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Laurent De Castelnau’s severed head sat in the centre of a cheap kitchen table, staring at the five captains gathered in front of him in accusation. In death his true face was now permanently on display. A yellow hue to his once smooth brown skin, sunken cheeks, two rows of pointed teeth and a ridged, protruding brow; the vampire face he had always been so careful to hide.
All of the captains levelled their gaze at Bekka, so that they wouldn’t have to face the stare of their dead leader. Their youthful features betrayed that, despite the swords they wore, despite the hard frowns on their faces, not one of them had turned eighteen years old yet. Still, they were among the oldest in this army, and the highest ranking. With the last of their vampire sires gone, they now had absolute power over the others.
At least until Bekka intervened, that was. She was only sixteen, only a sergeant, and only a woman, all of which made her lesser in these five boys’ eyes. Still. she was taller than all of them, close to six foot and most of that muscle, as well as stronger and far more adept with a blade. Not that she only had sheer force on her side.
“We…we must be avenged for this dishonour.” Nate, the most pompous of the captains, said. His voice started with a shake before being sharpened by his anger. “Our vengeance will be swift and brutal.”
“I took our revenge.” Bekka pointed out, levelly.
Nate glared at her. “Yes. You took it. Took it from us!” He was now shaking with anger. “And who were you to do that? To grant the whore who did this a quick death, to grant her mercy?”
It hadn’t been mercy when Bekka had done the deed. She had listened calmly enough as the girl, Katie, had explained why the dhampirs’ siege of the human refuge had to end.
It was perfectly logical; though comprised of those who couldn’t go to war in the south, those camped in the field nearby would still hold them off long enough to make the fight bloody and cost them lives. And before it was done those who could fight would be at their back, fresh from victory at Stonehenge.
There was no fault in what she said, and Bekka agreed that the dhampirs had to leave. All perfectly level-headed. But when she had realised she had a blade in her hand it was already in the human’s gut, and a cold smile had twisted her face as the victim slid to the floor, staring up in shock as the life left her eyes.
Bekka shuddered at the memory. She had killed before, but never in cold blood. This was different than battle, and it had neither brought her father back nor given her satisfaction. She only felt empty.
All of the other captains were busy agreeing that she had robbed them of their revenge, when Jake put a hand up to silence them. There was no pomp or pretension about him, he was as down to earth as you could get, which is why Bekka had long been attracted to him. But that attraction was dulled by the fact that he was a captain, and their unspoken leader, by virtue of a ruthlessness that even Laurent had admitted chilled him.
“Bekka may have given this girl, Katie, an easy way out.” He agreed. “I would’ve loved to have had her strapped down and at my mercy for as long as I could think of things to do with her. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get any revenge.”
Bekka knew where he was going with this and shook her head. “No, we can’t. I’ve already told you that if we try to take the child we’ll only give the returning army time to take us from behind.”
Somewhere to the south, a battle was being fought between men and demons. The forces of hell didn’t just want the earth, but all the worlds that led off from it, and if they won then Bekka’s kin would suffer as much as the humans. Those doing the fighting had left their young and their old, their weak and infirm, at a camp site off from a small village, thinking that they would be safe from the screaming corpses that now dominated the world. But they had something that Laurent wanted, a half-human, half-vampire child whom he insisted belonged with her own kind.
The child was called Charlotte, a baby only months old, but already she was set apart from dhampirs like Bekka. Her father was a vampire, but he was also the Champion of Man, who had retained his human soul by resisting the lust for human blood. Her mother was a Sentinel, her innate strength and reflexes honed through training, while the women who gave birth to Laurent’s army were chattel.
“We cannot leave this child.” Nate insisted, his eyes on Bekka so that he didn’t have to look down at the head. “Laurent wanted her and if we leave her here then he has died for nothing.”
“But if we don’t leave her here then we’ll die.” Bekka told him.
“What, you really think that bunch of kids and pensioners can beat us?” David offered a derisory laugh.
“They’ve got fighters among them. Enough of them that they can hold us off until the army comes back –”
“If the army comes back –”
“If it doesn’t, then this is all moot anyway. What will one baby matter if hell rules over us? But if they win then they’ll be on top of us before we can get her and it’ll all be for nothing either way.”
“This is all speculation.” Sean, another of the captains, said. “We’re shitting ourselves over something we don’t even know will happen. The humans probably lost – you saw how big that army from hell was.”
“They’ll have won.” Bekka insisted. “Laurent said –”
“The Viceroy is dead! Don’t you presume to use his name as though…”
Jake held up a hand again. “It doesn’t matter whether or not the humans win. We aren’t going to stage a drawn out siege for the sake of one dhampir baby – not when revenge is at stake. We will storm their refuge tonight and slaughter as many humans as we can. If we get the baby, then we have another win. If not, at least we’ve made them pay.”
“They didn’t do anything!” Bekka insisted. “The girl is dead and we won’t get the child. We need to go before we all die!”
“Bekka, I know that you’re – popular among the soldiers,” his eyes slid over her body in a way that made her skin crawl, making the insinuation behind the word ‘popular’ perfectly clear. “But don’t think that gives you any say in this. With all of our sires gone now, it falls to us to lead everyone and decide what’s best for them. Our word is law.”
She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to lash out. Far from being ‘popular’ with the other soldiers, she had taken the time to get to know them; their hopes and fears, their resentments. Most of them lay with the captains.
The vampires had never treated them well. Bekka was the only dhampir who knew for sure which vampire was her father, none of them had ever met their human mothers, all of them had been pushed hard from an early age to mould them into soldiers and those who couldn’t keep up had become casualties. As a result, all of them had seen friends abandoned and disposed of in a singularly brutal way.
But the vampires, and Laurent in particular, were hardly ever there. So it fell to the captains to keep everyone in line, and though that had always involved harsh treatment the current crop had distinguished themselves in vicious malice. That had been Bekka’s way in. The captains’ own cruelty had given her the loyalty of the army. And now the death of her father had given her the chance to use it.
Right on cue, she saw Alastair enter the kitchen behind the captains. Only fifteen, he already towered over everyone else and worked out enough that his frame made that imposing rather than awkward. Yet he moved quickly and silently, his dagger already drawn.
His targets must have sensed him. Due to the senses they inherited from their vampire fathers, it was impossible to catch a dhampir entirely unaware. But Alastair was fast enough that this didn’t matter. His blade had opened Sean’s throat by the time Nate was turning to face him. Nate was choking on his own blood before he could react. Two more captains went down just as quickly, leaving only Jake standing.
He didn’t even acknowledge Alastair’s presence. “This is what it comes to then.” He said. “I take it you want to end me yourself?”
Bekka drew her sword and allowed herself to smile.
“Very well.” Now he looked at Alastair. “Once I have gutted your girlfriend, I’ll have you tied to a post and your skin peeled off slowly.”
Alastair didn’t even blink at the threat.
Bekka stepped around the table and attacked. Jake got his sword out quick enough to parry, but remained on the defensive. She forced him backwards with a series of quick thrusts and swings. Jake recovered and pushed forward, knocking Bekka off balance. She had to surrender her footing in order to block one particularly vicious thrust, but that left him open to a leg sweep. She leapt up just before he hit the ground and kicked his sword away.
Several ripostes ran through her head. Retorts for his taunting, rebukes of his past treatment of her, general taunts and declarations of victory. None seemed to fit. So she settled for smiling at him before running her sword through his throat.
She looked up at Alastair, and a far warmer and more genuine smile overtook her face. “Thank you.” She said.
He shrugged, his face set. “I do what I was made to do.”
“You’re more than just your training, you know.”
She looked away. “We’ll have to leave as soon as possible. Before the human army gets back.”
“Will they follow us?”
“They won’t know where to look. We’ll be safe.”
She turned back to him. His face was thoughtful, implying so much more behind that one word answer.
A slight smile curled his lips. “That’s the question of the day, isn’t it?”
She understood then. Laurent had been the last of their vampire parents, the rest having perished in the previous ill-conceived attempt to snatch the same child. His vision had died with him, nobody else being trusted with details beyond him having an army of dhampir at his command. The captains were gone too, and now she was responsible for all of her kind, in a world that had become very different almost overnight.
She shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”
But even as the dhampirs formed up to leave, Bekka couldn’t help thinking about the child that they had come here for. She wouldn’t be going with them, which Laurent had said meant she faced an unnatural existence detached from her own kind. But it also meant she would grow up not as a soldier but as part of a family, loved by her mother and father.
Despite knowing that it would only make her weak, Bekka couldn’t help but envy her that.