows of well-ordered white tents lit by evenly-spaced campfires. Even late, the air is filled with the various noises of camp life as soldiers and aides go about their business. I hear laughter, clamors, and orders as well as the clangs and bangs of material being handled by poorly paid men. Nervousness tempered by discipline gives a spring to the step of patrolling officers, and extra strength in the arm of artillerists polishing their limbered guns. They are making ready for battle.
I consider going through and immediately realize the massive hassle it would be to lie and manipulate my way through layers of stressed bureaucrats. I turn Metis around and we make for the hills north and away from the Rio.
I follow a goat trail up another tiny hill and as we reach the top, I spot a small copse of dried pine trees. I sample the air. It tastes like sap, leather, soap, cheap aftershave and gunpowder.
It also smells like the sea and will do so until I can take a proper bath.
Closing my eyes brings into focus the heartbeats of dozen men and as I turn back, I realize why. This spot provides a commanding view of the valley below. Any scout worth their salt could crawl through the underbrush to count men, horses, and guns with reasonable accuracy. Some enterprising Corporal laid an ambush just in case.
I could avoid them with significant effort, or I could resort to a little bit of vampiric expediency.
I refuse to call it shenanigans. Deception here serves the clear and explicit purpose of saving time, therefore it is a tactically sound, perfectly justified decision and the fact that I will have fun is only a side effect of said plan.
I grab my bag and rummage through it to find my grey cloak, the only cold weather piece of cloth I packed. I drape it across my shoulder and raise my obsidian gauntlet.
I love casting in Likaean.
Let darkness be.
The sentence is barely more than a susurrus and still, darkness answers. Even before the words cross my lips, the little light filtering through the cloud cover had dimmed and shadows had stretched like waking cats. The language of magic plays with time and mind like a creature of flesh and blood.
The cloak on my back turns into the black of the abyss, like a hole in the world. Filaments quest outward for more fabric to consume and the vestment becomes almost organic in appearance, a broken entity crawling out from some unspeakable dimension. In my branch of magic, darkness is more than a mere absence of light. It hides and tricks. Sometimes, it hungers, like me. The darkness is a comfortable and welcoming cocoon where the sun is nothing but a distant memory and others lose their way, their ancestral brain screaming for the safety of cave and campfire.
I am home.
And now, I feel something else, not exactly an imbalance and more an opportunity. With darkness present, its twin concept tugs at me and I am only too happy to oblige. I bend to the side and grab a fallen branch from the rocky ground, which I hold in my free hand to serve as a target. I have a plan.
The casting is smooth and effortless as it sometimes happens when the world aligns perfectly.
Let there be light.
I remember struggling with the spell at first because I thought of light as something that reveals. A mortal tool that I no longer have a use for. I have since realized my mistake.
Ours is not the beacon that guides but the ignis fatuus, the swamp mirage that lures travelers to their death. Like us, our lights shimmer selfishly for their own amusements in an illusive dance that teases and cheats.
A dark purple orb rises atop the branch which I prune to leave a scythe-like shape of false gnawed bones. Then another. And another.
“Hey, do you see that?” a voice whispers from the meadow.
Metis perks up as she likes teasing mortals almost as much as teasing me and eating ears. I swear that she makes herself noisy on purpose.
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
“Shh! Someone is coming!” someone else orders.
I pass by, clad in a gown of midnight and carrying the macabre regalia of my office. The purple glint of the three orbs I conjured tremble around it like captive souls.
Gasps. Moans. The sound of soiled trousers.
The apocalypse pony stops without my prompt. She huffs the air, nostrils flaring, lungs working like two great bellows. Her massive head tilts right and two beady eyes sweep the underbrush like the glare of some hellish lighthouse. Her red, horrifying gaze slows on shapes that start to sob and mutter prayers to whatever deity might get them out of this deathtrap. Not to be outdone, I let the mortals stare at the void-black content of my hood.
I wait a few moments before urging Metis forward. She rears and the ground trembles when she lands.
Then, we are off.
Strangely, the patrol decides not to challenge us.
Our travel remains unimpeded as we continue west. I keep the darkness spell active with some effort but drop the light spell to help me hide. The landscape changes as we move away from the road: tall grass spreads out in all directions, only interrupted by the odd trees. There is very little light to be had and I must resort to my superior senses to get past the first Mexican patrol.
I lead Metis behind a ridge and peer out with some curiosity at the other side of this conflict. Some of the differences are obvious. First, they all wear thick mustaches that could double as paint brushes. Second, some of them look considerably less well-fed than their American counterparts.
I do not notice any difference in terms of discipline. The squad walks with careful attention under the direction of an officer wielding a small saber. They wear dark blue uniforms, so that only their shakos truly differentiate them from their foes.
I see how this could be problematic in a pitched battle. Oh, well.
I wait until they are gone and keep moving forward.
I still feel the weight of destiny driving me forward. Something is going to happen, I am sure of it. I doubt that the disappearance of my contact is a coincidence. The problem is that I have no idea of what I might face, or even if I would be in danger. To my knowledge, there are no foes here who would justify such actions.
As I think, we trudge through more tall grass. I see a tiny mound on my right with a lonely oak, tall and wide. I direct Metis there and jump up to have a look at the obstacle arrayed before me.
To the west and five hundred paces away, the Ejército del Norte, Mexico’s Army of the North, has made camp.
Where the American base was made of well-ordered rows so that you could not distinguish one unit from another, this one is made of tents sprouting together like mushrooms, like a patchwork of heterogeneous groups gathering for a festival. Where the Americans had patrolling officers, this one has roving bands of camp followers. Women gossip merrily around cooking pots.
The professionalism I had seen in the patrol is much less prevalent here. Most importantly, they lack something that my instincts recognize as drive. There was a sort of hunger hanging around the other army, a sort of excitement, of eagerness. Here, even the regulars eye the command tent with reluctance. They pull on ill-fitting uniforms and slog from unwilling group to wary squad.
I am unimpressed.
The only noticeable advantage they have is number. Even then, I can spot so many civilians, including whole families, that I am unable to ascertain exactly how many of those present are combat personnel.
They do appear to have some cavalry.
As for their guns, they all look antiquated. Most of the muskets are the notoriously obsolete and unreliable Brown Bess they must have purchased in bulk from the United Kingdom.
Looking at the camp, I come to a realization that chills me more than the sight of battle ever could. Even accounting for irregulars, the Mexican army should have around four thousand men while the American has two thousand.
The battle of Waterloo counted almost twenty times that number. Twenty times.
On each side.
By the Watcher, any decisive battle fought here would barely count as a skirmish on the old continent. I would not foolishly assume that we are any different, having only a handful of vampires over the whole of Illinois for example.
We barely have twenty lords in total. You could pick up more by carrying a bleeding Likaean from Basel to Paris without trying.
I really hope the deterrence Constantine offers and the old clans’ arrogance will protect us for a few more decades. Let them dismember India. Let them rend China. Let them not come here…
I shake my head. There is nothing I can do right now. I am still a small fry in the grand scheme of things. Worse comes to worst, I have weathered storms before. I am confident that I can find a way to survive this one as well.
I assume that the shore will be guarded, or at least populated, and decide to head north again. Metis carries me away from the many lights and into fields of colorful flowers dancing under the light wind. I would find the exercise relaxing if it were not for my ever-increasing sense of… not exactly dread. Anticipation.
We leave the army to our back and left, waiting a bit before angling back towards the road. A couple of hours later I come across a branch in the path as well as another ambush. High bushes by both sides of the road hide heartbeats and even one person snoring softly.
A mage cast a rudimentary spell dragging across the trampled road. I can taste their unstable aura at the back, the tell-tale signs of a poorly trained practitioner. To my knowledge, there should be no mage group in the vicinity.
I can surmise from their location that they are Mexicans. This is a unique opportunity for me to get some information from an isolated group that I can eliminate without major consequences. I need to know more about Matamoros, where I assume the prisoners should be. I need to know if there are any events that would warrant the foreshadowing I feel now. The only difficulty I see is language. I can barely say buenos dias without Jimena ribbing me.
My only hope is that they have an interpreter to interrogate captives. Otherwise, they will try to bring me back to their camp and I will have to eliminate them.
I believe this is worth the risk.
“You might as well come out!” I announce, as I stop Metis just ahead of the crossing.
I smile at the one second of stupefied silence this grants me before the sides of the road bursts with yelling militiamen brandishing rusty weapons and polished facial hair. I am soon surrounded on all parts by pilosity. After much ordering around—Para! Para!—a sneering irregular steps forward to, I assume, grab the reins.
I am most amused by his expression of absolute disbelief when he realizes that there is none. Sadly for him, he makes the mistake of keeping his hand in the air.
A snap, a yell, and the man now holds the mutilated stump of his little finger. More screams arise on all sides while Metis chews the lost appendage without breaking eye contact.
The man reaches for a pistol and I believe that negotiations will fail until a clear and distinctively female voice brings order to the screaming mob.
Silence descends upon the quivering assembly and their nine-fingered member.The men part to let through a tall woman who walks with the assured gait of a lioness. They allow her through with obvious respect, to my surprise, and I finally realize my mistake.
Some of the women I saw back at the camp were not followers. They were fighters.
Clad in a brown travelling robe that has seen much abuse, the woman looks severe. Her dark hair is held in a tight braid and shifts to gray at the temples. Her skin speaks of decades under the sun, so brown and wrinkled it is, and no one would call her beautiful. Yet, she has a sort of magnetism to her. I feel it in her posture and the way she walks, strutting as if she owned the black soil beneath her dusty shoes. She is armed with an antique musket and a long knife hangs by her side. It has seen much use.
I admit to being suitably impressed.
The unexpected amazon glares at me with naked malevolence, planted here with her gnarly hands on her waist. Her confidence almost cancels my natural height advantage.
“What is it pendeja, first time seeing a soldadera?”
“You are a combatant?”
“No, I keep the knife to skewer pumpkins. Of course, I’m a combatant.”
I keep my face impassive and dismiss the comment. She is the one who laid the ‘spell’ and I find her interesting. I notice a small statue of who I expect to be Mary by her side, wrapped in golden thread with stylized bells made of wood. This is a rudimentary focus. The warrior woman is a rare case of an untrained mage who pushed herself until she could reliably cast. She probably believes it to be some sort of miracle.
People like her began entire magical traditions when they taught their methods to their gifted children and apprentices. I did not expect to see a curandera, a Mexican witch, so far north.
“Your command of the English language is impressive.”
“Yes. I learned it from Texans when I was running with the Comanches. They taught me so that we could ransom them properly,” she explains with a sinister smile.
It fades when I do not react with the horrified shock she was expecting.
I have two options.
Option one, I stick with my cover story and pretend to be a foolishly brave woman on a quest. Option two, I reveal… a little more of the world I belong to. Just a smidgen of aura to freeze the woman to her core and make her feel inside exactly where we both stand on the food chain.
I think I will go with the second one as it is the most likely to get me answers. I judge that she would dismiss an idiot, brave or otherwise.
I am also less inclined to act with subtlety when working with so many unknowns.
“Is that so?” I casually ask.
“What are you doing here, chica? You look lost,” she demands, all attempt at subtle intimidation abandoned. Her goons feel like something is odd and close rank on both sides though they give Metis’ head a wide berth.
“I was on my way to Matamoros to rescue a relative. How about you? Strange place to be lying in wait. Should you not be on the other side of the army?”
“We are not here to serve the government!” she spits before her expression turns dangerous.
Before she can escalate, I distract her by slipping from Metis’ back. My decision causes a small scuffle as my ‘captors’ scramble to surround me threateningly.
This is one of the rare cases where my gender is an advantage. The militiamen may have tried to physically subdue a man attempting the same move. Instead, they just stand at a respectful distance to prevent my escape.
They do not know how to handle me.
The woman does.
“I don’t know what you think you are doing, chica. We are no longer in your daddy’s ranch. You are coming with us nice and slow and I’ll find a general for that fancy stallion of yours.”
“Metis is a girl.”
I bore my essence into her defenseless one with ease. Some mages can resist Charm better than others, given enough training. She is not of them. I taste many things from the luminous aura: confidence, annoyance, wariness. Wariness?
“If you are not serving the government then what are you doing here?” I ask on a cue.
I feel her resistance. The setting is wrong, and she knows that she should be the one asking questions. The discrepancy between our apparent hierarchy and the way the conversation flows grates her. I could brute force it, but I stop myself. What would Sinead do?
“I snuck past both armies and I have seen things. Perhaps I can help?” I ask, pushing just a little bit.
The crowd is silent as they await the soldadera’s decision. She considers me for one moment and I nudge her curiosity just enough to subsume her natural distrust.
“We are looking for a beast who preys on the people of the nearby village. He has returned every week for the past month to take someone. He should be back tonight and this time, he is not leaving.”
Something clicks in my mind with the inevitability of a falling boulder running down a slope. This is it. The last few nights of tingling spine and of anticipation, of searching in vain for some sort of sign have led to this moment. I am expected to act, assigned a role by the hand of fate, one that I would be unwise to shirk away from. Fate is calling.
I have not felt so strong a pull since I saved Melusine back in Louisiana. The consequences of my decision will have long-lasting consequences.
I consider ignoring it and rushing to Matamoros but dismiss the urge almost immediately. I lost a potential Vassal long ago by being too greedy, not by being careful. I am not so stupid as to ignore such a dire warning, not to mention that the disappearance of the Natalis mage could very well be related.
I must know more.
“We should head there then,” I finally say.
Her traits twist with fury, which I expected. I am, after all, challenging her authority by taking the initiative. Before she can manifest her anger, I decide to reveal my hand.
I do not blast her with my aura. I push her, pressure her, box her in. The proud woman shivers, frozen to her bones by an otherworldly wind that no cloak can ward off. And then, I am blocked. The idol of the virgin by her sides shines blue in my sight as a warning.
No matter, I have already achieved my goal.
“Perhaps,” I repeat more slowly, “I can help. I have seen such things happening in the past.”
“Madre de Dios, I just felt as if someone stepped over my tomb. Brrr.”
She crosses herself and I grit my teeth as the gesture sets me on edge.
“It must be a sign of God. Come on pendeja, let’s go back to the village and talk.”
“No more ambushing?”
“I need to check on Pedro. He was supposed to report every ten minutes, that lazy good-for-nothing,” she complains off-handedly.
“Then we should really hurry,” I suggest as I climb back on Metis. The crowd of mortals senses that something is off and they gather protectively around their leader. She takes the branching path at a run.
I follow them and consider the important question.
What are we facing?
It cannot be a rogue; they do not have enough self-control to stop at one victim. It cannot be a feral werewolf either. That still leaves a wide range of possibilities, from a sick human to vampire. By the Watcher, I hope it is not a vampire.
The dusty road snakes down towards the river until the tall grass gives ground to tended fields of wheat and corn. After a minute, we reach the Rio Grande and the path angles right. The village itself appears made of stone buildings painted white, with low, wide roofs of straw. Nothing seems out of sort until we see the town square.
There, at the crossroad of empty streets, lies the body of an irregular. He still grips a loaded pistol in his unmoving hands. A wide straw hat rolled against a merchant stall, now empty.
“Qué pedo con eso?” my companion softly swears.
The spectacle is so bizarre that I stop Metis in her tracks. The corpse clashes against the otherwise mundane background in a stark contrast that wakes the artist in me. What makes this so captivating, I wonder? The gash in his neck?
No blood. He was exsanguinated.
The deathly silence that falls on us as we take in the grisly scene makes the gasp of pain behind me that much more poignant. I turn and come face to face with a man who was not there, who should not be there.
He has wavy black hair that falls to his chin, a thin mouth twisted into a rictus of gleeful cruelty. He wears a dark leather coat and bears no obvious weapons and yet I cannot help but recoil. His eyes are grey, bloodshot, and they display the most manic rage, the most desperate hatred I have ever felt in my life. Their raw, bleeding intensity freezes me to my very soul.
His left hand is buried deep in the soldadera’s rib cage. She gasps in immense pain as the buried limb keeps her upright.
He has no aura.
On instinct, I send a tendril of essence that hits an invisible wall. Still nothing. He is as void as an empty grave.
Slowly, with contemptuous wrath, the man lifts the dying form of my guide, then his arm blurs.
I dodge the corpse. Her blood splashes against my dress as I slip from Metis’ back.
“Go!” I order. She can do nothing here.
By the time I hit the ground, my foe has killed three more men. I rush him, cursing myself for not having taken any weapons. What an idiot I am, spending ten years safely and then forgetting where I come from. I am not traveling without a full arsenal ever again, even in friendly territory.
Then battle is joined and there is no more time for thought. I still have my claws and I still have my skill.
I know immediately that it will not be enough.
We throw ourselves at each other in a mirror display of fury. Our style is the same aggressive and relentless offense filled with unpredictability. We both walk the edge. One wrong move and the fight is over. A claw to the throat or a finger through the chest. The matter of a single instant. We swipe and dodge and grapple and escape, then I manage to kick him away.
He stands there with his condescending sneer while I bend forward covered in wounds. I have deep furrows on my arms and shoulders where he raked or where I dodged a bit too late, dying the dress in a darker shade.
This is bad.
He was always too precise. The issue is not speed, the man simply moves perfectly. He breaks my rhythm. Counters too well. Even with the help of intuition I could not match his peerless style.
But I am not done yet.
I grab behind me and take one of the stalls by its side, then channel as much Natalis and werewolf essence as I can to swing it before me.
My strength multiplies for a brief moment and I move backward, anticipating his tendency to get in instead of out.
The maneuver works. The edge of the stall travels much faster than my arm and the heavy piece of furniture crashes against his guard, shattering in pieces as he strikes it but forcing him to take a step back.
Three purple snakes of chain link scales whip forth as I charge him. He twists backward and to the right.
Into a mortal.
The man he chooses had been scrambling for his gun instead of running away like the two other survivors of this brief slaughter. My foe grabs him by the collar and tosses his mewling form in the path of my spell with disdain. One snake impacts but the two others dodge around.
The sneering man boots the mortal in the back, pushing him to me. He jumps over the now captured militia and straight at me, leaving both bindings behind.
In instead of out. As planned.
I drop the spell and cast the one I had prepared in the meanwhile. I expected him to find a way to close the distance.
The backlash of merely speaking my sire’s creation sends a ghastly sensation up to my elbow, like being caressed by razor blades that never quite pierce the skin.
My foe is not quite so lucky.
The spell catches him midair. It shreds his extended arm to the marrow and climbs up to the right side of his face, leaving behind mangled, bloody chunks of flesh clinging to exposed bones.
I sneer in turn.
The man’s coat disintegrates to reveal a silvery collar that stops the damage from hurting his neck.
He lands and charges without pause.
His hand strikes my chest. I deflect as best as I can.
I crash through a shoddy brick wall back first, through filthy muck and against a pail of hay. It softens the landing, somehow.
More pain. I cough blood. That jerk got me in the lung.
By the Watcher, what the hell?
So fucking strong.
Need to GET OUT. I cannot win.
Still cannot even feel his aura, nor hear him. I am pretty sure he is a vampire from the way he moves and with such perfect control, he has to be…
I need to ESCAPE. I climb to my feet, hands against the gaping wound in my flank. Claws are crystallized essence and the damage they inflict does not heal quickly.
I am a mess and this place stinks.
Speaking of which, that smell is familiar…
Yes. This could work.
My enemy steps into the small pigsty just as I break the far wall with a tired punch. One of his arms is just meat and I would expect his expression to have changed.
It has not. He is the same controlled maniac as he was ten seconds and an eternity ago. Worse, the wounds are knitting shut as I watch. Unbelievable.
He steps forward.
He dodges under the lantern I throw at him, arcing an imperious brow as if asking me: really?”
The lantern impacts against its intended target, covering it in burning oil.
For the first time since we started to fight, my foe shows the first sign of hesitation as an ear-piercing, horrendous screech assaults his senses. He turns just in time to be pelted by the flaming wreck of the pen gate. Several hundred pounds of porcine fury charge with the might of a creature with nothing to lose.
I… I did it.
I channeled chaos!
“Hah!” I boast as I escape the death trap through the newly made emergency exit. I land in an enclosure and take off as fast as I can. I see the river in the distance. Perhaps I can—
Something grabs my neck and flings me against a post. Sharp things dig into my heel before I can even push myself away.
Grabbed again. Left arm snapped.
I grunt in pain and fight back with claws and feet. Too strong. He punches me in the face. I see stars.
Not giving up yet.
Another wall. I push back but he holds my head against the unyielding bricks.
I scream, this time. Too much. He… severed my spine?
The sky. I gasp. Cannot angle my gauntlet.
The man is there. For the first time, his smile broadens.
Eight fangs total.
I am so—
He kneels by my side with casual grace. A bloody hand exposes my neck despite my weak struggles, then he bites.
The eight little stilettos dig into my essence like needly spider legs. The pain they cause is intimate and exquisite. Agony expands to smother my thoughts, my instincts. He has not even drawn it in yet. Toying with me.
“That is enough, Malakim.”
A voice I have not heard in decades now breaks the silence, warm and soft as desert sand. I cling to it despite knowing better because I teeter on the edge of the abyss and any buoy is better than none. One pull is all Malakim needs to destroy me. I am powerless. I hate being powerless. Everything hurts so much.
“Let her go.”
I flop back to the ground. Less suffering now. I regain enough presence of mind to take in the newcomer. I know who he is. I would recognize the dark hair, the intimidating presence, and the kingly beard from among a million faces. I simply cannot believe it. He should not be here. They should not be here!
“Greetings, little princess. It has been quite some time. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
I am so fucked.