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Author's note: Just enjoy :)
Rain pattered on the leaves and undergrowth as Vangel limped through the trees, surrounded by the ragged remains of his raiding party. His short, white-blonde hair was matted with blood. It glistened darkly in the moonlight slicing down through the forest canopy. One hand was clamped tightly to the opposite shoulder, which was wound in strips of fabric torn from the lining of his leather armor. Every now and then he breathed deeply and savored the stabbing pain that told him he was still alive. A little lower and the knife would have taken him in the heart.
A few yards behind him, one of his fellow soldiers stumbled to a halt and sank to his knees in the mud. Vangel heard the man's ragged breathing and the squelch of mud. He stopped and turned, squatting in front of the wounded soldier. “Are you all right?”
The man slowly raised his face toward Vangel. Reddish-brown hair plastered to his forehead with rain marked him as Karin, a Ripper in his late twenties. His blue eyes were pained, and his face was sheened with sweat. He pulled both hands away from his side, revealing a shallow but long gash that had stained half his uniform front red. “Silver. I remember now. It was a silver-tipped spear.”
Vangel cursed softly, then forced himself to calm down. No point in causing a panic. He kept his voice level. “We're close to the camp. Thirty minutes more, maybe less. You'll be fine.”
“Rapsodo, I...” Even in the dim light, Vangel could see a humiliated flush spread across Karin's cheeks. No Ripper wanted to admit weakness in front of his fellows. “I can't walk. I'm sorry, but it hurts.”
Silver poisoning. How long had it been since they had left the fortress that had refused to fall to them? The better part of an hour, at least. And Karin could have been wounded before that, during the initial battle. Vangel put a hand to his temple, cursing his pounding headache. It was so difficult to think, to put numbers together. A Ripper could survive for an hour with silver in his veins – sometimes more.
Straightening up, Vangel looked around at the other men forming a ragged circle around Karin. They gazed back at him with grimy faces washed out with moonlight, silent. “Form a litter,” Vangel barked hoarsely, forcing himself to stand up under their stares. “He's got to be carried.”
For one dread-filled moment, he thought they weren't going to obey him. He wasn't their commander. Nearly all of them were at least ten years his senior. But most of them were young, like Karin, and had seen enough bloodshed tonight to set aside their prejudice. Slowly, they began to move. Vangel released a long breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
One of them, a tall, thin man called Ward, said flatly, “There's no way we'll get back to the camp in time.” He was one of the few who hadn't moved an inch, and his eyes communicated plain distrust.
Vangel swallowed hard, tasting blood. His ribs ached as if to emphasize it. “I'll go ahead. Run to the camp. Keep moving – I'll come back with a healer.”
“You're injured,” another of the soldiers objected. His face was half-obscured by a dark mask of dried blood, making it impossible to identify him. “There's no way you can get there fast enough.”
Ward crossed his arms, eyes glittering with dark pleasure. Vangel felt a brief flash of disbelief. He knew they hated him. There had never been any secrets on that front. But to hate him enough to actually enjoy proving him wrong, when being wrong meant the death of one of their comrades? Unbelievable. Vangel felt dry laughter rising in his throat, but he held it back. He was young yet. Too young to go mad.
“I'll run,” he rasped. Turning away from Ward's stare, he squatted in the mud before Karin again. “I'll come back.”
“I trust you,” Karin whispered. “Silver Lady damn me, Vangel. I trust you.”
Vangel rose to his feet, turned his back on the group, and limped a good distance away. He shook the rain out of his eyes and looked up, fixing his gaze on the faint glow of the moon, obscured by clouds. He was aware of the other soldiers' stares on his back, even as they worked to construct a hasty litter out of branches and undergrowth. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to ignore the pain stabbing in his shoulder and side, thinking instead of the sweet adrenaline rush of battle. A sense of rightness sealed itself into his veins, and an itch ran across his arms and the back of his neck.
Remember the beast, Vangel told himself firmly. Don't fear it. Never fear it.
As his limbs began to tremble and familiar heat surged through him, emotions flashed in quick succession through his head. Fear, guilt, confusion: all of the things that had originally been his enemy when it came to transformations. He had since moved past them, trained himself to make changing natural, but he still felt them every time.
Blood-scent was the first sensation to hit him as he completed the transformation. Karin, now being hoisted onto a litter carried by four men, reeked of blood and the cold, biting silver taint. Vangel knew from the smell that the silver poison had dug its way deep into Karin. He had very little time left. Wasting no more time, he stretched once. The pain that had plagued him in his human form now receded into the background, overlaid by the sensation of power.
He leaped forward, muscling his way into a streaking run. Within seconds he had left the small group of soldiers behind, following the familiar scent trail back to the Ripper camp. Home.
The journey that might have taken half an hour with human feet lasted barely ten minutes with the fleet stride of a Ripper. Vangel ran through the first ring of sentries, not bothering to stop and identify himself. He would catch hell for that later, but it would be worth it if he was in time to save Karin. He picked out each hidden sentry as he passed, by the smell and the heat of their bodies, like beacons through the rain.
Shouted warnings heralded his arrival at the second sentry ring. He slowed reluctantly to a stop, knowing that he would risk a spear through the side if he kept going. A cloaked sentry swung down from a concealed guard tower a hundred feet to his left and hurried toward him. Vangel didn't recognize his scent. “Identify yourself!”
Cursing every second of time wasted, Vangel closed his eyes and forced himself to let go of his beast form's strength. Heat and energy trembled through him, leaving him and dissipating into the ether. A few moments later, he stood in front of the sentry in his human form, supporting himself with his hands on his knees and panting shallowly. Exhaustion leached into his bones. All he wanted to do was sleep. Too out of breath to speak, he fumbled for the tags at his neck and rubbed them clean before holding them out for the sentry to inspect.
Vangel nodded, waiting for the sentry to move aside. The man let go of his tags, but remained standing in his way.
“Where's the rest of your group?”
Vangel stared at him in disbelief. He was a soldier, allowed to come and go from the camp as he pleased, as long as he had proper identification. There was no reason for him to be obstructed like this. One glance at the sentry's cold, hostile eyes told him why. Prejudice again. First Ward, and now this man. Small wonder Rippers were a dying breed.
“I don't have time – ”
Over the sentry's shoulder, Vangel saw a slim figure appear in the misty rain: his sister, Catharsa, draped in a pale green healer's tunic with her brown hair braided over her shoulders. He had never been happier to see her. He was hardly aware of his shoulders relaxing as she picked up her skirts and ran, nearly shoving the sentry aside as she rushed towards him.
“Cat,” Vangel mumbled, trying to fend her off. “Cat, I'm fine.” Her fingers flew to the makeshift bandaging on his shoulder and began unwinding it. Vangel hunched around the wound protectively. “Cat, there's no time! The raid – we were ambushed. Redfur's dead, and Karin's got silver poisoning...”
“Redfur is dead?” the sentry interrupted.
Vangel glanced at him, noting the man's suddenly pale face, then back at Catharsa. No doubt the news of the famous commander's death would spread like wildfire and cause an uproar, if not mass panic, but there were more important matters at hand. Let the dead lie; he was going to save the ones he could. He shook Catharsa off his arm and looked her in the eyes.
“There aren't many survivors. Maybe ten. I left them near the river and came to get help.”
Catharsa nodded and turned to the sentry, immediately businesslike. “Go fetch someone from the healer's pavilion. Quickly.” The sentry nodded, still white in the face, and dashed off toward the camp.
Vangel felt his legs begin to tremble. He felt lightheaded. “Cat, I promised I would go back for him.” The world was spinning slowly, lazily. Colors didn't make sense anymore. Had his sister's eyes always been violet?
Catharsa put a hand on his good shoulder, gentle but firm. “You can stay here and rest. He'll be fine.”
“I promised him....”
He didn't realize he was on the ground until he got there. Cold inched its way through his limbs as mud soaked through his torn armor. Dimly, he was aware of Catharsa squatting next to him, saying something in a sharp tone. He couldn't understand her. Exhaustion washed over him, painting the world black.
Before Vangel woke, he could hear the howling. It rose above the buzz of his thoughts, penitent and mournful, calling his name. In his fevered unconsciousness, he thought he heard Karin's name as well. The funeral dirge went on, but stopped abruptly as he opened his eyes.
He was alone, lying on a thin cot in a medic's tent. The pale green canvas billowed gently as rain pattered against it from the outside. Slowly, Vangel sat up, placing one hand behind to brace himself. He was bare from the waist up; the rough bandaging on his shoulder had been replaced by clean white cloth, and his ribs had been bound tightly. He was just about to try standing up when the tent flap rustled and Catharsa ducked inside.
“Karin's dead,” Vangel said roughly before his sister could say anything.
She shook her head slowly, braids swinging. “No. The healers got to him in time. He'll be just fine.”
“Then what was...” Vangel trailed off, realizing what he must sound like. He shook his head, wincing involuntarily. His shoulder didn't hurt, but whatever salve Catharsa had used on it felt like ice melting into his skin. “Never mind.”
She was watching him with an odd look, as if concerned for his mental well-being. “What happened out there, Vangel? Some of the other soldiers have been questioned, but all they would say was that you led them into retreat. Is Redfur really dead?”
Vangel winced. He supposed he was fortunate that it was Catharsa asking him these questions instead one of the General's messengers or, God forbid, the woman herself. General Janniset was a woman whose beauty was only outshone by her ability to intimidate even the strongest warriors.
“I... Yes. I saw him die.”
What he had seen was Redfur calling the charge, then going down with a black-armored shape on top of him. A flash of silver, and the ambushing warrior had leaped backwards, leaving the grizzled Ripper commander convulsing on the ground. Vangel had seen horrific injuries before, but Redfur's death had been... something else. Magi certainly knew how to kill.
Catharsa's face was impassive, but her eyes told him that she had heard the tremble of revulsion in his voice. “And the retreat?”
Vangel closed his eyes. “It was either retreat or slaughter, Cat. Redfur was dead. If I hadn't gotten them out, we would all have gone the same way he did.”
Catharsa sighed and came over to sit on the cot next to him. She didn't attempt to comfort him, but her familiar presence was relaxing. “You know what the General will think.”
“I know. We're soldiers – we're supposed to fight to the death. But no one was expecting an ambush. It wasn't a fight, Cat, it was a bloodbath.”
“She'll have you reprimanded. At the very least.”
Vangel didn't respond. He didn't want to think about what might be in store for him once the General found out he had led a retreat, against Redfur's explicit orders. Disobeying a superior – even a dead superior – was a serious offense. Vangel thought back to his last punishment and his back ached, though the stripes left by the drill instructor's whip had faded long ago.
Catharsa was watching him closely, her turquoise eyes boring into him. Her scrutiny didn't faze him. He was used to it. His sister was a healer, trained to pay close attention to every reaction in order to make a correct diagnosis. “Karin called you 'commander'.”
“'Commander Rapsodo'. He was in a fever when he said it, but some of the other soldiers heard. Not all of them support you, but some say that you kept them alive.”
Not Ward. Vangel resisted the urge to laugh. He knew he was tired, and doing so would only alarm Catharsa. She would take it as a sign of hysteria, which was never a good thing. “I only did what anyone would have done.”
Catharsa's voice was level. “They respect you. You aren't like the rest of them; you can think for yourself. You weren't born to follow orders.”
She made it sound so logical. Vangel felt his face redden. “No, you don't understand. They did what I said because it made sense. Not because I was in charge.”
“You might be young, but you're still – ”
Vangel saw the tent flap twitch, and grabbed Catharsa's arm before she could finish. The kinds of things she was saying weren't strictly forbidden, but to suggest that he, a lowly soldier, had some kind of authority that superseded the commander's direct orders – that was dangerous. Catharsa had a habit of being outspoken, especially when it came to Vangel. He appreciated the support, but it wouldn't help matters if either of them got into trouble.
A small figure ducked under the tent flap. As she straightened up, Vangel recognized her as Lina, the General's messenger. She was small and thin, with short-cropped auburn locks framing a wide-eyed, childish face with a perpetual pout. She wore a simple gray tunic that came down to her knees. Vangel knew she kept close to the General, and her childlike face hid an unnervingly sharp wit. It was a good thing he had stopped Catharsa. Anything Lina heard, the General heard as well.
Lina's hazel eyes flickered from Catharsa to Vangel, taking in his hand on her arm and the tensity of his posture. Vangel removed his hand and forced himself to relax. He had dealt with Lina before, but she always put him on edge.
“The General wants to see
both of you.”
Catharsa rose to her feet. She straightened her tunic and looked directly at Lina, something most people found hard to do. Lina seemed to have learned some tricks of intimidation from the General, despite her small size. “My brother is still recovering. It's been less than an hour since he returned.”
“Cat,” Vangel tried to protest, but she silenced him with a glare.
“The General wants to see him now,” Lina repeated coolly. “He appears well enough to me. Of course, I am no healer, but if you would like me to fetch one for confirmation...” Her gaze traveled disdainfully over Catharsa's tunic. Vangel knew she was needling his sister on purpose; only healers wore green. Catharsa had worked hard to attain her status as a full healer, and it could be nothing but an insult for Lina to ignore that.
Catharsa bristled visibly, but didn't rise to the bait. Vangel offered silent thanks and rose unsteadily to his feet, wincing as a dull ache flared in his torso. He usually healed quickly, like all Rippers, but exhaustion had hindered his recovery. “I'll go see her now.”
He tried not to show any
anxiety. It would be unlike the General to have him physically punished in this state – she valued her soldiers' physical well-being, if nothing else – but it was possible. His back ached again with the memory of old wounds, and he swallowed hard.
Lina looked satisfied. “Very well. I will tell her to expect you.” She backed out of the tent, leaving Vangel and Catharsa alone.
Vangel turned his back on his sister, careful not to meet her eyes. “Cat, where's my sword?”
“You let her bully you.” Catharsa's tone was accusing.
“Cat, you've lived your entire life here. You should understand. Sometimes you have to let them bully you.” He spotted his sword lying on the ground near the entrance and went to get it. The feel of the worn leather grip in his hand immediately made him feel better. He wouldn't be allowed to bring it into the General's tent, but he could at least carry it on the way there.
Strange, to be so dependent on the weight of a sword in his hand now. His first time holding one had been only three years ago. People changed, it seemed.
When he turned around again, Catharsa was standing less than a yard away with her arms crossed, fixing him with a cold stare. “I've lived here long enough to become thoroughly sick of watching grown men grovel at that woman's feet. It's one thing to be careful around the General, but Lina has no power over you unless you let her.”
Vangel held up a hand to stop her tirade, sheathing his sword at his belt. “Cat, I'm tired. I don't want to argue. Maybe if you were a soldier, you would understand.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Catharsa stuck close to his side all the way to the General's tent, keeping up a constant monologue on just how much of a fleece-coated coward Vangel was for letting a woman half his size intimidate him. Vangel stopped paying attention as soon as they stepped out of the tent. News of the ill-fated raid and his unsanctioned retreat must have traveled. Soldiers stopped what they were doing and stared when he passed. Not all eyes were friendly, but some looked strangely approving. Vangel tried to ignore them all equally, staring straight ahead.
The central pavilion, where the General's enormous crimson tent stood, was ringed by a circle of guards. Vangel rubbed at his tags absentmindedly as he approached, even though they were already clean. The guard who checked his and Catharsa's tags was old for a Ripper, in his forties or fifties, with shoulders hunched in a vain effort to keep off the rain. His eyes had lost none of their keenness as he looked Vangel up and down. He let them by with a muffled snort, as if Vangel hadn't lived up to whatever image he'd garnered from rumors.
There were two more guards at the entrance to the tent. Both were cloaked in black, causing a momentary tightness in Vangel's throat. He had been fighting Magi earlier that night, and Magi almost always wore black. But the guards smelled like Rippers, not the blank absence of scent that all Magi bore. They didn't even look at Vangel and Catharsa; their hooded gazes remained fixed on some point far away in the darkness. Just being near them sent a shiver down Vangel's spine.
Hunters, some called them. Blood drinkers. As far back as Ripper history – and myth – stretched, there had been those born with the taste for human blood. Most were driven out, or even killed. Harming a human without provocation was a horrendous violation of the Covenant. But General Janniset allowed only Hunters into her personal, elite guard. Vangel had heard that she used them to hunt down deserters. It was said that once he was given the scent, a Hunter could track a person to the ends of the earth.
The inside of the tent was not as large or grand as the outside suggested. It was plainly furnished, with a few paintings affixed to the canvas walls. A large silk sheet divided the tent in half and hid the General's sleeping quarters from view. Apart from the paintings, it was a typically spartan dwelling. The General allowed herself few commodities that her soldiers did not also possess. She was a cold woman, but not a hypocrite.
The General herself sat at a large wooden desk, surrounded by open lanterns set in low brackets. They cast a flickering orange light over the woman's slim, upright frame, illuminating her pale, haughty face, wintergreen eyes, and cascading dark red curls. The moment her imperious eyes fell on Vangel, he felt a chill pass through him, much like he had felt while passing the Hunters outside. Those green eyes had watched impassively as he had suffered under the whip.
“M'Lady,” Catharsa murmured, curtsying. Vangel followed her lead and bowed low.
The General nodded in acknowledgment and gestured toward two chairs that had been placed in front of her desk. Once they sat, she laced her fingers together and fixed them both with a level stare. Vangel kept his gaze directed low. Making eye contact could be risky.
“I have been informed that the raid was unsuccessful.”
That's definitely one way to put it. “Yes, m'Lady.”
“Redfur is dead.” It wasn't a question.
Vangel kept his eyes firmly rooted on the wooden grain of the desk. “Yes, m'Lady.”
“Look at your General when you speak to her.”
Vangel reluctantly lifted his head, allowing the General to trap him in her pale green gaze. An involuntary shiver ran down his back, and he cursed himself for being so weak. I am my own self. I am Vangel Rapsodo, and I was not born here. She may control me, but she cannot own me.
Beneath the desk, he felt warm fingers clasp his hand. He didn't dare look at Catharsa, but thanked her silently. She had been born here and had every right to feel cowed by the General, but instead she was helping him find his own strength. He had no questions about how the General had gotten where she was. Anyone born with eyes like that was destined for power.
“You disobeyed a direct order from your commander. Furthermore, you took command of men who were not yours to command, and led them into retreat, when your assignment was to take the fortress or die trying.”
The General was not shouting – far from it. Her voice was low and calm, yet despite Catharsa's reassuring presence, Vangel felt her words beginning to sink into his core. The General had the gift of convincing anyone that her way of thinking was right, regardless of what they had believed to begin with. If he had come alone, without Catharsa, he would be begging for forgiveness already.
“He almost did die,” Catharsa objected. “He was just trying to – ”
“Silence,” the General intoned. She didn't so much as glance in Catharsa's direction. “The ways of a healer are not those of a soldier. Be silent. I have use for you yet, but this is not it.”
The pressure on Vangel's hand tightened until it was almost painful. He didn't have to look at his sister to imagine the expression on her face: tight-lipped, brows drawn together, eyes narrowed dangerously. Now both women were looking at him. It was his turn to speak.
“We weren't expecting an ambush, m'Lady.” Utter silence greeted his words. Outside, rain pelted the tent in a low, erratic drumbeat. Swallowing, Vangel forced himself to go on. “They knew we were there somehow. They outnumbered us three to one. And they had silver.”
“And what, Soldier Rapsodo, should you have done in that situation?”
Vangel tore his eyes away from the General, staring down at the desk. “I should... have died trying, m'Lady.” Catharsa gave his hand a sharp, angry squeeze, but he ignored her. You can't win them all, Cat.
“Correct. So, explain to me why you are here.” The General steepled her fingers under her chin, still watching him with cool, impassive eyes.
Vangel took a deep breath and disentangled his fingers from Catharsa's. If he said something she didn't like, he didn't want a broken hand on top of everything else. “The other men, m'Lady. There was no reason for them to die. Nothing would have been gained. I... I thought that they deserved to live.”
There. He had said his piece, and now he would be punished. It was almost reassuring to know what would happen. Now that he thought about it, there was no reason why Catharsa should not like what he had just said. He had stood up for his beliefs, after all.
Then something shocking happened: the General laughed. Not a joyous laugh, certainly, but there was some amusement in it, which made it all the more frightening. Vangel repressed a shudder and cautiously met her gaze. Her face was unreadable, but her voice was a few degrees warmer. “You overstep your boundaries, Soldier Rapsodo, but, I suppose I should be grateful that one of my men possesses the ability to think for himself. However, it is not a condition I would have spread. It is good that I have other uses for you, Rapsodo, else I might have been forced to silence you.”
Vangel dared to shoot a quick glance in his sister's direction. Catharsa appeared outwardly calm, but her eyes reflected just as much confusion as Vangel felt. The General had “uses” for him? He wasn't going to punished?
The General stood suddenly, pushing back her chair. The wind from her movement made the lanterns flicker, casting guttering yellow light over the three of them. Outside, the rain's tempo picked up and the wind began to howl. The General walked slowly to the canvas tent wall where the three paintings hung – the only decoration in the tent's sparse interior – and stood there, gazing up at them.
Vangel followed her gaze to the paintings themselves. They were all very tastefully done: commissioned from human artists, perhaps. The one on the left depicted a war-torn battlefield where two armies clashed in a vibrant swirl of colors. Magi and Ripper faces alike were twisted into grimaces of bloodlust and pain. In sharp contrast, the rightmost painting featured a simple map of the Northwest United States which looked to be at least a century old, judging from the placement of the cities.
The General was gazing at the one in the center. It was an oil portrait of a young man with straight pale-blonde hair framing an angular face and light brown eyes. He looked strangely familiar, somehow, but Vangel couldn't place him. Perhaps he had seen the painting among humans.
He heard Catharsa catch her breath in a muted gasp as she saw the painting. He turned slightly and looked at her curiously. She shook her head minutely, but her eyes were still wide with shock. She knew the man in the painting; Vangel was certain of it. He made a mental note to ask her about it after they left the General's tent.
“I have a mission for both of you,” the General said at last, turning to face them. Her eyes held no emotion at all. “You will be going to live with the humans.”