๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ✍️✍️ NOVEL. A Journey of Black and Red by Mecanimus, page 4-6

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4. The seed of Discord



The last harmonies of the hymn wash over the pews and the many attendants. The mass is in full swing now, and I can feel that I am a part of something greater than myself as people from all origins unite with one purpose.

I take a deep breath. The church smells like dust and incense, and a unique mix of perfume and sweat that humanity brought here. 

The morning sun kisses the little skin I show. I am, after all, in my Sunday best. 

Vanity might be a sin, but how I do love that blue dress I wear. It suits me so much. Papa stands next to me, and I can tell he is looking at the others, acting as my guard. 

The young men who stare will be noted and he will tell me of it. Those who stare too much will be reprimanded later.

A smiling old man in the black cassock of the Catholic priests steps in front of us. His genuine smile makes my heart lighter. 

Father Armand’s homilies are always so wise and pertinent, much better than that priest from Mobile. What a bore that man was, always screaming about eternal damnation and witches.

“Welcome, everyone, welcome to Mass. I am so pleased to see all of you today. With Easter coming soon, I was about to make my sermon about the dangers of gluttony and over-indulgence. Alas, I received yesterday a meat pie from Mrs. Cantrel and you all know how I abhor hypocrisy!”

I chuckle, like most people present.

“So, I will talk instead about something far less pleasant I’m afraid. It has come to my attention that there have been some scuffles with Mr. Sutton’s parish members. Over the question of religion.”

The mood turns grim.

“Why, I can barely blame you for being confused. I remember myself a loyal subject of King Louis the XVth going out to hunt a pesky snapdragon and when I came back, I was Spanish!”

Once more, we chuckle, the old priest playing us like a fiddle. I do not mind terribly; he is a good man.

“I go make some tea, and I am French again, muchas gracias!”

The Spanish members of the congregation laugh harder, possibly due to father Armand’s atrocious pronunciation.

“And now we have been sold to the United States of America by Napoleon himself. Why, it is no wonder we are all at a loss. I now own more flags than shirts and have considered turning ones into the others. Hehe. Yes. And so it is that our Parish now harbors quite a few Protestants.”

There are more than a few grumbles at the mention of those heretics.

“And yet I ask you this. When Jesus debated with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, did he punch them in the face? Did he throw manure at their women?”

The grumble dies on the spot and quite a few faces redden in shame.

“No, he did not, for he knew that all should have a chance to hear the word of God. We must all remember that we are Christians not because of who we oppose, but because of who we love. I will have no more of this. 

Instead, you will love thy neighbor as is ordered in the Holy Scriptures, for the Protestants are not your enemies, merely people who walk a different path. Nay, the true enemies are demon-worshipping sluts like Ariane here.” 

“W…What!?”

“You moaned and squirmed under the Beast like a wanton whore. He took you on the first night and you enjoyed every second of it. Neither Sodom not Gomorrah ever witnessed such a shameful display of lust!” 

“What?! No! You’re mistaken. Papa! Tell them!”

“I should have drowned you the day you were born. Look at what you’ve become. You cannot even stand here.”

Smoke erupts from my now blood-stained gown and fire soon follows. I try to run but I am blinded. I fall against a wooden bench and the contact sears my hand. It hurts so much. I roll on the ground, screaming in agony. Angry whispers surround me as the congregation watches me die. 

“Here, catin, this should help.”

Father Armand throws water on me but it does not stop the fire. I vanish in a flash of blue light and an ear-piercing shriek.

 


I open my eyes to green sheets and a bedpost made out of a reddish wood I have never seen before. Another day, another room, and I remember that this is no home. I am, at best, an unwilling guest in a gilded cage.

I still savor the moment. I only have a few minutes of lucidity, of peace, before it comes.

The Thirst.

I do not know much about this affliction. I feel that every time I am told more, the ideas flee through my mind like through a sieve. 

Jimena told me that all will be made clear tomorrow when I meet Him again and I do hope it will be so. It cannot be healthy to remain in such a fugue state for an extended period.

I go through my new morning ritual while the craving grows in me. It is a strange thing. The Thirst is not limited to the throat and mouth. 

It digs in my chest, my belly, and my mind with its needy claws. Every line of thought is derailed, and my feet carry me to the door whenever my attention fails.

No, this cannot last.

I find another grey set, the same as yesterday. It is again quite tight around the hips, and I suspect I am wearing one of Jimena’s spare sets.

As I finish, someone knocks on my door.

As I move to unlock it, I pause. What if it is not my improvised tutor, but the Lancaster shrew and her stooge? 

They promised to leave me be. They also did not strike me as people of their words, and they are not the only ones who would do me harm. 

It is at this moment that I notice that there is a tiny glass window, no bigger than a thumbnail at the door. I look through it and lo and behold! I can see who is outside with all clarity! 

It must be some sort of magnifying glass, or a short telescope, mayhap? I thought running water in every room was a luxury, until now. Why, if their lavatories were encrusted with diamonds I would not be surprised. Speaking of lavatories, why have I not… Hm?

What was I thinking about? 

Another knock on the door, more insistent this time, wakes me up from my reverie. I unlock it and greet Jimena.

“Forgive me, dear friend, for my mind is as muddled as ever, and I do pray you brought something to drink. I am parched!”

“And a good day to you too, Ariane,” she replies with a smile, “this is Ricardo, another retainer for clan Cadiz.” She says, and only now do I notice another man. 

He is dressed well but soberly. He is tall, with brown eyes and curly brown hair and looks at me not unkindly. I greet him politely, which he returns. 

“Buenas tardes, seรฑorita.”

Jimena then bids me let them both in, which is I suppose acceptable since Jimena could be considered a chaperone. 

After that comes some more meditation and when we leave, Ricardo stays behind. I feel refreshed and the Thirst releases its hold on me.

“Lord Ceron requested your presence. He is the local head of clan Cadiz and we should attend him now.”

“What? Jimena, surely you jest! This attire…” 

I dare not criticize too much since she gave it to me so graciously, however, trousers are indecent, particularly those that are, well, so very tight around the hips.

Jimena notices my discomfort and smiles knowingly while addressing my concerns.

“Fret not, young one. Grey is the color of the knight order and by wearing it you are distancing yourself from the Court. You are claiming neutrality and impartiality, and this can only help you.” 

I ponder her words in silence.

“You surprise me Jimena, this is a well-thought statement.” 

“Well, I am not so oblivious to the vicissitudes of v… afflicted politics. I usually ignore them. Recent events have forced me to reassess my priorities.”

I suspect that it has to do with her fall from grace and tactfully refrain from asking. In short order, we reach the edge of the many apartments to another set of doors. 

It appears that each level contains a square of individual living quarters surrounded on each side by waiting rooms where visitors may gather.

“How many floors does this building have? And why are there no windows?” I ask. 

“Only five floors if you count the basement as one. That said, you have seen but one wing of the fortress, there is more on this level than you have had the opportunity to visit. As for the lack of windows, it is for the sake of safety.”

“Hmm.” 

“You will…” 

“Yes, yes, I will understand in time.” 

“One more night and all will be made clear.”

She opens the door to a large boudoir. Comfortable seats are gathered in small groups and other afflicted in fineries mingle there. 

We ignore them and reach yet another door. Jimena knocks and, without waiting for an answer, gets in. 

We enter an antechamber of modest size. The furniture and decorations are of the same Baroque style as everything else I have seen since leaving the dungeon. 

This place has been designed for people to stay, not to live. An oaken chest in a corner convinces me that the sole occupant of this place shares my status as a guest, although he might be doing it willingly.

A man sits at a work desk facing the entrance. He calmly puts down his pen and rises to welcome us.

He is, without a doubt, on the same level as Lady Moor. His aura pressures my mind and while it lacks sophistication, there is a solidity to it that reflects his physique. 

The Cadiz clan lord has cornflower blue eyes, like my own, and black curls that reach his muscular shoulders. 

His facial features are virile and elegant and complemented by a roguish beard and mustache. 

Why, he must have stepped out of some pirate tale, ready to plunder and ravish! I am pleased to see, however, that his gaze is calculating as opposed to overly hostile. Once he reaches us, I curtsy, partly to hide my surprise. 

This man is muscular beyond compare! I believe Ogotai has nothing on him, and that he could bend metal with his bare hands. Are all Cadiz clan members so dedicated to physical prowess? 

“Rise.” 

I do so and stay silent as the man takes my measure.

“Greetings Ariane. I am Lord Ceron of clan Cadiz and I welcome you to my humble abode.” 

“The pleasure is mine, Lord Ceron.” 

The man smiles wryly and turns to Jimena.

“It is as you said, Squire.”

In his mouth, the rank of Squire becomes praise for past achievements rather than an insult and I can tell that Jimena is grateful. 

“Tell me Ariane, has my quartermaster explained the situation to you?”

“She told me of the council and my Master’s unexpected arrival.”

“I see. Has she explained your role in this?” 

“My role?” 

Lord Ceron just chuckles.

“As expected of our Jimena. I wager her first answer was to put a blade in your hand.”

Jimena hisses playfully and crosses her arm under his teasing rebuke.

“Lord Nirari always holds his word and respects a few rules with unerring consistency, yet he is otherwise quite infamous.”

“You make it sound like he has committed atrocities, yet I do believe I would have heard of them in the news as he looks barely a day above forty!”

Lord Ceron’s eyes flicker to Jimena before he continues.

“You would be surprised, young Ariane. He is much older than he looks, and he has traveled extensively over the mill--over the years. 

I think you have realized that our world is apart from the mundane one. Afflicted are kept secret and in our society, he has earned quite the reputation, which makes his visit even more unusual.

This land is remote. We who reside here have not come, we have been sent. For someone of his stature to be here and to make his presence known, he must be after something.

This conclave started three days ago and is set to conclude tomorrow. Yes, I am aware of Lord Nirari’s promise. I quite assure you, that no nascent fledgling is ever left without receiving their Master's blessing. You can look forward to the ceremony without trepidation.”

I was not worried, but I certainly am now! 

“What happens if I do not?” 

Lord Ceron seems temporarily at a loss so Jimena takes my hand and continues in a reassuring voice.

“Eventually the stress on the fledgling’s mind becomes too much and they revert to drones. Rest assured though, barring a major catastrophe it shall certainly not occur.”

“Yes, Ariane, all will be fine. I should not even have mentioned it. Let us focus on the main topic if you will, and the reason for your presence here. 

“You see, Lord Nirari requested our hospitality and we granted it. On the second night, he spent quite some time with Lady Moor, and we suspect she is the reason for his presence or rather, her property is. 

“Lady Moor manages the local ship trading for the Lancaster and to our knowledge, she is the only one with the means to provide him with passage back to the Middle-East, or wherever it is he wants to travel to.”

“Can he not arm his own ship? Surely a man of his stature would not be without coin?”

“That is not the issue. Transporting us across vast distances requires specific logistics. It is both easier and safer to reach an agreement with Lady Moor, rather than create a way by oneself.”

“I have so many questions…”

“I know,” he says with a smile, “And I am sorry. Now, as I mentioned, Lord Nirari is our guest and as such he will not force Lady Moor into serving him, and so he needed a bargaining chip. You.”

“Me?”

“Yes. As the only person able to help him, Lady Moor has a monopoly and finds herself under no obligation to hasten the discussions. Quite the contrary. Lord Nirari is believed to be affluent. Very, very affluent. She could use it to leverage her position and that is where you come in.”

“I do not follow.”

“What do you know about your Master’s other protรฉgรฉs?”

“Everyone expects me to be some raving lunatic with barely the ability to speak?”

Both Cadiz chuckle before my outraged face. Ah, but it is good to be with polite company, although I would not call Lord Ceron a friend.

“Quite so. The Devourer has, hmm, had quite a few protรฉgรฉs in the past. He cares little for them and has used them as tools more often than not.”

They were not me. As soon as we get acquainted, my Master will have no choice but to see that I am the one wHo should rUn away for him.

“When needed, he reared them into psychopathic maniacs who he then let loose. They ravaged entire parishes before they could be stopped.”

“W..What?!”

No, they must be wrong. This is nonsense! An individual alone would never be able to… I would have heard about… He would NEVER…

What was I thinking about?

I blink. Jimena signals to Lord Ceron and he graces me with an apologetic smile.

 

“Forgive me, I forgot myself. Suffice to say that you are a sword of Damocles that hangs over Lady Moor’s head and leave it at that.”

“I don’t see how?”

Jimena clasps my hand between hers. I forgot how cool and soft they could be.

“Trust me on this, he is saying the truth.”

I am a sword of Damocles hanging over Lady Moor’s head.

“I see.”

“Good. Lord Nirari uses your existence as an incentive to push the negotiation forward. He is under no obligation to limit the damages you could inflict according to his own twisted sense of honor.”

Lord Ceron sits back and spreads his hands.

“The implications for you are twofold. The first is that you will be under intense scrutiny while here, and most opinions will be, ah, hostile. The second one is, that should everything proceed as we think it will, you will be left at clan Lancaster’s mercy.”

“What, but, this is horrible! They hate me! Can you… I am ashamed to beg you thus, but can you do something?”

“Alas, no. We have no justifiable way to claim you. The best outcome for you is to serve under them.” 

“Best outcome?! Surely you jest, or you underestimate their scorn! They attacked me ruthlessly… And with little provocation! I would be a fool to put myself at their mercy!” I answer, dejected. 

“It was a test of your character. Melusine and Lambert are Lady Moor’s only competent subordinates, they were sent there to assess you while someone else was delaying Jimena. 

“Thankfully, they were quite bad, and she saw through their awkward attempt. The short time they had to see you should work in your favor. Melusine will want to keep you alive out of curiosity if nothing else.”

They leave me a few seconds to gather my thoughts.

“So, my Master will not take me with him?”

“There is not a chance, although I know you will try anyway. If you wish to live, you will plan accordingly, and I know the way to do so. Tell me, Ariane, what is it that you want?”

I want this to never have happened, but I know it is wishful thinking. Jimena told me to believe her, and that this disease has no cure. Then, what I desire most is…

“I want to go home to my friends and family. I want to walk along the fields of sugar cane in the morning light with whatever pet I have that I cannot remember. 

I want to open a distillery and bring wealth to my family. I want to bag an egret in one shot and eat its meat grilled over charcoal.

I just want this insanity to stop.”

I am too close to crying again, and I refuse to do so in front of the local head of the Cadiz clan. My passionate declamation only stuns my hosts into silence. I hope they do not find me whiny and pathetic, but I comfort myself in the certitude that I have cause to be a little dramatic!

 

Some unspoken message passes between them until Lord Ceron finally returns his focus on our conversation.

“If going home is your fondest wish, we will do our best to grant you the opportunity to do so. This will be a difficult task, however, and you will need to make it worth our while.”

“How mercenary of you!” I reply, scandalized.

“I have obligations towards my own clan, and one of them is to protect its members and make sure its resources are well used. You ask me to risk people and funds to rescue a stranger.”

“I thought I was asking a personal request.”

“It will take more than the two of us Ariane. I am sorry.”

I hold my head between my hands, trying to come to terms with my circumstances. Eventually, I calm down enough to ask the Lord his terms.

“Very well, then what would you ask of me?”

“While you are with them, look for information on their business activities. Inventories, deeds and titles, we can use the information.”

“You expect me to spy for you?!”

“Yes. I assure you that those mongrels do not deserve your loyalty.”

“It is not that! Spying is just so…”

“Distasteful?”

“Precisely.”

“Trust me, after tomorrow, you will change your perspective on the matter.”

“Very well, I shall do what I can even though I fear you may be overestimating me.”

After a few pleasantries, Jimena and I leave the Cadiz enclave and she drags me to her proving grounds to teach me the basics of fencing, including posture and how to hold a blade. 

I successfully learn a few things before sleep takes me.


5. The Reveal


“Aunt Catherine!”


“Ma petite chรฉrie, I am so glad to see you!”


I rush down the stairs and embrace her. She returns the hug, then steps back and inspects me with a serious face and smiling eyes.


“Mhhh but how you have grown! Any bigger and we shall have to trim you a bit.”


“Not funny!” I reply laughing. “I am thirteen, and when I turn twenty all of you will have to look up to me! I shall overcome even Papa!”


“Perish the thought!” She answers. “Your appetite would bankrupt us all.”


We chuckle for a while until her expression grows serious. I feel extremely awkward as I am now convinced of the reason for her presence, even more so because she left my cousins at home. 


“We need to have a talk goddaughter, one that requires privacy. Should we retire to your room?” 


“Very well.”


I would like to pout and protest, but I’m a woman now and need to show patience and restraint. I lead her up the stairs to my room and claim the bed while she takes a chair.

“How I wish Diana could see you now, she would be so proud.”


I am instantly saddened. 

“I am sorry ma chรฉrie, I did not mean to make you sad.”


“It is fine, we both miss her.” 


“Yes, and this makes it even worse. How I regret it, what I have to do…” 


“Dear aunt, you exaggerate. I know discussing lady issues are a tad delicate…”


“Not that, this.” 


Her hands grip my throat and she pushes me into the mattress. I cannot breathe! I struggle and fight but she is so much bigger and stronger. 


My sharp nails dig into her arms to no avail. Red tears of regret mar her cheeks and her mouth distends to show serrated fangs. 


Oh my God! I panic even more but already darkness creeps upon my sight.


“I am sorry chรฉrie, this is the only way! He will claim your soul otherwise! I am so sorry, ma Cherie. So sorry…” 


I grow more frantic in my struggle. Her fingers dig into my skin, draw blood until the pressure is too much. The pain becomes intolerable and with one grisly crack, my cervical bones shatter.


 


 


 


Something is wrong. I… What… Who? I cannot think properly, everything seems distended and cloudy. I feel the urge to just stay there, and wait, but I know something is wrong.


It smells like fire.


The thought of fire horrifies me, a visceral reaction of such intensity that it forces me up. 


I… 


I don’t know what to do. 


No, focus, this has happened before.


“My… name is… Ariane… I… Am my… Own.”


Slowly, painfully, my psyche stitches itself back together, fraying at the edge. Holding my mind together is like holding sand, and I know I need something. I desperately need it.


The Thirst hits me like a rock. 


I bend forward and grip my stomach. Oh God, it hurts… I need it. I need it. I need it.


I NEED IT!


I need to find my master. 


He promised… 


Then we will leave this forsaken place together. 


Yes. 


But first I need to FIND HIM NOW. 


I pull myself together and just walk to the door, carefully opening it. The smells hit me first. 


Woodsmoke. Gun powder. Blood. Excrements.


The corridor is deserted but for two unmoving forms. The first one is a servant in a maid outfit. Her hands clasp a deep wound in her chest. They are so coated in red that she looks like she is wearing scarlet gloves. She is also quite dead. Tears trail down her face from half-lidded eyes.


The other one is a man in a black leather overcoat. His clothes are military without being a uniform I recognize. I see no wound on him but he is lying in a pool of his own blood, also dead. 


I feel nothing. 


A distant part of me screams that this is not right, that I have seen bodies before but never like this. 


I care not. 


The man is holding a gun, a pistol of good make with silver embroidery. I get closer and see that it is discharged. A basic inspection yields silvery bullets and a powder horn, which I take. I reload the weapon and cock it.


The woman took a bullet wound. 


Whoever attacked this place, they care not for unarmed women. They did not even have the grace to give her mercy, instead choosing to let her suffer atrociously before she drew her last breath. I will not have the same fate. I have not come this far to fall to some brutish lout. 


I need to flee the building. The smell of fire worries me. I dare not find Jimena, for if I know the woman, she will be in the heart of the battle if she still lives.


Fortunately, I know where to go. We are in one of the wings of the fortress and the exit should be on the “ground” level of the wing, quite close to the entrance to the dungeon. 


I am quite certain that there are hidden ways given the builder’s strange tastes, but I am not inclined to look for them. I would rather risk a blockade.


The Thirst is killing me. 


I go down one floor with all the patience I can manage and stop when something peculiar hits me. This is the floor where I first slept and the door to my first room has been broken open. Only one other room had its entrance forced.


Are they hunting the residents? If so, how did they know where to find me?


I reach the ground level and slow down. If the mysterious assailants are still around, this is where I will find them. As I finish this thought, a few footsteps echo from a nearby hallway and I hear Ogotai’s distinctive voice.


“…incompetent, I would never have agreed to this! How many men do you need to…”


Relieved, I step out of an alcove as Ogotai comes into view, taking care to hide my pistol at my back in case he proves himself to be too nervous. A gravelly voice retorts but I barely pay attention until his two companions step into view. 


Both of them look like hard men. The older one has deep claw scars on one side of his face, barely missing his black eyes. The second one is much younger, with red hair and a sharp look.


Both of them wear the black overcoat of the intruders, enough weapons to start a small conflict and unexplainably, silver crosses.


We all freeze at the sight of each other.


I understand immediately.


Traitor.


I turn to run and Ogotai moves. 


I will never make it in time. 


And that is fine. A part of me that I do not recognize rises to the surface of my being. There is barely enough of me left to direct it and yet it is enough. 


I move as well. 


Just as the edge of his blade kisses my neck I lift the firearm and pull the trigger.


Point-blank range. A child could not miss.


Ogotai is so surprised at the sight of the muzzle, that I see his mouth form an “O” an instant before it is blown away.


I am not done.


The two men instantly pulled guns and are now firing. 


I grab Ogotai’s body and use it as a shield. Two dull impacts make his chest shiver as I rush forward. I am barely thinking, something is taking over and I let it. I will live.


I will live.


And so they must die. 


Ogotai’s body flies through the air to the older man who tries to dodge to the side. A pointless endeavor. The warrior’s body is too massive and the corridor too tight. With a grunt, he falls. 


So thirsty. 


With a high pitched scream, I rush at the redhead until a flash of silver makes me dodge. Something flies over my shoulder. The corridor’s tightness now plays against me and I move to avoid another one. 


My foe anticipates it and a third something stabs into my arm with a flash of blinding pain. A knife!? I hiss and barely manage to endure it. He is close, so close! 


Something glows white and I am propelled backward by an implacable force. Swatted like an insect I bounce on the floor. No! No, this cannot be. I am too thirsty. I need it. 


I NEED IT! 


I manage to stagger back up in time to find the young man taking out another pistol from a recess in his vest and aim it at me. 


As he fires it, I throw my own discharged firearm. It impacts his shoulder as he shoots and a massive hole opens in the wall next to me. I need to get closer, but I can’t! What to do!


Oh. Of course.


I rush forward once more as the man takes out a smaller pistol from yet another pocket. How many does he even have? This time he waits calmly for me to approach.


When I am but a few feet away I pull the knife from my arm and throw it at him. I care not about the pain. I only care about the deliverance he will offer me.


My awkward throw sends the flat of the blade to impact his nose and it breaks his concentration. As he recoils from the pain. I manage to move around him. I grab his neck with two fingers and push him down. At the same time, I bring one of his arms back and bite. 


Ah, yes!


Or no. 


This isn’t close to what I had before! It simply will not do! I cannot take it in. It barely dulls the edge. I need more. I need him. 


I NEED IT FROM HIM!


I… what? Nothing makes sense anymore! 


Somebody cackles like a madwoman. 


Me. 


I stand up and grab a dagger. Ignoring everything else, I follow my nose to a draft of fresh air I feel. The air is tainted by smoke but this is the way out. I know it.


I will live.


In a daze, I leave the three bodies behind and walk past corpses of servants and soldiers as well as one inexplicable pile of ash to the scene from a battlefield.


A broken down barricade stands not ten meters from a half-collapsed wall. I count more than a dozen bodies of both sides strewn about, including a few women and quite the assortment of weapons. 


It looks like the invaders stormed it and left no one alive. As I pass the barricade, the reason for their anger lies before me.


The entrance to this wing of the fortress has been blown open, yet the wall partly collapsed, creating a chokepoint and corpses of the invaders litter the ground. 


Even in my dazed state, I am stunned by the extent of the destruction I am witnessing. What manner of fanatics would throw their lives away like this? What would justify such determination, or such hatred?


I cross the door and find trails of drying blood. Recent. Someone dragged their wounded out. 


So thirsty.


I stumble forward and find myself in a massive hall the size of a cathedral. The walls are natural. Is this some sort of cave?


Another set of doors faces me. The cave goes up to my left but the draft comes from my right. I walk in that direction.


This place is empty but for the dead. A handful of oil lamps provides enough illumination to see clearly. 


This hall is barren and its sole purpose seems to be to instill a sense of majesty or dread. I cannot tell.


I quickly reach a set of massive stairs when two forms step down from it. I did not hear them at all!


The first one is a bearded blond man with pale grey eyes in a blue overcoat who frowns at my sight. The second one elicits a gasp of surprise from me.


I have seen many slaves and freemen, hailing from Haiti or the continent. They always have something about them while in the presence of many white folks. 


Sometimes it is fear, sometimes, respect and quite often, it is defiance, but what they all have in common is that they never let their guard down.


Not this man.


Dressed in a beige leather ensemble and quite visibly armed, he has a sarcastic smirk on his face that shows that he fears no one. 


Bar Master and my father, he is also the tallest man I have ever seen.


The two newcomers are followed by brown haired twin men and a black woman, respectively. 


All of them exude the same cold aura I now attribute to afflicted, with the first two men being on par with Lady Moor and Lord Ceron.


I need to go up. 


I NEED TO BREAK THROUGH. 


No. They are stronger, I cannot leave. 


The blond man steps towards me and before I can react, he moves faster than I can think and my vision turns white. 


“Ah!” 


One moment I am looking forward, the next I am held above ground by five sharp things digging in my stomach. The pain is unbearable and the tenuous hold I had on my mind finally breaks.


It is too much. 


I stay there, unmoving. I don’t have to struggle. I don’t have to breathe. Moving just means more pain. Better to stay and wait. Focus on fighting the fog. The last dregs of consciousness I can hold to. If I let go, it is over. I know it in my soul.


As I drift in and out I can hear fragments of conversation.


“…clear as day! Someone betrayed us and we know it cannot be a cattle!” 


“… raving imbecile. She has been one of us for four days while this raid is weeks in the making.” 


“…cannot trust his spawn! I knew it was a mistake to…”


“Bring her back up or we will never know. She fed and is still degenerating; she’s almost too far gone.”


Somehow, we are going up. We reach another grand entrance, this one made of wood. We walk through the burnt husk of a mansion. We walk through a garden. We are outside.


Finally, something shakes me from my torpor and I let out a weak moan. 


It’s Him! My salvation!


His mere presence stitches more of me back together. Enough to follow what happens.


The blond man throws me on the ground. I curl up around my belly. I fight off the pain. I can do nothing else.


I will live.


I just need a few more minutes, and Master will save me. Just a little bit longer…


“Back so soon?”


“Don’t play coy, Lord Nirari, I am wise to your schemes!”


“I really doubt that little Gaspard, you do not even have enough fingers to count them all.”


“You! So you admit that this is your doing?!”


“What is?”


“This attack on us! You come here and not a week goes by and we are assaulted?! You expect me to believe this is a coincidence?!”


“Or it could be because of the long-awaited conclave. I would explain Occam’s razor and confirmation bias to you, Gaspard, but I lack the patience and crayons to do so.”


“Oh!”


“Enough Lord Gaspard. If we want to know more we have but to ask the lass. Lord Nirari?”


“I admit that I am curious as well.”


Master grabs my neck. I do not need to see him to know it. His touch makes my body lax. Even the pain and the Thirst fade.


I find myself looking into his face.


Ah, those handsome features! This kingly presence! His noble beard! HiS eIghT fanGs.


“Ariane.” 


Oh, my name on his lips! I am undone. I find myself smiling like a witless maiden. I love him so much!


“Answer me.”


The world gradually disappears as my body relaxes completely. The world fades away and at the same time, I regain perfect clarity.


Never since my awakening in this dark cell have I felt so focused.


“What did I ask of you when we first met?”


“Do not speak unless spoken to, address you as master, behave, obey Jimena in all things.”


“Have you spoken without leave?”


“No, Master.”


“Have you addressed me as anything but Master?”


“No, Master.”


“Have you obeyed Jimena in all things?”


“Yes, master.”


“Have you behaved?”


“I… I think so? Yes, Master.”


“We shall see. Ask your questions Lord Ekon, and I shall relay them to her.”


His attention goes to someone else. No! Look at me! He turns back to me. Yes!


“When did you wake up?”


“ I do not know, maybe fifteen minutes ago?”


“At sunset then. Do you know of the raid on our fortress?”


“Yes.”


“Did you help the assailants in any way, at any time?" 


“No.”


There is some commotion outside, after a while, He asks me more.


“Little Gaspard here thinks we were betrayed. What do you think, little one?”


“I agree.”


Another commotion. Master looks pleasantly surprised.


“Oh? And why do you think so?”


“I saw Ogotai walk with two of the invaders. They were talking”


This time the commotion is quite loud.


“Tell us about it.”


As I relay the encounter to master, his smile grows wider and more malevolent until he laughs. The sinister sound sets my stomach aflutter.


“Ah, young Ariane, you have brought me something I would not have expected to find in this forsaken corner of the world: entertainment. Jimena, did my spawn behave properly?”


A pause.


“Very well then, I declare that you upheld your end of the bargain. I am pleasantly surprised by this outcome! It is not every decade that someone manages to elate me so. As promised, you may draw my essence. May it be everything you hoped for.”


He slowly drags me up to the crook of his neck. I do not understand what he wants until he places my mouth against his soft skin. My mouth instinctively opens and he lets himself be touched.


I feel something thick and syrupy pass through my parted lips.


 Time stops.


Even if one day I forget my name, even if I live a thousand years, even if I am robbed of every last shred of sanity I have, I shall never forget the moment I taste this essence. 


I will go on blessed by the experience and cursed by the knowledge that nothing will ever compare.


 Words escape me.


I die of pleasure a thousand times. The wave of agony and bliss burns through me again and again, lasting both an instant and an eternity, and I am carried on it helplessly.


After a while, visions like fleeting dreams appear to me.


I am in a chariot pulled by two horses. I let loose an arrow that flies true and buries itself in a man’s throat. My first kill, one of many.


A foreign princess prostrates herself before me, the blood of her brother still staining her dress. I utter a few words. With tears of humiliation rolling on her face, she unclasps the gown. It smoothly falls from her golden shoulders. I stand up.


An older woman sits at the heart of an intricate garden. Her beauty and wisdom are legends. She is writing an intricate spell on a square of tanned human skin. When she hears me, she looks up and smiles.


I lie on a bed stained with my sweat and blood. My hands grip the hole in my gut. The stench is nauseating. The same woman leans against me with a sad smile. She tenderly brushes my hair back. Her other hand brings a vial of black liquid to my lips and I swallow it.


I pull away with a gasp before the blazing potency makes me burn from within. My fraying mind is reforged at its sharpest and coldest. The power courses through me and invades every organ. I absorb it like a woman dying of thirst. 


I remember. 


My name is Ariane Lucille Beatrice Reynaud. I have a father and an older brother. Family, friends, hopes and dreams. I came to New Orleans with my best friend for a short stay. I intended to talk to an acquaintance at a ball and met Master here. He…


No.


No.


No no nonononoNONONONO 


NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO


“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME, YOU! YOU!”


The monster laughs, he is filled with mirth! NO!  This cannot be, it is a nightmare! No. I refuse to…


 No. It’s…


“What hAve yOu done? What am I? Why?”


“So much anger little one, do you hate me? Do you?”


How can I hate him when I love him so much and I hate him so much and love him so much and…..


“No, MasTeR…”


“No? Then are you happy?”


“HAAAAAGH”


“Tears? How very precious! No? Was it not your desire?”


“HOW! HOW DARE YOU! YOU VIOLATED ME, KILLED ME, TURNED ME INTO THIS!”


His hand slides from my neck to my throat.


“Urgh!”


“Tut tut, I will have no mouth from you little one. After everything I have done for you.”


He smiles disarmingly.


“You were so precious, a little peasant girl who dared approach me, as if we were equal. You even addressed me first, introduced yourself freely. I wanted to tear you apart limb by limb for your insolence, but then you started talking. 


So many projects, so many dreams. This drive, this passion, I was so touched. You reminded me of someone I knew long ago. Like you, she reached above her station, however, she succeeded. Her deeds inspired a whole civilization. You were like her. You wanted it all, and you even wanted me! You asked me if I was married. Such presumption, such hubris. I had to see it through. 


So here you are, little one, like me, a vampire. Free of the constraints of this barely civilized corner of the world. You can live forever. Time will not wither your beauty, nor will it dull your wit. You can get it all, and you can even get me. Show me how far you can overreach, little Ariane. Show me that I did not waste my blood and my seed on yet another failure.”


“You will not get away with this, Guh…!”


“God? Did you want to say God? There is only one God left for us. Look up.”


Despite my best efforts, I raise my eyes to the sky above. 


So beautiful.


A canopy of light and darkness. A canvas where some divine artist threw lights and shades of colors in some unfathomable pattern. I never knew the heavens could be so breathtaking, and I would stare in wonder were it not for a new celestial body.


Twisted clouds and roots of baleful purple enshrine an eye of black sclera and a slitted red pupil. It is absolutely massive. It dwarfs even the moon.

The sky has a gigantic eye. A demonic cat eye in a purple crown.


I stare, speechless.

It stares back.


I want to close my eyes but I cannot for Master bid me look. Sheer terror courses through my mind. It is alive. I feel a presence

“Welcome to your journey of Black and Red little one,” Master says, “may it be everything you hoped for.”



6. Uprooted


The man throws me on the ground.


“As agreed, she is yours,” he says without a care.


I can barely lift my eyes to see the hem of a blue dress. 


This is all too much. 


I finally understand. 


I remember dying. 


I am now a monster. 


I have been a monster for four days. 


I drink blood. 


I am damned, an abomination. And the people in the corridor, they were priests.


I killed a priest.


That boy on the first night, I killed him too.


And before that, my last nights as a normal person, I… He…did things to me.


This is not a nightmare, I know it with perfect clarity, just as I know that I should feel hysterical but cannot, I should wish for death but I do not. Something in me is broken.


Old age may have robbed me of my mind, eventually, but what streams my consciousness, what moves my heart now is not the spirit of a person. It is much colder. 


Already, the tears I shed have dried on my cheeks. Panic has receded, replaced by cold certainty. I am no longer the Ariane that danced and drank fine wine on that night, the one who suffered, fought and begged for freedom then for a quick death. I am not her. Not entirely.


I am a vampire, and I want to live.


I may have been robbed of the future I envisioned but I will not throw away this pathetic excuse of a life until I fulfill this promise to myself. I am Ariane. I am my own. I will live, and I will go home. They cannot take this from me. I will not let them. Never. As Jimena said, patience and determination will carry me.


Jimena.


She helped me. She showed compassion, kindness, honor. Are they not all monsters? I turn my head left. There she is, her armor reddened by blood but otherwise unharmed. She looks forward like a soldier at a parade. As I look, she turns to me briefly.


Long enough to see the pity in her eyes.


I need to think, to evaluate. I need time.


“Not so fast you old monster. You think me daft? You would have me believe Moor’s servant betrayed us all and you had nothing to do with it? Both of you plotted our demise!”


“Those are preposterous accusations Gaspard, and you should know better,” Lord Ceron answers.


“All of you are too blind to see it but I will not be made a fool!”


“Careful,” says Master, and the clearing goes deathly still. “It sounds like you insulted me twice.”


“And what would you know of honor? You hide behind a false code and vile sorceries!”


“Oh? You believe me weak of arm, young Gaspard? Would you wager your eternity on it?”


“You will regret those words you decrepit husk! I accept your challenge. No magic, only our blades and us.”


I turn my head in disbelief to the blond bearded man. Gaspard, the representative for clan Roland. Is he serious?! Can he not tell how utterly outclassed he is?


“Witnessed by Clan Ekon,” the tall black man declares in a low rumble.


“Witnessed by Clan Cadiz,” Lord Ceron adds.


“Witnessed by Clan Lancaster. Farewell Gaspard, I cannot say that I will miss you,” Lady Moor continues with a voice as cold as it is uncaring. 


The group moves away and I push myself up to Lady Moor’s icy eyes.


“Well, are you going to hug the dirt like a scullery maid for much longer?”


I stand up before her and grind my teeth in silence. I do not know the rules that regulate vampires and therefore I do not know how freely she can kill me. I need to make her believe that keeping me alive will be more beneficial than finishing me off.


“You serve me now.”


“Yes, Lady Moor.”


“Will I have to discipline you?”


“No, Lady Moor.”


“Humph! At least you know your place now. Even monkeys can be taught, it seems.”


That trollop, I so want to WRENCH OFF HER HEAD.


Ah.


So this is what it is.


I can feel my own mind, twisted and corrupted like the surface of a lake, and there is something else, something deeper. When I was alive, I was prone to feeling anger, but this is different. 


It is like a twisted thing that prowls beneath the surface, pitiless and predatory. It is the part of me that fought those priests and took Ogotai by surprise, and if I release it, it will not throw harsh words.


Right now, it is of no use to me. Any resistance on my part will be met swiftly and mercilessly.


Mistaking my silence for complacency, Lady Moor smirks and moves away. 


“Follow.”


I do, and finally take the time to check around me.


We stand in the middle of an exquisite garden. The mansion dominating it might have been a sight at some point. Now, only blackened beams and collapsed walls remain. Somebody dug a path from the outside to the massive steel door at its heart. 


Bodies of those battle priests litter the grass although most seem to have died in some sort of defensive line. Collapsed tents and slain beasts form a grisly spectacle somewhere at the edge of the property. I can spot servants packing belongings in coaches in the distance, so it seems some of them survived.


Vampires gather around a flat circle in silence. It seems that each lord has between two and five followers who stand behind them. I want to join Master, yet I place myself behind the Lancasters. Melusine turns in my direction and smiles cruelly. I do not react. 


The two combatants enter the arena. Lady Moor takes a white band and releases it without ceremony. I can see every detail on the Roland Lord’s arrogant face: his pride, his disdain, the certainty of his victory.


I shall never be so utterly brainless, and thus I promise to myself to keep the beast in check. 


What follows is a lesson, and this lesson is not for Gaspard. It is for the rest of us.


One moment the Lord stands at the edge of the circle, the next moment he is right next to Master in a perfect lunge. His black bladed sword kisses the edge of Master’s deep blue coat without touching it. Master has one hand on Gaspard's sword arm and the second deep within his chest.


 


Gaspard's expression turns from triumph, to surprise, to pain, to horror. A torrent of black blood rains on the ground and the Roland clan representative staggers and lurches, only kept standing by Master’s steel grip. 


With deliberate slowness, Master ignores the man’s pleading eyes and releases the blade, which falls on the ground. He then grabs his throat.


What follows is a moment I shall never forget.


The sound of flesh tearing and bone breaking, the suction noise as the head is pulled minutely, the vertebrae revealed to the world with agonizing slowness.


It takes the man ten seconds to die in a flash of blue fire. Ten seconds during which Master reveals his true colors: he is utterly bored.


This is nothing to him, just another insect that needs its wings pulled so that the other vermin know better than to provoke him.


The local master did not even warrant the satisfaction of the kill. He was such easy a prey.


Master turns to the silent assembly with one raised eyebrow. Lady Moor bows to him.


“Melusine will show you to your ship, my Lord.”


I derive a small amount of satisfaction from the abject terror shown on the little harlot’s face.


Unfortunately, when Master turns to leave, I take a step forward despite myself.


“Master…”


I know I shouldn’t, yet I must try. He ignores me, completely. He leaves without a word, without even a look. I don’t understand. I have been a good girl. I did everything he asked… I did my best! So why, why…


The other vampires are perfectly silent, so my outburst and the following shame are witnessed by all. When I think it could not possibly get worse, I feel two claws grab my neck. Lady Moor’s cold breath on my ear makes me shiver.


“Not ten minutes in my service and you already embarrass me in front of my peers. It looks like you need discipline after all. Undress.”


“What?”


Her vicious claws draw blood and I convulse in answer. Ah! This really hurts!


“Do not make me repeat myself.”


I can only be grateful that most other vampires leave to attend to other business as I slowly take off my gown, gritting my teeth. In short order, I stand in my smallclothes in the middle of the clearing, grateful that the view of my disrobed body remains hidden behind a curtain of green. This is the most indecent thing I have been forced to do.


I wince as a memory worms itself to the forefront of my mind. It is, in fact, the second most indecent thing I have ever been submitted to.


God, why did I have to die like this? What have I ever done to deserve such treatment?


Why have you forsaken me?


I do not receive an answer, not that I expect one.


I do not wait long. A bearded man soon reaches us. I recognize the insane blue eyes that greeted me in my cell back on the first day. He leers at me shamelessly! I try to cover myself as best as I can. 


“Hehe, looks like Nirari knows how to pick ‘em…”


I hiss in outrage and he recoils.


“Enough Baudouin, she is more than you can tame.”


The man looks at me thoughtfully then throws me another dress, a humble apparel of white linen. I would never have let one of our estate’s servants walk around in this rag, and yet I treasure it for it is the only material thing I possess now. 


I do believe that Lady Moor did not want me naked only so that the unspoken threat of this condition deters me from opposing her will. 


As soon as I am covered, we leave to join the procession of coaches and carriages leaving the fortress ground. The remaining Roland clan members precede us as I recognize the twins. It appears that the death of their leader has not affected them in the slightest. I am horrified when I see where I am led.


Lady Moor turns to me, expecting a reaction, yet this time I manage to remain silent. 


A cage.


They are going to transport me in a cage like a circus animal. Oh, I so wish to make them SUFFER, but I need to exert patience. 


Baudouin has a pair of manacles hanging from his shoulder, massive objects of cruel metal, and I have no intention of letting him come anywhere near me if I can help it.


Lady Moor gestures to the door and I get in wordlessly. It is a testament to my circumstances that I am grateful that the cage is clean.


Lambert silently rides a horse to my side. He pointedly ignores me and I am only too happy to return the favor. 


Clan Lancaster is the last to leave the fortress grounds. Only a dozen servants are left to clean up the battlefield. Our little procession is made of six coaches and four carts including my own, and we depart in silence.


Despite my circumstances, I cannot help but look around me in wonder.


For the first time, I truly appreciate night in the bayou. The oppressing wet heat of summer is mercifully subdued at night, or perhaps I am no longer so afflicted by it. 


Sounds and smells form a vast harmony and I spend quite a bit of time looking at strange arrangements in the leaves and barks of the cypresses, and ripples on ponds of brackish waters. 


Every insect and every plant hold a new fascination for me as if I had never seen them before. I suspect that vampire vision is highly superior to that of humans to help us perform some foul deeds, and it brings me some consolation that my new senses can be used for more than just evil. 


It is also my luck that the path is quite muddy, else I would be swallowing the entire caravan’s dust. We are in July and night is the only time when the weather is tolerable.


So, I am a vampire. 


I have no idea what that means. Never have I heard of such a thing. I have difficulties admitting that monsters could live among humans, moving faster than the eye can see and digging into people’s chest at will without it being common knowledge. 


Surely, people would ask questions upon having their blood consumed? If those battle priests know of us, why not call the colonial militia and give us the cannons? I am simply baffled. There are so many things I do not understand. Truly, I am a toddler once more.


Thinking on it, can I still bear children? 


Would I even want to? Would they not be twisted things, just like me?


I abandon this line of thought. I will not give Lambert the satisfaction of seeing me cry a second time in a single night. I would also not want to ask questions. It appears that talking without leave is not looked upon kindly. 


My cart is at the very tail of the procession and we advance at a snail’s pace, so much that we eventually lose sight of the rest. I assume that so many carts together in the middle of the night would attract undue attention, so I am only left with a human driver and the ever-taciturn Lambert. 


Fortunately, the new experience of the night entertains me until we come across a patrol of three armed militia. They look at me questioningly.


I do not wish to resist at this point. Jimena’s promise is still clear in my mind and I do not doubt that Lambert could disable them in an instant, should I try to force a rescue. 


I am therefore compelled to hear him explain how I am the wanton daughter of a tailor, who ran away from home after finding out I was with child, from an unknown father, no less. 


I apparently murdered the babe as he was born so I could continue with my depravity. The faces of the men turn from wariness, to shock and eventually, to disgust as Lambert spins his tale. He is as good an actor as I took him for, and I note to myself that I shall never trust a word he says. 


We leave the patrol behind us and cross a small village. The night comes alive with the smell of humanity. Under the stench of sweat and unwashed bodies, there is a perfume of vitality that makes my jaw ache. I pass my tongue over my fangs, only to find out that there are eight of them. 


They have replaced all my canines, and the outermost incisive as well. Jimena mentioned that my bloodline’s appearance was unmistakable. This is certainly why. Now that my memory is clearer, the other vampires all have four. 


This is grave news. It means that I must absolutely keep the sight of my teeth to myself lest my lineage is immediately found.


As I ruminate, we leave the village and come upon another patrol. This time, Lambert entertains them with a tale of my murder of the old man who welcomed me to his hearth, how I poisoned him and seduced his son to steal the family’s fortune. 


Again, the looks of horror on their face are striking and I wonder why Lambert lies with such aplomb when there is no benefit to it. He is not even having fun. 


After a while, the land gradually changes and we find ourselves next to a colonial house of massive proportions. For a while now, I have smelled the barest hint of brine in the wind and I remember that clan Lancaster has an interest in sea trade. I suspect that we may not be far from New Orleans.


The place of my demise.


Lambert opens the cage and lets me out. I follow him in silence across a grand entrance and a series of corridors. We walk past tastefully decorated rooms and a few submissive servants in blue uniform to a closed door. Lambert knocks and we go in.


The room is a boudoir of good size illuminated by candles. A handful of vampires lounge lazily on comfortable couches. 


I am horrified, not by their number, but by their immobility. There is not a whisper of moving fabric, not a sigh. They are not even breathing. Shocked, I begin holding my breath. 


I am still holding it as Lambert leads me to the forefront. I am still holding it as Lady Moor stands up from a throne-like seat to address the crowd..

The vampires shift their postures to show attention. I feel like I am watching a puppet show, so unnatural their movements are. I count seven in total. 


Besides Lady Moor, Melusine, and Lambert, there are also a weasel-faced scoundrel, a bovine toad of a woman, a witless looking slip of a girl with crooked teeth, and a balding brute.


It finally occurs to me that Louisiana is not a land of exiles just for the humans.

“My esteemed clan kin, the conclave has reached a favorable conclusion and once more, Lancaster has risen to the top. The successful negotiations I conducted solidified our hold on New Orleans and its boon of treasure and cattle. Our success is assured.” 


The grisly automatons clap politely, like the obedient curs they are.


“This victory did not come without its share of disappointment, however. As you know, we lost Caytlinn and were betrayed by Ogotai, may his soul burn forever.” 


The assembly does not betray any sort of reaction. I do not believe that such a sorry lot would harbor any kind of sympathy for each other.


“We have received a new member as payment for service rendered by Lord Nirari himself. As the foremost clan in this land, the Devourer has favored us with his business and we will reap the benefits for years to come.” 

Not if I can help it.

“Please welcome Ariane to our loving family.” 

I feel like a piece of meat dangled before a pack of bloodhounds.

“She is yet very young, so it will be up to Melusine to rear her into a valuable and productive member of our community, for the good of all.

I notice the vilest and cruel of smiles on the red-headed harridan. Ah, truly, I will need every scrap of self-control I can salvage.


“And with this, I shall retire for the evening. There is much for me to do.”

The rest of them stand as she leaves. Melusine reaches my side and grabs my arms as if we were the best of friends before dragging me out of the room. I am surprised to see that I am quite a bit taller than her but it matters not. She has me, and she knows it. This will be di













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