It’s time for blogophilia, the fun blog group where Matien gives us prompts to use. This week’s are:
I actually had the first half of this written for last week, but went to bed and forgot to post it the next day. Ugh. So you’re stuck with the whooooole thing on one looooooong go. Lucky. But as long as this took to wrote – three weeks total – all i can say is I’m dreaming of the day it is edited and done.
Reymen stood in the rain. He could see the breath of his horse against the night sky; little puffs of clouds that floated away in the deluge. Lightning split the clouds, an illuminating flash he didn’t need. His vampire eyes were well to the task of seeing in the dark, even with a late autumn storm.
The sound of hooves came in the distance, barely discernable over the pound of the raindrops in the mud. The road before him had turned to sludge, with little rivers carrying away the solid bits to leave behind a mire. His horse stirred, pulled, as if he sensed the approach of the other beast, of the monster that rode upon it.
The Hand of Death.
Had Reymen possessed a soul, the title would have sent a shiver down his spine, but as he stood both immortal and soulless, he felt nothing. The vampire was just another colleague, another monster, whose only outstanding features were his brusque way of handing a situation quickly, and his status as most beloved of their master.
Not that Malick was Reymen’s master by blood. That honor belonged to another. However, Malick was his master by choice. The one whose orders he followed and whose whims he catered to, on pain of death.
The sound of hooves grew louder, and then the horse came into view. A large black stallion that looked barely broken, nostrils snorting wide, eyes lit with the fury of some inner fire. It was just the kind of beast Jorick would choose.
As for the vampire himself, he sat tall and straight on the back of his steed, his own raven hair snapping in the wind, his black travel cloak billowing behind him. His face was pale and set, emotionless and unmoving, as one of the sentinel pines that guarded the roadway.
He pulled his horse to a halt, slinging mud. Reymen waited for the beast to stop pawing, then ventured forward, fist to his chest and head bowed in a makeshift salute, only looking up when he reached the side of great steed. Instead of dismounting, Jorick stayed seated, that hard gaze bearing down on Reymen.
He waited for Jorick to speak first, but when nothing came, he lifted his chin a notch. “Sir.”
Jorick’s reply was a murmur, so Reymen pushed on. He shouldn’t let himself be intimidated. They were both Malick’s henchmen, both so-called Enforcers or, Malick’s personal favorite, Executioners. They were near the same age, with maybe twenty years between them. They were both whisperers and dream stealers. By all accounts, They were equals.
Only, that equality was no more true than saying Reymen was equal to the master, Malick, himself. For just as Malick commanded The Guild, Jorick commanded the Executioner force, beholden only to their master, and no one else.
“There are two guards following,” Jorick said finally, his tone cold, disinterested.
Reymen frowned. “May I ask why?”
“Malick felt they might be useful. They will catch up to us, later. Unless you want to stand here all night?”
Jorick tugged the reins, and Reymen deftly avoided being stepped on by the steed. With a shake of his head, he mounted his own horse and followed his commander.
They passed in silence, following the road, the only sound was the rain and the suck of the mud on the horses’ hooves.
Reymen glanced at his companion. As a dream stealer, he could slip into the thoughts of others, see what they wanted, what they hated, what they worried about. Though he very much wanted to know what thoughts churned inside the hand of death’s head, he knew better than to try. Jorick was not much older than Reymen, but he was much stronger.
He’d feel the intrusion before I could discover anything of purpose.
And then Jorick’s cold indifference would turn to anger.
Time passed, until Reymen could stand it no longer. “Why did Malick send you?”
Jorick scoffed, eyes ahead. “Your results have not come quickly enough.”
That was what he’d suspected. The message had come yesterday from a tired rider and even more exhausted horse. When Reymen had broken the seal, the paper said only, “Wait for assistance. Jorick will join you in two day’s time.”
Subtracting the hours it took the rider to bring the message, Reymen had figured the two days would mean only one. However, it was long enough – too long – and now he’d lost what tiny lead he had.
Jorick made a low noise in his throat. “The Kugsankal, the ruling council in The Holy Roman Empire, has threatened to send Malick some assistance.”
Had Reymen been walking, he’d have stopped dead in his tracks. As a rider, the forward motion continued, even as his brain froze in place. “Assistance? Do you mean…?”
“They feel the population may be sufficient to warrant a council rather than the rule of a single master.”
Reymen phrased his question carefully. “A council under his rule or one of equal power?” He couldn’t imagine Malick sharing control with others, especially those “sent” by the Kugsankal and not chosen by the master himself.
Jorick echoed Reymen’s thoughts, “Malick will not share power, though the True Council will expect him to.” There was a moment’s silence, then he added, “If this is not handled well, expect punishment.”
Punishment. It was a word that held a thousand unknown terrors. Everything from death to simple dismissal. Not that Executioners were routinely punished, but it did happen. Not as often as it occurred to the guards, of course. They more often earned the master’s anger, the orders for torture, imprisonment, or execution.
Reymen swallowed his discomfort. “I was unaware this was such a delicate matter.”
“Aye. The master is applying pressure to the True Council. Of course, he’s not as old as they are, but he is ancient in his own right. Near Malick’s age, I believe.”
If stories were to be believed, that meant nearly two thousand years old.
“And with that age comes great power; influence, and a large coven. The Kugsankal still fights to unify the world under their rule. If this master were to refuse to capitulate to them, it could mean war. They plan to avoid that at all costs.”
Reymen closed his eyes and wished someone else had been given this assignment. It had seemed easy enough when he first got the message: a pair of rogue vampires, one male one female, had escaped Europe, made passage on a ship for three months, and should have arrived last week. Rumor said they’d made port in Philadelphia and had fled from there. He was to apprehend them, and return them to The Guild, alive, so that they could be transported back to Europe where they would be punished for their crimes.
Though killing them would have been simpler, there was some comfort in the directions. It was always nice when he didn’t need to take the life himself. Not that he was a stranger to killing. Still…
“I’d ask who this important master is, but I doubt the name would mean anything to me.” The vampire society in Europe was complicated, many layered, and understood only by those who’d been involved in it. Reymen had been turned there, in the new world, insulated from the Europeans.
“No,” Jorick agreed. “It wouldn’t. However, he’s been known as Amerigo for some time.”
Meaning he’d changed his name. And why not? Reymen was far from his own birth name of John. It was something given to him with the dark blood.
A long time ago.
Jorick cleared his throat and hesitated, as if trying to determine whether to continue. Finally, “Be warned also, his patience is thin and his mood black. This has come at a poor time. Only three days hence Clara was dispatched.”
Clara. Malick’s pet, a mysterious relationship that Reymen couldn’t wrap his mind around. More daughter than lover, the vampiress had been pampered and kept like a princess in their subterranean den, held above all others, not for her intelligence, or her beauty – not that she was unattractive – but rather for the amusement she seemed to provide the ancient master.
Or that was what Reymen could ascertain.
“What do you mean dispatched?”
Jorick looked to the heavens, as if asking for patience. “Executed.”
Reymen held back his burst of surprise, waiting for more to come. When it didn’t, he prompted, “Why?”
“Malick caught her entangled with a guard. He had their skin peeled from their bodies, then left them in the sun to burn while he watched their punishment from shaded safety.”
Punishment. The kind he could expect if this didn’t go well.
They fell to silence again, until the familiar house came into view; the place Reymen had spent the last day while he waited for his assistance.
He stopped his horse in the yard and hopped down. “The guards you spoke of, you’re sure they will find us.”
“They’re trackers.” Jorick dismounted and led his horse to the makeshift stable. “We have some small time until sunset. Tell me what you’ve discovered.”
Reymen sighed as he followed, his horse behind him. “Not much. They’ve been quiet since they arrived, no trails of victims or blood orgies to follow. They did make the mistake of stealing clothes from a washer woman. When she challenged them, they revealed their nature, and escaped while she was in a state of fright. She told the story around the settlement, not that any believed her.”
“However, you heard about it,” Jorick said impatiently. “Did you correct her memories?”
“I saw no need to. No one gave any credence to her words. To change it now, after she’d so highly publicized it, would be more suspicious than to leave it.”
“Perhaps. You say no trail of victims?”
“No, none I can find, at least. They hide their kills well.”
“Or else subsist on animals as a way to stay hidden.” Jorick looked to the saddle, and then to the building. “You have no servants?”
Reymen shook his head and saw Jorick wince. With a resigned sink of his shoulders, he turned to unsaddling his horse and readying it for rest. “Have you made contact with them?”
“With the rogues? No. And after waiting for your arrival, I fear the trail is gone.”
“Then we must hope the trackers can find it.”
Reymen didn’t bother to tell him how little faith he had in the yet unseen guards.
The guards arrived only moments before Reymen and Jorick were ready to descend to the root cellar. The Executioners waited impatiently as the vampires prepared their horses and then hurried to join them.
“We apologize for the delay,” the first said quickly, bowing at the waist.
“Apologize later,” Jorick snapped. “Before the sun is upon us.”
Reymen showed them below, not there was much to show. A small room, high enough to let them stand, backs bent, and just big enough to hold the four of them and a bin of moldy potatoes. Reymen settled next to the wall, and let sleep take him. His dreams were dark, as they always were, and he woke to the singing of night crickets.
Jorick was already gone, no doubt gone above to feed. Reymen climbed over the still slumbering guards and up the rough ladder. Though early evening, the grass was damp from dew or rain. Tattered clouds spread out in the sky above, keeping the secrets of their daytime weather to themselves.
When Reymen had fed, he returned to find Jorick seated on an overturned barrel, a magenta jacketed book in his hand. Reymen waited for the Executioner to look up, or acknowledge him. When nothing occurred, he cleared his throat, earning only a motion for silence.
“Are we going to look for the rogues, or would you prefer to stay here all night, reading?”
Jorick made a sound of impatience and snapped the book closed, eyes like dark darts that drilled into Reymen. “We are waiting for our trackers. When they return, you will take us to the place you last had the rogue’s trail. Until then, I intend to finish this scene.”
He popped the book open, but the guards appeared, wiping their mouths, and straightening their uniforms. Jorick didn’t bother to look up, merely quipped, “Ready the horses.”
The guards shuffled away. Reymen crossed his arms, watching as Jorick’s eyes digested the words. He didn’t bother to ask what the tome was; he didn’t care. In his mortal life, reading and writing had been something done only out of necessity. Immortality had done little to change that.
The vampires I was with were more interested in hunting than poetry.
He remembered his birth coven, as he thought of them. Dark skinned, with darker eyes, they’d dressed in furs and feathers and painted their bodies in blood. They’d come to the struggling colony, no doubt smelling the death that was coming, brought by natives and sickness. In the dark they’d slid over the walls, slipping through the night like snakes. They’d taken the Harvie babe first, then the child’s parents. The mother’s screams woke him and a few others. They’d followed the sound to find the monsters feasting, drinking, the bodies of their victims torn to wild shreds.
The rest was a blur, lost to time and shock. Reymen had a vague memory of trying to fight them, of being taken away, bound. He wasn’t the only captive. Later, he’d learn that the creatures had taken most of the surviving colonists, leaving those they rejected dead.
In their strange garb, he and his fellows took them at first for an undiscovered tribe, but soon learned the truth of them; of what they were. They were the monsters the Crotan had warned them of, the spirits of hell made flesh.
They were prisoners for weeks, maybe months, as the monsters slowly killed them. Reymen vaguely remembered a lack of food, and water. There was delirium, desperation, cold. One night, as a spring moon rose, bloated and full, they’d set the remaining captives free, herding them to a clear space. They’d told them that there was food and life for only three of them. To ensure they chose the strongest, they bade them kill one another, so that only the strongest would survive.
Reymen couldn’t remember what Bailen’s name had been before, only the moniker he was given later. That he was the strongest among them was never in doubt, and he quickly proved it. Reymen had a smeary memory of standing back, appalled by what he was seeing, unable to move, to help his dying fellows, or to take part.
Until Bailen came for him. When the man grabbed him by the throat, Reymen’s instincts had kicked in, and he’d fought with all his strength. He hadn’t killed the man only wounded him, but it was enough to send him lurching to another victim.
After that he thought he’d fought others, maybe even killed one. He recalled being covered in blood, and shocked at the appearance. Whatever his performance had been, it was enough, and he’d been chosen, with Bailen and another. They’d been fed, prepared and, when they were healthy, given the dark blood and new names.
Just as Reymen had learned to survive as a colonist, so he learned to survive as one of the day sleepers, as the monsters called themselves. Until the Guild had appeared from nowhere, they had been Reymen’s main source of education and information about immortality. It was their laws he followed, their traditions he kept.
How many years ago had that been? Seventy? Maybe more. Kateesha was the first enforcer he’d encountered. She’d marched into the center of their coven, her black hair piled high on her head, her voice hard with authority. She tried several languages, and when she hit upon English, something had sparked in Reymen’s mind, a dim memory from his life before. He and Bailen had worked to translate, and soon learned her purpose; Malick’s purpose, the grand purpose of the True Council who lived far over the sea.
Reymen had followed her back to the den where Malick lived, hidden away with his handful of luxuries. Though Reymen hadn’t sworn loyalty to the ancient master then, deep down he knew he would eventually.
Yet I held out forty years, a lifetime for some mortals.
Though that was true, there he was now, standing ankle deep in wet grass, waiting for Jorick to close his book so they could track rogues who’d broken laws far away, across an ocean he’d once crossed but couldn’t remember.
The guards cleared their throats loudly, and one finally said, “Sir?”
Reymen turned to see one leading his horse, the other Jorick’s. Wordlessly, the hand of death closed his book and strode to his steed. He mounted in a smooth motion, then bid the rest to do the same with an impatient look.
If your hurry is so great, then perchance you should have skipped the last several pages?
Though Reymen though it, he kept it to himself. No point in starting a fight with his commander.
Reymen showed the vampires the trail and followed as the guards headed down the path, sniffing and murmuring to one another. A glance to Jorick showed that the Executioner was as disinterested in the proceedings as he was in everything else.
Perhaps if Kateesha was here he’d pay more attention.
Not that Reymen was sure what their precise relationship was. One moment it seemed they were lovers, and the next Jorick put her as far from himself as he could, disdain on his face. Not that Reymen had a lot of occasion to see either of them. They lived each in their own dens, miles apart, only reporting for assignments when a messenger brought them Malick’s orders. Working together was rare, and even rarer was having two guards attend them. One was sometimes sent, but two…It meant there were fewer vampires to attend to Malick’s will, fewer to attend Clara.
No, he reminded himself. She’s past needing attendance of any kind.
Now that the shock of her execution had worn off, Reymen almost wished he’d been there to see her die, see her haughty features twist in disbelief, then terror as she realized she wasn’t better than they were. She wasn’t a queen.
She is certainly one of the things I will not miss.
The scent of blood interrupted his thoughts. He caught Jorick’s eye to see the hand of death already reining in his horse. They both dismounted, and followed the smell into the trees, the guards left behind to guard the beasts. Dodging low branches, they could soon smell the humans that accompanied the blood. Three males. Their voices were low murmurs that grew in volume the closer they got, until at last they could hear them.
“It does no good! He is past all aid. Do you not see that death has taken its hold? There is nothing you or can do for him.”
Reymen drew to a stop, but Jorick charged ahead. Though he’d have rather waited to discern more information, he plunged after his commander.
They came upon the men at last, huddled around a prone man that smelled of death. Fresh death, not more than a few hours old. His throat was torn, and though the humans’ thoughts said they took it for animal, Reymen knew better what it was.
The men froze at the sight of them, while Jorick quickly probed their minds. Reymen didn’t bother. He had the information he needed. At last, the missing rogues were acting like rogues.
Like we used to act before The Guild declared it illegal.
It was only after they’d headed back to the horses that Reymen heard the men stir again. Jorick’s influence is slipping from them, not that they’ll understand or even remember it.
They reached the horses and waiting guards. Though Jorick didn’t comment, Reymen told them, “It seems we may not be as far behind as we thought.”
Jorick swung onto his horse. “That wasn’t our rogues.”
Reymen ground his teeth. “How can you be sure? There are no other known vampires in this area.”
“Known or not, someone else is here. To take a human would break their pattern. They are in hiding, they would not broadcast their presence so.”
“How can you be so sure? I wish no offense, but as you’ve already stated, you won’t suffer Malick’s wrath.”
Jorick scoffed. “I said nothing of the kind. Clara’s execution should prove no one is safe from his fury. It is for this reason I say investigating this death further is a waste. Come.” He motioned to the guards. “Find our trail.”
Reymen’s mind went back to the body again and again. Back to the blood. The torn throat. They both knew it was the work of a vampire.
If we lose the rogues because of this…
What was the rest of the sentence? Would he march up to Malick and throw the blame at Jorick’s feet? If he did would the ancient master believe him? Or would he punish him for passing the responsibility to another? Would he believe that his precious hand of death refused to investigate further?
He can read my thoughts, my memories. He will be able to see the truth for himself.
The thought wasn’t enough to comfort Reymen. When they stopped for the day at a dilapidated barn, his brain was still painted with imagined scenes. He saw Clara and a faceless guard skinned alive, thrown in the sun, saw himself in their place while Malick blamed him for the True Councils’ interference.
Because of your failure, they will send someone to subvert t my will. You must die for this offense, child.
The voice sounded a little too real, and sent a shiver down Reymen’s back. If he didn’t know better, he’d think perhaps Malick really could send his thoughts, his voice, to them, even this far afield from The Guild’s headquarters. But such things were impossible.
While the guards were tasked with ensuring the barn was safe, Jorick leaned against the rough wooden wall, his book open again. He’d spent part of the ride reading it, and looked to be nearly finished.
At least then he’ll have to pay attention.
“I’m always paying attention.”
The reply jolted Reymen, and his eyes snapped to the Executioner. Jorick didn’t bother to look up, only purposefully turned a page. “And my observations are how I know that the vampire who killed that human is not with our rogues. You’ll see that for yourself, soon enough.”
“What is this? What mean you?”
Reymen held back from attacking the silent Executioner, though he wanted to. He is the commander, and Malick’s pet. You know what happens when you cross him.
He’d seen Executioners punished only twice, and once was because of Jorick. Three years ago, Daniel and Jorick had been sent south, to New Spain. It was an extensive assignment, one that lasted months as they fought rogues and tried to subjugate a Spanish coven who refused to bow to The Guild’s authority. Eventually Kateesha was sent to help, and after wiping out most of the coven, and a good number of others, control was again established.
When Reymen pillaged the guards’ memories, he’d seen Jorick’s return though their eyes. Malick complained that they’d taken too much time and too many resources. Jorick didn’t reply, but Daniel did. He blamed their slow progress on Jorick and the way he’d dealt with the Spanish, saying that he’d been too quick to kill and had seemed to revel in the flow of their blood. “How can we convince any to capitulate when they see their death written in his hand?”
Jorick had snarled back, “Perhaps if you’d spent more time assisting than rolling in Kateesha’s bed, I wouldn’t have had to kill them all myself.”
Malick had broken into raucous laughter, then ordered Daniel taken away. “Blood is the way of the vampire, child. Fear is the means of control. We will not rule with kindness and compassion, but with terror. My son understands this. Do not question his methods again.”
Though Reymen had backed out of the memories, he’d caught a glimpse of Daniel’s punishment, of the whips, the screams, the starvation, Malick amusement. Immortal, when Daniel was freed, he looked no worse for wear on the outside, but Reymen could see the mental scars without trying.
And if I press this matter, that will be me.
Frustrated, Reymen stormed to the barn to oversee the guards’ efforts.
Better than staring at him in silence.
Despite his annoyance, Reymen slept well and rose just after Jorick. They fed on wildlife and the guards did a final scan to make sure they still had the trail.
“There’s another scent,” one of them said, glancing back the way they’d come. “Six furlongs. Perhaps a mile.”
Reymen breathed deeply, sorting past the smell of moldy hay, the horses, the vampires, the trees, the grass, the damp earth…on through layers of scents, but he could detect no one else.
Because I’m not a hunter.
“As I said, you’ll get to meet the mysterious third vampire soon enough,” Jorick quipped, mounting his steed. “Come. He will catch up or he won’t.”
The guards hurried to obey while Reymen glared. “You knew he was following us?”
“As you should have. Unless your skills or wit are lacking.” He smirked, then his face dropped back to its normal cold nothingness. “He is no matter. One young one against four.”
The guards hurried forward and Jorick urged his horse to follow. Reymen glanced over his shoulder, back to the invisible stalker.
As if I needed this to get more complicated.
They traveled at a hurried pace, stopping only to let the horses drink, eat, or rest. At such times the guards would scout ahead, rushing back to assure them that the trail was getting stronger, fresher.
“We may overtake them tomorrow,” one said enthusiastically.
That hope burned in the back of Reymen’s mind as he bedded down that morning, laced with a hint of trepidation. Their mysterious pursuer was still behind them. Though Jorick said it was a young one, it made no sense that he would continue to pursue them, knowing that there were four of them and only one of him.
Unless he’s very young indeed and doesn’t know how outmatched he is.
Still, what could his motives be? Robbery? Did they have anything worth stealing?
The questions were still swirling when he woke the next evening. He brushed off his clothes and fed, then waited as the guards readied the horses and checked for the trail.
Jorick sat on a large rock, reading a new book. Reymen glared at him and, with a sigh, the executioner snapped his tome closed to look up. “You should make yourself comfortable. If their estimation is correct, it may take a hour for our mysterious friend to join us.”
“You refer to the vampire following us?” Jorick nodded and Reymen tried not to sound annoyed. “You plan to wait for him to overtake us?”
“Yes. Better than his coming upon us at a surprise moment. As it is, we can control the encounter.” He opened the book again, adding, “If you wish, I have other books in my bag.”
“No, thank you. I cannot fathom the point of reading without need to communicate.”
Jorick looked up, his usual calm ruffled by a surprise that settled to contempt. “Then it’s your mistake.”
No, my mistake was taking this assignment.
Not that he’d had a choice. None of them did. A messenger would arrive with a command from Malick, and they were expected to go immediately, to carry out their master’s bidding and then, if ordered to do so, to report in person to the master himself in his New York den.
As I was ordered to do. Though he’d been commanded to have prisoners in tow when he did. Prisoners who would be sent back to Europe to suffer for…for what?
“What crime did they commit?”
Jorick glanced up. “Of what do you speak?”
“The rogues we’ve been ordered to catch. They’re to be sent back to Europe to this Amerigo for punishment, but for what crime?”
“Theft.” Jorick looked back to his book.
With no more conversation, Reymen abandoned the Executioner for the guards. He passed on Jorick’s orders to wait. Though they only saluted, he could hear their confused, worried thoughts. He thought for a moment to comfort them, then dismissed it. Let them stew, as he was stewing.
The waiting seemed interminable. Reymen found rocks among the weeds and practiced throwing them at a nearby tree. The bark was well chipped when he caught the sound of a horse, followed by the whiff of an immortal.
Reymen tossed the last rock to the ground and pulled his sword from his belt. He slid behind the barn, so that he could see the road, unobserved. The guards had taken up similar positions, though he had no idea where Jorick was.
And then he saw him. The hand of death moved to stand in the middle of the road, his long hair and cloak stirring in the wind, like the tales of old warriors Reymen had been raised on so long ago.
The sound of hooves grew louder, and soon the horse broke free of the trees. He beast was dark, but the rider on its back was fair. Long blonde hair was worn in a ponytail, and, had his scent not given away the secret of his immortality, his pale skin would have.
The unknown vampire reigned his horse in, pulling to a stop just short of Jorick. They stared at one another, light and dark clashing. Finally, the stranger swung down from the steed and approached, hands up.
“You’re the same as I am.”
Reymen couldn’t see Jorick’s face, but he could guess by his tone that it was as grim as ever. “And what do you mean by that, sir?”
The stranger stopped a few paces from him and motioned to him. “A walker of shadows.”
“Yes,” Jorick replied. “What do you seek with us?”
The other looked surprised at the question. “Seek? Good sir, it is you I seek, you and your kind – our kind. When I broke with the sisters two months hence, I feared I would never happen upon another.”
“There are many.” Jorick dropped the defensive stance and motioned to the others to come out.
Reymen stepped free of the building, his attention on the newcomer. He focused on him, on the patter of his thoughts. The thread of deceit ran through them, manipulation, but under it was genuine surprise, and even a little loneliness.
“Where is your master?” he demanded.
The blonde turned eyes to him. “I left them, as I said, some two months ago. There was a tedium to their company that was wearing to the intellect, if not the soul.”
“We have no souls,” Jorick said. “Your parting was amicable?”
As the vampire nodded, Reymen was already diving into his thoughts to see a pretty redhead, her hair in curls, her expression pinched. “If you feel you must, Beldren, then I cannot stop you, but to wander the world alone…”
“Then would you leave Ismene?” he’d replied.
When she shook her head, curls bouncing with the motion, he’d stepped back. “Then I must take my leave, for another month under the same roof as her will see blood spilled, whether mine or hers. One of us must go.”
So that was it. The vampire… Beldren’s… story was mostly true. He’d left with his master’s permission, though Reymen wasn’t sure if he’d killed Ismene first. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t illegal, unless they complained.
“Wither are you headed?” Jorick asked.
“Nowhere.” Reymen felt the truth in Beldren’s answer. “Until now I was unsure there were more shadow walkers in the world. In more than a hundred years I have seen none others, save the sisters.”
Reymen moved to join Jorick in the road. “You have been hiding, then?”
“Hiding? Nay, unless the isolation is abnormal.” Beldren frowned.
“Not completely,” Jorick admitted. “Those who come across the sea to this place often do so to escape the company of others. It’s no wonder once they’re here they shut themselves away.”
Reymen thought he caught something wistful in Jorick’s words, but it was gone before he could be sure it was really there.
“Where are you fine gentlemen traveling to,” Beldren asked, the smooth cleverness returning, sliding over him like an evening dress. “Perhaps I may join you?”
Reymen was prepared to say no, but Jorick only waved to the horse. “Do as you will. We are on an errand for our master. When it is done we will return to New York. But know, if you follow us to the conclusion, you will have to face Malick. He’ll demand it, if for no other reason than his own amusement.”
Beldren had questions, but Jorick motioned him to his steed and quipped that they could talk as they rode. “We’ve lost time enough.”
Reymen mounted his horse, watching as the blonde led his animal to fall in beside Jorick. Taking an unknown vampire with them, while hunting rouges? Was such a thing wise?
Of course it isn’t.
Jorick explained Malick, The Guild, the Executioners, and The Laws. Beldren’s eyes gleamed at each piece of information, and Reymen could feel him trying to piece it together to benefit himself. Let him try. Malick would see through it in a moment and then…
And then what? Beldren had committed no crime. There was nothing to punish him for. Malick would either convince him to join them as a guard or servant, or send him packing, back into the world alone.
When the lessons were over, they let the horses rest, then picked up the pace. The guards excitement was soon contagious; the trail was fresher than it had been earlier. They were gaining ground on the rogues, and, so long as their pace did not slacken, should see them by sunrise
They skirted away from an encampment of soldiers – whose soldiers Reymen didn’t know. The countries and kings of humans meant nothing to them now. That there was a conflict, he’d noticed recently, but what it was, or why…he knew not, and cared not. It would end, as all conflicts did, with a victor and loser, while life continued on unchanged for him and his kind.
Reymen felt the shift in the air as morning approached. Two hours at most until the sun rose. The birds, still silent, would soon burst into song, and the scattered villages would come to life with humans, beginning a day in their war torn country.
It was then that the guards motioned them to slow, their excited eyes gleaming. They pointed to a collection of houses ahead; not a village, but a cluster all the same.
At last, the rogues reveal their nature! No doubt they’d gorged upon the home’s occupants, leaving shredded bodies strewn in their wake. They’d think to shelter at the scene of their crime, to hide from the sun, but little did they know they were being followed; hunted.
And will soon be captured.
They slowed until they pulled the horses to a stop. Beldren looked on with a mix of confusion and excitement as the rest of them slipped silently from their mounts. His voice came as a whisper, nearly as soft as the wind, “Shall I remain with the horses?”
Reymen had a sudden flash of Beldren stealing the beasts and riding away, saddle bags and all. At the nearest village, he’d sell what he could. He glanced to Jorick. Were those Beldren’s thoughts, or his own paranoia?
“No,” Jorick murmured. “Come. If you get in the way I will kill you if need be.”
Beldren balked and then the same easy confidence was back. “Of course. I’d expect no less from the enforcers of immortal kind. What was the word you used? Vampire? A curious name, indeed.”
Reymen was inclined to agree with him. Day sleepers had been good enough for his own clan – or coven as Malick called such groups. More of that European civilization encroaching upon their wild world.
Wild or not, they had a job to do, and Reymen had no intention of letting Beldren interfere, despite the many chances Jorick seemed willing to give him.
He had best make good on his promise to kill the vampire if need be, or I shall do it for him.
With that in mind they crept toward the buildings. Reymen could smell the rogues, tucked neatly into one of the houses, behind crisp curtains and the smell of humans. Five? No, there were more, some in each house. He sorted through the scents: males, females, children. Families.
Before he could give it any further thought, Jorick kicked the door in. He stormed inside, leaving Beldren hanging back.
“Is this the usual way things are done?”
Reymen shrugged and pushed past him, into the darkened house. Occupants were stirring, no doubt woken by the sound of the door. Jorick stood in the middle of the room, before a hearth that glowed with coals. “They’re this way.”
Reymen didn’t need Jorick to tell him – he could smell the rogues as well as the other Executioner – but he didn’t bother to say that, only followed through a low doorway into the next room, and to a set of locked, double doors. Reymen could feel the rogues on the other side, smell them.
A commotion came; the sound of breaking glass, of motion, of the rogues escaping. Jorick snarled and kicked the doors in, leaving them handing on their hinges, with the middle ruined. Reymen charged inside after him, but the rogues were gone, leaving a shattered window and broken glass scattered.
Reymen could see the pair running in the moonlight, dashing for the next house, as if that could save them.
“I’ll go after them.”
Reymen grabbed the window frame, ready to propel out, when the gunshot came; a loud echo that shook the house. Without thought, he dropped back and dashed toward the sound, barely beating Jorick to the scene.
A man in a nightdress stood in the middle of the room, a heavy rifle in his hands. Of the two guards, one was slumped back against the hearth, his face a mass of blood and pulp. The other was tensed in an attack position, ready to spring.
The human turned toward the Executioners, mouth open, ready to shout, but Jorick swept past him and snapped his neck before a word could fall. He dropped the body to the floor and snapped around to the guards. “Bring him!”
The command snapped Reymen out of his shock, and he shoved past the vampires and out the door, looking for the rogues. He’d seen them run for one of the houses. If they thought they could hide behind the humans…
He reached the house, ready to knock in the door, when the rogues stepped out from behind the building.
“Stop! Why are you chasing us?”
Reymen drew his sword and dropped into a stance, ready to fight. “We’ve been sent to apprehend you.”
“Sent by whom?”
Jorick joined them, his sword in one hand, his eyes hard. “The Guild. You can come with us willingly, or you can fight. The choice is yours.”
Reymen tensed. Ready for the attack. But, instead of fighting, the vampire sank to his knees. “Please. You don’t understand.”
Jorick stepped in front of Reymen, stopping just short of the rogues. “Nay, it’s you who don’t understand. It isn’t our place to judge you, or forgive your crimes, only to bring you back to Malick.”
The vampiress huddled behind the male. Her pale hands clutched her shoulders. “Who is Malick?”
“The head of The Guild,” Reymen replied.
When they both looked blank, Jorick said, “Amerigo complained to the Kugsankal, and they have commanded that Malick send you back to be punished for your crimes.”
The woman made a soft sound of horror. “No. You can’t.”
“We can, and will.”
Jorick took a step closer. The rogue jerked to his feet, pushing her back and tugging out a long bladed knife. “Go, Catalina! Run!”
“No, Filippo!” She broke into a foreign language, clinging to his arm. He shook her free and answered back in the same strange words.
Though Reymen didn’t know the language they used, he could gain a sense of their meaning by reading their thoughts. He could feel the pulse of their fear, hers stronger than his. He was telling her that it was better to go than to go back across the sea. Reymen had a flash of a face from her mind, a male with cold eyes and colder hands, a vision that brought her terror to a fever pitch.
Jorick gave a grunt of impatience and lunged. Filippo swung. The blade bit into Jorick’s arm, but he ignored it to grab the vampire by the hair and slam him to the ground. The shock of the attack left the rogue motionless for a moment, enough time for Jorick to roll him on his face and grab his arms.
Reymen rushed forward to help just a Filippo reacted. The vampire jerked and kicked, but Jorick shoved a knee in his back and shouted for someone to hold his legs.
Reymen grabbed the vampire’s ankles, but Jorick had barely gotten rope pulled out of his coat when Catalina attacked. Her hands, nails like claws, raked Reymen’s face, and her shrill cries were enough to wake everything within a mile.
Reymen tried to shake her off. Finally, he let go of his charge to bat her away, knocking her to the damp ground in a pile of skirts. He turned back to see Jorick, rope in hand, securing the bucking Filippo. That second was all she needed to leap on his back, heels digging in and hands scratching his face again.
On his knees, he didn’t have the range of motion to shake her off, and ended up face down in the cold grass, the vampiress on his back. She clubbed his head with her fists, screaming like a wild creature. Reymen managed to lift his head high enough to see flickering light in the nearest house; a human woken by her cries and coming to investigate.
Reymen tried to concentrate on the mortal’s mind, tried to tell him everything was fine, but he was too distracted by the pummeling to connect. If he couldn’t stop him, they would no doubt need to kill him, and anyone else who wandered into the midst of the struggle.
It will be a blood bath. No doubt natives will be blamed for the wholesale slaughter. Or perhaps the invading army.
Either way, he needed free of the vampiress. With a growl, he rolled over, suddenly, knocking Catalina from her perch. She landed on the ground, and Reymen used the chance to grab her hands. Now, if he only had some rope…
He looked up in time to see Jorick toss the skein of rope. He caught it with one hand, and hurriedly used it to bind her wrists. She bucked and kicked, her screams reaching an earsplitting pitch.
One knot secure, Reymen grabbed her swinging feet and secured her ankles, effectively hog typing her face down on the grass.
He was barely on his feet when the nearest door opened. An older man with a nightshirt tucked into his breeches loomed out, a rifle clutched in his hands. Jorick jerked to his feet, but the man didn’t seem to see him, only turned in a slow semi-circle, eyes searching the night.
The door of the next house opened, and another man stepped out – no, more boy than man. Similarly armed, his rifle shook in his hands as he gazed out.
In moments, others had come; mostly old or too young and one a woman bundled up against the early chill. They stood not a stone’s throw away, firearms in hand, eyes shifting from one another to their surroundings, yet not one’s gaze lingered on the vampires.
Catalina managed to roll herself to her side and screamed, a string of that same foreign language. Filippo shouted back to her, but the humans didn’t react, didn’t flinch didn’t even look at them.
Reymen moved slowly to Jorick. Was the hand of death controlling them all? He was strong, of course, so it would no doubt be an easy thing. Yet, his furrowed brow looked more confusion than concentration.
He glanced behind them, to see Beldren had joined them. The blonde stood, hands at his side, fingers spread, and face rapt with…with what? Was this something he was doing?
Reymen looked quickly back to the humans and touched one of their minds, gently, lest he break whatever trance they were in. For a moment he could see through their eyes, a flicker of landscape washed in shadows. They saw no vampires, heard no screams. There was only the dewy grass and the song of late crickets.
The humans broke apart, heading back to their houses. The bang of the nearest door shook Jorick and Reymen from their tense fascination. They turned as one, each grabbing a bound rogue. Reymen stopped to gag the shrieking vampiress. Her fangs sunk into his hand, and he backhanded her, hard enough to silence her. In the moments of quiet, he shoved his handkerchief in her mouth, then used a piece torn from her skirt to hold it in place.
She gave muffled cries as he hauled her back to the horses. With only an hour left until sunrise, Reymen wasn’t sure where they were going to go, especially given the heavily wounded state of the guard. He wasn’t dead, nor in danger of death; with rest or blood he would heal.
When he came to join them, once again whole, Reymen realized he must have taken the second option. Perhaps one of the family from the first house.
Reymen reached for his mind and saw Jorick in a recent memory. The Executioner spoke to the other guard, motioning with one hand as he pulled out his sword with the other. In the corner of the room was huddled a woman, a young girl, and a boy. “I don’t have time to clear their minds. Use them to heal him then dispose of the others. No witnesses.”
Of course. The way of the vampire. Keep their existence secret.
Or so The Guild maintained.
In his immortal youth they hadn’t bothered with such things. The day sleepers were known by the tribes – known and feared. They hunted when and whom they wished, and were sometimes given sacrifices with the hope of mercy. But this European method, this hiding in shadows, of pretending they didn’t exist…he didn’t fully understand it. Malick had explained many times that their foreign masters feared what humans might do to them while they slept, what tortures and deaths the mortals might construct, and how, by unifying in fear, they might bring a means to the complete destruction of immortal kind.
Reymen doubted such a thing could come to pass, but it was not his place to argue, or to question. Those that did were punished.
Yemen shook away the creeping fear that word brought and loaded the vampiress onto his horse. He climbed up behind her, and looked to Jorick. The Executioner didn’t look back, only clicked his tongue and snapped his reigns. His steed whinnied, then leapt forward, racing through the darkness.
Reymen looked back to see Beldren scrambling to his mount, his face weary with fatigue. His display had cost him dearly, but for now it had kept the humans alive. Reymen wasn’t sure whether to mark that as good or bad. Had they died, a place to stay the day would have been as simple as choosing a house. But such bloodshed might have upset the Kugsankal, who would surely have heard of it.
Not Malick, he thought as he urged his horse on. Malick seems to enjoy the death, with no preference to who does the dying.
They stopped at a small farm some way from the make-shift village. A woman was the only occupant, already awake and halfway through her morning routine, even before the sun had risen. Jorick easily overwhelmed her mind, so that she paid no attention as they took over her root cellar, first jamming their prisoners in before folding themselves up in the small space, around a hearty store of vegetables.
Reymen hesitated to sleep. Though the prisoners were on opposite sides of the small space, both bound and gagged, there was the chance they might escape, that the chase would resume. Normally he’d have ordered the guards to stand watch through the night, each taking half the time so that they could gain some rest, but with the earlier injury, the vampire needed sleep or he would be useless tomorrow. Meaning there would be only one guard to stand the watch. With no rest, he, too, would be useless the following day, becoming a liability they could not afford.
Especially not with Beldren tagging along.
Though he’d been helpful earlier, and seemed to have no connection to the rogues – they made no sign they recognized him, nor him them – there was still a chance that he was really there to help them.
Reymen waited until the blonde was asleep and reached for his mind. He found a swirl of dreams, most centering on either his red haired master or a young, faceless woman. Past them, Reymen looked for the rogues, for their names, for any sympathy. He found nothing, beyond the most recent memories. Satisfied at last, he did a quick check of Catalina and Filippo, finding only terror, anger, and a desperate desire to escape, all normal for prisoners. Reassured, he let himself close his eyes and relax into the bank of root vegetables.
Jorick shook him awake the next evening. “We must feed quickly and be gone. The sooner the prisoners are on their way to The Holy Roman Empire, the better.”
He found no fault with the assessment, even if it cost him some minutes of sleep. He woke the guards, while Jorick hauled the rogues outside. Reymen followed to find Beldren already outside with the horses, looking better than he had.
“You’re an illusionist,” Jorick said as he heaped Filippo over the back of the horse. The vampire had been seemingly asleep until then, and jolted awake at the motion. He wriggled, pulling at the bonds and making low, sounds of alarm muffled by the gag.
Beldren looked from one to the other of the vampires. “Are you speaking to me, sir?”
“Obviously.” Jorick hauled Catalina up, ignoring her squeals of protest. Wide awake, she tried to kick as her bonds would allow, a pitiful picture. Though rest had kept her hair from matting and restored a healthy glow, unless the vampires let her feed she’d look terrible tomorrow.
Beldren frowned. “I apologize, but I fear you are mistaken. I am not…whatever you called me.”
“Yes, you are.”
Reymen could feel Jorick’s gaze boring into the blond vampire, feel him digging into his mind. Beldren went stiff, and his eyes widened, then he sprung free, his body sagging as Jorick released him.
“It appears you are unschooled. Your ability – the false truth you created for the humans – that is an illusion, which makes you an illusionist.”
“Of course.” Beldren rubbed his head, scowling. “As you have no doubt just seen, it is the name Ismene used on occasion. I had forgotten it, as Mabel and Thomasin had another term. What name do you give your uninvited intrusion?”
“He is a dream stealer,” Reymen replied, watching as the guards joined them, readying their horses for the day’s journey. “As am I. And a whisperer.”
Beldren arched an eyebrow. “What is this?”
“The ability to influence others thoughts or actions.” Reymen glanced to a stand of trees not far from there. “Will we not feed first?”
“Nay, we will stop in some time,” Jorick said, swinging into the saddle. “The faster the miles fly, the better. Besides, once we have wandered away, my influence will fade and the woman of the house will start to wonder who the horses belong to, and why there are people tied up upon the saddles. We could kill her, of course, but then we’d need to take the time to dispose of the body. We have already wasted enough time, I do not wish to throw away more of it.”
Reymen couldn’t argue with that.
They rode for most of the night, stopping only to feed and rest the horses. The prisoners were kept tied and gagged, given no meal. Such starvation would not permanently harm them, once fed they would be fully restored, no matter how many days sustenance had been withheld, but it would be uncomfortable.
It was near sunrise when they stopped for the day at the same dilapidated barn they used two nights before. They bedded down in the hay; the guards’ previous sunproofing still intact. Catalina moaned through her gag, and though her words were unintelligible, Reymen knew their meaning, knew she was pleading for mercy, to be released so she could move, straighten her legs, her arms, spit out the dry, horrible handkerchief.
Beldren looked curiously to the pair, but showed no guilt at their plight. Jorick was even colder. After tying them to opposite pillars in the barn, he bid the guards cover them with hay, then retired for his rest.
Reymen similarly bedded down and closed his eyes. Though he didn’t want to, his thoughts strayed to the pair. How many humans had he seen in similar plight, prisoners of the day sleepers, waiting their turn to die or be brought into the tribe? Had he felt sympathy for them?
But he had. A little, not a lot, but that little bit was enough, like a shard in one’s boot that pokes at inopportune moments. It was just such a moment that he was caught in.
He rolled over, peering through the hay to see the lump he knew to be Catalina. Thieves, Jorick said, yet they had no luggage. Or if they did, it had been left behind when they were apprehended. Odd that Amerigo had not demanded return of the item as well as those who stole it.
Unless the item is on their person. Perhaps a necklace or ring?
Reymen couldn’t remember if either had been wearing jewelry. Had it been earlier in the morning, he’d have asked Jorick what it was they’d taken, but as it stood the Executioner was undoubtedly asleep.
As I should be.
Reymen closed his eyes, but the question gnawed on him. He imagined their return, Malick demanding to know where the stolen goods were, and his own confession that they’d not thought of it. The ancient master had only one reply: punishment.
Reymen opened his eyes to focus again on the mound of hay. He bored through it, to the vampiress underneath. Though he couldn’t see her, he could feel her, still awake as he was, her breathing hard and irregular, the gasps of someone too tired to continue feeling her terror.
He reached out with his mind, feeling for her thoughts. They raced, a mesh of foreign words he couldn’t catch or understand. He could see the intent behind them. Beyond being cramped, hungry, and frightened for Filippo, she was terrified of returning home. He saw the sea voyage in her mind. Wet, dirty, hungry. Hiding in the hold, nothing to eat for months but rats. Fearful of discovery, of being thrown overboard, lost immortal in an endless ocean, without even the gift of death, an eternity of drowning, with lungs that didn’t need air, yet burned with the saltwater, eyes crusted, skin withered from the brine.
It was a terror Reymen had never contemplated, and one he didn’t want to contemplate again. He pushed past it, to their impending return. That cold vampire stood in a richly decorated room. Behind him hung a portrait of a lady, hair piled on her head, luxurious dress draped around her. Her face was soft, young, and familiar.
It was Catalina.
He saw the vampire grab her wrist, pull her to him, order Filippo’s death. And that was when he realized what they’d stolen. No, not they, but him. Filippo had not taken a something, but a someone.
Except, she didn’t seem to be unwilling. It was more an elopement than a theft. He could see plainly in her mind that she’d come of her own free will, running down cobblestone streets toward a harbor, her hand in Filippo’s. He felt the flush of her excitement, her joy at being free.
A freedom short lived, Reymen thought. They had survived a terrible voyage only to be hunted and caught, and soon sent back.
They should have thought of such things before they made rash decisions.
Despite that very logical conclusion, Reymen was still unsettled when the sun sank. His dreams had been filled with snips of Catalina’s memories, or perhaps his own versions of them. Amerigo was her master, both lover and slave owner. She’d been given to him as a child, a pretty present, raised to belong to him. She’d been at first frightened of him, and then merely repulsed. He offered her no kindness, no warmth, only disapproval and unsettling expectations.
Reymen pushed the tattered thoughts away, leaving the guards to watch the prisoners while he fed. He’d seen Catalina’s face for a moment, her hair lank and dirty, her hungry skin tightening on bones, eyed made larger by the starvation, their depths an echo of all the things he thought he’d imagined.
Outside, he finished with his prey, then returned to find Jorick at the horses. The executioner worked, saddling the beasts and readying them for the day’s ride.
“One more night,” he said as he tightened a strap. “Tomorrow we should reach the den before sunrise.”
Reymen nodded. He fiddled with hit belt, straightened his coat, and finally demanded, “What was it they stole?”
Jorick glanced up. “The rogues? Does it matter?”
“No. Yes. Perhaps.” Reymen didn’t like where his mind was headed, so he added quickly, “What will happen if we return without the stolen item?”
Reymen took a breath through his nose, glancing over as Beldren joined them. “She’s the stolen, possession, isn’t she?”
Beldren flinched in surprise, but Jorick showed no reaction. “You would do better to stay out of the heads of those you’re sent to bring to justice.”
“Is it justice, though? To return her to a cruel master and sentence the other to death?”
“It is the law,” Jorick said firmly. “Your feelings on the matter are unimportant.”
Reymen scoffed. “I have no feelings, I only asked-”
“As you say, but my answer remains the same. Relieve the guards so they may feed.” He broke off. “On better thought, finish the horses. I’ll watch the prisoners.”
Jorick stalked away, leaving Reymen to scowl after him. Did he think he’d release them? Speak t them? Dig into their minds and see something more?
He’s right, he chided himself. My doubts are unimportant. What matters are The Laws.
Or so The Guild would say.
Catalina was loaded onto one of the guards’ horses, and they headed off. Though the journey there had taken several days, if Jorick was right, they would reach Malick by the end of tomorrow, taking a more direct route now that they weren’t following meandering rogues.
Rogues. Were they really rogues, though? A rogue was a masterless vampire who did as they pleased, no laws to follow, no care for who they hurt or slaughtered. By such definition, this pair had never qualified.
No wonder there was no trail of dead for me to follow.
He found it disconcerting that Malick had chosen not to reveal the truth of their crime when he’d sent the assignment. Had he known in advance, he’d have been better prepared when faced with the pair’s memories, better able to handle them.
As he rode, he contemplated The Laws. Did they dictate who one could be with? What romantic ties one could forge? Was that truly a component of the European way? The day sleepers had no such laws. One was free to do as they pleased. Come, go, stay, take whatever lover one desired. That such things were controlled…He had dim memories of the human laws, but even those were not so strict. Were they? Had it been a crime to leave one lover for another?
And not even lover, if his impressions were to be believed. Slave owner was more apt a title.
And therein lay the crux of it. As a slave she was owned; property, no different than a chicken or fancy dinner plate. As property she had no right to say where she went, or what was done to her, just as a plate had no vote in what was eaten from it. But the question remained, why was she a slave? What made her less than equal to the master and the rest of her kind? Why was she owned while he and Jorick were free?
A scoff from the Executioner sent Reymen’s attention skittering. Jorick grimaced, eyes on something far away. “I am no more free than they, nor are you. Malick owns us, and will until we die. Welcome to The Guild.”
They stopped again near sunrise, in a place Reymen had never been. A root cellar served as shelter. Reymen tried to get comfortable around the human’s provisions. They’d passed another camp of soldiers, or perhaps the same they’d seen earlier. The New World was nothing but war and strife, a constant turmoil of bloodshed. Perhaps The Guild should take over the humans, as well, and force their peace upon them, as they did the immortals.
Tell them whom they may take as a lover.
He didn’t like to admit it, but the idea rankled him. Among the day sleepers, all of the immortal were equal. It was only the humans who were slaves, who could be owned or controlled. Once you were one of them, you were free to do as you chose. There were even those who left the tribe, to be replaced by new humans turned monster. That was how he and Bailin had come to join their ranks; as replacements.
If they wish to leave Amerigo, they should have such a right. They are immortal, just as he is. Younger, perhaps, but no less viable.
Still, the European laws didn’t see it that way. They were about control, containment, suppression, ownership. All the old things he’d left behind when he came to join Raleigh’s doomed colony so long ago.
Yet here they are again, knocking on our door, brought by Malick and the European day sleepers.
He shifted, dislodging a root vegetable from his back. If he’d been alone on this assignment, there was a chance he’d have let their prisoners go, that he’d have returned to Malick empty handed, claiming that he couldn’t find them.
Yet Malick would catch the lie when he touched his thoughts, when he slipped through his memories like blood through the cracks of floorboards. He’d see the deception and punishment would be swift and severe. Whips, starvation, perhaps death.
No, he has yet to kill his Executioners. He needs us.
Or did. Malick’s original force held only dream stealers and whisperers, but with the addition of Daniel, not a dream stealer but a puppet master, Malick had decided to broaden their skill set. No longer were dream stealers safe by virtue of their irreplaceability. An illusionist would do as well.
And we bring one with us. A pretty present for Malick.
Not that Reymen thought Beldren was Executioner material. Too soft, for one, and too long winded for another. He could see that Beldren preferred to twist words rather than necks. Such methods would be too slow and tedious for one who enforced such wearisome, overbearing laws as The Guild’s.
Reymen rolled the other way, and his eyes fell upon the bundle that was Filippo. He knew he shouldn’t, yet found himself sneaking into the vampire’s memories. He saw Catalina, dressed in finery, her cheek red where Amerigo had slapped her for some displeasure or another. It was nothing new, more commonplace than unusual, a nightly ritual, assuming she was allowed to be in the presence of the coven and not locked in her chambers. Reymen felt Filippo’s anger, his determination, his absolute need to save her, to be free.
Reymen pulled away quickly, but it was too late. Filippo had sworn to liberate her from Amerigo’s cruelty, even if he must destroy himself in the process.
And you will, he thought, angry at Filippo, at Catalina, at Amerigo, and most of all at Malick.
You bring this conflict, then leave me to suffer it alone. You should all be condemned.
Despite his fury, Reymen woke the next evening with a horrific plan in mind. While he hunted, he tried earnestly to talk himself out of it. To go against Malick…to betray his orders…and at such a time. If Amerigo was not satisfied, he would raise an army, war openly with those who sat in The Holy Roman Empire.
Or so Jorick had said. Reymen had seen no proof of this with his own eyes. No missive, no envoy, no messenger. Not that it was unusual for Jorick to be privy to things the other Executioners weren’t’ as Malick’s son and the commander of their band, such things were expected.
Perhaps it is an exaggeration of the facts, he reasoned with himself. After seeing the sea voyage through Catalina’s eyes, he couldn’t fathom the Kugsankal sending one of their own to join Malick and form a council. No, they would wish to stay in their foreign city, where it was safe, leaving the savagery of the new world to others.
That Amerigo would be angry was a certainty, but would he really war over Catalina’s return? She was a bedchamber slave, one he could replace. He had no great love for her – or else he’d have risked the voyage to take her home himself. A man in love did not coldly leave such task to another. No he would not war for a slave, only demand payment.
And I could send such payment. He had a small store of gold, both payment for his duties and money taken from victims. But what story would he present Malick? What reason for the prisoner’s escape? And how could he free them with Jorick watching every move?
It was too much to overcome. The idea was impossible. He’d do better to forget it entirely, to deliver them to his master, then to return home.
He held onto that resolve until he joined Jorick at the horses. The prisoners were already loaded, their clothes dirty, hay in their matted hair. He couldn’t see their faces, but he knew what they looked like; gaunt, bloodless, hungry, desperate.
And none of my concern.
Beldren mounted his horse. His eyes moved from one vampire to another, until Beldren feared he knew something. He’s suspicious. He probably read my – No. No, he can’t. He’s not a mind reader. Only an illusionist.
If only he was an illusionist, perhaps he could convince Jorick the prisoners were still there, even as they were running free in the opposite direction.
It was a good idea, but one that would require the cooperation of a vampire Reymen barely knew. He could count the words they’d spoken together, and they totaled few. He doubted the vampire would help him, and that was if he didn’t betray the intention to Jorick.
Assuming Jorick doesn’t read it in one of our minds before he gets the chance.
No, the idea was clever, but risked too much to be practical. There was nothing he could do. The prisoners’ fate was sealed.
They stopped near midnight to let the horses rest. A burbling stream seemed an ideal spot to rest. While the horses drank, the vampires dismounted to stretch their legs. Jorick pulled the prisoners down and heaped them to the side. Reymen had a flash of Catalina’s tear stained face. He could imagine the horror of being a captive, tied and starved for two days.
He caught Beldren looking at them and saw something similar flicker across his features. The blonde cleared his throat loudly. ‘Should we not allow them sustenance?”
Jorick took a seat on a fallen log and snapped open his book. “Nay. No permanent harm will come to them for it, and such a delay would add another day to our journey.”
“Not a day, surely.” Beldren glanced to the prisoners again.
Jorick sighed and lowered his book. “No, but the hour it adds would make it impossible to reach the den tonight, meaning we would need other accommodations. After an entire day of sleeping, you would again want to feed them, which would add more time, and it would be late evening tomorrow before we reached Malick. ‘tis better to push on. Once they are in the den, they will be untied and placed in a detention cell where they will be free to move, and be fed.”
“Are you so sure of that?” Reymen asked. Jorick narrowed his eyes, but it was too late, so Reymen pushed on. “How often are prisoners fed? From what I have seen, such a thing is rare. They will be house, perhaps left bound, and then shipped off to the harbor where they can be smuggled on a ship back to England or Spain, and then from there shipped to the Holy Roman Empire.”
Jorick looked ready to argue, then shrugged. “Perhaps. It is not our concern. We have only to deliver them to Malick, nothing more.”
“Your guild sounds harsh indeed,” Beldren said lightly. “Worse, perhaps, than the governing bodies the sisters spoke of in Europe.”
“’Tis the same governing body, unless they escaped long ago, before the Kugsankal was able to get a foothold. In which case, they would have been under the old lords, who were worse.”
When no one answered, Jorick gave a grunt, as if to punctuate the end of the conversation, and turned back to his book.
Beldren cast the prisoners an uncomfortable look and muttered something about a snack before he drifted into the foliage. Reymen waited an impatient moment, but hen Jorick didn’t so much as flinch, he followed the blonde. He stayed several paces back, until they were some distance from Jorick and the others, before overtaking him.
Beldren gave him a quizzical look as he fell into step beside him, but said nothing. Reymen peered into his mind, but on the surface found only questions regarding Reymen’s intentions, a vague paranoia, and a slight concern that meeting Malick might not be as incredible an idea as it had first seemed.
Reymen hesitated. Though Beldren had seemed sympathetic to the pair, perhaps this was also a mistake. Perhaps…
You won’t know unless you try.
Still, it was better to warm up to it rather than just burst out with the intention, so he broke the silence with, “You’re not a dream stealer, are you?”
Beldren quirked an eyebrow. “If you mean can I walk in your thoughts as you and Jorick can walk in mine, then no.”
“Perhaps you’re lucky. ‘Tis easier to handle prisoners when you cannot see the story that hides behind their eyes.”
Curiosity flared in Beldren’s eyes. “And such a story hides behind the eyes of your newest acquisition?”
Reymen fought the urge to pour it out. Better to be sure. “There’s always a story. But, yes, this pair has one as well. Perhaps more tragic than others.”
The words had their intended effect. Reymen not only saw the other’s interest, but felt it; like a flickering flame in the depth of his chest. A burning desire to know and consume the pain of another. “What tragedy is that, if I may ask?”
“I don’t know that I should burden you with such things,” Reymen said quickly. “Perhaps I should not have mentioned it, only it weighs heavily and perhaps I thought to lighten the load by sharing. However, it is not yours to bear. I apologize.”
Beldren drew to a stop and laid his hand on Reymen’s arm, pulling him up short. “Nay, have no fear. I am already involved in this enterprise, for good or ill, so complete knowledge can only help the situation, can it not?”
Reymen made s how of hesitating, and finally poured the story out – hoe Catalina was gifted as a child, raised by her master, turned, and made into a bedchamber slave used to amuse Amerigo. Filippo, a lowly member of the coven, met her, fell in love, and vowed to save them both. Of course, Reymen hadn’t seen all of that, but he could guess at those parts. They had to have happened for things to be as they were.
Beldren hung on the words. Emotions shifted through his green eyes, and Reymen felt his softness towards their true love, to the idea of Filippo’s sacrifice. He’s a romantic.
When Reymen finished, he added for good measure what their punishment would be. “Though I cannot claim to be a demon eye and see the future, I know well enough what theirs will be. She will return to her cage, and he to death for stealing the fledgling slave of another. It seems a pity after all they have endured.”
“It does at that,” Beldren agreed slowly. “As such, why do you not simply release them?”
“If I were alone I could, but with Jorick…” Reymen trailed off. “Jorick is Malick’s pet. He will not willingly disobey his master, not for a pair he knows not, and cares for even less.”
“A heartless sort,” Beldren muttered. “Then what do you plan to do? Leave them to their fate?”
The moment had arrived. Reymen explained that they could be released, so long as Jorick was led to believe that they were still there.
“As the humans saw an untruth, so he should see one.”
“And when you return to The Guild and he discovers the trick?” Beldren asked. “Nay, he will strike out at us both. I have no desire to die.”
He was right, though Reymen hated to acknowledge it. “Then what do you propose?”
“Better to create a distraction and let him believe they escaped during it.”
“Then what is to stop him from giving them chase?”
“The sunrise, of course. To chase after a pair that will likely die or seek shelter himself; the decision will be simple.”
Reymen saw the logic except- “If they escape near sunrise, what will prevent them from being burned alive so soon after gaining their freedom.”
“Because it will not be as close to sunrise as Jorick believes. ‘Tis a simple matter to make the morning appear nearer than it is, to make him see a blush in a dark sky and imagine that the world is lightening when it is not.”
“And the guards?”
“Aye, they would be easier. If I’m not mistaken, they are weaker than the two of you.”
“We have only to discover a suitable diversion, during which I will hide your actions as you unbind and release them. Jorick needs to be thoroughly distracted – it would be best if he were not present as they escape – or he will never believe you provided no aid. As one who can sneak into your mind, he will do so if he is suspicious.”
Yes, he would. And he would be suspicious no matter what distraction they offered. Reymen had no illusion of getting out of this without punishment. He could only hope it wouldn’t be too severe.
They finished their plans and met back with the others. Jorick made a remark about their long absence, then loaded Filippo on his horse. Reymen hurried to put Catalina on the guard’s mount, taking the opportunity to weaken the hold around one ankle.
Reymen climbed on his own horse, allowing the animal to fall in line with no commands form him. He let his mind wander down dark paths that all ended in the same question: was this worth the risk? Were the lives of two vampires he scarcely knew worth his own demise, and perhaps that of Beldren?
No, of course not.
Yet…yet he couldn’t stand to turn them over. Not because he held romanticized notions as Beldren did, but because he knew The Law was wrong to dictate such things. The Europeans might be content under such a system but the new world would not be so controlled.
And it is time the Kugsankal understood this.
The night was waning, and morning only a couple of hours away, when Beldren suddenly pulled his horse to a violent stop and announced that it had thrown a shoe.
Jorick coughed lightly, but reined his steed in, signaling for the others to do the same. Reymen slipped from his mount to assist the blonde, unsure if this was part of the plan or if the animal was actually injured. Though the time seemed right, the area seemed less so. There were thick trees to one side, and rolling grassland to the other, with no buildings in sight for any of them to shelter in.
Reymen squatted next to Beldren, who was examining his horses hoof. The Blonde met his eyes, and Reymen mouthed, “Where is the distraction?”
“A moment,” Beldren murmured, before dropping the hoof and standing. “My mistake,” he called. “Was only a rock.”
“You know very little of horses then, to mistake the two,” Jorick replied.
“Perhaps. The sisters were not so keen on adventuring as you seem to be.” He broke off to squint into the trees. “What was that?”
Jorick arched an eyebrow, but followed his motion toward the heavy forest. Reymen did the same. Despite the audible gaps from one of the guards, he saw nothing.
“I smell them!” The guard dropped his horse, hand on his weapon. “They’re drawing closer.”
The second looked similarly alarmed as he left his steed. “Aye. There are-“ he broke off to sniff the air. “Six…no seven. I smell seven at least.”
Reymen inhaled but caught only the scent of the forest, of trees and grass and dying leaves. There was nothing there, and surely not seven somethings ready t o attack.
This must be Beldren’s distraction.
Jorick made a sound of impatience, as if he felt the drama was more than he should deal with. “Come. We should be well clear before they-”
But Reymen couldn’t take the chance, so he gave the guards a mental nudge, using his whisperer ability. “If you attack them first, you’ll have the tactical advantage.”
They took the bait and charged into the trees, blades drawn. Jorick looked back and forth between Reymen and the prisoners, then to the trees where the guards had disappeared. Finally, he rolled his eyes and dismounted. “Stay with the prisoners. I’ll retrieve them.”
He crashed into the foliage, and Reymen wasted no time. He hurried first to Catalina. He pulled her from the horse, then tugged at the rope he’d loosened earlier. Her foot free, she tried to roll over, but he held her, and quickly pulled the rest of the rope loose, a task made easier by her emaciation. The ropes fell away to reveal dark marks on the tender skin of her wrists and ankles, the indentions caked with dirt.
He left her to get her wits together and rushed to untie Filippo. Once freed, the vampire didn’t bother with his gag, but left it in place to crawl toward Catalina. She motioned her wellbeing, though her appearance was anything but. Two days without feeding had left her withered, like an apple left in the sun. Her fingers didn’t want to cooperate as she plucked the wadded handkerchief from her mouth. Filippo hurried to help her, and once her mouth was free, he held her at arm’s length, as if examining to be sure she was really unharmed. In the same general shape she was in, he was also unnourished, but her eyes said he was still the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
They clutched one another, while Reymen looked quickly to the trees. Jorick and the guards could return at any moment. “If you wish to live, take one of the horses and fly.”
Filippo looked up, as if he couldn’t quite believe such a change of heart. There wasn’t time to convince him, so he pressed into their minds, using his whispering powers. “Take her and go, before the Executioners change their mind. You swore to protect her, so do it now while you have the chance.”
Like the guards, he took the implanted advice, pulling her to her feet and helping her onto the horse. In their weakened state, Reymen was surprised they could manage the task, and that they could stand to be so close to the living animal without drinking. The thirst had to be incredible.
He smacked the horse’s flank, then dove for the trees, pulling Beldren behind him. They’d gone only a few paces before he heard Jorick stomping through underbrush, the rustle of the guards behind him. A moment later, he came into view, twigs stuck to his cloak. He stopped, his face flickering with surprise. “I told you to remain with the prisoners.”
“They’re tied up,” Beldren said. “Our skills seemed better used assisting you.”
“Perhaps they would have been, had the trackers not lost the scent of their prey so easily.” Jorick gave the guards a disparaging look. “We’ve lost enough time. Come.”
He strode past them. Reymen allowed the guards to go first, then followed, Beldren on his heels. He fought to clear his mind, to stay calm. Don’t give Jorick any stray thoughts to catch.
The guards exited a moment before he did, both crying out in surprise. He grabbed his sword, feigning confusion at their alarm, and dashed out, ready to attack an imaginary enemy. When nothing presented itself, he lowered the weapon and played up confusion. “What…?”
Jorick cursed and spun, grabbing the front of Reymen’s shirt. “Where are the rogues?”
“Tied up on-” he broke off as he pretended to notice their absence. “They were there a moment ago!”
“They took my horse!” One of the guards cried. “If we hurry, perchance we can catch them.”
Beldren moved for his mount, then stopped, one hand on the reins, his attention to the east. “Sunlight is so close, can we afford a chase?”
Reymen glanced to see only stars. Like before, Beldren hadn’t bothered to share the illusion with him. Probably to conserve energy.
“There should be an hour or more,” the guard said, squinting at what he saw ot be a blushing sky. “Did we lose so much time?”
“We don’t have time to catch them,” the other cried. ‘What do we do?”
“What is there to do?” Jorick snapped. “Come, we’ll seek shelter and look for them when the sun has sunk.”
They mounted the horses, the guards doubling up, and followed Jorick at a jog. Reymen glanced to see Beldren, his body stiff, and his face hard with concentration. As the land fell away, he struggled more to keep the illusion for the three.
At last, a small village came into view. A half-finished house on the outskirts held enough walls to make a shelter. The smell of autumn rain said there was unlikely to be any construction, so they took their chances. Jorick dealt with the horses while the guards hurriedly made sure a section was safe from the sunlight. Though Reymen couldn’t see Beldren’s illusion, he guessed that the sun must be very ear to breaking free of the horizon. When that happened, he worried the illusion would shatter. It would be impossible for Beldren to give them the sensation of burning flesh.
Reymen’s luck held, and Jorick was inside before they had to find out. Safe in their cocoon, Reymen waited for further dressing down from his commander, but Jorick said only, “Rest well. We have a hunt tomorrow.”
As Reymen settled in to sleep, he worried that he’d only delayed the pair’s deaths, and extended the length of his own assignment.
Reymen woke to the patter of rain. His clothing was damp, but he fared better than one of the guards who was soaked, thanks to a steady leak that dripped water on him.
Jorick crouched in the corner, waiting. Reymen was surprised to see him without his book, then decided it must be the damp weather that stopped him. Were the pages to get wet, they’d be ruined. Surely Jorick wouldn’t stand for such a thing if he could help it.
Jorick nodded a greeting, his face an unreadable mask. “When they wake we will depart, feed in the forest, and then begin the hunt.”
“We’re nearly to The Guild’s den,” Reymen pointed out.
“I don’t take your meaning.”
Reymen tried to think innocent thoughts. “Would it not be belter to return to Malick and say that we have failed than to hunt in this miserable weather? The rogues know our scent now, and so will find it easier to elude us. Assuming they were able to find shelter and did not die with the sun.”
‘Whatever their fate, we will discover it. Beldren stirs now. Wake the guards, and let us be on our way.”
They left the village behind for the trees and breakfast. Reymen managed to corner Beldren alone. They were going to need another illusion; this one of death.
“An immortals bones will burn in daylight, as will most of their clothing, simply from the sheer heat of the body’s combustion. Ashes might suffice, though since they were riding a horse, the beast might also have been half burned.”
Beldren frowned. “It seems to me that had it happened, they’d have abandoned the horse and tried to dig into the earth of there was nowhere else to hide. Perhaps the beginning of a hole with a few ashes? Most, I believe, would have been washed away in this downpour.”
He had a point, so Reymen left it to him to conjure what he thought best. He only hoped it would be enough to convince Jorick.
Beldren waited for over an hour before he moved his horse next to Reymen’s to give him a short, sharp nod. Reymen understood the signal, waiting the count of thirty before reining in his steed to say, “What is that?”
The guards stopped eagerly, but Jorick was more reluctant. Reymen could feel his annoyance like a heavy cloud in his chest. Still, the commander pulled to a stop, and turned back. “What do you see?”
Reymen motioned wordlessly, unsure what vision Beldren would provide them. It was one of the guards who hopped from their shared horse to crouch over nothing. “Look. It’s as if someone dug desperately at the ground here.”
“Yes,” the second agreed. “See how the grass has been clawed away. And this.” He touched the ground then lifted his hand, sniffing at what was only mud to Beldren’s eyes. “Ashes. Whose, I cannot say. All scent was burned away in the sun.”
“Sun and not fire?” Jorick asked without dismounting.
“Aye. Fire would scorch more than just this. A vampire burned here. Perhaps two.”
“And so our rogues did not survive,” Reymen said, fighting to keep his tone neutral.
Jorick’s horse whinnied and he tugged the reins to calm it. “Then you have failed, Reymen. And you will be the one to explain that failure to Malick.”
Before Reymen could reply, Jorick turned his horse for the den. “I shall see you there, perhaps?” Then he took off.
The guards scrambled back on their horse and hurried after hi, but Reymen hesitated. His plan had worked so far, but to face Malick…the ancient would see it in his mind in a moment.
Unless he doesn’t look.
Somehow, Reymen doubted he could be that lucky.
The Guild’s den was primarily an underground structure, cut from the rock and earth below. Above ground was a stable, and a few other buildings necessary for both survival and the illusion of a farmstead.
Reymen reluctantly handed his horse in at the stable. “Has Jorick been here yet?”
The stable hand, a youth of fifteen who was made of sharp angles and jutting bone, shook his head, his eyes on the ground. “Nay, sir. You are the first visitors we’ve had this day.”
Reymen cursed silently, then motioned Beldren to follow him. A small shed stood at the entrance to the underground chambers, guarded by a vampire in black. With a salute, he let them past. Inside. A staircase led to the subterranean rooms.
“Impressive,” Beldren murmured. “How long until we see this Malick?”
The voice came like a booming ocean squall, “You do not need to wait.”
Beldren drew up short, but Reymen propelled him on, stopping only when they’d reached the room at the bottom of the stairs. Hung in paintings, a throne was center stage and in it say a vampire with flowing silver hair and beard. Dressed in crimson robes, he looked every bit the king he thought he was.
“Master.” Reymen dropped to one knee, and bid Beldren do the same. The blond followed the directions, his curious eyes cast down.
“And who is this child?” Malick asked. “The rogue you were sent to apprehend?”
“No, master.” Reymen drew a tight breath for courage. “This is Beldren, a vampire we discovered on our journey. Jorick thought it best if he-”
“Jorick, you say? And where is my son?”
Reymen squeezed his eyes shut. “I know not, master. Jorick left us when we discovered the death of the rogues.”
Malick laughed, a rich thick sound that reminded Reymen of honey. “You mean that he refused to be answerable for your failure?”
Reymen swallowed. Malick’s amusement was never a good sign. “Perhaps, though is it not also his failure?” He chanced looking up, to see Malick’s face hard, his eyes cold glittering jewels. “Had he-“
Both Reymen and Beldren flinched at the command, struck momentarily dumb, whether from fear or Malick’s power.
“There can be only one consequence to failure – and especially failure such as yours. To fool your own is a grievous enough error, but to disobey a command – my command – deserves punishment. Guards!”
Reymen’s stomach clenched, and he looked wildly to the ancient. He knew. Of course he knew.
Guards shuffled forward and Malick waved to the prostrate vampires. “Take them both, for though a new face, he is already an accomplice. Perhaps three weeks detainment will teach them who is the master here.”
Beldren pulled to his feet stuttering excises, but Reymen didn’t bother to fight. There was no point, nothing to do except take his punishment and pray it didn’t turn to an execution order.
As the guards led him away, he glimpsed Jorick standing at the foot of the stairs, his hair and cloak wet with rainwater.
Malick welcomed his son, his voice warm with affection. The guards shoved Beldren through a door. He caught the doorframe, and pulled back for a moment, entreating his ignorance of the way things worked.
“How was I to know?”
The guards didn’t reply, only pushed him on through. As Reymen followed, he heard Malick’s warm laughter behind him.
“And so you knew the trick all along my son, yet allowed it. For though you had no wish to return the rogues over the sea, neither did you wish the punishment for disobeying. Perhaps you should join them for your complacency? But no, instead, a reward for your cunning, perhaps? Kateesha has been sent to handle a tribe of natives. You will join her.”
Jorick scoffed. “Perhaps I would rather join them?”
“Then look at this as your punishment.”
The door shut before Reymen could hear Jorick’s reply. Apparently they hadn’t fooled the commander either.
So what was the point of the hunt, of the time wasted hunting vampires Jorick knew they wouldn’t find, perhaps didn’t want to find?
Malick’s voice sounded in his head, laughing softly, “A reprieve from your punishment, child. What else? In three days you will beg for such a moment.”
Not if I can help it.
topic – Jonathan
pic – Colleen
- christmas 2) hanging onto a star 3) reaching for the stars 5) fairy 6) among the stars 7)