Master and Mates

It was a strange sight the scumbums and water punks beheld in the gloom of the winter night: a lone man, traveling without any protection but a bull whip, dragging a rickety cart behind him. The fact that the man was alone was odd enough: his long white hair marked him for an old man and easy prey, yet he walked with ease—as if no wild thing, man or beast, could bring him harm. The cart was even stranger: an old relic of piecemeal metal and wood, it must have weighed three hundred pounds alone, but stuffed as it was by the gods knew what under those blankets and sacks, it could easily be a thousand pounds. Yet he pulled it along as if merely tugging a child on a sled through the snow. The greatest oddity, however, the thing that made the scumbums choke on their pipes and the water punks pause in their fucking and fighting, was that this old man was dragging the cart through two feet of snow in nothing but a ragged pair of muddy trousers.

Tagashes was utterly lost in thought as he plodded along, ‘else he would have realized his misstep and bypassed the well house entirely. As it was, his eyes only came back to focus on the world around him when he nearly ran smack into a pack of warm bodies huddled in furs.

“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” said the old man as he blinked several times to clear his head of faraway thoughts.

One of the water punks, who seemed to run this particular well house, crossed his thickly-coated arms. “What the fuckin’ fuck you fuckin’ doin’ out here, old man?”

Tagashes sighed wearily. “Of all the lamentable losses of mankind these twelve hundred years past, language is among the most lamentable.”

The jab seemed to miss the ruffian entirely. “I sez what you fuggin’ doin’ out here, old man? Ain’t no one comes out this way but needs our water, an’ if you want our water you gotta pay. You got enough to pay for water in that sorry ass waggon?”

Tagashes was entirely unfazed by the man’s aggressive nature. On the contrary, he seemed bored and a little aggravated himself. “You will forgive my lack of depraved speech, as I eschew most vulgarities save a good, solid, absolutely British ‘damn,’ but I haven’t any interest in your water, my good sir. I am merely passing through. I take it by your demeanor that I have encroached upon your territory and for that, I apologize. I shall be happy to avoid this area in the future, should you be so kind as to let me pass unhampered.”

Tagashes attempted to start off again, but was soundly stopped by the fist of one of the scumbums. “You gotta pay to walk here, shit-stain. You ain’t leaving unless you pay in trade or blood.”

Tagashes wrinkled his nose. “Honestly, may we dispense with the vulgarities? I am simply a traveler on my way home, and I do not wish any conflict, so if you would please step aside, I shall be on my merry way.”

This time it was one of the women of the water punks who punched him in the lip. Tagashes was getting quite vexed by the lack of manners. He knew he shouldn’t expect any better from a society caught so persistently between revitalization and deprivation, but he could not help the vexation all the same.

“He said you gotta pay to walk here, dick shine.”

“What does that even mean?” asked Tagashes.

The girl went on as if Tagashes hadn’t even spoken. “This is scumbum hopland. We own the well house, the scumbums own every fuggin’ thing around. Pay to walk or die. We’re happy either way.”

“I’d be happier with the killing, personally,” grinned a big toothless bruiser of a water punk. Several chuckles swam through the pack.

Tagashes tutted disapprovingly as he put down the cart’s yolked tongue. He eyed the cart carefully for a moment to make sure none of the contents were of a mind to tumble out, then he faced the brutes.

“Ain’t you cold, old man? What, you been robbed or somethin’?” This came from a swarthy scumbum who seemed to possess three pupils to each eye.

“What was that?” asked Tagashes distractedly, then he remembered himself and glanced down at his bare chest. “Oh. Oh, yes of course. Damn cold out here, isn’t it? Brr and all that. Mind if I took one of your lovely thick fur coats? Or are they wraps? I can’t exactly tell, the shapeless things…”

The point man of the water punks crossed his arms and smiled. “The only thing you gonna be takin’ is a beatin’.” He laughed heartily at his own joke and the others laughed with him.

“Mmm. Clever, that. Deucedly clever. I do not however wish to prolong this escapade, as several of the items in my cart here are subject to degradation under extreme conditions. I should like to return home as quickly as possible, and shall do so under any circumstances you deem apropos. I should warn you, however, that violence is not the course chosen by the wise.”

A raucous laughter swelled into the open night from the pack of punks. The leader of the them howled what might have been the following words through his idiotic guffaws: “Man, I don’t even know what the fuck you just said, but it sounds like a damn good reason to rumble.” He then turned to a mountainous brute among the water punks and said with a big devilish grin, “Fido, kill.”

A space was cleared in front of the hulking hitman and he advanced with a superior grin, pounding his ham-like fist into his mitt-like palm.

The would-be assailant took no more than one step however before a terrific crack rent the air and the man was stumbling backward through the snow with a gurgling scream, a thick trail of blood following him. When he came to rest, he was quite dead, his throat nearly torn through. The others stared at the body as it twitched into lifelessness, then returned their collective gaze back to the old man by his cart. He stood at ease, a bull whip waving in his hand.

“I did proffer warning fairly enough. Will you allow me passage now? I believe your demand for blood has been paid, yes?”

A count of two heartbeats thundered in the stillness, and then one of the scumbums shouted, “Fuck him the fuck up!”

“Bother,” mumbled Tagashes as the group bounded for him.

A rapid series of cracks sent the first three into the snow, then Tagashes was forced to move his feet as the numbers pressed on him. With a terrific leap, he dove to the right, snagging another scumbum on his way as if plucking a paper doll from the wind. An animal snarl was heard, followed by a bloodcurdling scream swiftly cut short. By the time the remaining pack members had turned to face him, Tagashes was springing up again, blood dripping from his chin, as the scumbum shivered in the throes of death at his feet.

“What the—?”

Tagashes raised a finger. “If you will allow me to supplant the inevitable expletive, the proper response would be ‘damn.'”

In less than a minute, the whole lot of boorish basics had been dispatched, and Tagashes was contentedly slurping from the femoral artery of the objectionable female who had struck him in the mouth. He heard the sound of someone clapping nearby, and his head whipped upright, eyes alert for trouble. What he saw was a tall, gangling man with long black dreadlocks and skin so white he could be a corpse. Tagashes was on his feet in a moment, bull whip whistling overhead.

The stranger kept clapping. “That was a thing of beauty,” he remarked. “Absolutely fucking textbook. Ah, but you’ll excuse my language. I gather you find the coarser extents of the English language distasteful. I refrain: damn.”

Tagashes lowered his whip. “I would prefer it, thank you. And a jolly hearty damn it was at that. I am afraid you have become privy to some rather surreptitious knowledge, however, and I shall have to jog your memory a bit.”

The stranger smiled. “Not necessary, my man. Creil prenon, tavash athera; I am your brother and mean you no harm.”

Tagashes raised his eyebrows at the sound of the First Tongue, the dulcet language spoken by mankind before recorded history. Only those of the Blood knew that tongue now. “I see. Well, that does make a difference, tavash athera. If indeed you mean me no harm, then come: sup with me ‘ere I go. The air is cold and the blood of these ruffians already begins to cool and thicken, but it is nourishment nonetheless.”

“Gladly,” said the stranger brightly. Tagashes sat and resumed his feasting. The other dragged the body of a scumbum near and set his teeth into the man’s armpit, sucking the blood through the fur coat, which Tagashes found unduly messy, but he said nothing of it.

In a friendly manner, Tagashes offered, “Punctilio once required introductions, so I shall begin: my name is Tagashes. I live in Fanghold, where I have resided almost exclusively since the blanch.”

“Tagashes… Poison blade? Hm. You must have one helluva vindictive sire.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Tagashes agreed as he suckled a bit more.

“My name is Zhahan, and I don’t have a home. I’ve been wandering my entire life, and I expect I’ll be wandering on to the threshold of eternity. Restlessness suits me, I guess.”

“Your name is Destroyer?” Tagashes remarked. “And you named my sire vindictive.”

Zhahan laughed quietly into the fur coat before licking his lips and replying, “I think he was more hopeful. You see, my sire hoped I could protect him. He was wrong, of course, but my name is my name, I suppose.”

“If your sire is destroyed, you can always rename yourself without breaking precedent,” Tagashes suggested.

Zhahan shrugged. “It’s grown on me, you might say. Certainly makes any adversaries think twice about trying me. Convenient, that.”

“I understand. So you’ve been wandering for your entire life, you say? That’s twelve or thirteen hundred years of wanderlust at least. You must have quite the itch to get about, as they say.”

Zhahan chuckled. “I do believe I’ve got the itch, but not for so long as that. You see, I am a toddling thing next to you. I am but two hundred years old.”

Tagashes choked and nearly spat out the cooling blood in his mouth. “You mean to say…?”

“Quite so,” affirmed the other. “The reason my sire so named me, and so dearly wished me to save him from wrath, was because I was turned after the blanch. I have no memory of the great dread war between all nations, no recollection of the ten-year rain of ash, no notion of how nearly humanity came to self-imposed extinction, though I should bloody well have liked to see it. It sounds terribly fascinating.”

“It was devastating,” said Tagashes, his eyes focused far away. “The sheer destruction was so widespread that nothing grew for years in most places. The scattered pockets of life struggled so to hang on, but it seemed for almost a century that they would all fade away. That is why the stricture was placed on turning. The brethren were in such want for blood that turning even a single human would have meant certain dry madness for another.”

Zhahan nodded thoughtfully. “That is what they say. But humanity has bounced back now; their numbers must be in the millions worldwide. Why has the stricture persisted?”

“Before the blanch, there were a thousand times as many humans alive and well in the world,” Tagashes said. “Still, from my own travels, I estimate the population of mankind to be roughly equivalent to the middle ages, around the time of the bubonic plague, and there were certainly enough of us around then, if my sire and history are to be believed, so I may in fact lean towards agreement. The elders do enjoy their precedents, though. They are children of tradition and stubbornly stern.”

“Even so,” answered Zhahan. “I generally avoid the elders except to make mischief.”

“Hard going, pestering an elder. You’ve got grit to do it, boy.”

The other man waved his hand dismissively. “Bah. Enough about me. What of you, sir? You say you live at Fanghold? Where is that? Is it a coven?”

Tagashes snorted almost disdainfully, then checked himself again as if catching himself out of line. “More of a castle really. You see, directly following the blanch, when the sky was still bright white even at night and the ash was still coating the ground, my sire decided he would form a new coven with my broodmate and me. Over the next century, he spent most of his time building a great bloody castle in the mountains, and when we weren’t assisting in that particular project, he had us scouring the country for human survivors. We brought nearly two dozen to the frigid little oasis before the fortification was complete, and since then we have been living there, gathering what humans we can find hither and yon, though we now have the luxury of being a bit more pragmatic in who we choose to bring along. My sire welcomes visitors of the Blood whenever they come, so long as they play by his rules, if you take my meaning. We have collected a fair assembly in our once-little coven. I suppose it’s a legitimate kingdom, one might say. My sire certainly says as much.”

“Very clever of him. Yes, very clever of your sire indeed to build up a farm in the mountains. I suppose it is in some hard to reach valley, where the surrounding peaks managed to block out the worst of the fallout?”

“You suppose correctly, my lad,” replied the elder. “It’s about fifty kilometers northwest of this place, if you fancy a visit. Look for a pair of mountains that form together in the shape of a chalice just above the tree line. Head straight between them and you’ll find a sort of tunnel passes through the stone. I should forewarn you, however, that my sire is an elder, and would likely sniff you out if you don’t blind him with flattery first.”

Zhahan stood. “Well, sounds interesting at least. Perhaps one day I shall pay a visit. May I ask your sire’s name?”

Tagashes stood also. “Vadnovim is his name, and I do not jest when I say he is an elder. There are few of the Blood that surpass him in age. Be mindful if you do come.”

Zhahan smiled. “Beauty’s fang, I take his name to mean? Or perhaps beautiful fang. Either way, he sounds a delight. Don’t you worry yourself about me, if I do drop by: I know well enough how to dazzle an elder to keep him off my scent. Just you be sure to keep yourself in check, if you please.”

Tagashes looked around at the carnage in the snow. “I shan’t tell anyone of our meeting if you tell no one of my little tiff here, eh? Have we a pact?”

Zhahan grinned warmly as they shook hands. “We have a pact.”


            Three nights later, Tagashes walked into the grand hall of Fanghold to the familiar sound of his sire shouting. As he passed through the doorway and pressed through the small crowd of “courtiers,” he wondered what had gotten Vadnovim so riled this time. As soon as he had a clear view of the dais, his question was clearly answered: Tagashes’ broodmate Tavrivael stood before the ostentatious throne with her back rigid in a fascinating mixture of supplication and defiance. Vadnovim was pacing circles around his throne, jabbing his ever-present longsword into the wooden floor again and again as he went. Tagashes made a mental note to call up the craftsmen from town during the day that they might fix the planks.

“Recalcitrant whore!” Vadnovim bellowed. “Insolent bitch!” Having run the gamut of his slightly more eloquent admonishments, he resorted to his usual inanity: “Demmed girl, demmed whelp of a bastard idiot! Jungo, you disobedient scum! Jungo and fuck!”

Tavrivael, to her credit, was not cowed by the noisome onslaught. “It is not my intent to incite your ire, Vadnovim.”

Tagashes knew better. It was likely that everyone present knew better. His broodmate seemed to delight in finding ways to enrage their sire. It was just for that brazen spirit, however, that Vadnovim kept Tavrivael alive. Tagashes, on the other hand, had no such compunctions: their sire kept him alive for other purposes.

Vadnovim waved his sword in his child’s face. “Like hell, you impetuous imp!”

Tagashes was impressed: their sire must have learnt a new word. Though his usage in this instance was a little redundant.

Vadnovim waved the sword in Tavrivael’s face a bit longer, then grew even angrier at its lacking effect. With a snarl, he flopped into his throne, throwing one leg over the armrest in his best pose of implacable tyrant.

“Three years,” he fumed. “Three years have you known the location of the lost city of Subterra, and you still refuse to lead me to the demmed location or even give a clue where it might be found. This is insolence, you little pup. I will not tolerate it!”

In the exact same tone as before, Tavrivael began to say again, “It is not my intent to—”

“Fuck you!” screamed her sire. “How long has it been since your last visit to that demn cave?”

“Nearly three months,” answered Tavrivael simply.

“Then I expect you’re just itching terribly to return,” Vadnovim sneered. “If you go, I will have you followed. I swear I will.”

“As is your prerogative, Vadnovim, but I feel I should remind you that the outcome of your previous attempts were less than successful.”

This was putting things mildly. The last time Vadnovim had sent assassins to follow Tavrivael into Subterra, she had sent them back—via a very unlucky human courier—as ashes in separate bags.

“Why you recalcitrant ass!” thundered Vadnovim, rising from his throne to resume pacing. “I should have you destroyed! How long has Subterra survived?”

“Since the blanch. They have proven most hardy folk.”

“And their numbers?”

“Nearly four hundred thousand, by my estimation, though the actual figure could be far greater as I have yet to explore the entirety of the place. It is rather sprawling, you see.”

“Tell me where it is!” demanded Vadnovim again.

“I shan’t,” replied Tavrivael without withering an inch.

“Damn it, child!” Vadnovim threw his longsword and, though she was but ten feet from him, Tavrivael easily sidestepped the blade, which went careening into the crowd and sliced through several limbs and a brace of torsos before losing momentum. Shrieks of pain echoed in the hall. The wounded were hastily removed and the sword, still dripping blood, was returned to Vadnovim. Tagashes made a mental note to have the cellar crew send up casks of blood to the infirmary: a lot of blood would be needed to heal those wounds.

“Do you joy in torturing me?” asked Vadnovim. “Do you think it funny, girl? We could grow the kingdom, child! Just think of it! We could build an empire with that many cattle in the valley! The brethren would come from all over to get at our stores, and fucking treasures they would bring to get a taste of it, too! How is that in any way not something you’d want? Shit!”

Tavrivael was utterly unmoved. “I doubt the people of Subterra would be so easily displaced as you assume, Vadnovim. They have their peculiarities that have kept them so long underground. They are not so different from you and your court, one might say.”

Vadnovim’s eyes narrowed and he lowered his head until he was glaring through his eyebrows and his long red hair hung in his face. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

Tavrivael shrugged. “Take it as you will.”

“I will take your head!” Vadnovim roared. He slashed his longsword through the air and a wide arc of blood was flung from the ferrule. Somehow, none of the cruor touched Tavrivael.

A long, tense silence followed in which neither progenitor nor progeny would back down. At last, Vadnovim raged as he gnashed his exceptionally long fangs, “Tell me where the cavemen live!”

“In a cave, of course,” was Tavrivael’s immediate and simple response. A low murmur rippled throughout those gathered, and even Tagashes had to admire the balls on his broodmate.

“Get the fucking hell out of my sight!” Vadnovim screamed loud enough to burst a mortal’s eardrums.

“By your leave,” Tavrivael said in a voice dripping with sardonic sweetness as she dropped a quick curtsy.

Tavrivael turned on her heel and walked toward the door, a path clearing before her and her sire grumbling behind. Tagashes turned to follow before he also suffered his sire’s wrath.


            Tavrivael was incensed. She stormed through the castle, her fists clenched so that the nails pierced the flesh of her palms. The wounds did not bleed, however, for the brethren control the blood in their veins by force of will, their hearts being still.

“Damn him,” she growled under her breath as she stormed up the stair against the outer wall.

Though in the courtroom she was sure to maintain an unperturbed aura for the purposes of galling Vadnovim, she could not deny her fury now. She was thoroughly sickened by the ancient creature that she was bound to; infinitely ashamed of her monstrous lout of a progenitor. The Blood sang to her of a duty that she would fain deny, a bond that she refuted ’til it exhausted her entirely. Vandovim was her sire, but if she had to break apart all the heavens and summon a second blanch, she would see herself rid of him.

As Tavrivael crested the stair and drove along the wide stone allure atop the outer wall like a swift stormfront, her thoughts went to Tagashes. She had seen her broodmate in the throne room, but had not stopped to welcome him home. The guilt for the snub panged her momentarily, but was soon overwhelmed by her fury. More than her own intractably persistent loyalty to Vadnovim, Tavrivael hated the hold that ancient being kept upon Tagashes. Her brother was far too kind and far too clever to be made to suffer the invidious snake that was their maker. She vowed then, as she had vowed so often over two millennia, that she would wrest her dear brother from the clutching talons of their poisonous progenitor.

The night was probably cold: snow lay over the castle in a thick-pillowed mask, hiding the jagged edges and menacing grotesques in gowns of glistening serenity. The effulgent sidereal sky overhead was crystalline clear and sharp in the way only a frigid night can concoct. She tried to allow the beauty of it to touch her, as Tagashes often coaxed, but frustration had the better of her just then, and she strode on, the snow past her thighs hardly hindering her progress toward the southeast wall, where the worked stone married into the very living rock of the mountain.

A little hidden footpath led from a secret spot on the wall—hard to see in the summer, and impossible to find in the snowdrifts. Tavrivael’s steps led her unerringly thither.

Up and up the path went, and she breathed deeply of the shallow mountain air. In its due course, the invisible path crossed over a high ridge where sat a small sentry tower. It was abandoned now for want of purpose: no one knew of the footpath that did not owe devotion to Vadnovim, and no one could find the footpath that did not meet a sooner end from such devotees. This was Tavrivael’s secret chamber now: a forgotten and musty construct of lichen and broken stone, it was the most beautiful place Tavrivael knew apart from Subterra.

For all the rest of the long night, Tavrivael sat upon the roof of the tower, brooding and berating herself. She knew she must rid Tagashes and herself of the tyrant, but how to pull her brother away was a question never well answered. She thought of ways she might whisk Tagashes off to the China Sea, or the Americas, or even Subterra, whose unfathomed depths and unrivalled libraries Tavrivael knew he would adore. She thought of destroying their sire, of ripping off his head with her bare hands and burning his heart in a white-hot furnace, of drinking him dry and absorbing all of his memories.

She thought of the cold and let it settle over her consciousness. She thought of her brother and decided she would stay a bit longer for his sake. For Tagashes.

She certainly would not stay for Vadnovim. She reassured herself of this as the sky brightened and the sun threatened its blazing presentation. Tavrivael dropped down from the roof and climbed into the sarcophagus below.

“Damn him,” she grumbled groggily.


The following night, Tavrivael came to visit Tagashes in the study he’d built for himself along the outer wall of the castle. She was feeling rather proud of her performance in the grand hall and was of a keen mind to celebrate her broodmate’s return. Though she was older than Tagashes by almost exactly a hundred and ten years, she had been very young when turned, and he very old, so the true difference in their ages was not so great. From their first meeting, Tagashes had loved Tavrivael as an elder sister and remained devoted to her always. It was their kinship that kept Tavrivael at the castle instead of running off to her own adventures. That, at least, was what she told herself.

She entered the study without knocking, as was her habit, and called out, “Brother mine, where be ye?”

“Tavrivael! So good of you to visit!” her broodmate answered from somewhere to the left. Though the study was a singular massive room, so many cases and artifacts and studies crowded the space in haphazard piles that the whole was something of a labyrinth. Fortunately for Tavrivael, she knew her way through it almost as easily as Tagashes himself. She knew no one else could say the same.

“Come, dearest, come!” Tagashes called. “You will simply marvel at the wonders I have collected!”

Tavrivael dove into the maze with giddy excitement at seeing her brother again. “Where did you go this time? France? Finland? Iceland?”

“Nowhere so distant, my dear. Only so far as Sussex, I’m afraid, but I’ve got some spectacular specimens all the same.”

Tavrivael could tell she was nearing Tagashes. Only a few more turns, and she should see him. The smile disappeared from her lips, however, when she heard a very faint rustling behind her to the right. Instantly, her brow furrowed and her senses piqued. “I hope you brought enough shiny things to appease his royal fucking majesty,” she called out, hoping her voice would not give her awareness away as she silently opened the pouch at her side and strapped a katara to each wrist.

The bright tone of Tagashes’ response told her that he was oblivious to the danger. “Oh, I found shiny things by the score. Quite a plebeian operation, that. Simply found the remnants of a jeweler’s under the dust and rooted out a few handfuls of diamonds and gold bands. Only took a day, but damned if it wasn’t out of the way to find one.”

“I am glad for you,” Tavrivael called, trying not to quicken her steps. She heard another rustle, just a whisper of cloth, but she knew what it was. “Vadnovim is pissed at me, and no question. I’m afraid we may now be in for a repeat of the Manchester debacle.”

The pause Tagashes gave was too pregnant. Tavrivael heard several other shuffles from directions all around and she knew the attack was eminent: Tagashes had taken her warning, but his pause gave them away to the assassins.

“Is that so?” came Tagashes’ voice.

“I’m afraid it is,” replied Tavrivael as she quickened her pace. The game was on.

“Bother,” she heard her broodmate mutter as she rounded a pile of wooden crates and saw him. He was backing away from a table set about with dusty artifacts and uncoiling his whip. On the wooden catwalk behind him, a shadow seemed to move slightly.

“Mind the catwalk behind, brother,” she said to him.

In that instant, as Tagashes was spinning about, the proverbial shit hit the fan. Four separate shadows dropped down in the clearing, and Tavrivael could hear at least three more behind her and one to the left. She sprinted to her brother and they met back to back, circling slowly.

“I’ve got four of them here, dearest,” came her broodmate’s voice in her ear.

“And I six… five. I hear more coming as well.”

“Shall we adjourn this meeting, then?” asked Tagashes as Tavrivael heard the sound of his whip cracking followed by blood spattering the floor.

“Reconvene at the viking boat?” she suggested.

“Let it be. Luck to you!” he answered.

Tavrivael nodded. “And to you.”

With that, they peeled off and leapt at their attackers. Tavrivael heard a crash behind her, followed by a string of fervently British damns. With a feral snarl she punched her katara through a pair of throats, turned a deft pirouette and beheaded the two assassins who crumbled to ash at her feet. Tavrivael did not pause to admire her handiwork, but charged through the opening left by the slain. She raced around three left turns and a sharp right that nearly doubled back before hooking left again and then splitting in two directions. She took the left path and the right at the next fork. Only when she rounded the following bend did she stop, crouching under a table supporting the mummified remains of an old Celt. She waited for ten full seconds before stepping out again.

Now that she had lost her assailants in the labyrinth, it was a simple game of cat and mouse. Sliding between a pair of petrified skeletons, she loped down a narrow lane, peering through the gaps for any sign of a moving shadow. She found one in short order. With a prodigious bound, she cleared the wall of Ming dynasty armaments and brought a katara down into the assassin’s skull. They crumpled to the floor together, and with her other hand, Tavrivael clawed at the murderous chest, ripping through flesh and bone with savagery while the stunned fool tried to keep at his training and stay silent. She ripped the heart from him and tossed it into a nearby torch to burn.

The assassin did scream then, as his heart burned and he turned to ash. The moment her katara was free of the assassin’s skull, she sprinted off through another path where her progress was interrupted by a cascade of crates containing petrified sea urchins that exploded into her.

The assassin leapt upon her even as Tavrivael was pierced again and again by splinters and spines. Blood dripped in her eyes and obscured her vision as she grappled with the death dealer before her; she felt her katara slide through flesh and smelled blood not her own. Leaping back, she pawed wildly at her face in an attempt to regain her sight and remove the stinging needles. She succeeded in wiping away enough blood to see a quick shadow in her face a moment before she felt the sword pierce her chest.

She gasped in pain as the cold steel sliced through her breast, her ribs, her lung, and out her back. It was a powerful thrust, and it lifted her off her feet. The assassin kicked her in the gut and sent her body flying off the sword. She felt every millimeter of the blade as it withdrew so hastily from her body, and the pain was exquisite agony. She landed some feet away in a pile of Grecian pottery.

The assassin was on her before she could orient herself and she felt much more than saw his blade singing through the air for her neck. At the last instant, she raised her hand. The blade crashed into the guard of her katara, and she felt the bones in her hand snap in a precise line.

“Bring me blood you bastard,” she coughed, crimson spittle burbling from her mouth. She snatched a fistful of the assassin’s shirtfronts and wrestled her adversary to the ground. With one hand she punched her blade through his sword arm and with the other she groped for his throat. The assassin batted at her frantically with his remaining free hand, but Tavrivael would not be denied. She took hold of his neck and pulled him to her mouth.

The life force was rife in him, as if he’d drunk ten men dry before coming to kill Tavrivael and her broodmate tonight. Drinking from one of the Blood was much different than drinking from a human: more potent, though bitter tasting, and it granted peculiar insights. As she drank, she caught glimpses in her mind’s eye of the man’s memories: hopes and fears and tragedy and renewal in seconds. She gleaned all the information she could from the wretched soul until a horridly dry sensation in her mouth made her choke.

Tavrivael sputtered and gagged and spat out the ashes of her defeated foe. As she collected the power of her newly imbibed blood to heal her wounds, her hands busied themselves with removing the splinters and spines.

“Bloody hired hands making a piss of a job,” she grumbled as she tugged angrily at the quills. “If you want a thing done, old man, have the stones to do it yourself.”

Two more living shadows met their inglorious ends as Tavrivael picked her way through the labyrinth to the early viking boat Tagashes had unearthed a few decades earlier in Iceland. She found her broodmate sitting on a crate, dabbing with a towel at an angry-looking wound across his ribs.

“All right, Tag?” she asked as she flopped down beside him to pull more spines from her flesh.

Tagashes grunted. “Damn thing won’t heal. Poison blade I reckon. Poetic, I assume it was meant to be.”

“It was Vadnovim again,” Tavrivael said as she pulled a long spine form the cartilage in her knee.

“You’re certain?” asked Tagashes.

Tavrivael flashed a screwy eye at her brother. “You doubt it?”

“Not in the least. Dash the ancient scoundrel and his dashed paranoia.”

“I drank one of them dry,” Tavrivael added with a sigh. “It was him.”

Tagashes simply nodded, still concerned with the dabbing of his wound. “These were illicitly turned, I take it?”

Tavrivael snorted. “Not even fifty years old. The fucking cuss gets away with whatever he wants.”

“By hook or by crook,” Tagashes agreed.

“We need to get away from him,” Tavrivael said, eyeing her broodmate sideways.

Tagashes sighed. “I’m afraid we’ve been over this, dearest.”

“No,” Tavrivael corrected, “I have been over it. Many times. You have sidestepped and avoided direct answer. Come now, brother. You are two thousand, three hundred and sixty years old. Grow up, grow a pair, and kiss Daddy goodbye. Look at what he does to us because he’s too paranoid about his damnable throne to trust his own progeny! You have personally seen him kill five of his own children, and I saw him destroy eight others before you. Who knows how many he killed before us. The man is a homicidal lunatic. He’s an appalling, reprobate douche-cunt that we should never see again.”

“If you would kindly refrain from vulgarities. It is beneath your station and unbecoming a woman of your age.”

“It is accurate.”

Tagashes winced as the towel dragged at a tender spot on his opened flesh. “Granted,” he relented.


            Though it exasperated Tavrivael that Tagashes had neither the willpower nor the constitution to leave their sire, she kept by his side all the same, ever protective of the clever fool. She mindfully snuffed the part of herself that rejoiced in a reason to stay with her sire, promising herself as always that she would find a way to break her brother free. Thus they endured their sire’s rages and paranoid propensities until one night some weeks later.

Vadnovim was hosting a party. This was in itself no remarkable thing, for the elder was fond of parties and frippery and moral abandon. Nearly every other night was a lavish, lusty party at Vadnovim’s court. The grand hall was filled with the sycophantic crowd who had come crawling from the wasted world without; who, through enough flattery and fawning, earned themselves the titles of courtiers to his majesty King Vadnovim. They would embrace every debauchery at these parties, for that was King Vadnovim’s delight. Often these hapless raves would devolve into wild orgies, with naked bodies writhing around the floor to the deep, rhythmic beats of the band reminiscent of the heavy rave music Vadnovim had loved before the blanch.

In a dark corner of the room, Tavrivael and Tagashes stood together, sipping from their chalices and looking on dispassionately at the blood-drenched mosh pit. Their inclination to find this behavior unsavory and barbaric had long since given way to placid resignation.

“Oh, look,” Tagashes said to Tavrivael, “the fellow from Norwich has constructed a beer bong. No bonus points for guessing he was in a fraternity before being turned.”

“And see here,” added Tavrivael, “the first bloody fuck of the night. Aren’t they the early birds?”

They watched the pair of ensanguined ravers tear away their clothing and thrust against one another to the beat. It was not long before their example caught on and crimson-sodden garments littered the floor. A naked female who appeared to be no older than fourteen came toward them, her underdeveloped hips gyrating lasciviously.

“You must have been young indeed when you were turned,” Tavrivael remarked blandly as the girl approached.

“I was thirteen years old in 1608. Haven’t aged a day since.” The girl rubbed her juvenile breasts against Tavrivael’s shirt, leaving blood smears.

“You might have made a killing selling facial masks once upon a time,” Tagashes muttered.

They knew better than to openly dissuade the revelers, but the broodmates had learned over the years that if they did not encourage them, the bawdy characters generally lost interest and rejoined the fray.

“Why don’t you come play with us?” the girl asked in a mock whine. “You may be surprised by the fun you have.”

“Oh, we are having fun,” Tagashes said. “Can’t you see?”

The girl grabbed Tagashes’ free hand and put it to her breast. With almost the same motion, she took Tavrivael’s free hand and drove two fingers so far up her vaginal canal, Tavrivael thought she could have performed an abortion on the girl with her fingernails.

“Oh, good fucking god,” the ravenous thing moaned. She licked her bloody lips as she slid Tagashes’ palm over her slick chest and swirled her groin around Tavrivael’s fingers. “Put your thumb on my clit, babe. It feels so fucking yummy.”

Tavrivael did not oblige the girl. Tagashes clicked his tongue. “You are a discredit to the age of Shakespeare, little one.”

The girl stopped her undulating and stared at him for all of four bars in the music. Or what might have passed for four bars, at least. With a scowl she let go of their hands. A vacuous squelching sound was heard as Tavrivael withdrew her fingers.

“Tired old shits,” the girl said before leaping back into the ophidian swarm.

“She didn’t even give me her number,” Tagashes remarked.

“Want to smell my finger?” asked Tavrivael.

Not five minutes passed before Tavrivael nudged Tagashes and nodded toward the door. A guard was standing on the threshold, looking quite at a loss. “It seems we have business,” she said.

With an expertise derived from thousands of years of practice, the pair wove their way through the mass of fluid skin to stand before the guard.

“Report,” Tavrivael directed.

The guard, pleased at least to have an ear bent his way, gave a sloppy sort of half salute. “There’s a guy at the gate. Seems to be brethren. Just walked right up to the moat and issued a challenge to his majesty. He’s waiting for an answer.”

Tavrivael’s eyebrows rose with a mild interest. “Well, we may have some sport this night after all.”

They followed the guard out of the hall, though the castle, over the lawn to the forecastle, and under the portcullis. The guard ran up the stairs and in short order, the drawbridge was descending.

The figure who awaited them on the far side of the moat made Tagashes gasp, though Tavrivael had never seen the dreadlocked, lanky vagabond.

“Hey there, Tagashes,” said the stranger cheerily. “This must be your broodmate, eh? Your fellow ‘blood hunter’. You two look like you seen some action tonight. How’ve you been?”

“You know this one?” asked Tavrivael of her brother.

Tagashes nodded. “His name is Zhahan. I made a pact with him that demanded I keep silent about our meeting.”

“Oh, bollocks to that,” the other man said. “I’ve come up with a much better idea.”

“What are you on about, Zhahan?” Tagashes asked. “This is not exactly the subtle and flattering manner in which you should approach our sire. I told you, did I not, that he is an ancient.”

Zhahan smiled. “Yeah. You told me. I’m here to do exactly what I told you I do when in the company of elders. I’m here to make mischief.”

“By issuing challenge?” asked Tavrivael.

“Is there any greater mischief than a hearty fight to the death?” Zhahan asked in return.

Tagashes waved the man away. “Go on, Zhahan. Take to the road again and forget this place. You’ll find nothing but pain for you here.”

“No,” Zhahan answered curtly with a sly grin.

“I suggest you heed my brother,” Tavrivael warned. “Vadnovim is a dangerous bastard.”

“Well, I can see who wears the pants in this coupling,” Zhahan sneered. “You could be useful. What is your name, sweetheart?”

“My name is Tavrivael, and I’m not your sweetheart.”

“Tavrivael? Flamesoul, I take it? Hm. Your broodmate’s name is so much more… visceral. Come and join me, the two of you. I have a grand array of friends who follow me about in my travels. You could be a part of my army. What do you say? See the world? Have bloody adventures?”

Tavrivael crooked an eyebrow. “I say fuck off. You sound like a prepubescent child wanting to be a cowboy. We want no part in your parade. Go find some poor village idiot you can con into following you. I don’t like your presumption and I find your conceit boorish. Go now, before you are hurt.”

“I don’t think you are in a position to deny me,” said Zhahan. “Not with your quaint little province waiting to be razed. It looks as though you have nearly a thousand humans here. Well done, I must say. It would be a shame to have to start all over again, wouldn’t it?”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” asked Tavrivael. “Do you really want the full wrath of this coven to come crashing upon you?”

“Well, I did issue a challenge, and one generally expects a brawl when issuing a challenge.”

Tavrivael shook her head. “You scrawny scarecrow. You couldn’t defeat a herd of swine, let alone Vadnovim’s coven.”

Zhahan growled. “You should know better than to judge me by my appearance, old hag.”

“What did you call me?” asked Tavrivael.

“I called you an old ha—”

Tavrivael struck Zhahan a backhand across his jaw that sent the man sprawling through the air.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Zhahan growled through shattered bones. He spat gobbets of blood upon the ground as he stumbled to his feet.

“Go home, Zhahan,” Tavrivael ordered. “Or worse will befall you.”

Zhahan winced as his jaw snapped back into place. Once he was able to freely open his mouth again, he spat another mouthful of blood on the ground. “My home is wheresoever I make it. Go and tell your sire that I await his answer. If he does not come by midnight tomorrow, we shall slaughter every living thing in this quaint little village out here. After which, we shall have a good old-fashioned storming of the castle.”

Without another word, Zhahan turned on his heel and trounced back toward the forest on the far side of town.

“That went well,” said Tagashes.

“Want to smell my finger?” asked Tavrivael.


            An hour later, the two of them stood before Vadnovim’s throne. He was in excellent tempers after the interruption of his party.

“He said what?” raged the elder, unsettling the golden bowl he had placed on his head in lieu of a crown.

“If you do not answer his challenge by midnight tomorrow, he will slaughter every living thing in the village and storm the castle.”

“Who in the hell does he think he is?” bellowed Vadnovim, squirming in his throne.

“He is an illicit child, Vadnovim,” answered Tavrivael. She had gleaned the entire story from Tagashes before their breaking up the party. “His sire turned him but two hundred years ago, and was subsequently destroyed. Somehow, this child escaped destruction and has been on vendetta against all elders since.”

“An abomination!” roared Vadnovim. He jabbed his sword into the floor. “Suckling babe of an abomination who thinks he can destroy me? I will have his head on a pike and his heart on a rotisserie!”

“Then you will fight him?” asked Tavrivael.

Vadnovim glared at his two progeny. “You will take my courtiers onto the field, my children. Tomorrow night, at sunset. You will answer this brash imp’s challenge by crushing him and his foolish band. Tagashes, you will take your cannon and set it upon the ramparts where they can see it. Threaten them with the explosive power in our grasp.”

“But sire, it is not ready.” said Tagashes.

“Just do it!”

“Why should we?” asked Tavrivael.

“What!” growled the king.

Tavrivael crossed her arms. She was very nearly through with this insufferable man. “The challenge was issued to you. Why should we answer it? He will not be sated until he has your blood. You go and meet him. You’re more than strong enough. You have enough blood in you. Or have you grown so soft here in your fat brothel that you have forgotten how to fight?”

Vadnovim was on his feet. “You insolent bitch! I am Vadnovim the ancient one! I was slaughtering armies when the world was still new! I have destroyed gods with my bare hands! What are you to me but a slimy babe? You will do as I command!”

Despite her sire’s rages, Tavrivael spoke softly and assuredly. “I shall not lead a rabble of soft, drunken, mindless miscreants in battle against an army of travel-hardened and bloodthirsty warriors.”

“You will do as I say, child!”

“I shan’t. You are a tyrannical fool and a hypocritical arbiter of the law! You name this challenger an abomination? I name you an abomination for the countless numbers you have turned in secret and fashioned as your own assassins to quell your paranoid fears. Do you really believe that Tagashes or I care a whit for your so-called kingdom? You are a brainless oaf and you gather to you equally brainless oafs. We want no part in it at all!”

Vadnovim was nearly apoplectic with rage. His finger shook as he pointed at his daughter. “You are my progeny and you will obey your sire or be destroyed!”

“Try it,” she said quietly, her eyes low, her hands ready.

For a time, the hall was silent. Sire and child faced off in a grueling stillness. When the elder did nothing for a full five minutes, Tavrivael stood to her full height.

“Fraud,” she spat. Then she turned quickly about and marched out of the room, the courtiers making haste to clear her a path.


            The next night, a mere half an hour after sunset, Tagashes and Tavrivael stood on the field of battle before Fanghorn, the courtiers gathered nervously behind them.

“Damn him,” Tavrivael snarled.

They waited while the pale sky darkened and night cast its dark cloak overhead, revealing the stars hid by garish day. They waited while the moon crept over the tops of the mountains and neared its nightly zenith, preparing to plunge back into the western oblivion.

“Perhaps he was clever enough to heed our warning,” Tagashes whispered hopefully.

As if on cue, a dark line of figures emerged from the trees and began marching toward them, the syncopation of their footsteps making a rhythmic thud that sent the courtiers behind them to fretting.

“Shouldn’t we rally the troops, sister?” Tagashes whispered.

Tavrivael shrugged. “You are free to try: I am no William Wallace, and to be honest I wouldn’t shed a tear if every last one of the bloated sycophants were destroyed.”

Tagashes was silent for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose you are right. Their company does irk me so.”

They waited patiently as the army advanced through the village. When finally they stopped, some fifty feet distant, a singular figure proceeded from the line and continued toward them. Tavrivael and Tagashes walked out to meet Zhahan.

“A very militaristic display,” said Tavrivael when they met.

“Thanks,” replied Zhahan with a smile. “It’s good to see you again, Tagashes. I hope there are no hard feelings about last night, Tavrivael?”

Tavrivael shrugged. “None at all.”

“Thanks for coming to my party. I see your king has kept himself hidden behind his high wall.”

Tavrivael snorted. “He’s not my bloody king.”

Zhahan cocked his head. “And yet you fight for him?”

“I am not fighting for him.”

“It would appear so.”

“You should know better than to judge me by my appearance.”


Tagashes pointed to the ramparts, where rested the ancient cannon. “I am ordered to warn you of our explosive firepower.”

Zhahan looked past them at the cannon and raised an eyebrow. “Is that thing even operational?”

Tagashes shook his head. “Not in the least.”

Zahan laughed. “You two are sorry sorts, bowing and scraping for a master you hate. Living in a place full of foppish ignorants who obviously haven’t seen a good fight in at least a thousand years.” He winked and waved at the courtiers behind them, and the lot of them visibly winced. With a sad shake of his head, he returned his gaze to the two before him. “Come on. What the hell are you doing here? You could be free if you only took that step out the door. Just walk away and don’t look back. Better yet, join me and together we will destroy your cowardly sire. Then his sway over you would be utterly null. Look at my people. They are strong and able and full of adventure. We go all over the world. How long is it since you’ve seen the Americas, hmm? We’ve been there several times. We were there just last spring in fact. It’s a lovely winter night, and I’d hate to spoil it by spilling the blood of two worthy friends that would be a great boon to our cause.

“Tagashes, I know you to be intelligent and very good in a fight to boot. You don’t belong here, mindlessly following the laws which the elders themselves break at will simply because they think they are above it. Tavrivael, though I have just met you, I like you very much. You have one hell of a backhand, and that is no small compliment from me. Join us. There is so much we could accomplish together!”

Tavrivael could not help but be taken by the prospect of leaving. She hated her sire passionately, and hated him even more for the control he held over her. But she could not see herself following this child on his feckless tour of the world forever. “I understand what you are saying, Zhahan, but if I were to break away, it would be to truly break away; not to trade one master for another.”

Zhahan wrinkled his nose. “Master? No, no: I would be but a friend and companion. I may lead, but only because I know where to go and how to get there.”

“And how to drill your followers into a battalion,” Tavrivael added with a nod behind him.

Zhahan glanced back. “Oh, that? That was just for show. Just a time-honored display of might and discipline.”

Tavrivael shook her head. “I am sorry, Zhahan. Truly, I am, but I shall not be your disciple.”

Zhahan held up his hands in surrender. “C’est la vie. What about you, Tagashes?”

The three of them were silent for a while, and Tagashes looked so torn that Tavrivael nearly pushed him physically over to Zhahan’s side just so that she could make the decision for him. She wanted freedom from her tyrant, but she wanted it for her little brother even more. She knew that a life full of new places to explore and even the prospect of destroying a few hypocritical elders would suit Tagashes well indeed, and his temperament had always wanted for someone to guide him. At last she opened her mouth to tell him to go with Zhahan, when Tagashes suddenly spoke up.

“I am staying. With Tavrivael.”

Tavrivael mentally kicked herself for delaying, and almost argued the point with her broodmate, but the decision was made, and Zhahan had his answer.

“So be it,” the child sighed, pulling a pair of glistening swords from his back. “We shall start our attack now, but believe me when I say that killing you will be the first action in this life that I will regret. I shall not stop until your sire’s ashes are fluttering in the wind.”

“Duly noted,” said Tavrivael, and they withdrew.

“Why did you not go with him?” whispered Tavrivael as they walked back to the courtiers. She busied herself with donning the katara.

“Why do you not stay at Subterra? I know you have fallen in love with someone there,” came his reply as he uncoiled his whip.

Tavrivael was silent.

They reached their pathetic battle line all too soon, and Tavrivael grumbled to the courtiers, “Are you prepared to die?” before turning back to face Zhahan and his army.

“It has been my life’s honor to call you my sister,” Tagashes said to her as they stared across the battlefield.

Tavrivael’s vision blurred with red as the blood tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. “I love you brother,” she replied.

As Zhahan’s army drew their weapons in uniform at his command, Tagashes grasped his sister’s hand. She turned to face him and saw his own cheeks were streaked with claret red. “We may yet find freedom this night, Flamesoul,” he said.

A barbaric battle cry rang out and Zhahan’s line raced for them. Tavrivael squeezed Tagashes’ hand one last time.

“Well, let’s get on with it,” Tagashes said to the courtiers behind them. “Charge and all that.”

The courtiers screamed like rabid banshees and followed the two broodmates into the charge.

The clash of bodies together when the lines met was bombastic. Screams of voices and shrieks of steel rose up at once and overwhelmed Tavrivael’s senses. For several minutes or perhaps several hours, she was so utterly lost in the confusion that she knew not whose flesh she rent with her katara. Eventually, the discord settled into a rote action of punch and slice and leap and tumble. How many she destroyed, she did not know, and how many more she laid low she could not count. A brief moment of clarity was afforded her every so often, and she would desperately look about for signs of Tagashes, who was always easily seen in the middle of a circle of bristling steel, his whip a graceful blur keeping his adversaries at bay.

Wet ashes began to make the footing treacherous, and Tavrivael could tell simply by the feel of the fighting that the courtiers were nearly finished. Soon it would be only Tagashes and her left to defend their sire’s castle.

“Damn you, Vadnovim,” she grunted through her teeth as she clawed and spat and kicked and punched and slashed at the adversaries who now pressed densely against her for want of another target. She tried, in the midst of that clangorous upheaval, to decipher her broodmate’s location. If she were to die tonight, she would have it be beside her brother.

There! She heard the tell-tale snapping of his whip not ten meters off. If she could but reach him, they could face this army together, and show them what a fierce thing their kinship could be. With a mighty heave, she pushed aside a cluster of foes and stumbled over them, trying her best to ignore the blades that dug at her feet and legs.

She could see him now, his whip all but invisible in its deadly speed. She leapt upon the backs of two fighters and beheaded them cleanly. Even as they were falling to ash, Tavrivael moved on, cutting her way deeper into the thick press surrounding her brother. A blade stabbed into her hipbone from behind and she gasped in pain before spinning around and kicking the one responsible in the nose. She fell backward as she did, and landed with her head inside the circle of warriors.

Tagashes was a furious blur in her inverted vision, blood sweat soaking his white hair and clothes so that he looked a gory monster, a demon fury, dealing death all around. She also saw Zhahan, at the far edge of the circle, trying to approach Tagashes without being stung by the lash.

Bodies flung themselves at Tagashes, and were rent asunder each time by his powerful strokes. The ashes piled around her broodmate in some wicked semblance of a pale volcano, her bloody brother the hot fire erupting death from the bowels of the earth.

Kicking and squirming, Tavrivael inched her was into the circle, unheeded by the deadly foes around her whose attentions were set upon trying to follow the terrible whip through the air.

“Tagashes!” Tavrivael recognized Zhahan’s voice and twisted around to see him offering an open hand to her brother. “Tagashes! Stop this pointless charade! This is not your fight! It is not a reason to die!”

Tavrivael struggled desperately, wriggling free of the myriad bodies that held her captive on the ground. Her eyes were glued to her brother and the supplicant man beyond. Tagashes eyed Zhahan but did not stay his whip.

“Stop this, Tagashes!” Zhahan shouted, and he lunged forward.

Tavrivael kicked desperately as the man encroached upon her brother. She was so nearly free…

Tagashes struck Zhahan with the whip and the man fell back against his followers, holding his bloodied face. With a howl of frustration, Zhahan threw his sword at Tagashes. The gleaming blade sunk into his chest and Tagashes stared at it in disbelief. His arms fell limply to his sides, and he crumpled to his knees, sending up a billowing cloud of ash around him.

The great cheer that sounded was drowned out by Tavrivael’s wild scream. She kicked out of the tangle of legs and leapt to her brother’s side. Pulling the sword from his chest with as much care as she could afford in that moment, Tavrivael crouched over her kneeling broodmate, brandishing the sword, the same endless scream a vitriolic challenge as the horde closed in.

“Enough!” came Zhahan’s voice booming over the noise, and his followers stopped.

Tavrivael kept sword and katara poised to strike for several severe seconds, turning this way and that with a fierce hiss. When she was certain that no one would attack, she threw the sword into the ground and looked down to her brother.

Tagashes was lying on his back, he legs folded awkwardly beneath him. Tavrivael knelt and cradled him in her arms as Tagashes weakly fumbled with his shirt. She tore the fabric away to reveal an already blistered and festering wound over his heart.

“Damn,” Tagashes gurgled painfully. “Damn, damn, damn.”

Worry and doubt flooded Tavrivael. The wound should be sealing itself by now, should be closing itself up and healing by the power of the Blood. Yet still the wound festered, a thin trickle of blood seeping from it as Tagashes directed the life force to heal the hurt in vain.

“Bloody poisoned blade, I shouldn’t wonder,” Tagashes croaked. “Damned poetic.”

“Don’t speak, brother,” Tavrivael sobbed as she dabbed at his wound with her sleeve. She bit into her wrist and sent her own blood flowing out of the cut into his.

“Tavrivael.” It was Zhahan, standing quietly behind her.

“Shut up,” she said.

“You can’t heal it. Blood only makes the poison work faster. It will melt his heart away soon.”

She pulled her hand away swiftly at that, then looked up at Zhahan. “You killed my brother!” she wailed through gnashing teeth, yet even as she said it, she knew her anger was not at him, but her sire.

Zhahan furrowed his brow and bowed his head. He seemed uncertain how to cope with his actions, as if it truly were the first time he regretted killing anyone. “I… am sorry.”

Tavrivael wept. With her brother dying in her arms and his killer standing above her, Tavrivael wept for the hatred she bore her sire. The stars wheeled overhead, and the moon sank below the western mountains.

“Go,” she whispered at last, unable to look at anything. “Go now and kill that sanctimonious wretch. Destroy him and feed his ashes to the swine, for shit he is and shit shall be his fate. Go.” She did not hear them go, but when she heard Tagashes’ weakened voice again, she opened her eyes and found they were alone.

“Tavrivael,” he sputtered softly.

“I’m here,” she answered, brushing matted hair from his face.

“Tell me about Subterra.”

Tavrivael could have laughed for the simplicity of the request, and could have burned herself alive for keeping it from him so long. Tears fell from her eyes and pooled in the hollow of his shoulder as she spoke:

“Subterra was once a bunker; just a cave where the human government sent a great many people to escape the war. But those few people never came out of the ground again, and they grew and grew and dug deeper and deeper. They survived and adapted and now they are a nation of their own. They have a societal system unlike any the world has known before, and they have such customs, Tig, such strange ways that one could live among them forever and still be surprised by them. And their library! Oh, it’s a wondrous thing! They have so many books and pieces of art and scraps of history that I just know you would love it immensely. Oh God!”

She could not go on. The sorrow in her heart as she watched her brother fade so slowly, so unnaturally away, destroyed her. The tears flew from her eyes and her body seized with sobs.

“And you have a lover there?” asked Tagashes.

“I do.” She choked on the words as her face tightened.

“Promise me,” said Tagashes, his voice so low the she could scarcely hear it. “Promise me that you will leave this place, that you will fly to your beloved under the ground and never come back to this palace of woe. I want you to be happy sister, and there is so much unhappiness here.”

“I promise, brother,” she gasped though the tears.

“I should have liked to see the Americas again,” he whispered.

“Oh, God, Tagashes, I’m sorry! I am the cause of this! It is my hand that has slain you!”

Tagashes tried to reach his hand to her face, but could scarcely manage to lift his fingers. “Shh, don’t be so damned clichéd and just hold me while I die.”

Tavrivael gathered her brother into an embrace and wept. “I love you!” she wailed.

Tagashes was light and limp in her arms, but he whispered into her ear, “I love you too, my dearest big sister.”

A scream so full of agony that it was utterly silent spread Tavrivael’s jaw wide and the tears seemed to boil on her cheeks as she felt the solid weight of her brother’s body against her give way to ashes. She held her arms still in that pose, holding nothing but air and a lap full of ash as her heart tore itself to shreds in agony.

Another hour passed, and the night sky looked down upon the still figure of Tavrivael, lost in the last moment of her brother’s existence. Then, as if physically spurred into action, she jolted. Looking about her in sorrowful wonder, Tavrivael realized she could not discern her brother’s ashes from the rest all scattered about in the blood and mud and snow. As her eyes wandered over the ground, they came to rest upon the whip, half buried in the detritus. She took up her brother’s weapon and coiled it carefully, lovingly. She kissed it with one last hiccoughing sob, and then set it safely in her belt.

Numbly she stood and numbly she walked through the village. Numbly she walked into a farmhouse and feasted upon the cowering family there. Once sated, she numbly walked into the forest and through the pass, away from her sire, away from the place of her brother’s death, away from Fanghold, away from tyranny.

She realized a little before dawn that she was a dirty, bloody, wretched mess. She spotted a stream with a deep overhanging bank into which she could burrow for the day and bathe when she woke. Just as she neared the spot, she felt the strangest sensation within her, as if the Blood were changing her identity, renewing her spirit, telling her that she had lost something of herself and yet gained as well. Her head turned back instinctively to a pair of mountains that formed together, just above the tree line, into the shape of a chalice, and a smile broke upon her face.

She was free.