When I arrived in camp, dysentery did not rate high in the list of probable causes of death for Richard. That was underestimating mortal stupidity. The army made camp on the banks of the Rio and waited for reinforcements before heading south. Between June and July of 1846, its ranks swelled from two to ten thousand with an influx of volunteer regiments.
The newcomers are a rabble of unsanitary louts.
The stench of their squalid dens alone can be smelled from a mile away, five if I stand downwind. Between this, the Rio Grande’s waters, and the sweltering heat, the camp at Camargo has become a haven for all sorts of diseases. I end up bringing a medical mage from Marquette just to make sure my relative would not end up as a dehydrated corpse wallowing in his own refuse.
Fortunately for me, though unfortunately for them, volunteers are the first victims of their own lack of preparations. Most of the regulars remain untouched.
When it becomes clear that Taylor will not campaign at the height of summer, I relax my constant surveillance and agree to my first mission for the Natalis.
This land is warm. Even now at night, I can smell the remnants of heat on the yellowed grass, the cracked earth. Shrubs of darkened wood speak of a day without shade or respite. An open-air oven. Metis’ steps cause little puffs of dust to pop in the air.
Lord Jarek mentioned a cult of spellcasters hiding near the Rio west and north of Fort Texas, and he sent me to investigate. They did not choose to live near an existing town, so I had to locate them by trailing one of their supply convoys.
The only problem I notice as I approach the clearing where they made their camp, is that they appear to have been massacred. The stench of death and the buzz of flies would have warned me if the towering columns of black smoke had not been enough.
Someone stole the prey. Well, the more mundane, boring prey.
“Cover me,” I order John who follows me on foot. My faithful servant angles to the side of the dirt path to find a vantage point, silent as he goes.
I follow the narrow path surrounded by dried out trees at a leisurely pace, taking the time to expand my senses. I quickly taste the remnants of a fire spell in the smoke and embers. A lone human heartbeat thumps angrily in defiance to the desolation around. Its owner remains hidden to my left when I pass by the wreck of the first carriage.
A body lies near, half of its chest ravaged by buckshot. A flash of recognition at its garb sends a wave of fear in my heart before I realize that I am not in danger. The body wears a purple cloak with gold filigree just like the victims in the complex I visited with Malakim. Thankfully, both he and Nirari left the region. The cult remains, or at least some of it does.
All three carriages were left in a line by the side of the open ground while the center is occupied by a cooking fire. Only the last item was ever meant to be ignited. Cultist handymen in simple clothes lie here and there while their four guards still grab their weapons with the stiff grip of rigor mortis. They certainly put up a fight, but they only managed to fell two of their attackers. There were three.
On the other side of the clearing, near the first shrubs that cover the hill, I spot the corpse of a man who fell where he fought. He gazes at the stars with his one remaining eye. A lucky shot caught him right in the head.
Another was dragged against a desolate tree, exsanguinated. His lifeblood smears his shirt and improvised bandages, shining a delicate shade of crimson against the steady fire. The pool around his prone figure shows that the efforts to save him were in vain. He is young.
I lightly nudge Metis and she stops. I stare at the lone survivor’s hiding place until he stands up cautiously, red-coated hands strangling a shotgun.
“Well, I’ll be. A woman.”
Fantastic tools of deduction there.
I make no effort to move or breathe. He is a lone human under no particular protection, my staple food these days.
“And what’s a pretty thing doing alone, here at this hour?” he demands.
I inspect him with some interest as he does the same. He is a man of medium size, well built, with light brown eyes and a magnificent dark mustache that splits his head in two like an axe wound. He wears a long duster powdered with red earth, caked blood up to his elbows, as well as a wide-trimmed hat. A revolver hangs by his side and he bears on his breast the star of a marshal. A lawman! How quaint.
“Are you an officer or are you a bandit?” I retort with innocence.
The man is cautious, and I respect him for that. He alternates nervously between Metis, me, and some unidentified threat at our back with his gun brandished as if daring us to act.
“Marshal Sheridan, ma’am, Texas Ranger. Now I’ll ask you to kindly tell me what the hell you’re doing out here,” he says, and lifts a hand to grab Metis’ bridle. My precious Nightmare lifts her head, suddenly interested by five potential crunchy snacks.
“I would not try that if I were you,” I suggest, and his hand falls away. I can see the telltales of a man at the end of his rope. His nerves are raw and exposed, visible in the erratic movements of his hands and the bloodshot quality of his eyes.
“You and I were after the same quarry, except that I intended to follow them to their base and you… removed that option.”
“Those men were mad!” he suddenly screams, “Mad as hares the lots of them! Lunatics! I’d never… never…”
The shotgun in his hands aims down. A great shiver shakes his tired frame. A dam opens.
“They never gave us the time. We were just asking questions… I have been a ranger for four years and I have never seen such a… Logan. James. I am sorry.”
As quickly as it appeared, the weakness is hidden behind a curtain of steely resolve. Sheridan regains control of his emotion with visible effort.
“That ain’t here or now. Lady, you are confusing me. Quarry you say? That doesn’t sound right at all.”
“And yet,” I reply with amusement, “here we are, and I would bet solid gold that an armed woman is far from being the strangest thing you have witnessed tonight hmmm? A bit of wizardry, perhaps?”
“How did you know?” he asks with distrust.
“I told you. We are after the same people. What differentiates us is that I knew exactly what I was going to face.”
I did not exactly lie. I exaggerated. Exaggerating is a form of gloating, and a perfectly acceptable occupation for a respectable young vampire.
“Devilry…” Sheridan mutters. He resumes his inspection, this time more thoughtful than wary. His gaze travels along my travel dress, the lightly armored kind, my rifle, and to the revolvers on my hips.
“Do you even know how to use those?” he scoffs.
I draw and shoot his cap off.
“JESUS… FUCK!” he screams as he falls on his behind and scrambles away.
I do not move, except for patting the gun I used to unhat him. Metis snorts, as is her wont when someone gets humiliated before her august presence.
Sheridan climbs to his feet and recovers the mishandled headdress. He shoves a finger in the newly made ventilation hole — you are welcome Sheridan — and shakes his head for what must have been the twelfth time.
“I must be mad.”
“I find it amusing that you would face a flame-tossing wizard, yet a girl with a gun aggravates you.”
“I had heard about flame-tossing wizards before…” he grumbles, before stepping back. “The world has turned on its head. Or I was indeed shot, and I am lying in some ditch hallucinating the whole scene.”
“Or perhaps someone came to answer your call in your hour of need.”
“Do you bring salvation?” he asks, hope flaring.
“Are you… an angel?” he says with uncertainty.
I give him my most unmoving, cold smile. I let the dancing lights of the improvised funeral pyre shine on a hint of fang, red and shiny. Just enough to make him flinch. Metis rakes the ashes beneath her with a heavy hoof.
“Do I look like an angel?”
I get a great answer. Sheridan scrambles back, white as a sheet. He signs himself in his terror as his succulent heartbeat drums a merry tune to compliment the crackle of the fire.
I missed this.
“If you are here for my soul…”
“Nothing so crass, I assure you. As I said, I am here to, shall we say, purify this land of their presence. Us meeting here was merely… divine providence.”
I taste ash on my tongue as the religious terms cross my lips. The world does not like it when I skirt the rules. It lets me know in no uncertain terms.
“You want me to pair up with you? A witch? Never! The lord is with me and I will never align with the forces of evil!”
“Ah, so you would leave those who murdered your friends unpunished. I understand.”
“I know that I won’t forfeit my immortal soul!”
“I already told you. It is not yours that I am here to collect.”
I am genuinely curious now. Will he take the bait? I have never worked with someone who sees themselves as virtuous and possesses an inkling as to what I am. The possibilities intrigue me. And if things come to a head, well…
I can always use a snack.
Sheridan considers my offer with more seriousness than I expected. His attention turns to the bodies of his previous allies and only now do I see the glint of a star on their chests. At the sight of their lifeless forms, his body hardens. It gains an iron quality I have seen in humans who will pursue a goal to its bitter end. Vengeance has overtaken justice.
“You are not after my soul, you swear?”
“I am simply not interested in it and I will not go after it. You have my word.”
What is it with humans and souls? I cannot even eat those. Pah.
His gaze hardens.
“Dammit all. I have to complete my mission. At any cost.”
Our eyes meet.
“Any cost. I will go after those loony heathens, and hell will come with me.”
“That it will, Mr. Sheridan, that it will.”
In the next few minutes, I silently assist Sheridan with the gruesome tasks of preparing the bodies of his friends. He places them on planks of wood he recovered from the wreck and covers them with mostly unburned tarp. I stand at a distance as he mutters a few prayers, then stand where I am as he climbs up the valley to recover his horse. I am lucky to have absorbed Erenwald essence or this partnership would have ended here and there, with a horrified horse. Instead, the poor gelding is merely made nervous by Metis’ scent.
“Will you return for the bodies?” I finally ask.
“We have patrols in the area. They will be found within one or two days with the smoke. I hope. I can do nothing for them anyway.”
I should not have mentioned it. The weather is very warm. The stench of carrion is sure to attract a multitude of animals eager for an easy meal.
“You did not seem too surprised by the presence of a witch among our foes,” I idly remark.
“There have been rumors lately. We were told to fear more than the curses of the savages. Strange creatures. Abnormal beasts. The world is getting stranger and darker,” he complains.
I was expecting that.
For a long time, magic had been a misunderstood and mysterious part of the world. Soldiers and peasants in the middle ages accepted magic as a fact of everyday life, making few differences between the potions of an herbalist and the hexes of one burnt at the stake. Even madmen or epileptics were part of the supernatural world on the level of gnomes, elves and korrigans.
Enlightenment and the rise of the natural sciences have lifted the veil of mystery over many phenomena. Thunderbolts are electricity. Epilepsy is merely a disease. The potions of herbalists are chemical compounds with salutary effects on the flesh of man, and so on and so forth. The winds of change have stripped away much of the fog of superstition, but what remains now only stands in sharper contrast. Worse, the development of reliable means of communication, the multiplication of newspapers and centralized governments now shed light on magical creatures and their true capabilities.
Most communities make a good attempt at remaining hidden, so the mortals in power probably underestimate the size of the supernatural population in their midst. The status quo will not last forever.
I believe it is only a matter of time before we are revealed in a world that abhors differences. We must prepare.
Creating bonds with mortal agents might be a first step towards protecting ourselves. I will treat my cooperation with Sheridan as a proof of concept and converse with Sephare. She has her fingers in a great many pies, and she understands politics better than most. If anyone knows how to manage the transition when it happens, it will be her.
As I ponder, we follow the lone track away from the encampment and towards a series of hills in the distance. The night is as bright as a winter day, with a gibbous moon on a cloudless sky. I find myself bubbling with questions.
“So, have you hunted witches before?”
“Only once,” Sheridan intones, “we chased a group of Comanches who had abducted women from an isolated farm. We hung the lot and the oldest of them cast a curse upon us. Lo and behold, five months later George was completely bald. Terrible thing, that.”
“Uhu,” I answer noncommittally.
“And there was that time where we had to kill a buffalo that was twice the normal size! And it could destroy a house by charging through it!”
“Ah yes. I am familiar with the oversized fauna.”
Truth be told, they are much less amusing to hunt than feral werewolves. They lack the vicious cunning that makes the bipedal prey entertaining, with the notable exception of that alligator that almost ate me.
Sheridan’s mood collapses. My distraction only pushed his grief and suspicion away for a moment. I am, once more, inspected from head to toe.
“Are you really a witch?”
“Of a sort.”
“So… you… and the devil…”
It only takes me an instant to know exactly which myth he is referring to.
“What? No! Noooo. That is not how it happens!”
“Then what happened? What pushed such a nice young thing like you to… do whatever you do?”
His tone is gruff, yet strangely nonjudgmental.
I remain silent for a while, searching his face for signs of disgust and finding none. Whether out of misplaced chivalry or true curiosity, his interest appears genuine.
It is, I believe, the first time in my life that someone asks me this question. The men and women I interact with either do not care or know better than to ask. There has not been a single Devourer turned consensually since the first one. We were only allowed to die after being broken and humiliated.
“It was not by choice,” I begin, and falter under this stranger’s full attention.
I never considered how to explain it.
“It was not by choice,” I try again, “I met someone at a social event a long time ago.”
“The closest thing this world has to the devil. He was mature, handsome, and charming. He was also an acceptable prospect for a well-to-do young woman. Champagne and sweet wine made me daring, and my audacity amused him enough to garner his attention.”
“What happened then?” Sheridan asks softly.
“He killed me and turned me into something like him.”
“He turned you into one of his servants.”
“Not even that. I was made out of one part convenience and two parts fun.”
“For fun?” he exclaims.
“That sounds like a tough deal alright. Any chance you can, you know, redeem yourself?”
“Not even death can redeem us because we already died once.”
My companion is not the best conversationalist, as I should have realized before. He ruminates on my words. Actually, he is ruminating on a piece of tobacco chew he removed from a breast pocket. I still appreciate the concern.
“You were dealt a bad hand, miss.”
He chews pensively.
“… but you seem alright. My father used to say you got yourself and you got the world. If you were turned into some kind of demon lady in waiting or something and you still decided to go after faithless heathens like the fellows we’ll soon meet, well, you’re alright in my book.”
And just like that I have been vetted. I do not think I will ever grow used to how strangely accepting some people are of my nature. Papa was the first and there were others too, like Cecil Rutherford Bingle. Perhaps they are trying to make sense of the world through acceptance, or perhaps they simply have an open mind.
“We should plan,” I finish.
“Right. What do you know about those lunatics?” he asks.
“They are part of an unnamed decentralized cult made of several cells that cooperate for supplies and knowledge. My associates and I believe that they trade with Comanche raiders for funds, among other things. From the size of the supply convoy and the regularity of the runs I would say that their base has between fifteen and twenty people, plus the ones you already eliminated, with at least five being women and untrained for war. They will have at least one other spellcaster of unknown strength. I expect the camp to be hidden over there,” I say and point to the hills in front of us.
“You can see a bit of smoke trailing over the vale right behind that cliff there. We can expect sentinels that we can dispatch if we are careful. As for weaponry, they can have anything from antiquated Brown Bess to Models eighteen forty-one cap locks they filched off some rich victims so you must remain careful.”
I stop and turn to Sheridan who is no longer chewing. His mouth hangs open.
“You sure know your business, huh?” he finally says.
“I always prepare if it is at all possible. Why? What put you on their trail?”
“Kidnapping. Lots of settlers around here. Sometimes, some go missing. Bandits, raiders, sometimes they just get lost or die from diseases. We help whenever we can. I suppose we found what other source of financing they use heh?”
“Ransoms? No. Abduction is a strange choice for them. Relatives may try to locate them to rescue the captives and they already have an efficient way to recruit new minions if they must. Hmm. I hope this is not what I think it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are more than a hundred pounds of edible tissue in an average person.”
“Jesus woman, I hope you’re joking!”
“So do I.”
Cannibals disgust me. Only those who have devolved to less than humanity would stoop so low. They also share a dreadful tendency not to wash themselves, which makes feeding a much less pleasurable experience. Also, lice.
My latest remark sours the mood. Sheridan does not object when I lead angle off-track and dismount a short distance away.
“We will make our approach on foot under the cover of the shrubbery. If they have even one sentry, they will be watching the road.”
I pick up my newest rifle from Metis’ harness and place a hand on the girl’s neck before she can take off.
“No eating his colleagues,” I warn her.
She shakes her head in an equine ‘maybe’. I can never be sure exactly how smart Metis is. I highly suspect that she is sharper than she lets on and pretends not to understand when it fits her temperament and her stomach. A bit like a cat if cats shattered rib cages for fun.
“You are not tying her up?” Sheridan asks.
“No need. She will be here if I need it.”
“So… a magical horse?” he asks, and Metis snorts as she trots away.
“Yes. She comes with increased stamina and sass.”
“Huh. Say, I have one more question.”
“It’s just that I have never seen real magic. I mean, I saw street magicians who could guess cards and the likes but I suppose that it’s all tricks. So, magic. Can you show me some? Because so far all I have is your word for it, and I feel a little bit like a fool. No offense.”
“None taken. Light.”
A small orb of purple light emerges from the center of my gauntlet, hidden beneath my sleeve. Sheridan fixes the selfish lantern with his sad brown eyes, then turns his attention to me. He studies my face now basked in the treacherous radiance and I meet his gaze with my own.
“You are older than you appear, are you not?”
“Excellent guess, Sheridan.”
He now turns a bit sheepish.
“So…. How old are you exactly?”
“Ranger!” I tsk, “You should never ask a lady’s age!”
“Sorry! I’m just curious, is all.”
Oh well. If I am going to be honest to see his reaction, I might as well go all the way.
“I am sixty-four.”
“Wow! Just like my nanna then!” he realizes. The exclamation turns his face a delicate shade of tulip.
“Just like your nanna,” I parrot, amused, but he now stares at the orb once again.
“It’s pretty enough, I guess,” he whispers. “Not what I expected from, well, devilry.”
“I get my powers from being what I am. Most other folks have powers because their ancestors frolicked with fairies. No devil involved.”
“Really? With fairies?”
“To be fair,” I remark while thinking about a specific amber-eyed villain, “they can be rather seductive.”
“Right. That’s… a lot to take in.”
I hang my rifle over my shoulder.
“Then take it in on the way. We have a busy night and must be done before morning. I have a very sensitive skin. The sun is bad for it.”
“What, will you burst into flames?” he laughs.
We move forward in silence. The visibility is good tonight which is a double-edged sword. My companion will be able to see but so will our foes.
This is the moment where I hesitate. I agreed to take this Hunt for Lord Jarek and I intend to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Sheridan’s presence adds a volatile element to a familiar mix. I am giving myself a disadvantage here.
Ah, but I agreed to kill them, not to kill them tonight. Therefore, I can give myself a challenge so long as the task is completed in the end. The Natalis lord would understand, of this I am sure.
Should I limit myself to support spells and my firearms? This could be an interesting… ah, who am I kidding, it would be fun.
I lovingly caress the engraved surface of my rifle. The revolvers are Jimena’s gift. This is my creation.
“Is it a magic gun?” my companion wonders.
“Glad you asked. This is a modified eighteen forty-one needle gun from Prussia with a custom firing pin and spring for improved reliability, a self-cooling bolt-action mechanism and percussion-cap, glyphed silver bullets. The barrel is perfectly rifled and reinforced at the base. This, Mr. Ranger, is a marvel of military engineering that can shoot a man dead from half a mile away.”
I raise my eyes from my creation, only to meet Sheridan’s puzzled expression.
“Are you normal? For a witch, I mean.”
“You will learn, if you live, that there is little normalcy in our world. Now quiet, we must find their lair and decide on what to do,” I grumble.
We spend half an hour in silence, moving forward at a brisk pace to the base of the hill. The chest-high shrubbery turns to blackened tufts of grass as the land elevates. There will be no cover to be found here, so I take a full minute to thoroughly inspect the crest. It would be wasteful to put limitations on myself only to fail from overconfidence.
Satisfied with my inspection, I move up and end up following Sheridan who endeavors to be first. He sometimes casts a glance back as we scale the incline and the ease with which I keep up needles his pride, so that he has turned into a sweaty, hard-breathing mess by the time we near the summit.
“Do you have some sort of demonic constitution?” he gasps.
This offends him, somehow.
“Look,” I whisper, and point in the distance.
Over the ridge of the hill and on the flank of the next, about two hundred paces away, the cultists have created a small encampment out of a strange ruin. While we have treaded soil on our way up, the opposing slope is rust-colored stone, sheer and vertiginous. The remnants of a village merge seamlessly with the geography, brick walls of the same dye allowing spaces for houses and other buildings. The settlement huddles around a central well next to which the earth is moist and dark.
The cult only made a token effort to fit out the place. Most dwellings lie gutted and empty. Only a few openings have been covered with undyed tarp. As expected of a smaller group.
A single trail leads from the path we abandoned earlier into a narrow ravine and up a mountain road. A sentinel covered with a cloak sits restlessly on a stone chair, peering at the moonlit approach. I was right. We would have been spotted immediately.
I return my attention to the open ground before the well and its content: two rows of cages.
The right one is a makeshift thing with an iron and wooden frame over a collapsed house. Multiple pieces of fabric cover it to ward off the sun during the day. I spot moving skin and clothes through the multiple openings.
The kidnapped victims.
The left one is a nasty steel trap that could contain a feral for hours. It currently hosts a living, drooling Merghol hound. The quadrupedal version.
At the sight of the creature, I hiss, causing Sheridan to look on warily. I had forgotten my instinctive reaction because the beasts I had uncovered with Malakim had been quite dead. This one is healthy and kicking and it SHOULD NOT BE HERE.
“You see something?”
“One sentry, one magical dog, and your abductees.”
“A dog means we cannot sneak in to—”
He stops when the scene changes before us. A group of three people exits the largest building. They wield torches so that even my companion manages to spot them with ease. The trio walks down a few steps to the well and the captives. The leader stops and removes a silvery tube covered in shimmering glyphs from the confines of his cloak that screams of powerful magic. Surprisingly, I feel nothing even if I should be able to perceive its aura with no barrier between us. Even focusing my attention on it yields no result.
“What are they doing?” Sheridan whispers.
The two other men are clearly muscle. They walk to the human cage and get in. I strain my ears and get a few panicked screams and the telltale impact of a fist on someone’s flesh in the still night. The goons soon drag a young man away from the cage, punch an older woman in the face when she tries to stop them, then slam the entrance close. They drag their victim towards the hound.
A hand clamps on my shoulder, causing me to hiss once more. The issue is not physical contact; the issue is boundaries.
“Woman, give me that gun,” Sheridan orders.
“Remove. Your. Hand.”
My tone brooks no compromise, and the man knows it. Reflexive Charm brings the point home with more certainty than a pistol to the head.
We have reached the breaking point long before I anticipated it.
I was entertaining an amusing distraction. He was riding with the flow, my strange presence like a fever dream after the loss of his partners. Something pushed him forward. Something stayed my hand. I feel fate tug on me once again, but this time I will do nothing. This moment belongs to him.
The world around me tastes of the moment before the fall, when gravity still has to assert itself.
“Can you make the shot?” Sheridan asks, his face ghastly. I am showing my fangs now.
“Yes. It will reveal our position. Make my task harder.”
The child is at the cage now. One of the goons climbs on top of it. The hound slams against its prison, in vain. The cage is secured.
“Will you not save them?”
“Remember who you are talking to.”
“What will it take for you to save them?”
Supplicant. Not just supplicant. Something more.
A man who would accept me for who I am without being a monster himself.
“I have been looking for someone like you for a very, very long time. Someone who would keep his values and his codes and still tolerate my nature. Let me be clear. I can save all those bumpkins you never met and yet value so much. I can put a bullet in the head of anyone who approaches their cage, then move closer and do much worse. I can do all of that and you cannot because all you have is a pistol and a crappy shotgun made from pig iron served by your pathetic mortal senses. I can do this for you.”
The first goon opens a smallish trapdoor. The hound rams its massive, ugly lamprey mouth into it and receives a few smacks of a truncheon for its trouble.
“In return, you will come and see my world. One hunt is all I ask. Join me, and find out how far that midsummer night dream carries you.”
The second goon lifts the terrified wreck of the teenager to the top of the cage.
“Yes, dammit yes. I will see. I want to see. Show me the world as it is.”
Then my firing pin clicks. The deflagration takes the cultists by surprise, especially the one on top of the cage when the bullet hits him in the neck.
I was aiming for the head but, well, he jumped.
I calmly open the bolt, replace the cartridge with a fresh one and close it in one smooth, practiced motion. The second goon was just about to turn when my next shot catches him in the chest.
“Cover me, I’ll go save them!” the ranger yells.
Then he is off.
A few yards to my right, an escarpment juts out above the void below. An athletic adult could easily jump the distance to reach the opposing side without sliding down the ravine, not to mention the grueling climb that would follow. I notice this as my hand locks the third cartridge in its deadly little cradle.
The man carrying the unknown artefact would be my next priority since my new objective is to protect the child. Unfortunately, he has more brains than his minions and he hits the ground almost immediately. I can barely spot the tip of his boots as he scrambles behind the well and its successive layers of mortared brick. So much for clearing the place entirely.
I still shoot the sentinel as he makes his way back.
Sheridan jumps over the chasm and lands on the other side in a puff of reddish dust. At the same time, the huddled form of the artefact holder screams orders to his men still inside. I hear a clang of released metal and a familiar baying.
Of course, they would not just have the one hound.
I tsk as several of the purple creatures charge into the settlement’s plaza with the grace of rabid bulls. They crash into the abductee’s cage almost immediately, ignoring the cultist as they pass him by. It only takes a moment for the ugliest of them to raise its tentacled snout into the air and breathe like a forge bellow.
Sheridan, who had been rushing ahead with the energy of despair, stops in his tracks.
The hounds turn in multiple directions. Two of them inspect the cage containing their brethren as well as the lanky youth hiding behind it. The rest focuses on the gesticulating form of the ranger a bit further.
“Hey, hey, you big ugly cocksuckers! Come get a piece of this!”
The head creature rises to the challenge and the pack follows soon after. I move towards them, firing all the while. I have a problem. The bullets I use could puncture a bear from eyeball to sphincter, but they only slow down the hounds unless I hit something vital and I do not dare take too long to aim. Stupid magic resistance.
Sheridan is now sprinting back as fast as his legs can carry him. We reach the promontory at the same time.
He jumps, half a dozen beasts barely half a second behind.
I drop my rifle and draw a revolver. I lodge two bullets in the first hound’s skull, causing it to stumble in its death throes. The next two hit the corpse in a mad tussle that tilts them over the edge and down the chasm.
One more hound. Two more bullets. Three. Another falls down with a yelp.
Last hound. I switch to my last gun and empty the six chambers in its misshapen maw.
The lead creatures smash into the rocks below. Their ululating shrieks cease.
I flip the revolvers on my index a few times, then return them to their holsters with uncanny grace.
I am not showing off.
Alright, I am showing off, but only to impress the mortals. Displays of skills are an essential part of proper gloating.
A quick levitation spell and my rifle jumps into my waiting hand.
The shock on Sheridan’s face delights me.
“Where did you learn how to shoot like that?!”
“Now is not the time to be impressed,” I soberly inform the man I was trying to impress, “the work is not done.”
“Yes, of course. The child.”
And off we go, running in the other direction again. I make a note to return later and make sure the dead hounds are actually dead. A quick jump, and we rush up the cliffside road to the pair of cages.
“Let’s stay low,” Sheridan orders, and well he does. We have barely topped the incline when the first bullet flies over us like a furious wasp.
“Hold fire, dammit!” a commanding voice hollers in the distance.
Ah, the joys of having incompetent underlings. That is why we vampires only recruit carefully instead of raking in anyone with two legs and a pulse.
Sheridan sprints forward and fires his shotgun at one of the many maws in the ruins’ pockmarked face. Someone yelps in pain. Not bad. The ranger uses the distraction to slide against the cover of the well. He drops the discharged weapon and grabs his sidearm, a genuine Colt Patterson.
“I’ll give you one chance to come out with your hands in the air ‘fore I turn your collective asses into a sieve you lily-livered fucks!”
Bullets impact the well, showering us with stone shards.
“Very eloquent,” I comment.
“You know, before tonight I had only been in a shootout twice. In four years of service,” Sheridan replies conversationally.
The hail of bullets intensifies, which means that we will soon have a few seconds while those idiots all reload at the same time.
I take a peek over the edge, only to see the man with the artefact lift it. Now that I get a perfect look at it, it resembles a long, girthy tube of silvery metal. The runes on its flank shine ominously as its maw reddens.
That cannot be good.
“By the Watcher. Get down! Shield,” I yell.
The purple half-circle is barely formed before the world explodes around us. A tremendous blast vaporizes half of our cover and smashes into my last line of defense.
I am pushed outward and land on Sheridan’s stomach. The ranger fearlessly grabbed me as I was falling.
The shield cracks but the strength is enough to deflect the projectile which impacts the other side of the ravine in a great shower of carbonized dust and black grass. My ears ring. I feel like I was punched in the gut with a ship prow.
Sheridan lifts me up with a wince and a cough. A cloud of brick powder masks our presence now and the gunfire has abated as our foes wait for the dust to settle. If I were them, I would expect our remains to fit in a snuff box.
The feedback from the broken spell courses through my essence and I grit my teeth in pain and anger.
Even more so when I take in the desperate state of my combat dress.
It was the last one too!
Can’t my foes spend one bloody night without ruining my wardrobes!? The insufferable…. Curs!
“YOU HAVE BEEN VERY NAUGHTY!” I bellow to no one in particular.
“You’re alive?” the artefact wielder exclaims.
This kind of shameless observation only deserves the hardest of rebuke. I lift my gauntlet and consider the full catalog of horrible, bowel-dissolving, skin-peeling hexes I could unleash on my foes when I spot something at the edge of my vision and the very idea comes crashing down.
Inside the cage, the one surviving hound gnaws on a steel bar with unmitigated ferocity, giving me a full vision of its collar.
The strangeness of the situation surprises me so much that my attention lapses and, if I had been facing vampires, I would have been in danger. Nothing comes to distract me from my observation.
Someone fastened a restraint around what passes as a neck of this horrid creature. The apparatus is unlike anything I have ever seen. Segments of dull straight metal alternate with modular, spring-like contraptions that keep the thing close to the beast while allowing a full range of motion. A larger cylinder on the side houses a glassy capsule inside of which sloshes a blue liquid. Its design is not just specifically made for the hound, it also shows a completely alien sense of aesthetics — or lack thereof — a sterile mesh of elements as meticulously made as they are bland. It is, without a doubt, new. The abomination it is stuck to has not yet found the time to despoil its smooth surface.
The very sight of it fills me with rage.
A deep sense of wrongness fans the fires of my anger. Those cultists have done it, the fools. They have done it indeed.
A long time ago, Semiramis mentioned that she had learnt the names of the creature by books she had found. I had realized the implication, of course. The dull world we saw had not always been dying, its magic shred from its physical anchor. No. Someone had caused the cataclysm.
I had always expected the perpetrators of this monstrosity to have died from the consequences of their actions. Now, seeing the relatively new construct, I realize that I was wrong.
Someone still lives beyond the portals.
Someone with manufacturing capabilities.
And those someones may just have ways to track their belongings.
“What have you done?” I screech.
Any thought of a new potential Vassal, any notion of challenge or the Hunt evaporates.
Sapient life beyond the portals.
And a plethora of careless idiots opening ways there left and right, leaving the key to piercing the veil at their very feet.
Enough of this.
I let my aura go, discarding any restraint I placed on myself. It crashes against my hidden foes who swear and curse as even their mundane senses pick up the arctic tide of power. As for the mage, he is stuck in place.
I take a deep breath and the taste of magic changes around me. It feels like frenetic sprints and breached hiding places. The tension hangs in the air like a raised belt in a drunken father’s fist. I am done playing games.
Mewling screams expand like a wave from my extended hand as something screams at the edge of my listening range. The spell travels outward, its power warping the air with its passing.
I let the underlings cower and flee and make my way to the leader, barely noticing the thorny root keeping him in place. The cultist cries when he finally understands what he has been facing all this time.
I grab him by the throat and smash him against the wall. The cowl falls from his face, revealing a clean-shaven young man with pale green eyes. His aura flared after he dropped the cylinder.
“I have questions.”
“I will answer everything you ask truthfully and completely if you agree to let me go and if neither you nor your servant pursue me,” he babbles.
“I am not her servant, boy,” Sheridan says, calm despite my display of power. I aimed the wave of terror forward so he and the other captives remained unscathed.
This should be amusing.
“You get one night of respite. For one night, neither he nor I nor the prisoners will be allowed to pursue nor strike you. Refuse and I will start interrogating you thoroughly. Do try me. I have much on my mind.”
“I agree to your terms,” the mage hiccups between sobs.
“Good. Where is your portal?”
“Inside! In the main building! It’s inactive now.”
“Do the other cells know how to open gates as well?”
“Yes! We are… mapping the new world. We will find paradise, eventually.”
I stop for a moment and relax my hold on his neck.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Beyond limbo, there is Elysium. We will find it.”
They think this is the afterlife! The Watcher save me from those superstitious monkeys.
“Why is there a hound with a collar here?”
“The…the hounds of hell suck life and magic alike. We believe someone was controlling this specimen. We poisoned it and found remnants of a corpse in the vicinity, but I do not have it. The cadaver was taken by another cell. It looked like a short man, that’s all I know, I swear!”
So, the handler was dead. Perhaps we have some time before we are found. Perhaps he was the last of his kind.
Bah, who am I kidding? A dying man on a desolate world could not have forged that.
I spend a few more minutes asking him about the location of other cells, but it soon becomes clear that my captive sits rather low on the cultist totem pole. Even the people shooting at us from inside the structures were just laborers, not trained soldiers, and they surrendered to my companion without any more effort on my part.
“You may go,” I finally inform the mage as I toss him on the side. By the time I was finished, Sheridan had already freed the surviving abductees and gathered them in a semblance of order. Many of them were staring at me with the wariness that comes from seeing a young woman lifting a fully grown adult with one arm before discarding him without effort.
Despite everything, the ranger still walks up to me.
“Guess you fulfilled your end of the bargain. Can’t say that I’m looking forward to mine.”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic. I will not ask you to do anything too unsavory. We might even save some mortals,” I declare with some annoyance as I watch the back of my fleeing would-be dinner.
“It does not feel right to let him go,” the ranger grumbles.
“Indeed not, Sheridan. Fortunately, my kind loves few things more than semantics, and giving our prey false hope.”
I whistle. It takes half a minute for a familiar voice to emerge from behind me.
“Your will, Miss Ari?”
“Do you see that man running down the ravine?”