Tonight, my sire sits on a new throne in the stone workshop as I come in from my bedroom, servant in tow. The unceasing noise of his servants clearing rubble must have bothered him, because he gestures and the sounds… stop.
I do not let myself react. Casters have long realized that sound is carried by air, and interfering with said air will silence even the most dire of thunderstorms. I was led to understand that such an undertaking requires fine-tuned control. I knew that he could call on immense power, and it also appears that he knows how to use a scalpel just as well as a hammer.
“You may rise, Ariane.”
Nirari’s voice is as smooth as caramel. It belongs in a boudoir somewhere, drinking tea and whispering amusing witticisms. I am not surprised that my foolish mortal self would fall for him.
I stand back up from my respectful bow while Violet remains prostrate. I was thankfully given a hastily made white linen dress of strange make which leaves my arms and shoulders free while wrapping around my neck. I look like an exotic dancer posing as a Roman Vestal.
Ah, I should not be so judgmental. They worked in a hurry and I would rather wear this than the grisly remains of my previous bloodstained dress. I did not realize yesterday that I was one thin thread away from revealing entirely too much breast. A dreadful proposal in the present company.
“I did not expect to see you so soon. Fate has a way to set us on a collision course when we least expect it. Do you not you agree, little warrior princess?”
“So it would seem,” I politely reply.
“I considered visiting you and having you join our cause. It is a grand one, a task that has been in the works for a millennium. The work of an epoch, soon to be completed.”
“Why did you not, then?”
“Because our foe tends to go after my servants and tools as soon as I turn my back,” he explains with obvious annoyance, “Only my financial assets remain untouched and only because she, too, relies on the Rosenthal to manage her wealth.”
“She?” I ask immediately as would be expected from someone who does not know of Semiramis.
I am in luck, because my sire is so absorbed in his own speech that the deception is taken as an invitation to continue.
“My mother. The greatest witch who ever lived and an extraordinary woman. She made me what I am. She made all of us.”
He returns his attention to me.
“You remind me of her sometimes. It takes a certain mentality to never give up, to constantly search for ways to succeed regardless of the circumstances. Of course, she was more… hungry. The world then had even less sympathy for weakness than it does now.”
He pauses as he mulls over some distant memory. As long as he speaks about himself, he does not ask me too many questions and that suits me just fine. I dare not think of what would happen if he knew that I had already met the one of whom he speaks.
“I think I loved her, once.”
“What changed?” I ask.
That was a mistake.
Master… no, my sire deploys his aura and he crushes me like an insect. I am slammed into the ground as if by a wall of cold and disdain. It does not even feel like aggression. He is just disciplining a wayward child.
The world turns blank under the tremendous pressure. My mind slows. My eyes take in a small spot of ground on the distance, every bump, every shift in color of the grey stone, simply because I cannot turn my head. A strange sense of pressure forces my jaws shut. Nothing exists, only this small expanse of rock, Violet’s heartbeats and the biting cold.
As soon as it came, the punishment stops. The abyssal pressure disappears, and I wonder in disbelief why the room has not frozen over.
“A daring line of questioning, Ariane.”
I nod because I do not trust my voice at the moment.
“What should matter to you is why I oppose her. You must have guessed.”
I know she wants to be a goddess and he wants to eat her before she succeeds, yet the knowledge is trite because it only scratches the surface. Their animosity stems from an irrepressible gap between them, the same that exists between him and I.
We are too alike.
I do not know how much of my drive is his and how much I inherited from my human self. I believe that I would have been happy making a family, creating successful companies and leading projects until the day I died without having to take on the world. My lack of arrogance was most likely wisdom. I knew the scope of what I could conquer with the limited time I had. Those considerations are gone now along with my mortality. We Devourers are not creatures of power, but of conquest. There is always another bigger prey.
“She is your last great rival.”
“Correct,” the ancient king answers, pleased, “only she still stands in the way of complete dominion. When I consume her, I will become a living god and achieve true immortality. No coalition, no Order, not even the endless tides of mankind’s armies will be an obstacle. Even the sun’s deadly embrace will fail to destroy me.”
His gaze grows distant. His expression turns thoughtful and what terrifies me is that the dream he speaks of comes with no animation, no gesture nor smile. He recites the words like an automaton, as if they had lost any meaning to him and he was just going through the motion. This terrifies me more than his aura ever could.
“Imagine a world at peace, guided by a benevolent hand towards a unified goal rather than mired in petty squabbles as it is now. So many resources are wasted on meaningless pursuits while we could achieve so much as a unified people under my wise rule. Mortals, mages, vampires, all working towards common purposes for the benefit of all, for who better than one who has lived so long can envision so much? Who has a better long-term goal than he who will live to see it? It will be our golden age and you, too, can be a part of it.”
“You will not be satisfied,” I almost spit, caution thrown to the winds.
My sire shows no anger despite my challenge.
“Of course not, and neither will the mortals. We are designed to expand and fill the world with our progeny, yes? Luckily, I have a way to circumvent this difficulty. Are you perhaps familiar with the latest advances in magic?”
The information clicks in my mind.
“The other realms.”
“Quite so. If there is one, then there are more. It will take some time to find them. I do not mind. Time is what I have.”
Conquest without an end. Endless wars. Unending subjugations. Until he tickles something too powerful and our entire civilization is wiped out from an uncaring universe.
That is not the worst. The worst is that even if Nashoba and Amaretta’s prophecies prove correct and I manage to stop both him and Semiramis…
What will prevent me from doing the same?
As he said, we are alike.
My silence affords me a minute grin from the seated king.
I do not lower my guard. He may be pleasant now, yet the steel below the surface is ever present and I would be a fool to think him in high spirits.
“Enough banter. I have not yet decided what to do with you, little princess. Until I do, you will make yourself useful. I have a task for you.”
I perk up. Thinking that far in the future is a waste of time when I am not even sure I will survive the night. Yet another problem for future Ariane, may luck favor her.
“Did you notice a corridor with a large pool of dried blood on your way here?” he asks.
Even in this relatively cold temperature, the stain has started flaking and giving off a heavy, rancid stench.
“You will clear it to its end then return to me. You do not have my permission to feed until you do so.”
Frustration wells up until I force myself to calm down. I expended a lot of vitality putting myself back together. I should be fine for another day or two.
I remember that restraining the blood supply is a common, if risky, method of control. Constant Thirst is not conducive to deep thought and planning.
Nirari dismisses me with a casual gesture and I leave from the door behind me, Violet in tow. We arrive at the four-way corridor. The stone workshop is at our back, my ‘bedroom’ and the way out to my left and my destination forward. Tan men and women attack stones with bars and pickaxes, sometimes casting a hesitant glance in my direction as if unsure of the proper protocol. When I do not react, they go back to their labor with renewed energy.
The corridor beckons.
I stop at the edge of the pool of blood and turn to Violet by my back. I know that she communicates via hand gestures, but I do not know their code. We will have to work the old-fashioned way.
“I will ask you a few questions. Nod for yes, shake your head for no. Do you understand?”
The servant fidgets nervously, face suddenly paler. She quickly relents when my expression turns cold.
“Did someone die here?”
“Was that person one of your numbers?”
“Did you see how it happened?”
“Do you know what killed him?”
Hesitant nod. I need to be more specific.
“Was he killed by a trap?”
“Was this trap magical in nature?”
Frantic nod. I suspected that it might be the case given the obvious camouflage, but I was not quite certain. I still cannot pierce the veil of illusion marking whatever the corridor truly contains, a sign of professional work as most mirages unravel once their presence is made obvious.
I suppose that time has finally come for some real-life application of my studies.
“Violet, do you know of the tool room? The one with smithing equipment?”
“I want you to get me a rune engraver, a long bar, and a few plates, if you find any.”
Her charcoal eyes gaze at me for a full second before she answers and in them I see something I had not expected: relief. I remember that she was tasked to help me. Perhaps she expected me to use her as live bait? That would be wasteful and slovenly.
I consider her a bit more as her retreating back turns into the corridor. She and her companions have very angular traits from a race I do not recognize. They are not cattle. Does this mean that my sire has a domain somewhere from whence he pulled them, or did he ‘borrow’ a contingent from a Dvor lord? My understanding is that both he and his mother spend a significant amount of energy and resources destroying each other’s fiefs. It might just be that some have started to survive. I fear the implication.
I turn back to the empty alley and pick a few pebbles that I throw forward. After five or so, I have thoroughly explored the boundaries of the illusion. The false image of normalcy starts six or seven paces away, just after the limit of the bloodstain. It curves outward slightly due to the enchantments being placed on the wall. This will make my attempt easier.
Violet returns in short order with everything I asked, including a half-torn iron plate covered in fuzzy red rust.
“Block your ears,” I tell the woman. She obeys without hesitation.
I grit my teeth and apply the carver against the plate. Soon, the abominable shriek of tortured metal covers even the clangs of the excavation. I finish tracing and inspect the results.
Loth taught me how to disrupt spells when we worked on his shield breaker spheres. My construct is quite complex and shows the Dvergur runes for disrupt, reveal, and unmake. The reveal sigil takes the central position for an illusion-specific countermeasure.
I prick my right wrist and trace the drawing with black blood, muttering in the sharp, gravelly tongue of my old friend. They soon shine blue and eager.
I fling the thing until it lands at the point I identified as a nexus.
At first nothing happens. Then the air shimmers and the color of the stones beneath shift from marble-white to obsidian-black. Rather quickly, a crackling circle of white bolts form in the air. It expands outward like a popping bubble.
The spell breaks with a clear chime and the spectacle before us changes entirely. Gone are the naked rock and sterile appearance. Complex glyph patterns now adorn the walls, centered around metal panes set in the very stone. Above, the strange yellow lines that provide illumination radiate with renewed ardor.
A few glyphs fizzle where the threshold used to be and reveal behind them a long metal pane with a horizontal slit.
“It appears that you were wrong, Violet, this is a mechanical trap,” I conclude.
The enticing scent of stark terror soon teases my nostril and I turn when I hear a light thump. The devoted servant is on her knees, forehead stuck to the ground.
“Rise. There will be no punishment this time.”
She springs back up like a puppet on strings, face filled with gratitude. I have no time for this. I need to escape quickly, or they will find ways to control me through pact or coercion. She is an enemy, albeit not a serious one, and I do not want to spend the effort to create bonds. She and her companions are clearly indoctrinated like the most dedicated Eneru subjects. I will treat her decently since I would not benefit from gratuitous cruelty, but I will kill her if she gets in the way.
Sensing my disdain, the woman lowers her head and I return my attention to the now unveiled corridor to come to an immediate and definitive conclusion: whoever did this was completely bonkers. Mad as a hare. And dangerous! It must have taken a hundred hours of work for a competent mage to design, create and install this deathtrap.
Even Jonathan would be impressed by the depths of paranoia involved in this project. I feel like whistling in appreciation.
Unfortunately, I will have to solve this Gordian knot and, who knows, perhaps I can escape that way and leave a few traps active?
I immediately start to inspect the defenses and I am once more grateful for the inhuman sight which allows me to decipher the defenses without getting closer. The first trap, the one that already claimed a victim, is a mechanism springing blades horizontally from both walls with a magical trigger based on perceived movement. I think it has a way to rearm itself too. There are also pressure-activated fire spells on the ground in case someone gets cute and decides to crawl across. The disarming mechanism on those is trapped too.
And this is just the first layer of defenses. There are two others, plus some contraption where the corridor angles connected to the metal pane of the blade trap. Oh well, at least this is interesting.
“You might want to move back and to the side, Violet.”
I turn to see her point to the side with some confusion.
“Move back and to the side,” I order. This time, she obeys without hesitation. Note to self, my sire does not cultivate the art of ‘insistent suggestions’ among his followers.
I cast the spell in English as I need very little power. Nirari did not react to me using Likaean during the fight. Perhaps he did not recognize the tongue? In any case, I would rather not force my luck.
I crawl up the wall. If I were in my armor I could simply walk on the surface. Sadly, doing so in that dress would mean that my eyes would be covered instead of my unmentionables.
Once I am above one of the panels, I use the rune engraver to disarm the trap preventing access to the inner mechanism, then repeat the same thing on the other side. After I am done, I drop and take care of the fire spell on the ground.
Now for the mechanical one.
I see no obvious gap in the pane. Sometimes, when there is no point of ingress, you just have to make one.
I lean against the wall and raise my gauntlet.
This spell is specifically designed to break hard material in a small surface. I added it to my repertoire for out of reach metal locks and other annoying things I want to demolish from afar. It shares the ‘disrupt’ glyph with the reveal spell which is convenient since there are only so many runes that can fit in a gauntlet frame. The other three are opposition, shatter, and diamond.
A narrow purple ray emerges from my hand to hit the distant panel. The contraption rings like a broken bell.
A hidden panel in the far wall slides open and a giant quarrel that would belong on a Roman artillery piece emerges from its recess.
A ballista trap! How quaint!
The tip expands with a dreadful ‘clang’ mid flight. Instead of a standard head, the projectile has four blades in a cross pattern.
Fishing for volume, are we?
I grab the thing with ease as it passes by, only moving forward a bit on account of its tremendous weight. Whoever designed the bolt sacrificed power in the hope of achieving surprise. A human with excellent reflexes could dodge this.
I twirl the spear-like object and think. Only the mechanical trap is left. Now how would I go about getting rid of that one? I could use the bolt and the metal bar I requested to block the blade after triggering it, thus preventing it from rearming.
Or I could go the ‘Ariane’ way.
That sounds like more fun and would let me inspect the thing for future references. I dig my talons at the edge between stone and metal, plant my feet on the wall, channel as much Natalis essence as I can and pull.
The groan of forcefully deformed metal reverberates in the corridor and the sounds of excavation stop again. I grunt with the effort of pulling the panel open. It resists for a while, then something gives in and the whole thing comes loose.
I place the trap on the ground to inspect it, keeping well clear of the path of the blade.
The contraption is quite long. The cutting edge runs its length, kept in a state of tension by a lock triggered by a spell. A system of pulleys with a powerful enchantment reloads the trap after each use. I destroy the locking mechanism and the blade snaps out. Enchanted too! Someone was not taking any chances.
I dispose of the second trap the same way and realize that I am, in fact, having fun. Disarming traps is like solving a puzzle with the added stake of something unpleasant happening if you make a mistake. How exciting! The only thing missing is a little snack at the end.
I may be more Thirsty than I originally thought.
I turn to Violet who has been staring at me with some measure of amazement for a while now. She looks tasty. She is also forbidden, so I tear one of the blades off and go to the next trap.
This one is designed to let off a massive amount of electricity into its victim, and is coupled with a pit with some spikes at the bottom, including one made out of silver. This one is a one time only, so I trigger the electrical part from afar, then walk closer and jam a metal bar in the opening mechanism of the pit.
I think that someone who would only see the mechanical trap could consider crawling under, which would have triggered the flame spell, or rush through with some very powerful armor or a werewolf body and the second trap would have done them in no matter how sturdy they are. Well planned indeed.
The third one is interesting as well. I find small openings which could throw darts. I also notice not one, but two decoys meant to have someone come closer with an unknown trigger hidden behind a layer of chipped paint. I try to activate it with movement, by throwing a spell through it and even by dropping my metal bar in the middle of the construct.
On a hunch, I draw a decoy rune of blood on a stone and toss it. The corridor flashes at the presence of flesh and a strange whistle fills the air.
A disgusting, green cloud of acidic liquid is spat from the small holes, leaving behind an acrid stench.
The strange liquid eats into the stone.
Ah, if someone had managed to pass the first two hurdles through careful analysis, a close inspection of the decoys may have turned them to meaty soup. Charming. Whoever designed this is delightfully twisted. I want to take them by the collar and throw them through their own creation to see what remains at the end. After I had a little bite, of course.
Casting takes comparatively little energy. The damage dealt by Malakim’s claws must have been more severe than I first assumed. Oh well. I can feed soon. I hope.
After another thorough inspection, I finally manage to reach the end of the corridor where the hidden crossbow remains concealed and look around the corner to find…
Another corridor filled with traps with a heavy bronze door at its end.
And, as my nose had informed me, a body in the distance. This one has remained here long enough to be ripe; it reeks atrociously. Violet, who had foolishly followed me without waiting for my go-ahead, pinches her nose under the horrible assault.
This man apparently triggered the first layer of trap if the metal bar skewering his chest is any indication. He wears a full robe in purple with a golden filigree, which either makes him a cultist or a clownish villain in some traveling circus. It is hard to tell, sometimes.
In any case, I am not working under these conditions. I quickly inscribe a few runes of air and flow on yet another stone, add a pinch of blood and voila, an improvised fan. The air progressively clears as I inspect this new intellectual delicacy. Alas, this one will be much easier to deal with.
It is designed to trap people in.
Our dear departed friend fell prey to it. Come to think of it, his body is past the first layer, therefore he must have been running for his life for inertia to carry his corpse that far. Truly, cultist cultisti lupus.
I find no hidden crossbow facing that side of the corridor and start working, well aware of Violet’s regular breath as she watches me work. Her heartbeat thumps in my ears and her scent soon dispels memories of the earlier fetid smell.
I do not have to report immediately. I could explore a bit, and, if I find an exit, drain the little spying waif dry before running away. Nashoba’s earrings still adorn my ears and I have ways to hide my tracks.
In fact, I believe I shall do just that.
With renewed energy, I methodically dismantle the first layer of traps consisting of some overlapping fire spells and reach the corpse. He holds no focus that I can see, but I am not wading through corpse juice to find out more. I engrave a drying spell on the ground next to him to suck in water away. Bodies smell much less when they are mummified.
Setting it on fire would be a stupid idea in an enclosed space.
Finally I arrive at the last layer, giddy with excitement. I want to eat Violet and leave, but I must wait. I need to be sure.
It is only a matter of seconds to trigger the two remaining traps as those do not have a way to rearm themselves, then I am at the heavy brass door.
I bend forward to inspect it for one last trap on this side and am sent flying backwards.
My back and head smash against the wall and I struggle against the hand now clamped on my throat. The pressure increases and I stop struggling.
My vision clears to reveal the bloodshot eyes of Malakim. His black hair falls over his face and he sneers with hatred.
“Going somewhere, sister?”
He wears a dark leather armor with an assortment of weapons and phials secured around. His throat is covered by a grey scarf.
“Merely checking the door for anomalies,” I lie.
Malakim sighs, then turns to Violet.
She runs away as fast as her legs can carry her. Once she is gone, Melakim returns his full attention to me.
“Is that so? I find it hard to believe. Or perhaps this is my natural distrust at work. Has it occurred to you that I may want you to die?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” I croak, trying to relax his grip. My struggles are in vain. He is as unyielding as a steel wall.
“Because I do. You, the latecomer. You, who were turned after our dear sire already found his pawn and you who grew up without his glacial claws on your neck.”
“I assure you that it was not a sinecure.”
Malakim releases me and I jump on my feet then away from him. He turns to match me with the door at his back.
Escape plans cancelled. For now.
“Ah, yes,” the man says in a mocking voice, “the terrible burden of freedom. I am aware of the difficulties of being thrown out into the wilds as a fledgling, believe me. Just keep in mind that I would crawl through a mile of silvery glass for the privilege of suffering what you suffered.”
“You are aiming your anger at the wrong person.”
“You do not understand, ‘princess’, I do not have to aim my anger at anyone, there is more than enough to go around. But since I am on a leash, I will drop you now and we will play nice, like the civilized assholes we pretend to be. And any time you look at me I want you to remember that I hate you, that I do not need a reason to hate you, and that I will gladly end your life.”
“If this is about the spell…”
His eyes narrow with suspicion.
He… he forgot?!
“The one I used to mangle your arm.”
It actually takes a few seconds for his face to show any hint of recollection, whereupon he proceeds to laugh. The sound would be warm if it were not so bitter.
He keeps at it as if I had told a good jest.
“That is cute. You think my arm matters. You brainless, ignorant, stupid bitch. I am looking forward to your escape attempt. I hope you make it fun.”
“I do not—” I start defending myself, but he interrupts me by choking me again.
“Or! Or, you could stay here and become our sire’s plaything. He no longer has much of a sexual appetite, but I am sure that you could resurrect it. He does enjoy breaking new toys.”
I need to get out.
“So, try and leave and make it smart enough, daring enough that he gives you to me. I never had the opportunity to share everything he taught and now I have a sister. Please. The days are dull.”
“Let me go.”
“But of course!” he replies and he finally releases my throat. I massage it out of habit as he picks up the trap blade I had liberated and snaps it in half.
That stupid strength.
Still, I am curious, and the Thirst removes many of my inhibitions and survival mechanisms.
“Can’t you regain your freedom, at all?”
Instead of exploding, Malakim merely tilts his head in consideration.
“You do not know. Of course, you do not know, ‘princess’. There was no one to ever tell you otherwise. There is no regaining my freedom. I was a slave of my village, then I was a slave of the Holy League’s army, then I was a slave of our dear sire. There has not been a time when I was free and, until I die, there won’t.”
“Why? How can you be so sure?” I object. No matter how binding the oath, vampires can break it if they are willing to pay the price. I would die rather than do some things and this is an outcome I have already accepted. Why can he not just greet the dawn?
In answer, Malakim removes his scarf and I get a better look at his collar. I first got a glimpse of it during our fight but I had, at the time, been focused on more pressing matters. More specifically, killing him. Now, I am left to wonder how distracted I had been.
The fabric is of a strange material like the skin of a snake, with pearlescent scales interspersed here and there. The yellow light above does not reflect on it. Instead, it shines from inside with an otherworldly light as delicate as it is precious. I feel a sense of wonder taking it in, as well as one, more subdued, of horror when I see the outlines of several runes. Such potential, such ethereal grace and Nirari turned it into shackles in one sacrilegious decision.
I am appalled.
“There are some who die without ever being free, and I have been alive longer than most,” Malakim says, this time almost subdued.
I cannot hide the disbelief in my voice.
“Yes. Dragon skin. He made a collar out of dragon skin. I cannot disobey, I cannot kill myself. Freedom will only come after the great task is done. This, he promised.”
“When he catches his mother?”
“Indeed. We are looking for her, ‘princess’, and when we find her, he will take her essence as his own. Then there will be no stopping him anymore. Death will no longer have sway. And when it is done, I can finally…. let go. It is only a matter of time before the rat runs out of places to hide.”
I would not be so sure.
I peer at the dragon skin. I want to touch it, course my finger over the mesmerizing fabric but I cannot. Malakim notices my gaze for which I am grateful. I would not want him to try and see if I already knew of Semiramis from before. That would lead to unpleasant circumstances.
“Greedy, are we? Sorry little sister, this one is already in use and I was told that there are no more dragons to be had.”
He then takes a few steps back and bows politely, extending a hand to the bronze gate.
“I tire of this discussion and the air here is quite rank. Should we have a look around and see if there is anyone to talk to? Remember, no feeding.”
I hiss. How DARE HE. I NEED IT.
The man raises both hands in a disarming gesture.
“He said I could feed after clearing the corridor!”
“Absolutely not, my Thirsty little sister. He said you would not have his leave until then. You still need his approval.”
I want to object to the semantics, but I realize that to get justice I would need to return to Nirari. To go further with Malakim means that, perhaps, there will be an opportunity to escape. There will be none if I return.
I could DRAIN THE FOE’S PUPPET first and then go with Mala— No! No. He is playing with me. I must take the risk. I must escape as soon as I can. The longer I stay and the easier it will be for them to bind me. So, I fake my best smile and move forward.
The bronze gate is not even locked. I still inspect it for anomalies and find a few reinforcement runes as well as a spent alarm rune. With nothing dangerous around, I step into a large square room.
The first thing I notice is that the smell is not much better, and the stench this time comes from a bisected mana hound. The massive purple beast was cleaved in two by some metal blade of sorts, both sides and the innards spread over a paved floor. Two doors lead away. The first one is to my left and must have been a way out at some point. A desk stands next to it as well as racks still covered in coats, and a few crates. It has been collapsed, rocks and gravel spilling into the room.
The farther door is more promising. Made of heavy bronze like the others, it is still locked.
I stare around as I move forward. This room doubled as a warehouse and armory at some point. I spot a rack of rifles, still clean, but no silver bullets.
Clearly whoever made this base was a mage with a high sense of security if the traps are any indication. It was not enough and at least one mana hound escaped containment, possibly causing some sort of quarantine measure that sealed the entrance. In any case, if the inhabitants of the base have not left through another way, they should still have a strong presence. There should be at least a few mages and a few soldiers if the traps and weapons are any indication. I cannot exactly use this to my advantage. They will not make a difference against Malakim.
I cross the floor, monster in tow, and am again grateful not to have to breathe. The two bodies must have stayed there for at least a week in a damp environment. Small mercy, there are no flies around so no maggots.
Malakim is like a sword of Damocles hanging above my neck as I kneel to inspect the next gate. I close my eyes and focus on other senses. There is something on the other side, the familiar taste of warning of an alarm spell.
A few years back I would have been unable to unravel it. Now, I place my gauntlet-covered hand against the cold, smooth metal and pluck the spell apart string by string until, with a snap, it collapses on itself with no one the wiser.
I try the handle. Locked. A quick spell takes care of the unprotected keyhole and the heavy gate swings open silently, surfing on well-oiled hinges.
We are in a dormitory. It is the middle of the night now and a dozen mortals sleep soundly in lined up cots separated by curtains hung on wooden poles. Chests and wardrobes line the wall. The left-side corner has been isolated, and the smell of soap and excrements emanates from it. No one has woken up yet.
Malakim overtakes me, bumping against my shoulder and eliciting a hiss that he ignores. He stops above the first cot and looks on with a serene expression. This is the first time since I have met him that he seems at peace. He lifts a finger and inspects the talon with patient interest while, below him, a man slumbers.
“That’s the best way to leave, I think. You sleep, then you die, comfortably drifting from one state to another. No pain and no awareness,” he whispers in a voice that only a vampire could pick up.
He stabs the man between the eyes and just above the nose. There is slight noise of broken bone and a sort of suction. His victim gasps very lightly, but the noise is not enough to cover the sighs and light snores of the others.
I look with pain at the wasted blood dripping on the ground, turning it red. So THIRSTY. Maybe I can… Just one… But no, he is waiting for it. He is waiting for me to disobey.
Malakim draws the curtain to reveal another victim. The first was bald and severe, lying on his back like a Gisant. This one is young with curly blond hair. He sleeps on his side curled in a fetal position. Malakim places his gore-covered finger against the man’s temple. He inspects me thoughtfully, aware that I am the unwilling witness of this farce. I despise him for this show. He is making a mockery of what we are by toying with a sleeping prey, spreading the scent of blood and wasted vitality while I am here, starving, only maintaining my facade because this might be my only chance to escape.
“Then there is the surprise death that catches you when you least expect it. Still not a bad way to go,” my horrid brother adds.
The pain of a needle wakes the man long enough to draw a panicked breath in. Before he can even register the body of his friend, Malakim stabs down. Another gasp, another rattle, another source of vitality spoiled for his sordid amusement.
A new curtain is drawn on his next victim. This time, the man is older with a bushy brown beard. His snores are the loudest.
“The thing that scares us the most is to know you are dying, feel it in your soul, and be powerless to stop it. Very few experiences prepare us to face that fear, don’t you think?”
He removes a thin stiletto from a sheath on his chest and stabs the bearded one in the neck. The man wakes up with widened eyes made all the more frantic by the abominable pain he must be feeling.
Malakim just severed his spine.
The maimed man gasps like a beached fish and tries to call for help, but no sounds come out. His lungs are no longer his own. He dies like this, tears staining his cheeks.
A very young man barely out of childhood with very dark close-cropped hair.
“And then there is a pain that transcends all others. All those who considered death coming reflected on what they would leave behind, what kind of legacy they left for their loved ones. Like you, who carved out a small kingdom in these barbaric lands and rules over it like a small-time landlady. I love to destroy their pitiful achievements and send them to oblivion with the knowledge that everything they struggled for is lost.”
The boy struggles frantically, held up in the air by two hands. His feet kick pointlessly against Malakim’s armor in a stupid little dance. His eyes focus on me.
Such a waste.
Malakim blocked his mouth and nose with one imperious hand as he lifted him. Not a single whine escapes the youth’s tortured throat as there simply is no air to do so. Clearly, brother dear has experience in such matters.
The boy’s skin turns purple and his eyes, bloodshot. Before he dies, he has the time to see me, the corpses of his friends and to understand. Malakim gives him enough time to come to the realization that all those people he lived with were going to die. That is not the worst. The worst is that half of those people are still blissfully asleep and there is nothing he can do to save them.
After one last twitch and the sound of emptying bowels, Malakim puts the corpse back on his bed with far more care than he had given when the boy was alive. Beside me, a man with the appearance of a soldier shows signs of waking up.
“Kill him, but do not feed,” Malakim orders.
The CUR. I OBEY THE SIRE, but he has no right to—
The bastard stabbed me, just a flesh wound on my arm. He cleans the black blood on his armor as a supreme gesture of insult.
“Kill him, but do not feed.”
One day I will kill him. And Nirari, and Semiramis, and Anatole, and Moor. They will all die. But not tonight. Tonight, I must survive and tally the offenses against me to be paid at a later date. This is fine. I have suffered indignations in the past and I will suffer them in the future as well, what matters is to live long enough to see them repaid.
With interest. PATIENT HUNTER will triumph here.
I take a page from his book and stab the man in the brain with a claw before he can react. I can do no better without a blade and I am, once again, weaponless. Cracking neck bones as I usually do would be too noisy.
I do not even know why I care. All this blood. If I cause enough chaos then perhaps… No, he will know.
“Out of all the ways I demonstrated, you chose the most expedient, as expected of my survival expert of a sister.”
I care not for his sick game. I just want to FEED.
“We will have ample time to teach you how to enjoy things the proper way.”
This idiot hovers at the edge of turning rogue. He is probably held back by his stupid almighty artefact. Dragon skin. By the Watcher.
“We should finish and move on,” I reply with gritted teeth.
“Oh? Eager, are we? Very well then.”
He takes three knives from their harness and tosses them casually in one gesture. They hit three throats.
He takes another five and moves his arms twice, killing the rest. Half a dozen men choke on their blood.
We leave the room now filled with the scents of blood, piss, and shit. Only a few gurgles still break the silence as I unlock the next door.
Malakim once again pushes me into a room as large as the first one. This one was split in two. On our left, a workshop takes up most of the space. Heavy tables are covered in stone tablets and fragments in the process of being reassembled. A trail of dust leads to a small passage.
On the right, two large beds host the remains of an orgy. Five scantily clad women sleep in the arms of a muscular man with a chest like a barrel and an older mage with a scar on his cheek.
“Typical cults,” Malakim idly comments, “the leader uses girls to reward his lieutenants and more valuable members. He will be in a separate room with the choicest morsels.”
“What are they doing here?” I wonder.
“Grandma left many toys and entrances in those rat warrens of hers so it is no surprise that some were found.”
He affects a frown.
“But of course, you are correct. We should ask them. Just to be sure.”
Malakim struts to the closest bed, grins like a teenager doing a prank and upends it. The tangle of limbs crashes to the ground with swears and shrieks. The muscle man is the first to jump on his feet, fists swinging. Malakim leans into his attack and smacks the man’s head back with an open palm. He barely uses enough strength to push his opponent.
The mage notices me as he frantically puts on his glove. His eyes narrow with rage.
I dodge the transparent projectile with a hiss. Seriously? Why me? You have a perfectly valid target and you go for the unarmed woman in a skimpy Roman dress? Prick.
Malakim chuckles as the burly man steps to the side and grabs a large truncheon. My brother takes hold of the bed, eliciting cries from the women still crawling on the ground, and lifts it.
The little group grows silent as he tosses the piece of furniture into the workshop, where it crashes with a loud bang of broken wood.
“What the hell?” the muscleman mutters.
The mage pales. He understands. He looks and smells scrumptious. Alive and afraid.
“Dios mio…” one of the women swears. Another stands up and does her best to readjust her shift so that they cover her heavy breasts. She is a bit older than the others, with a frame that leans on heavy and a long shock of brown hair that reaches her lower back.
“I do not know who you are but please listen to me. You are interfering with a divine project that will redesign mankind as we know it. We can bring you hope too! We have a wonderful message to share if you would only listen…”
“Ah, one of the recruiters. She leads the women to lure in new recruits.”
“I know how cults operate, Malakim, I do not need your lessons.”
“My god,” the mage interrupts, shivering, “it cannot be…”
“Oh, very well,” Malakim answers before turning to the one who had interrupted him, “let me guess, you need to decipher the secrets in the universe held in those steles behind me, then your glorious leader will lead all of you to paradise?”
The woman’s careful control slips, showing the worry underneath.
“Hmm, yes! Absolutely, paradise on earth and eternal life. An end to hunger and disease! Would that not be wonderful?”
“Please no…” the mage whispers on the side.
“Ah, a variation on the old classic. Good enough.”
The stocky woman shows an expression of surprise as her head falls off her shoulders. Malakim mechanically butchers everyone except the mage in only a few swings. Screams die on silenced lips. The familiar smell of death now mingles with that of stale sex.
Again, the waste makes me want to kill him.
I barely listen to the panicked mumblings of the spellcaster as he speaks of research and insights into the tablet’s language. All things we do not need as Semiramis works in a coded version of Akkad. My brother grabs his victim by the throat and drains him slowly under my glare as a display of power. His two blue eyes peer over the white neck, daring me to attack him in his moment of vulnerability.
I cannot afford it. I am already starving and healing from the wounds he would inflict would cost me any chance I have to escape. Bear with it, Ariane, PATIENT HUNTER. I can do it. I can do it. I just need a way out.
A door opposite the one leading back creaks open. Shuffling feet and grumbles heralding the arrival of the cult’s…
“What is the… Oh!” a woman says.
“A large variation on the old classic,” Malakim comments lazily like a man at a market inspecting a strangely shaped pumpkin.
The newcomer is indeed a surprise. She is a beautiful woman with an entirely shaven head dressed in a heavy blue cloak. She is also a powerful mage and I recognize her aura in the traps we faced.
A young man with an angelic face peers curiously from behind her.
“You! What have you done?!” she screams. To her credit, she reacts immediately. Her hands raise to reveal two bracers covered in runes. Sharp blades emerge from her cloak to fly in the air like an angry swarm of bees.
Interesting, she relies on a telekinesis spell. It takes a great amount of concentration and a natural predisposition to make this work.
Malakim scoffs and lets the first blade impact his heart, where it stops completely.
The woman pales.
“I am going to walk to you. I will grab you by the neck and then I will snap your spine like a dry twig,” he announces.
The mage frowns and focuses a dozen blades in a cloud, hovering before her.
Malakim takes a step forward. An enchanted dagger nicks his cheek. Black blood seeps from the wound.
I understand now why he did not try to dodge my shred spell, the one that mangled his arm. Malakim does not dodge wounds if it allows him to finish the fight immediately. His method goes against every instinct of self-preservation ingrained deep within our minds.
The cult leader throws everything she has at him. Malakim’s face turns into a pincushion but none of the blades pierce the skull.
His foe’s anger turns to dismay.
The vampire steps to the mage and grabs her by the throat as she scrambles against the wall. He stares her in the eyes as she dies, then backhands the boy attacking him from the side.
“Were you not going to interrogate her?” I ask, my patience at an end.
“Why would I ever do that?”
Because I could have learnt if there is another exit besides the obviously caved-in one.
“Because our sire is searching the place and they have researched it extensively.”
“Pah. They are cultists, not scholars.”
I struggle to remain in control. Thirsty. I take a deep breath to push the sensation back, ignore its claws buried deeply into my mind, pushing, craving. It takes monumental effort of self-control but eventually I manage to regain some measure of calm. I am holding, for now.
Malakim gives a knowing smile.
“Almost there now. We will just see what is behind the last door and then we will head back. Normally we avoid drinking from the silent folk but I am sure that an exception will be made. I just need you to be very thorough in your inspection. We would not want to miss anything, no?”
I know he will drag it out but I have no choice. A quick inspection of the workshop reveals a passage leading to storage rooms filled with preserved food, digging tools and a small well for fresh water. I accidentally find the cesspit they use to get rid of the wastes as well as the bodies of two more hounds. The smell is so shockingly strong that it clears my mind.
We find the leader’s quarters in the last room of the complex. They contain a single bed with a large sword by its side, probably what she used to kill the hounds. A large circle dug into the ground shows rudimentary runes, a far cry from the sophisticated construct I saw in Alexandria. They are lucky the portal fizzled before it could destabilize.
Children fiddling with magics they cannot understand, and yet, the cultist still managed to achieve something.
I wonder if the knowledge of how to create portals is fully disseminated yet.
I shake my head to focus on the last large gate left here. It was sealed with redundant layers of protection. Even with the caster dead, the runes covering it still shimmer under the pale light of the lines.
This is my last hope. All the other passages have led to dead-ends. If this is one as well, I will have to postpone my plan and risk being bound.
“No feeding until we determine exactly where the cult complex ends, little sister. Show me how you unlock this,” Malakim says with a vicious grin.
The Thirstier we grow, and the harder it becomes to focus on mental tasks. Fortunately, I am not so far gone yet.
I pick a heavy key from a nearby bed table and calmly use it on the lock. I give a disparaging glance to Malakim as the runes fade and the gate clocks open. He returns one of controlled rage.
Just because I am weaker does not mean I am stupid.
We walk into a cavern wide enough to host a house. While the rest of the installation was dug into solid rocks through unknown means, this is quite clearly a natural formation. Stalactites hang from a tall ceiling criss-crossed with the ubiquitous yellow lines, and in its center lies a dragon.
An entire bloody dragon. With a scaly muzzle, two horns, two wings, and a heavy orange stone on its forehead. It rests like a sphinx on its bed of stone.
My legs almost give way before I take back control and realize my error.
This is a statue of a dragon.
By the Watcher, I would have had a heart attack if I still could.
“By the Watcher…” Malakim whispers, joining his curse to mine.
He whistles in admiration.
The sound echoes across the chasm.
The dragon statue opens its eyes.