The following two months see me alternating between keeping an eye on Richard, cursing all the deities I can name and a few I cannot for the prolonged war, and taking Sheridan on Hunts. We find two more cult hideouts before the rest figure out that someone is after them, rescuing a few more mortals from ending up as hound chow. He is only slightly disappointed when it turns out that the second group of rescued captives is made of Comanches.
“Well, they don’t deserve to be eaten either, I suppose,” he gruffly admits.
Jarek later requests that we track down an oversized jackal. We end up covered in guts when the creature inexplicably explodes.
“I wish I could say this was unusual,” I tersely remark as I remove a piece of intestine from my hair, “but that would be lying, Mr. Sheridan.”
The ranger ponders on an important revelation while cleaning shredded liver from his hat.
“You know,” he finally replies, “given the circumstances, I think that you may call me Marshal. If you wish.”
I still call him Sheridan.
My Vassal candidate ends each Hunt with the same awkward “Let me know when we can do it again!” as if he had brought me home after a night at the dance. I am unsure how to express that I am more than ready to consummate our union, in this case by having him serve as my moral compass and ambassador for the rest of his mortal life. I cannot help but draw a parallel with Dalton who had been direct and daring.
I should not compare the two. It would be unfair.
Late September finally brings a change. The temperatures lower to merely ‘oppressing’ from ‘one of the circles of hell’ and the hostilities resume anew. The American army moves south and assaults the Mexican troops in Monterrey. Follow three days of hard-fought combat during which Richard makes a name for himself through decisive actions and a cunning understanding of tactics. His stance also shifts. From mentioning the strategic reasons of the conflict and justifying its existence, he progressively comes to talk more about his squad and leading them. Responsibility and duty catch him by surprise between two bouts of patriotism and it soon becomes clear that my nephew has a bright future in the army.
To my dismay.
I cannot simply drop a large group of bodyguards to defend him then scurry back north, because it would go against my oath. I promised Achille that I would take care of my nephew until he returned, and I must do so in person or risk my essence fracturing if he dies a preventable death.
I am thus forced to handle all my affairs remotely. Fortunately, I have extremely competent allies in the persons of Merritt, Melusine and, surprisingly, Urchin. My presence near the army also means that I conduct a great deal of spying for my faction within the Accords and Constantine himself. There is also diplomacy. Mexico has an active population of mages with several competing traditions, a population that we are eager to establish contacts with. Fortunately for me, most of them are rather fragmented with little sympathy for their own government, making my task easier than it could have been.
It also helps that I am polite and peaceful. Most people with any knowledge of my kind as well as two brain cells to rub together prefer to keep it that way.
Texas, early October.
My rented room inside of the Natalis safe house is cozy and warm. Red banners decorate the ochre stone and the lack of windows only makes the setting more intimate. My sarcophagus lies in the corner, its top open.
A silvery mirror occupies one corner of a room. I sit down in front of it and focus on the engraving around the frame. The surface shimmers when I activate it and a man I recognize greets me with a smile.
“Isaac of the Rosenthal? You have returned?” I exclaim.
“Ah, Ariane, it is so good to see you again. Splendid, splendid. Yes, indeed I have come back to the New World for a most important occasion, and we will have an excellent opportunity to meet each other again.”
His image wavers due to my distraction. Fortunately, the mirror is a powerful focus, specifically designed for this task. It also cost a pretty penny. Isaac looks good with his intelligent brown eyes and carefully combed dark hair. He appears more predatory now, less a competent civil servant and more a sharp investor.
“Being a Master suits you,” I observe.
“So it would seem. I am still grateful for the help you provided in that Hunt we shared. Without your timely assistance I would have failed to reach that state.”
“Surely you are exaggerating,” I politely answer, “you were on the verge of becoming a master anyway.”
“No, Ariane, I was on the verge of going rogue. It was the excruciating agony of bringing myself back from that state that pushed me over the edge and let me feel my essence for the first time.”
“I… am sorry. I had no idea.”
“The memory of this moment will remain engraved in my mind until the day I die. I had never felt anything close even under the care of our resistance trainers. Truly, it was a pain that seared my essence and left behind a cracked brand from which only death will deliver me.”
A drunken muse could not salvage this conversation.
“Ah, but I digress, I digress, after you somehow erased the Key of Beriah, I returned to Geneva and managed to convince our Progenitor that not only had you rid the world of a tool of senseless death, you had also managed to do so by repulsing an invasion and slaying its Herald in single combat at the ripe age of twenty something. She was intrigued.”
“I did have some assistance.”
“Not for the dueling part. I assure you that it was no small feat, and you did it anyway. This, as well as my recommendation, means that we agree to your proposal on a formal alliance with the purpose of securing tools to kill the unkillable.”
“You will help me?”
“Ariane, we are a centuries-old organization with means and knowledge beyond your comprehension. You will be assisting us.”
“Yes, whatever, as long as I pull the trigger and it works.”
“We are not ‘pulling the trigger,’ as you so prosaically put it, my dear, we administer the medicine. One that the patient must survive.”
“The patient being the world?”
“Yes. We have ways… but we are unwilling to pay the price, unless we face a ‘cas de force majeure’,” he finishes in French. “We do have an interesting lead to pursue.”
“It will require an expedition that we will organize and fund and that you will head, if you so wish. My esteemed clan head requires a boon in return. We have decided to hold this year’s Hell’s Gate in New-Orleans.”
I remain silent as Isaac stands there, looking very proud of himself.
“This will not involve tiny imps flying around and dragging the sinners, gamblers, and brazen hussies back into the bowels of Tartarus, will it?” I ask.
“Of course not.”
“Good, because there would be very little left of the city then.”
“Hell’s Gate,” Issac explains with the patience normally reserved for slow children, “is our annual inter-species auction.”
“Never heard of it.”
“A lady should never admit to ignorance, my dear. As for you never hearing about it, it is simply due to the fact that this august event has never taken place in your fair country. Yet.”
Then, after a while.
“We also leave the best pick to the clans beforehand, so they have little reason to attend, or to mention it.”
“Fascinating. And you need my assistance?”
“Indeed. We have a sensitive security matter we would need you to handle. It requires a delicate touch camouflaged as an iron fist. I immediately thought of you.”
“Yes. Delicate touch. That is completely me. Haha.”
“I apologize for asking this. Her grace the Lady Rosenthal requests further proof of competence and commitment from you, but she means no insult.”
“Then, if you agree, make your way to Lord Jarek’s base where a ship will take you to New-Orleans.”
“I have a… Vassal candidate. I took him on two hunts but for some reason he is not crossing the threshold. Can I bring him with me?”
“Can you vouch for him? You can bring a small team if you wish. Keep in mind that they will be your responsibility.”
“I understand. One last thing. Have you looked into what I asked?”
We need to finish this quickly. My focus is wavering, as shown in Isaac’s increasingly blurry profile.
“I am sorry Ariane. Except for some specific Erenwald powers and a handful of druidic traditions, there are no records of vampires causing thorny roots to grow when they fight. The spells I found always cause growth from existing vegetation and they do not disappear afterward. This is a mystery.”
By the Watcher. It already happened several times too. What could those be?
“Ah, the spell is breaking on my end. Remember! The Natalis pier.”
Well, Richard’s squadron is still encamped for the foreseeable future and it looks like the next offensive will be by way of the sea. I will arrange for a light protection detail and see what this entails.
One night later, off the coast of Texas.
I lean against the railing of the tiny sloop and watch the shore as it passes me by. Beaches, cliffs and rocks succeed each other in a slow revolving canvas that has not yet grown monotonous.
“It’s my first time aboard a ship,” Sheridan finally admits, “besides canoes and small river crafts.”
“Is it? How do you like it so far?”
“It’s very calm.”
“Yes, there should be no boarding actions this time,” I assure him.
Ah, perhaps it would have been better not to mention this at all.
“Boarding actions?” he immediately replies, horrified, “could it be that you have engaged in piracy?”
Dread Pirate Queen Ariane the Bloodthirsty, scourge of the Atlantic!
“No no, just a little bit of privateering.”
The ranger submits me to his inquisitive glare, one that led to the confession of many a ruffian.
“I had a genuine lettre de marque, I promise,” I reply innocently.
It might have been slightly illegal and crafted in secret by an assistant after a torrid night with the world’s most rakish Likaean. I could not say.
“Right. And you committed state-sanctioned banditry too?”
“State-sanctioned banditry is merely lawful asset retrieval,” I observe.
He does not look convinced. His brow furrows and his ample mustache quivers with suspicion.
“You have seen how I operate, Sheridan. Do I strike you as a vulgar highwaywoman?” I finally say.
“No… I suppose not. So, tell me about this auction of yours.”
“Ah yes, the Hell’s Gates.”
“I beg your bloody pardon?!” he bellows. A few of the sailors watching over the deck decide to keep their distance.
“Ariane, you have insisted that you were not, in fact, made by the actual devil.”
“And that you do not lust after the souls of sinners.”
“And that your aversion to all church-related symbols was merely a, and I quote, side-effect of not truly being native to this world.”
“Because your soul is bound to that big thingamajig in the sky that only you can see.”
“I did say that, yes.”
“And your auction is called, the Hell’s Gates.”
“Errrr yes. I did not choose the name myself.”
Sheridan masticates his mustache in contemplation.
“Sometimes I feel that you are making a fool of me.”
“Listen, my dear little mortal” I reply with fangs bared, “I have been nothing but forthcoming with you. The term merely alludes to the temporary contact between mages, who are mostly humans, and us who are not.”
“Right… Right. So what happens then? What will we do?”
“The auction will take place in a large building in the old quarter previously used for administrative matters and duels.”
“Yes, duels are an integral part of vampire politics. I had one duel there, actually.”
“Did you win?”
“No, my blood sister stabbed me in the heart so I could feign my own death. Anyway…”
“You survived being stabbed in the heart!?” he interrupts with a cry.
“I did mention that we were resilient.”
“Have you already been shot, then?”
“Set on fire?”
“Yes, that was horrible.”
“Frozen to death?”
“I was frozen, but it barely affects us at all. I could still move. Being set ablaze was the worst thing by far.”
“I find it eerie that you would be vulnerable to fire.”
“For the last time, Sheridan, we are not demons from hell!” I complain for what feels like the millionth time.
“Could have fooled me…”
“Sheridan,” I interrupt with a serious tone and he stares at me, sheepish in his duster with his Colt and star.
“Why are you still here, by my side? If you truly thought we were abominations, you had ample opportunity to leave.”
“Hrm. I don’t know rightly myself.”
He avoids my gaze.
“Either you think me a monster that needs to be erased, or you consider me a person. You tiptoe around the issue instead of choosing,” I scold.
“It’s not that easy!” he yells. Then, in a softer tone:
“It’s not that easy. All my life I thought I knew how the world was. God created it in seven days and he made man in His image. He made all the animals and all the plants for us to use. And now I learn that there are other worlds? And species? Magic? Giant creatures? I never asked for this. I only wanted to live a right and peaceful life upholding justice, not getting in shootouts with madmen calling hellhounds from beyond the veil!”
I let him finish. When he does, out of breath, I keep quiet for a few seconds to mark my understanding. I can appreciate that his circumstances are delicate.
“Then you must decide if you want to return to your peaceful life. If you do, I will not blame you. You are free to go. But you must decide.”
“What is there to decide? I am already here, ain’t I?”
“Your heart wavers. Tell me this is not true.”
He would not meet my eyes.
“You will have to make a choice, and soon,” I finish.
The arena where I fought in is also the siege of vampire politics. I visited the old, square-building only once and the experience was disheartening, so to speak. I remember that it was a building of yellow stone with a strong Spanish influence at the edge of the Vieux Carré intentionally left decrepit to avoid undue attention.
I drag Sheridan through the streets, still warm and wet from the day. He tries to stay composed and dignified, but I can see his gaze drift from richly dressed ladies to darker-skinned beauties in exotic garbs of reds and yellows. His attention wanders to the gamblers and musicians filling the air like a discordant orchestra of life and sin. We stop at a stall and I buy him a few skewers of chicken dipped in red sauce. The scent of cayenne and paprika fill my heart with nostalgia, even more so than the familiar architecture.
We then must stop to get a cold beer because Sheridan has no tolerance for spice.
Eventually, the crowd thins, and I must admit to some surprise when our destination comes into view.
Gone is the non-assuming edifice, the new center has been repainted and redecorated. Gas lamps shine on every corner and cast a deeper shade of beige on the walls, darker as they climb up to the third story. Guards in the white uniform of the Rosenthal mercenaries patrol in pairs of two, holding lanterns and poorly concealed pistols. They salute me as we pass by.
“Welcome, Lady Ariane.”
I return the greeting.
“They know you?” Sheridan asks as we make our way to the entrance.
“They know of me. I have worked with their company before.”
“And they are all normal people?”
“Yes. Professional soldiers trusted for generations, well-trained and well-paid. Such families form the backbone of our entourages.”
“Do you have families like that?”
“What about traitors? Can they not strike you when you are the most vulnerable? Bring your enemies to your doorstep? Unless you have a way to control them.”
“We have multiple redundancies as far as security is concerned. It would take a convergence of factors for an attack to be successful, such as when we travel. Even then, we have ways to escape and fight back. We are also quite good at reading the emotions of those who surround us, including duplicity.”
“Hrm, hrm, really? Then what am I thinking about right now?”
“You are scared to learn that I can read you like an open book.”
“And here we go again…”
“Sorry, sorry. Surprised me is all. Hrm. Ah, we are here.”
The entrance stands before us, brightly illuminated with lanterns of stained glass. Their armatures of crystal and brass reflect a smooth light so that the monumental entrance appears more inviting, like the manor of a rich relative opened for festivities. Guards in exquisite dress uniforms stand by it and they bow when we enter.
The palatial hall greets me again in all its glory. A wide mosaic of black and white depicting a tragedy mask decorates the entire ground. A massive wood lobby lines the left wall with a few attendants idling behind. The large gate to the arena where I first experienced having my heart damaged are currently closed, while the double stairs leading to the second-floor promenade lie empty.
The perfume of vanilla and scented candles replaces the squalid stench of humanity. The subdued lighting, the red drapes, the sober clothes all serve to welcome the guests in an intimate setting, and helps them forget the nature of their hosts. It will be our role to subtly remind them of that fact, should they become rowdy.
We have barely stopped when Isaac steps out from a side corridor with a sharp older man in a white officer jacket and a morse mustache. The Rosenthal Master wears a black ensemble of exquisite make with a white shirt that seems to radiate from within. Somehow, I reach with my hands and he takes them. The intimate gesture — and the implicit show of trust — create an unexpected effect. All eyes land on us and I hear a few gasps of surprise.
Isaac and I are united by bonds of friendship and shared suffering. I do not see myself getting involved with him, though now that I am once more celibate, the idea does not shock me as it used to do.
“Ariane, my dear. I am so glad to see you in the flesh once again.”
“And you too, Isaac. It has been too long.”
“Indeed! Indeed…” he answers as he links his arm with mine, “allow me to introduce Lieutenant Venett, the head of mortal security.”
“A pleasure, madam,” the officer says with a nod.
His name is familiar.
“I fought alongside a Venett thirty years ago.”
“Yes ma’am, my grandfather. He spoke highly of you in his correspondence. I am honored to work alongside you.”
“Likewise,” I reply, pleased. And it does seem that my good reputation precedes me. I catch more furtive glances sent my way, all of them respectful. It feels… oddly pleasant to be considered an ally. For once, I am not the unknown quantity, or a valuable investment.
“And you must be Sheridan!” Isaac continues.
The presentations are short, and we quickly leave the lobby. Isaac and I dismiss our respective mortals so that they can compare notes and facial hair, then make our way up the stairs and through the largest door directly in front of us.
We end in a lodge, much like an opera one. The circular arena where I fought is the same and private viewing booths line the walls on three sides. The sand has been replaced by a red carpet of massive proportions, as well as a pulpit and a small platform.
“This will be where the main action takes place. I will be presenting the items personally two days from now.”
“You mentioned security. You expect troubles?”
“We no longer expect, we are certain. A thief will attempt to steal the Heart of the Nile on the night of the auction. We are talking about a jewel worth half a million dollars.”
I refrain myself from showing any reaction at the outrageous sum so as not to appear as a bumpkin.
“Besides its obvious worth, the Heart is one of the few gems capable of storing essence. It could be used to power a war golem as large as a carriage.”
“Why would you leave such an incredible asset in the hands of mortals?” I demand, scandalized.
“Because, if you have a bag of sweets on top of a shelf, you need to dispense them on occasion, or the children will start looking for a ladder.”
“You mean that it is done to prevent theft?”
“Precisely. Hoard too many assets too quickly and the magical societies will turn to banditry. Power must be shared. Sometimes.”
“We also have a sufficient amount of carriage-size war golems at our disposal at the moment.”
“That certainly helps.”
“Your task will be to either stop them or let them go after identifying them. I have not decided yet. It will certainly depend on how confident I am that the thief can be tracked down.”
I just glare at him.
“Oh, do not be so cross. Obviously, the tracking part will be my responsibility.”
“You would take such a risk?”
“We know that the Heart will be targeted because someone requested it and the request was answered. We do not know who that mysterious purchaser might be, and we are eager to find out, as you can imagine.”
“Are there many who would steal from the Rosenthal?”
“Oh, yes, but few do so for very long,” he replies with a pointed smile.
“You already have security,” I remark.
“Indeed. Venett has the situation well in hand, I assure you. The goods were moved to a repurposed vault in the basement a month ago, long before we revealed the final location of the event, and they will only be taken out in two days. The vault itself is nigh impenetrable.”
“Are you sure?”
“Quite so, Ariane, quite so. I will let you work out the details with the good lieutenant later. What I want you to do is to welcome the guests first, search for anomalies, then roam the place. You may deploy Sheridan and Doe as you see fit.”
John took the vampiric name ‘Doe’ because his patronym is currently used by a Lancaster lord. Calling him after a skittish beast feels like strapping a cute party hat on the head of a lion.
“Very well. I also wish to know what exactly I am to recover, if I join the expedition you mentioned.”
“Ah, yes. Are you familiar with the Sea Peoples?”
“You will have to be more specific.”
“Not any people of the sea, Ariane, the Sea Peoples. They were responsible for much destruction around the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the bronze age. Quite a mysterious lot. We have recently recovered an interesting document from a dig site near the Nile that may shed light on their repeated invasion of Egypt.”
“We are still working on the translation, however, it appears that they were planning on heading south to slay a dragon with the assistance of a tool of great power.”
The mood turns from pleasant to deadly serious in a mere instant. I school my aura too late. Isaac’s inquisitive eyes pierce into my mind.
“You know of the dragon.”
“I cannot speak of this,” I reply, still aware of my binding agreement with Semiramis.
“How curious. In any case, they failed twice before the Pharaoh’s chariots and withdrew. The documents we recovered were buried on the site of the last major battle of the campaign, possibly to prevent hostile troops from seizing them. The entire journey of the army was painstakingly chronicled, meaning…”
“Meaning that we can trace it back to the source.”
“And hopefully recover the weapon.”
It would sound promising if the details were not so sketchy
“You base your assumptions on a significant amount of unknowns,” I observe without malice.
“Spoken like a true modern investor,” Isaac answers, amused. “When it comes to ancient relics, unearthed documents in rare scripts are the best you can expect, since there is a good chance that the treasure has not been looted yet.”
“Even if it is, the weapon could just be rusted-out metal by now.”
“That, my dear, is not the case. You see, the little we have translated detailed the start of the expedition and the making of the blade. It appears that a massive fire-spitting snake interrupted an important commemoration and killed the high priest, and from his remains the Sea Peoples retrieved a claw.”
I am stunned.
“Yes. The blade of our prize is a dragon claw.”
I say nothing for a while. The claw of a dragon? Due to the highly symbolic nature of magic, such a blade could cut the best armor including the hide of the creature itself. It could also put a stop to Nirari’s undoubtedly massive regeneration.
It could kill him.
It could work!
“How soon can we go after it?”
“Slow down, my dear, slow down. The manuscripts are still being deciphered and we will need the best mind on the planet to reverse their path to their original homes. Let us see the auction to a satisfactory end first, yes?”
“Of course. I cannot believe that I finally have a chance.”
“That is because you do not,” Isaac lightly chides.
I am taken aback by his pessimism.
“Oh, do not give me that look, young one. Only the desperate would face Nirari with just a blade, no matter how strong. We will continue stacking the odds, and the ancient weapons, in our favor until the night of reckoning, when our kind finally unites with a single purpose.”
“Hold on. A night of reckoning?”
“Ah, forgive me, I was feeling melodramatic. Suffice to say that it will take an army to bring that old monster low, and not just any army: one that consists of lords and ladies, and possibly archmages. The rest will not matter. Only the most dire of circumstances will force those to cooperate.”
“One would believe that the threat of world domination at the hands of an ancient, ruthless king bent on conquering all the spheres would spur them on.”
Isaac taps on the railing with two fingers, amused.
“How would you qualify the leading figures of the New World’s vampires?”
I consider the question for a moment.
“We are a viper den of backstabbing, devious fiends held together by the threat of mutual annihilation.”
Except Jimena. My sister is just too pure for this world.
“How accurate! I will have you know that the European scene is a viper den of backstabbing, devious fiends with centuries of grudges held together by the threat of mutual destruction, with half of said vipers being reclusive, paranoid old twats.”
“Those are adverse conditions.”
“Quite an understatement, my dear. I am afraid that they will only act when they see their doom right in front of them. It will be up to us to prepare.”
I watch the plain of roofs from my temporary office on the building’s last floor.
John looms, arms crossed across his prodigious pectorals. The ever-loyal man has raised looming to an artform, of which he is the master. No one can quite match the careful mix of polite disinterest and understated threat. Being turned has changed him a lot. He is no longer so ugly now that his cleft lip has closed into a scar, and his gaze is too sharp to be considered simple anymore. Our change has made predators of all of us.
“Do you regret your decision?” I finally ask.
John remains silent. I do not mind. He will speak when he is ready, he just needs time to order his thoughts.
“I wanted to be by your side to protect you. Therefore, I asked Master to turn me. After that, I wanted to serve Master because it felt more important. Master said that I can serve him by keeping you alive. I have no regrets.”
“Is it really what you want to do? Protect me for years and years? Until I die, or you do?”
The silence this time lasts long enough for me to hesitate. Did he lose the trail of his thought? Eventually, he makes his point with a slow, soft voice.
“You saved my life, but that did not mean that I owed you everything. I followed you because you were always right and made things around you better. You made things better for me and also for those who were kind to me. It was good. Protecting you meant that the Dream would be better. After you left, we went to Alexandria and I realized that you would need to make things better for a bigger place and that I was too small to protect you from the world.”
He speaks with conviction now, not the affected tone of the politician, but the unwavering certitude of the zealot. It almost scares me.
“That is when I decided to become a Natalis. I am still… not that smart. It just no longer bothers me. Our mind is a quiet place. Natalis are free from worry and fear, even if it means that we have trouble listening to our hearts. But I do not need that. I know what my heart would say if it could speak. I am doing something important. The others do not realize how important it is yet. Only I do.”
“Do you perhaps… see the future?” I ask with some alarm. Aisha of the Amaretta did mention that I would be instrumental in saving the world if I live long enough. Was John a seer all along?
“No. I do not see the future.”
“How can you be so sure that protecting me is important?” I insist.
“I just know it.”
And there it is. Under the placid tranquility of his mind lies a belief as unfounded as it is strange.
“I know it, and when you give me orders with a hand gesture and only I understand what you want, I… fulfill a purpose. Master said that was what we needed to find. A purpose. I have it, and so I have no regrets. I will protect you until I die because no one will kill you while I still live. I will break their spines.”
John picks a steel candelabra and presses it between his large hands. He maintains eye contact as the decorative metals bends under his power as if it were wax, until only a tiny ball of twisted scrap remains.